Territory and Justice: a research network

October 16, 2009

Following up an Aristotelian idea on land and politics

Filed under: Uncategorized — Avery Kolers @ 4:51 am

This is my first post to this blog. I want to thank Cara and Chris for inviting me to be a part of it. My first post is not immediately on territory and justice, but it is on land and politics. At the bottom I’ll make a link to territory and justice. It’s kind of speculative and open-ended. Do let me know if this is stupid, but please be nice about it.

Aristotle says that a polis needs to be self-sufficient. Plato in effect says the same thing, as does Rousseau: the state has to have enough that it doesn’t start wars to get stuff from others, but not so much that others start wars to get stuff from it.

Kant says the opposite: that a state needs to be engaged in trade with others because this is how Nature executes her plan to bring about perpetual peace. This divergence is interesting in itself, to me at least, inasmuch as I think of Rousseau and Kant as basically aligned on most things (and where they’re not aligned it’s typically not because of Kant’s greater interest in the machinations of Mother Nature). Or so I think, in a broad-brushstroke and probably historically naive way. So this divergence between Kant and Rousseau is interesting in itself. Kant’s line, of course, has become the touchstone of neoliberalism and cosmopolitanism, whereas the Plato/Aristotle/Rousseau line has been taken up by agrarians, which is another way of saying it has been all but ignored in mainstream political philosophy. (Though Tami Meisels makes interesting use of Rousseau’s line.)

I’m somewhat sympathetic to the P/A/R line, and in light of the current economic and environmental situation it may be worth developing in some form as an alternative to globalization.

Part of Aristotle’s reasoning is the linked but independent idea that citizens should have property in both the city and the countryside in order that their own interests be linked to the long-term interests of the polis. I believe Jefferson says the same. My understanding is that this democratization of the country plot is today most fully developed in the Netherlands, which is also interesting, because you’d think of the Netherlands as not having enough space for this. Yet another instance of how the Netherlands proves wrong all our assumptions about the material basis of national wealth.

What could be said in favor of the state’s adopting a policy of encouraging everyone to have a foot in the countryside as well as a foot in the city? Would such a shift in the direction of two pieds-à-terre per household undermine community in each place? If your neighbors are around only on weekdays when you’re working, and disappear on weekends when you have some leisure time, you don’t get to know them.

On the other hand, it might tend to break down one of the most persistent social divisions, that between the city and the countryside – typically, each is dependent on the other but neither really gets the other, and mutual contempt is not uncommon. It might also give city-dwellers a stake in the land and in sustainability that they would lack if they were just in the city. It would value and foster meaningful work, insofar as working the land is meaningful work, as well as leisure and perhaps time away from cell phones. If the countryside plots were too small for ride-on lawnmowers, then people would also be working with their hands, and they might become reconnected with working animals if they raised chickens or something. As for the city plots of country folk, I worry that anything I say will reflect the social division I mentioned above, but having a flat in the city would seem to involve access to diversity and political & cultural opportunities that are not easily available in the countryside. If such a policy would have such virtues, arguably it should be supported.

And now for a last thought on it. If this is indeed a worthwhile policy goal, oughtn’t we to build it into a global theory of territorial rights that each people/nation/state/polis ought to have enough space that each of its citizens can have two pieds-à-terre, one of which is a plot of productive land – or better, is modeled on the lifestyle of their country-dwelling compatriots – and the other of which is a place in the city, modeled on the lifestyle of their urban compatriots? If so, this would seem to constitute a minimum-quantity and perhaps a minimum-quality claim that each state would have in any theory of the just distribution of territory. How would such a criterion of territorial justice sit with other, independent, criteria that we might endorse, such as special attachments between national groups and particular places, or territorial stability despite population fluctuations?



  1. Your post is an exercise in ideal theory — so ideal that it seems to have little practical relevance, at least for poorer countries. Even if every state/nation/etc has enough space for two pieds-a-terre, I think you’d also have to posit a massive redistribution of wealth and income internationally and intranationally for this to work globally. That’s because: 1)huge numbers of people in many countries can’t afford one decent dwelling, let alone two; 2)millions of people are leaving the countryside for the city in ‘developing’ countries in search of hoped-for economic opportunity; in fact cities in the ‘developing’ world are absorbing five million new residents each month (many of whom doubtless end up living in shantytowns or other kinds of urban slums). These migrants must perceive life in an urban shantytown to be preferable to rural poverty. An authoritarian country like China can probably manage to limit this sort of rural-to-urban migration, but most other countries probably can’t. (For the source of the 5-million-per-month figure, see post under index topic ‘cities’ at my blog.)

    Comment by LFC — October 16, 2009 @ 12:39 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks, but I don’t think it’s an exercise in ideal theory at all. It may be unrealistic in the sense that it’s unrealistic to suppose there will be real progress toward justice of any sort. Ideal theory involves questioning whether there ought to be states at all, etc. I am taking for granted the entire institutional structure of contemporary politics, and suggesting a way of thinking about how to understand the value of place to people and the minimal claims of states involved in territorial disputes.
    In addition, my understanding is that a lot of the reason that people in the global south are moving to cities in such large numbers has nothing to do with the lack of land or even the lack of good land, per se, but the concentration of ownership of it. My proposal would be a small but real bulwark against concentration of ownership of land. And it would be a way of bringing land reform not just to the rural masses but to the urban masses.
    So while I appreciate the reality of the problems you describe I deny that my approach is “ideal” in any sense except that it would involve genuine progress toward justice.

    Comment by Avery Kolers — October 16, 2009 @ 11:56 pm | Reply

  3. I take your point on the concentration of land ownership. I think there is a difference, however, between land reform or redistribution within a country and redistributing territory between or among countries.

    More specifically, if a “theory of the just distribution of territory” would require significant redrawing of existing territorial boundaries among states (nation-states, countries, whatever term you prefer), then I would be inclined to argue that such a theory is quite unrealistic — probably one of the least realistic or practicable proposals for increasing global justice. That’s because existing state territorial boundaries are on the whole very stable and resistant to change (despite the fact that there are some territorial disputes). This resistance to change results from the investment that states (i.e. their governments and in many cases their populations) have in the current juridical territorial set-up as sanctified by the UN Charter and international law, their fear of opening a pandora’s box, and also from the historical fact that many territorial boundaries, especially but not only in Europe, evolved slowly over a long period, which arguably tends to increase the difficulty of changing them quickly and by design. I’m interested in more global justice but starting from the position that this may require a considerable redistribution of territory among states/countries seems problematic. It’s possible that there are some states that are just too small to be really viable entities (as I believe Paul Collier among others argues) but even in those cases I would see a lot of resistance to redrawing boundaries. (Now, maybe philosophers or others writing on this subject have already thought about these issues and come up with rejoinders or solutions, in which case I apologize for rehashing things that have already been “hashed”.)

    Comment by LFC — October 17, 2009 @ 12:52 am | Reply

  4. I did think from the first few paragraphs, Avery, that you were presenting us with ‘In Defence of Autarky’ and wonder if you have more to say on that as I think it is an interesting aspect of the territory and justice debate, if inequalities of initial resources could be factored in to determine the volume of exchange allowed between states. To my knowledge, nobody has touched on that aspect of Rousseau as a response to fair trade or climate change, though various far right parties do seem attracted to it. I don’t see why the idea can’t be developed without that baggage however.

    On the question of the right to urban and rural residence as a criteria for just distribution of territory, firstly it would be necessary to demonstrate that people would need access to both environments within the same jurisdiction. That is, that social cohesion within the one state was the objective and that this could only be achieved by the holding of plots in both environments within the one state. The example is probably a bit simplified, but imagine if people from rural Canada had plots in northern English cities and vice versa, would that contribute simply to greater cohesion between the Americans and the Canadians or to cohesion between urban and rural worlds within both countries, or both? Oe might think of English holiday homes in rural England/Scotland/Ireland/France in relation to this.

    On a related note, the objective seems to be the erasure of social boundaries through exposure to common experience and perhaps interaction. Does this really require the particular ownership solution you suggest? Would swapping be better perhaps, or earlier immersion in the ‘other’ environment? perhaps children would be required to spend summers in away from home, or a year of ‘civilian service’ in the other environment.

    There are many other things to explore with this pose but I’ll just mention one more. Doesn’t the allocation of territory to sovereign states come with heavily sovereignty-constraining condition? Rawls mentions in ToJ how his theory is compatible with liberal or socialist models of ownership, yet your recommendation is higly prescriptive with regard to every state. I don’t imagine you are suggesting that sufficient territory be distributed while the implementation of such a highly specific programme be left to the discretion of each state. Also I think Nozick’s objection about imposing patterns of property ownership might have some purchase here as people, I presume, wouldn’t be able to sell or rent their second plots. They would be forced to either let them go to wreck and ruin or, for the city-types, learn pretty quickly.
    the difficult skills of animal husbandry and cereal production. Perhaps they could be forced to pool their plots in a collective farm with specialist guidance (from far right to far left right there!)

    Your post put me in mind of the ’10 acres and a cow’ demands of some Chartists in 1840s England and the rural settlements – ‘O’Connorvilles’ – they founded for industrial workers, which didn’t have much success. BUt perhaps there are other means of establsihing mutual interaction which don’t have implications for territorial justice.

    Comment by Len — October 21, 2009 @ 9:35 am | Reply

  5. My example above was supposed to refer to an exchange between rural Canada and urban USA.

    Comment by Len — October 21, 2009 @ 9:37 am | Reply

  6. Hi Avery,
    Thanks for the post!

    I don’t understand what the values are at stake here. Why do we think it’s a good idea for people to have a foot in the countryside and a foot in the city? Is it because we think that both rural and urban situations have something to offer an individual? Or is it because the urban/rural divide will be lessened? Or both?

    If the worry is about the urban/rural divide, then your proposal wouldn’t naturally extend to territorial theory. States with only enough room for the urban, such as Singapore, don’t have a urban/rural divide (I presume), and so providing them with enough room for urban and rural might merely result in creating the problem rather than resolving it. In fact, maybe your thesis would encourage this sort of uniform (rural OR urban) state?

    If instead we’re concerned that each person is allowed to benefit from both an urban and a rural experience, then I’d have to see more evidence that the interests served by such a proposal would outweigh other interests– (like not having the burden of taking care of a dang country plot of land or, alternatively, dealing with urban noise)– or, more generally, the burdens that might be placed on persons and institutions in order to make the plan possible.

    Of course, as somebody who grew up on the land in rural Idaho, I’m of the mind that working with one’s hands and being ‘connected’ with animals is NOT independently valuable. So convincing me that there’s value in having a foot in both the country and the city might be difficult.

    Comment by Cara 9 — October 21, 2009 @ 9:50 am | Reply

  7. Avery,
    And this is very interesting! Could you give me a citation for this in Aristotle? (‘Part of Aristotle’s reasoning is the linked but independent idea that citizens should have property in both the city and the countryside in order that their own interests be linked to the long-term interests of the polis.’)

    Comment by Cara 9 — October 21, 2009 @ 9:54 am | Reply

  8. Thanks everyone for very interesting comments on this post!
    First, Cara, the Aristotle cite is PoliticsVII.10 1330a: “The land which belongs to private owners should be so divided that one section lies on the frontiers, and the other is near the city — each individual recceiving a plot in either section, and all thus sharing an interest in both” (trans. Barker/rev. Stalley Oxford edition). (Though as Barker/Stalley point out, this is strange because Aristotle earlier criticizes Plato for the same suggestion: “but it is difficult to live in two houses”! I think the criticism of Plato is consistent with the proposal, but that’s another story. I’m taking the proposal to be Aristotle’s real view.)

    I understand the idea here to be perfectionist in structure, and in the first instance the good to be pursued is attainable by the state itself. It’s not that it’s good per se for anyone in particular to have a foot in both places, but that it’s good for the state if people’s motivational sets are influenced by interests in and experience of each. It is then indirectly good for the individuals that they are living in a durable state with a strong “landed” middle class and significantly self-reliant for a wide range of things. This last point — self-reliance or as Aristotle calls it “self-sufficiency” — shows why the proposal wouldn’t endorse Singapore as a model.

    It hadn’t occurred to me that this could be done with civilian service or a summer in the countryside/city; people who summer in a place may develop an attachment to it, but this attachment will be morally attractive only (or significantly) to the extent that it is compatible with or conducive to the continued flourishing of the permanently settled community. (You don’t want to generate conflicts of interests between the cottage vacationers and the year-rounders — which is, as I understand it, what you get in Cottage Country areas near big cities in, say, Ontario, New York, New England, and perhaps Wales.)

    It also hadn’t occurred to me that the two plots could be in two different countries. I suppose I would have nothing against this in principle, except for the climate implications of everyone jetting back and forth from one country to another. Going from Arizona to Mexico is one thing, and arguably adds to the attraction of the proposal; going from Arizona to Quebec is another thing entirely.

    I have no basic problem with restricting sovereignty in the sense of saying, It’s a criterion of state legitimacy that the state do X, where X is some stringent requirement. It all depends on how X is justified and what the costs of X and not-X would be. The climate implications alone, as well as the social conflict implications (think: food/farm/fuel/climate/suburban-sprawl/water issues in the US context, where geography significantly determines the interests at stake) of failing to give people a practical stake in BOTH city and country are dire.

    Comment by Avery Kolers — October 23, 2009 @ 4:16 am | Reply

  9. Very interesting discussion, and coming in late, I don’t think I have much useful to add, but I’ll throw out one murky thought (which may simply be emphasizing some of the themes already traced above).

    Does the appeal of the good you discuss just above here, Avery, trade on there being a fairly clear and durable spatial, organizational, and cultural divide between urban and rural life? In spite of the apparent self-evident truth of that distinction, I guess I would want to push on it a bit.

    The distinction seems obvious when we consider extremes, i.e. contrasting Cara’s reference to rural/agrarian life even in comparatively affluent settings (crazily early mornings, dirty hands, lots of financial risk and uncertainty, and in general a shitload of strenuous work for an often-unclear reward), versus the cacophony we find deep in Mannhattan or Tokyo or Mumbai. But surely a lesson of Jacobs’ work on the economy of cities is that their regions are intricately related in ways that make the urban-rural distinction less analytically useful? This is certainly the view held by some urban/economic geographers studying urban processes in the ‘global south’ (e.g. Terry McGee on Indonesia).

    And if much of what makes cities ‘successful’ (not sure yet what the relevant metric there would be here, but maybe for now: economically and cultural vibrant, stable, and not too many social/economic/moral pathologies?) is the complex interpenetration of economic, social, and cultural practices and enormous variety of (un)built forms over a diffusely bounded space, then perhaps we should try to tie the ‘goods’ of citizenship to those complex realities, and tailor our legal and moral understandings of ownership and use to those complexities?

    Again, very vurky, sorry, but I can’t help thinking that the ‘foot in both worlds’ recommendation (however realized in practice) supposes that there really are two socially and morally distinct worlds to be experienced, rather than one messy, noisy, murky reality that we move around in, existing between spatial and imaginative extremes (rural-to-wilderness on the one hand, intensively urban and often-distopically so, on the other) that many citizens only experience in fleeting doses on a day-to-day basis.

    Comment by loren — October 23, 2009 @ 2:26 pm | Reply

  10. […] justice univocal? Filed under: Uncategorized — Avery Kolers @ 5:58 pm In his comment on my earlier post, Len objected that my proposal was excessively […]

    Pingback by Is territorial justice univocal? « Territory and Justice: a research network — October 23, 2009 @ 5:58 pm | Reply

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