The Importance of Land

I have recently finished R. F. Foster’s book Modern Ireland 1600-1972 and it got me thinking about land distribution during and after conflict.

In Ireland, Cromwell targeted the land once owned by those who rebelled. This happened to be the elite of Irish society and he redistributed the larger tracts to his followers and Anglo-Irish as well as small tracts of land to Catholics who swore fealty to the crown. The Protestant population was always a minority within Ireland, but because of the land they owned and the favor they received from England, they were able to build a Protestant Ascendancy whereas the Catholics remained poor farmers or out migrated.

This is a pattern that we see in Nazi Germany and the Soviet invasion of Eastern Europe. The Nazis first targeted the Jewish-Germans (and members of the LGBT community, the disabled, and the Roma communities) who were either elites or part of the intelligentsia, taking their businesses and land from them and redistributing it to ‘Aryan’ Germans. Then they moved onto everyone else. When they invaded Poland, they liquidated the officers, governmental officials, and educated classes. The Soviets did the same thing and then moved onto the rest of the population.

There seems to be a distinct difference between changing a large portion of the working population of a country and changing a large portion of the landowning population of a country and that difference is the power owning land can provide. In a capitalist society, land is a good determinant of wealth and status and so, the question becomes how much land needs to be redistributed to strangle any hopes of a resurgence of a native elite?

If you look at the example of the United States, a majority of the land had to be taken and redistributed before the government felt comfortable that the Native American population could no longer pose a threat. In Ireland, Foster argued that the mass immigration because of poor chances of mobility prevented the creation of a new elite. I am not as familiar with Polish society after 1950, but there seemed to have been enough of a change in Soviet policy for an elite to create the Solidarity movement.

Which leads to the question: are mass movements/rebellions/insurgencies depend on an elite? Do you periodically need to redistribute land to prevent the resurgence of an elite? In Kevin McDermott’s book Revolution and Resistance in Eastern Europe a village in Lithuania resisted the initial invasion of the Soviet Union and the Nazis. However, when the Soviet Union reinvaded the territory, the Soviets moved (and killed) the entire population and replaced it with Russian, Ukrainians, and other Lithuanians. This ended any sort of resistance. It would be interesting to conduct a study of that village today and see who became the landowning elite and what that village did during the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I read Yang’s article “International Migration, Remittances, and Household Investment: Evidence from Philippine Migrants’ Exchange Rate Shocks” in graduate school and it argued that the Philippine diaspora helped their economy because the migrants were able to send back money that the Philippine economy could not generate on its own. So, less people starved or struggled because of the money being sent back. However, this seems to be challenged by Foster’s argument that mass migration prevented the creation of a Catholic middle class in Ireland until the 20th century. Yes, the Irish diaspora sent (and still sends) money back home, but is that only a stop gap measure that hurts more than it helps in the long run?

I think of Syria with its large refugee population. If the risk-takers, innovators, and educated Syrians are being pushed out of their country, then who remains? Who gets their land/wealth? Iraq and Afghanistan are two other countries that have suffered large force migrations within the last decade. How will their economic and political development be affected by this?

I don’t have any answers, but I think it’s important to think about the connection between social and economic elites and resistance/rebellion, how mass migrations affect these dynamics, and the continued importance of land distribution in today’s society (despite the fact that the economy seems to be growing ever more digital).

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