Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Landlords Games

The history of Western 'Civilisation' can be viewed in two ways. For many it is the story of scientific, technological and economic progress, as humanity progressed from pre-industrial times when life was 'nasty, brutish and short' into the golden era of plenty. For others, it is a story of war, of the brutal oppression of the colonial era, the slave trade and the Highland Clearances that took families off their lands and into dependence upon waged slavery. Whichever way you look at it, the past has shaped the political, economic and cultural framework that currently supplies us with food, shelter, clothing and the everyday necessities of life.

Over the course of history many groups have protested against injustice. These include the Diggers and Levellers, the Chartists, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Luddites and so on. And various historians took it upon themselves to write about the political economy as they saw it. For Adam Smith (1723-90) the economy was all about Rational Economic Man pursuing his own self-interest wholeheartedly, so that the Invisible Hand can ensure that all become better off. For William Cobbett (1762-1835) the Protestant Revolution took power from church and community, and placed the control of political and economic affairs in the hands of a few powerful financiers and landowners. For Karl Marx (1818-83), it was up to the wage slaves to set about studying their history and planning the revolution. Less well known, perhaps is the American economist Henry George (1839-97 ). In the very late 19th century he drew a massive following in the USA and elsewhere. His Poverty and Progress ( 1879) was a popular read, and George attracted massive crowds wherever he went. At some point a group of Quakers set about devising a game to help them understand how George's Land Tax reforms might serve to create a more just and fair political economy. The first 'Landlords Game' was so popular that the idea caught on, and games were devised across the English-speaking world. Some four decades later, one version of the games was as a teaching aid for self-interested, Rational Economic Man and marketed as Monopoly in 1935.

The Landlords Games were played in three stages. The first showed the current state of affairs where landlords owning prime sites could benefit from the general economic progress by charging high rents simply through ownership of prime sites. Real wealth is created by the community as a whole. Individuals can benefit unfairly from the hard work of the community as a whole and the cultural heritage handed on from generation to generation. The second and third stages of the games show how, according to Georgist thinking, the defects of the capitalist system could be put right. Marx, the astute observer of human society, was scathing about George's analysis of the political economy. Nevertheless, the Georgist games provided an excellent opening for discussion of the political economy of any local municipality. The games were not devised as mere academic exercises. During the 20th century, in Denmark and several American states, Georgist reforms were introduced at local government level.

With so many issues crowding in around us, visual representations of the local geography, politics, infrastructure and institutional provisions, including business, health and education, could provide neutral ground for discussion about where we might go in the future. Group or individual study of the board and rules of Monopoly provides plenty of food for thought. How does it relate to the global corporate political economy of the 2020s?

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