What is the Origin of Property, Part 2 of 4

In the abstract, the position I want to defend and develop is this:

-That ownership of property is a form of political dominion, and has developed historically out of political dominion more generally.

This is in direct contradiction to the view sometimes offered by anti-communists, namely:

-That the right to own property is central to and essential to individual freedom, and to live without such “property” is necessarily to be unfree.

The previous post talks a little about what is meant by ‘property’, so I should not be taken as saying that anyone having any control over any items as an individual is ‘property’. I mean specifically the institution of property that is widespread and powerful in our society – something that combines rights of use, exclusion, trade, and destruction, and which encompasses almost all goods, whether they are land, capital, food, clothes, ideas, printing presses, ships, bicycles, coffee beans, coffee machines, or coffee shops, and brings them under a single integrated system of exchange.

Now, one way to support such an account would be to simply point at the control and power exercised by people who own a lot of property over those who own little. Some people might find that convincing, others might not. I’m going to assume that the reader does not. To such a reader, their immediate impression of property seems entirely different from their immediate impression of power and control. Owning things, investing things, trading things, employing people, buying things for people, look much more like actions of self-empowerment, autonomy, not like actions of dominating and controlling others.

Things aren’t helped by the fact that property in some such form seems to be present about as far back in history as we can see, so we cannot easily look at the processes by which such a system emerged. Even where we can study pre-literate cultures, getting agreed-upon conclusions is difficult – and moreover, such study doesn’t do much to tell us how property emerged, because even a society without property is only likely to develop it, nowadays, through a distorting contact with outsiders.

What I want to do in this post and the next is to start from either side of the unobservable point of property’s first emergence and work towards it. In this post I will start from today and look backwards, discussing the relationships between ownership and power in what fragments of recorded history I know about. In the next post I will start from non-human societies that resemble what pre-humans are likely to have looked like (principally the social primates [chimps, baboons, etc.] and social carnivores [wolves, lions, etc.]) and discuss the forms of ‘political’ (or ‘pre-political’, ‘proto-political’, or whatever) struggles they display, before trying to work forwards to see how distinctive human developments might impact on those.

So the first thing to note is that it’s relatively recent that ownership has been applicable only to things. Ownership has for much of history included, in various ways, ownership of people. Now if ownership were about self-development and autonomy, this would seem very strange, and this sort of idea is definitely one which Locke stays far away from. So let’s consider four forms of person-owning.

1) The first and most obvious is of course slavery. Here the ownership of human beings is explicit and obvious. I won’t say too much about this right now, because as I said it’s quite obvious. In that way though, it’s actually a problem for the line I’m trying to push, since it appears to show a situation where humans are property, which is explicitly different from the situation in most of the world now (slavery does exist, but it is not a widespread and accepted practice in the way in was in, say, the ancient Mediterranean).

2) The second form is land ownership, and what interests me is the way that ‘owning land’ is very close to ‘controlling territory’, i.e. enjoying a monopoly of force within that territory, being able to command the people within it. This can be best seen in medieval Europe, when the property form distinctive of the ruling nobility was the ‘fief’, an area of land along with the people who lived and worked on it. To be a person of rank and importance was to be baron or earl of a certain place, and the ownership of that place was not distinct from the right to judge disputes, compel labour, and generally hold power in that place.

Even beyond medieval Europe we can observe a similar mingling. What happens when a military leader of a victorious campaign wants to reward his liutenants? He apportions them each a chunk of land over which to rule. The natural outcome of fighting against other warlords is to come to control an area of land, land that is ‘yours’.

3) The third form is family-ownership, the traditional ownership of wives and children by fathers as ‘head of the household’. Certainly this is not precisely the same as slavery, but most aspects of ownership are present in relation to one family member or another. Like a slave, the children and wife are required to obey the father, including doing work for him. Like a possessed consumer good, the wife (but not the children) can be ‘enjoyed’. Similarly, like a possession, access by others to family members is excluded or controlled (e.g. no-one else can sleep with you wife). Like a slave or possession, the children can be disposed of by marriage or even selling into slavery, and the wife can be divorced. And like a possession, family members can be harmed or starved or punished. The legality of killing them varies (all of these things vary with place and time) but at times it has been an accepted right of the father.

It will of course be pointed out that in some respects the wife in a traditional family has ‘control’ over the husband, in that she can divorce him, and she can demand that he not sleep with anyone else. This is true in some cases, but in general it is very limited by 1) divorce has usually been easier to procure for a man, 2) male promiscuity has usually been taken much less seriously, 3) multiple wives has usually been much more common than multiple husbands, 4) in almost all slave-owning societies, the male slave-owner has the right to rape female slaves (a right explicitly sanctioned by the Quran, among other authorities), 4) unmarried women were usually excluded from the sort of economic independence available to unmarried men.

4) Finally, there’s the ownership of animals. Can’t be bothered to say much, but yeah – if we only own the fruits of our labour, we can’t own animals, because they’re not things, they are creatures themselves capable of labour.

The point I’m trying to make is that for most of history, people have owned other people. There has been a slow and progressive shift away from this, except in the case of animals. By the spread and devlopment of ideas of individual freedom, the phenomenon of “having control over what’s mine” has contracted and come to be applied only to non-human animals and physical objects.

But if we look back beyond this relatively recent phenomenon of freedom and equality and whatnot, we increasingly see an idea of ‘ownership’ in which it meant “having control over what’s mine”, where “what’s mine” can include my family, some slaves (actually, slaves were usually considered part of the ‘household’, subject to the ‘paterfamilias’ in the same way as children or wives) and the area that I rule.

I think often that going to the linguistic roots of words isn’t all that profound or helpful, but because it is nevertheless fun, I will point out that ‘economics’ is from the ancient Greek ‘oikos’, meaning ‘house’ or ‘household’, which could sometimes mean the people of that household. ‘Economics’ means managing the physical objects, house, family, children, and slaves that belong to you.

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