What is the Origin of Property, Part 3 of 4 (in which my new word FOLP appears repeatedly)

As I said in part 2, we can’t directly observe the emergence of property, so I’ve been trying to approach it from both directions. In part 2 I approached it by looking back from the present at history. In this post I want to approach it by looking at what we can imagine to have preceded it, i.e. pre-human societies, considered by analogy with non-human societies.

Of course, as I have argued before, the homogenous concept of ‘animals’ is an ideological fiction. There are many sorts of animal society, and many non-social animals. The animal societies that we can suppose most similar to very early humans/pre-humans are those which include groups larger than individual families but smaller than herds, i.e. smaller enough for members to recognise each other, which live at least partly on the ground, which feed by a mixture of gathering and hunting (not grazing), and which have a long period of infancy and childcare. The animal societies that most fit this pattern are social carnivores and social primates. Social carnivores include otters, hyaenas, lions, many types of wild dog, and similar things; social primates include chimps, bonobos, gorillas, baboons, and many types of monkeys. Everything I say here will be true only in general, with lots of exceptions.

In such societies, there are typically two forms of conflict. There is between-groups conflict over land, with different groups fighting over a certain territory, and there is within-groups conflict over food and sex, with different individuals within a group forming a status hierarchy in which higher-ranking animals get more access to food from kills and more access to females in heat. In this hierarchy females sometimes compete and use status to get hold of food, but typically male competition is more prominent and males are at the top of the hierarchy. The two forms of conflict often mix, with a dominant male from one group trying to oust a dominant male from another group, but they can at least be separated in the abstract.

This is the initial division of forms of power: the power of one group to occupy land to the exclusion of another group, and the power of individuals within a group. In many species there is either no meaningful conflict at all, or both of these are the same (e.g. in deer herds or seal breeding colonies, where the biggest horniest males fight over the best locations), or only one of these is present (e.g. in pair-bonded species where pairs don’t fight each other but compete for nesting space or territory with other pairs). But I think this is where the human story will have started from.

What I want to ask is how we might expect further developments in the forms of power/conflict, as the distinctive capacities of Homo expressed themselves?

Firstly, I think, we can suggest that as a consequence of technological developments (most notably agriculture) human populations would have increased dramatically, producing social groups on new levels. Such new sizes of groups would fragment the within-groups/between-groups distinction: no longer were you a member of one single group, but now families, villages, tribes, clans, regions, empires, whatever – all had to some extent the character of a territorial group, but also co-existed as members of the same larger group.

Accordingly, we might imagine that the two forms of power/conflict would also similarly fragment into multiple intermediate levels: struggles between individuals within a city, but also between families within that city, and between that city and other cities, etc. The hybrid of these two forms of power would be something beginning to look like individual ownership of land: to be on the one hand like a ‘pack’ occupying a territory, saying ‘the land from here to over there is mine’, and on the other hand an individual, effectivelly ‘within a pack’ in that other individuals recognise your claims and status and interact with you accordingly.

A second development is the growth of language, first spoken, then written, and with it the possibility of long-standing principles, rules, customs, promises, agreements, religious myths, etc. – i.e. a lot of ways to make people’s behaviour more reliable, stable, rule-governed.

On of the things this would enable is a “social contract”, by which I mean not the universal fuzzy liberal notion but an agreement between warring parties, specifically as such, to cease their war by recognising each other’s respective domains of power. I think the simplest and most basic version of this is a contract between males. Typically, males compete more with each other for females than females do for males (and often more than they do for food or anything else). If anything, this is a source of weakness for the male sex as a whole. But the emergence of law, speech, custom, etc. means that this constant struggle can be stabilised by the agreement that rather than fighting over each woman, men will, by and large, recognise one particular man as having the right to sex with each woman. This right could then be given a name (marriage) and regulated and controlled (e.g. by such humane restrictions as ‘if you rape an unmarried woman you must marry her). The weakness that came from constant internal struggle thus gets transformed into the strength of collective organisation, laying the basis for ongoing sexual oppression.

This sort of social contract becomes possible in relation to a greater number of things as human society expands. For example, two dominant animals in a non-human pack couldn’t really end their struggle by establishing respective domains of ‘their’ food,  because the amount of food around at any one time (one kill) can’t really be divided up in a stable way. But if the ‘pack’ is a city surrounded by farmland, then they can stop fighting and agree for one side to have control over food from this field and the other side to have control over food from that other field.

When this phenomenon of within-group conflict being stabilised by a social contract, based on the human development of speech and culture, is combined with the fragmentation of the within-group/between-group categories, based on the human expansion of population by agriculture, they can generate the beginnings of the familiar ‘pyramid’ model of hierarchy: multiple levels, with the top level being occupied by the smallest number of people (e.g. emperor, pharoah) and each level below being occupied by powerful figures who in relation to each other are part of a ‘social contract’, i.e. while they may eye each other’s positions enviously, they do not normally fight each other, but respect each other’s status. This contract is, moreover, usually facilitated and supported by the figures in the level above them.

The final distinctive human trait I want to mention is the one that does actually match with Locke’s ideal: the growth in individual products that aren’t immediately consumed, based on the human ability to develop tools. This means that the “fruits of labour principle” (FOLP) principle does start to have some force: the craftsman who makes a shoe can claim that he deserves to decide who owns it.

So on the one side, we have this expansion of pre-existing forms of power/conflict into a mass of intermediate forms and layers, stabilised by culture, and on the other the claim of producers to their product. There are three things to point out in this context:

1) Without some satisfaction of the FOLP, productivity will be ruined – if people don’t get some reward from making shoes, why are they going to make shoes?

2) The manner and degree of satisfaction of FOLP is entirely up to the power structure, whose basis (competition for sex and land and power, struggle, conflict, etc.) is completely different from the FOLP.

3) The FOLP-backed claims of producers (that is, ownership of e.g. grain, spades) and the Power-backed claims of fighters (over, principally, land, and hence fields, granaries, etc.) need to interface with each other – the manner in which fields are organised has to have contact at some point with the manner in which spades are organised.

As a result of these pressures, I would suggest, what would be likely to happen is that a system is set up for the producers according to the needs and inclinations of power, which moreover extends to some extent into power itself and restructures it, but which has been given the sort of structure that is close enough the FOLP to best serve the wealth of powerful people. This structure gets called ‘property’. As society and technology become more complex, this system changes its structure, and that’s where we get into relatively recorded history, so that’s where I stop.

(To clarify, what I mean by ‘extends into and restructures power itself’ is that there is a tendency, not absolute but partial, for, e.g. the power over all of peninsula X that Prince Bob won in a war to be converted into ‘ownership’ over all the land in peninsula X, so that Prince Bob can then trade some of that land for silks and elephants and slaves from peninsula Y. This seems to happen most strongly for the lower ranks of power-holders – the top guy doesn’t so much need to ‘buy’ what he can just take).

This structure is not ‘based on’ or ‘developed from’ the FOLP. The FOLP has an influence, but the extent of that influence is determined by those with power. Similarly, if the music of some artist inspires me to kill my uncle, including giving the me the idea for how, it’s still me, not the artist, who killed, because I had the agency. In my next post I’ll try to talk more about what something genuinely based on the FOLP would look like.

For now I just want to say one more thing. If property is a descendent of power, and power emerged through the structure of a pyramid with each level horizontally stabilised through a social contract directed and upheld by the layer above, then the more ‘economic-seeming’ power of the lower levels (lower but still power-holding, not the total schmucks at the real bottom) and the more ‘political-seeming’ power of the top levels are not distinct things but two sides of the same coin.

The implication I’m trying to draw is that any limitation by the top level of the lower levels’ freedom-of-their-property is not an abolition of property, but a regression towards the control of the absolute top (‘state-property’). So for example, the rule that slave-owners may beat their slaves but not kill them should not, I feel be seen as simply a limitation on how subjugated slaves are – rather, it is an expression of the king’s claim to own the slaves (on behalf of the whole community, in whatever perverse sense) against the individual owner’s claim. The power-structure is not weakened when one part of it limits another part (even if this makes life a bit freer and more bearable for certain schmucks at the bottom) – it is only weakened when some part of it is weakened by forces outside the power-structure (but then an anarchist would say that, wouldn’t they?).

Gah, sorry that’s so long. And probably mostly wrong because so speculative. Gah.

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