Part 6: Owning, Having, and Fucking – what is property?

Getting married to someone and buying a car don’t seem very similar. More broadly, sexual relationships and economic relationships seem to operate in quite different ways. In this post I want to try and show how profoundly similar they are.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the class ideologies that are generated by the divergent interests of sexual and economic classes, and the connection between specific such classes. But for now my concern is the basic ideas that allow for these classes to exist – patriarchal sex, and property.

(I should note, again, that the following account is likely to seem rather cold, and to leave out a lot about love and selflessness and beautiful intimacy and so forth. That’s not because I don’t believe in that stuff, it’s because it tends to drop out of the equation when large-scale social conflicts are at issue)

Let’s imagine a man and a woman – or rather, a ‘man’ and a ‘woman’, two humans strongly identified with the gender roles of a patriarchal society – who are in love, and who get together. We can distinguish three aspects:

1) Firstly, there is the straightforward pleasure (and displeasure) and the emotional and physical experiences associated with humans bumping their bits. After all, we don’t need culture to tell us that orgasms feel good. Note that nobody is involved yet except those whose bits are actually bumping.

2) Secondly, there is the ideological meaning that gets imposed on the interaction – that the ‘man’ is ‘taking’, ‘having’, and ‘screwing, and thus fulfilling his active and assertive identity, while the ‘woman’ is ‘being taken’, ‘being had’, and ‘getting screwed’, and thus fulfilling her passive and objectual identity. As I argued earlier, these identities are related to narrative structures: the ‘man’ is the hero of whatever story, while the ‘woman’ is the prize that he struggles for and eventually achieves.

Note, this is a very general meaning. Stories work psychologically because they present the structure of activity itself: to find the world and yourself at variance (you need reality to be X, but it isn’t), to struggle against it and exert effort (make reality X), and thus overcome the initial opposition and come to be ‘at peace’ (for however long it takes to find a new need).

So this second element is that the brute facts of bits-bumping are taken as symbolic for the very idea of acting on the world, on doing what it is that conscious, willing persons do – with the role of person played by one partner, and the role of non-personal world played by the other.

3) Thirdly, there is the reaction to the gap between 1. and 2., which starts to involve others by turning the brief act of sex into the enduring institution of, let us say, ‘marriage’ (taken in the broadest, most historically general sense – to include mistresses, concubines, any sort of recognised relationship).

How does a socially-accepted marriage differ from just two friends living together and having regular sex? Surely the principal difference is that here the idea of ‘rights’ enters play. You have a right to forced sex with your spouse (the last decade or two being a stark historical aberration), and you have a right to stop them having sex with anyone else. You generally have other rights, to obedience, to punishment, to financial support, etc. – though of course who exactly has what rights varies a lot from society to society.

What this means in essence is that the narrative imposed in aspect 2. is ‘defended’, against anyone suggesting a rival narrative (e.g. suggesting that the man didn’t remotely ‘have’ the woman just because his bits bumped hers, or that in fact she ‘had’ him), or acting one out (e.g. another man has sex with her). So marriage is in that sense partly an example of what I previously called ‘the first modality of oppression’ – imposing a certain meaning onto things by suppressing rival meanings. And don’t be misled by the somewhat abstract, symbolic, sound of this – for many it means stonings, beatings, murders, mutilation, etc. – and for most it means a major life event.

This meaning that is so violently imposed is of course also an example of what I previously called ‘the second modality of oppression’, in that it constructs some people as fit by nature to dominate, and others as fit by nature to be dominated – to ‘love, honour, and obey’ after being ‘given away’.

The interesting thing is, this three-stage analysis applies just as neatly to ownership of physical objects.

1) What is owned is usually something that can provide pleasure or benefit through being used. This is not always the case; some things are useless. But I think we can say confidently that there wouldn’t have been ownership to begin with if there hadn’t been some basis in usefulness or pleasure.

2) But again, this is overlaid with a symbolic satisfaction – not just that I’m eating this food and it tastes nice, but that I feel more powerful and satisfied with myself because I was able to find it/buy it/steal it/whatever. Note that this is absent when the food is, say, given to me as a gift (unless I feel that I successfully manipulated the giver), or in some other way provided without reflecting my power to get it. The user of the thing ‘fits themselves into a narrative’, a simple story of ‘there was a problem, it was hard, but I solved it’, just as the ‘man’ does in the narrative of sex (‘I scored’).

3) But again, there’s always a gap between the interpretation and the facts, and this is liable to prompt an attempt to ‘defend’ that interpretation – to make other members of society agree, and act out their agreement, that this thing is something through the use of which I show my power and thus gratify my self-image as powerful self-asserter. If successful, this will produce ‘rights’ – my right to use it, and to stop others from using it. And there we have the beginning of ‘property’.

The key point to note is that 3. is a result not of anxiety about 1. (fear that I may not be able to use the thing to satisfy my needs), but of anxiety about 2. (fear that I may be undermined in my need to feel like the dominating hero). As I’ve argued at more length elsewhere, if our concern were simply for use, we wouldn’t have anything resembling property – we wouldn’t have things owned by specific individuals, and excluding all others, or things exchangeable for whatever other things we wanted, or rights that endured over time and could be passed on. We’d have, in fact, a sensible and level-headed communism.

And the same process can be seen in other areas. People aren’t sure what to do – they talk about it, someone makes a proposal, and others follow it. That’s step 1, and so far means nothing. But one of the interpretations placed on it might be that the proposer heroically brought order and direction and purpose, solving the problem and winning success for themselves. That’s step 2, and so far it’s just someone’s thoughts. But then they try to turn this into the only possible meaning – they have to make the proposal, and others have to follow it. That’s step 3, and now you have the beginnings of ‘political authority’.

Slavery, religion, and sundry other curses can be looked at in similar terms. Indeed, these different phenomena have historically been closely intertwined (God-kings, slave-owning ‘head of the family’, etc.), so that it’s really a single process, with endless complications, than multiple processes in parallel.

In particular, it gives rise to a lot of similar confusions. Feminists condemn stage 2, and listeners hear a condemnation of stage 1, and accuse them of being ‘anti-sex’. Anarchists condemn stage 2, and listeners hear a condemnation of stage 1, and accuse them of wanting to do away with organisation. Communists condemn stage 2, and listeners hear a condemnation of stage 1, and accuse them of wanting to nationalise your toothbrush.

But in fact what all want to do is simply to unweave the one-sided, antagonistic meanings imposed on such natural activities as sex, organising, and tooth brushing. In all three their target is the historical ‘masculine’ identity – a one-sided identity in which ‘men’ insist on all their activities being active-ities, triumphant personal conquests that affirm their own power.

One Response to “Part 6: Owning, Having, and Fucking – what is property?”

  1. Part 8: Liberalism and Commodification « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] Part 6: Owning, Having, and Fucking – what is property? […]


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