Social Arrangements to Conceal the Fact that they’re Social Arrangements

What is property? I’ve already written four posts on this, but I thought I’d throw out a particular formula that I came across and quite liked.

This is perhaps not the full definition of property but a part:

property is a set of social relationships, which function in such as way as to conceal their nature as social relationships. It is the organisation of masses of people in order to produce solitude.

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What is the Origin of Property, Part 4 of 4

In my last few posts I’ve tried to make out a convincing case that the idea and institution of property did not arise out of any just of legitimate desire for the products of one’s labour, but rather arose out of the system of power-struggle, with input from that legitimate desire.

The philosophy that I am principally arguing against would perhaps not disagree with any of the specifics of what I’ve said so far. That philosophy, which I would put under the umbrella term ‘right-libertarianism’, and which would include ‘libertarians’, anarcho-capitalists, minarchists, classical liberals, and all that sort of stuff, would simply say

“Certainly, Alderson,  for most of history in most places what has existed has been a horrible unjust fusion of political power with property ownership. But property ownership can take a liberating, non-coercive form, when it is shorn of its connection with coercive power.”

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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.

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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.

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What is the Origin of Property, Part 1 of 4

This is the beginning of a series of (probably) 4 posts about property – what it is, why it exists, what bit of the human condition it relates to. Posts 1 and 4 will probably be most philosophical, post 2 most historical, and post 3 most anthropological/zoological.

The first post in this series will be a critique of John Locke. Locke famously argued that property was a natural right (i.e. a right existing independently of laws and society) based in individual labour as an extension of self-ownership. I’m going to refer to this as the ‘Fruits of Labour’ principle, or ‘the FOLP’. Something like this is the standard line taken by right-wing libertarians and by many defenders of capitalism. My conclusion will be that while there is a meaningful idea here, it doesn’t account for the reality of what property is and has been.
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