6 threads on property

All Possums Go to Heaven @AndyinDC1

(1) On the question of the permanence of ownership.
(2) On the nature of private property.
(3) On the nature of ownership.
(4) On ownership.
(5) On the use and abuse of “private” property.
(6) On private property, again.


(1) On the question of the permanence of ownership.


A common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) in its daytime resting place in the hollow of a tree, Coles Bay, Tasmania, Australia.

I’m fascinated by the origins of the idea below: how did we come to socially construct “ownership” in a way that entailed permanence?

Human beings are, of course, not permanent, but from the very beginning of the archeological record it’s likely we had some concept of life after death. Even Neanderthals buried their dead with grave goods.

  • New remains discovered at site of famous Neanderthal ‘flower burial’ Elizabeth CulottaJan 2019 text

But permanent ownership is something that seems to have come along pretty recently in our history, and it’s a pretty weird metaphysical leap. We might infer from modern hunter gatherer societies that our ancestors had a sense of personal property, but not permanent property.

That is: a San might own a knife, but when another member of his community needs it, the knife is transferred as a gift. No expectation that ownership is permanent, but rather serves immediate needs.

  • Lady Credit magic-maths-money text

Likewise, land in ancient Mesopotamia could be owned and even used as collateral for loans, but would be periodically returned to its original owners during state-mandated debt erasures.

  • The Land Belongs to God 2017 Michael text

The closest comparison I can find to our modern concept of permanent ownership is the ancient concept of the family as an immortal corporate body, explained by Henry Sumner Maine in his work “Ancient Law.”

  • Ancient Law 1906 Sir Henry Sumner Maine pdf

In this concept, a family might own land collectively, usually as a fiduciary, owing a debt to a founding ancestor. Individual members might have had use rights but not ownership rights, and these use rights extended only so long as the individual was actually working the land.

So how did this happen? How did we come to construct an arrangement by which I hand you, say, a pen, and you hand me a dollar, and now you own that pen forever unless you want to dispose of it? We even recognize your right to direct the pen’s disposition after you die!

It’s almost as if we borrowed a concept of ownership from European royal practice, in the sense of a “crown” existing as an immortal corporate body that is coterminous with the monarch.

“The king is dead, long live the king” conveys the idea that an individual king might die, but the kingship continues forever uninterrupted. In the same way, we’ve concocted this sort of fictitious spirit of ownership that, once given life, lives forever as long as the item does.

One thing that sticks out in my mind is the habit of our ancestors to deliberately destroy the products of their labor, in a way that suggests their ideas about the permanence of ownership were very different from ours.

Göbekli Tepe is the oldest known temple, dating back 11,000 years—older than agriculture, built by Stone Age hunter gatherers. Many people labored mightily with meager tools to erect massive stone pillars—and then they later, deliberately buried them. text

Another Neolithic site in Britain also contains deliberately smashed pottery: text

A Neolithic “megasite” in Ukraine, basically a proto-city, was periodically and deliberately burned down and then reconstructed on top of the remains: text

All the way on the other side of the world, more deliberate destruction in Peru:

  • A Brewery in Peru Ran For Centuries, Then Burned After One Epic Ancient Party text

Similarly in Tiwanaku: pdf

To be clear: there’s no evidence these were acts of violence or coercion. Rather, it seems like there was a semi-universal pattern from the Neolithic until pretty recently of people deliberately destroying the products of their own labor, often capping off celebrations.

Consider the grave at Sungir, Russia, which is 30,000(!!!) years old. It contained grave goods, the value of which must have been nearly incalculable to the people who made them. And they were just buried in the ground.

The Ice Age @Jamie_Woodward_

This man was buried at Sungir in Russia about 30,000 years ago adorned with 25 woolly mammoth ivory bracelets and 2936 IVORY BEADS. Each bead took about one hour to manufacture #IceAgeDeath

Here’s the full burial

And here’s a reconstruction of the Sungir burial by Libor Balák. Note that the mammoth ivory beads would have taken many hours of careful work. This elaborate burial took place 30,000 years ago!

All Possums Go to Heaven @AndyinDC1

We can’t infer why these pots were smashed, why the temples and beads were buried just from the physical remains. But we can infer that our ancestors’ understanding of property and the permanence of ownership were different, and likely more diverse, than ours.

And so my key take-away is this: just as we have socially constructed a system of permanent property that has driven massive inequality, exploitation, and environmental destruction, we can also socially construct ourselves new and better modes.


(2) On the nature of private property.


It’s worth asking: what is private property?

Private property is the basic unit of a capitalist economy. We all take it for granted: you make a thing or you pay for a thing and that thing is now “yours.” But what does that mean, fundamentally?

Private property is, in first regard, a thing that “belongs” exclusively to someone. The owner of private property has an exclusive claim to use, alter, destroy, or alienate it. So let’s begin by saying private property is something over which the owner has a monopoly.

Which is to say, private property is fundamentally a social relationship. There’s a thing that, in theory, could be used by everyone or anyone. But instead of all using it, we collectively agree that only the owner uses it.

Who issues the monopoly? Historically, the state. The ultimate recourse to maintain your monopoly is, of course, an armed police officer with the power to arrest or kill in defense of property.

Ancaps will argue that private property is possible without the state. This has never happened in history, but let’s allow it for the sake of argument. Property is a monopoly over the use of a thing, guaranteed ultimately by the threat of force (public or private.)

Another aspect of private property is that it is alienable. You trade one thing for another and, at the end of the transaction, the monopoly transfers instantaneously and completely to the new owner. There are no lingering obligations or ties in a fee simple sale.

Yet another aspect, and one of its most interesting, is that there is no sunset clause on property. Once it’s yours, it’s yours in perpetuity as long as the property exists. (There are some exceptions, like expirations on copyrights, but those don’t disprove the rule.)

So let’s add all this up: private property is a monopoly over the exclusive use of a thing, guaranteed by coercion, that entails no social obligations, which exists in perpetuity, as long as the thing exists and you’re alive.

But why? Have you ever wondered why a piece of property belongs to its owner forever? I pay a few hundred thousand dollars for a piece of real estate, say, and that real estate belongs to me until I die (and I can even bequeath it to my heirs!)

What a fascinating metaphysical conundrum: why should a single exchange, which might have taken place generations ago, confer a perpetual monopoly over something? But we absolutely take this for granted as a society.

It’s important to remember that while “property” has existed for hundreds of thousands of years, “private property” as a specific mode of property is a pretty recent invention.

Ancestral forms of property were highly varied and complex. In hunter gatherer societies in Namibia, for example, someone might own a knife as personal property—but then give it up as soon as someone praises or asks for it, letting everyone who needs a turn “own” it.

In feudal England, a lord could be said to “own” the land of an estate (and the labor of the serfs working the land). But that ownership entailed obligations up, such as military service to the king, and down, such as protection and housing to the serfs.

The Haudenosaunee owned land communally, with individuals holding usufruct rights but lacking the authority to sell and alienate the land from the family.

To the extent that we ever interrogate what private property is in our society, we generally take it for granted that private property is self-evidently natural and eternal. It just is.

But we see from history that this is not the case at all. Property need not be held in perpetuity, but could be available to everyone who could use it in turn. Property need not be alienable, but rather entangled in obligations that bind society together.

Property need not be a monopoly, but rather held for common good. Property need not be guaranteed by coercion, but rather by social consensus.

I’m not writing this to lobby for a particular mode of property to replace private, but just to get people to interrogate why property exists the way it does, and whether it needs to be that way.


(3) On the nature of ownership.


What is ownership? It’s a social relationship–an agreement that someone gets to decide how a thing is used. That’s it. In antiquity, ownership was guaranteed by group consensus. Today, ownership is guaranteed by the threat of state force. But that’s it: a relationship.

“Owning” a house is, ultimately, just a social relationship, a web of agreements that you, and not anyone else, gets to decide what happens to that house, who lives in it, etc. “Owning” debt is just a social relationship, a promise of someone’s future labor.

Once you see through all of the layers of meaning that we ascribe to ownership and see it for what it really is–just a social relationship–then all sorts of possibilities become imaginable.

If that agreement is social, shouldn’t we, as a society, get a say in how those agreements are made and enforced?


(4) On ownership.


“Ownership is the passive position.”

Let’s talk about what that means.

It’s trivially easy to see that this idea is one that can only exist in a place of privilege. There are people right now fighting to actively assert ownership of their own land who might beg to differ. text

Indigenous people from the Tohono O’odham ethnic group dance and sing to protest against US President Donald Trump’s intention to build a new wall in the border between Mexico and United States, on March 25, 2017, in the Altar desert, in Sonora, in the border with Arizona, northern Mexico. / AFP PHOTO / PEDRO PARDO (Photo credit should read PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images)

In the US, there is a vast and constantly active regime of property. To “own” anything beyond petty personal property, we deal titles (and title insurance), deeds, liens, surveys, and appraisals.

There are entire bureaucracies and private industries devoted to monitoring, recording, and thus guaranteeing ownership. Repossession, foreclosures, and the like are the flip side.

And, ultimately, there are the courts who adjudicate any disputes over property and the armed police who enforce ownership.

But consider what it means to “own” something. A thing is a thing; ownership does not lay in the thing itself. Rather, all ownership is a social agreement—a consensus, reached through coercion or consent or a mix—that an owner makes decisions about the disposition of that thing.

Societies have constructed property in a variety of ways: it can be permanent or temporary, communal or exclusive, alienable or inalienable, etc. But the key to all of those is social agreement.

A lone person who washes up on a deserted island doesn’t have to construct property, because ownership is meaningless in the absence of other people. The objects on the island aren’t property, but rather just resources that can be freely used.

The issue of property arises when a second person washes up on the island and one of the two asserts ownership—an exclusive right to use some resources, which had been unowned and available to use by anyone.

The person who asserts property rights is the person staking out the positive claim, and anyone who recognizes those rights is also participating in an active process of agreement.

Typically, there’s also a threat of force involved in asserting property rights. If that’s the case, then again, it is the owner making the positive assertion, introducing violence and exclusivity where none was before.

Libertarians don’t like to talk about the initial assertion of ownership. Instead, they like to start the clock in the middle of the game, after property rights have been first asserted.

Kevin Sloan

Imagine a group of children playing together with a ball. Now imagine one of them asserts an exclusive right to hold and use the ball and threatens to punch any other child who tries to use it.

If another child were to try to take the ball back, libertarians would have us start the clock there, and identify that child as the active aggressor violating the property rights of the ball’s owner.

That’s the intellectual trick needed to imagine ownership—a social construct that requires constantly regenerated social agreement—as the passive position, and to stay blind of the vast and coercive regime that works daily to enforce and recreate ownership.


(5) On the use and abuse of “private” property.


I find engaging with ancaps a useful exercise because it helps me work through the conceptual details of things I understand instinctively but haven’t fully articulated.

In this case, I’m going to talk about the ancap confusion over the personal/private property distinction.

Ancaps don’t like the institution of intellectual property (IP) because it exists solely as a coercively enforced artificial scarcity designed to extract rents from consumers. It can only exist in the form of toll-boothing. So far, so good.

Ancaps don’t make the logical connection between the coercive toll booth of IP and the toll booth of private property in general, because they don’t recognize a distinction between personal and private property. Stuff is stuff, property is property.

And, from their perspective, using someone’s stuff without their permission is depriving them of their stuff, ie, theft.

But using someone’s private property without their permission doesn’t deprive them of anything other than toll booth revenue, same as IP.

There are two aspects to this claim: the practical & the theoretical. I’ll start with the practical first: unlike personal property—the stuff you personally make, use, have nearby, etc—most private property owners do not use their private property. They only extract rents.

It’s not like Jared Kushner would ever live in, much less visit, the tenements he owns in New Jersey. Private property is ownership at a distance—it exists to extract rents from use by other people, not to use by the owner.

In the UK, about half the land is owned by just .06% of the population, or at least it was a few years ago. Those few thousands of owners are not making use of all that land. They’re merely extracting rents from its use.

Moreover: much private property is owned corporately rather than by lone individuals. Huge amounts of private property are owned indirectly via corporations by shareholders.

  • When Wall Street Is Your Landlord text

Individual shareholders could not use the properties—to live in, garden, whatever—because their ownership is attenuated and mediated by the structure of corporate ownership.

Abolishing private property, then, does not rob these owners of any practical use of their property, because their ownership is not a relationship to the “stuff,” it’s to the labor value of the people who use the stuff and have to pay a toll, called rent, to use it.

But Possum, you might object, there are small-scale landlords who might actually rent out a second home for part of the year but actually live in it for the other part. They are surely using it!

Yes, “private property” has fuzzy boundaries. It’s a blunt instrument designed to immiserate the bulk of the public, to coerce us into wage labor, and people have adapted to it in flexible ways, especially around the margins. This does not obviate the category.

So that’s the practical objection: private property owners, as a general rule with marginal exceptions, are not actually using the object of their property but are rather using the subject of their property, the labor value of people who actually use it.

So let’s talk about the theoretical: does abolishing private property deprive the owner of use of the object of their property?

No, it doesn’t. It deprives them of exclusive use, coercively enforced, but it does not deprive them of use.

The property mode that private property violently supplanted wasn’t a chaotic free-for-all in which everything was up for grabs. It’s not like the only alternative to one person exclusively owning a thing is another person exclusively owning the thing.

On the contrary, the property mode that private property violently supplanted was communal property, which is as near a universal human institution as we could ever hope to find. (Maybe marriage?)

Communal property tends to entail individual usufruct rights. With communal land, the ur-example of commons, you might be free to farm a patch of it, graze animals on it, gather firewood or medicinal plants from it, hunt on it, etc.

There’s a theoretical risk that short-sighted individuals might seek to maximize their use of the commons at the expense of the community and exhaust the commons, but people tend not to be idiots who don’t talk to each other or plan for the future.

  • A Short History of Enclosure in Britain pdf

So abolishing private property does not deny the owner use of the object of that property. The former private owner can still have property rights to the previous object of the private property regime.

Imagine a common pasture owned by members of a community. Each has property rights to the pasture. Maybe they own it freehold, in a non-state society. Maybe they pay rent to a parasitic feudal landlord. They all have property rights. No one’s rights obviate anyone else’s.

Then someone comes along and stakes a private property claim to the pasture. Maybe it’s a member of the community who has become a “landlord.” Now only the landlord has property rights, and everyone else is excluded unless they pay for access to what used to be theirs.

Then Possum comes along and, with a wave of a magic wand, abolishes private property. No more coercive enforcement of toll booths! The status quo ante is restored! And the previously private owner…still had use of the land, just like everyone else.

He can graze his animals on the pasture, just like anyone else. He just can’t charge his neighbors rents to graze their animals anymore. He has to live in the community again, not on top of it. He has to talk to people, negotiate with them, persuade them, live with them.

But the only thing he’s been deprived of is his claim to the labor value of his neighbors—the exact same objection as ancaps make to IP. His use is not interrupted. Only his relationship to his neighbors has changed.

Anyway. That’s mostly just me working my own way through these ideas out loud.


(6) On private property, again.


A few scattered thoughts on how private property—and specifically inheritable, alienable property in productive land—functions in a society.

First, private property drives inequality and, with it, coercive hierarchies. This is one of Walter Scheidel’s premises in “The Great Leveler” — unless acted upon by exogenous forces, private property accrues to a smaller and smaller elite through sheer dumb luck. pdf

Scheidel relied on research like this, which find that chance differences in luck — a bad harvest that forces a family to sell property to another farmer, say — are reproduced from generation to generation and accumulate over time.

  • Intergenerational Wealth Transmission and the Dynamics of Inequality in Small-Scale Societies* 2009 text

The end result, all else being equal, is a hereditary land-owning elite that can live off rents extracted from people unlucky enough to have been born into non-propertied families (aka most of us chumps).

  • Property and wealth inequality as cultural niche construction Stephen Shennan text

Private property also strips us of our freedom of mobility, especially once all available land has been claimed by private owners. Private property mediates access either to owners or anyone lucky enough to have access to resources to pay extractive rents.

Consider this, from Karl Widerquist and Grant McCall’s brilliant “Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philsophy.” To be without access to property is to be criminalized. pdf

As James Scott notes in “Against the Grain,” elites have to invest in mechanisms of bondage and oppression if workers have the choice to flee. But once all land has been staked and claimed, there’s nowhere to go but into the holdings of other members of the same elite class. pdf

Apropos my recent thread on guesting and hospitality, mobility is a key enabler of freedom and mitigation of conflict. Widerquist and McCall contrast the mobility of the hunter-gatherer…

…to densely settled horticultural and agricultural societies, in which competing, exclusive claims on land correlate to violence:

Rather than chalk this difference in violence to density rather than exclusionary property, consider that many societies mediate access to land not by guarding perimeters, but by negotiating membership in the community holding communal land rights.

  • Territoriality Among Human Foragers: Ecological Models and an Application to Four Bushman Groups (jstor) pdf

In this context, we can see things like guesting and hospitality, adoption, migration, the great tribal confederacies of the classical world, etc, as strategies for mediating access to common resources without violence.

Anyone interested in the management of common property should read Elinor Ostrom’s “Governing the Commons,” for which she won the Nobel Prize and which is full of examples of voluntary, localized control of common resources: pdf

Widerquist & McCall note common property, unlike private, is typically managed nonviolently: “We have said that people in the band are ‘obliged’ to share what they have, but the enforcement mechanism is almost entirely criticism and ridicule, not coercion or interference.”

Lastly, I’ll note that private property is inextricably linked to the formation of states, whether by driving the creation of propertied elites who turn economic into political power, or by making laborers “legible” to extractive elites.

As James Scott has observed throughout his work, states are obsessed with making their public’s legible to state apparatuses — last names, permanent addresses, unique identifying numbers, etc — that allow states to tax, conscript, etc, more efficiently.

Private property, which seems to have emerged in essentially its modern form with the emergence of the earliest Mesopotamian states, is probably no different. Scott notes in “Against the Grain” that unsettled peoples without private property are very difficult to tax:

I would not be surprised if we were to discover some day that private property emerged organically and was seized by early states as a tool of taxation, or if it was imposed on early farmers as a means of making their yields more easily traceable by extractive states.

As @davidwengrow notes in “What Makes Civilization?” the administrative records of the earliest states feature very little concern for irrigation or other organization of arable land, which had been managed communally for thousands of years before the emergence of states. pdf

Rather, they were interested in connecting specific patches of land with specific owners or families. Private property is an extractive state’s dream: clearly delineated, surveyed and assessed for productive value, linked to a specific individual.

In short, if private property didn’t drive the emergence of extractive states, then those states would have to invent it. It’s too useful a tool of control and extraction, even if we don’t delve too deeply into the role Enclosure plays in capitalist exploitation.