On The Money;
Economics for the 99%
A Brief History of Private Property
For most of human history, the modern concept of private property would have been unimaginable. Early humans, as individuals, had very few possessions indeed. Early humans would have used possessive pronouns, in reference to things literally attached to them, my hair, my hand, my penis etc, if they even had pronouns at all, which they probably didn’t. Early humans were not even possessive enough to own pronouns, but they did recognize that some things, the things that grew on their own bodies, belonged to them exclusively.
Early humans also recognized that things that grew on other creatures belonged to those creatures as well. A bear’s claw belonged to the bear. A deer’s antler belonged to the deer, and so on. Early humans needed stuff from these animals, food especially, so early humans hunted these animals and took theses things for themselves.
Still, early humans acknowledged that the meat they ate, the skins they wore, and the bones they used for tools still belonged to the animals from which they had taken them. They believed that the spirits of these animals continued to inhabit these things. Early man did not so much feel that they owned these animals, as they felt that these animals inhabited them and the things they made from them. The more bear you ate, the more bear inhabited you. If you wore buckskin clothing, the spirit of the deer that inhabited those skins kept you warm.
These early possessions, tools, clothes, furs etc could not be considered private property in the modern sense, however. They would instead be considered “belongings”. The clothes you wore, the fur you slept on, the hunting bow you used, belonged to you. You inhabited them more than owned them. Other items, like shelters, fire rings, and food were shared among the entire band. Still other items, ornamental items, game pieces, fishhooks arrowheads or arrows, drums and whistles, were often traded, or used for gambling.
Early humans depended much more on the people in their band or tribe, than they relied on their few possessions. These cultures developed quite extensive social software to prevent anyone from becoming too possessive with objects. They treated greed with scorn. Gambling on games of chance provided entertainment, and insured that prized items changed hands often.
Early humans valued equality, and their cultures reflect that. Many tribal cultures strongly avoided debt and obligation between tribal members. Gift-giving was frowned on, especially of valuable items, because of this aversion to interpersonal obligations. . However, gifts of arrows made hunting even more communal. A kill made with a gifted arrow, involved the efforts of both the hunter and the arrow-maker.
Humility helped to insure the stability of the band, and tribal people often took it to extreme. If a hunter made a kill, instead of bragging about it, he might say it was a lucky shot, or praise the gifted arrow that made the kill. Then he would say that it seems like a tired old animal that will probably be too tough to eat. The men who help him carry the kill home will complain about how bony and mangy it looks, and ask why he even bothered to hunt such a worthless quarry, and waste their time with it, but the whole band will feast on it together.
Early man lived a nomadic life, moving seasonally to take advantage of a variety of wild foods. This encouraged them to keep possessions to a minimum, as they would have to carry them all, often long distances, on foot. Again, the things they carried with them would be more accurately described as “belongings” than private property.
Early humans lived together in small groups, usually consisting of between 15-40 members on average. These groups, although very close knit, might be quite wary of other groups, depending on their history with them. If another group of humans got too close to your camp, you might interpret that as a sign of aggression, and try to drive them off.
As with most animals, these confrontations between groups of humans often involved little more than bluster, before one group backed down. If the confrontation escalated to violence, and especially if it resulted in death, the two groups would likely remain enemies for a very long time. Hostile raids and revenge killings would be expected.
You could call these kinds of conflicts “territorial” but they were really more personal than territorial. The territory between the groups created a buffer that allowed hostile groups to avoid each other, but no one thought they owned the territory. For millions of years, human beings lived this way, and, where they haven’t been wiped out, they continue to live this way. This is not a primitive lifestyle. This is who we are.
About 10,000 years ago, one particular group of humans became especially fond of a fermented grain beverage. Today, we would call it beer, but who knows what they called it then. They began burning large tracts of land to cultivate grain to make it. This burned and planted land must have been quite jealously guarded, not only from other humans, but from animals seeking to graze there.
Thus began the concept of private property. Still, this had more to do with labor than land. In those days, they didn’t know much about fertility, so a burned patch of forest land would only produce grain for a few years before exhausting the soil. Before long, they would need to burn more forest land leaving the old exhausted fields abandoned. In these early days, private property was kind of like a roll of toilet paper in a public restroom. It was there. You took what you needed, and when you were done with it, no one else really wanted it.
As sometimes happens in public restrooms, eventually the roll ran out. That is, they ran out of virgin forest land to burn. They did what you or I would do when confronted with an exhausted roll of toilet paper in a restroom stall. They checked the adjacent stall. If they found the adjacent stall empty, that solved their problem.
On the other hand, if they found the stall occupied, and the occupant felt nervous about the dwindling supply of toilet paper roll in that stall, they might find themselves in a conflict situation, as “Elaine” once did in a memorable episode of the TV series Seinfeld. For those of you unfamiliar with history, I’ll remind you that in that episode, “Elaine” found herself in a restroom stall with an empty roll of toilet paper, a fact she discovered too late. She pleaded with the woman in the next stall for a length of toilet paper, but the woman refused, claiming that she could not even spare one square of toilet paper for “Elaine”.
This made “Elaine” extremely angry, and hilarity ensued. If you substitute land for toilet paper, and violence for hilarity, the history of agricultural man followed more or less the same plot as that episode of Seinfeld. That is why you won’t find a scrap of proverbial toilet paper left on the proverbial roll in any proverbial restroom stall from Morocco to Afghanistan, but you will find a lot of angry people.
As time went on, this metaphorical “hilarity” escalated, and became more common. Before long “hilarity” became the standard method for acquiring agricultural land, leading to the rise of “funny” men, who did not farm at all, but specialized in hacking people to bits. These “professional comedians” as we’ll call them. Fought each other for scraps of agricultural “toilet paper”, and the farmers who tended them.
These farmers then became the subjects of these “professional comedians”, so called because these “comedians” subjected the farmers to “punchlines” of very pointed “jokes” if they refused to provide them with a share of the crops they harvested. While farmers remained with the land they tended, these “professional comedians” slayed each other for control of them, if you catch my drift.
Military might became increasingly central to the control of resources, especially land. While farmers continued to work the land, the “professional comedians”, the dukes, kings and warlords who fought over the land claimed “ownership” of it. Farmers became terrorized peasants, while the military class took control of their lands by violence, and demanded payment from them, in the form of crops and livestock.
Everything that these conquerors could extract from conquered lands became known as “the spoils of war”. They took people, especially women, as slaves, people’s belongings, livestock, any thing of value quickly became the property of the conquering forces. Wild game and natural resources also became “private property” as military forces plundered the entire known world.
In this way, military power trumped the labor of the farmers who worked the land, the belongings of people who lived on the land, and the natural integrity of the land itself, as the modern definition of private property fully crystallized. Since then, military powers have measured the value of everything, according to their own short-term purposes, and their own ability to plunder and exploit. Economists use this same skewed perspective to this day, which partially explains why they get things so wrong.
As this method of resource distribution became more institutionalized, military violence grew in scale, and military forces became increasingly hierarchical. To insure the loyalty of the vast armies necessary for this kind of conquest, the kings, dukes, robber barons and warlords who led these conquests needed to pay their soldiers. This they did by issuing contracts or covenants, promising each soldier, according to his rank, a share of the spoils, which might include land, slaves, other people’s belongings and natural resources.
The age of naval conquest vastly expanded the lands available to become private property through the process of conquest and plunder. Adventurous plunderers like Christopher Columbus and Cortez exported this new concept of private property, as they began the colonial plunder of the Americas, commencing the most abominable undertaking in all of human history, at least in terms of human lives extinguished, the American genocide.
European conquerors spread like locusts around the globe. Slavery, genocide and complete environmental plunder became the calling cards of Western Civilization, as colonial military invaders sought to exterminate thousands of indigenous cultures, replacing them with this new concept of private property.
Since then, conquerors have felt free to trade lands, resources, people, livestock etc, through legally binding contracts, enforced with military might. From this proud history, we inherited our modern concept of private property. From the Mayflower Charter to the mortgage on your home, the concept of private property arises from, belongs to and exemplifies the violence, oppression and environmental plunder which defines Western Civilization, but it does not reflect economic reality.
This flawed concept of private property underpins all modern economic analysis, but it clearly misses the forest for the lumber, so to speak. Of course the world has value in its natural integrity. Of course the indigenous people that inhabited those conquered lands valued their homeland, and their lives. Of course an ocean teeming with fish, whales and other marine mammals is worth more than one depleted of fish, but full of toxic pollution and plastic debris.
Destroying natural habitat, certainly does not increase its value. The destruction only diminishes the value of the natural environment, and whatever price the resources extracted from it bring on an open market, pales against the loss. Western Civilization has not created wealth. Western Civilization has butchered the natural wealth of the planet, and pillaged the Earth for its own aggrandizement.
As we watch the biodiversity of the Earth diminish before our eyes, and the global environment becomes increasingly desertified and polluted, we cannot fathom the lost wealth of the planet. The losses are incalculable. Modern economics has ignored these losses and hidden them from view. Instead it celebrates the petty fortunes of the privateers who have plundered the Earth.
We feel the loss though, and the pain of it tortures our soul. Billions of creatures have perished of it, with billions more to follow, and billions of humans can be counted among them. Why people, who claim to detest slavery, genocide and violence, also respect private property, I cannot fathom. I call it hypocrisy. Personally, I have nothing but contempt for the concept of private property, and the titles held by so called “land owners” backed by the ferocious violence of the state. There’s no saving private property. For the planet to live, private property must die.