There is a long and perhaps self-evident entanglement between unlimited property rights and violence. Violence is, of course, necessary to the right to destroy or kill, and private property — full ownership — will brook not even these extreme limits. In fact, to exercise and maintain unlimited property rights is to systematically employ death and destruction. To maintain the power over things that is unlimited ownership there must be regular displays of absolute power. There can be no question that the owner will resort to violence when his rights are challenged or those rights will be challenged. But violence is also entailed merely in the notion of entitlement, to take without giving back in kind. To take from a system and not fully replenish that system so that it remains a viable system is to spread harm in the system. It is violence.
Unlimited property rights were created to support slavery and colonialism. This idea originated with the Romans who used it to justify the slave labor their culture depended upon. Slaves, being humans with their own agency, were understandably not entirely amenable to their condition. Coercion, girded with violent punishment, was necessary to keep slaves on Roman plantations. Romans, ever trying to appear to be the civilized center of the world (rather than merely another greed-wracked empire of parasites), created legal codes that enabled this violence and ennobled it with a veneer of legitimacy. They employed a neat trick — removing humanity from slaves, making them un-persons, things that had no rights or will. They turned humans into property.
Having un-personed slaves, Romans then set about validating the use of ultimate force to retain and maintain ownership on this property. Violent force was not strictly necessary for other forms of ownership because most forms of property (aside from women, that is…) do not require coercion to remain property. Farmland is notably immobile; gold generally doesn’t walk off on its own; but slave labor requires a solid underpinning of threats and punishments. And these punishments for breach of property rights became both more frequent and more horrifying as the rule of private property was solidified.
Similarly, while theft has always earned punishment in all cultures, punishment for theft became more gruesome and more frequently enforced with the rise of unlimited property rights. This was because two things changed alongside this notion of ownership. First, ownership of property was increasingly distributed. Rather than land belonging to a deity or its earthly representation the king, under Roman law citizens owned large estates with no legal obligation toward any higher authority with respect to their own property. Land that belongs to the gods or the empire essentially belongs to everybody. Commoners have the use of the land regardless of ownership — and, really, nobody actually cared much about ownership as long as they could gather their needs. Land that belongs to a person does not belong to everybody. Any gathering from an owner with unlimited rights violated those rights by depriving the owner of his property. So more and more, formerly legal (or at least tolerated) activities were turned into theft when local ownership became absolute. (And just to tie that all together, one of the principle punishments of thievery was the un-personing of slavery.)
The second parallel change was a greater ability to enforce property laws. A central king (or disembodied deity) had less reach than a local lord. We know of at least one story in which the entire slave caste, property of the state, just up and left. Divine intervention notwithstanding, the Hebrews managed to walk away from the wealthiest empire of their times, and there was not much Ramses could do about it. However, it is harder to escape from smaller fiefdoms, not least because there is no place to escape to. Much more property is owned by someone in residence when there is more private property.
It is also easier for the local nobility to pay for local enforcement of property laws. The emperor may have an army and a watch, but soldiers and police can’t be everywhere all the time. There are limits to the number of people and places supported by the state’s military budget. However, a private property owner has less to guard and therefore greater ability to keep it guarded. He also has more wealth at his private disposal when he is a private property owner and has more recourse to hire thugs to keep the property in place. All this meant slaves had a harder time leaving and thieves had a harder time going unnoticed — or at least unpunished. And property ownership became synonymous with the right to destroy property — because that threat of death was what it took to retain slaves and, to a lesser extent, to repulse thieves.
Now, for a long time after the Roman Empire crashed there was less wealth and less interest in maintaining large pools of slave labor. As is often noted, there was much less inequality between the lowest and the highest, so there was less labor devoted to supplying the highest with surplus wealth. There was also less need to feed urbanites and standing armies. Finally, as the barbarians began to legitimize their rule with narrative, there was a return to the notion of divinely granted royal prerogative, and with that a dissolving of many private enterprises. The new kings absorbed all ownership rights into their own god-blessed sovereignty, leaving large spaces outside their halls where property rule was not enforced. Moreover, the king had good reasons to allow the commoners to do as they liked. Left to their own devices, they were far more productive — and the king didn’t have to pay anyone to force them to work. (Though he did pay quite a few thugs to collect tribute.)
But as that system grew stronger and kingdoms became states, private property again became important — and enforcement of property rights became all the more bloody. (Because there was no “Romanesque” worry over the appearance of civility in this new order… they decided that anything they did was proper because they did it…) Of course, these new states also had a new imperative to wield force. They were busily claiming rights to the property of entirely new lands — none of which were uninhabited — and to whole classes of enslaved people — none of whom were willing. They looked to the Roman idea of unlimited property ownership with undisguised glee. This absolute rule of property that could be claimed by anyone who could employ sufficient violence to enforce it made land theft legal and made debasement of humans moral. And it put these muscular rights into the hands of just any petty asshole who could deaden his own humanity enough to go terrorize the world for his own gain. The Western world proved quite full of willing assholes, and the rest is… what we call history.
We shake our heads ruefully as we acknowledge the history between injury and the pursuit of private property. We sigh with regret as we claim that this is inevitable, it is human nature. But it is nothing of the kind. The opposite is true. This notion of unlimited ownership of a thing — and the thing-making of all parts of the earth that accompanies ownership — is a brief aberration practiced by a very few pathological humans in a very small window of existence. That it is counter to human nature is shown in the vigorous and constant resistance put up against ownership wherever it tries to take hold, and there are still efforts to undermine ownership even in the strongholds of its rule. It takes violence to uphold this violence.
But it is not human nature to be self-centered and destructive. It is not in the nature of any life form. A passing familiarity with logic and reality makes it quite clear that an organism that damages and destroys its life support systems — its environment, that which is named property — is not going to be an organism for very long. A self-aggrandizing thing is a dying thing. Ecology does not recognize the rules of human wants or will, and we can plainly see the results all around us in these dying days of late capitalism. Even the ownership class is learning to its regret that there are limits, though it is actively engaged in gaslighting the rest of the world into thinking otherwise. These owners are shrilly proclaiming their rights to continue to waste and destroy even in the face of their own annihilation. Because a self-centered thing also does not care if he leaves nothing tenable to the future — not even to his future self — a self-centered thing seems to be paradoxically suicidal, self-snuffing… Which reveals just how physically wrong the philosophy of selfishness is. It is not natural. It is only maintained through willful and forceful violence — and a great deal of stupidity.
Most people know this. Most people are, in fact, on the receiving end of the violent rule of ownership. Yet there are few calls for what I think is mere logic — perhaps because of the success of gaslighting. But if we all know that this notion of ownership is bound up with violence and with a level of violence that will destroy everything, why don’t we do away with ownership? Ownership is in no way necessary to our lives. We have existed without it for far longer than with it. Very few humans have laid claim to unlimited property rights. And this idea of absolute power over an owned thing is cutting off hope for our continued existence by allowing and encouraging continued destruction of our planet. Why maintain this artificial thing that is killing us?
Perhaps we do not know how to stop it from killing us and everything else, but I am beginning to think that it might be depressingly easy. Depressing, because we’ve let it go so long as to create hurts that will not be healed for thousands of years. Unfortunately, the ecological footprint of ownership will now last longer than the entire history of ownership and will reach wider than the cumulative reach of all the owners who have ever lived. This self-maintaining harm has become an emergent property of property. But we can still mitigate the damage. We can at least stop making it worse. All we have to do is stop recognizing ownership.
These rights, these are not actually existing physical laws. We must agree to them. We must allow ourselves to be ruled. We could end the rule simply by refusing to be ruled, by refusing the artificial contract of property rights, by reclaiming the world of freedom that is our natural birthright.
Now, there will be violence, possibly more than there already is. Possibly… the level is already rather inconceivably high… But owners will exercise violence to maintain their right to own. We have evidence of this all around us. People walking away from rule — the ownership of themselves by others — and getting shot for their troubles. Witness the debacle in Eastern Europe (which is far more about pipelines and profits than about people and places). But the thing is, this is happening already, and it can’t get much worse if the rule of ownership is to continue — because you can’t kill everything that you purport to rule. There must be large numbers of people and places that are sustainably living and producing more life for there to be a parasitic ownership class. Guns do not change that basic law.
Not only that, but there comes a point where nobody will wield the guns. Weapons are owned and used by a relatively small number of humans, none of whom are engaged in any sort of productive, life-sustaining work. We could simply stop feeding them for one thing… But they might lay down their guns of their own accord first. Many times in history those who are used by the ownership class to wield weapons have walked away. In fact, my reading of history is that turning away from conflict is far more common than supporting it. Look at the harsh penalties for desertion all throughout history; it has to be a fairly irksome problem to merit summary execution. Furthermore, these executions are carried out in unusually visceral fashion usually by low-ranking soldiers, thereby sending an unequivocal message to anyone else who might not want to kill for a living. Desertion happens for a number of reasons, some of which are merely self-preservation. (Duh…) However, quite often soldiers refuse their imposed purpose when they find they are training their guns on their neighbors. And neighbors can be found even in remote parts of the world when the thing-ness of property is removed and humanity is revealed, when the “enemy” is shown to be a person very like the man-boy with the gun, when the true enemy is the utterly unnatural commandment to fire.
It takes a certain amount of brain-mutilation to convince a human to kill. We are not hard-wired for harm, and we are very bad at killing our own kind. Taking the life of another human permanently damages the life of the killer. Yes, there are a fair number of damaged humans with weaponry out there now, but this too is an aberration. Some might be healed at least to the point where they can function in society, but we could also stop creating new killers to replace those who will inevitably die off soon. There would be no soldiers if we stopped actively making them. It would be as easy as refusing to spend our time and resources on maintaining this very expensive and time-consuming system of conditioning children to kill. We could allow them to remain whole and undamaged, with the natural empathy of a healthy human being. While we may not eliminate the hurts we cause in passion, no empathetic human will ever be a duped weapon in the hands of others.
And when the property owning group no longer has its enforcers — those who they can compel to do the work of violence entailed in property ownership — then they have nothing over us at all. We can walk away from their suicidal system and let them implode with it. We do not need to recognize their right to own anything. We certainly should not condone their absolute right to destroy and kill property — just for our own sakes! Because the whole point of unlimited property rights is that there are no limits — both to what damage they can do and to how that damage can spread. By now, the damage that they do has metastasized over the entire planet.
I am sure there are those who will be saying that without enforced ownership laws, theft will be rampant and that there will be no curtailment on any future asshole who might want to repeat the Western experiment. So I’ll wrap this up by attempting to defuse that argument.
First, from a purely philosophical standpoint, there is no theft if there is no ownership… Second, there already is rampant theft — in the form of depressed wages, in the form of appropriated resources, in the form of stolen futures, and in many other perfectly legal forms of private enterprise. But ok, what about the jerks who will kick grandma out of her home so they can live large in her doily-draped den?
I will say this again: we have lived without these notions of unlimited property rights and pervasive ownership for much longer than we have lived with them. We lived quite well without them. Ownership is far from necessary for a well functioning society that can meet its peoples’ needs. The opposite might be true. This culture of ownership may only be possible when society — community — is violently suppressed and oppressed and, crucially, when there is a great deal of resource wealth employed in keeping it so. If we don’t cooperate, it will fail. Hence the all the effort and expense put into gaslighting…
Of course, this suicidal system is going to fail anyway merely because we don’t have the resources left to maintain it. So let’s head off the worst of collapse and end it now while there is still some chance of guiding the flaming disaster into some sort of controlled landing.
Finally, how do we keep new tyrants from taking control? The same ways we always have. We raise our children to abhor the very idea, and we mercilessly shame anyone who tries it. We keep society small enough that there are always neighbors and family watching — and caring. We do not produce surplus to enable parasites to exist, much less wield violence. We do not produce tools specific to violence. And if we do all that and there are still sociopaths that don’t succumb to the pressures of community, then we stop feeding and sheltering them.
And that is exactly how we can walk away from the tyrants that own us today…
From the Book Cellar
On human resistance to killing: A very accessible summary can be found in Humankind by Rutger Bregman (2019: Little, Brown & Company). If you would like to go back to the original studies, read Men Against Fire by Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall (a good reprint is from 2000: University of Oklahoma Press). Then Lt. Col. Dave Grossman built on Marshall’s studies, confirming data that has come under fire almost since Marshall released his book in 1947. Grossman produced two books — On Killing (1996: Back Bay Books) and On Combat (2004: PPCT Research Publications). The later book is essentially the first, but with about a decade’s worth additional research. For the record, the US Marine Corps places On Killing on their recommended reading list.
On conditioning humans to harm others by damaging empathy: Again Dave Grossman has two pertinent books — Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill (with co-author Gloria DeGaetano, 1999: Harmony) and Assassination Generation (2016: Little, Brown & Company). Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death contains relevant information on conditioning through general media. (Penguin Books released an easily accessible reprint in 2005.) The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (2010: W. W. Norton) and Social Media and Your Brain edited by C. G. Prado (2016: Praeger) both consider the effects of social media on our bodies. Both show that empathy is removed when we interact primarily through screens.
On the embedded relationships between property, thing-ness and violence: Please read The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh (2021: University of Chicago Press). In Sand Talk (2020: Harper One), Tyson Yunkaporta “yarns” on our tendency in the West to hide away this inherent violence in ownership and power by offloading our violent actions as well as effects onto our victims — usually far from our own homes. Andro Linklater’s Owning the Earth (2013: Bloomsbury) describes both the creativity and destruction that followed everywhere in the wake of the modern resurgence of private property. Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch (2004: Autonomedia) is a gory narrative of capitalism’s conquest of the body, particularly female bodies in their capacity to reproduce labor. The Half Has Never Been Told (2014: Basic Books) by Edward Baptist narrates violent body conquest in the American colonies and its foundational nature in creating American property ownership and capitalism. Both Federici and Baptist stress the creation of a class of things out of human bodies, bodies becoming inert property to be at the disposal of capitalist ownership. Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States (1980: Harper & Row, readily available in many reprints from Harper Perennial) underscores the violence necessary to maintain increasingly concentrated property ownership in the hands of a minority. Every telling of US history from any perspective other than white males and their beneficiaries is a story of violent theft and the continued violence in the maintenance of property. Two books stand out in that category: Stamped from the Beginning (2016: Bold Type Books) by Ibram X. Kendi and An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014: Beacon Press) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. And of course, The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow (2021: Farrar, Straus and Giroux) has much to say on this problem.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022
1 thought on “The Violence of Property”
[…] down and do nothing until you understand this viscerally. (If you need it, I have book recommendations…) Then, if you still want to wave the Ukrainian flag, fine… but I rather doubt that will be the […]
Comments are closed.