On private property and the commons

By | September 16, 2015

Ryan Anderson: Earlier you referred to OA as “a strategy of resistance to privatization of the commons”. Can you elaborate on that point?

Keith Hart: I meant that private property is still the great unresolved contradiction of modern society, not least because its ubiquity often makes society invisible. For Rousseau, the invention of private property was the origin of social inequality. The liberal Enlightenment looked to anthropology for the knowledge needed to realize a democratic revolution against the Old Regime. Morgan (followed by Engels) used Rousseau’s framework to make the history of unequal society the main object of a democratic anthropology. More recently, Lévi-Strauss, Wolf and Goody renewed this tradition, each in their own way. Now David Graeber has taken it up again. But the ethnographic turn made this a marginal current in twentieth century anthropology.

I grew up in a working class district of Manchester. The doors of our houses had to be kept open for neighbors to come in and out as they wished. Even inside the house, bedroom and bathroom doors were never closed. Privacy was the opposite of being open to the free flow of solidarity. I thought that spirit had gone forever, but I found it again when I moved to France fifteen years ago. Here the tradition of people occupying the streets (manifestation) is very much alive and the notion of a public sphere that belongs to all is palpable.

In my lectures I refer to the example of a Masai warrior who works as a nightwatchman in Nairobi. He buys a watch with his wages. What could be more personal or private than a wristwatch, attached to your skin? He returns to the village and a friend immediately says “Give me your watch”. He has to give him the watch. Why? The solidarity of age-mates, so vital for the defense of the village’s cattle, is undermined by distinctions based on private property. In our societies, we take private ownership for granted. The institutions that secure it for us are hidden most of the time. Only when we are relieved of our possessions or a contract is broken do we realize that we normally depend on the law; and we complain about the inadequacy of police protection.

Modern economics insists that individual exchange is universal, but the barter myth of money’s origins is based on the assumption of private property. All that is missing from barter is the money. In fact private property law has been invented independently only two or three times, by the Romans, the Chinese and maybe the Aztecs. It was invented by centralized states to secure the property of traders. The Romans made a distinction between rights in persons and rights in things. Ownership was normally based on having made something or using it; and this right was secured by being a member of a particular social group. Traders neither made nor used what they owned, but the state guaranteed their right to the thing against local brigandage, as they would put it.

There has never been a society so committed to private property as the United States and this goes with unusually weak social protection by the state. In the movie Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore asks why American society is so prone to gun violence. He inserts a cartoon at one point to explain that it is because of the history of racism. But the cause is more plausibly an unchecked system of markets based on private property without the social protection of an effective welfare state. This also accounts, in my view, for the apparent anomaly of the US being the most modern society and the most religious. God and guns fill in for the welfare state. Canadians are both secular and less violent. The Europeans are hardly religious at all.

The euro crisis also hinges on privatization. After the Cold War ended, the Europeans decided that the winning side was the free market, forgetting their own long history of formal and informal public institutions shoring up markets. So they introduced a new currency to make a single market, without addressing the gap between North and South or developing fiscal institutions in common. They supposed that markets based on private property would lead them to political union. (The Americans, in contrast, fought a civil war before centralizing their currency.) The basic flaws in all this were hidden by the credit boom, but the financial crisis brought them out with a vengeance.

This is why I spoke of Marx’s early journalism. It underpinned his lifelong attempt to expose and replace an economy founded exclusively on private property. I am suggesting that, if we are distressed by what is going on in the universities today, we need to stand back and address fundamental issues first.

RA: You also highlighted what you call the tension between the maintenance of an intellectual commons and the conservation of ideas as private property.

KH: We still think of private property as belonging to living persons and oppose private and public spheres on that basis. But what makes property private is holding exclusive rights against the world. Abstract entities like governments and corporations, as well as individuals, can thus hold private property. We are understandably confused by this, especially since the corporations’ rise to public power rests on collapsing the difference between real and artificial persons in economic law. This constitutes a major obstacle not only to the practice of democracy, but also to thinking about it. Sadly, it has become commonplace for intellectuals to obscure the distinction between living persons and abstractions, as well as between persons, things and ideas.

Private property has not only evolved from individual ownership to predominately corporate forms, but its main point of reference has also shifted from “real” to “intellectual” property, that is from material objects to ideas. This is partly because the digital revolution in communications has led to the economic preponderance of information services whose reproduction and transmission is often costless or nearly so. A similar sleight of hand is at work here as in the claim to corporate personhood. If I steal your cow, its loss is material, since only one of us can benefit from its milk. But if I copy a CD or DVD, I am denying no-one access to it. Yet corporate lobbyists depend on this misleading analogy to influence courts and legislators to treat duplication of their “property” as “theft” or even “piracy.”

The term “information feudalism” is highly appropriate for our era. Human work was once conceived of as collective physical energy, as so many “hands”. The internet has raised the significance of intangible commodities. Now that production of things is being replaced by information services, labor is increasingly understood as individual creativity, as subjectivity. And it is this shift that has been captured by big money in the claim that “intellectual property” deserves closer regulation in the interest of its owners.

The fight is on to save the commons of human society, culture and ecology from the encroachments of corporate private property. This is no longer just a question of conserving the earth’s natural resources, although it is definitely that too, nor of the deterioration of public services left to the mercies of privatized agencies. Increasingly we buy and sell ideas; and their reproduction is made infinitely easier by digital technologies. So the larger corporations have launched a campaign to assert their exclusive ownership of what until recently was considered shared culture to which all had free and equal access. Across the board, separate battles are being fought over music, movies, literature, software, GMOs, pharmaceuticals, the internet and the universities without any real sense of the common cause that they embody.

RA: In your opinion, is this a conflict that can be resolved? Is there some sort of middle ground solution here?

KH: Well, we do have to take on the corporations, but my answer is yes, there is a middle ground solution and it is one we are well-placed as anthropologists to make use of. Durkheim believed that individuality was more developed in societies with an advanced division of labor because of their increased interdependence. The problem is that this pervasive individualism makes it harder for us to perceive the work of society in shaping our lives. This is especially so in a regime of private property, where the collective forces underpinning individual ownership are for the most part invisible. His key idea was ‘‘the non-contractual element in the contract’’. In a market transaction, only the buyer and seller appear to be involved; but it rests on an invisible array of institutions — of state law, social customs and shared history — without which it could not take place. How can people be made more aware of the importance of this social glue in their lives?

Some three decades later, Marcel Mauss wrote his famous essay, The Gift, which may be seen as a renewal of his uncle’s mission to make the non-contractual element in the contract visible. But he focused on a range of phenomena that were more prominent in ‘‘archaic’’ societies than our own, systems of competitive gift-exchange. He saw these as an individualized variant of a more general form of obligatory community service (prestation). The principle of giving with the expectation of a return persists in societies dominated by capitalist markets. A cooperative socialist, Mauss worked for an anti-capitalist revolution, but one based on developing the human dimensions of market institutions that existed already. He considered the Bolshevik revolution’s violent repression of markets to have been a disaster.

For Mauss, being human always means reconciling freedom and obligation, individual and collective interests. The ‘‘free gift’’ is not the opposite of self-interested contracts. It is always interested and often a source of inequality. Nor is ‘‘capitalism’’ the whole story when it comes to the modern economy. The gift is the non-contractual element in the contract. By obscuring, marginalizing and even repressing the more humane aspects of markets as well as their intrinsic inequality, bourgeois ideology prevents us from seeing how our current practices might sustain new directions for the economy. Much more sustains the market than the exchange of spot contracts. Most contracts (notably relations of credit and debt) involve deferred payment and thus resemble gifts whose defining characteristic is delayed return. This is to say nothing of the role of institutions like the welfare state in capitalist societies.

Mauss introduced three new elements to his uncle’s original approach. First, he abandoned Durkheim’s sociological reductionism, seeking rather to identify social phenomena in their totality, a dynamic assemblage of persons, networks, groups, things and ideas more readily revealed through ethnography than by specialist disciplines. Archaic gift-exchange brings together individuals and communities, law and economy, magic and religion, art and technology. Mauss advocated an economic movement from below for contemporary societies, aiming at consumer democracy through a combination of cooperatives, mutual insurance and professional associations. The generosity of the archaic gift does not point to a non-market alternative, but rather to the humanity inherent in markets that remains to be liberated by such a modern movement.

Second, Durkheim oversimplified the contrast between primitive and modern societies. Against his uncle’s implicit evolutionism, Mauss held that all economies were plural in practice; indeed, the basic human economic arrangements co-exist in any society, a position later associated with Polanyi and revived by Graeber. It is counter-productive to imagine economic change as the radical replacement of one set of institutions by another. Third, Mauss had an inclusive vision of human history with the boundaries of local societies being pushed ever outwards. Both gift-exchange and markets extend society by taking members out of their locally grounded system of rights and interests to engage with foreigners. Markets and money in some form are universal, since no society can be self-sufficient. Where Malinowski opposed the Trobriand kula to money and markets, Mauss saw a parallel with the free market, at least with the invisible infrastructure of human expansiveness and trust that he believed made markets possible.

Mauss’s counter-intuitive idea that gifts and markets share a common human substance soon gave way to the old notion that they are each other’s opposite, now reified as ‘‘gift economy’’ versus ‘‘market economy’’, the very contrast that he wrote his essay to refute. He rejected brutal contrasts of this kind and that makes him an ideal starting-point in any search for a middle-ground between extremes of right and left.

In the final segment of this interview, we will bring these discussions about property, privatization, and the commons back to the issue of OA and the academy.

The is the second of a three-part post in 2012 about open access with Ryan Anderson at Savage Minds. The trio are Opening Anthropology: An interview with Keith Hart. Links to the other two parts can found there.

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