Capitalists believe that property is the bulwark of freedom, and that the uniform application of property rights can only bring about mutual respect and secure outcomes. As Proudhon points out in What is Property?, this was most probably true in the beginning, where presumably most people had a plot of land to cultivate and were thus secured by the unlimited control granted by property rights, but it is not at all true today because of the unforeseen consequences of such arbitrary rights:
Agriculture was the foundation of territorial possession, and the original cause of property. It was of no use to secure to the farmer the fruit of his labor, unless the means of production were at the same time secured to him. To fortify the weak against the invasion of the strong, to suppress spoliation and fraud, the necessity was felt of establishing between possessors permanent lines of division, insuperable obstacles. Every year saw the people multiply, and the cupidity of the husbandman increase: it was thought best to put a bridle on ambition by setting boundaries which ambition would in vain attempt to overstep. Thus the soil came to be appropriated through need of the equality which is essential to public security and peaceable possession.
They did not foresee, these old founders of the domain of property, that the perpetual and absolute right to retain one’s estate, — a right which seemed to them equitable, because it was common, — involves the right to transfer, sell, give, gain, and lose it; that it tends, consequently, to nothing less than the destruction of that equality which they established it to maintain. And though they should have foreseen it, they disregarded it; the present want occupied their whole attention, and, as ordinarily happens in such cases, the disadvantages were at first scarcely perceptible, and they passed unnoticed.
The history of this degeneration can be understood in Kevin Carson’s Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, part 2, which is a detailed historical analysis of, amongst other things, the progressive seizure of the commons in the name of property. His conclusion can be stated thus:
Capitalism, arising as a new class society directly from the old class society of the Middle Ages, was founded on an act of robbery as massive as the earlier feudal conquest of the land. It has been sustained to the present by continual state intervention to protect its system of privilege, without which its survival is unimaginable. The current structure of capital ownership and organization of production in our so-called “market” economy, reflects coercive state intervention prior to and extraneous to the market. From the outset of the industrial revolution, what is nostalgically called “laissez-faire” was in fact a system of continuing state intervention to subsidize accumulation, guarantee privilege, and maintain work discipline.
We are talking here about the systematic and explicit application of the concept of property, of course. There is no doubt that unlimited control was present before the concept was explicitly invented.
My proposition that “hierarchy is property” may seem strange, because we’re used to seeing property equated the other way around (as in “property is theft.” In this case I do not mean to say that all property is tyranny, but rather than all hierarchical tyranny is based on property.
This can be intuitively understood by looking at the nature of tyranny. A tyranny is an intent of monopoly: tyrannies cannot co-exist with free processes or organizations (when confronted with their baleful influence, the tyranny must censor, control or destroy them). No monopoly can exist and survive without the assumption of property- unlimited control over a given domain. Nature in her wisdom gave man a vast diversity of desires, preferences and values, so that no monopoly could ever arise naturally. But we override her wishes with threats, bullying, theft and murder.
Because it is itself a hierarchical concept hostile to social responsibility and the need for mutual aid, the concept of property can only lead to hierarchy, social irresponsibility, and unethical behaviour. Looking at the claimed foundation for property, the bizarre concept of “self-ownership,” which turns man into an atomicist’s dream, it should be obvious that property cannot bring about society. Indeed, as Proudhon pointed out, property leads to inequality, and as long as there is inequality there is no society.
How can we find property in hierarchies which are not necessarily economic? Remember that property is, at its core, a claim of unlimited control. One does not have to be acting as an economic agent to make such a claim.
Take the most blatant example, that of God. We are to believe that God, as the creator of the universe, has legitimate unlimited control over it, including over human beings. Is it therefore a coincidence that God is depicted as the greatest tyrant one can imagine? The Christian claims of God being the sole judge of when someone should be born or die, and that God’s morality is the only valid morality, makes more sense if we look at Christianity as the worship of God the Absolute Proprietor.
Of course, there are no gods and no Absolute Proprietors. But there are people who claim to speak or act in their name, alleged representatives of something that can never consent to such representation. In the same way, there is no such thing as a nation but it still has alleged representatives, and there is no such thing as a corporation but it still has alleged representatives. The proprietor, in these cases, is pure make-believe, but even in the cases where the proprietors are real people, the claims to property are still frauds, lies and fiction.
Parenting is a good example of the latter. In raising a child, the parents make a property claim over the rights and freedoms of the child. Barring the obvious fact that there is no possible way to justify such a claim (rights being inalienable and an integral part of living in society), there is no rationale behind giving two specific people an exclusive claim. The fact that they committed the sexual act which led to conception does not make them specially suited to raise the child, let alone to hold property of that child’s freedom. Parenting as practiced is a fraud, a lie, a fiction which indentures vulnerable persons to incompetent and often abusive caretakers, with safeguards not only absent but nearly impossible.
Monogamy is another good example. Being in a relationship, for most people, means that they claim each other’s affective and sexual faculties as their property, in order to establish the affective and sexual monopoly necessary for monogamy. Any non-authorized use of those faculties is therefore seen as a deeply personal attack.
The question of relationships has been seen in strictly hierarchical terms, with the woman being inferior to the man, and the children the property of both (although of course killing children outright went away with the Antiquity, beating babies to near-death was still a common practice until the 19th century). The dynamics of any family could be understood purely in terms of power struggles. Nowadays, in the most advanced societies, we have come to believe that men and women are equal. This is a complete lie in general, but within any given relationship it might be true: at best, men and women mutually exploit each other for their own selfish emotional security.
A final word on my definition. Advocates of property often argue that my definition of property as “unlimited control” is logically inconsistent, since property claims may clash (such as in the Block Corollary, the self-ownership claim versus the business’ property claim). Property claims, in this view, are limited by each other.
But this is a misunderstanding of the law. Determining when a property claim conflicts with another is not a limitation but a clarification. The right to property could not be unlimited if anyone could interfere with what we can do within it. If you go to an “all you can eat” buffet, the fact that you are now allowed to eat other people’s plates does not make it any less “all you can eat.” The analogy is kindof a stretch, but I hope you get the idea. Lack of rules would make all property subject to the strongest of proprietors. Even in such a predatory domain as property theory, there has to be some equality between predators.