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Essay/Term paper: The theory of property

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Society Term Papers

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The Theory of Property

While Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines property as "something
regarded as being possessed by, or at the disposal of, a person or group of
persons species or class," (p. 1078) this definition hardly holds the
connotations so emphatically discussed by the anthropologist Morgan. To Morgan,
"property has been so immense...so diversified its uses so expanding...that it
has become...an unmanageable power." (p.561) Why has it become such an
unmanageable power? Morgan answers this question with the simple answer that it
is due to the linear evolution of the social institution of property from being
collectively owned to being individually owned which has planted the seed of its
own destruction in modern society. Morgan, in an attempt to study the role
property has played in shaping social structures throughout history, has
concluded that the influences property has had on reshaping societies and vice
versa can teach the historian many things about both the society being studied
and the environment in which it strove to survive. To Morgan, the "germ" of the
institution of property slowly infected many different societies in many
different parts of the world. His teleological approach states that due to the
"unity of mankind" various technological innovations, which gave rise to the
ever-growing availability of property, allowed social change to occur in many
areas of the globe independently. Every area, went through its own version of
evolution in which the importance of wealth grew at varying rates. This
discovery leads Morgan to believe that while the past was unified in its
variation, it is the future which must presently be addressed. For Morgan, in
studying the past one can learn much about the future. Not only does Morgan
analyze the social emergence of various types of property, but he is also
extremely interested in the human tendencies evident in various societies which
surfaced as a result of the ever-growing list of ownable objects. As time
progressed from the Status of Savagery through Barbarism and into Civilization
new wants and needs arose mostly due to new inventions. It is on this
relationship between property, technology, and the human desire for more of each
which Morgan centers his work, and it is from this study which he hopes future
generations will learn how to improve their institutions until they can be
improved no more.
Morgan structures his essay around three basic "ethnical periods of
human progress" (p. 535) and the basic assumption that the more modes of
production and subsistence there are the greater the proliferation of individual
objects of ownership. As technology advances and discoveries are made, the
amount of ownable objects grow as does the need to own. Every invention leads
to new processes for agriculture, pastoralism and industry as well as new
methods for invention. Thus, each new invention, whether it is a revolutionary
idea or an actual object, births many new inventions which lead to many new
modes of production causing many new objects previously not thought of as
property to grow in value. The higher in value and demand these objects are the
more people want to individually own them. How does one measure the growth of
technology and importance of property in past cultures? Morgan feels that by
studying the laws of ownership which govern these societies one can gain an
understanding of the importance, or unimportance, of individual property.
In the Status of Savagery, the first of the periods, property basically
took the form of rude weapons, fabrics utensils, apparel, implements of flint,
stone, bone, and other various personal ornaments. Due to the fact, though,
that these objects were relatively uncomplicated and crude, there was not much
"passion for possession." In other words, people did not need to own. Land was
owned by the loosely organized tribes, and the tenant houses were owned by all
the occupants. As intensive agriculture and pastoralism had not yet been
invented the need to own land was not great either. As people died their most
valuable possessions were either buried with the corpse or given to the next of
kin. This process assured the first rule of inheritance which keeps all
property in the gen and does not allow anyone from remote gens to inherit.
The Lower Barbaric, the Middle Barbaric, and the Upper Barbaric sub-
periods comprise the second ethnical period. In the Lower Barbaric period belts,
picture writing, stockades for village defense, shields, war clubs, air guns for
shooting, the mortar and pestle and pipes were invented. These objects were
more intricate and specialized than those found in the Savage period and the
need for acquiring them also grew slightly. Ties to property began to form, but
for Morgan these objects had not yet reached the plane of desirability he feels
was necessary to institute change in the social structures of society. These
objects still, however, remained attached to the blood lines in which they
originated and any attempt to detach them from these lines met with considerable
In the Mid-Barbaric period the progress continued. Better and better
tools as well as vessels were being made to do more and more specialized tasks
and to hold newly discovered materials and beverages. "When the great discovery
was made that the wild horse, cow, sheep, ass, sow and goat might be tamed...to
produce a source of permanent subsistence" (p. 544) the need for land began to
grow. This land, though, was commonly "owned" by the tribe while often some was
divided with allotments for government, religion, and gentes. This is the first
attempt at subdividing a land originally owned by the common people for while
there was no single ownership, the owning bodies began to shrink. People did
want to own objects and land, but they wanted it for the gen or for their group,
not for themselves. It is in this time that the second rule of inheritance was
present where inheritance was more specified for the agnatic kindred within the
As time progressed into the Upper barbaric stage, settled agriculture,
small scale industry, local trade, and foreign commerce led to property "in
masses." Slavery was invented as a means to raise production, but it was the
increased abundance of subsistence methods through field agriculture that
developed which led to the never-ending struggle for land. Ownership began to
take two forms: the state and the individual. "In the land of Solon...lands in
general were owned by individuals, who already learned to mortgage them."
(p.551) It is in this time that Morgan notes the marked difference of
inheritance from being passed along matrilineal lines to patrilineal lines.
There were so many houses, lands, flocks and herds as well as exchangeable goods
that inheritance became crucial for the Greeks. Fathers adopted any practice
they could to allow their sons to inherit the land and property worked on by
themselves. The assertions that the immediate family, especially sons, deserved
to inherit the property associated with their father had more validity now that
modes of subsistence became more labor intensive and required more work from the
sons for the family. This is the third and final rule of inheritance; children
should inherit from their parents. As methods for domestication of animals
improved it was discovered that they held the most value as they could reproduce
themselves and allow the owner to gain in both prestige and monetary wealth.
The fact that the Greek leader Solon permitted a person to will his property to
whomever he chose while he was still alive markedly shows the presence of
individual ownership during this period.
Somewhere between the Upper Barbaric period and the period known as
civilization the position of Aristocracy arose. It arose out of the fact that
property along with ownership of slaves, the growth of the gap between owners
and non-owners as well as the emergence of official social and governmental
positions all contributed to a "wealth" which distinguished the 'haves" from
the "have-nots." It is this social change which Morgan mostly feels describes
the effects of property on social institutions. For Morgan the emergence of
property created by technological innovations in agriculture, industry and
pastoralism spurs the need to have more than others. This is the "end and aim"
(p.561) that Morgan feels is the ultimate shame of modern civilization. The
future for Morgan holds only the destruction of a society bent on acquiring more
at the expense of others. The fact that members of society have evolved from
ignorant yet happy to complicated yet destructive has created a culture where
ownership of property delineates between successful and unsuccessful.
Wolf, on the other hand, develops his theory on property in a very
different manner. To Wolf the progression from societies in which "property"
was collectively owned by the corporate group to cultures where the individual
accumulation and control of various types of commodities was sought after was a
very non-linear evolution. He does not see stages of increased emphasis on
private ownership but instead Wolf simply presents case studies of populations
in which most often external influences have forced the move from general/public
ownership to private ownership. Unlike Morgan, Wolf does not refer to the
various populations as an integrated whole with an internal logic and free from
the impact of the world. The period of colonial expansion very much impacted on
the various cultures being studied, and it is impossible to separate these
relatively remote populations from the attempts of world domination by the
superpowers of the time. To Wolf every society which exists concurrently exerts
pressure on every other and whatever form any society ends up taking is just a
result of how it was articulated in its period of history. Wolf believes that
whether or not a society is prepared to be affected by a specific "germ" (i.e.
iron smelting), it has relatively no choice. The effects this germ will have on
the environment surrounding the given society will directly influence how the
culture must operate since it cannot function in a vacuum. Whether or not the
institutions which are affecting the culture are forms of capitalist production,
they will in the long run cause reverberating changes politically, militarily
and socially. To Wolf the evolution in populations from propertyless to
property-based is a series of starts, stops and jumps. The stress that he
places on economics as the driving force in this transition can be studying by
examining social pressures due to changing political policies of various
societies. It is important to note, however, that no change can occur without
there being ripple effects both to that same culture and to all surrounding
Wolf uses as his chief vehicle through which he can describe his theory
the fur trade with was introduced to the native American population by the
Europeans in the early 17th century. As fur trade grew in popularity for
numerous reasons, competition between populations grew as well. This affected
not only the European traders but also every native American who provided them
with fur. "The advent of the fur trade deranged accustomed social relations and
cultural habits and prompted the formation of new responses-both
internally...and externally." (p.161)
Wolf holds that the hegemonic idea concerning the structure of the
capitalist mode of production forced an agenda on the native people of North
America which pulled them into a basically capitalistic system in which they
were pitted against each other and forced to deal with the Europeans. In turn,
this facilitated change in political, military and social relations. The
dominant force of imperialism combined with the resources available allowed the
Europeans to mold trade with the Amerindians into a profitable, while
inconsiderate, business venture. In contrast to Morgan, who holds that both
the availability and the definition of the value of objects evolve through time,
Wolf is intrigued by the effects property has on every aspect of inter and intra
socio-cultural relations. Not one area of a functioning population is untouched
by the emergence of practices like the fur trade.
In the earlier modes of production, based on kinship and tribute,
ownership of property in the form of land begins to allow the owners to force
workers to work for them in order to sustain themselves. Much in the same way
Morgan examines the phenomenon of increased amounts of technological advances
due to past innovations, Wolf describes the method by which capitalism came into
being. The increased need for wealth, in many ways though, is almost
inconsequential to Wolf. For him wealth in the hands of holders of wealth is
not capital until it controls the means of production, buys labor power and puts
it to work. (p. 78) He states that the more money there was available to invest
the more money was made to invest. This fact contributed to the rise in
productivity worldwide and as a result the need for property increased as well.
This increased need parallels the need examined extensively my Morgan but
instead of being applied to further advancements, in Wolf's scenario this need
led to imperialist expansion in the New World at the expense of natural
resources and the labor supplied by the providers of goods, the native Americans.

Possibly the most distinguishable theory put forth by Wolf is the idea
that not all successful economic endeavors are due to any type of economic
strategy, but are affected by political and military action in the surrounding
area. This might lead one to believe that the mode of production of the area
matters less than one might think, while in reality it is the susceptibility of
that same mode of production which leaves it open to attack by any new strategy.
The fact that native Americans owned land (collectively) and had the ability to
trap in great numbers allowed the imperialists to take advantage of them by
creating a system in which the Amerindians would not only need to participate
but would also want to take part. By initially opening trade with the natives,
the Europeans would eventually force the natives to trade exclusively since the
Indians had allowed themselves to forsake productive sustaining practices in
favor of creating "valuable" goods for trade. As trade grew so did the market
for the goods also grow. This obvious progression created the possibility of
great accumulation of wealth which eventually would be affected by capitalism on
a worldwide scale. As a result of the greater inclusion in world markets a need
arose for a body, or position, to supervise these practices. This is the origin
of the more centralized body called the state, but it is important to understand
according to Wolf that the rise of material wealth might have triggered
centralization, but in now way is there a traceable evolutionary line. There
are only ramifications of specific practices (usually economic) on specific
institutions (usually social and political) which opened the door for change;
there are no cause/effect relationships.
There are many inherent practices which were present in societies which
forced the accumulation of wealth to be restricted. Pot latch ceremonies, in
which feasts were held, was one such practice. By forcing a successful leader
to hold a feast he gained many things in the eyes of many people. He gained
prestige bestowed by the community in which he lived. He gained possible
alliances with the guests whom he invited. But best of all he participated in an
activity which leveled the wealth of all the participants in the community. As
livestock gained in importance it is essential to understand that to slaughter
meant not only to kill the animal but also any potential offspring. During the
feasts animals would be killed thus equalizing the host's possessions with that
of the general community. This was a very important method of keeping the
importance of property in the form of livestock down since eventually all would
be equal anyway.
For Wolf, the quest for greater and greater amounts and types of
property carried with it many aftershocks. Natives died do to contact with
European diseases. Social and political structures were altered due to the
affects trade had on military strategy. Most of all, though, was the seemingly
inevitable inclusion of the native Americans into the world market. Property
began to no longer be labeled as belonging to one's tribe but instead as
belonging to one's self. The competition had grown to immense proportions and
it seems almost obvious to Wolf that the exploitation of the natives had become
inevitable due to their inclusion in the tough capitalist world market.
Unfortunately, though, it seems as if a trap was set for the natives, and just
as the beavers were caught and skinned to fuel the capitalist machine so too
were the native Americans.


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