kevin on justifiers of ineq

aug 2020 – kevin on Capitalist Nursery Fables: The Tragedy of Private Property, and the Farce of Its Defense

because they worked so hard serving the public good

But it has nowhere been more true than under modern capitalism. To quote Piketty again: ‘In today’s societies, these justificatory narratives comprise themes of property, entrepreneurship, and meritocracy: modern inequality is said to be just because it is the result of a freely chosen process in which everyone enjoys equal access to the market and to property and automatically benefits from the wealth accumulated by the wealthiest individuals, who are also the most enterprising, deserving, and useful.

In the words of Karl Widerquist and Grant McCall, capitalist philosophers and political theorists “feel free to make wild assertions about prehistory, the ‘state of nature,’ or any remote peoples without fear that anyone will ask them to back up their claims with evidence.”

ie: ‘.. a fanciful tale about rugged individuals who go into “the state of nature” to clear land and bring it into cultivation. ..They think at least that there is truth in it, that “private” “property rights” are somehow more natural than public or communal “territorial claims.”

This paper is an attempt to debunk some of the major folk notions in capitalist ideology .. These include not only modern Western notions of “private property” .. but such things as the predominance of the cash nexus, specie currency, and the wage system. In every case, ..takes the form of a speculative “likely story” about the origin of the institution in the prehistoric past, utterly ungrounded in any historical or anthropological data, that attempts to justify it as the spontaneous product of free human action in a state of nature.

hardt/negri property law

money (any form of measuring/accounting)

earn a living ness

To take one example, consider the utterly ahistorical explanation of the origin of specie money as a way of addressing the problem of  “double coincidence of wants,” .. “private property in land” as spontaneous result of peaceful initial appropriation by individuals, the emergence of cash nexus economies as a natural result of the “propensity to truck and barter,” and the treatment of the wage system and the concentration of capital ownership as the result of hard work and thrift by “abstemious capitalists.”

coincidence of wants

In every case, the actual truth turns out to be that the phenomenon in question, far from arising spontaneously or naturally, has resulted from the massive use of force by states, acting on behalf of dominant class interests, to bring it about by forcibly suppressing the alternatives. .. “written in letters of fire and blood.”

Obscuring the role of force in establishing the structural features of capitalism is essential to the project of legitimizing it.

This study is a declaration of war. Walter Block once called Ostrom’s Governing the Commons “an evil book,” because it undermined belief in private property rights — “the last, best hope for humanity.” It is my fondest wish that he will hate this paper sufficiently to print it out and burn it.

but ostrom 8 are about property rights – ie: property of other people.. in telling people what to do

I. Private Property

The private appropriation myth, explicitly stated or implicitly presupposed throughout Western political philosophy, generally takes the following form: 

Before any government comes into existence, an individual goes into a virgin wilderness, clears a piece of land, plants crops, and thereby appropriates full ownership of that piece of land. From that starting point, property is traded, gifted, and bequeathed in ways that lead to something very much like the current distribution of property in a market economy.

The current system of property rules is entirely contingent, is the result of state force on behalf of dominant economic classes, and is only one among many theoretical alternative property rights models. 

and.. do we even need property rights

And the U.S. government actually pays farmers to hold land out of use, so that sitting on unused arable land becomes a real estate investment with a guaranteed return.

The claim, as Widerquist and McCall summarize it, is that “labored on” land is more productive than land “left in common.”


 The private property of the enclosure was obtained, not at the expense of hunter-gatherers who were foraging over vast tracts of land in order to feed themselves, but at the expense of peasants who were already putting the land to agricultural use and using it to feed themselves, and were robbed of their independence. In fact, contrary to Locke’s fabricated non-zero-sum-scenario, the land was enclosed precisely in order to prevent its agricultural use by independent peasants, and to force them to work for someone else’s benefit. ..Like the rest of capitalist ideology, its function is to obscure or conceal exploitation and create the illusion of common interest.

Widerquist and McCall are apparently among those scholars who believe Locke pursued a deliberate project of justifying enclosure and settler colonization.

Erik Olsen suggests the theories of appropriation by Grotius, Locke, et al were not simply a hypothesis about the past, but an attempt to create modern private property and legitimize the suppression of its predecessors.

Adam Smith, Perelman suggests, owed his greater fame and popularity compared to his predecessors to the fact that he mostly glossed over the ugly details of primitive accumulation that the latter addressed frankly. Rather than directly acknowledging the violence that was taking place right before his eyes, he resorted — much like Locke — to a “conjectural history.” Like a modern-day writer of op-eds at some billionaire-funded think tank — the Adam Smith Institute, let’s say — Smith did his best to obscure the origins of capitalism and the quite visible ongoing robberies that were necessary for its further development, and instead resorted to edifying platitudes about the invisible hand.

So a philosopher (smith) who swept violent dispossession and social control under the rug, and stressed natural harmonies and voluntary interaction between those who just happened to have all the property and those who just happened to have none, was well suited to the ideological needs of his time.

voluntary compliance

Overwhelming, total state violence may have been necessary to create capitalism, but it is better to agree to pretend it occurred as the nursery fables describe.

 Locke went out of his way to deny the legitimacy of hunter-gatherer appropriation of land in common, based on the alleged unproductivity of their use of the land and their alleged failure to improve it. But as we also saw, this framing was factually incorrect.  

 In other words, the earliest appearances of private property were the result of what could most accurately be described as proto-state formations.

So the Lockean model of individual private appropriation is largely an ahistorical myth. Private property in land has been the result, rather, of forced privatization by states, sometimes in concert with landed nobilities. 

“The enclosure and colonial movements not only stole property; they forced the private property rights system on unwilling people around the world.”

The only case in which something even remotely resembling Lockean individual homesteading actually occurred was in settler societies like the United States. .. This fiction was aided by Locke’s claim that foraging established no genuine property rights because it failed to improve the land.

We should briefly note, before concluding this section, that the expropriation of land was only one side to the process of accumulating capital and creating the wage system. Although our focus has mainly been on the real origins of private property behind the edifying capitalist myth, the supremacy of the wage system also required the use of considerable violence against the expropriated laborers, in the event that the loss of means of subsistence by itself failed to reduce their bargaining power to the point they could be made to work as cheaply, and for as many hours, as employers desired. 

II. The Cash Nexus and Money Exchange

Of course the paradigmatic example of this approach is Adam Smith, who posited “a certain propensity in human nature… to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another,” to which he entirely attributed the origin of the division of labor.

Likewise, Smith explained the origin of money as a response to the problem, in barter, of finding a “mutual (or double) coincidence of wants.” Faced with this problem, people settled on some suitable commodity like precious metals as a store of value. 

And as David Graeber argues, this just-so story of the origin of money, like that of the origin of private property, was part of the larger classical liberal project of framing capitalism as a natural phenomenon that arose spontaneously through voluntary individual behavior. In the case of Smith,

he objected to the notion that money was a creation of government. In this, Smith was the intellectual heir of the Liberal tradition of philosophers like John Locke, who had argued that government begins in the need to protect private property and operated best when it tried to limit itself to that function. Smith expanded on the argument, insisting that property, money and markets not only existed before political institutions but were the very foundation of human society.

According to Graeber.. there simply are no examples of communities where the internal distribution of goods was managed by barter between the members. Barter took place between separate communities where low levels of trust prevailed, or between individuals “not bound by ties of hospitality (or kinship, or much of anything else).” And when it occurred, it was a matter of pride to have gotten the better end of the bargain by cheating the other party. So barter did not take place within hunter-gatherer groups or villages, because the distribution of most goods was governed by Bookchin’s “irreducible minimum.

This is not to say there was no reciprocity in the sharing relations within communities, but as Graeber says “If… one cares enough about someone — a neighbor, a friend — to wish to deal with her fairly and honestly, one will inevitably also care about her enough to take her individual needs, desires, and situation into account. Even if you do swap one thing for another, you are likely to frame the matter as a gift.” Here’s how he describes the likely resolution of a typical case — Henry having potatoes and needing shoes — in which the problem of “double coincidence of wants” arose:

reciprocity and gift\ness.. still red flags we’re doing it (life) wrong

This is basically a mutual credit clearing system, much like those practiced in medieval villages where nobody had any specie currency, and everyone simply ran mutual open tabs — as recounted by Graeber — and in more recent times advocated by Tom Greco and practiced by some of his followers, but without any standard unit of account. Lacking a unit of account by which to quantify the values of different goods, such societies resorted to assigning goods to broad categories of comparable value as a rough standard for gauging how much one party was obliged to another. The invention of a common denominator of value, and pricing of goods, would obviously be an increase in efficiency for such a system, as in the medieval case and in Greco’s credit-clearing systems; but that requires neither specie or other “backing,” nor the possession of value from past exchanges in order to have purchasing power.

only if don’t see money (any form of measuring/accounting – which would include efficiency) as cancerous to humanity/human-scale

what we need.. is to get back/to enough ness

Graeber pushes the time frame in the other direction and cites evidence that such credit systems in ancient Mesopotamia predated both trade and coinage, being first used by temples as an accounting system for the goods shuffled around between their own departments

This was a system of mutual credit characterized entirely by flows and requiring no preexisting stocks, and hence anathema to Austrians and other ideologists of hard money.

The question remains of just how so much of our production and consumption came to be governed by market exchange, versus direct production for use in the social sector, subsistence on the commons, gifting, etc. The simple but accurate answer is the state. States created economies dominated by exchange in the cash nexus by paying their soldiers and other functionaries in money, and requiring subject populations to pay taxes in the same money

i don’t see gift\ness as legit common\ing

“Greek coinage seems to have been first used mainly to pay soldiers, as well as to pay fines and fees and payments made to and by the government…’

For that matter it was true of early modern Europe, in which the expulsion of formerly self-sufficient peasants from the commons, combined with the conversion of enclosed commons to cash crop production, left the dispossessed peasantry with no choice but to sell their labor for wages, and to buy food on the market. A simple change in title was sufficient to shift the same productive activity, by the same people, on the same land, consuming the same output, from the non-monetized to the monetized economy.

According to Graeber, the prevalence of specie-based money is characteristic of periods of instability, uncertainty, generalized warfare, and resulting social atomization. The lack of trust makes credit-based systems unviable, and increases reliance on the store of value function of currency.

If large-scale forced land privatization and ongoing accumulation by dispossession are one side of the primitive accumulation process, then the imposition of money exchange as the predominant form of economic activity — and the concomitant restriction of the issuance of money and credit to a privileged class — is the other. 

Not only does the state force the producing population into the money economy by robbing them of the means of direct subsistence and taxing them in money. It also preempts and blocks the means by which producers might have organized mutual credit horizontally and facilitated exchange between themselves on a non-extractive basis.

mutual credit horizontally.. any measured exchange.. i see as extractive to human being

But to get back to Graeber’s comments, societies dominated by money exchange and specie currency as the primary means of organizing production and distribution are associated with states engaged in constant warfare with large standing armies


I can’t think of anything better, to bring this study to a close, than a quote from David Graeber’s Debt:

… As the great classicist Moses Finley often liked to say, in the ancient world, all revolutionary movements had a single program: “Cancel the debts and redistribute the land.”