Friday, December 28, 2018

Savagery, civilization, and property IV: The aboriginal property rights debate

In the last post in this series we saw how modern commons theory tracked many of the features of stadial theory. In this post I begin trying to uncover the routes by which the early modern theory reached modern thinkers on property.

The modern commons theorists discussed in the last post did not explicitly refer to the Enlightenment or Romantic thinkers whose theories may have influenced them. Yet the striking similarities between these two groups of theories, separated though they were by two centuries, seem to provide evidence of influence. It is likely that thinking in terms of civilizational stages was simply so deeply entrenched in the intellectual baggage of educated Westerners, whether through study of the classics, of Blackstone, or of Gibbon, that modern commons theorists replicated its patterns as a matter of course. Nevertheless, I suggest we can also trace more concrete lines of influence through the intertwined disciplines of anthropology and human ecology, as well as through the worlds of international development and conservationism.

Eleanor Leacock
An important branch of the field of anthropology’s research agenda was largely set in the mid-nineteenth century by stadial theory, and thereafter developed to a significant degree in dialogue with it. Anthropological works that clearly influenced modern commons thought, in particular those cited by Demsetz in his important 1967 article, were very much part of this dialogue, thereby infusing his work and that of others writing in the economic tradition with a large dose of stadial thinking.

The Victorian-era thinkers who strongly influenced anthropology in its founding era — Henry Maine, Lewis Henry Morgan, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels — were themselves influenced by the stadial theories of the late eighteenth century, and saw societies as evolving through modes of subsistence or production, viewed largely through the lens of property. But while Maine saw the transition from common to private property as a sign of civilization, Morgan, and, following him, Marx and Engels, saw this transition as a form of injustice and source of inequality (though perhaps a necessary one). 

Morgan, based on his knowledge of American Indians and reading of classical sources, argued that property was a key factor in the evolution of society as it progressed from a state of savagery (based on hunting) to barbarism (based on herding and farming) to one of civilization:
The idea of property was slowly formed in the human mind, remaining nascent and feeble through immense periods of time. Springing into life in savagery, it required all the experience of this period and of the subsequent period of barbarism to develop the germ, and to prepare the human brain for the acceptance of its controlling influence. Its dominance as a passion over all other passions marks the commencement of civilization. It not only led mankind to overcome the obstacles which delayed civilization, but to establish political society on the basis of territory and of property. A critical knowledge of the evolution of the idea of property would embody, in some respects, the most remarkable portion of the mental history of mankind.
As twentieth century anthropology developed the tool of ethnographic fieldwork, the work of many anthropologists, particularly in North America, revolved around supporting or disproving Morgan’s evolutionary account, with one arena of contention concerning the question of whether “primitive” hunting societies had private property or not.

Demsetz seems to have been aware of the raging debate, and invoked the anthropological studies of Frank Speck and Eleanor Leacock for their empirical value:
The question of private ownership of land among aboriginals has held a fascination for anthropologists. It has been one of the intellectual battlegrounds in the attempt to assess the “true nature” of man unconstrained by the “artificialities” of civilization. In the process of carrying on this debate, information has been uncovered that bears directly on the thesis with which we are now concerned. 
Yet he elided (or failed to appreciate) the academic and ideological baggage Speck and Leacock were carrying and the fact that they represented two antagonistic strains of anthropology. Compounding the problem, he conflated their opposing positions, claiming that Speck’s work supported his own account, while ignoring the normative subtext of Leacock’s so antagonistic to his own.

Speck’s research focused on showing that the native groups of the northeastern U.S. and Canada had had property from a very early stage, before contact with Europeans. His work was “whipped into a ‛disproof’ of Morgan, Marx, and Engels by antievolutionists.”  At the opening of his major 1915 article on the subject, he explained what was at stake in terms of evolutionary theories of property and society:
The idea has always prevailed, without bringing forth much criticism, that, in harmony with other primitive phenomena, the American Indians had little or no interest in the matter of claims and boundaries to the land which they inhabited. This notion has, in fact, been generally presupposed for all native tribes who have followed a hunting life, to accord with the common impression that a hunter has to range far, and wherever he may, to find game enough to support his family.
Whether or not the hunting peoples of other continents, or even of other parts of America, have definite concepts regarding individual or group ownership of territory, I should at least like to show that the Indian tribes of eastern and northern North America did have quite definite claims to their habitat. Moreover, as we shall see, these claims existed even within the family groups composing the tribal communities . . . . It would seem, then, that such features characterize actual ownership of territory.
In later articles, Speck and his supporters explicitly argued for the aboriginality of property in hunting territories, rejecting the thesis that these developed only in response to the increased demand for beaver pelts spurred by European traders.

Speck’s position was thus actually diametrically opposed to that of Demsetz, who argued that the aboriginal peoples of northeast Canada developed private property in land only in response to the increasing value of hunting brought about by contact with European traders who placed high values on furs. Whether or not Demsetz realized that Speck’s position contradicted his own, it is clear that Demsetz was reading anthropological literature deeply engaged with stadial theory.

Leacock’s work, on the other hand, actually did support Demsetz’s position that property rights had developed among the native peoples of the Northeast as a response to increased pressure on the fur resources brought about by colonial trade. Leacock was firmly in the evolutionist camp of anthropology, and believed that it was only colonialism that had led to private property in trapping grounds. A Marxist feminist, her work on the natives of Labrador — work that she herself described as “polemic” — was directed against Speck’s anti-Marxist theses and dedicated to showing that communism had existed in this society before it was corrupted by colonialist commerce into adopting private property.  She advanced an evolutionary, three-stage model of society à la Morgan and Engels, with property regimes deteriorating from primitive communism to capitalist private property.  But the work cited by Demsetz was published in the 1950s, when Leacock hid her Marxism.  We thus have the tasty irony of Demsetz, a director of the libertarian Mont Pelerin Society, basing his classic article on the work that was (probably unknown to him) that of a Marxist radical, dedicated to demonstrating the essential accuracy of Marx and Engels’s evolutionary view of property. 

For the purposes of this study, what matters is not whether Demsetz understood the anthropological scholarship on which he relied, but that these sources were suffused with stadial thinking about property, given which it is not surprising that Demsetz’s article also reflects a stadial view of property. Moreover, Demsetz’s reading of Leacock’s work stripped of its ideological color allowed his theory to be infused with his own ideological tint, with private property representing a more advanced stage of society than that represented by the commons. As noted in a previous post, Demsetz’s work was extremely influential on other commons theorists from the 1970s on.  

Meanwhile the Marxist nostalgia for common property, reflected in Leacock’s work, fed into the work of the Ostrom camp as well as into other strains of pro-commons and anti-”enclosure” literature in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

In the next post we'll look at how stadial thought reached commons theory through the worlds of British "colonial development" and neo-Malthusian conservationism. The full article is here.

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