Note on slavery and the origins of property

Several people, knowing my interest in the question of property, have sent me links to a blog post by Stephen Keating, “Are Freedom and Violence Linked?,” which discusses some of what David Graeber has to say about slavery and the origins of property in his book, Debt: The First 5000 Years. There are parts of Keating’s argument to which I’m sympathetic, such as his concern that the notion of individual property rights may mask the essentially social nature of property. But his key point seems to be this: “The dirty secret is that this conception of property emerged out of the practice of slavery. The logic of slavery became the logic of property rights.” And that is certainly plausible, as far as it goes. We know that the concern with “self-ownership” was originally connected to an awareness that human beings could be owned and enslaved. But there seems to be a tendency to treat the emergence of property “out of the practice of slavery” as if it represented an erosion of individual liberties, when it appears to have been the unevenly applied birth of individual liberty in the modern sense.

The sort of criticism of “self-ownership,” and of “property” in general, that depends on reference to “the logics of slavery” seems to miss the point that both liberty and property, at least as we have inherited them, are concepts that have developed from obviously imperfect beginnings to still-unfinished states. The progressive account at the heart of traditional mutualism suggests that it will be a long time before we come close to ridding either concept of its—but the way forward is forward. We certainly want to look closely at the origins of notions like “private property” and the conceptions of selfhood that have developed alongside it, but always with an eye to as-yet-unknown improvements and perfections. The sorts of criticisms that attempt to disqualify concepts because they are implicated in the societies and forms of relating that we wish to leave behind ultimately apply to the good, bad and indifferent, without much means of distinguishing.

From that progressive point of view, the problem with the model of private property about which we never seem to stop fighting is not that it emerged, or that it emerged as part of a process by which individual human freedom was given a more formal character, or even that part of that process was a formalization of slavery as a recognized exception.

The problem is that a couple of hundred years ago it was clear to a wide range of people—many of them associated with “socialism” and the labor movement, but certainly others in other traditions—that we could do a hell of a lot better—and yet we haven’t really done much better. From this perspective, the mainstream of propertarian thought from Locke onward has been an extended rearguard action against anything that might actually improve “property,” and finally lift it out of those logics of slavery. And, unfortunately, anti-propertarian thought has not been much more helpful in moving us forward. Explorations like the work on the “gift economy of property” or the “larger antinomy” are attempts to break free from a kind of paralyzing consensus between those dead set on preserving notions of property ill-suited to our circumstances and opponents who have mistaken those old and broken notions as the only possibility. Another world is indeed possible, but not if we tangle ourselves up hopelessly in the options served up by this one.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. It’s pretty telling though, when you realize that so much of what’s “assumed” in our system and society is just an illusion, or a notion predicated on a half-truth or falsehood.

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