The Origins of Private property

Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen. 

And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won't never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.

Woody Guthrie (from Pretty Boy Floyd)

Humans have a nature of empathy and cooperation, and an amazing ability to tell stories, sharing future possibilities and complex ideas with each other. As a result we are able to organize ourselves in many different ways. That’s politics. At least 10,000 years ago, some humans discovered the possibilities of agriculture, allowing them to be more productive with a previously unimaginable abundance of food. At some point, that surplus led to population growth as well as to social divisions. The concept of private property was born giving control of that wealth to a small minority.

Since then, nearly every human culture and language has developed with the idea of property ownership being foundational. Owning food, land, tools, animals and even people have seemed ‘normal’ to those who grow up in such a culture, but that doesn't make it 'natural'. As a species we are now divided in so many ways; by gender, skin colour, sexual identity, ability, culture, religion, nation, age and more. These divisions are not part of 'human nature', but rather are ideas created by some humans, and they only serve the ruling class to divide and conquer the majority. Racism as a concept was first thought of and shared as a story used to justify the African slave trade and European imperialism’s theft of land around the world.

The ideas that divide us are like viruses that infect humanity and disable our immune system which is cooperation. They prevent us from organizing as a majority in order to share the wealth and decision making of the world more fairly. Growing up, we all learn who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’ according to our community, yet no human child was ever born holding these ideas. The fundamental division which began this process though, was class: whether or not we own property. And property is power.

Private property with its deep-rooted social and power structures is the true obstacle to our solving any problems on a global scale, whether it’s systemic oppression, pandemics, climate change, nuclear disaster or even the as yet unknown consequences of our growing dependance on artificial intelligence. 

Injustice is not naturally accepted by humans, in fact it’s been shown that many primates have the same intolerance for it. So, for us as a society to accept conditions of extreme inequality has required a very powerful story to overcome our ancient desire for fairness. Humans have incredibly adaptive minds. Children discover very quickly how to survive in society—we learn from an early age about competition and property ownership. While most parents and religious communities teach children about the value of sharing and cooperation the world around us contradicts that message. We’re all conditioned to believe that competition and hierarchy are natural and we must participate in order to get by. “Survival of the fittest”, a phrase falsely attributed to Charles Darwin is often repeated to justify the status quo. Modern liberal democracy generally values the rights of the individual above that of the community. As long as we don’t hurt anyone else, we should be free to do anything we want. We are entitled (sometimes expected) to vote in elections and it is our right to keep that vote secret. This seems like a perfectly rational way of organizing society and appears to be fairly egalitarian except that it ignores both the way that humans actually relate to one another, and the effects of economic power on the outcome of elections.

Anthropologists believe that humans before agriculture lived in groups of no more than 150 people, a size in which we are able to know and trust each other enough to function as a cooperative community. Organizing larger groups has always required an idealogical structure to hold a society together. Religions have played that role for thousands of years. Currently, the belief system uniting the global population is property rights and the world revolves around the production, trade, and consumption of goods and services. We are either born with property or not. Property owners can use it to generate profits to live and acquire more; those without, must sell their labour to live and hope to obtain property. We spend our lives in a desperate struggle to secure enough property to feed ourselves and our children and maybe leave them something behind so that life is not so hard for them. In 1903 Lizzy Magie, a progressive game designer invented the game we know as ‘monopoly’, hoping that it would help people realize the unfairness and absurdity of a world based on property ownership. Ironically her idea was stolen and others made millions from it. The reality of living in such a cut-throat world teaches us not to trust those outside of our community if anyone at all. Many are able to break free from this competitive indoctrination and work for social change but we can’t possibly save everyone, so we do our best to help those we can, often becoming depressed by or de-sensitized to the horrors taking place around the world. Competition is glorified through sports and all forms of entertainment so we learn to rank people based on abilities. We learn stories about ‘great’ individuals and their achievements which we call history, usually told from the perspective of those in power, who have always promoted myths and ideas which justify their position and wealth. The printing press introduced an age of centralization of political power because it allowed the same myths and stories—all the news the press owners saw fit to print—to be told all around the world, empowering our economic leaders, through what they like to call the ‘invisible hand’, to ‘globalize’ us in the race for profits. The internet has now disrupted the ‘traditional’ media initiating an age of de-centralization by removing any financial obstacle to the spread of ideas. Creative thinkers can now have their ideas ‘go viral’ at virtually no cost, profiting from the ownership of people’s attention and data which are the latest forms of property in humanity’s 10,000 year evolution of class society.

Humanity's future now depends on the majority of people organizing a new political economic system:

Democracy From Below