Open Buddha

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The Weird History of Property

Is it weird that I'm writing a paper on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Discourse on the Origin of Inequality" and I keep being struck by the simularities between his argument for the origins of inequality and Daniel Quinn's work? Rousseau places the origin of inequality in a number of developments from pre-social humanity (the "noble savage" though he never used the term). One of these is the development of the rational mind and language. The other, though, is in the origin of property in agriculture.

He says, "The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, 'Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.'"

Rousseau then goes on to later state, "But from the moment one man began to stand in need of the help of another; from the moment it appeared advantageous to any one man to have enough provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable, and vast forests became smiling fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow up with the crops. Metallurgy and agriculture were the two arts which produced this great revolution.'

Daniel Quinn, in Ishmael and then his later books, differentiates between his jokingly named "Leavers" versus "Takers" (from to Take it or Leave it) in his division of humanity. We are all "Takers" and the differentiator between the two that is the most obvious is agriculture and the storing away of food under lock and key. Any society that locks away food from hungry people (and therefore has both agriculture and a developed idea of property in the sense of owning a resource like food) is a Taker culture. The Leavers are the pre-agricultural peoples of the world and Quinn sees them as having been the norm since more than 90% of the history of the human race (or prehistory if you prefer) was people existing in non-agricultural bands and yet surviving.

It is weird to see ideas that I learned from Quinn first, since I had never read Rousseau's early work, echoed almost 250 years earlier in the writings of such a figure as Rousseau. It is also interesting that Rousseau espoused something very similar to the arts and crafts movement espoused by Utopian social thinkers in the late nineteenth century. Rousseau states, "in a word, so long as they undertook only what a single person could accomplish, and confined themselves to such arts as did not require the joint labour of several hands, they lived free, healthy, honest and happy lives, so long as their nature allowed, and as they continued to enjoy the pleasures of mutual and independent intercourse."

There is probably a thesis or a dissertation here. :-)