Primitive Accumulation and the Origin of Private Property

Written by Carlos Sapir
Where does property come from? Property is everywhere we look in capitalist society, but our relationship to property is anything but simple. A tenant lives in an apartment every day, cleans and furnishes the apartment themselves, and pays rent every month, but none of these actions bring the tenant any closer to owning the apartment. Under capitalism, the apartment will continue to belong to a landlord, who may own thousands of apartments, who may never have set foot in or even seen this apartment because they hire people to manage all of their property for them. The typical house owner isn’t much better off than the tenant: in order to be able to buy their house, they needed to obtain a loan from a bank, and need to continue paying the bank until they’ve reached an arbitrary number of dollars far greater than the original value of the house. If at any point the house “owner” can’t afford to pay off the bank, the bank will swoop in and repossess the house, calling in the police if necessary to enforce its ownership. The fact that the bank’s owners have no need for the house, that they have never seen the house, and that they may not even be aware that this specific house exists while their employees carry out the foreclosure has no bearing on the police’s decision to enforce capitalism’s iron rule of property law. But how did we end up in this situation?

Capitalists would like to have us believe that property is created through individual ingenuity: your landlord came up with the idea of building an apartment complex and renting out the units before you did, and that’s why he’s the landlord and you’re the tenant. But this is a flawed picture. As socialists, we need to understand property (and all other elements of society) as a product of a historical process: we need to look at the origins of capitalism as a global economic system to understand how property exists today. 
Capitalism evolved out of the previously existing economic systems of feudalism. In pre-capitalist Europe, kings and lords took the land that they wanted by force, raising armies to claim whatever land that they could. The people living on this land were then extorted by the lords who demanded tribute in exchange for “protection”, but natural resources like hunting grounds and fresh water were shared relatively freely among the peasants. As time progressed, a rising merchant class and eventually the nobility realized that they could extract more wealth from peasants by claiming previously public lands like forests and pastures for their own private use, and petitioned the kings to give them the authority to do so by promising the kings a cut of the profit. The peasants, now landless, were left with no choice but to sell their labor to the new owners of this freshly created private property. The peasants themselves had essentially no say in the process, although they often retaliated by revolting against the local lords. The lords would respond with violence to force the peasants to fall in line. This process of lawless privatization by force is known as primitive accumulation.

As primitive accumulation progressed in Europe and land was carved up into claimed lots of private property, capitalism began to run out of land. In response, the merchants and lords of Europe began to fund colonial expeditions to other continents in order to find new land to seize and exploit. The indigenous people living in the Americas had a variety of economic systems that governed their own interactions between natural resources and society. To the European colonizers, this was all irrelevant. The European colonists, as well as the settler colonial states that followed them, proceeded to unleash genocidal warfare to take the land. From there, it was sometimes sold off to business men, or occasionally sold to homesteader colonists. While land could then be resold and change hands, such sales don’t change the fact that the origin of the legal order that enabled the sale of the land was both the motive for and the product of the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.  In what is now California, land that was first stolen by the Spanish was then stolen once again by the United States. This process is still ongoing today, as we see with Canada’s attempts to take unceded land from the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in order to benefit oil companies. 
The supposedly legal process of property accumulation is built on a foundation of brutal violence. This isn’t just the case for the historical acquisition of property: violence is also the first (and often the only) response that the capitalist state has for anyone who dares to question the justice of the private property system. When the Moms 4 Housing group, a collective of homeless mothers in Oakland, tried to reclaim unused property for themselves, they were met with a battalion of police officers armed with guns and tanks sent to evict them. It was only due to the massive public backlash to this aggression that the Moms were even allowed to participate in the private property system and purchase the house. It is only by organizing militant mass movements that we can hope to overcome the forces of the state that protect the system of private property. The capitalists can make as many appeals to civility and the rule of law that they want, but at the end of the day the anarchist Jean-Pierre Proudhon said it best: “All property is theft”.

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