June 23rd, 2009

breaking bad

You kids get off my lawn

You often read, on the Internet, a notion that 'property' is a natural or elemental relation between an owner and an object of ownership. This is a founding principle of libertarianism, and underpins distinctively Anglo free market neoliberal economics theory. On the contrary I think ownership is actually a secondary social relation, and has different meanings in different societies (the two main alternatives being pastoral/nomadic and agrarian/imperial I think).

The principle of conservatism is that 'the natural order is the moral order', and thus the uniquely modern state of unmediated ownership is seen as natural, as pre-governmental, as pure - and as the basis of moral order.

My feeling is that modern Anglo notions of ownership arose as a result of the outreach of English-speaking colonialism across the globe. To the colonists the new lands were unowned, as there was no existing social obligation to the savage or barbarous inhabitants. This very new conception of a-social ownership without responsibility has now been turned around to be a primal or natural state, which government and society 'interferes with' in a harmful and unnatural way.

Now there is a new frontier - the Internet - and property here is different again. It is very bound up with social role, kudos, personal reputation. Ownership may be less significant than right attribution. Reproduce my work, but attribute it to my online i-d. It's an utterly different paradigm - almost the reverse of colonialist/capitalist land-stripping.
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