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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

where does private property come from, Dad?

Wood theft, according to the two scholars who have studied it in the German context (Blasius and Mooser) was one of the central crimes against property in the 19th century, from the 1830s to the 1860s – over about a generation. Marx’s five articles about the laws concerning wood theft are not, then, about an eccentric issue. And, as much as wood “theft” is an issue in the history of crime, it is also an issue in the creation of property –which is how it opened Marx’s eyes, as much as they were opened in his classes in property law at the University of Berlin. It is here that we find Marx dealing with the kind of enclosures that were central to Polanyi theory of the Great Transformation. Private property was not, on this account, merely guarded by the state – the still reigning liberal myth. Rather, it was through the state that private property was defined. To separate the state from the private sphere is to move from historic fact to ideological myth. Why that myth is important is another matter. What Marx saw happening was important in the way he came to see understand class, rather than remaining with Stand – a word that is hard to translate. Status, station, estate – those are the English equivalents.

In 1858, in the preface to the Contribution to a Critique of Political Economics, Marx wrote: “My major was jurisprudence, that I nonetheless only took up as a subordinate discipline near philosophy and history. In 1842-1843, as the editor of the "Rheinischen Zeitung", I was embarrassed for the first time to have to discuss so called material interests. The Rheinische Landtag’s treatment of Wood theft and the parceling out of land properties, which opened up an official polemic between Herr von Schaper, at that time the president of Rhein province, and the Rheinischen Zeitung over the situation of the grapegrowers, debates finally about free trade and tarrifs, gave me a first occasion to deal with economic questions. On the other hand the good will to go further into this further made up for a lot of special expertise, and a weak philosophically colored echo of French socialism and communism could be heard in the Rheinischen Zeitung.”

Marx, at this point, did not have a systematic understanding of property relations as an economic system, nor did he understand how that system had generated a fundamental change in the composition of society – a change, so to speak, from status to contract, from custom to free labor - but rather, he had a legal/ethnological view of the rules governing property that he used to criticize the state government’s abolition of customary rights – Gewohnheitrecht.

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