The Theory of Property


While Webster\'s New Collegiate Dictionary defines property as "something
regarded as being possessed by, or at the disposal of, a person or group of
persons species or class," (p. 1078) this definition hardly holds the
connotations so emphatically discussed by the anthropologist Morgan. To Morgan,
"property has been so immense...so diversified its uses so expanding...that it
has become...an unmanageable power." (p.561) Why has it become such an
unmanageable power? Morgan answers this question with the simple answer that it
is due to the linear evolution of the social institution of property from being
collectively owned to being individually owned which has planted the seed of its
own destruction in modern society. Morgan, in an attempt to study the role
property has played in shaping social structures throughout history, has
concluded that the influences property has had on reshaping societies and vice
versa can teach the historian many things about both the society being studied
and the environment in which it strove to survive. To Morgan, the "germ" of the
institution of property slowly infected many different societies in many
different parts of the world. His teleological approach states that due to the
"unity of mankind" various technological innovations, which gave rise to the
ever-growing availability of property, allowed social change to occur in many
areas of the globe independently. Every area, went through its own version of
evolution in which the importance of wealth grew at varying rates. This
discovery leads Morgan to believe that while the past was unified in its
variation, it is the future which must presently be addressed. For Morgan, in
studying the past one can learn much about the future. Not only does Morgan
analyze the social emergence of various types of property, but he is also
extremely interested in the human tendencies evident in various societies which
surfaced as a result of the ever-growing list of ownable objects. As time
progressed from the Status of Savagery through Barbarism and into Civilization
new wants and needs arose mostly due to new inventions. It is on this
relationship between property, technology, and the human desire for more of each
which Morgan centers his work, and it is from this study which he hopes future
generations will learn how to improve their institutions until they can be
improved no more.
Morgan structures his essay around three basic "ethnical periods of
human progress" (p. 535) and the basic assumption that the more modes of
production and subsistence there are the greater the proliferation of individual
objects of ownership. As technology advances and discoveries are made, the
amount of ownable objects grow as does the need to own. Every invention leads
to new processes for agriculture, pastoralism and industry as well as new
methods for invention. Thus, each new invention, whether it is a revolutionary
idea or an actual object, births many new inventions which lead to many new
modes of production causing many new objects previously not thought of as
property to grow in value. The higher in value and demand these objects are the
more people want to individually own them. How does one measure the growth of
technology and importance of property in past cultures? Morgan feels that by
studying the laws of ownership which govern these societies one can gain an
understanding of the importance, or unimportance, of individual property.
In the Status of Savagery, the first of the periods, property basically
took the form of rude weapons, fabrics utensils, apparel, implements of flint,
stone, bone, and other various personal ornaments. Due to the fact, though,
that these objects were relatively uncomplicated and crude, there was not much
"passion for possession." In other words, people did not need to own. Land was
owned by the loosely organized tribes, and the tenant houses were owned by all
the occupants. As intensive agriculture and pastoralism had not yet been
invented the need to own land was not great either. As people died their most
valuable possessions were either buried with the corpse or given to the next of
kin. This process assured the first rule of inheritance which keeps all
property in the gen and does not allow anyone from remote gens to inherit.
The Lower Barbaric, the Middle Barbaric, and the Upper Barbaric sub-
periods comprise the second ethnical period. In the Lower Barbaric period belts,
picture writing, stockades for village defense, shields, war clubs, air guns for
shooting, the mortar and pestle and pipes were invented. These objects were
more intricate and specialized than those found in the Savage period and the
need for acquiring them also grew slightly. Ties to property began