Take the following visible features of social conflict in contemporary China:
- The full-throated ideological defence, by Liu Xiaobo and others, of private property as a matter of natural rights;
- The latter’s imposition, both violent and stealthy, via eco-tourism in Yunnan, dam construction in Hubei, urban expansion in the Pearl River Delta, legal reforms in Zhejiang, privatization of state assets in Jiangsu and ‘restructuring’ of TVEs in Liaoning;
- Popular opposition to (2) from peasant smallholders and state employees, with dissent expressed using self-mutilation, Molotov cocktails, self-immolation, petitions and protests.
Together these manifest sources of instability are placing enormous stress on the PRC’s brittle political apparatus, which Beijing state elites now privately suggest to their Washington counterparts may collapse.
But all three features (clamorous ideologues, state coercion and violence, popular resistance) are common enough tokens in societies where state, communal or open-access resources are being appropriated for private ownership.
So there are many historical precedents for today’s events in China, dating back to English enclosure.
These include the precocious use of ‘conservation’ or ‘environmental protection’ laws as a means to enforce capitalist social-property relations. The Game Laws stopped the English rural population from self-provisioning and thereby made them dependent for sustenance on income earned from the labour market (i.e. waged employment).
Consider now the establishment in Australia of private-property relations in land. This occurred through a decades-long process of colonization. In particular, let’s look at frontier violence in Van Diemen’s Land during the 1820s and 1830s.
From the 1820s, the pastoral industry in both New South Wales and Tasmania grew rapidly. In the absence of labour-saving technical change (e.g. fencing), growth was extensive: wool graziers expanded their business by accumulating ever more sheep and pasture. The pastoral frontier thus moved swiftly into both colonial interiors, with Crown land divided, then granted or sold, and convicts assigned to supervise flocks.
Under George Arthur, the colonial administration of Van Diemen’s Land distributed over 2 million acres — half the island’s pasture and arable land — in the 10 years from 1824. This first chart dates from the beginning of that period.
This second map shows the extent of colonial settlement (land holdings, counties and police districts) in 1833.
The jurist Blackstone famously described property as ‘that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.’
Nowadays Blackstone’s aphorism is presented in legal textbooks as an exaggeration or rhetorical flourish. Proprietary rights, the tyro is assured, are never so absolute or anti-social!
But the history of nineteenth-century Australia shows the basic accuracy of Blackstone’s description. The establishment of private landed property, and the exclusion of non-owners from its use, was fatally injurious to Aboriginal Tasmanian society.
Exclusive possession was extended to land that had previously been accessible for hunting, shelter and other use. Suddenly, non-possessors were no longer entitled to use privately held land, nor claim any of its resources, nor dispose of its fruits. Such prohibitions were enforced, on pain on death, by the presence of shepherds guarding livestock.
This, of course, led rapidly to calamitous social breakdown. The mode of subsistence (food acquisition and shelter), kinship and ceremonial activities of Aboriginal Tasmanian society were all based around ‘country’. Population density was highest in the same riverine drainage basins that formed the basis of pastoral settlement.
Denial of access to this land, in the name of the propertyholder’s exclusive right to its use, meant that life for Aboriginal Tasmanians literally could not go on.
The ideological defence for this activity was made using the traditional Lockean case for just appropriation.
Take this editorial from the Sydney Morning Herald, 7 November 1838:
The American Indians were divided into nations, having fixed localities — they cultivated the ground, and understood the right of property. Not so, however, with the natives of New Holland. This vast country was to them a common — they bestowed no labor upon the land — their ownership, their right, was nothing more than that of the Emu or the Kangaroo. They bestowed no labor upon the land and that — and that only — it is which gives a right of property to it. Where, we ask, is the man endowed with even a modicum of reasoning powers, who will assert that this great continent was ever intended by the Creator to remain an unproductive wilderness? Yet what else was it — what would it have remained, but for the labor of civilized man? Here, then, we take our stand. The British people found a portion of the globe in a state of waste — they took possession of it; and they had a perfect right to do so, under the Divine authority, by which man was commanded to go forth and people, and till the land. Herein we find the right to the dominion which the British Crown, or, more properly speaking, the British people, exercise over the continent of New Holland. From that authority the nation derives its right of possession, and, as a consequence, a right to portion out the land to individuals. The abstract rights of the Aboriginal inhabitants, who never made any use of the land, except to rove over its length and breadth, and to subsist upon the herbs and wild animals which it produced in a state of nature, does not enter into the present question: which is the right of the British nation to the soil, having been the first to take possession of it as a vast waste, and the consequent right of the nation to dispose of it.
But Aboriginal Tasmanians did not willingly accept the experience of rapine and the prospect of starvation.
This fact is shown clearly in the following letter, sent on 10 January 1828 from Lieutenant-Governor Arthur in Government House to the Secretary of State for Colonies:
I have the honour to report to your Lordship, that a more than usual temper of hostility has, within the last six months, manifested itself on the part of the Aborigines of this Colony, and has rendered some active steps for protection necessary, and I fear some still stronger measures will be required. On my succeeding to the government, I found the quarrel of the Natives with the Europeans…was daily aggravated, by every kind of injury committed against the defenceless Natives, by the stockkeepers and sealers, with whom it was a constant practice to fire upon them whenever they approached, and to deprive them of their women whenever the opportunity offered… It is not a matter of surprise that the injuries, real or supposed, inflicted upon the blacks, have been revenged upon the whites, whenever an occassion has presented itself; and I regret to say, that the Natives… have committed many murders upon the shepherds and herdsman in remote situations… The necessity of taking some decisive step… becomes every day more apparent, as the settlers advance on the favourite haunts of the Natives, but I confess I feel the subject exceedingly perplexing… They already complain that the white people have taken possession of their country, encroached upon their hunting grounds, and destroyed their natural food, the kangaroo… I cannot divest myself of the consideration that all aggression originated with the white inhabitants…
Whatever the subjective intentions of the various actors, the settlers’ defence of title or tenure to land thus led inevitably to genocide.
The Sydney Monitor of 27 October 1830 reported the words of Arthur’s Solicitor-General, Sir Alfred Stephen, at a ‘respectable’ public meeting in Hobart:
I take this opportunity of noticing Mr. Gellibrand’s observations as to taking the lives of the blacks. I agree with Mr. Horne, that their slaughter of the whites has been indiscriminate as any which can be the result of the proposed operations, and I say, that as they have urged such a war upon the settlers, you are bound to put them down. But there is another consideration, which weighs strongly with me. I say that you are bound to do so, in reference to the class of individuals, who having been involuntarily sent here, are compelled to be in the most advanced position [i.e. convicts assigned to work as shepherds on pastoral runs], where they are exposed to the hourly loss of their lives. I say, Sir… that you are bound upon every principle of justice and humanity, to protect this particular class of individuals; and if you cannot do so without extermination, then I say boldly and broadly, exterminate! I trust I have within me as much humanity as any man who hears me, but I declare openly, that if I was engaged in the pursuit of the blacks, and that I could not capture them, which I would endeavour to do by every means in my power, I would fire upon them. I again and again say, I know not whether this is the opinion of others. I expose myself I am aware thereby, to much attack upon the ground of humanity, but I am satisfied that we are bound to afford all possible protection to those who are exposed to the atrocities of the blacks, and therefore I am of opinion, capture them if you can, but if you cannot, destroy them.
We can see that, beneath the obvious differences of scale and intensity, 1830s-era Van Diemen’s Land shared with contemporary China the three features described at the beginning of this post.
This is because, I have suggested, the two societies have something even deeper in common. Both underwent a similarly tumultuous process: the appropriation as private property of worldly things (especially land) that were not previously the exclusive possession of anyone, and which ‘non-owners’ hadn’t hitherto been prevented from using or accessing.