C19 Tasmania by way of C21 China


Take the following visible features of social conflict in contemporary China:

  1. The full-throated ideological defence, by Liu Xiaobo and others, of private property as a matter of natural rights;
  2. 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;
  3. 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.


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6 Responses to “C19 Tasmania by way of C21 China”

  1. History Wars and property « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] finer argumentative points. I’ll proceed with the aid of a comparison. It was mentioned several weeks ago that, despite obvious differences, social conflict in 1830s-era Van Diemen’s Land shared […]

  2. tahua Says:

    I have some questions

    i don’t follow some of the claims in “social conflict in contemporary China” is it suggesting that privitisation of land is failing to deliver liberalised democracy to china. under the assumption that liberal democracy is good?

    Why is liberal democracy good?

    What makes state violence bad?
    on the face of it all violence is bad, but that is trivial. Some bad violence is good on the whole – WWII, The Spanish Civil war, etc spring to mind. If people want something that is not good for them and want to prevent something that is then force might, only might, be okay so – what makes state violence bad in this instance? – really i suppose its rather a question about what makes the change from earlier to later qua land practices bad.

    Are there alternative justifications for privitising ownership of land (aside from the old ‘i work it like a good christian so its mine’ line)?

    Who are the chinese exterminating to take land from? Who are they giving land too? Who are ‘the chinese’ that do this?

    Can china avoid capitalism? If it can’t can it control it? In particular can they avoid turning peasants into factory workers?

    How is china not captialist in the first place?
    SOE need not mean not-captialist, it could just mean that the guys in charge have different control mechanisms over their populace from the ones westerners are familiar with

    Taking land off peasant collectives is not necessarily making unowned land owned. Is it not instead making new owners for the land?

    The ‘no owners to owners line’ seems like it could be a red herring – all things work to live including emu so the admixture of labour where labour is work as a condition of ownership is met (by all animals on bits of land anyway).
    If ‘labour = agriculture only’ then it can’t quiet work as a justification of ownership (at least not generally). Take the sheep hearders. Who owns the sheep? How do they get to own the sheep? If its some line “i worked them” then
    1 – they belong to the shepherd or else post some complex transitivity from labour through money and so forth you get
    2 – ‘i own because i laboured some how on something relevant’ – and then the aborigines own tasmania on similar grounds and pasturing is simple theft or
    3 – ?
    and pasturing is at least displacement and disenfranchisement of some for the benefit of others with no other justification – bullying and selfishness escalating to murder perhaps? Unless something is missing the idea of going from a state of no owners to owners seems inaccurate, so

    Is it the case that there are owners where once there weren’t or just one of new owners taking stuff off of old owners instead?

  3. Nick Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Tahua.

    I’ll try to answer your questions as best I can. Please excuse me if I avoid several that I think are tangential or would require more arcane philosophical debate than is appropriate for a blog post. It’s often helpful to state premises when having a discussion of this sort, but I’d rather not have to start from ‘what makes state violence bad?’ And rest assured that I am not arguing, nor making the unexamined assumption, that ‘liberal democracy is good.’

    Who are the chinese exterminating to take land from? Who are they giving land too? Who are ‘the chinese’ that do this?

    These are empirical questions for which information is readily available elsewhere. You’ll notice, however, that I never suggest ‘the Chinese’ are doing anything. Nationality is clearly not the appropriate way to distinguish the various actors here, if indeed it ever is.

    Can china avoid capitalism? If it can’t can it control it? In particular can they avoid turning peasants into factory workers? How is china not captialist in the first place? SOE need not mean not-captialist, it could just mean that the guys in charge have different control mechanisms over their populace from the ones westerners are familiar with

    I come from a Marxist perspective according to which capitalism is defined as a mode of production in which (1) the social division of labour (the allocation of different people to different tasks) is organised by employment in multiple legally distinct firms between which horizontal movement of employees is possible; and (2) the social surplus product (that output over and above that necessary for the working population to reproduce itself) is extracted by the firms’ owners earning a profit on output, and its level is regulated by a struggle over wages, the working day, the threat of dismissal etc. On my reading of the historical evidence it is not appropriate to categorise Chinese society of several decades ago as capitalist in this sense. However I agree that the state being owner of the various enterprises (i.e. SOEs) does not in itself prevent a society from being capitalist.

    I am familiar with the claim that contemporary or late-C20 Chinese society is of a sort unknown (and unknowable?) by the categories of ‘Western’ economics and social science, but I have yet to find a convincing statement of this argument or any evidence to support it. Nor have I encountered any ‘non-Western’ definition of capitalism that could be applied to recent or present-day China. Giovanni Arrighi’s recent Adam Smith in Beijing makes the claim that China was historically and is now a ‘market economy’ of a sort distinct from capitalism. But this relies on Fernand Braudel’s definition of capitalism that is indeed narrow, Eurocentric and not very useful.

    Taking land off peasant collectives is not necessarily making unowned land owned. Is it not instead making new owners for the land?

    Of course your first sentence is correct. Whether newly appropriated land previously had or didn’t have an owner is something that can only be decided by empirical research. I have not relied for my argument on logical necessity or assumption. Instead I am arguing against an assumption, which seems to me to be widespread and automatic: because some people defend their access to land or their right to use it against engrossment by some other party, they necessarily and by that very defence evince a claim to prior ownership. This clearly is fallacious and I explain why here.

    The ‘no owners to owners line’ seems like it could be a red herring – all things work to live including emu so the admixture of labour where labour is work as a condition of ownership is met (by all animals on bits of land anyway).

    I am slightly bemused by this argument. By means of Locke you arrive at Proudhon. If almost everything is already owned then their seems no way to encounter un-owned resources and thus no basis for just appropriation, other than freely-agreed Nozickian exhange which I gather is rarely practiced by emus. Almost all property would be theft!

    Unless something is missing the idea of going from a state of no owners to owners seems inaccurate

    Do you mean it describes no actual historical circumstances? That is clearly not the case.

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