History Wars and property


The Australian History Wars seem for the moment to have lapsed into a kind of drôle de guerre or long twilight struggle. So now seems a good time to revisit an earlier exchange, the ferocity of which may have distracted from the combatants’ subtler argumentative manoeuvres.

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 certain features with that in present-day China.

This was because, I suggested, the two societies faced a shared stress: private acquisition of land and resources that weren’t previously the exclusive possessions of anyone, and which “non-owners” hadn’t hitherto been prevented from using or accessing.

Examination of this claim will, I think, help us better understand the polemic between historian Henry Reynolds and Keith Windschuttle.

Local governments, with the backing of central authority in Beijing and relevant provincial administrations, have been the primary actors in contemporary China’s breakneck transfer of communal and state-owned assets to private ownership. Accordingly, much of the rural popular opposition to displacement, home demolitions, engrossment of agricultural tracts, etc. has been directed against governmental authority.

This is turn has led some foreign observers to present such events as a case of heroic peasants and smallholders uniting ‘across villages and even provincial borders to fight for private land rights.’ The peasants are imagined to be ‘reclaiming and privatising the stolen lands…stolen by officials in their city government.’

Now, it’s obviously true that government personnel are guilty of corruption, patronage, asset-stripping, repression and brute theft. But the notion that Chinese peasants and employees are fighting, either consciously or unwittingly, to defend private ownership has little to uphold it. No credible voice supports such claims, which sound like a Heritage Foundation fantasy.

Even a mainstream journalist, in the linked article, acknowledges that the rebellious farmers merely seek to retain direct, non-market access to their means of subsistence and shelter. Withdrawal of such access will otherwise compel them, on pain of extinction, to seek income from paid employment, or to rely on “charity.”

But, more often that not throughout history, simple social-property conflicts of this type have been overlaid by ethnic and religious divisions, and their fundamental nature has therefore remained obscure both to contemporary actors and historical analysts.

Frontier conflict in colonial Tasmania, for example, is frequently portrayed as a matter of rival groups (“black” and “white” people, or European and Indigenous people), each with an incompatible claim to exclusive possession of some land resource. One group is then supposed to have infringed the property rights of another.

Just as this is a misunderstanding of contemporary China, I want to insist that this is also the wrong way – philosophically, empirically and politically – of looking at frontier conflict in colonial Tasmania.

Members of a population may defend their right to use certain resources without thereby making a claim of property in them.

This is not a popular argument. The assertion that Aboriginal Tasmanians did not hold proprietary rights to land is often associated with racists and reactionaries.

Nearly a decade ago, the right-wing ideologue Keith Windscuttle published The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, aiming to show that whatever violence did occur in Van Diemen’s Land during the 1820s and 1830s was unrelated to territorial disputes, being instead a simple matter of incentives. The ‘timeless stimulus’ of greed, the ‘spirit of mammon’, and the lure of luxuries like flour, sugar, tea, tobacco and blankets, led Aboriginal Tasmanians to steal from the colonists. As the indigenous people ‘had no sanctions against the murder of anyone outside their immediate clan’, they indulged in this too. Where settlers retaliated, on the other hand, this was within ‘the restraints of their culture and religion’.

Here was a conscious application of the criminological work of Gary Becker, the University of Chicago economist. Because hunter-gatherer society possessed and could produce little material wealth, the potential return to non-criminal activities (‘legal forms of acquisition’) was meagre. This – together with the ‘leniency’ of colonial authorities – meant that theft, murder and crime had a low opportunity cost. Thus Aboriginal Tasmanians attacked shepherds and killed livestock not because settlers occupied hunting grounds, shot at intruders, trampled vegetation and disrupted patterns of subsistence and kinship. Rather, the motivation was a desire for trinkets and baubles.

This absurd argument was attacked by historian Henry Reynolds in “Terra Nullius Reborn”, part of Robert Manne’s edited collection, Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History.

Reynolds’s essay is excerpted here:

[Windschuttle] tells us that the notions of the exclusive possession of territory and the defence of it either by law or force “were not part of the Aborigines’ mental universe”. In short, the Tasmanians “did not own the land”. The concept of property was “not part of their culture”.

Much follows from this assertion. The incoming Europeans were not taking land belonging to someone else. They introduced tenure to a place where none had previously existed. Aboriginal attacks on the settlers had nothing to do with resisting encroachments on their land because they had no sense of trespass. In the absence of such motivation they must have been spurred to violence by baser, more personal motives – by the desire for vengeance and for plunder. Therefore the Tasmanians were not at war with the settlers. They were criminals – burglars and cut-throats, not warriors or patriots.

Let’s examine what Reynolds is saying. One must, he suggests, hold either that (1) Tasmanian society believed in ‘exclusive possession of territory’ (i.e. property in land) and its members fought to protect their territory or that (2) acquisition of land by European settlers was just, and the population submitted to it. If not (1), then inevitably (2).

In other words, Reynolds would have it that one must agree with either Windschuttle or Reynolds. This is logically confused.

To refute Windschuttle’s claims that ‘Aboriginal attacks on the settlers had nothing to do with resisting encroachments’ and were based on the ‘desire for plunder’, it is not necessary to prove the existence of property or land ownership. Defence of one’s right to use land, remain attached to a place, or ‘live on country’ without interference, does not require or entail a claim to title or tenure.

Ownership confers a bundle of rights over spaces and things – prerogatives of the possessor include the right to use, right to transfer etc. But it is not the case that all rights of use are ownership rights, or that the right to persist with an activity implies property rights in the material which that activity uses and the space in which it takes place.

Reynolds is thus guilty of making a faulty inference from the premise that (1) some people believe they have some right to use some external resource – in this case land – to perform some activity – subsistence, shelter, religion – that they believe rightfully protected against interference to (2) these people believe they own that spatial realm, and all its contents, within which the activity takes place.

This is an unfortunate lapse. Unless all fundamental rights are ownership rights, the right to do doesn’t require the right to own that which enters into the doing.

Reynolds writes as though he believes, as Aboriginal Tasmanians surely did not, that non-owners have no right to an external resource X, and may not block the greedy acquirer from the un-owned thing X, which may rightfully be seized. On this logic, every un-owned watering hole and hunting ground available may justly be appropriated by whoever requires them for his private drinking, swimming, stock raising and wool growing, so long as the acquisitor is ‘not taking land belonging to someone else’. (But, for even the most forceful advocates for private property, acquisition must meet the Lockean proviso that private appropriation be without ‘prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough and as good left, and more than the yet unprovided could use.’)

Reynolds – and we – may costlessly concede Windschuttle’s proposition about the absence of already-existing property claims, without thereby accepting the legitimacy of land acquisition.

Then there arises the question of historical accuracy. Reynolds’s empirical claim rests largely on the argumentative error debunked above: by resisting encroachment, the Tasmanians thereby evinced a belief in exclusive property. We have just seen why this need not be the case. But the matter deserves further examination, so I will address it, along with the contemporary political implications of this historiographical debate, in a future post.


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7 Responses to “History Wars and property”

  1. Lucy Says:

    Looking forward to part two Nick.

  2. Nick Says:

    Glad to have interested you, but not likely to do that follow-up post anytime soon. Would demand more work than I feel inclined to put in right now.

  3. Voices in the air « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] chance of instinctive resistance from the populace. People may have been taught to believe that ownership of land is natural and universal, and that essential services can be delivered more efficiently by private firms, but they have not […]

  4. An inherited burden: ex-Stalinists, ‘progressive’ historians and Australian nationalism « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] the midst of Australia’s so-called History Wars, Curthoys spoke of the need to ‘develop the kind of pluralist inclusive account of the past […]

  5. ‘Group’-based property rights and collective guilt « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] connivance of eminent academics (anthropologist Bill Stanner and ‘left-wing’ historians Henry Reynolds and Ann Curthoys). Several of the latter were patronized by Kirribilli House and launched by the […]

  6. An inherited burden: ex-Stalinists, ‘progressive’ historians and Australian nationalism | Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] the midst of Australia’s so-called History Wars, Curthoys spoke of the need to ‘develop the kind of pluralist inclusive account of the past […]

  7. The body shop | Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] The attitudes of some, it has elsewhere been remarked, betray ‘an underlying fear of treating the human body, or the cellular material that will develop into a human being, as the personal property equivalent of cars or television sets.’ This, ‘although perhaps justifiable on moral grounds’, is unhelpful. All rights, ultimately, flow from proprietary interests. […]

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