Capitalism’s Last Frontier #23 Comte & the Act of Cultivation

Charle’s Comtes’ Traité de la propriété (1834) is the single most important work on the theory of, justification for, and origins of property.

His theory was both an historical explanation of the emergence of private property and  an ex-poste justification of how private property could be legitimate even when it had been acquired through force.  It was framed at the time of the restoration of the French monarchy when the issue of whether property rights should be restored was febrile.  Comte also criticised the popular political economists of his daym such as Say, for taking the issue of property rights as given, and outside the realm of political economy itself.

His approach was both an advancement on earlier ideas based on ‘first use’ but also a sharp break from roman legal traditions that occupation and control was itself justification for property rights.  This was for Comte abhorrent bas it was used as a justification for slavery and also historically indefensible, given contemporary liberal historians such as Thierry were documenting the acts of accumulation by dispossession of the Normans and Medieval kings.  Ideas of great rhetorical force at a time when the argument for return of land seized from nobels during the French revolution were made by the forces of conservatism.

Comtes argument then was that property rights have been often illegitimate acts of looting, but that, none-the-less, some rights to private property could be justified.  What is more he recognised that ‘first use’ was rather rare by then, confined to the edges of colonisation,  in the privatisation of national property, and occasionally in industry when new goods were invented. A far more common method of acquiring property was by work and exchange.

Very rarely amongst thinkers of his age he did not automatically assume that seizure of lands from traditional trible hunter-gatherers was legitimate.  Rather his theory was took that in such societies there were property rights but that these were not individual but “national” or communal and included established hunting grounds, and recognised tribal boundaries. So Comte challenged the legitimacy of most European settlement in the other continents.

Comte also made a radical break with the homesteading principle by arguing that it was not obvious that this created an absolute property right, including when land was held in communal ownership by other peoples.

Comtes theory took one step back from the concept of property by first developing the idea of appropriation

“(t)he action of an organised being who joins (unit) to his own body the things by which he grows, strengthens and reproduces himself” and as “the action by which a person seizes, with the intention to enjoy and dispose according to his wish, a thing susceptible of producing directly or indirectly certain enjoyments.

The process of appropriation involves the transformation of physical objects into a part of oneself for the satisfaction of human needs. Denial of these needs was a denial of human rights.

A communal “national” property consisted of non-scarce goods, such as land in hunter-gatherer societies.

Agriculture being much more efficient than hunting and gathering, private property appropriated by someone for farming left remaining hunter-gatherers with more land per person, and hence did not harm them. Thus this type of land appropriation did not violate the Lockean proviso – there was “still enough, and as good left.” 

Comte rejected as absurd the concept of a social compact by which each individual renounced their original equal right of all to property in a state of nature into packets of privately owned land.  He considered it historically inaccurate and illogical.  Rather as one of the founders of sociology Comte sought a sociological explanation

Certainly the concept of ‘first use’ is incompatible ith that of a social compact.  First use assumes that the individual cuts land from the wilderness, whilst the concept of a social compact assumes and existing common ownership.

Comte sought to explain how common ownership could develop into individual ownership and by what kind of social process.

Comte argued that what makes agriculture so different from hunting and gathering and so difficult to get started is that a time lag is introduced between production and final consumption. The labour required for hunting and gathering might be rewarded in a few hours or at worst a few days, the reward from agricultural work will not come for some months. During the months between clearing the land and the first harvest the would-be agriculturalists needed provisions to provide subistence until the harvest is ready. 

This cruso economy investment argument is helpful in considering the immediate barrier to cultivation.  However it is not fully convincing.  wndering hunter gatherers could have gathered self seeded crops at a set time each year, and the act of gathering would create further seeds.  Hence no initial investment would be needed.  If creation of breads required sedentism then intensification of gathering and proto-cultivation could eventually have led to a suplus of seeds.  

Comte considered how could the capital could be acquired to pay workers for their labour until the product can be sold or the crop harvested.  How could an individual aquire it outside the tribe?  Because of these factors Comte concludes that the transition to agriculture (and thus private property) has to come about cooperatively rather than individually. In other words there is not a clean break between the two ways of producing.

He believed that in transitional stage this “boss” or “chef de l’enterprise” is a cooperative of one or more families of a tribe. It is the cooperative who introduce a more specialised division of labour and make the necessary “economies” to accumulate the capital necessary to become cultivators. Once family cooperatives become established it was but a short step, he thought, to the full privatisation of land and farming as family members gradually spilt off to farm individual plots of land.

Before settled agriculture based on private property can emerge there must be a transitional stage of agriculture based upon a mixture of communal and individual labour and communal and private property.. His analysis is based upon ancient Roman accounts of the Germanic tribes, travellers accounts of North American Indians and the early days of the English colony in Virginia. 

The concept of a transitional famial stage of land ownership is important.  But Comte is unconvincing over the rationale for this then becoming individually owned.  We will consider this in the next section.

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