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Private Property in social evolutionary theory from Weber to Enlightenment

October 15, 2004
History of Anthropological Ideas
Essay 1
Yongho Kim

Private Property in social evolutionary theory from Weber to Enlightenment

In this essay I examine different usages of the concept of property and private ownership in a variety of theories with particular social evolutionary agenda in Western Europe from Locke to Weber. The driving premise in this review is that in its efforts to achieve argumentative strength as a science, private property – a prime example of objective material condition shaping society – has become a space of contention between different political theories of the time advancing the idea of social evolutionism. In particular, I advance the argument that Weber’s critique of Engels carries historical resonance in tensions and arguments among enlightenment philosophers and social evolutionists by showing the ways in which the notion of private property separates and joins different forms of thought about society its development.

In Ideas and Religious Interests (1930), Weber presents a revisionist reading of the emergence of capitalism based on its contextualization within Calvinist thought. The Spirit of Capitalism, Weber argues, consists in reinvestment and accumulation of wealth (Weber, 729), which is encouraged under Calvinist theology and ethics, which presents an ascetic ideal that views wasting and consumption of wealth as a sin and commends the man to stewardship of the material world.

In Class, Status, Party (1922), Weber links accumulation of wealth to the formation of social status groups and economic class. “Consumption of goods” makes particular “styles of life” (Weber, 125) possible, and allow for the children of parvenu to enter “social honor” groups. Weber makes significant efforts to establish economic class and social status groups as two related, albeit separate, categories of social analysis. Weber argues that although economic class may be shaped and determined by the material conditions of labor, consciousness of a proletariat may not be brought about unless there is a market situation that brings economic differences in sharp contrast (117). On the other hand, at the level of status groups, those propertied classes that have “new money” struggle for the acquisition of “status privileges”, be it by learning the manners of the propertied and aristocratic classes, intermarriage supported by wealth and so forth.

What Weber is problematizing in Class, Status, Party is Engel’s presentation of material history in Feuerbach: Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook (1845) which divided class solely based on the ownership of means of production and capital. In this text, Engels advances a positivist historical perspective by defining the transitional moments between “tribal ownership”, “ancient communal and State ownership”, “feudal or estate property”, and the rise of industrial towns as a shift in the relations of ownership (of means of production and capital). Communal and State ownership arise when tribal societies form larges cities and develop moveable private property that is communally owned – in particular, slaves. Feudal societies in turn are defined as that which is borne out of the scarcity of populations over the land in the countryside, at the same time that a particular form of ownership over means of production – that of the serfdom, where the feudal lord establishes a contract of sorts in exchange for the serf’s labor. (Engels, 71-73)

In analyzing the system of labor in 19th century England, Marx observes in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844) that the worker sinks to the level of a commodity when he loses ownership over the product of his labor and exchanges his material creation for wages. In Feuerbach, Marx describes the result of this alienation as “consciousness” (76), a total condition imposed upon the specialized laborer as he performs the same work repeatedly. Marx claims that

This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now. (78)

he then sets to describe private property as a material condition created by capitalism and alienated labor, presenting “world-historical” communism as “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things [capitalism and alienated labor]”.

A weberian critique of Engels, therefore, would be that Marx overlooked certain manifestations of capitalism and class consciousness as idealistic dialecticism, or “heaven to earth” (Marx and Engels, 73), and that the ensuing engelian analysis of world material historicism is misguided in its premises and cannot explain the failure of marxist revolutions in industrially developed nations, such as Germany and England.

This positivist social reading of history put forward by Marx and Engels is challenged in the context of societies outside western Europe, and Marx’s seminal work Asiatic mode of production, does not do a good job of explaining material conditions of life outside Europe, and is equally the reason for which Marx is questioned for not addressing colonialism. In light of this, the late Engels borrows upon Morgan’s Ethnical Periods (1877) to claim legitimacy for a Marxist historical revisionist project.

Morgan delineates an unilineal evolution of society (understood in its universalist evolutionary sense) in seven stages of savagery, barbarism, and society. These stages would be differenciated according to the degree to which the societies had evolved in terms of kinship knowledge, modes of subsistence and technological development. (Morgan, 60-63), although Morgan himself divides these aspects formally as subsistence, government, language, family, religion, house life and property. In reference to the development of property, Morgan articulates a diffusionist vision of the notion of property – savages, in the earliest and lowest position in social evolution, have the faintest idea of property, while civilization is borne out of a need to “establish political society on the basis of territory and of property” (58). To support his reasoning, Morgan provided a large number of second-hand ethnographic examples that were all fit into a general scale of evolution.

The notion of property, therefore, acts as an agglutinant between Engel’s and Morgan’s positivist visions of civilization. Engels welcomed such a strongly scientific analysis and incorporated Morgan in his work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and State (1884). Kuper observes however in Lewis Henry Morgan and ancient society (1988) that the notion of communism as the next stage in social evolution, strongly advanced by Engels, is a conclusion on which Morgan had said nothing about (Kuper, 74). Subsequent generations of Marxist writing took on Morgan as its scientific and anthropological cannon, to an extent far removed from “the historical Morgan” (72-74)

Morgan’s argument that the need for property led the way for civilization can be traced back to Locke and his enlightenment contemporaries. According to Bronowski and Mazlish in Hobbes and Locke, (1960), Locke “held that all men have a natural right to property” and that “men … appoint a government … to protect their rights of life, liberty, and property.” (Bronowski and Mazlish, 213) Locke further claimed that being an empty cabin on which experiences are accumulated, men will necessarily come to form such commonwealths for the shared benefit of all involved. (211) According to Harris in Enlightenment, the view of men as lacking innate qualities sets the ground for “toleration of alien ways”, (Harris, 13) a particular and restrictive form of what is to become cultural relativism later in its Boasian manifestation.

Locke builds a second argument based on the same premises that set the property-government analysis: that “no man may claim more… than he can use personally; any more would simply spoil and waste away”, (Bronowski and Mazlish, 213) which is precisely the Calvinist thought described by Weber as setting grounds for the Spirit of Capitalism, the difference being that Weber criticizes the theological manifestation of Calvinist thought, as in “temptation to idleness and sinful enjoyment of life” (Weber, 728) while Locke affirms its empiric aspects since unused property is devoid of practical meaning. Locke further claims that “money… does not spoil”, in support of a capitalistic accumulation of wealth that he himself was engaged in through mercantile administration of British colonies. (Bronowski and Mazlish, 208)

The appearance of property as an element that marks distinct evolutionary levels of human society is equally present in Ferguson, the English 18th century royalist. According to Evans-Pritchard in Ferguson (1981), Ferguson lays out modes of production as analytical stages in social development, with the consolidation of property playing a key role in the transition toward the barbarous state. He also asserts that progress occurs only when “they [people] have committed to different persons the several tasks which require a peculiar skill and attention” (Evans-Pritchard, 24), while at the same time recognizing what would be called later as “alienation” or “anomie”, from Marx and Durkheim, respectively.

Before drawing a final line comparison between Weber, Marx-Engels and enlightenment philosophers, it should be pointed out that Rousseau advanced a notion resembling that of status groups in his argument for the noble savage. Rousseau argued that the North American savages, in not wearing material goods such as gold or silver pieces or many clothes, had managed to stay away from the civilized way of life, corrupted form the original goodness of the simple man. (Bronowski and Mazlish, 283) In this, Weber and Rousseau share the same premise in describing a highly similar social phenomenon – that of cliquish life styles developed by the upper aristocratic classes. Both observed the material expressions – of a social group for Weber, and of the civilized man for Rousseau – Rousseau used it to bemoan the ethical corruption of his times, and Weber critiqued the failure of Engels to account for nonmaterial aspects of class.

I traced ideological influences from the most to least contemporary social theorists is because in this way the lines of influence are single: often earlier theories affect multiple later theories. This allows for a more cohesive examination of single notions such as Private Property. Throughout this essay I traced initial development of the weberian critique to Marx and Engels in its understanding of private property to the Enlightenment philosophers. When Weber mentions Private Property, the term is put in a context of different ideological and political agendas through Locke, Ferguson, Morgan and Engels. Weber’s criticism to Engels engages in multiple exchanges about modes of production and evolutionism, and status as lifestyles with Rousseau and Locke.

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