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Ramp Hollow: Not all Work is Created Equal

As John Locke tells the story in his Second Treatise on Government, land that is common becomes private property by the work that a person puts into it.  Because work is an extension of oneself, working on land makes the land an extension of oneself and hence gives one the right to that which she has extended herself to (the gender of who works to own and whose work is owned by another is the subject of Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract, where she argues that under patriarchy women are the natural commons that men appropriate by working on).

Critical race theorists have long noted that Locke is largely responsible for the view that treating land as property is a sign of progress.  Those who do not treat their land as private property are deemed backwards and uncivilized.  Julie Ward notes how European officials thinking about Africa retain this notion that “entering into history” is a matter of entering into a certain notion of progress based on developing value out of land when she quotes then French President Sarkozy’s address in Senegal on the French-African relationship.  Sarkozy remarked that, “The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history … They have never really launched themselves into the future…The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words…”

Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow returns to this question of how work produces property, and specifically what relations of production are required for work to produce property.  Property is not only what a person can claim a right to access, as the commons can be, but also what one can freely alienate and exchange for value.  Stoll’s account raises the question of which work gives one a right to land and which work does not.  It puts the lie to the notion that property is acquired by work rather than by the willingness of government to recognize and enforce a right.

As Stoll describes living off the commons of agrarians, from American Indians, Black American and Caribbean slaves and freedmen and women, and people in Appalachia, it takes plenty of work.  The difference between work that makes what it works on property and work that does not seems to be in the goals of the one who is working not at all in how hard they work.  When the land is held in common, the one who wants to turn the common into value that can increase value by becoming alienable property needs a story about how that parcel of land becomes theirs.  The one who wants to work on the commons in order to keep living independently on their own terms does not need a justification for how the land is common, they only need the land to continue to function to serve their collective goals.  The collective interest in keeping it common in order to keep their shared sustenance possible makes them manage the commons and resist those who would block access to the commons to the community.

The new nation and its new Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton wanted to enforce a turn to producing value in the new United States.  In doing so, they made it seem that those who didn’t want to turn the commons into private property were backwards and uncivilized, not unlike the way that Europeans continue to think about Africa.  But I want to think instead about how Locke’s account recognized some work as giving one a right to land and other work did not.  Stoll’s account suggests that the difference was arbitrary and determined by who could get the state to recognize the work as giving one access and not at all with whether one worked on the land or not.  The capitalist state recognized work that aimed to increase value and not at work that kept the commons independent from the national economy.

Work vs. Work

Stoll’s case puts the lie to the view that those who do not have property do not have it because they are lazy.  It puts the lie to the view that ownership is a sign of industriousness, since much of the ownership early on in the United States was granted by the government not based on a certain amount of work, and usually that grant was made to already distinguished men like George Washington.  The ideology was that property signified hardworking, and that hardwork justified the holding of property.  The reality was that tricky legal manuevers and landgrants from the government was the source of some people owning property and almost everyone else having to labor for those owners in order to live.

Not unlike the Koch brothers’ efforts in the last twenty years to limit local governments’ power to regulate, corporations who wanted to run the coal mines sought legal protections (Dillon’s Rule) against local statutes that gave consent rights to those affected by coal mine operations.  Iowa Supreme Court Justice John Forrest Dillon argued that municipalities existed as tenants at the will of the legislature even though many of those counties and their inhabitants predated the country and the states that formed around them.  Dillon’s Rule allowed corporations to restrict access to natural resources.

The problem was that the people who treated the commons as a resource for sustenance didn’t try to develop the commons into increased value and so their work to sustain themselves was not recognized as work within the national economy.  As a result, their work was not recognized as work that gave them right to the land even though the long-told story of property was that it became property through work.  Those who did not want to turn their land into value had to be forced off the land in order that they might be forced into the national economy as laborers whose work would produce value.  Then, the work that produced value was no longer through their land, but through the labor of their bodies, which is really to say, through their lives.

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