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. Read more