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October 09, 2002

Property and Ownership - part 4

IV. Persons As Property
In the first section of this essay I described "property" as things that are treated like extensions of the self. Here I will discuss the idea of privately owning another person: its appeal and difficulties, how claim is laid on another being, and how the powers of ownership get applied to humans.

(A) The Appeal and Difficulties of Owning Another Person
The benefits of having another person become an extension of yourself are obvious: then you have twice as many hands, twice the mental power, and can accomplish twice the work. What's more, because you don't experience their senses directly, you can avoid the unpleasantness of tasks that you don't like by assigning them to the second person.

However, there's a serious problem. This other person has an independent mind, a will of their own, and cannot help but keep reasserting their separateness. This is an issue also inherent in owning animals -- but their minds are less intelligible to us. With other humans, issues of mind and will come to the foreground, unignorable. ...No matter what, another person will move, speak, and respond in ways that the would-be owner does not fully expect. Perfect control is impossible; some leeway for uncontrolled actions must be accommodated.

To make having another person as an extension of your self work at all, they must internalize a sense of being obligated to obey commands. You're not going to physically move their arms and legs for them; they have to decide to do so on their own. This is where threats of punishment come in, as a means to motivate obedience. If I strongly don't want to plow your field for you, the only things you can do to motivate me are to make me fear being beaten, fear losing the means to get food for myself, or fear the loss of some other possession / relationship that is more valuable to me than my time and energy.

It is the fear of suffering -- not suffering itself -- that will keep me in line. I have to feel that my compliance buys me escape. If I experience nothing but constant punishments, I grow used to them and stop fearing them as much. When there's no room at all for safety or free action, resistance becomes imperative.

Owning someone is most effective when the threat of force fades into the background, the command / obey relationship comes to seem natural, and the dependent person is kept in check by their own conscience -- an inner voice that tells them they're bad if they break "the rules". Control can be accomplished by carrot as well as stick, once the permanent potential for punishment has been established. The would-be owner can make themselves look nicer and better by giving treats and allowing periods of free time / areas of free action. Then the subordinate can almost forget the reason why they're being obedient, and focus just on living life day to day. ["Rules" are a nicety of owners, an attempt to establish predictability and make the owned person feel more safe and willing. However, rule-making is an outgrowth of the basic command / obey relationship -- which is all that matters -- so they can be changed at any time, according to mood.]

People aren't robots; even at the height of slavery in the U.S. there was allowance for free action -- ignoring behavior that wouldn't impact primary mission goals. Still, inherent in treating someone like they're part of you, like your will's second set of hands, there is a raw desire for control. It is not simply asking for (or rather, *stealing*) help to accomplish limited goals; being obeyed becomes an end in itself. Even the "nice" would-be owners have limited tolerance for insubordination: questioning the rightness of commands, complaining, rolling of eyes and sighing, sarcastic responses ("back-talk"), responding slowly or putting off until later, being angry or cold or unhappy instead of warm / polite / grateful. Such responses prompt the would-be owner to cause some sort of pain; they feel their authority is under attack, so they fight back to put the subordinate "in their place".

[For most, I suspect, this isn't an enjoyed act of sadism. They would prefer to see themselves as kind, noble, and generous. ...But to *not* strike back would (as they perceive it) undermine their identity as adult / male / white / etc. -- whichever group membership they feel entitles them to be an owner, to be on top.

It is the act of punishment that most makes a person feel they are a legitimate member of a ruling class. For someone who feels their group should be on top, actually putting someone down is the only way to definitively demonstrate membership. Even if their body physically matches the social category, belonging may be fragile -- they risk being outcast for not behaving in-role. In a sense, it's a question of loyalty... Will you uphold the right of all adults to be in power by making an uppity teenager sorry? Do you embody the culture of manhood -- or do you sympathize too much with women, and thus deserve to be treated like one -- or be treated worse, because you've betrayed men as a group?]

(B) How Claim Is Laid On Another Being
In the U.S., the first (and perhaps only) thing that comes to mind with the phrase "persons as property" is our own nation's history of abducting Africans and forcing them to do hard labor. However, in this exploration of property and ownership, we should dig deeper and look at relationships that share qualities with slavery, but go by a different name. Let's first approach the breadth of "persons as property" by considering how would-be owners could come to acquire other human beings.

• During the period when the U.S. (among other countries) engaged in slave trade, typically foreigners crossed the ocean and forcefully abducted native Africans. Sometimes, because there was a profit to be had, rounding up was also done by other Africans. For the most part, though, slave-traders constituted a special merchant class.

• Going further back in time, to the Roman Empire, we find a society also dependent on slaves, but which primarily procured human beings for enslavement through war campaigns. In this case, the country's soldiers were responsible for procurement.

• In pre-biblical times, slaves were generally taken captive during intertribal conflict. ...That is, if you wanted to own somebody, you had to go out and capture them by yourself, or with your buddies.

• Gerda Lerner has suggested in her book "The Creation of Patriarchy" that intertribal conflict was the origin of patrilocal marriage in western society. Females, by virtue of attachment to the children they bore, were easier captives to keep than unencumbered males. As the practice of male warriors owning female slaves spread, the entire balance of sexual power within the community shifted. Over time, the entire relationship between men and women became very similar to slavery. "Marriage" institutionalized the transfer of human property (females) and cloaked it in ritual, so that we're hardly aware now of its unsavory origins. Unlike slavery based on capture, a husband could generate a daughter by having sex with his wife; this father could then "give away the bride" to another man in exchange for a bride price, status, etc. Virginity, in essence, was "proof of purchase". Marriage, as it has existed for hundreds of years, looks different from enslaving people from other countries -- but its history bears all the hallmarks of "persons as property": husbands being legally entitled to demand sex, to be "honored and obeyed", and to use violence to enforce their will.

• Though childhood is a temporary status, it is also largely about ownership. Early in our nation's history, families with ten or more children were common -- in part because procreation was a means to generate laborers. Since then, an amount of power has shifted away from the parents; instead of tending fields (most) children now do school work -- arguably labor in service of the state. However, parents still have near absolute power to issue commands and discipline with corporal punishment. It's telling that youth may be "disowned" or "emancipated" -- words derivative of slavery. Again, this is a case of generating new persons to be owned via procreation. In some times and places laws have allowed slaves to buy their way out of slavery. It is remarkable that in recent centuries (male) children have been automatically emancipated upon reaching a particular age.

• With indentured servitude, a person would essentially sell themselves into slavery (though some were abducted for the purpose), but for a limited time -- typically seven years. Could a person become the property of another voluntarily? Apparently, for the right price -- such as transport from Europe to America. It seems that becoming "property" is not so much about involuntary capture, as about the degree of subordination that one experiences.

• Work camps have existed (and continue to, in some places) where employees are receive money, but they are still essentially slaves. They are paid pitiful wages and then forced to spend all they earn on essentials from an over-priced company store. Typically geographically isolated, such systems trap the workers and place them in perpetual debt to the employer. Again, the would-be owner acquires human beings from a pool of volunteers -- but for the most part, volunteers whose circumstances have forced them to consent to a bad deal.

...To summarize, a would-be owner might acquire another person from:

  • a specialized merchant class -- slave-traders
  • a nation's war campaigns (prisoners of war)
  • intertribal conflict (prisoners captured by oneself)
  • a father giving away his daughter -- the institution of marriage
  • procreation -- generating a new person oneself
  • contracting an indentured servant, in exchange for a one-time service
  • entrapping an employee in a situation where they are financially unable to leave

Reviewing this list, I feel it's worth saying a little more about employment in general. Most people earn money by doing some sort of labor -- literally selling their time and energy. If you collected money by selling your material possessions (a favorite coffee mug, a couch), then you would be severing extensions of your self, and the imaginary perimeter that encompasses all your possessions would shrink. How far could this go? Could you sell your own foot? The energy sold in doing labor is a also part of your body -- but it's renewable (unlike your foot). The question I'm creeping up on is this: at what point in selling off bits of your person to an employer do you actually give away your self and become owned, voluntarily become property?

I suppose that the self is permanently independent, therefore a "property" that cannot be accidentally lost. However, the more you consent to obey commands, the more you take on the appearance of being an extension of somebody else. An employer can *attempt* to lay claim on you and treat you like property. I said earlier that I would presume in this essay that "uncontested claims of ownership are legitimate". When an employer tries to treat someone as property, this is a situation that should be contested! A slave with wages still suffers slavery.

I feel that trying to make humans into possessions is unethical. The great challenge of practical ethics is just this: to escape the subtle ways in which command / obey relationships arise. ...Or more modestly, at least to find ways to minimize violation of will, should some hierarchies prove unavoidable or even necessary. *Most* jobs have a strong element of heirarchy -- but we can make distinctions. The more an employer "bosses" you around and acts punitively towards feedback / criticism, the worse the job is; the more an employer solicits feedback and gives you the ability to improve the workplace, the better the job is.

(C) Powers of Ownership Applied to People
A great deal of effort goes into acquiring another person to be property, and into disciplining them to obey commands. Given the resistance that a human being can put up, any comparison between them and an inanimate object may seem absurd. In this section I'd like to revisit the "powers of ownership" that one wields over inanimate possessions (see above, "II. Control Of Your Property"), and spell out how they are sometimes applied -- inappropriately -- to people.

[For the sake of clarity, my examples will be extreme cases: slavery and abuse done to women and minors. However, let us hold in mind that many of these same dynamics exist in more subtle forms, permeating normal, day-to-day social life.]

(1) Permission to touch. When you own a thing, you don't need permission to touch it. If another person was your possession, then you could touch them whenever you wanted, however you wanted. It would be your right to cop a feel, stick your hand down their pants, and demand intercourse. You could flog them, slap their face, punch them in the stomach, spank them on the bottom. ...And just as it would anger you to find that someone had been rifling through your inanimate possessions, you'd probably get angry if someone had sex with your human property without your permission. [Think about how some men react when a girlfriend sleeps with (or just talks to!) someone else, or to an "under age" daughter having sex with a boyfriend.]

(2) Staying put. You expect inanimate possessions to stay where you put them. With the same motive, a white owner might put shackles on their slave to keep them on the plantation. An abusive husband might insist that his wife stay at home and not work ("barefoot and pregnant"). A parent might insist that their offspring be in school during the day, under the supervision of a chaperone in the afternoon, and back home after curfew. In the day of slavery, there were people whose job it was to catch runaway slaves. In current times it remains illegal for minors to run away, and truant officers pursue youth who avoid attending school.

(3) Moving things. Your body is your most basic property. For most people, it obeys their will and goes into motion at the speed of thought. When another person is your possession, you expect them to act as a second set of hands. The common slave is told to plant and harvest the fields. A female slave may be put in charge of nursing a baby, caring for children. The special house slave sets the table, cooks the meals, cleans house, acts as butler / maid. White women of the early 20th century (in the U.S.) were often expected to provide these same services in the home: cooking, cleaning, bearing and rearing children -- without negotiation or compensation, and under threat of physical punishment. On top of these exploited labors, for women add sexual service and emotional warmth / nurturing on demand. In the early years of U.S. history, children were forced to work in the fields; now they're put to work in the compulsory schooling system. Forced child labor in fields and sweatshops continues to exist in places around the world.

(4) Physical alteration. You get to paint your car -- and if someone scratches it, you can expect them to pay for repair of the damages. By the same token, you get to change the external appearance of human property as you see fit: choose clothing, cut hair, pierce ears (or deny ear-piercing), deny tattooing -- or put a tattoo on the prisoner's arm. With a human being, you can also alter what's inside -- the mind. You can terrorize, train new behaviors, force the subordinate to use your language, and force them to quit practicing their native religion.

(5) To destroy or create. Because my dishes belong to me, I can break them if I so choose. Owning a person, I could break bones, blind them, amputate, or kill them. Because their body is mine, I could also choose to impregnate them. Just as the wheat that grows from my seed belongs to me, a child born from the woman I claim to own also becomes my possession. From one owned person, now I've generated two.

-- to be continued --

October 9, 2002

Posted by Sven at October 9, 2002 04:37 PM