Uncle Tom’s Cabin

The concept of self-ownership came up in discussion at Crooked Timber as a result of my passing slap at Nozick in the post on Austrian economics and Flat Earth geography. I’ve been planning posting on some related issues, but I realise there are some critical points I need to clarify first, most notably on the relationship, if any, between self-ownership and property rights.

I’m inclined to the view that there is no such relationship, or more precisely that our inalienable rights over our own bodies represent a constraint on the legitimate scope of property rights, rather than forming a basis for such rights. But, there’s lots that I know I don’t know about this, and, presumably, more that I don’t know I don’t know.

The problems for me start with language. As far as I know, no one has ever remarked on the title of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Yet the core of the book is that Tom owns neither the cabin nor himself: both are the property of his owner. And that brings up another striking feature of language (at least English). We use the possessive case to refer to Tom’s owner, but, obviously the owner was not Tom’s possession whereas, legally, the reverse was true.

The abolition of slavery hasn’t resolved the contradictions here: for wage workers, it’s natural to divide the hours of the day into “company time” and “my time”, while for house workers the common complaint is the absence of any “time of my own”.

So, some questions to start off with

First, how universal is the linguistic conflation of the possessive case with possession in the sense of ownership (Wikipedia suggests that there may be some exceptions, but the distinctions described are not precisely the ones I mean). And, if there is such a linguistic universal, what conclusions should we draw from it?

Second, have political philosophers looked at the question in this light: that is, on the relationship between the broad use of the possessive to denote relationships of all kinds and the particular use to denote property ownership. If so, what is the relationship between self-possession and self-ownership?

30 thoughts on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin

  1. Great stuff again John – getting down to the feet of clay that economic theory rests on as you are doing. I will be very interested to see what this crowd’s point of view is. The version I’m familiar with from an environmental planning course about 25 years ago goes something like this:

    – Basically this issue of property rights caused the enlightenment philosophers a lot of angst – possibly because they didn’t see why the king or emperor or pope deserved some god given monopoly. And Henry Morgan et al. had been pillaging the Spanish so how could they justify keeping all that loot in light of ‘Thou shall not steel’.
    – So John Locke came up with idea of a MAN getting property rights/ownership from the sky god through the sweat of HIS brow. Which all fitted nicely with the protestant work ethic, the emergence of modern capitalism and the vested interest of the emerging middle classes in western Europe.
    – And it was timely because it explained why Europeans could undertaken a bit of imperial colonization with a clean conscience – because clearly no particular Scot owned the common land – hence the enclosure movement – and indigenous peoples didn’t go anything productive except hang out and be lazy unless they were enslaved like Uncle Tom and made to be productive and know their place.
    – And so you got the wonderful new world of property rights where capitalists could have their own inalienable right to ownership mimicking the ownership of royal (real) estates by the king and his feudal lackeys as a result of the machinations of their warlord ancestors like Eric Bloodaxe.

    When I heard this explanation (minus the cynicism) – distilled down to God gave the worthy natural rights – it was right at the time of Mabo – when a certain Torres Strait Islander called Terra Nullius for what it was – a cheap rationalization of theft and imperialism. Since then God has become god has become the Flying Spaghetti monster and the philosophical self serving bollocks behind property rights which underpins modern economics is plain for all to see who want to see.

    Now having said all this I have to admit this property demarcation system while founded on bull is still quite important and useful – especially as I and my partner are involved in that quintessential property rights situation – a dispute over fencing and rights of access – with a very annoying neighbour we want nothing to do with. Ah Bliss.

  2. We don’t have a possessive case in English, what you’re referring to is usually called the ‘genitive’ case. It’s certainly used to indicate possession but it covers a variety of other relationships such as benefit, use, inalienable possession (typically body parts and kin), associative relationships, etc.

  3. …I should have added, I am of course talking about English. Your question asking if conflation of possessive case with possession (as ownership) is a linguistic universal is hard to answer. Many languages do not use case (English has only the remnants of an earlier case system). Even among case-marking languages, I’m not sure how many have a ‘possessive’ case that’s limited to ownership but I suspect that it’s rare. For example, most Australian languages distinguish between ‘alienable’ and ‘inalienable’ possession, the latter referring to entities you cannot *not* possess such as body parts, kin, country, etc. But the alienable possession constructions are, as in English, used for a variety of relationships as well as simple ownership. So it’s complicated and you have to know a fair bit about the variety of situations in order to pose the question in a useful way.

  4. David Graeber’s Debt had some interesting thoughts on the origin of the idea of self-possession and self-ownership. (I know he’s not flavour of the month since the Crooked Timber contretemps, but whatever his views of the US/Chinese bond market, his archaeology and anthropology is pretty sound). Anyway, IIRC he postulates that the notion of self-possession, that is that the body is the absolute owned “possession” of a non-corporeal “self”, only makes sense in the context of other-possession; that is, the concept arose as a corollary of slavery.
    Slavery ripped its victims from their social contexts and embodied realities and turned people into “alienable” things. Defining themselves in opposition to their slaves, the slave-owners considered themselves “inalienable”. Hence the creation of absolute rights of man in the same place and time (post-colonial US) as the creation of absolute property in men (and women and children). Graeber doesn’t just refer to the US slave trade but also what we understand of the nature of selfhood and slavery in Africa (pre- and post-triangle trade), ancient Ireland and the middle east.
    Coates’ already classic article on the case for reparations from slavery makes a similar point:

    “Here we find the roots of American wealth and democracy—in the for-profit destruction of the most important asset available to any people, the family. The destruction was not incidental to America’s rise; it facilitated that rise. By erecting a slave society, America created the economic foundation for its great experiment in democracy. The labor strife that seeded Bacon’s rebellion was suppressed. America’s indispensable working class existed as property beyond the realm of politics, leaving white Americans free to trumpet their love of freedom and democratic values. Assessing antebellum democracy in Virginia, a visitor from England observed that the state’s natives “can profess an unbounded love of liberty and of democracy in consequence of the mass of the people, who in other countries might become mobs, being there nearly altogether composed of their own Negro slaves.””

  5. Another relevant example from anthropology would be Marilyn Strathern’s concept of the Melanesian “dividual”, which is tied to the existence of a gift economy as opposed to a western commodity economy (the ultimate identity defining/denying commodity being the slave as mentioned above). Here is a good summary:

    The Gender of the Gift
    Marilyn Strathern’s highly-acclaimed 1988 study of Highland New Guinea society sets out the concept that Melanesian persons are dividual. She argues that personhood arises from relations between others and the continuing relationships that each person engages in – that people in Melanesia are “multiply-authored”. The dividual aspect of personhood stresses that each person is a composite of the substances and actions of others – the dividual person is composed of components from the entire community. Melanesians do not conceptualise social life in terms of the individual versus society. Strathern also introduces the concept of the partible person. She proposes that “objects are created not in contradistinction to persons but out of persons.” By giving gifts, people give a part of themselves. Gifts are not symbolic of a person, but that they are “extracted from one and absorbed by another.” She calls this continuity between people and objects a “mediated exchange” – a gift logic as opposed to the (Western) commodity logic, which is rooted in a fundamental discontinuity between people and things. It is this logic of commodities, she argues, which disposes Westerners to to locate power, possession and control in a one-to-one relation between discrete attributes and the unitary individual. In Melanesian gift exchanges, the gift itself is multiply-authored by the relations that have both produced it and exchanged it; that things are part of the community, and may have agency and be persons themselves – which change as they gather new relations into their biographies. Gifts are not only inseperable from social relations, they also create new social relations.

    I’m afraid I can’t offer any comment on the degree to which these relations are reflected in Melanesian grammatical structure.

  6. JQ, my expertise on this is not great, but the place to start with this is definitely Tony Honore’s excellent piece on property and ownership. He points out that possession is one of the incidents of ownership. Ownership (defeasibly) entails possession. On the other hand, you can possess something without being the true owner. So political and legal philosophers are definitely aware possession is a weaker concept than ownership.

  7. Glad to see the nice little tribute to Rumsfeld. Plain humanity required that somebody say or imply something nice about that once promising and ever eager and well meaning boy sometime: so why not a soft-hearted Aussie lefty?

    Interesting linguistic points you raise but I wonder if the best approach wouldn’t be multilingual. For example you line up ten propositions or clauses which might be of interest in this context and render them in five or ten very different languages. You might find, to suggest the simplest result, that the way a language dealt with possessives or whatever made no apparent difference at all to the social, legal or economic facts on the ground…

  8. @Nevil Kingston-Brown
    Your Melanesian case is interesting but is it relevant to JQ’s thesis or question? Apart from not clearly touching the linguistic issue does it not serve to underpin the common notions of personal property? After all, the point of a gift is that it is the giver’s property to give away.

  9. so reading the above comments the USA got individual rights in the form of self-possession or self-ownership i.e. (self-)property rights as follows “I am my own slave of which I am master” or vice versa depending on the glass being half full/empty.

    The genitive case is all but dead in English and is practically only used for possession, it’s dying in German but doing okay most other indo-euro languages.

    The term belonging may cover both possession, individual self-ownership and even dividuation.

    Most libertarians are propertarian fetishists. They want to be their own slaves.

  10. There’s also cases where the ownership is reversed from the “English” order, many tribal groups would phrase it as “people of the land” rather than “people who own the land”. Which of course doesn’t scale beyond a few hundred people in any one place… and arguably we’re in the process of discovering the these newfangled “property rights” don’t either, but they fail on a global scale rather than a local one. Ooops.

  11. Midrash :@Nevil Kingston-Brown Your Melanesian case is interesting but is it relevant to JQ’s thesis or question? Apart from not clearly touching the linguistic issue does it not serve to underpin the common notions of personal property? After all, the point of a gift is that it is the giver’s property to give away.

    The point of the Melanesian concept of the gift is that it is not “property” that is given “away”. It is a part of the giver’s personhood, and its circulation and return through the giver’s social network is constitutive of their identity. The relevance is that it’s only in societies in which things and persons really are alienable that it makes sense to have a category of “inalienable”. The concept of “self-possession” could only arise if posession by another was a possibility.

  12. I remember reading a quote attributed to a Maori chief (might be a made up quotation in the noble savage tradition like all those Native American quotes, but still quite cool): “Pakeha measure their greatness by how much they have, we by how much we give away”.

    Similar mindset amongst Anglo-Saxon chieftains.

  13. According to Carolyn Merchant (whom I have been reading lately) and others, it seems likely that women were not considered to own their own bodies by many enlightenment thinkers (possibly a majority). In fact, it was probably not until rape in marriage came to be an accepted legal concept (very recent), and pretty clearly some men still don’t accept it.

    More broadly however (again thinking about Merchant et al) the idea that the body is clearly separate from the eco-system is questionable. I think that at one and the same time, we do have a real and meaningful sense of “me” as bounded by my skin, yet we are in fact flowing into and out of the environment all the time.

    This is also related to why people get into such difficulties about “rights of the foetus” etc – because our individualistic way of thinking, inherited from the enlightenment, cannot conceive of one person simultaneously being ‘self’ and ‘other’. Epistemologically, we have all extracted ourselves from the world as ‘separate individuals’ but that’s not all we are.

  14. @midrash #9

    It is actually relevant, because the gift can never be permanent in the Melanesian societies I have encountered. I discussed this with Francis Fukuyama, who acknowledged that property rights were critical for economic development and largely lacking in Melanesian society. He opined that the main method through which European-based society had created solid frameworks for property ownership was 1000 years of massive bloodshed. “I don’t think we’d wish that on them.” he said.

    As for some of the original questions raised, there has been a fair bit of study into the different uses of the possessive (in semantics, not economics or political philosophy AFAIK) in the last couple of decades. Some languages conflate different aspects of the possessive, while others, particularly creoles, have no distinction at all – context and the hearer’s interpretation are all-important.

  15. If there are any linguistic universals, they have no normative significance for this kind of discussion. People can and do change the way they speak (and the way they think), and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.

    Also, it’s a mistake to think of ‘rights’ as being much like objects. A statement like ‘Everybody has the right to personal security’ is an emotionally appealing and sometimes convenient way of saying ‘People’s personal security should not be interfered with’; the first is a restatement of the second, not a reason for it. Similarly a statement like ‘Everybody has the right to own property’ is an emotionally appealing and sometimes convenient way of saying ‘People’s property should not be interfered with’. When you look at it like this, the question ‘What relationship (if any) is there between people’s rights to self-ownership and people’s rights to property?’ resolves into ‘What similarities (if any) are there between the arguments against interfering with people’s bodies and the arguments against interfering with people’s property?’ When you put the question like that, it becomes obvious that the answer depends on what the arguments are, against interfering with people’s bodies and against interfering with people’s property, and in neither case is ‘Because it’s a violation of their rights’ an answer — it’s just a restatement of the position that’s being questioned.

  16. Actually, the division of time into “company time” and “personal time” is a false dichotomy, in the sense that what we are free to do in what we consider personal time is in fact still under the constraints of the company. Companies and other organisations typically have rules governing an employee’s behaviour “out of hours.” For instance, going out of your way to vilify your place of employment during your personal time is still likely to breach rules of conduct. Other agencies, especially government agencies, may have rules concerning overt support of a political party (eg blogging, attending rallies, etc), insisting on political neutrality in your behaviour, whether during company time or personal time. Workers don’t necessarily own their personal time.

  17. Donald Oats :
    the division of time into “company time” and “personal time” is a false dichotomy, in the sense that what we are free to do in what we consider personal time is in fact still under the constraints of the company.

    I put that under “known defects of the propertarian extremism system we’re working towards rather than as any natural or inherent part of property rights. Although if you tend towards the “people are just property, and only special in that they can also own property” then perhaps it would seem strange that people can also have opinions that differ from those of their owners.

  18. The rule on universals is that there are none. Whenever you can come up with one, there’s an example around the corner.

    According to chapter 58 of WALS, the World Atlas of Language Structures,

    Appositive possessive nouns are especially well studied for the Oceanic languages (see Lichtenberk 1983b). For example, in Paamese (Vanuatu), there are four possessive nouns which classify the possessive relation as intended for drinking, intended for eating, legally constituted ownership, and use or manipulation. That the choice is not a matter of gender or declension classification by the head noun is shown by examples like (7), in which the same head noun ani ‘green coconut’ can be used with all four possessive nouns depending on the purpose or social basis of the possession.

    The link would provide the actual examples, but if you just google for any of those sentences you’ll find it. This apparently only applies to alienable possession; inalienable possession (e.g. “my hand”, “my mother”) uses another structure.

    Note that these are parts of human languages and there will be bizarre exceptions to the generalisations.

  19. @J-D

    I agree. Extant linguistic conventions or patterns can be no guide to further moral philosophy. However, unexamined and unacknowledged patterns can limit thought. Thus if we seek not a guide but an escape from previous limitation then examining the linguistic patterns has a point. Perhaps this is what JQ means?

  20. Nearly 32 years ago, when ‘Hubby’ and I got together (we are not married, so the term is whimsical) we had a bit of a problem deciding how to refer to each other in the third person when speaking to those who didn’t know the absent other by name.

    We settled on ‘my partner’ which wasn’t perfect because some assumed we were gay, or thought we meant a business partner. Still, the term was chosen precisely to problematise the notion of possession inherent in all of the other options (e.g. Boyfriend, girlfriend, de facto, common law wife/husband)

    One can of course see the possessive here as conveying not ownership but an attribute or feature (cf: the car’s wheels are chrome; the war’s greatest tragedy was … )

  21. Fran covers a part of my thought. Possession has many senses. Uncle Tom’s relationship to the cabin can simply be how he tjought about it. He may have loved or hated the cabin depending on what went on their in which case the possesive aspect refers to his experiences of it and how he refered to it. The possesive connection of Tom to the cabin the way I read it was made by the narrator.

    I’m going to put up this link again here as I now see a connection to slavery in Law Professor Richard Epstein’s comments where he says he would be happy if hour rates of pay were just cents per hour as people would have to get a second job…


    ….., in which case the cost of labour would be below even that of slavery. Slave masters were required to house and feed their “property” whereas a worker on cents per hour would face that responsibility themselves. There appears to be no bounds to the lack of understanding amoungst Libertarians, an observation which strengthens the notion that Libertarianism is a condition featuring distorted cognitions at the core, extended with a bunch of greedy hangers on. I’m just throwing it out there that possesion involves a variety of cognitions.

  22. @Fran Barlow

    Your linguistic position is inconsistent though your real position may well be consistent in terms of a real equal (non-owning) partnership. The possessive case is indicated by “my” as in “my partner” or “my husband”. The terms “husband” and “wife” are linguistically neutral in terms of possessive case. The terms “husband” and “wife” have carried a lot of cultural and legal baggage relating to ownership but they are now mostly relieved of that baggage. This latter point was probably different “nearly 32 years ago”.

    Power and ownership in modern society mostly relate to access to money and control of money. IMO, one can see that power relationships in marriage (legal or de facto) do largely follow this pattern. A person with no independent income in a marriage or partnership (or not enough independent income) has fewer options. This is because the final recourse is withdrawal from the marriage or partnership but this presupposes the financial independence to set up accomodation and a life elsewhere.

    So the case is no different essentially from all the other power relationships in capitalist society. These power relationships always hinge on access to and control of capital and income. Language is of secondary importance and plays the role of post hoc justification via linguistic structure, law and ideology. Primarily everything hinges on the “money nexus”, especially under late stage capitalism.

  23. @BilB

    Modern internships illustrate your point as well. An intern earns nothing, gets no keep and obtains no binding promise of ever gaining employment. So an intern in one sense is in an even worse position than a slave. But in other ways, the intern is not in as bad a position as a slave. The intern has the freedom to leave this unequal setup. The intern is usually kept by family money so interns in fact have tended to come from priveleged families.

    What I suspect will happen is that internship, and jobs paying less than the subsistence rate of labour, will be pushed down and up the class pyramid (towards the middle). At the same time, welfare for under 30 year olds will be proegressively withdrawn. Soon we will see middle clasee families supporting offspring until age 30; even, in considerable proportion, offspring who have attained professional tertiary degrees. This is already happening in the US and is starting to happen here.

    The ultimate pressure behind this is the final stage globalisation of late stage capitalism. Manufacture is moving from high wage countries to low wage countries. Clerical work, computer and customer service work can also be moved to low wage countries with modern technology. The developed West will suffer a decline by capitalist osmosis, as it were, until all countries are low wage countries with tiny, super-rich elites.

    A classical capitalist crisis, as predicted by Marx, could occur and probably has to occur at some point. What will compound and complicate the crisis are the limits to growth. Capitalism has both internal contradictions and external contradictions which it cannot overcome. The external contradictions relate to capitalism’s conflict with the environment (the sustaining, healthy biosphere) which it is exhausting and destroying.

  24. Further to above;

    “Whereas at the primitive stage of capitalist accumulation “political economy treats the proletarian as a mere worker” who must recieve only the minimum necessary to guarantee his labor power, and never considers him “in his leisure, in his humanity,” their ideas of the ruling class are revised just as soon as so great an abundance of commodities begins to be produced that a surplus “collaboration” is required of the workers. All of a sudden the workers in question discover that they are no longer invariably subject to the total contempt so clearly built into every aspect of the organization and management of production; instead they find that every day, once work is over, they are treated like grown-ups, with a great show of solicitude and politeness, in their new role as consumers. The humanity of the commodity finally attends to the workers (leisure and humanity) for the simple reason that political economy as such now can – and must bring these spheres under its sway. Thus is that the totality of human existence falls under the regime of the “perfected denial of man.”” – Guy Debord, Thesis 43., The Society of the Spectacle.

    This is all very well, while one is lulled by plenty and entertainment, but the Western generations born from about 1990 onwards will find consumer society collapsing beneath their feet. Goods will become scarcer and more expensive. Employment will be very hard to obtain. The “goodies” of late stage capitalism will still be on display for the rich and super-rich but the wastern middle-class via its post 1990 children will collapse into lifelong poverty. I cannot imagine this will have a peaceful outcome.

  25. Presumably Uncle Tom would have referred to “my master” or “my boss” – no ownership implied.

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