The Afterlife of Property: Domestic Security and the Victorian Novel

By Jeff Nunokawa | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Domestic Securities: Little Dorrit and
the Fictions of Property

1

The first person who, having fenced off a plot of ground, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared by someone who, uprooting the stakes or filling in the ditch, had shouted to his fellow men: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are lost if you forget that the fruits belong to all and the earth to no one. 1

ROUSSEAU'S famous story of the origin of ownership is actually two stories: If the formation of property brings about the maladies mentioned in this passage, property is in turn invented by an act of acquisition—the founder of civil society must first claim a plot of land in order to make it his. While Rousseau asserts that the founder of civil society engages in an act of theft when he appropriates something that previously did not belong to him, since “the fruits belong to all and the earth to no one,” the liberal conception of property that R. H. Tawney calls “the Traditional Doctrine” regards possession as legitimate only when it results from such appropriation:

Whatever may have been the historical process by which [it has] been established and recognized, the rationale of private property traditional in England is that which sees in it either the results of the personal labour of its owner, or—what is in effect the same thing—the security that each man will reap what he has sown. Locke argued that a man necessarily and legitimately becomes the owner of “whatsoever he removes out of the state that nature hath provided.” 2

The acquisition that invents property is a crime, according to Rousseau, while a similar act justifies the property that is its fruit for “the Traditional Doctrine,” but in either case, ownership is inaugurated by an act of appropriation. Both the founder of civil society and Locke's laborer own what they own by taking something that was not theirs

-19-

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