Rousseau – Property, Land, Territory

Mark Purcell points to Rousseau’s ‘denunciation of property’ in the second discourse:

The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, 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, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: “Do not listen to this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!”

It is a powerful passage, and I use this very quote at the beginning of The Birth of Territory (p. 1), to suggest that territory is, in some ways, like this claiming of land. I spend a little time discussing the quote, and the implications of what Rousseau goes on to say immediately afterwards. This raises the question that the book then goes back as far as Ancient Greek myth to investigate – “But where did this idea of exclusive ownership of a portion of the earth’s surface come from? What kinds of complexities are hidden behind that seemingly straight-forward definition?” (p. 2-3).

In the book’s coda I return to Rousseau, and suggest that while this is a powerful critique, conceptually he comes too late, because he was

writing at a time, in the mid-eighteenth century, when politics was fundamentally conceived as operating with discrete, bounded spaces under the control of a group of people, usually the state. Where those boundaries were was still open to question, of course, and what political structures should operate within the area was widely debated, as it was in Rousseau’s own writings. But the effective structure was now widely assumed: it had become the static background behind the action of political struggles (p. 328).

I suggest that this attitude can be found in his own writings, in a number of instances, but most explicitly when he suggests that “once the State is instituted, consent consists in residence; to dwell in the territory is to submit to sovereignty” (Social Contract, IV, 3.6). Rousseau is too much a thinker of his time.

This entry was posted in Jean Jacques Rousseau, Politics, Territory, The Birth of Territory. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Rousseau – Property, Land, Territory

  1. Mark Purcell says:

    Great stuff as usual Stuart. My only hesitation would be that you seem to want to innoculate or cordon off his powerful critique of property, to say something like: well yes there is this desire to cry out against property in Rousseau, but when that desire is seen in the context of the rest (or whole body) of his work, then it appears quite a lot less strident. While this may be true, while the sentiments in the screed against property might be a minoritarian strain in his thought, I want to make sure we allow ourselves to take up such minoritarian strains and put them to work in our own projects (both intellectual and political), that we don’t dismiss the validity of the sentiments expressed by this minor Rousseau just because there exists a major Rousseau that is more willing to accept assumptions of property (or territory). This minor Rousseau is just as much real and authentic as the major one. I am sure that, like D&G, when Rousseau wrote, he was several, that there was always quite a crowd. So here’s to those minor Rousseaus who, with great eloquence and passion, are calling us to pull up the stakes and fill in the ditch!

    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks Mark. Yes, there are tensions in Rousseau, as with any writer, and it’s surely possible to exploit their work in multiple ways. I wonder how far the critique of property actually goes in Rousseau – I think he begins to undermine it almost immediately after the quote we’re discussing. When you posted it I couldn’t resist commenting, given I use that quote as the opening and closing hook of the book. But it’s great you’re getting people to read and think with Rousseau.

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