Private property

The concept of private property has a paradoxical career. On the one hand it is held sacrosanct in developed economies as well as primitive autocracies. In the former, private property has been presented as a safeguard to privacy and autonomy, reserving space for self-sufficiency and solitude. In the former, private property has commodified natural and human-made things, making them objects for the taking based on power and privilege. These two threads have merged in the modern world.

Early modern England provides an excellent example of the evolution of the concept and practice of private property. But, furthermore, the impact of private property on the hermit in this history is important because it demonstrates what will or can happen to not only solitaries but anyone.

Two significant movements toward private property occurred in early modern England: 1) the dissolution of the monasteries, and 2) the enclosure movement.

The dissolution of monasteries and appropriation of church lands was an aggrandizement of elite power, not an extension of religious reform or an economic opportunity for the mass of society. The appropriation of monastic and church lands increased the power of the monarchy and its supporting elites, the nobility.

The later enclosure movement designated great tracts of public lands such as forests and grazing meadows into private lands owned, again, by friends of the monarchy and its supporting elites. The new theory of private property provided the rationale.

What was the consequence for hermits? Secular hermits such as forest-dwellers or shepherds using common lands became trespassers. Religious hermits and anchorites were literally turned out of their monasteries and anchorholds. Both were forced to find a way of purchasing what society once granted on the basis of usufruct or of religion.

The Roman legal concept of usufruct meant that the state protected access and use of public property until it deemed the property needed for another purpose. If grazing land or church land was better suited to serve as agricultural land for the community, this was understood to be the privilege of power, which had a kind of moral limitation. At least this is how usufruct functioned in an ideal sense. Rapacious elites of society always found ways of appropriating the lands and houses of orphans and widows, so to speak, but this was understood to be criminal, not a new theory of economics, as was private property.

Thus, privatization did not reassign purpose but dissolved the usufruct status and relationship. It made nature and resources beyond the means of use for any without power or money. But, moreover, it did not even have to do with use. The key to private property is ownership, not use. Certainly the hermit had neither power or money, but is the paragon of mindful use.

We have reached a near-terminus with the possibilities of privatization today. No wonder that there are so few wilderness hermits when there is so little wilderness, when wilderness has been commodified and placed beyond the reach of solitaries seeking solitude in that most natural of places.

But it is not only that natural things like trees and mountains have become private property to the elimination of hermits. It is that these natural things, and now including water and clean air and soil, have been or soon will be eliminated altogether, because society (whether powerful elites or consumption-minded masses) will have consumed them altogether.