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One of the biggest issues separating Right and Left since the French Revolution has been that of private property. Rousseau (7) in his Discourse on Inequality traced the origins of injustice to the first man who fenced off land and declared it his own. Karl Marx (8) set a political agenda of abolishing private property; one of the first things that all Communist regimes inspired by him did was to nationalize the "means of production", not least land. By contrast, the American founding father James Madison (9) asserted in "Federalist Number 10" that one of the most important functions of governments was to protect individuals' unequal ability to acquire property.

Since the Reagan-Thatcher revolution of the late 1970s and early 1980s, one of the top agenda items pursued by market-oriented policy-makers has been privatization of state-owned enterprises in the name of economic efficiency, something that has been fiercely resisted by the Left.


The earliest forms of private property were held not by individuals but by lineages or other kin groups, and much of their motivation was not simply economic but religious and social as well. Forced collectivization by the Soviet Union and China in the 20th century sought to turn back the clock to an imagined past that never existed, in which common property was held by non-kin. Property and kinship thus became intimately connected: property enabled you to take care of not only preceding and succeeding generations of relatives, but of yourself as well as through your ancestors and descendants.

The failure of Westerners to understand the nature of customary property rights and their embeddedness in kinship groups, for Fukuyama in fact, lies in some measure at the root of many of Africa's current dysfunctions, as cited in Chapter 1. European colonial officials were convinced that economic development could not occur in the absence of modern property rights, that is, rights that were individual, alienable and formally specified through the legal system. Many were convinced that Africans, left to their own devices, did not know how to manage land efficiently or sustainably. Westerners assumed that local chiefs “owned" the land, like a feudal lord in Europe. In other cases they set up the chief as their agent, not just for the purposes of acquiring land but also as an arm of the colonial administration. Traditional African leaders in tribal societies found themselves constrained by the checks and balances imposed by complex kinship systems. Arguably as such the Europeans, as eminent African historian Basil Davidson (10) has revealed, deliberately empowered a class of rapacious African Big Men. They thus contributed to the growth of neo-patrimonial government after independence.

When tribal-level societies were succeeded by state-level societies, tribalism did not simply disappear. In China, India, the Middle East and pre-Columbian America state institutions were merely layered on top of tribal ones and existed in uneasy balance with them for long periods of time. One of the greatest mistakes of early modernization theory, beyond the error in thinking that politics, economics and culture had to be congruent with one another, was to think that transactions between the "stages" of history were clean and irreversible. The only part of the world where tribalism was fully superseded by more voluntary and individualistic forms was in Europe, where Christianity played a decisive role in undermining kinship as a basis for social cohesion.

Since most early modernization theorists were European, they assumed that other parts of the world would experience a similar shift away from kinship as part of the modernization process. But they were mistaken. Although China was the first civilization to invent the modern state, it never succeeded in suppressing the power of kinship on social and cultural levels. From the Melanesian wantok to the Arab tribe to the Taiwanese lineage to the Bolivian ayllu, complex kinship structures remain the primary locus of social life for many people in the contemporary world, and strongly shape their interaction with modern political institutions. So the struggle to replace “tribal" politics with a more impersonal form of political relationships continues in the 21st century.

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