Freud, the !Kung and teddy bears

What we can learn from the property of toddlers in teddy bears.

Acerbic Aussie economist John Quiggin recently had a post up at Crooked Timber on the dependence of property rights on the state. The argument is with the natural property rights crowd. Worth reading, though I can’t get worked up about the issue. Property is a claim recognised by society. Our form of society is the state. Where’s the problem?

The interesting side to me is where the claim comes from. I got thinking about infants and property. Any parent who has tried to deprive a toddler of the favourite teddy bear or rabbit, if only to wash the crust of dried food off it, will have encountered a fierce and absolutist defence. Not everything is property to a toddler, but what there is matters. Toddlers constantly squabble over the use of toys, often based on a claim to ownership. (Nice joke from a CT commenter: of course kindergartens are Hobbesian – the participants are all nasty, brutish, and short.) The idea of natural child communism is wishful thinking. It’s the adult carers who promote sharing, in an uphill struggle.

I commented that toddler property in teddy bears is a difficulty for the statist theory. States do offer their theoretical protection against teddy-nappers on buses, but it is both ineffectual and practically unimportant. States do not intervene to protect such rights against those who really do threaten them, caregivers, siblings and playmates. State judicial systems barely recognize toddlers as individuals, except in custody disputes and cases of abuse. When a young child, perhaps an orphan or grandchild, does legally own substantial property, it is managed by parents, step-parents or guardians. It doesn’t look as if property in teddy bears derives from the state. But it’s clearly of some psychological importance in the genesis of our complex attitude to the institution.

Is Freud any help here? Not much. He did not SFIK address the problem directly at all. I did find a partly relevant passage in Chapter V of Civilisation and it Discontents, attacking utopian communists:

By abolishing private property one deprives the human love of aggression of one of its instruments, a strong one undoubtedly, but assuredly not the strongest. It in no way alters the individual differences in power and influence which are turned by aggressiveness to its own use, nor does it change the nature of the instinct in any way. This instinct did not arise as the result of property; it reigned almost supreme in primitive times when possessions were still extremely scanty; it shows itself already in the nursery when possessions have hardly grown out of their original anal shape; it is at the bottom of all the relations of affection and love between human beings——possibly with the single exception of that of a mother to her male child. …
I take up the standpoint that the tendency to aggression is an innate, independent, instinctual disposition in man, and I come back now to the statement that it constitutes the most powerful obstacle to culture. …
This instinct of aggression is the derivative and main representative of the death instinct we have found alongside of Eros, sharing his rule over the earth.

Freud’s two arguments for the priority of aggression over the property instinct are feeble in the extreme.

“It [aggression] reigned almost supreme in primitive times when possessions were still extremely scanty”. If you are poor, what you or your band do own – pigs, cows, spears, waterholes – becomes more not less important. Pre-modern societies fought a lot, partly in cycles of revenge, but also partly over property. See for instance Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday. The savage may have been noble, but he was not peaceful.

“It [aggression] shows itself already in the nursery when possessions have hardly grown out of their original anal shape.” That’s not an argument at all. Since Freud concedes that there is a property instinct in anal-stage toddlers, why can’t it be the basis of their aggression?

BTW, the “anal shape” of property is far-fetched, as is the whole “anal stage” construct: an artefact of the century-long potty training fad, now mercifully over. Toddlers are very proud of their faeces as personal productions, but are happy to flush them down the toilet as yucky. They don’t take them to bed or fight over them with siblings.

We can do better with Freud if we try to fit property into his grander theory of two ultimate instincts, libido or Eros, and death or destruction. Property, let’s say, starts out as a form of love, the exclusive and jealous sort. We can even fit it into a quasi-Oedipal story. The child loves his or her mother, and wants exclusive possession of the love object, but notices that this exclusive possession is impossible. Mother unfairly shares quality time with others – spouse, siblings, employer, even her iPhone. The frustration is deflected into the creation of a love object who is always there when he’s wanted, Teddy.

Fig 1. A dysfunctional English family with therapist
Fig 1. A dysfunctional English family with therapist

The theory could actually be tested. Do toddlers in favelas or New Guinea tribes, who generally make their own toys from materials lying around, develop strong attachments to any of them? Is love of teddies stronger in later-borns, who face more competition for parental time, than in firstborns? What is the distinction between toddler property in loved teddies and in less loved but still valued instruments like Lego blocks?

Even if this is true for familiar societies, we should not assume the instinct is all down to nature. Our childrearing is radically different from the palaeo-historical norm, judging by the few surviving hunter-gatherer bands. For example, according to Jared Diamond (ibid), among the !Kung bushmen of South Africa:

Measurements among the !Kung have shown that an infant nurses on the average four times an hour during the day, 2 minutes per bout, with an average interval of only 14 minutes between bouts … This constant opportunity for nursing on demand usually continues for at least three years of the !Kung child’s life … !Kung infants spend their first year of life in skin-to-skin contact with their mother or another caregiver 90% of the time … If a !Kung infant cries, 88% of crying bouts receive a response within 3 seconds, and almost all bouts receive a response within 10 seconds.

A !Kung child psychologist observing the childrearing practices of even progressive mothers in our societies would consider our rationing of an infant’s contact with its carers extreme. She might predict that this may lead to toxically high levels of separation anxiety, jealousy and possessiveness. She might also suggest that since !Kung practices are close to those of our primate cousins, they may reflect fairly hard-wired norms and baby expectations that we are riskily violating. And a !Kung anthropologist might add that the rationing started with the invention of agriculture – unlike gathering fruit, nuts and edible herbs, a woman can’t readily do stoop field labour with a hoe or sickle while carrying an infant. And that is just when property really got going as the rising god. He might see the self-righteous legalism which German élites bring to the Greek crisis all of a piece with their distant, ordnungsliebig childrearing. In a way, they are trying to potty-train the Greeks.

I’m tempted to up the Freudian ante and claim that property is the paradigm avatar of Eros, the first form of love, whose other forms it shapes. Possession is clearly a part of healthy adult sexuality, and dominates in several more or less unhealthy ones, on a scale from consensual S&M to rape. The etymology of luxury is akin to that of lust. It’s not a new insight (Huizinga?) that the forms of moveable wealth in say 1450 gave a sensual thrill: the chink of gold coins, the glitter of jewels, the smoothness of silk and furs, best displayed on the glowing body of a beautiful young mistress. Savonarola would have thought coveting bearer bonds and Apple stock certificates a half-hearted, milquetoast sin.

My theory makes the Oedipus complex a bit less incredible. The child wants possession of his or her mother, in the propertarian, slave-owning sense of absolute control of her time. There is no genital content. Genital desire arises at puberty and attaches itself to the pre-existing mental structures of possessiveness, in the formation of adult sexuality.

Or as M. Proudhon might have said:

La propriété, c’est le viol.


I’m still annoyed at Freud’s deliberate reversal of the meaning of Sophocles’ Oedipus story. Deliberate, because he was a highly educated man and a very skilful writer and mythmaker on his own account. Sophocles’ Oedipus, an adult man, determines to satisfy his curiosity about his parentage. He finds out that the older woman he has taken to bed as his wife for political reasons is in fact his own mother. Far from revealing a hidden desire, the news of their incest comes to both of them as an appalling shock. Jocasta hangs herself, Oedipus puts out his own eyes. We are invited to think of these savage reactions as normal. The play is not about sex; it is a warning about the dangers of the uninhibited pursuit of knowledge, which Sophocles’ Athenian audience prized quite as much as Freud did or we do. Sophocles’ point was a threat to Freud, as his theory was fated to disrupt society and had very few therapeutic benefits to offset the damage. So, I suggest, he needed to bury it in a false remake.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

7 thoughts on “Freud, the !Kung and teddy bears”

  1. Humans are born insane; the purpose of education is to heal them.

    "La propriété, c’est le viol." — many musicians might agree 😉

  2. A wonderful essay, but I must point out that it's easily a generation now, perhaps 40 years, since anthropologists and evolutionary biologists harbored the (essentially racist and elitist) vanity that the Kung are representative or earlier stages of humanity. They are what they are, modern humans eking out a tenuous existence on extremely resource-scarce territory. We have absolutely no reason to presume that Neolithic ancestors in the lush fertile deltas of the Indus and Euphrates behaved in any such way. It's an insult to the Kung to view them as primitive proto-humans, rather than every bit as modern as we are, living in the same 2015, but not TXTing every few seconds to their gal pals. And it's scientifically unsound to presume that some standard model of human behavior from 75,000 BCE to 4000 BCE looked anything like the modern Kung.

    1. Well, Jared Diamond does exactly that in his book I cited: using the few surviving hunter-gatherers, and a wider range of farming groups, as evidence (not proof) of the lifestyles of our ancestors. This is reasonable. Should we rely only on archaeology? Bones and spearheads don't tell you anything about babies. Diamond's approach is not at all racist or patronising as far as I can see, and he certainly regards his !Kung and New Guinean informants as human beings like himself. The !Kung system of baby care is certainly adapted to a semi-nomadic existence in a marginal environment. In richer ones like the savannah, hunter-gatherers would not have needed to travel so far, but they would still have had to move all the time to follow prey animals (cf. the Sami and reindeer), and seek out seasonal fruit and nuts. I suppose Palaeolithic fishermen could have been sedentary, but given the sort of boats they had, would mothers of small infants have gone to work in them at all?

  3. By the time I reached the jump I was expecting a shaggy dog punchline below the fold.

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