Voices: Deconstructing private property as a “right”

Throughout this pandemic, we have seen a number of longstanding notions about our society turned on their heads. The truism that the bosses create value rather than workers went by the wayside among numerous wildcat strikes.

The argument against Medicare for All on financial grounds dissipated after trillions of dollars were pumped into the stock market and into banks and corporations at a moment’s notice. Why, even the tried-and-true, battle-tested idea that ingesting bleach and rubbing alcohol can cure disease went the way of the dodo just last week.

But now is the time to take down the central, most destructive and ridiculous societal norm we have: the fiction of private property.

Before we continue, let me just state that nobody is going after your toothbrush, your iPhone, or even your car. When we speak about property, we are speaking about land and accumulated capital.

To illustrate how ridiculous an idea private property is, let us consider a few examples:

Property is a byproduct of law and the philosophies that uphold it. In this country, the Founding Fathers were scholars of and adherents to Enlightenment thinkers like Locke and Hobbes. These philosophers were wealthy landowners who were certainly not going to philosophize their way out of their material wealth and class privilege, no matter where the logic led.

Locke and Hobbes railed against the divine rights of king and aristocrat and posited the rights of man as “life, liberty, and property”. However, as former lower aristocracy, they conveniently forgot that their own property holdings would permit them to accumulate more, while the new working class, essentially property-less, would have a much harder time.

When speaking about rights, if one group gets more than another, then it ceases to be a right. When speaking about the “natural rights of man”, these men were thinking exclusively of a well-heeled, middle-class man; as we know, there was a considerable lapse between the penning of these “natural” rights and the inclusion of women, African slaves, Italians, Poles, Irishmen, and Jews enjoying them.

Certain American Indian and Australian Aboriginal groups had no concept of private property, which certainly does away with its status as a “universal” right. So, at best, we can say that these Enlightenment ideas on property are borne of a biased perspective.

The Founding Fathers, themselves wealthy landholders and slaveowners, calcified the property myth when drawing up the nation’s laws. This included: human beings as property, an electoral college meant to subvert the will of the electorate, and the helpful suggestion that white male property owners be the only class allowed to vote, allowing property, the supposed right of all, to stay in the hands of a privileged few.

Now we can see just how shaky this notion of property really is, but we can go even deeper.

In all jurisdictions of the United States, before one dies, it is wise to consult an attorney to determine what is to be done with one’s property after death. This document, known as a last will and testament, must be written by a lawyer duly called to the bar, signed, witnessed, notarized, and then scrutinized by a probate court, usually a panel of lawyers, experts in estate law.

Jurisdictions have differing rules in estate law, meaning that what can be done in one jurisdiction cannot necessarily be done in another. So much for consistency in “private property”.

However, if the lawyer makes a mistake in writing the will, or if for some reason it cannot pass muster with the probate court, in some cases the state is permitted to take a speculative interest in the decedent’s property. This is the same state established by property owners and buttressed by law and philosophy that property owners conceived of to enshrine their dubious “right” to property.

This state also claims to promote the public welfare, but in some cases where a will is considered invalid (intestacy, in legal parlance), the state appropriates the decedent’s property and sells it to the highest bidder. The public welfare might dictate that a dead man’s house become a school, a medical clinic, or collective housing, but it generally ends in the hands of the propertied class, which, along with eminent domain, continues the cyclical, farcical notion of private property.

Exclusive ownership of land is so absurd that it merits little in the way of serious discussion. If one is going to lay exclusive claim to ownership of land through deed, contract, or comingling of labor, as the law dictates, one may just as logically claim ownership of, say, a star, several cubic yards of the Earth’s atmosphere, the depths of the ocean, landmass on one of the moons of Jupiter, or several lightyears of interstellar space.

We have established that property as a right does not cover everybody, undermining its status as a “right.” We have further established that its place of prominence in both philosophy and jurisprudence is due to the fact that property owners wrote these laws and philosophical texts. We know that the state can abrogate the right to property on an inconsistent basis, and that claiming exclusive ownership of land is on its face ridiculous. But we can move away from land as property and enter into capital as property.

In a capitalist society such as ours, workers are required to sell their labor power in exchange for a wage. The worker does a job, the boss pays the worker, the worker comes back, and the cycle continues. But what is the motivation for the boss to continue the enterprise, and where does it come from?

The motivation is, of course, profit, what neoclassical economists euphemistically call the “surplus of labor”, or what remains after the product is sold and the wages and overhead paid. However, if we consult Karl Marx, he will talk about the exploitation of labor; namely, that there is no such thing as a surplus of labor, given that the worker has produced the whole of the value.

What the boss retains as profit rightfully belongs to the worker who produced the value, and no matter how well-paid one is, one will never be paid at a level commensurate with the value produced. This is the Marxian theory of exploitation of labor in a nutshell, and from this we can take one step further in deconstructing property. The profits of business, hoarded in bank accounts, are in fact wages stolen from workers that the owner keeps.

Since accumulated capital allows for the acquisition of more property, we can think of it as a form of property, or at least a substitute. And if the accumulation of capital depends on undercutting the worker who produced the value, we can repair to the famous words of French mutualist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who exclaimed, “property is theft!”

So, property is a universal right, but somehow not everybody has it. The Framers shillyshallied when composing the Declaration of Independence, claiming one had the right to the “pursuit of happiness” (read: property), but they were well aware that property holders stood to acquire more property than those forced to sell their labor.

Property is a central part of our societal framework, yet law treats it inconsistently. Property is an unalienable right, yet the state can speculate on your property after you die if your lawyer did sloppy work writing your will and pass it on to another property holder at pure profit. A business’s profit represents in actuality a systematic theft from those who create the value, which leads to the further consolidation of property among a smaller and smaller propertied class.

The myth of private property that the ruling class established and lawyers dependent upon the ruling class reified, represents the greatest scam humankind has committed against itself, an embarrassing failure of imagination, and is a prehistoric notion that retards our evolution as a species.

What can be done to undermine this dangerous fiction? We can begin by guaranteeing housing as a human right and establishing public ownership of housing. Competition for fewer and fewer dwelling units allows owners to charge whatever they please, regardless of ability to pay. If housing is guaranteed and the public maintains it, we can nibble away at this oppressive fantasy.

Secondly, we can harshly punish real estate speculation, as the English common law did. Speculators in England were routinely put to death, as their speculation did not add to the productive economy. We can see similar patterns today with hedge funds, private equity firms, and real estate speculators gentrifying places like Missoula, Bozeman, and Whitefish, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Denver, and San Francisco.

Finally, we can place maximums on profits companies earn while simultaneously placing ownership and decision-making in the hands of workers and trade unions. This would discourage the hoarding of capital, thus destabilizing the property that depends on accumulated capital and increasing company revenue.

Many previously unquestioned ideas have fallen apart amid the coronavirus epidemic. Now we have the chance to take apart the most destructive one of all: the concept of private property. If we begin to guarantee housing, shift ownership to those who create the value rather than those who appropriate it, and punish speculation and profiteering, we can build a more just society, break the haughty power of the wealthy elite, and extend more peace and security to more and more people.

Finally, we can use this opportunity to continue the Enlightenment experiment, and extend the rights proffered therein to the entire world, making a quantum leap forward as a species away from the Dark Ages of late capitalism and toward greater progress and prosperity.