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What do I mean by “Private Property”?

September 3, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Neverfox asked me:

“What do you mean, exactly, when you say “private property”?”

 Let me begin by avoiding the obvious (but wrong) answer to this question. While many strands of communism define property as a relation between the individual and things,  historical materialism, defines property as a relation between individuals. What do I mean by this?

Usually, when Marxists are asked this are asked this, they respond by identifying objects that meet the criteria of political-economy as property. Then they subtract from this, specific objects that would not fit the definition of private property for their purpose as “the objects to be seized”. They will say, for instance, an automobile is personal, not private, property under their definition, but an automobile factory is private property. When pressed on this — e.g., “but what about taxis?” — they will again divide the objects between things for personal use and things for use as capital.

Somehow, after all of this they arrive at an approximation: “things which are collectively required versus things that are not.” They then propose that things collectively required are “private property” while things that are not collectively required are not.

The problem with this view is that among the “things collectively required” by us, is us — we need each other. And, we need us, not just in the religious or ideal sense of that term, but in the very physical sense. As a species we would die out without mating; and our civilization would die out without our common pool of labor power.

Now, think about that: What is the easiest solution to this problem: make everything into  the common property of society. The collectively required means become the property of the whole community — now extend this idea to sex and labor. You immediately run into the problem: women become the collective property of men. And, individual labor becomes the collective property of the commune.

This implies that this entire approach to the idea of private property is a dead end, that it contains a fallacy in itself.

So, Marx, in his work, Private Property and Communism, tried a completely different approach to the question, which did not lead to this absurd outcome. As opposed to the Utopians, he proposes communism as not the seizure of property, but its transcendence. In other words — to the best of my understanding — to overcoming the insatiable impulse to have stuff.

What he calls “primitive communism” seeks only to grasp private property and make it the common property of society, and, even if successful, only succeeds in sharing poverty out. Society is turned into a poverty stricken workhouse — he rejects this communism. In this primitive communism “want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced” — this is from the German Ideology. Moreover, he argued, this primitive communism could not survive long in the competitive environment of the world market:

Without this, (1) communism could only exist as a local event; (2) the forces of intercourse themselves could not have developed as universal, hence intolerable powers: they would have remained home-bred conditions surrounded by superstition; and (3) each extension of intercourse would abolish local communism.

Yesterday, I came across a post that follows a similar line of argument:

In fact, as Berman points out, Marx envisioned two very different kinds of communism. One, which he wanted and approved of, was a “genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature, and between man and man”; the other, which he dreaded, “has not only failed to go beyond private property, it hasn’t yet attained to it”. What this means is that, for Marx, genuine communism was only possible on the basis of the legacy of a mature and fully developed capitalism. The communism we have seen in the 20th century, and which most people rightly dread and condemn, is more a kind of state-capitalism, brutally managing poverty and imposing industrial development. The years since Marx’s death have seen very many examples of the second kind of communism; but none yet, unfortunately, of the first.

Compare this passage and Marx’s above passage to the fate of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

Primitive communism understands itself only in relation to private ownership and the inequality of capitalist society. This was the basis of his differences with the anarchists. He argued that if Capital had not completed its historical mission of developing the productive forces sufficiently to abolish want. The commune would still suffer from poverty and would have to complete it on its own. This would require some definite means of apportioning the requirement for labor among the members. This means of dividing up the necessary labor would constitute the remnants of the bourgeois state. Whether people wanted it or not, their consumption would be tied to their labor until the need for labor disappeared. Compulsion would continue to exist in the form that access to the means of consumption would necessarily be measured by the labor contribution of each member.

The anarchists rejected this, but he wasn’t persuaded — this, unfortunately, led in part to the first big split in the workers’ movement. But, even after the split this very same difference reemerges in almost complete form within the Marxist trend itself.

The true resolution, Marx argued, is the abolition of want, of poverty, and of necessary labor. It is, in essence, the abolition of the need to have things since, under these conditions the need to physically possess anything dies out — any material thing one might want is readily present in abundance. With this material abundance, he argues, the impulsive need to possess nature and other individuals must die out as well.

So, in a broader sense of the term, as he defines it, private property is the inverse expression of general scarcity. It is not a “thing to be seized”, but a relationship with nature and other individuals to be abolished.

Finally, Marx insisted:

Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.

I hope that helps answer this. The essay on private property and communism is quite better argued than I just did.

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  1. September 3, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    I’m glad you wrote this up because I was going to suggest taking our Twitter discussion elsewhere. Twitter isn’t a great format (for me, at least) for long discussions with another user.

    When I first asked you this question, I was really asking for your analytical definition of the term. To be clear about what I mean, I’ll go first:

    Private property: the right (in a normative, not necessarily a legal or de facto, sense) to control some resource.

    By normative “right,” I mean:

    the obligation of others to let me have it, and the legitimacy (moral permissibility) of forcing them to let me have it.

    So, are you and/or Marx using something like the same analytical definition when that term comes up in this exposition?

    Once I get clear on this, I can say more.

    • September 3, 2011 at 3:02 pm

      The reason I’m being so careful with this is that I’ve spoken with many Marxists and communists who don’t share that definition, for one reason or another. For example, if you ask them, “Can I have my own toothbrush or do I have to share it with the commons?” they will agree with the former, all the while claiming to be against “private property” (“I’m talking about things like factories and stuff! Factories to the workers!”) This just confuses me because it’s not how I define the term. To me, if you admit to the former, you aren’t so much against it as placing limits on it, whatever they may be.

    • September 3, 2011 at 3:57 pm

      We can cut to the chase here: Marx’s analysis, and the entire history of the Fascist State demonstrates, there is no reason whatsoever to “seize private property”. By seizing money, the Fascist State seized all the external conditions necessary for someone to profit from his or her private property. Is this not a main complaint from those who criticize ex nihilo currency?

      So, we can completely remove “seizure of private property” from the banner of communism, without having lost anything significant to communism. This even includes the very largest factories and enterprises. Not a single owner of any property who wanted to use this property as her capital can escape the fact that money is a fiction created out of nothing by the state.

      I do not argue with your definition at all — I am willing to accept it in its entirety.

  2. September 3, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    I kind of understand (and quite like to be honest) your explanation, but I’m afraid I simply cannot get through even the first paragraph of the “Private Property and Communism” essay you point to. I kind of wish I could. It seems to me that even anarcho-capitalists look to a future in which, absent coercion, resources would be so well targetted and people not held back by privilege that we would all be wealthy enough to have eradicated want, and that when it did occur in small pockets for reasons not brought upon one’s self, everyone else would voluntarily help people out.

    What I cannot see past about my impresison of Marx or communism in general (I suppose I mean the primitive communism you talk about here) is that I don’t see how we can ever get to a post-scarcity position through what amounts to this in between stage of coercive collectivisation. And that to me is a show stopper.

    • September 3, 2011 at 3:59 pm

      I agree with this that it is a show stopper. But you should read my previous post on Ron Paul (part three) to see how scarcity might be entirely artificial at present, through the use of paper money. We may has already left the age of scarcity.

    • September 3, 2011 at 5:18 pm

      I am concerned as well, that the text is very dense. I think at some point I want to go through it paragraph by paragraphed and break it out for folks not familiar with his style. I think I will do this next week.

  3. September 9, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    I heard your twitter question on Max Keiser this evening, did you agree with the answer?

    • September 12, 2011 at 3:52 pm

      Ha! Thank you for reminding me. I went to see how David responded and was fairly impressed. He clearly states money itself, the relation, was present for a long time before the concept of exact equivalents arose. And, he seems to feel what caused this latter to come into being was force. He knows far more on the subject than I do, so I was just happy to hear his take on his research.

  4. September 9, 2011 at 10:55 pm

    Oh I’m sorry, it was the author of the book “Debt.”

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