One of the most sticky points in explaining Communism to people is the concept of property. This is especially tricky because all socialists renounce the concept of Private Property as wrong and something to be abolished, which in turn created vast confusion to those not familiar with the theory. This is even more accentuated by deliberate (ie propaganda) or accidental misunderstanding of Communism as it espousing that people won’t own stuff.
But it is an obvious truth that people like to own items for various reasons. From the most simple of not wanting to share a toothbrush, to the more complex of feeling psychological attachments to various items that we would like to consider ours (say a car or a toy). This is understandable and it is obvious that it would be unnatural if any social theory proposed that this is undesirable.
Which is why Socialism doesn’t demand it either.
Now this might seem contradicting but it is only because we are missing part of the puzzle. The fact that one can define two different types of ownership.
The first type of ownership is the common one that everyone is familiar in our current society. It is the type of ownership based on a legal claim to something, ie it is based simply on what the law will recognise based on previous contracts. In this system of ownership, one can consider to own anything and it will remain his until he trades it away. Private Property (PP).
Precicely because this ownership is legally constructed is why it requires to be defined through contracts of some sort that will be recognised by the state. Which is incidentally why any social system based on Private Property will require the existence of a state of some sort and extensive laws to clarify and settle disputes.
But this is not the only system of ownership that can exist. There is another one that not only comes naturally to humans but it also avoids all the pitfalls of PP. Possession or ownership based on use. To put it simply, one can only ever lay claim to things that they use personally. This is fundamentally different from PP in that it does not demand an extensive legal system to enforce it (although it can benefit from it) and it prevents accumulation of wealth.
Now there is an immediate straw man that people who hear of this system immediately jump to. It goes something like this:
“Under Possession, as soon as you left your car unattended, someone could take it legally. Or someone could get in your house and lay claim to it.”
If this sounds as an absurdity, it’s because it is. Of course socialists do not mean something like this when we talk about Possession. Of course the claim to anything is more solid than this. The basic difference from PP is that it is anchored on the use of the item in question rather than an arbitrary claim that goes back to the original forceful appropriation of land.
So under the rules of any society, the possession of any item can be defined socially or legally. Socially for example, it would be unacceptable for someone to lay claim to a car that someone else left in the parking lot. People doing so would be prevented with all the coercive measures any socialist society makes use of (peer pressure etc). However, as this is defined socially, it’s the acceptance of society that would make act of appropriation act acceptable or not. So for example, a car that has been left in a parking lot for years and is going to rust, could be taken on by someone else. Common sense would say that this would be acceptable. Of course these are not hard and fast rules, but up to each community to define to their own culture and experience. But I hope to give you an idea of how this works.
Why is the difference between private property1 and possession so important? First it is because it explains what socialists mean by the abolition of the former and avoids straw man arguments about the “unnaturality” of communism. The second is that it provides a link to pre-civilization human societies, or to be more precise, those which had a hunter/gatherer lifestyle which were egalitarian precisely because the concept of PP did not exist. The third is that it draws attention to the severe drawbacks of PP and by extension it shows how the introduction of it directly led to inequality and relations of authority.
The main characteristic private property is that it allows accumulation of wealth. As each persons claim of ownership is simply based on the law, one can keep massing up as many such claims as they can. As society expands and as people are born without a claim to property, this in turn becomes a leverage for exploitation and, by extension, inequality. Simply put. Someone who does not own land, must sell the only thing he can, his labour (and by extention freedom), and he must sell it at a price that is less than what he would make if he did own land. The excess result of this labour, profit, of course goes to the employer who then uses it to expand his PP. And the cycle of exploitation continues.
Contradict this with Possession, where any one person can only ever own as much as they personally use. As such the scarcity of the land is automatically reduced, as there’s not a few people controlling vast tracts or land and preventing its use until those desperate enough “volunteer” to their terms. There is of course always the possibility that the amount of humans would eventually become so great as to create a situation of scarcity where people would be landless again. But if anything human ingenuity has shown that we can always find more places to live in (From multi storey buildings to space stations).
As such, inequality would not be possible without the ability of people to accumulate. Without this incentive people in turn have no reason to exploit and emiserate their fellow humans for it would not bring them any social benefit. As such, people would realize that their interest lies in spreading the surplus value they create and cooperating with others to collectively improve their life standard rather than competing with each other for diminishing returns (as excessive wealth does not bring excessive happiness).
One would ask, how would Possession deal with items that are too big for one person to use, such as a factory? This is of course has a very easy solution: Collective ownership. Each person who works in a factory is considered to own an equal share of it and as such, any surplus value it creates. And this cannot be run in any other way other than a democratic one. For in a collection of equals, there’s no room for bosses giving orders.
One can then imagine a society based on Possession rather than Private Property would be the exact opposite of what we have now. A society where people would actually not have an incentive to be evil. It is from this society that the necessary mind-frame would spring, of cooperation, voluntarism and freedom.
And as much as the above is true, so is it delusional to expect a society based on private property, an ownership system that promotes the mentality of greed and short term interest, to somehow transform into a libertarian society, where people actually act charitably and do not seek to exploit their inequality for personal gain.
- Note: Some elements of the Anarchist tradition, such as Mutualism, use the term Private Property to refer to ownership of all sorts. They still make the functional distinction between them, but call them somewhat differently. So Possession becomes “occupancy and use”. Of course they support possession as natural. [↩]