The perpetual confusion about "Property"

Private Property or Possession? If only an actual discussion between the two finally replaced the endless definitional bickering…

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Once again I must return to the subject of ownership rights and how there’s two very distinct ways to define them: Private Property and Possession. That is not of course to mean that there’s no further variation between each of those systems, such as variation on the time to abandonment, the scale of ownership (individualist or collective) etc but rather that there is a hard core difference which splits the ownership scale in half, making each half incompatible with the existence of the other within the same social structure.

This idea, that Private Property as an ownership system is distinct from Possession as an ownership system should not be difficult to grasp.  It is after all one of the core concepts of most forms of Socialism and anyone trying to do a substantial critique – especially of communism – should as a bare minimum be able to understand what socialists actually oppose when we speak about “abolition of private property” or what collective ownership means in practice.

And yet, time and again, instead of seeing valid criticism against socialist theory from defenders of the capitalist mode of production, we see an endless string of strawmen centered around misunderstanding (purposefully, one starts to think eventually) the socialist opposition to “Property”. This is even more cringe-inducing when it is stated as a novel and irrefutable argument against socialist theory. As if it so easily proves that all socialists are just too silly to see and understand the obvious flaws in their opposition to Capitalism. It’s like someone bringing up the “Mud Pie” example as a new and exciting criticism against Marxian economics.

Such is the most recent example where we are guided to understand what “property” is and that communists “seem to forget” a bunch of stuff about how human societies function and the positive aspects of being able to own stuff. It once again trots out the classic red herrings about people who would prefer private property over anything else and that the only way to stop them must be via a state. Yadda yadda. Regular readers of mine should already know how easy it is to refute this nonsense.

It is all, in the end, based on simply calling all “Ownership” as “Property” and thus claiming that we, as humans, can’t function without “property”.He therefore obscures the fact that there is a difference between “Possessive property” and for lack of a better word now, “Sticky Property” and its significance. He pontificates on the voluntary aspects of “property” and how everyone else got it so wrong, while failing to make any point on whether Possession or “Sticky” property should be preferred, something which is at the heart of the socialist idea. In short we replace arguments over substance with arguments over vacuous semantics.

You see, it does not really matter what we call the various systems of ownership, we could call them blue and purple bananas for all the good it will do us. The important thing is that we understand the same concepts. That the socialist criticize the ownership system which facilitates and promotes wage-slavery, rent and usury and promote one which makes that systematically impossible. That this is not a discussion on how we’re going to enforce it (voluntarily or coercively) but on simply which system we ought to prefer.

To simply take your own or what you assume are the “right” definition of the word ‘property’ and superimpose it onto socialist critique, is simple a recipe for strawmen fallacies. Perhaps you have the most popular definition. Perhaps you have the proper or more the most clear. Perhaps not. The important thing to remember, as Proudhon pointed out in the past, is that if you’re going to call all types of ownership “property” then you really need a way to distinguish between possession and “sticky property”. He suggested to call the later the more appropriate name of “theft” of course but I doubt the propertarians will agree on that.

As a communist, I have a reason why I prefer the definitional distinction to be between “Private Property” and “Possession”. Property is generally understood anyway to be “sticky” that is, to remain with someone until they sell or abandon it, regardless of occupancy or use. As such, it does not take much effort, other than explaining that there’s other possible forms of ownership other than that, to clarify my opposition to it.  But it’s not important to use those concepts if they confuse someone. I can easily switch to a terminology that one feels more comfortable with if that will make things easier for them. However this is still my preferred terminology for the reason I just explained and thus find it incredibly silly for someone to make strawmen based on what I write for the general audience and then defend their actions on the grounds that their definitions are superior or more correct.

OTOH, what I most commonly end up seeing is that propertarians do not choose to call everything “property” because it is easy to discuss the concepts around it, but because it conveniently allows them to pretend that other valid forms of ownership do not exist. They will attempt to argue that “Property” is necessary and by that lump all concepts of ownership into the same umbrella, even when incompatible with each other. This is necessary in order to make their core arguments from “self-ownership” lead to Laissez-faire Capitalism, something which would be weakened if possession was a valid form of ownership, distinct from private property. Therefore it’s better to assume that the former is simply a subgroup of the latter. In fact, this is surprisingly similar to the way they try to argue that they’re open to the idea of communism…as long as it exists within a greater propertarian framework.

But I digress into an anti-AnCap rant again. What I’m trying to point out is that the words we use are irrelevant as long as we end up understanding each other and making substantial arguments. I long to see someone making  a solid critique on why a Possessive system is unfeasible or even simply inefficient, or how private property is more ethical and whatnot…without having those points demolished by decade-old anarchist arguments or simple facts of reality.

And until then, all misguided propertarians who insist on making strawmen and presenting them as the most insightful thing ever and the absolute refutation of any and all forms of Socialism – should and will receive at best a quick dismissal as the waste of time they are, or at worst a well deserved ridicule for being obnoxiously ignorant.

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A great tool for debates

Once again I have to express how much I love firefox and all the great plugin that exist for it. I just discovered WikiLook which allows you to search for dictionary definitions of various words in the text you are reading on the fly.All you do is press the shift button and move over the word you want to lookup and presto.

I can just imagine how useful this will be my online debates where it is quite often that I have to lookup the exact definition of a word in order not to look like a dunce and generally to avoid or see through equivocations and the like.

Not only that but it translates foreign text on the fly as well! For someone like me, who is in the middle of learning a new language this can really help when attempting to read. I generally couldn’t be bollocksed tryint to read online articles in german as it took too long to look up every word I did not know.

Good stuff.

Definition of Agnosticism

So my recent verbal spar with the Socratic Gadfly moves on. It seems that due to the linkbacks I made to Austin Cline and Adrian Hayter, they were apparently curious enough to see what the post was about and ended up defending my position on Gadfly’s blog (appreciated).
This in turn triggered him to contact me via email and also write about it on his second blog.

During our email conversations, Gadfly did have a more amiable attitude (albeit a bit condescending occasionaly) and we managed to have some progress in finding out exactly what the gist of our disagreement is. In turns out that it is a simple definition issue on the word “Agnosticism” and I will attempt in this post to explain.

Now, I guess the secod post of his was written while tempers were still high and this is why the language is still a bit strong.  Since I have been unbanninated already, I think there’s no point in feeding the flames any more so I’ll keep a more respectful tone.

Gadfly maintains that Agnosticism cannot be logicaly combined with theism. Indeed, by looking at some of the analogies he made on email:

“Agnostic theism” is like “Democratic Republicanism” and “theistic agnosticism” is like “Republican Democratism.” (Allow the neologism for the noun parallel.)

It is obvious that for him an agnostic theist is an oxymoron.

As I mentioned in the previous post. The etymological meaning of the word is “Without Knowledge”. Agnosticism however does not define what you do not have any knowledge about but it is commonly understood that it is about deities. One could very well argue that he is agnostic about abiogenesis or the creation of the universe and that would be a perfectly acceptable phrase.

As pertaining to theism however, agnosticism can easily take one of two common definitions.

  • One can be agnostic about the existence of god(s). This classifies them as Agnostic Atheists. The defining quote would be “I don’t know if gods exist
  • One can be agnostic about the nature of god(s). This classifies them as Agnostic Theists and the defining quote would be “I don’t know what or which gods exist“.

The difference is small but significant. On both of these definitions, one could even apply various scales of knowledge. Thus an agnostic atheists can verge closer to atheism with “I don’t know if gods exist but there is no reason to believe that they do” and an agnostic theist can approach a religion “I believe the Christian god exists but I don’t know his exact nature (and thus follow no denomination)” – an Agnostic Christian (The group I think most liberal Christians really belong to).

Due to the open nature of the word “Agnostic”, many people default it to either of the two cases described above. In my personal experience, I’ve had far more people who thought of “Agnostic Theist” when hearing “Agnostic” – which is, incidentally, why I started calling myself simply Atheist in the end. This is also why in the article that triggered this approximately half the agnostics go either way.

And this is where I believe Gadfly is wrong. He defaults to “Agnostic Atheist” but he then takes it a step further and asserts that his take on it is the correct one (and gets annoyed that others use it differently).
This is what I have been trying to explain via email but we seem to have reached the “Agree to dissagree” point.

The thing is, at the end of the day, what matters is that we know what we are talking about. It does not matter a bit if we call someone as “Agnostic Atheist”, “Agnostic”, “Fideist” or even “Purple Banana” as long as we are understanding the same thing. It is a fact that just “Agnostic” can mean different things to different people. And by definition, these people are correct.

All we can do when uncertain is simply ask: “Theistic or Atheistic?”. It’s certainly no reason to get upset about.