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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Distinctions of Ownership

Some claim that Private Property and Possession differ only in their degree. But this is not the case, they differ structurally and the systems that rise out of each will be therefore much different.

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Quite large  discussions seem to have been sparked by my recent article counter posing Private Property to Possession, both in the comments of my own blog, and on the Austro-Athenian Empire. In both cases it’s an argument mostly between me and my generally communist views and Lockeanists who argue for the homesteading principle as defended by Murray Rothbard.

The discussion has already unfortunately grown impossible to manage through the comments of the AAE and as several questions have been put to me lately, I thought I might answer then in a new post. This might also give an opportunity of other Anarchists/Communists to engage or state their opinion on this, plus it will hopefully allow the discussion to flow better in my comment system which is built for it 😉 .

RE: Private Property and Possession have only differences of detail and degree.

Mostly based on Kevin Carson’s article, is the idea that Possession and Private Property are simply parts on a scale of Ownership rights ((Mutualists generally call all ownership rights ‘Property’, but this is different from my use of ‘Property’ by which I generally mean the Lockeanist take.)), from less “sticky” to more, that is for Lockeanists, property rights, once claimed remain even if the original owner does not use them anymore or rents them out, while for Socialists, property rights remain only as long as use is maintained (with a grace period of unuse based on common sense of course)

But while this on first view seems like a small difference of degree, in functional terms, the difference is immense. To put it simply, for Socialists, wage labour and rent would be impossible as one cannot be said to own something that someone else uses.

While Lockeanists tend to concentrate on terms of unused land and claim something like “oh, the difference wouldn’t be so big between our systems. Why are we fighting then?” they miss the really fucking big difference it would make on the kind of society which would be formed on it. This is because without wage labour you cannot have Capitalism, as it is the most crucial gear by which accumulation (and thus investment) can occur. The difference does not lie in the original distribution of land, of which in the Lockeanist system will look benign, but in the results of this “sticky” possession.

This is why claims by Rothbard that all previous claims to property are null ring so hollow, since Rothbard ignores that along with the state enclosing on the commons or creating a buying monopoly (which he acknowledges), the Capitalist backed state also imposed the mentality of “sticky” property that most people did not hold, and which was of course for the benefit of the Capitalist. Thus to nullify the claims of the land but to insist that people retain a Lockeanist concept of property is as invalid as not wishing to nullify property claims at all. The result in any case would be similar. Property would start accumulating again and a system of inequality and authority would be built on top of it.

On the other hand, anarchists insist that you cannot make any difference unless, along with the state  and the unjust distribution it enforced, you also utilize possessive ownership which will allow the egalitarian system (for which people undoubtedly revolted for) to remain in place.

RE: Wouldn’t lending undermine the concept of Possession?

The question put by Roderick seems to be this: Even in a possessive system, lending would still happen, that is, people would still allow others to borrow their cars, or use their lawnmowers. If this is possible without having to change ownership in between, then this would mean that the difference between possession and PP is a matter of degree.

Certainly lending would still be possible under a possessive system, but it wouldn’t be based on rent. A rent for any item, can be seen to mean that the other person is paying towards ownership of it. As such, if I borrow your car for a day or a week, by common sense most people would recognise that it’s not my car now as it was based on a favour. People would have to throw their senses out of the window to recognise either result (It goes against all people’s interests basically). However in order for you to somehow convince me that I would have to pay you an amount to borrow your car, but then your car would still be yours, would require something more. It would require inequality.

Think of it this way. Such acts of renting do not happen between friends even now, even though such acts would be perfectly legal and in the self-interest of those involved. Even under dire circumstances, a friend would not ask another for money to help (quite the contrary in fact). This is because friendships, at the core, are about equal individuals wanting to relate to each other. This equality and most importantly, the recognition of it in the minds of those involved, is what instinctively prevents them from asking for rent. Likewise, in an egalitarian society, such as those based on possession, any lending would happen based on needs, and not for profit. Were one to ask for such a profit from the other, it would immediately sour their relationship, as well as most likely the relationship they have with the rest of society. Just think of how would you react if you suddenly needed a friend’s car to head for a week vacation and he asked you for rent (obviously, over any maintenance that may happen). You’re most likely to decline the offer and go rent from a shop, even if it’s more expensive.

So in short, while lending would still happen with a possessive ownership, it wouldn’t undermine it, nor would it put it on the same scale as Lockeanism. It would simply be based on common sense and maintaining the egalitarianism that exists.

That’s it for now. There’s more question posted over at the AAE but I think this post has already grown quite long. I urge you to check it and give you perspective as the contributors seem an amiable bunch 🙂

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Private Property VS Possession

The distinction between Private Property and Possession is a very important one for people wanting to understand the socialist system. This post explains what it is.

Discussion (Property)
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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 property ((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.)) 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.