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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12 thoughts on “The perpetual confusion about "Property"”

  1. Thanks for linking, but you also, while accusing me of strawmanning, strawman me by omission. I recognize the distinction between "possession" and "property" as it is presented, but the point of the post was to demonstrate that they are merely different degrees of the same thing. It's debatable whether this true of not. I'm going to keep my position that it is. (And you seemed to try to imply that I am an ancap and strict "propertarian" which is not true.)

    Furthermore, the article was somewhat of response to an ancom on reddit who seemed to take the quintessential extreme position that I was criticizing.

    Essentially you're criticizing me for strawmanning and making a semantic argument when the point of the article was to show that the tension over "property" is unwarranted and that there is ambiguity as to what "rights" people ought to have regarding "property." It is exactly for this reason that I didn't offer my own opinion on what "property" should be. Nevertheless, semantics and strawmanning have nothing to do with it. I provided a basis for my argument and explained why exclusion is necessarily implied by the nature of the world. The ancap and ancom criticisms were merely points of reference from which to make the argument relevant.

    1. First of all, this post is not all about you, it's about anyone who makes this kind of definitional argument which is far more common than you'd expect.

      As far as you're concerned, I did not imply that you're an AnCap but merely a propertarian (i.e. you are willing to accept a stateless society with private property and by extension wage-slavery and rent) and that you did a specific strawman when you were positing what "Communists fail to realize". The whole point is that you do not understand how the tension of property is warranted because you stick to your own definitions rather than understanding what socialists mean by the word.

  2. I wonder if the ancaps really mean that they'll tolerate communism as long as it is in a "broader propertarian framework". It may not be likely to happen, but there's no contradiction in imagining ancaps, ancocs, libcoms, and other groups living in a certain area and not being constantly at war. Of course a war would probably happen if one of these systems broke down. 🙁

    1. It's likely that those systems can co-exist in different geographic areas but cannot realistically intermix as the existence of socialism depends on the absence of capitalism (i.e. wage labour, rent and usury). Even on different areas, it's likely that the existence of socialists will destabilize the capitalist areas by their constant agitation for takeovers and worker's control. This is the primary reason why so called "liberal" nations went apeshit whenever a true libertarian socialist revolution occurred anywhere else in the world and did anything possible to destroy or corrupt it. From funding dictators to sending assassins. to outright imperialism

  3. What is the difference between possession and sticky property when it comes under dispute? I view most things by examining the power dynamic, which is to say, who has the power? If a claim is made against your ability to possess a toothbrush, it is whoever has the power that determines who is the owner. This is to say that this becomes sticky property the instant it becomes challenged. Even outside a specific legal framework, something becomes sticky once a dispute must be resolved. There is some system, whether it is mere violence to determine who owns this piece of sticky property, or a legal framework. A commune that must defend itself against some foreign entity, is absolutely defending property, but that property is sticky. The owner is determined by (in this case) the method of violence. Possession, on the other hand, without any type of stickiness for lack of a better word, only exists without any other claimants.

    I'm wondering why you consider this to be wrong.

    1. If a claim is made against your ability to possess a toothbrush, it is whoever has the power that determines who is the owner. This is to say that this becomes sticky property the instant it becomes challenged.

      Not really. A possession simply signifies a claim of ownership that is grounded on occupancy or use. What comprises occupancy or use and the time limits that are set before something is considered to be abandoned are set by social norms in society. For example, nobody in their right mind would consider a personal possession like a toothbrush to have been abandoned if it's in your house and not currently being used.

      As such, this argument is a strawman of possession.

    2. A commune that must defend itself against some foreign entity, is absolutely defending property, but that property is sticky.

      No. A sticky property simply explains that an ownership claim "sticks" to the current claimant, regardless of his occupancy or use of the item. A commune defending some land or capital it is currently occupying or using, is not claiming sticky property but rather a possessive claim. The owner is still not defined by violence for any external party. Anyone violently forcing the commune out of the possessive claims would rightly have their ownership claim challenged as it was based on a violation of possessive rights.

      1. Okay I'll explain again. You are stating that there are two types, property and possession.

        Property implies a legal framework surrounding some object such that you are able to "own" it, without actually using it.

        Possession exists without an obvious legal framework, as its ownership is obvious, and the principle benefit of this distinction is that Possession disallows for the accumulation of wealth.

        Now, some people may not recognize your claim regarding possessive property just as you might not recognize a claim regarding sticky property. Now, if possessive property is under dispute, it becomes sticky. This is to say if, you are driven off the land you are using, you still claim it, no? If you do still claim that it was a violation of possessive rights, then possessive rights is the legal framework of your sticky property. This then means that all property is sticky, but some legal frameworks are built around a system of physical possession(your definition), and others not (sticky property, that most modern legal systems recognize).

        Whether or not this is a violation of possessive rights is a non-issue. Of course, both sides would challenge the ownership claim of the other side. But, the fact remains, one side has the property, whether through violence or other means, and the other does not. If you claim property that you do not possess, it enters the realm of sticky property.

        1. You're equivocating between the use of "sticky" so as to denote someone being able to own something regardless of occupancy and use and "sticky" denoting an ownership claim (regardless of the system) which is currently in dispute. When I oppose sticky property (i.e. private property) I oppose the first definition and all the bad stuff that follow from it. The second one is irrelevant as it simply has to do with the way we talk about ownership disputes.

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