Private Property is Anti-Democratic

Why capitalism is fundamentally at odds with the notions of freedom and liberty which our societies, and indeed, capitalism’s proponents, are said to uphold.

There is, I believe, one fundamental objection within capitalist philosophy to socialism: that of the sanctity of private property. The notion of the individual ownership of property as necessarily linked to freedom dates back to the writings of John Locke, who articulated his theory in The Second Treatise of Government. It is seen, time and time again, in the writings of radical libertarians, from Ayn Rand’s celebratory fantasy of the Owners revolt, Atlas Shrugged, or Robert Nozick’s notorious proclamation in Anarchy, State and Utopia, that taxation is a form of slavery; equivalent to ‘legalised theft’. The question of ownership is central to socialist theory — indeed, the broadening and democratisation of such ownership is the foundational aim of its traditional proponents. As a result, this postulate becomes the focal point upon which all debates between these political philosophies sit.

And yet, I believe there is a dichotomy drawn here which does not exist. Such debates are usually framed with liberty and democracy on one hand, and coercion and unfreedom on the other. The Right, as it presents itself, is a defender of the former. Whilst the Left, with its call for the abolition of private property, inevitably leads to the latter. We can see these assumptions in Ryan Bourne’s piece for The Telegraph, released soon after Corbyn’s Labours victorious defeat in the General Election last year, in which he asserts that Corbyn “holds the concept of private property, a necessary foundation for our prosperity and freedom, in disdain.”

He traces a number of Corbyn’s proposals — legislation to offer the ‘right of first refusal’ to employees of a business should the owners wish to sell; mechanisms to encourage the distribution of football companies shares to fans, as well government intervention to prevent local bank branch closures — condemning them on the grounds all “would dilute the freedom to purchase, use and dispose of property”. So far, so expected.

Bourne soon comes to the crux of his moral argument, contending that

“The ability to individually decide how to use our property guarantees our freedom too. If all property was owned or controlled by the government or some community, then the group of leaders in the form of the state would have complete control over us.”

Now this is an interesting proposition on a number of levels, and one which I am in some ways sympathetic to. It seems Bournes objection resides in the fact that, should the individual’s right to their property be taken away, they would become subordinate to the new owner. In this case, the dictates of the Party apparatchiks determines what to produce, how to produce it, and what to do with the dividends from that product. The individual — who had created the property, and who previously laid claim to all those decisions — has now merely become an instrument of some external force, their control and ownership expropriated.

Here I must lay bare my own libertarian credentials, perhaps to the opprobrium of some of my fellow comrades, in saying that such forceful expropriation and subsequent centralisation — the kind witnessed under the brutality of the regimes of 20th communism — is destructive and morally unjustifiable. This is because, unlike those on the right, whose mind instantly reverts to protestations against such regimes when confronted by socialist arguments, I don’t believe this was a violation of private property, at least in the sense of the structure of the ownership following the initials expropriation (the means of which we will return to shortly).

I say this because what occurred was the same as what existed before, in that the hierarchy between the private owner or owners and their workers, or in more Marxian terms, capital and labour, in which those at the top exercises near dictatorial power over those at the bottom, still remained. What was enacted was a shifting of who wielded such power, not a communalisation or a democratisation of it, as Marx’s writings originally called for. In fact, it is this perversion of the ideal of socialism – essentially economic democracy – that makes such regimes not worthy of the ideology ascribed to them.

To this end I agree with Bourne. Would I accept the state — a sovereign coercive body — to seize the means of production from the possession of the private elite, and place it in the hands of a public elite, whose control of both the private and public realm would give them inordinate power? Certainly not.

Thus we must make a distinction between statism and communalisation, with the latter opposed to both Stalinism and corporatism on the basis of their shared authoritarian structures. Indeed, this means refuting another of Bourne’s lazy presumptions, that all of Corbyn’s proposals — and in extension, the inclinations of his outriders and supporters — “start from the effective premise that the state is the de facto owner of all property.”

Both libertarian socialists like myself, and capitalist conservatives like Bourne, agree on the principle that scepticism of the state’s authority is healthy, and indeed, necessary. As such my arguments do not begin with the premise mentioned above. Instead they hold that the state, much like capitalist structures, is not the most desirable owner of property, as any model of ownership which subordinates those who help constitute it is an illegitimate model.

So what does this mean practically? What is the alternative, and how could it be achieved? Before we answer these questions, I think it’s important to explore what we mean by property, because the way it is used in the language of the Right implies an benign quality to its wielding that I think is mistaken.

When Bourne speaks of the “freedom to purchase, use and dispose of property”, the image conjured up in our minds is one largely of indifference: of course one should be able to do what they want with their own property, it’s not going to hurt anyone. The word ‘property’ in everyday use suggests those items around us — our phone, TV, wallet, jewellery, car — that our decisions over make very little impact in the world, other than to ourselves (of course you could mention the environmental impact, or economic activity created from their purchase, but that would be more than a little tangential for the purposes of this essay).

Property, in the sense of political economy, is entirely different. Understood as the result of the means of production — machinery, land — which has been imbued with life and activity by physical and intellectual labour, it is a far more complex concept. It is not merely an item wielded by an individual, but the product of — in the most simple and generous terms I can define — a partnership between two bases of people. On one hand, you have the owners (the ‘individual’ which Bourne alludes to repeatedly is not quite accurate. Maybe if he was writing in the time of Carnegie and Rockefeller, who were the single shareholders of their businesses, he would be right. In advanced capitalism, however, control of large enterprises is vested in not just its official owner, but the board of directors and shareholders too) and the workers, those who sell their labour to the owner in order to subsist. The labourers thus help to constitute the property — without them, it would not operate.

As such those decisions which appeared so flippant before — to purchase, use and dispose — have significant consequences on the lived experience of many humans, independent of the individual proprietor themselves. To ‘use’ their property may mean to outsource production halfway across the world, forcing all those workers — many of whom have invested toil and hope into the enterprise — into redundancy and possibly financial turmoil. To ‘purchase’ some more property may mean to obtain autonomous technologies in order to boost efficiency, thereby discarding many labourers who are now superfluous. To dispose may mean to, as the owners of the Scottish firm Novograf were almost to do (before they transferred ownership to their workers), sell their property to American investors, who were to strip it bare for assets.

Here, it is clear that Bournes apprehension should private property be violated — “that a group of leaders would have complete control over us” — betrays the fact that such an imposition of authority defines the model of ownership which he is vehemently defending. This unfreedom already exists, and it appears that those on the Right who incessantly extol the virtuous of freedom and democracy, are either unaware or ideologically blinded to the fact that the antithesis of such liberty is an essential component of the institution at the core of their political economy. It appears after banishing the last vestiges of autocracy in the public realm, we’ve stopped our crusade for democracy at the door of the economic realm.

It seems incredibly odd to me that Right wing libertarians genuinely are not struck by the incoherence between their entirely legitimate critique of overbearing and authoritarian state run bureaucracies, and their idolisation, veneration and devotion toward the private sector equivalent. Despite searching, I have yet to hear a compelling argument for why exactly they are distinct.

The common proposed solution is that you consent, contractually to be subordinated in the private sphere, of which the same is not true in the public exertion of power. Yet this is unconvincing. Sure, I have a free choice not to enter the market, but should I not, I will most likely suffer, starve and possibly die, given that the necessities of life are obtained through the transaction of money. Sure, I could have a free choice as to which slave owner I serve. I could choose one with a nice house, a more spacious plantation; even one who’s whips are less forceful and with a much nicer temper. But I’m still a slave nonetheless. An economy dominated by capitalism doesn’t offer an alternative; the free choice to perhaps not submit to the monotonous and heteronomous authority of capitalist enterprise.

Still setting aside discussion of the means through which we offer such an alternative for a moment, I think it’s useful to momentarily examine Bournes point again. His unwavering defence of the individual’s right to exercise control over their property — this monopoly on decision making — is almost precisely analogous to the arguments made by Monarchs and their apologists. The King or Queen has a God-given right to rule this country — that it belongs to them. The land, the wealth, the military, hell, even the creatures who reside in the seas along the coastline, are all the property of the Queen. Revolutionaries, reformers, and republicans however all rejected the elaborate justifications given for this state of affairs, and ushered in the foundation of the modern world — democracy — on the basis that why should the Monarch, who constitutes only one part of the country, decide everything. Isn’t it right that those who must live with the consequences of such decisions have a significant role in making them?

These are the same principles that are central to socialism. Shouldn’t the institution which largely defines our lives, and within which we spend the majority of our time — the workplace — reflect the collaborative process in which it is constituted? Shouldn’t the distinction between owners and workers be dissolved, so that decisions are made by all those affected? Or at least, shouldn’t those who make the decisions be elected, or effectively and practically responsive to those whose livelihood depends on what is done with the property?

These are modes of ownership called mutuals, social enterprises, worker cooperatives or stakeholder businesses. Technology offers the potential for peer-to-peer collaborative enterprises, like Wikipedia or Linux, and common ownership of data, land, water or even the atmosphere is another form. There are differences between them, and they vary to the degree they are democratic. Some operate directly, others maintain some kind of elective process. But all are characterised by the removal of the authoritarian hierarchy, and the ensuing alienation and disempowerment, that defines capitalist enterprises. This is not private property in the traditional sense, no. But nor is it the abolition of property as such. So it’s most usefully, in my mind, conceptualised as common property. Here, there are no dictates, no subordination. There is no antagonism between the owners and the stakeholders — those whose labour constitutes the a large component of the property. There is in its place autonomy, commitment, and a sense of connection; connection to the method of production, to the end product, and to the enterprise itself.

Finally we must turn to the question avoided up till now — the question of how. I’ve already stated that outright expropriation of all private property, and it’s transfer to the hands of bureaucrats, is unwanted. Indeed such an imposition would no doubt evoke a counterrevolution that could descend into chaos, threatening the intended futures longevity and functionality. Nor am I comfortable with a forceful transformation of capitalist enterprises into communal ones. As a libertarian, I am critical of the states coercive authority, it’s willingness to use its monopoly of violence to compel its citizens in ways out of their choosing. Yet I am not an anarchist, at least not initially. State power, in order to constrain that of capital, must enforce certain legislation to construct society in the manner of the electorates choosing.

Therefore the means of this revolutionary transformation must be evolutionary. Labour’s proposed ‘right to first refusal’ is exemplary here. Now of course Bourne attacked it on the basis that it “dilutes the freedom of the individual”, yet as we have seen, this Defense of the owners supreme authority is not morally justified. In exactly the same way the Monarchs right to control the nation would be diluted by democratic advancement, the state — not on the basis of it as the de facto owner of property, but in acting as the elected umpire of society, upholding the the will of the majority — should dilute the anti-democratic influence of the cabal of owners by facilitating a transaction, should they wish to buy, to the workers.

Here, at the point of dissolution or selling, the stakeholders of the enterprise — those whose lives are shaped by the decisions made by the properties rulers — can step in. As such, the state uses its power to uphold democracy, not limit it. At the precipice of fundamental decisions that will hold many consequences for the workers — the basic justification for democracy itself — they should be given a choice to take control; to assert the influence they rightfully should possess, but have been unjustly denied.

Still, there may be objections that on one hand you have freedom and the other coercion: a law, upheld by the threat of violence, is to constrain the choices of the owners. This is easily countered. Why is it that those workers cannot make the decisions for themselves in that enterprise? Why is it that this hierarchical ownership exists already? The answer, of course, is that private ownership rights are entrenched and defended by coercive state power; that if the workers were to, one day, occupy the factory floor and expropriate the offices, the states enforcers would beat them, cuff them, and turf them out.

On the basis that such authority exists, and that it is the most effective way of structuring society right now, it is not an offence against currently existing freedom to alter the rules that that authority upholds. Indeed, such a rearrangement of the market from one dominated by capitalism to one structured according to socialism is an extension, not a rejection, of freedom. It is an equalisation, one that raises those who had previously be subordinated to an autonomy that is so intrinsic to the ideal of liberty which we claim to hold so dear to our hearts.

It strikes me that to argue against this mode of organisation — that of the nurturing, through legal reforms, some compulsive, some incentive; through the construction of socially minded investment banks and shelter organisations, of a nascent communal sector — is to declare yourself an opponent of democracy. The typical arguments, that workers don’t have the expertise, are too uneducated, couldn’t run an organisation of such complexity, are identical to those who resisted the creation of republics; who thought the commoners couldn’t be trusted, and that this pernicious hierarchy was necessary for the smooth running of things.

In the 21st century, we rightly view these arguments for what they are: the condescending objections of a class who felt their power slipping away. Who, in the midst of a challenge from the ground up, appealed to their own indispensability — and that of the structures they represented — as a last gasp of dominance.

We’ve seen through these protestations before, and witnessed the full fruits and radical prosperity that came from our refusal to acquiesce. I think it’s high time we do the same again.

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Trey Taylor

Trey Taylor

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22. BA Political Theory and Sociology, Cambridge University. Currently studying an MA in Philosophy and Contemporary Critical Theory at Kingston University.