A Libertarian Socialist Conception of Private Property

[Economists] forget that… it is use which determines the value of a thing, and that use is determined by fashion.
– Karl Marx, Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts

The left has been suspicious of private property since Pierre-Joseph Proudhon brazenly declared it to be nothing more than theft in 1840. His friend, Karl Marx, saw it as the root of capitalism’s exploitation, a superfluous invention of the bourgeoisie that would be dispensed with in the future. Anarchists’ generally see it as an agent of control. Even the most sympathetic socialists treat private property as a necessary evil. Those on the left who refuse to denounce private property are all-too-quickly labeled as faux-socialists, unwitting capitalist apologists, or even disingenuous counter-revolutionary agents.

On the right, private property rights are often so strongly enforced that they trump even the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Such a strong defense of private property is ironic, precisely because the justification for private property is typically based on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, especially the right to life. These “background rights” perform the justificatory work for private property rights.

I want to engage this conversation from a third direction. I want to begin from a neutral position, neither assured of private property’s virtue nor its defamation. To start, I think we need a tight definition of what private property is. Then, I think we need to explain the fact that so many independent societies throughout history have lighted on the idea of private property. What particular problem did property solve? Then can it be justified to the satisfaction of socialism? To avoid suspense, I’ll sum my conclusions now: 1) private property is no different from personal property, 2) private property is common to many cultures because it solves the problem of how to divvy up the common world, and 3) private property can be justified for socialists when it is based on the background right to life and the pursuit of happiness.

The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few. In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.
– Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, Chapter 2

There is, in the leftist tradition, an important metaphysical division of the concept of property. The first, largely implicit in Marx’s work, is the split between productive property and consumables. Marx paid little attention to the latter if he mentioned them at all. He, like all the great economists of his day, focused almost exclusively on the “means of production”. The productive property were the things you needed to produce consumables, which included the tools, machinery, and raw and pre-fabricated materials of which the consumable consisted. When Marx speaks of abolishing private property in the above quote, he intends only this productive property. He is also quick to defend the productive property of the “petty artisan and of the small peasant”, saying, “There is no need to abolish that; the development of industry has to a great extent already destroyed it and is still destroying it daily.” Marx is saying there is no need to abolish the camera of the photographer or the laptop of the freelance writer. So he means only the large-scale productive property, i.e. the factories, great machinery, and other types of great capital that requires a social body to utilize it. The consumable property goes by the name of “personal property” while the large-scale productive property goes by the name “private property”.

This division saves the left from the accusation that communism or socialism removes your right to use your tooth-brush exclusively. In other words, you have to share your tooth-brush with other people. This argument is devised to reduce socialism to absurdity. If you wouldn’t want to share your toothbrush, you couldn’t even share food-stuffs or water or air, at least not as you eat, drink, and breathe it. So it does make a compelling argument against which socialism must resolve. The division of property into personal and private is the traditional solution. However, the division of property introduces its own problems. The most important of these and the only one I will treat here is the indistinguishability of personal from private property. 

We can see the crack in precisely where Marx claimed there is no need to take away the private property of the individual proprietor. Here Marx is admitting that the tools of the individual crafter should belong to the individual crafter; their productive powers are thus not sufficient reason to socialize them. The common understanding is that it is then only those tools that require social operation which must be socialized–I am ignoring here a similar argument that certain types of property of, e.g. land, must be socialized irrespective of how it is used for the simple reason that Marx did not make this argument. The problem with the argument that only social operations must be socialized is that even socially operated machinery is individually exclusive as it is used. To make this concrete imagine an assembly line of ten persons. Each person has a specific spot on the line and performs their unique task. Each spot on the assembly line then may legitimately be conceived of as the exclusive property of the individual proprietor.

While such a conception is dangerous because each individual proprietor, save the first and the last, would be faced with a monopoly on either side of themselves, that is a single provider of the materials they need to do their work and a single consumer of their finished product (viz. the unconsumable, partially-worked commodity). It is more harmonious to conceive of them as all part of a single entity, each cooperating rather than competing. Still, even under the auspice of cooperation, each has an exclusive need to be able to use their part of the whole. The right to exclude others from their part is no different for the workers on the assembly line than it is for the individual proprietor whom Marx exonerated from the abolition of private property. We have only two ways of resolving this inconsistency: either abolish all private property, including the photographer’s camera and the writer’s laptop or do away with the distinction between personal property and private property altogether. As we agreed above that the former is absurd, we are left only with the latter.

What does this mean? It means that we cannot, as Marx commands, abolish private property. This means that capital and capitalist can’t simply be dispensed with. This is not a vindication of capitalism, as those on the right would like to assert. While getting rid of capitalists is not an option, what is left open to us is the modification of what can and cannot be done with private property. That is precisely what the rights of property owners entails them to do. The rights of private property ownership have their limitations, even the most right-wing libertarian will agree. For example, your “right” to own a gun and your “right” to do with your private property as you please, cannot be combined to justify any homicide you may like to commit. 

What lies behind the left’s condemnation of private property is the capitalist’s claim of a right to the surplus-value of a worker’s labor. This claim is justified, according to the apologists of capitalism, by the “ownership” of the means of production. Ownership then it is implied, entails the right to allow others to use said means to produce products for less than the value those products fetch at market. The chief problem the left has with private property then is that it can be used as a means for the exploitation of other people’s labor. Marx details of the process in the first volume of CapitalBut even there, private property does not so much create the exploitation as it is simply the vehicle for it. Property relations are social relations, not between human beings and things, but between human beings and other human beings. This is what makes economics political in the first place. 

Given this, our question becomes: can the capitalist really justify the right from ownership? To answer this question we will need to examine what justifies private ownership in the first place. I’ll start with John Locke’s justification of private property. In brief, Locke argued that the private consumption of the material world was vital to every individual. We cannot consume in common, even if we produce that way. This makes private property necessary in order to be enjoyed. The question for Locke then became, how is it that I come to exclude the whole of humanity in order to enjoy this or that particular thing? Or more concretely, by what right do I pluck an apple from the common tree so that I may eat it and by eating it, exclude all others from its enjoyment? When did it become mine alone to enjoy? We all agree that after digestion, it is exclusively mine, but when did it first become so? He traces back the right to my act of plucking the apple. With this labor expenditure, I have the right to that apple. So, generalizing from this, it is my labor that makes things mine. Locke would go on to lay the foundations of the first labor theory of value, but it is his labor theory of property that concerns us. This theory is the basis of private property rights upon which capitalism is founded.

Unfortunately for the bourgeoisie and Marx alike, the private property right established by Locke is not one based solely upon labor. Labor identifies which particular things are justified, but it does so under the pretense that we are going to use them. Locke himself said that one cannot claim a thing, merely to deprive others of its enjoyment. Ultimately then, it is the need to eat, in conjunction with the labor of plucking that justifies my claim to the apple and so the right to exclude the rest of humanity from the apple’s enjoyment.

Marx misses this. Elaborating in Capital that the value of commodities comes entirely from the labor required to produce them. We may deduce from this that the justification for using commodities according to Marx would come entirely from having labored to acquire a thing, either by producing it or trading “dead labor” for it. Use, the consumption element of commodities, plays little to no role in Marx, who argued that either goods and services have a use-value or they do not, there are no quantifiable degrees of use-value. Equally, there would be no reasoning for use in owning, only labor. For Marx ownership is derived merely from labor and trade.

But no one asserts this claim more than the bourgeoisie. The capitalist claim of ownership is justified entirely by the idea of labor exchanged for a good. That Marx and capitalism agree so completely on this subject is the greatest tragedic irony of the post-enlightenment history. Locke, as I said, founded the labor theory of property and of value on the unquestionable human need to consume individually. Labor alone is therefore insufficient to justify ownership of anything, and correspondingly, it is insufficient to justify the total value of anything. We lack the consumptive side, the input of use-value. This is where Marx made his most fatal error. He said that “use” could not be counted in the final estimation of value. He assumed more than argued that “use” has no quantifiable value because it is a quality, i.e. things either have a use-value or they do not. This is wrong.

Use-value, it turns out, is quantifiable, and what is more, it is quantifiable in units of labor. I have made the argument for use-values quantifiability before, see The Genius and Folly of Karl Marx, Part Two. What is confusing for us is that the labor-units for use-value are inverted from units of labor in exchange. They act like negative numbers to positive ones, so that use-value functions more like “labor saved” while an exchange-value represents “labor expended”. For example, to make a hammer, it might take X amount of total (socially-necessary) labor to produce and bring the hammer to market, this–according to Marx–would be the hammer’s value, assuming there was someone out there with a use for a hammer. However, this is just the minimum that the hammer’s manufacturer would want to sell it for, it does not represent the value of the hammer to the user. The final value is how much labor it saves its consumer over the amount of labor that consumer would have to shell out for it. A hammer’s cost then is subjectively determined by the consumer, not by the producer, and it is never objectively derived as Marx hoped to prove.

But all is not lost for Marx, because both use-value and exchange-value are determined as units of labor. In other words, labor remains the sole source of value for everything in exchange, just as Marx said. Private property becomes justifiable in the twin aspects of labor: labor-spent and labor-saved. I ignore here a metaphysical discussion of labor-saved, except to say that Marx himself saw labor-saved as the “value of capital”. It was the private aspect of capital that Marx and the left railed against. The “means of production” of which most capital consists is problematic only when in private hands.

This, however, is where libertarian socialism breaks with Marxism. It is not the private nature of the ownership of the “means of production” that is the problem. The problem is the fact that capitalists are not and never were the rightful owners of them. Capitalism is contradictory because it violates the justification for private property ownership established by Locke. Capitalists maintain their claim to rightful ownership through the justification of expenditure of labor, but since they have neither the desire nor a possibility of using the “means of production” exclusively their claim of ownership over them is wholly unjustified. It is, in fact, the workers and ONLY the workers who can meet both necessary conditions for ownership. First, they do have an exclusive need of the materials in question, and second, they (through the extraction of surplus-labor) have paid for them. This argument holds true for other forms of “rent”, for example, the tenant who uses the house has the priority claim to ownership of the house if they pay rent.

What is exploitative about capitalism is that the rightful owners of the means of production are not the “legal owners” according to the political structures drafted by capitalists. The inherent villainy of private property is a Marxist red herring, no pun intended. The upshot of this concept of private property is that we have a clear path and reason for removing capitalism’s exploitative element. It will require workers to become the rightful owners of the enterprises in which they work, as is suggested by Dr. Richard Wolff. But it goes beyond just that, it will require the abolition of the form of rent everywhere in society, except where the rentee is the public. It will also require a guarantee of income, but for reasons that are not expressly clear here. But that is all. We needn’t abandon private property nor do we need outlandish distinctions, (e.g. private property vs. personal property or labor vs. “socially necessary” labor) that prove only necessary to bolster the failings in Marx’s theory. The solution is more simple and more elegant, ownership of property is the right of the people who need it, who use it, and who paid for it; and not the state, the community, the government, or investors.


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