PRIVATE PROPERTY: A HISTORY OF EXPLOITATION
BY CLARK MCALLISTER
Private ownership remains the central tenet and core of the global capitalist system. Exploitation of workers, poverty and a manipulative ideology: all these injustices arise from a flawed and corrupt economic system, largely controlled by a small band of monopolists, and resting on notions of right to possession and ownership. One study published by Oxfam earlier this year indicates the wealth of the world’s eight richest individuals matches that of the poorest half of the world’s population (Elliot, 2017). These absurd and inhumane contradictions are not simply the products of happenstance, but instead result from the internal dynamics of neoliberal economics – they are part and parcel of the capitalist system, the result of the profit motive and the failure of neoliberalism to care for the world’s poor.
Developing a Theory of Property
For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, arguably the most influential of French enlightenment philosophers, the emergence of private property coincided with the development of class and inequality, and unleashed a force more dangerous than wild fire:
“The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine’, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.’” (Rousseau, 1754).
Property, in the sense used here by Rousseau, means land. Not personal day-to-day or sentimental items, but a vital economic resource in which all society needs to subsist. Working on land requires cooperation – no person can produce solely for his own subsistence. Different skill sets, divisions of labour, and levels of exploitation are necessary to produce the material required to feed and house all. If these vital economic resources – and the activities they entail – become monopolised in the hands of private individuals (rather than communities as a whole), then the owners of land are granted a control over the production process, and can live idly off the work of others, treating the products of workers’ labour as their own private property. Understood as wealth to be exploited, control over valuable areas of land can thus act as a catalyst for conflict and war between different groups.
Rousseau could hardly have imagined the developments in production which would lead to the Industrial Revolution in the century after his death. As new modes of production emerged and developed, new minds were required to be able to analyse and understand the dynamics of changing economic systems. Leading the vanguard of scholarship in challenging the injustices of a new industrial capitalist system – which rested on exploitation, imperialism and the transatlantic slave trade – were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Their synthesis of German philosophy with British economics and French socialist thinking would produce a school of thought more influential than anything to succeed it. Compiled by Engels after his death, the various editions of Marx’s Das Kapital (1867-1883) remain arguably the most authoritative analysis of capitalist economics ever published to this day (Patterson, 2003). The union of theory and practice espoused by Marxism created, in the words of Hobsbawm, “the most practically influential (and practically rooted) school of theory in the history of the modern world” (Yaffe, 2009).
Marx and Engels’ work represents the first truly critical in-depth study of capitalist economic relations. More than this, the two scholars explicitly challenged the abhorrent, backward views prevailing at the time amongst European intellectuals, thus paving the way for critical, progressive academic theory through subsequent centuries. Most bourgeois scholars of the 19th century chose to frame their arguments in terms of petty justifications for inequality and exploitation. To take just one example, John Lubbock (1834-1913) – a neighbour of Charles Darwin and famous intellectual, later to become Lord Avebury – explained women’s oppression and the exploitation of European workers in terms of pure pseudoscience, arguing that natural selection had accorded society’s working classes to be criminally inclined and biologically inferior, women to be intellectually and emotionally subservient to men, and “primitive” peoples to be all of the above in relation to Europeans (Trigger, 2006).
Marx and Engels, more than simply framing their arguments in moral terms, argued that these views were scientifically incorrect, and that in order to understand the social make-up of society and its internal dynamics, we must focus our attention on the relation between social classes and production (Marx, 1845). In other words, it is useless to theorise on the nature of society without considering economics and property relations – as it is precisely within this sphere that all the material products which define human life and existence are created. If working people produce society’s wealth, then why are factory owners and landlords the ones to reap the profits? What justifies the petty wages, given in exchange for the workforce’s labour-power? These wages, which material circumstance then dictates must be used for food (sold for profit) and rent (to fatten idle landlords), are far from a true reflection and representation of the value produced by workers.
In Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Engels extended early socialist theories on property relations, and was among the first to recognise the exploitation and oppression of women as a core feature of economies based on production-for-exchange. In recognising that men could be more exploitable in heavy industry (or any form of labour-intensive production), and women more exploitable in the domestic sphere, Engels effectively demonstrated the ways in which patriarchal systems emerged and alienated women – and how these were explicitly related to the emergence of private property (the product of labour). For example, in order to increase productivity in cattle-raiding, heavy ploughing and other economic activities capable of producing valuable material (often appropriated by a hierarchical figure), men are physically more exploitable, and the great deal of time devoted to pregnancy and child rearing forced women to take a back-seat, so to say (Sacks, 1981). Thus women become alienated from control over the social production process, and instead relegated to engage in limited domestic production. Men (although usually working within a hierarchy which alienates them from the products of their labour) are nonetheless afforded a great deal of control over the main labour process.
Engels’ views, while not entirely free from criticism (he was writing at a time where ethnographic material was limited), nevertheless remain popular today amongst socialists, feminists and anthropologists (Sacks, 1982; Faulkner, 2013). This important early contribution to socialist and feminist theory explicitly adopted a materialist perspective – that is, looking at how relations of production in the economic sphere shape society and mould societal organisation.
Class Struggle and Property
Core to the Marxist understanding of production and property is the theory of class struggle. Marx and Engels posited that, as a result of the internal contradictions of capitalism, oppressed working classes respond to injustice via emancipatory revolution (Patterson, 2003; Marx and Engels, 1844). More than this, the theory of class struggle is what, for Marx and Engels, represented the engine of history: a constant struggle between different classes which ultimately results in revolution from below (Faulkner, 2013).
Class struggle is a constant process, not a simple event or historical conjuncture. It reaches peaks in the form of revolutions and mass uprisings, but it exists continuously, through different classes trying to assert their control over society and production – all resulting from a recognition in some form or other of the injustices and contradictions inherent in exploitative property relations. To provide an example, we could focus on the abundance of slave revolts in ancient Greece and Rome, or the medieval peasant uprisings which occurred across Europe. The latter example is particularly worthy of emphasis. Burdened with serfdom and conscription in an endless cycle of persecution and war, these revolts surged across the medieval world, most prominently in England. Here, led by a vanguard of radical Lollard priests and downtrodden workers, the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 occupied the city of London in response to an oppressive poll tax, and marked the beginning of the end of British serfdom (Dunn, 2002).
Furthermore, it was class struggle which facilitated the growth of capitalism itself, which found its roots in the increasingly productive forces of peasant society and mercantilism in northern Europe in the late medieval period (Faulkner, 2013). The repressive state forces of absolutism and the traditional ideological-religious hegemony of the Church were challenged and ultimately swept aside by the forces of the British New Model Army and the French radical Jacobins in the wave of popular bourgeois revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries.
What connects all of these popular struggles is not some neo-evolutionary concept of development, but rather that unequal and contradictory property relations – whether in the form of slavery, serfdom, landlordism or monarchism – formed the core factor in determining revolutionary surges. These were responses to unfair relations of property, where privileged classes could live off the surplus produced by exploited workers. While ideas are vital in motivating mass struggles, it needs to be emphasised that these occur first and foremost due to contradictions and injustices in material society, which act as the primary prerequisite for revolutionary struggle. In other words, class struggle arises from the material inequality present in a given social structure.
The Ideology of Capitalism
Marxist theories on private property, as demonstrated above, emphasise the inherent injustices and contradictions of private property relations. But how is this justified? If the conclusions are so obvious, and the injustice so apparent, then why do many remain hostile to alternatives? The answer, it is here maintained, is due to a capitalist ideology. Just as class struggle was necessary to overthrow feudal absolutism, so too is it necessary for the maintenance of the capitalist system from above. The most potent tool in the hands of the rich for suppressing opposition and progressive social movements is ideology.
As Marx states:
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.” (Marx, 1845 1:64).
What Marx seeks to expose in the above passages is the logic of conformity to a ruling ideology. Through education and the media, the dominant views of society’s ruling class are constantly reinforced. Naturally, as we become conscious of our surroundings and the ideas which govern our lives, we begin to accept these as natural and justified, especially when they are marketed and promoted in such a way that suggests we have “moved beyond” an earlier, more socially backward epoch.
These ideas, the dominant ideas of our society, vary in different places, and change according to shifting economic phenomena. However, there are certain features which we can easily isolate and examine, most of them concepts to which we ourselves owe a degree of identification. For example, “freedom”, “suffrage”, “liberty” are concepts we frequently associate with the democratic capitalist systems of western Europe and the US. We come to associate these concepts as values ingrained in our way of life, without being taught any of the ways in which these act as ideological justifications for exploitation and war – and without understanding different ways of looking at history.
On the surface, the ideas and values espoused by our society seem agreeable and just, the natural way of things – it would be concerning, even, to disagree with them. But as Marx explained, this is exactly the point. “Freedom”, for example, means the “freedom to choose within a given set of parameters” (Žižek, 2017). This “formal freedom” is merely an ideological illusion designed to maintain order and foster an unquestioning society. The freedom of rich capitalists, the wealth and luxury they enjoy, is marketed to us as an ideal form of being, a perfect lifestyle, reinforced through popular culture and mass media. Their success could be our success, and so we should support these pioneering “philanthropists” (their pious charity work emblematic of their greatness) in their struggle against government regulation and interference into their property. The striving for freedom that they maintain – that is, freedom from government intervention – should be viewed by the working class as an ideal expression of the same goal we all strive for.
However, these arguments do not address the central contradictions necessary to the maintenance of capitalist power structures. Freedom to own and control property and production, without any government interference, for example, can be traced to its most prominent ideological proponents in the slave-holding US states during the 18th century, where plantation owners such as John C Calhoun espoused a libertarian ideology justifying man’s sacred right to sole control over his property and his slaves (Monbiot, 2017). Any form of democratic government interference into economies controlled by capitalist-monopolists was judged by Calhoun as a form of oppression.
Prominent bourgeois economists have peddled similar lines ever since. Most significant among these is the Nobel-Prize winning economist James M Buchanan, who identified the formation of trade unions and even the right to vote as a threat to capitalist power (Monbiot, 2017). His “public choice theory” argued that taxation was a form of oppression faced by the capitalist class, their money siphoned away to fund welfare programmes such as education and healthcare for the working class. In a rather obscene way, Buchanan was correct in his identification of the true and ultimate threat to capitalist power: an educated workforce.
In a world of billionaires and billions in poverty, the ultra-rich are constantly shifting in their seats. As exposed in the recent article by George Monbiot, Buchanan’s career was spent helping to provide economic advice to the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, organising right-wing think tanks to promote secretive policies for deregulation and privatisation, and his entire project was covertly funded by US ultra-billionaire Charles Koch. Far from a left-wing conspiracy theory, the legacy of Buchanan’s thought can be found in practice in the deregulation policies of right-wing governments since the late 20th century, from Thatcher and Reagan to Blair and Bush.
The evidence is clear and overwhelming. The world’s ruling classes are pursing ever more extreme routes towards thwarting democracy in the name of property and profit – all we need to do is make the logical conclusions from the facts that are staring us in the face. It is capitalism and capitalist control of private property that is the problem.