Throughout the decades the anti-capitalist left has made a name for itself by critically and devastatingly analyzing capitalism. Rather than focusing on parliamentary politics, reformist agendas, and other quantitative changes to capitalism and the state, radical anti-capitalists combat not just the economic problems brought about by capitalism, but the hierarchies facilitated by the state in the political, environmental, and social realm; looking always to, as the Industrial Workers of the World saying goes, “build a new world in the shell of the old”. Along the way, anarchists, socialists and communists have at times provided loose conceptions of what alternatives to capitalism and the state could look like, but there’s one concept which has evaded the cutting blade of radical alternatives for hundreds of years: property. In the following we will describe liberal conceptions of property in the form of Locke’s argument, provide arguments showing that Lockean conceptions are ripe with fallacies, and show how anarchists, socialists, communists, and their fellow travelers have been presupposing Locke’s liberal theory of property in their own theories of property. Ultimately, we will provide some libertarian-communist conclusions based on arguments against property which do not depend on liberalism for their philosophical backing.
Things of the senses are real if considered as perceptible things, but unreal if considered as goods.
–Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
Any talk of property rights must begin with John Locke, the man who provided the most common justification for property and American capitalism. Locke posited a very intuitive theory of property rights: if you build it, it is yours (this is so intuitive that it is accepted by many anarchists; more on that below). As Locke himself put it:
Though the Earth, and all inferior Creatures be common to all Men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property…
Put in a more structured manner his argument was as follows:
- Humans own the labor of their bodies.
- Humans can mix their labor into objects.
- Any object that has a person’s labor in it is the property of that person.
:. Private property is justified.
As mentioned above, this argument is incredibly intuitive. If a person puts in the work, sweats and bleeds for some object why in the world shouldn’t they own that object? After all, that object wouldn’t have come into existence without that person laboring over it to begin with! Unfortunately for propertarians (a more appropriate name for so called “Libertarians” in the U.S.) this argument is filled with problems that are carried across its various iterations. To begin with, Locke begs the question on point 1 by assuming that people “own” the labor of their bodies. After all, if we’re trying to determine what are the parameters for how we can come to own something, we shouldn’t presuppose that very something in the first point of our argument. Secondly, and this is a point examined in detail by anarchist-communist philosopher Alan Carter, the concept of “labor” in points 2 and 3 is metaphysically disparate. As Alan Carter explains:
Labour is not the sort of material object that can be mixed with another. Hence, it is difficult to see how Locke is saying anything at all intelligible. The form of Locke’s argument may lead to an over hasty acceptance because of a potential equivocation. The saying ‘This is my labour’ can be taken to mean ‘This is my task’, ‘This is my activity’ or ‘This is the produce of my labour’. One should be wary of confusing ‘This is the produce of my labour’ with either of the two meanings… If labour were a material object, then we could certainly see how it could be mixed with another object…
That is, Locke seems to be using two different senses of the same word within the same argument; a logical fallacy known as equivocation. To some, this may appear as a rhetorical counter point, but the reality is that arguments seeking to justify property rights happen within the realm of political philosophy, and as such they are subject to logic. Therefore, proponents of Lockean property rights face an uphill battle in trying to connect “labor” in the sense of this metaphysical, untestable, elusive substance that is present somewhere (where exactly we’ve yet to find out) in the object created, and “labor” in the sense of an activity, or the outcome of an activity. As if that wasn’t enough, this argument, prominent as it is, has been attacked even by other propertarian philosophers. Robert Nozick, a philosopher known for his work promoting minimal state free-market capitalism, famously argued that people have no reason to believe that mixing their labor with an object makes it theirs:
…why isn’t mixing what I own with what I don’t a way of losing what I own rather than a way of gaining what I don’t? If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so that its molecules (made radioactive, so I can check this) mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice?
So, according to Nozick, even if we were to presuppose that people do own their labor (in the metaphysical sense) it doesn’t follow that mixing that with an un-owned object makes it the property of a person. Rather, Locke’s argument, under this presupposition, allows us to justifiably claim two completely contradictory outcomes: that someone can have ownership of an object, and that someone cannot have ownership of an object; A and –A.
…stop and consider the wages that were kept back from millions of Black people, not for one year but for three hundred and ten years, you’ll see how this country got so rich so fast. And what made the economy as strong as it is today. And all that slave labor that was amassed in unpaid wages, is due someone today. And you’re not giving us anything when we say that it’s time to collect.
–Malcolm X, “Twenty million black people in prison,”
As mentioned above, this incredibly intuitive argument from Locke has made it past the most revolutionary of political theories: anarchism. Some “fellow travelers” proudly exclaim that the tradition of anarchism has its roots in the liberalism that rose out of the feudal era. For example, when Noam Chomsky, explaining Mikail Bakunin’s comments on the Paris Commune, says
These ideas grew out of the Enlightenment; their roots are in Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality, Humboldt’s Limits of State Action…it is libertarian socialism that has preserved and extended the radical humanist message of the Enlightenment and the classical liberal ideals that were perverted into an ideology to sustain the emerging social order.
Others align themselves with liberal political values without saying, or knowing, as much. One can find examples of this in the works of famous anarchist-communist thinkers such as Peter Kropotkin when he mentions that one of the many ways in which capitalists exploit workers is by not paying them what they need to survive :
This is the secret of wealth; find the starving and destitute, pay them half a crown, and make them produce five shillings worth in the day, amass a fortune by these means, and then increase it by some lucky hit, made with the help of the State
And Alexander Berkman who argues a very similar point in his work:
Though the workers, as a class, have built the factories, a slice of their daily labor is taken from them for the privilege of using those factories.That’s the landlord’s profit.
As well as Errico Malatesta:
…in reality the property that they defend is capitalist property, namely property that allows its owners to live from the work of others and which therefore depends on the existence of a class of the disinherited and dispossessed, forced to sell their labour to the property owners for a wage below its real value…
This is not to imply that these are not fine critiques of the capitalist system, but that the line of thought here is the same: the capitalist owns the means of production, takes the labor of the worker and returns to the worker only partial remuneration for their work, i.e. in a fair society the worker would receive what’s rightfully theirs. And how, then, could we determine what’s rightfully theirs? Well, let’s look back at Kropotkin
The means of production being the collective work of humanity, the product should be the collective property of the race… All things are for all men, since all men have need of them, since all men have worked in the measure of their strength to produce them… [sic]
It seems, then, that the answer Kropotkin has to the question of how we determine what is rightfully ours is Lockean in nature, i.e. the means of production are a collective work of humanity; all people have “worked in the measure of their strength to produce…” therefore, because their “work” is what brought about those all means of production and commodities, they are the rightful owners of those means of production and commodities. While Kropotkin is not claiming that people own the labor of their bodies as Locke does, he is using the rest of Locke’s argument. Put in the same argumentative structure as above, Kropotkin’s argument would look like this:
- People work in factories to produce various commodities and means of production.
- Every person has worked in “the measure of their strength to produce…”
:. Means of production and commodities are the property of everyone; i.e. collective property.
Although Kropotkin does not use “labor” in any of its forms, he does talk of “work” and how every person has worked on just about everything. While he avoids directly mentioning that the justificatory point of ownership is the fact of someone’s “work” being mixed with whatever workers are making, the Lockean point is clear. What justifies the ownership is the fact that there is labor, or, in the case of Kropotkin, “work” in what workers happen to be creating. The same fallacy of equivocation, then, applies to Kropotkin’s argument: “work” in point 1 is still metaphysically different to the sense in which “work” in point 2 is being used (some could argue that point 2, plays both sides of the metaphysical coin at the same time). However, due credit should be given to Kropotkin for he seemed to have gotten a whiff of how metaphysically problematic labor/work mixing can be and might’ve sought to solve, or at least nullify the problem when he adds:
…and since it is not possible to evaluate every one’s part in the production of the world’s wealth…
However, this line further reveals that his conception of “work” is one that is somewhere in the commodities and means of production created by workers, albeit one that is impossible to verify how much any single person has added.
It seems that in our effort to cut down the most common propertarian argument for property we’ve taken away the most common libertarian-communist argument for what property would look like in an anarchist society. In the section below we will explore a solution.
Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.
-Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
Given our arguments against Locke, and by association Kropotkin, we are faced with the conclusion that property, both private and collective, is philosophically unjustifiable (as far as labor based arguments are concerned). However, the lack of any justification for collective property does not mean we must become luddites. Accepting that no property can be justified walks hand in hand with the idea that we still desire and, in many cases, need certain commodities to exist. As such, so long as society agrees on their desire and need for these commodities and accepts that no one can justifiably own anything, we have to collectively self-manage means of production to produce said commodities whilst never being under any illusion of “owning” said means of production. Managing collectively is also not anarchistic bias, but rather the only way of doing so. After all, if no agent can actually own anything, but all agree that we want or need certain things to exist, then we must come together to collectively decide the best way of bringing about those things, and if no one owns any means of production, then no one has the right to exclude anyone else in deciding how they are used. Decisions, then, must be made via a fully participatory mode of decision making. Hypothetically speaking, at it’s most individualistic point this could manifest itself in, say, one exceptionally gifted person being able to pull off a particular commodity. A community, then, in its desire or need for said commodity could conclude that only by this person single handedly engaging some means of production could the community get what it needs. But even this would not be anywhere near private property. The person in this scenario would have no exclusive use-rights, no seller rights, no trading rights, and no inheritance rights (what argument could they provide justifying these rights? Certainly not a Lockean one). Their lone use of the means of production would be one granted by the rest of the community under the understanding that it is not that person’s property. That there’s no ownership to be had, but needs to be satisfied.
At it’s most collectivist point, a community could decide that the only way to get a particular commodity is to engage the whole community in the process, or that there are too many processes for everyone to engage in all of them and a system of ensuring everyone participates fairly should be in place. Something akin to the “balanced job complexes” of participatory economics. Both of these routes, however, require anarchist-communist values to operate; both require direct-democratic avenues of participation/decision making and both operate under no private (or collective) ownership existing.
It should be clear that the solutions considered above are not positive arguments. They are not proposals for a libertarian-communist, or anarchist society and they are not something that can be rationally rejected due to unsavory consequences. The above is a series of conclusions based on a negative argument against property rights. As such, one can certainly imagine many scenarios that could seemingly push a society exercising no property to fall back into private property, e.g. imagine that for some elaborate reason the only way to bring about a much needed commodity is to re-introduce private-property and markets, or imagine that a person, or group held a community ransom via their skill, and force the community to grant them “property rights”. In situations such as the former, the community would have to make difficult decisions weighing the ills of property and against the benefits of a commodity. However, in both situations it would still be the case that the community would have as much power as any particular agent to create property-rights: none whatsoever. The fact would still remain that private-property lacks any philosophical justification and what would be brought about would be an illusion born out of need, or extortion in the latter scenario, not reason. Leaving the holders of private-property with nothing to fall back on except coercion to hold on to their precious property – a scenario not very different from the one we have now.
- Obviously, none of us can predict the future. That, however, does not give the writer any reason to not work out how political values can play out institutionally. We’re not afraid of making models, and when we do so, we do so with the understanding that none of these models are the ultimate ideal of anarchism. Instead, these should be considered as some bare minimums for an anarchist society.
- The word “right” will be used throughout, but this should not be taken as any sort of support for the concept. Rather, it is used for lack of a better term and for ease of understanding. It is the opinion of this writer that rights are, as Jeremy Bentham once said, “nonsense on stilts”.
- Readers should note that the version of Locke’s argument presented here is, in our opinion, the strongest version of his argument. One that does not make mention of God, nor makes appeals to the supernatural, or mystical.
- Carter, Philosophical Foundations of Property, chapter 2
5.Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia pp. 174-5
- Chomsky, Notes on Anarchism
- Kropotkin, Conquest of Bread, Chap 4
- Berkman, What is Anarchism
- Malatesta, Some thoughts on the post-revolutionary property system
- Kropotkin, ibid
- Kropotkin, ibid
- Assuming the person is willing. If the person is unwilling, then the community has no right to force them to partake; only morality can do that.
- This being one of only a small handful of good ideas contained within participatory-economics.