Freedom with or without property?

March 13th, 2016
by Chris

“Property is freedom” (Proudhon)
“Property is theft” (Proudhon)
“Property is impossible” (Proudhon)
“Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds” (Thoreau) (the four quotations assembled by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson as a chapter heading in “Illuminatus”).

Proudhon, sometimes called the father of anarchism, was not actually being quite so inconsistent as those quotations suggest. However, his “Theory of Property “ makes for extremely tedious reading, so tends to get forgotten apart from those highlights!

I started thinking about this post on reading a meme shared by a friend, attacking the ability of government to tax people. In essence, it says that people cannot delegate to government a right they do not have themselves, and they have no right to rob their neighbour. That led me to wonder quite how well the idea of private property aligns with Biblical and Christian principles; it was not immediately apparent to me that there is, for instance, a right not to be “robbed” by ones neighbour, nor that in the natural state of things there is no right to “rob” ones neighbour, if that be interpreted as taking and using yourself something your neighbour is not using themselves. There isn’t even truly a right not to have something you’re using yourself taken away unless either you have the force to prevent it or there is a system of government and law to give you redress for someone else taking it.  Rights are non-existent in the absence of such a system (and, I remark, such systems have to be paid for). It is perhaps in this sense that “property is impossible”.

It seems to me that in the world as we now find it, private property is increasingly seen as a “right” (at least for those who have it). Margaret Thatcher praised the “property owning Democracy”, and although private property is not one of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, it seems to me that it might as well have been. It is absolutely foundational to the modern capitalist system. Thatcher had a point; if you own property, you are at least somewhat more secure (level 2 on Maslow’s hierarchy); you are at least to some extent free to say “no” to demands that you do something for someone else; you are not forced to work in order to eat (which destroys any semblance of an equal bargaining position with those looking for workers); you have some degree of power inasmuch as there is an exchange value of your property. This is Proudhon’s target in saying “property is freedom”.

I wrote recently about the deeply anti-Biblical nature of money, the ultimate form of property which is nothing but exchange value, so I will not go much further into property which is money. There are, however, two major other divisions of property, moveable and immovable – the second category is land, together with what is built on it.

To have land may mean you have a house (and therefore shelter, part of level 1 for Maslow). If you have enough land, you may be able to farm it to provide yourself with food, answering both a level 1 and a level 2 need (I remark that very few people in the UK have that much land; that is probably the case in most developed countries, but in the States seems to be a dream which is very much alive, even if not actually given to most to realise). The ancient Israelites were clearly aware of this when they allotted land to each tribe by lot according to their size (Num. 26:55-6) though clearly from the Jubilee provisions they anticipated that individuals (patriarchs of families) within those tribes would have their own allotment, and instituted provisions to return land at a Jubilee so as to prevent people losing this freedom; the Jubilee also freed slaves and cancelled debts, thus removing debt-slavery as another means of denying basic needs. It should be noted, however, that the basic allotment was to the tribe, not to individuals, so land was at the most basic level a common asset.

There is a common theme through the Hebrew Scriptures that water (much prized in the generally arid landscape of the Middle East) was in particular provided by God – Isa. 55:1, Psalm 107:33-36, Psalm 23:1-3, as merely a few or many instances, thus strongly suggesting that basic utilities should be common to everyone (and that water resources in particular should not be in private ownership). Of course we also should not forget Psalm 24:1 “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it”.

Land is thus a particularly difficult thing to categorise as naturally being “private property”, as it clearly belongs to God, and not in general to man. One factor in this is that by and large, you cannot “use up” land (though you can certainly make it very unattractive for others by, for instance, polluting it or strip mining it). It’s still going to be there when you’re dead and gone, and a lot of farmers, owners of stately homes and even those of us fortunate or unfortunate enough to live in an old and interesting building will testify that to a great extent you don’t own the property, the property owns you.

In addition, of course, land is habitat for a lot of species apart from humans. If we have a “right” to land, do not other species also have rights to it? Are owners of land not responsible for their alteration of its characteristics such that, for instance, what was forest fixing large amounts of CO2 becomes arable land (or worse, desert) which fixes none, often in the process burning the trees to produce more of the CO2 which needs to be fixed?

The ancient Israelites were maybe getting at something like this in not permitting land to be sold off on a permanent basis; the only way you could alienate it was for, at most, 49 years until the next Jubilee. You could in the meantime use it, and I’m inclined to think that “use value” rather than “exchange value” is a better measure of land.

So, how should we use it? A common argument for long term ownership of land is that the land has been “improved”, for instance by reducing it to arable land from wood or scrub, or irrigating or draining it. I have to question whether these can truly be regarded as improvements. I’ve mentioned the problems of deforestation already, but should underline that any intensive human use is massively damaging to land as habitat for other species, and when we farm it we are tending to introduce monocultures which severely damage biodiversity. One man’s improvement is, therefore, another man’s damage or destruction.

“The Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1). The Biblical witness in Genesis 1 is that God made it, and saw that it was good as he made it. While yes, God is seen here as giving mankind rule over it, a ruler does not destroy that which he rules, he tends and protects it – and the vegetation is clearly given to both mankind and the rest of the fauna on earth to eat.  We should, I think, not see ourselves as owning land, but being stewards of it – and, perhaps, being owned by the land. Does the fact that God “gave man dominion over” created things (Gen. 1:26) mean that man should be less solicitous of the welfare of the rest of creation than is God, who “saw that it was good”, or rather “in the image of God” every bit as caring as God, for whom even sparrows are important?

Although the writers of the Pentateuch envisaged that land would in fact not be held communally, they did make provision for (for instance) the poor to be able to glean from the fields ; margins were to be left so they could do this. Genesis 1:30 clearly states that God gave vegetation to animals to eat; should we therefore not prevent them from eating, and do they not therefore have rights in “our” land?

The other form of property, and that which is beloved of those making simplistic arguments for property rights and thus capitalism, is things which we make (or buy).  Or find and collect, or extract from the earth, or grow in the earth, or (in the case of livestock) collect, allow to breed and then utilise in some way.

It tends to seem obvious that when I do something which places an object in my possession, unless I have stolen it, it is mine (and remains so). This is particularly the case when I have done something in order to make it – in the case of a miner, dug it out of the ground, a farmer prepared ground, planted seed, weeded, fertilised and irrigated it and finally reaped it, in the case of a hunter chased down an animal and killed it, in the case of a craftsman taken materials and formed and/or assembled them into something new. This is the case, for instance, for Marx, for whom the human labour which goes in to something is the sole form of value which it should have (neglecting the use of land or equipment which may not belong to the labourer); it is doubly the case for capitalist economists, who would value the land and equipment first and the labour only second (if at all – the pure capitalist regards labour as an irritating cost to be reduced by all means possible). For both of them, value has been added, and their dissent is merely as to how that value should be apportioned.

I question this view. It seems to me that what I most truly own is actually just those things which I am currently using – as Heidegger put it “zuhanden”, i.e. “ready to hand”. The skilled workman acts as if the tool he is using is an extension of himself, and to a great extent, it is; he can reasonably be said to own it while using it in this way. Something which I am not using is at best, in Heideggerian terminology, “vorhanden”, i.e. present to hand – and much of what I tend to think of as “mine” is not even actually present to hand – it isn’t even immediately available for use. This is a form of valuation  purely by use-value (which both Marx and the capitalist economists both acknowledge), but one which is more restricted by suggesting that potential use-value isn’t yet really value at all. As an aside, if potential use-value is considered a value, use for one purpose should surely be regarded as destroying (or at least reducing) the value of all other potential uses.

After I started writing this, my wife bought bones for our two dogs. The older of the two persistently tried to corner both the bones, and when he managed it would growl fiercely at the puppy to warn him off “his” bone. Of course, he could not eat two bones at the same time, and he was depriving the puppy of “his” bone (we had to keep intervening to take one of the bones off the old dog and give it to the puppy). Before saying that this was just clearly theft, consider whether, to the dogs, we are not in effect in the position of God, giving abundant food (or at least the opportunity and circumstances to cultivate it) and then seeing one person cornering it and denying it to others. I was reminded of seeing a homeless man begging outside a plush restaurant; he was hungy, and those inside had more than enough. Was that not also a form of theft (Proudhon’s second meaning)? Of course, Jesus preached against this attitude in Luke 12:13-21 (the parable of the rich fool), in which a man with abundant grain builds more storehouses, but does not live to enjoy their contents.

I could argue that unless I am in the process of using something, if someone else would benefit by using it, this might be equivalent to a form of theft. Before dismissing this argument too quickly, recall that a major argument for settlers having a claim to land over and above migratory people who only occasionally used the land is just that; that they settled on it and actually used it. Another is, of course, that they improved the land, for instance by making it cultivable, but as examples such as the deforestation of the Amazon and the creation of the mid-west dustbowl indicate, the term “improvement” is very debatable.

In a similar way to the “improvement” of the mid-west, I might also argue that when someone takes, say, wood from a forest (thus destroying living trees), works it and produces, say, a chair, this should really be viewed merely as adjusting the form of something, and not as creating something (and if, for instance, there is a glut of chairs around, the chair produced has frankly near-zero value for either use or exchange value, whereas the tree it came from has value merely by existing as part of the ecosystem, and indeed the chair might have negative value as waste needing to be disposed of). The intuition in Genesis and the Psalms that God alone is the Creator is valid here; man does not create, he merely rearranges.

I suspect that by this point many reading this will think “this goes massively too far”, and I would agree. It’s an extreme. For there to be no real private property (Proudhon’s third suggestion) is also the position someone is in when society has broken down and there is no trust or fellow feeling between individuals; what you “own” is, if it goes beyond what you are actually currently using, what you can by force or intimidation prevent others from taking. “But we don’t live in a society like that”, I hear. Well, conditions like that occur regularly in places like childrens’ playgrounds and prisons, where individuals either haven’t yet learned to respect the conventions of society or have wilfully rejected them. I suggest that this is a more natural state than is the society of property owners, in fact. A friend recently alerted me to the fact that the Founding Fathers contemplated in the Declaration of Independence expressing a God-given right to property ownership (in fact, they substituted “the pursuit of happiness”); I think that they were entirely correct to reject this as a natural right. It has to be said, however, that having some property does contribute to Maslow’s second level, security (although there too, Jesus would comment “do not worry about tomorrow”).

However, if you add to a society an ethos of compassion, “loving your neighbour as yourself” as a general value,a mix of private and communal property becomes the most natural way to organise things, always in the consciousness that everything originates from God, and that we are mere stewards of it (or, in the case of food or drink, recipients of a gift).

There is one final thing. As I mentioned earlier, very many people I talk to who own a large house or a large area of land (perhaps a farm) say that they do not really feel that they own it, they feel that it owns them. They may well also say they are merely custodians, evidencing just that attitude of stewardship which I commend. Some people with (for instance) vintage cars will gladly confess that they are slaves to keeping it in pristine condition and good running order. Fewer people with large bank balances and multiple investments will say that they are owned by their possessions – but it seems to me that they are. They are defined by being a millionaire or a billionaire, and their primary energy goes to retaining that status and increasing it.

When Jesus told the rich young man to sell everything he had and give it to the poor, he was not asking him to damage himself, he was suggesting that he free himself. Just as an addict or an alcoholic is enslaved to their addicting substance or activity, so possessions can enslave us. Let’s be free!

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