Property

One important aspect of human social relations which has to be transformed if we are to live humanly, that is to say, collaboratively, is property. For Hegel, the property relation is the foundation of “objective spirit”, that is to say, of all cultural, social and political life. Below I shall explore the meaning of property, using Hegel’s exposition as a starting point.

Property is a social relation in which personality is manifested in an objective, sensuous form through the recognition given by other people. Property is commonly seen as a relation between a person and a ‘thing’, as in “this thing is mine”. However, the real, human relation intended here is that the use of the thing by me is sanctioned by the community of which I am part. Conversely, according to Hegel, if I no longer use something, then I give up my possession of it. In property, this relation between me and the community is mediated through a signification given to the thing, namely “mine”.

In property this determinate character is the abstract one, ‘mine’, and is therefore found in an external thing. [Hegel, Philosophy of Right 104 Remark]

Property is thus a basic form of Right, and so is meaningful so long as Right is meaningful. Right is not an eternal social category however. Right is meaningless among friends, for example, and pre-supposes a social division of labour.

In ancient and feudal society, complex systems of rights and duties, closely connected with kinship relations, regulated social life. The emergence of what Hegel called ‘civil society’ (bürgeliche gesellschaft — literally ‘bourgeois society’), rupturing the connection between the rights and obligations of the family, on the one hand, from the rights and obligations which attach themselves to political life, on the other. Over the last few centuries, ‘Civil Society’ has absorbed wider and wider domains of life, in particular what is called “the economy”, such that social life is now no longer either traditional or intentional.

If, drawing on Hegel’s categories, we use the term “ethical life” to denote living with other people in such a way as recognises and respects the personality of others, then there remain two aspects of this ethical life: Virtue and Duty, the kind of people we are, what desires we have and so on, and the system of imperatives and constraints that we impose upon ourselves. Hegel’s approach is somewhat different; he sees Ethical life as the resultant of Right (which he takes to be founded on property) and Morality (the realisation in a subjective form of what is only implicit in Right).

Insofar as Right is thoroughly inwardised in the Morality of a people, then an Ethical Life is immediate and given. In actual bourgeois society, rights and morality are at odds, and personal interests are in conflict. The attainment of bourgeois society implies the ‘disappearing’ of both Right and Morality through their identity. However, insofar as Right is developing and stands in some degree in contradiction with Morality, then Ethical Life requires institutions of Right, and therefore State and Property, of some kind.

For Hegel, property is first of all one’s own activity (though not property in the legal sense until it is ‘alienated’), and second of all that which one is the first to take possession of. Taking possession of means to form or make the thing in the first place, or to mark it or take hold of it, and having taken possession of a thing allows either maintaining its possession through the use of the thing or its alienation to another person. Here ‘thing’ is to be understood in the broadest possible sense, though another person is excluded in principle from being property.

Hegel’s conception is a very precise expression of the property relation in bourgeois society. At the very heart of his definition of property Hegel:

For Hegel, then, it is not the relation of person-to-person as such, but the property relation which lies at the heart of social life, underlying not only law and economics, but politics, world history and all aspects of social life. Hegel claimed: “A person must translate his freedom into an external sphere in order to exist as Idea”, so social relations require property relations at their foundation.

Hegel’s claim was not to have described the concept of property as a product of social life, but rather to have deduced the concept of property from Reason, and thereby to have uncovered the rationality lying behind the affairs of bourgeois society.

Marx made his own investigation of the property relation, and in particular Marx traced the development of the value relation which unfolded through a series of stages, accompanying the extension of the activity of exchanging property, leading to the development of money and capital.

“The essence of money is not, in the first place, that property is alienated in it, but that the mediating activity or movement, the human, social act by which man’s products mutually complement one another, is estranged from man and becomes the attribute of money, a material thing outside man.” [Comments on James Mill]

The point of interest therefore is to visualise the kind of property relation which both embodies the further extension of collaboration but negates the value relation, which has its origin in production for exchange. To put it another way, how can we approach a critique of the property relation that Hegel describes, which contains within it the right to alienate property through a contract of exchange?

What would it mean to simply negate the property relation altogether? Marx considers this question in Private Property and Communism. Marx elaborates the problem in terms of the development of Communism. First comes “crude communism” which:

“wants to destroy everything which is not capable of being possessed by all as private property. It wants to disregard talent, etc., in an arbitrary manner. For it the sole purpose of life and existence is direct, physical possession. The category of the worker [’the antithesis between lack of property and property, so long as it is not comprehended as the antithesis of labour and capital, still remains an indifferent antithesis, not grasped in its active connection'] is not done away with, but extended to all men. The relationship of private property persists as the relationship of the community to the world of things. ... The first positive annulment of private property - crude communism - is thus merely a manifestation of the vileness of private property, which wants to set itself up as the positive community system.”

Secondly,

“(2) Communism (a) still political in nature - democratic or despotic; (b) with the abolition of the state, yet still incomplete, and being still affected by private property, i.e., by the estrangement of man. In both forms communism already is aware of being reintegration or return of man to himself, the transcendence of human self-estrangement; but since it has not yet grasped the positive essence of private property, and just as little the human nature of need, it remains captive to it and infected by it. It has, indeed, grasped its concept, but not its essence.”

I understand this as pointing to the struggle which begins from bourgeois society, but which has the aim of transcending private property and consequently utilises political means. I take this to encompass the phase of development within which a new type of human relation and human being could begin to make its appearance.

The solution of the problem of private property has, of course, nothing to do with the relation between people and things, and to speculate about different relations between people and things would be an absurdity “still affected by private property, i.e., by the estrangement of man”.

And finally,

“(3) Communism as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being - a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development. This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man - the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species.”

One of the distinctions frequently made in relation to the question of the abolition of private property, and often accepted as ‘marxist orthodoxy’, is the distinction between social property, in particular the social means of production, on the one hand, and personal possessions or objects of consumption, on the other. Possibly this distinction makes some sense in the “political” phase of Communism Marx refers to above. However, the conception is of limited value because, for a start, it is founded on the rupture of the human being into a producer on one hand and a consumer on the other, and life into work and leisure, dichotomies which lie at the very heart of the fragmented existence which needs to be abolished. The abolition of private property in the productive sphere whilst retaining it in the domestic sphere, would in fact reinforce the inhumanity of modern life: personal property being entirely for one’s own use, is without significance and therefore worthless, while social property still has significance only for the purpose of earning a living and is therefore alien and oppressive.

But the proposition arises because of the social character of production in contrast to the private nature of domestic consumption.

Appointment to a job does not require the sanction of capital, it can be decided politically, and private ownership confers rights which appear as an anomaly. However, there appears some sense in the institution of private ownership in respect to a person’s conditions of life, including their “treasures” and so on. Even having to live in rented property appears as an affront, though it is widespread among the workers in most industrialised countries. But should not the same rights be extended to a worker in their working life?

It is often said: “How can a worker own their little section of the production line?”. Well, this of course poses the problem wrongly, in terms of the relation between a person and a thing, whereas the question is that of the relation between people, and why shouldn’t a worker on a production line (i.e., a worker in some complex productive enterprise) exercise rights in respect to their own job in the organisation? Isn’t it just the same question that one does not expect someone to park themselves in your living room, so one should not expect someone to trespass into your role at work. Doesn’t a worker feel a “proprietary” right with respect to their role at work? And doesn’t she feel that the capitalist intrudes upon that right in sacking her or when the job is “restructured” without proper consultation, or simply if someone interferes with your tools or makes unwarranted statements about your services? Just the same as if you do not particularly resent having to pay a hefty interest rate on your mortgage, but if you should lose your job and be unable to pay for a while, you certainly do resent being evicted! And while you expect to pay for your groceries, you also expect to be offered goods on credit if you happen to be short.

Isn’t it possible to decide politically what a person’s rights are both at work and as a consumer? And isn’t such a political decision governed by ethics? We know that it is wrong that a youngster cannot get a start in life and is denied a job precisely because they “don’t have experience” and so forth? Don’t we think it wrong that someone should consume or possess things far in excess of what is socially possible or appropriate? Why and how do we have to let money decide these things?

So, there is a concept of property which exists in our relations both at work and outside work, which is to do with this: once you have established, with your co-workers, the right to work in a certain way, to work in a certain job or draw on the services of others in a given way and to a certain extent, then we believe that we have a right to demand that that activity should only be terminated or transformed with our agreement. We don’t need to bring things into that.

Money violates this right. Via money, people forcibly separate other people from their life and livelihood. Money grants to scoundrels the right to debauch themselves. But money is a carrier of the consent of the community, despite itself.

According to Hegel, a personal relationship is possible only between property-owners.

Right is in the first place the immediate embodiment which freedom gives itself in an immediate way, i.e. (a) possession, which is property - ownership. Freedom is here the freedom of the abstract will in general or, eo ipso, the freedom of a single person related only to himself. (b) A person by distinguishing himself from himself relates himself to another person, and it is only as owners that these two persons really exist for each other. Their implicit identity is realised through the transference of property from one to the other in conformity with a common will and without detriment to the rights of either. This is contract. ... [Philosophy of Right 40]

Clearly, this outrage runs counter to the Ethics of the working-class for whom, surely, personality is founded upon one’s “trade”, or one’s potential or especially actual role in the production of life, and a personal relationship is founded upon collaboration.

Hegel says that property entails the right to alienate property.

The reason I can alienate my property is that it is mine only in so far as I put my will into it. Hence I may abandon as a res nullius anything that I have or yield it to the will of another and so into his possession, provided always that the thing in question is a thing external by nature. ... [Philosophy of Right 65]

But this is not so. If I leave a flat, I have no “right of succession” to nominate who will move into my former room — that is for the others living in the flat to choose their new neighbour; and if I resign my job, I cannot “leave it” to a friend, my replacement is appointed by my former co-workers; if I don’t want a thing any more, then why and how do I have a right to decide who should after me take possession of it? If I die, why should my off-spring benefit from my death, rather than others?

If I have a contract, then it is only with those with whom I collaborate, not with my successor; with my present not my past. Such an arrangement leads to the most narrow, selfish, bourgeois, “you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours” mentality.

What about use? For Hegel use is a way of taking possession of something (provided it is not already the property of someone else who wishes to use it), and has the effect of maintaining ownership. When one no longer uses something, then one has taken one’s will out of the thing and it becomes ownerless.

This concept seems to stand up. It appears to be a substantive and ethical conception of property: a thing is mine if I use it in the course of activity which is mine, that is to say, in the course of my socially determined activity. If I stop using it, it reverts to a ‘state of nature’.

In summary, it seems to me that there is a kind of concept of property which exists within the activity of working people and the ethical relations between them. Economic relations, i.e., bourgeois relations, violate this ethic and violate workers’ property. This concept of property seems actually to provide, in combination with consensus decision-making and collaboration, the basis for the organisation of social production on a global scale.

Andy Blunden.
20th March 2001