By Susan Rosenthal
Private property is the bedrock of capitalism. So why would a self-proclaimed Communist country like China enshrine private property in its constitution? The answer lies in a deeper understanding of private property.
For most of human history, there was no private property. No one owned the land and its resources or the knowledge that was handed down through the generations. All these were shared.
The development of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago, changed the way people lived and related to one another. Foraging societies move continually in search of food. Planting crops requires landed settlements. Foraging societies depend on equality and reciprocity. Agriculture brought conflicts over land. Foraging provided barely enough food to survive. Agriculture provided a more reliable source of food and eventually a surplus.
Historians estimate that the collectively-produced surplus began to be claimed as private property about 6,000 years ago. Those who were delegated to manage the surplus for the community found themselves in a position to impose their will over the community. The same armed guards that were hired to protect the village from raiders could also protect the elite from villagers who challenged their power.
Private property divided humanity into classes: the majority who labor to produce; the minority who claim ownership of what is produced; and a small group of people in between. Over time, the form of class society has changed (feudalism, slavery, capitalism). Nevertheless, all class societies are based on private property, where the social surplus is in private hands.
Over the past two centuries, more and more resources have become private property including ideas, methods and machines. Seeds, plants, animals and even genes have been patented. Nations claim ownership of water and air space. There are even disputes over who owns the moon. Only the national debt is collectively owned.
Because most of the world’s wealth is owned or controlled by a small group of people, everyone else must scramble to survive. One in five people lives on less than one dollar a day; one billion people do not have adequate shelter; more than two billion people do not have proper sanitation; and more than one billion people lack safe drinking water.
As inequality grows, there is more pressure to return private property to common control. The capitalist State was created to prevent this from happening.
The State enforces a legal system that upholds the “right” of property owners to dictate what happens to “their” property. Police and armies are employed to protect private property, and the penal system maintains this unjust social arrangement.
Force alone is not enough to maintain class divisions, because the have-nots are far more numerous than the have-lots. To win majority consent for class divisions, paid propagandists praise the private property system and attack all critics.
Personal, common and private property
To promote loyalty to the system of private property, ordinary folks are encouraged to view their personal possessions as “private property.” In fact, private property consumes personal property. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that cities can seize and demolish people’s homes to make way for businesses and shopping malls.
Private property is very different from personal property. People have always had personal-use items (homes, clothes, toys, tools, etc.) that they keep, share or trade, and this will always be so, regardless of the type of social system. The important question is who owns the natural resources, tools and technology that people need to survive. Is it privately owned or commonly shared?
Common property is also confused with public property. Common property is not property at all, because no one owns it. It is shared or “owned in common.” In contrast, public property is private property that is owned by the State.
Because the State claims to represent all the people, State or public property is assumed to be commonly owned. It is not. Common ownership means that common people are in control. Public ownership means that State officials are in control.
Capitalism is assumed to be a system of private enterprise. However, capitalism can also take the form of State enterprise.
During World War II, much of the U.S. economy was taken over by the government, yet it remained capitalist. Today, both the American and Chinese States control about 30 percent of their economies. As nations develop, more of their economies are taken over by the State, directly or in joint ventures with private capital.
China’s shift from publicly-owned (State-controlled) property to privately-owned property marks a change in the form of capitalism. The same shift in the form of capitalism took place in Russia during the 1990s.
Modern capitalism is a global system that can take many forms: fascism, military dictatorship, electoral democracy, welfare state, etc. Regardless of the form it takes, capitalism is defined by the existence of private property, where social resources are owned or controlled by an elite.
The opposite of private property is socialism, or common control of society. There are no genuinely socialist societies in the world today. Not any.
Genuine socialism would abolish private property. People would continue to own personal-use items; however, no one would be allowed to own the means of survival, and thereby gain power over others.
Abolishing private property would end the class division of humanity and all of its miseries. The world would, once again, become our common responsibility, shared by all.