by Susan Rosenthal
(Updated at: Whose Property?)
Private property is the foundation of capitalism. It is therefore very confusing when a self-proclaimed Communist country like China enshrines private property in its constitution. How could this be? The answer lies in a deeper understanding of private property.
Human history dates back more than 150,000 years. For most of that time, no one owned the land and its resources or the knowledge that was handed down through the generations.
The original inhabitants of North America lived in sharing societies where they took care of one another and decided matters together. This pre-industrial communism was alien to the European conquerors who came from class-divided, non-sharing societies. They seized control of the land and declared it to be their private property, for their exclusive use.
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 now owned or controlled by a tiny capitalist class, 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, the pressure increases to return private property to common control. The 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, because the have-nots far outnumber the have-lots. So an army of propagandists is paid to praise the private property system and attack all who criticize it.
Personal property is not private property
Private property should not be confused with personal property. People have always had personal-use items (homes, clothes, toys, tools, etc.) that they kept, shared or traded, and they will always have them, regardless of the type of social system. The important question is who owns the natural resources, tools and technology that people need to survive.
To promote loyalty to the system of private property, ordinary folks are encouraged to view their personal possessions as "private property." In reality, private property consumes personal property. The Supreme Court recently ruled that cities can seize and demolish people’s homes to make way for shopping malls and other businesses.
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. And under capitalism, the State serves the capitalist class.
There are no socialist or communist economies in the world today, no nations where ordinary people share control of society. No, not any — not even close
In 1917, the working class took power in Russia but wasn’t strong enough to hold onto it. In the 1920s, Russian capitalism was restored in the form of State capitalism. The State controlled production, and everyone worked for the State.
The Cold War was not a conflict between American Democracy and Russian Communism, but a power struggle between two capitalist super-powers to determine which would rule the world. Democracy had nothing to do with it and neither did communism. The State was heavily invested in both economies, and neither nation exposed its top decision-makers to the risk of popular elections.
Portraying the United States as democratic and Russia as communist served both forms of capitalism. Because conditions for Russian workers were so oppressive, Washington could claim that capitalism was better, despite racism and inequality in America. Because conditions for American workers were so oppressive, Moscow could claim that communism was better, despite mass oppression in Russia.
If State control makes a nation communist, then the U.S. is just as communist as China, because both States control an estimated 30 percent of their economies. China’s shift from public (State-controlled) property to private property is simply a change in the form of capitalism. Russian capitalism made the same shift during the 1990s.
Genuine socialism would transform all private property into shared or common "property," which is not property at all because no one would own it. 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 will end the class division of humanity and all the problems it creates. Humanity’s greatest strength has always been our ability to cooperate. By sharing life’s ups and downs, the good and the bad, we can solve life’s problems together.
For more on this subject read POWER and Powerlessness, Chapter 14, "Seize the Power." Available at www.powerandpowerlessness.com