Philosophical Notes on the Political-Economic Phenomenon of Ownership
In the science of political economy, we talk a lot about who owns what and how. But what is it to own something? This is one of those questions that may seem silly or pedantic or grotesquely academic- “everyone knows what owning means”- but which is actually worth thinking about; after all, ownership of property by the bourgeoisie or by the People is a vital contradiction in political-economy, and we owe it to our cause to understand it well.
In “A Materialist Conception of Power,” I wrote “…for a materialist, power is control, control by material means over material objects and their interactions.” In this sense, ownership is a kind of power. Ownership is absolute power over something in all senses. While ownership may find intellectual expression on paper, in a practical sense it is a physical relationship of control between owned and owning entity, and this relationship can exist with or without deeds and titles and certificates. There are two ways to own something:
- One can own something for economic purposes, for its use in production of further things and importantly of their use-values. Historically the word property has been used to refer to objects owned in this way (as in the “unpropertied class”), and when we talk of abolishing private property we are talking of abolishing this kind of ownership for private individuals, replacing it with communal ownership for the common good; increasingly, though, the meaning of “property” has broadened to include both ways.
- One can own something for personal enjoyment of its use, separate from or tangential to production. We call things owned in this way possessions. I, though I have no property in the first sense except my labour-power, have many possessions: my laptop, for instance, on which I am typing, and the book I shall shortly reference, and several chairs. We have no interest in abolishing personal possession.
Do social animals other than humans, beings with complex social existence but without class society, own things? Actually, I think the answer is yes. Many species of the Corvidae, a family of birds who are among the most intelligent of the Aves class and whose societies can be quite complex and comparable to very early human primitive communality, like to collect shiny objects. It seems to me we could say that a raven who acquires a bit of aluminum and caches it in their nest could be said to have a prized possession, as much as a human with a book or a laptop could. This behavior probably starts with food: even fairly stupid animals take steps to ensure their total control, their ownership, of tidbits of food to use later. Once an animal can desire to possess food for later eating as well as to simply eat food, it is not much further a step for it also to want to possess things for aesthetic, emotional, or other purposes.
Crucially though, we are talking about personal possessions, about ownership of the second type in my little list. An individual member of a corvid community may personally own the food and the personal trinkets they keep secret in their nest, but the foraging range of the whole group is, as far as their society is concerned, effectively collectively owned by the community, or even moreso (as it is only very occasionally- though cases, like the Gombe war among chimps, exist- that different communities contest the right to resources against each other in pre-agricultural societies human or otherwise) un-owned. Again, this state of affairs seems pretty analogous to primitive communality in hunter-gathererist human societies.
Engels, then, was correct in the assertion made in On the Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State that private ownership of means of production as property is of the same approximate age as class society; that it emerged with the transition from the higher stages of primitive communality to slave society (as exemplified for him in the earlier Greek city-states), heralded by the development of agricultural production and thus of means of production, like farmlands and farming equipment, to be owned by one class and worked by another in exploitation relationships. As Engels said in the chapter “The Greek Gens”: “…[there emerged] transmission of the property to the children, by which accumulation of wealth within the family was favored and the family itself became a power… [there came also] the formation of the first rudiments of hereditary nobility and monarchy; slavery, at first only of prisoners of war, but already preparing the way for the enslavement of fellow-members of the tribe…” As production by meeting of labour and means of production, originally naturally furnished and subsequently created themselves by production, emerged, a ruling class first emerged whose members declared their and their family’s ownership of the means of production and thus exploited the labouring majority to rob them of the use values (and subsequently the economic value) they produced. This ruling class emerged together with early states (in Greece first monarchies and tyrannies and then slaver republics, those so-called “democracies” where only the men who held others in bondage on their estates could vote), with a cultural superstructure that supported their economic system of slave society, and with the subjugation of the majority of people into the exploitable labourer class, the slaves; this was the birth of class society.
I wrote in “A Materialist Conception of Power” that “the central concern of history is power, more specifically the dialectical struggle between classes for political-economic power, power over economics, production, labour, resources, nations and countries, and ultimately society.” This is true. Ownership of the means of production, furthermore, is the central element of political-economic power and the most important sub-variety of that power on which and from which all others depend, derive, and return. It is, indeed, the determiner of class: since the birth of private control of production together with slave society, the ruling classes have been the ruling classes because they own the means of production and have control over production; the state and cultural superstructure of a given social order, built around a given ruling class and their economic system, are only tangential expressions of and methods of maintaining this fundamental economic power.
The real objective of the material class struggle, then, is about ownership. We must unite the working classes in the movement of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism for revolutionary People’s War in order to establish socialist economies of democratic worker-power over production in every country, which means giving the workers ownership over the means of production they work; the rest of the political-economic action of revolution, the use of New Democracy to move out of semifeudal capitalism into position to adopt socialism, the construction of the three weapons of revolution around the leadership of the proletarian vanguard Party and of the new state into which the organs of worker power are united, the cultural revolution to destroy all remaining vestiges of the bourgeois superstructure and build a new proletarian one under socialism to maintain and preserve it, etc.-all of this serves to facilitate and reinforce the central concern of ensuring ownership of the means of production by the working majority. This, combined with the work of the proletarian state and the cultural revolutionary movement in uniting humanity into the proletariat as class struggle continues and socialism spreads, ultimately leads to a social order in which all people belong equally to the class that owns the means of production and thus such things as states for one class to use against another are no longer necessary and class division no longer exists, thus classes, no longer definable in contradiction against each other, are abolished and full-stage communism is reached.
To sum up, then: owning is a kind of power, with two distinct forms. There is ownership for personal purposes, which has existed as long as animals with some level of intellect and sociality have and probably will indefinitely; then there is ownership for purposes of production, which came into being for humanity with the birth of agricultural production and slave society. This second kind has for the duration of the history of class society been concentrated privately in the hands of one or another ruling class, and what we must do now is conquer it, put it collectively first in the hands of the majority class, the proletariat, to establish socialism (the first stage of communism and final chapter of class society), and then through the rule of that class in the hands of all humanity, ending class society and its contradictions and establishing full-stage communism. This second kind of ownership is the crux of political-economic power, which must be seized via proletarian revolutionary Protracted People’s War in every country for the People, and above all for the proletariat, the working majority class.
In closing, a note on the concept of theft. Ownership as a political-economic phenomenon is nothing more or less than total material power over a thing (power being, as I have written elsewhere, control of material stuff by means of material stuff). But ownership can be seen by society as “legitimate” or not- thus we have the concept of theft; if I steal your car I own it, but my ownership of it is not recognized as legitimate in the way that yours was, and it is considered right for you to take ownership back. But who decides what ownership is legitimate? In the law of class society, the state, acting on behalf of an owning class, and concerned principally with political-economic ownership of means of production for that class and only secondarily with personal ownership of possessions. In a communal and communist society, less plagued by antagonistic intra-social contradictions and without class distinctions or contradictions resulting therefrom, political-economic ownership belongs to all and none, with all people contributing to the economic system for the good of all people, and personal ownership is decided by equitable agreement amongst peers.
LASTLY, AN ADDENDUM WHICH I AFFIX TO THIS ARTICLE BECAUSE IT IS TOO SHORT TO POST ON ITS OWN BUT IMPORTANT ENOUGH TO SAY PROMPTLY:
The Red Flag in Switzerland, now the official organ of CPS(RF), has not, as I had hoped, corrected their mistaken line against the PCP and MPP and the ongoing revolutionary struggle in Peru, which is a shining example for the whole world. Instead, in recent writings they have continued to heap slander on these comrades, calling them “miserable remnants of a parasitic sect”; they have furthermore spat upon these and others’ honest efforts to organize a new international conference of the Maoist ICM (on the- as far as I can tell- baseless notion that they are all plots by German revisionists), and they have also cast doubt on the strategy of the revolutionary electoral boycott in service and pursuit of People’s War. In service of this last distortion they quote the words of Lenin, ignoring the decades of analysis and advancement since he wrote. All of this is disheartening and must be condemned. I have before said that condemnations of the Swiss as wreckers were premature; I still do not believe they are deliberately such, but I cannot think of another word to describe their crusade of polemics against the MPP, which has rather stained their legacy of polemics and theoretical writings. Everything has a dual nature, a negative and a positive aspect; from the Swiss communists the ICM must take the positive aspect, which includes theoretical strides on queer questions and some on the universal aspects of Gonzalo Thought and the ways in which guiding thoughts develop, but must also harshly criticize and condemn the negative aspect that now grows in magnitude, which includes attacks on Maoism and Gonzalo Thought as practiced via revolutionary electoral boycott and People’s War and on the MPP themselves.