The Problem with Private Property

There are several conflicting definitions of property, depending on one’s perspective.

Common Classification

Property is most usually separated into three categories:

  1. commons – land or natural resources that aren’t owned by anyone in particular, but which may be accessed by all.
  2. public property – that which is owned by a state entity.
  3. private property – that which is owned by a person or non-state legal entity.

This view fails to take into account the various differing circumstances that may factor into private property.

Marxian Classification

Karl Marx sought to expand on this by distinguishing between personal possessions consisting mainly of consumer goods, which he termed “personal property”, and absentee ownership of capital goods, which he somewhat confusingly termed “private property”. Marx then went on to critique the exploitation that arises structurally when the means of production are privatised.

There’s a problematic hole in Marx’s definition though; it gives the impression that the means of production should be held in common, effectively rendering all workplaces ‘open access’… which is clearly an unworkable proposition.

Composite Classification

Hence from an alternative perspective there would need to be five categories:

  1. commons – land or natural resources that aren’t owned by anyone in particular, but which may be accessed by all.
  2. public property – that which is owned by a state entity.
  3. personal property – that which is occupied or possessed by an individual for their own personal use.
  4. private property – that which belongs to an individual or non-state legal entity, and is either set aside, or mainly occupied and/or used by third parties on a commercial basis.
  5. collective property – that which is occupied and/or used by a group of people or non-state legal entities, on the understanding that any notion of ownership is relinquished once membership of said group is terminated.

While this affords is a much more nuanced perspective, it’s also more complex and harder for people to grasp.

The Problem

Thus we arrive at the problem with private property, in that there exist at least three conflicting yet overlapping interpretations. This is troublesome in any debate where the protagonists refuse to agree on a common terminology, and instead insist on arguing at cross purposes.

The Solution

Rather than attempting to alter the definition of private property, which many people would find confusing, a better approach is to define various subcategories of it. This makes it possible to discuss the problem without arguing over what does or doesn’t constitute private property.

Terminology

It’s necessary to concisely define each of the terms that shall be applied throughout. Where these labels appear they are intended as substitute definitions rather than being interpreted according to a lexicon (and in particular the Merriam Webster Dictionary). If you have an issue with this, then feel free to contact us suggesting alternative labels, rather than twisting the discussion into an argument around semantics.

Lets start with some basic concepts:

  • ownership – the right to assign exclusive access to, responsibility for, or control over an item or resource.
  • occupied – recognised to be occupied by.
  • possessed – recognised to belong to.
  • used – recognised to be used by.
  • property” – where the ownership of something is acquired on the basis of it being occupied, possessed, or used by an individual, a group, or some other entity.

The pedantic will invariably choose to assert that ‘strictly speaking’ something is only being occupied, possessed, or used while someone is present – hence inclusion of the wording “recognised to be…” thus clarifying that the recognised owner may be absent until such time as others choose to no longer respect said ownership (which in the absence of authority would indeed leave scope for conflict).

This allows us to define “absenteeism as being where ownership of property is recognised despite it either being ostensibly vacant, or primarily being occupied, possessed, or used by others (this latter scenario may include the owner being present, but as a minority participant).

We can now move on to define four subcategories of private property:

  1. personal property” – property that is primarily occupied, possessed, or used by an individual (but which does not constitute an example of absenteeism).
  2. collective property” – property that is primarily occupied, possessed, or used by a group (but which does not constitute an example of absenteeism), on the understanding that any notion of ownership is relinquished once membership of said group is terminated.
  3. dormant property” – absenteeism not being undertaken for financial gain.
  4. leveraged propertyabsenteeism being undertaken for financial gain.

Therefore private property” – encompasses personal property, collective property, dormant property, and leveraged property.

Anarchist Perspective

Anarchists reject public property, since it presupposes the existence of a state. Anarchists do not propose to abolish the commons. Neither do they necessarily oppose to private property in the commonly understood sense.

In respect of the four subcategories defined above, anarchists respect personal property. They will also respect collective property on the proviso that participation isn’t being forced. There’s also no objection to dormant property where the absenteeism is upheld by mutual respect, and likewise for leveraged property provided it’s uptake is enacted voluntary.

Summary

The issue with private property is dependent on whether said claim is genuinely being maintained through mutual respect, rather than being imposed upon society (either forcibly or structurally) by those in positions of power and dominance.