The Problem with Private Property

Historical Definitions

The notion of private property harks back to John Locke, who was the first to separate property into four categories:

  1. common – land or natural resources that aren’t owned by anyone.
  2. public – that which is owned by a state entity.
  3. collective – that which is owned by a group of people or non-state legal entities, on the basis that ownership is relinquished once membership of said group is terminated.
  4. private – that which is owned by a person or non-state legal entity.

Karl Marx later sought to further distinguish between the possession of consumer goods, which he termed “personal property”, and the possession of capital goods, which he somewhat confusingly termed “private property”. Marx then went on to critique the exploitation that arises when a capitalist class claim ownership over the means of production.

Hence we arrive at the first problem with private property, in that there exist two conflicting interpretations, neither of which has gained universal acceptance. That said the Lockean take tends to prevail in common usage, which can be somewhat problematic for anarchists when discussing the abolition of private property…

Additional Definitions

In order to proceed with this discussion, it’s necessary to start by mitigating any semantic argument, by defining the various terms that shall be applied:

  1. property – the right to assign exclusive access to, responsibility for, or control over an item or resource.
  2. occupied – understood to be occupied by.
  3. possessed – understood to belong to.
  4. used – understood to be used by.
  5. absenteeism – the ownership of property that is either unused or vacant, or primarily being occupied, possessed, or used by others (this latter scenario may include the owner being present, but as a minority participant).
  6. personal propertyproperty that is primarily occupied, possessed, or used by its owner… rather than being an example of absenteeism.
  7. leveraged propertyabsenteeism undertaken for financial gain.
  8. private property – for avoidance of confusion we’ll adhere to Locke’s (rather than Marx’s) definition, which encompasses absenteeism, personal property, and leveraged property.

Where these labels appear they are intended as substitutes for the above listed 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…

Position

Society has moved on from the days of Marx, and many more people now have access to capital goods. With this in mind it’s worth refining the anarchist position, so as to avoid pointless but time consuming discussions… such as whether owning a 3D printer would constitute Marxian private property or not.

Overall, Anarchists respect personal property, collective property, and common property. They are not entirely against private property in the broader Lockean sense, although they do accept Marx’s critique of capital and therefore strenuously object to private property in the strict Marxian sense. They also reject public property, since it necessitates the existence of a state.

With regard to the above listed definitions, it would be accurate to state that anarchists:

  1. object to the exploitation of other people by any mechanism, including that of leveraged property.
  2. are skeptical that this form of exploitation would remain feasible, without absenteeism being forcibly or structurally upheld.

Otherwise anarchists bear no objection to absenteeism, where it is voluntarily respected and does not serve to give rise to artificial scarcity. Neither would anarchists necessarily seek to abolish leveraged property, where its uptake is truly voluntary and not somehow impelled by structural coercion or artificially engineered scarcity.

Summary

The anarchist position on private property is dependent on whether said claim is genuinely being maintained through mutual respect, rather than upheld by force or structurally imposed upon society by a ruling class.