Liberty Commentary

Property and Social Context (putting the anarchi back into anarchism)

Mili Note: This is a little rough for some to absorb, but it’s an interesting codification of thought on what property really is for most people.

by Bowers of Paradise

One of the main points I’ve tried to make over time (and intend to make again) is that Rothbardian homesteading, the creation myth of the church of capitalism, falls on its face in favor of a more Proudhonian conception of property, even by its own flawed logic.  However, this particular debate doesn’t need to be happening, and while I hardly expect the following to win me any “anarcho-capitalist” friends, I would like to show why there may just be less to argue over than we had once thought.  Instead of discussing what property constructs could arise in a state of nature, we should be thinking about the current arrangement of things, which is what we are going to inherit if we ever prevail(unless there’s a nuclear war or something).  The contemporary anarchist movement, which is for better or for worse oriented toward anarcho-communism, doesn’t much engage in this sort of abstract discussion of how property can arise — not because it doesn’t matter, but because the anarchist movement is focused on the way things are now first and foremost.  Which is, after all, one of the things that distinguishes anarchism from political ideologies that are truly theoretical and have little to do with how things really work: “limited government”, “democracy”, “republicanism”, and so on.  This is why it is really a shame that this absurd, completely theory-based discussion even keeps coming up, IMO.  Why cripple one of your strongest points?

Why pick on property in particular?  Because “property” is really just another way of looking at the bundle of power relations anarchists seek to abolish.  It shouldn’t be necessary to call it “property” in general, but obviously it will be with respect to the specific aim of nuking this debate about “property”.

When talking about property, we should always focus on the way things are now, instead of trying to envision a state of nature.  This doesn’t require you take any specific view, notice — although it will logically suggest certain paths.  Let me, then, tread some familiar ground here.  Property as generally understood today — as the right of authority and dominion beyond more than one’s personal space (which therefore makes it over the personal space of others) — arose from centuries of ongoing violence and fraud.  It is the most powerful source of coercion, robbery, and degradation there is — it manifests itself, hand-in-glove with the state’s “legitimate” authority, as the “right” of an elite few to control all the rest of us and to dispose of the fruits of our labor.  Property is, in society after society, indistinguishable from the state as a source of authority, and is at the very root of justification for state power.  Thus, property is always going to be the elephant in the living room whenever any discussion of anti-statism of any kind comes up.  The role of property in modern society — whether it is land being taken right out from under people’s feet and sold to foreign investors, forcing the occupiers of the land into prostitution and servitude in order to pay the rents; the things you –human capital — will spend all day creating for your investors every time you clock in to your workplace, and have no control over, and thus no right to make your working conditions more safe or enjoyable or relaxing, and is the legal basis for your employer to order you around and bully, humiliate, and strain you all day; state or corporate control over public places and resources maintaining the prison-like atmosphere of state-capitalist society; the arbitrary “No Trespassing” signs that are like the sword of Damocles over just about any outdoor adventure; and, we might as well add, the dreariness and viciousness of the state-indoctrination-corpsification machine itself (“school” — which to criticize without understanding how it fits perfectly into capitalist social relations and the authoritarian-capitalist-statist conception of “property” and control is fairly bizarre, to say the least)   — is to destroy living human beings and create a mass of servile, grovelling corpses as self-regenerating fodder for the vampire class.  Property, the state, authority: it’s all the same thing.  Glancing back at history quickly relieves one of the notion that these arrangements were earned legitimately, even if you believe such a thing really could be done (as that is sort of a sketchy concept in its own right — is it really possible to “earn” authority through control over resources?).  There really is no relationship between the existing arrangement of legal titles to property and people being rewarded for their labor — not only is this the case historically, but in fact there is logically no way that a fair system of people reaping the fruit of their labor could possibly look like today’s society.  Can we all agree on this, at least?  It is not my intention here to force a particular definition on the word “property” itself, or even to go into detail on what sort of property could be considered legitimate — I am merely pointing out what it means now.  If pro-capitalists are serious that they are “capitalists, not corporatists”, then there should not be anything controversial in this analysis — this is the result of “corporatism” then!  Why would you distance yourself from the existing order unless you saw something seriously wrong with it?  An “anarchism” or “libertarianism” too timid to challenge the waking nightmare that we all have to endure every day is a useless, dead ideology.

So.  Let’s suppose we’re on the brink of a transition to a new world — which may not happen any time soon, but it’s the only way we can examine this issue.  How will things change?  What will become of all this?  When talking about property, that should be the first question that comes up — and realistically, the only one necessary.  If we can stamp out hierarchy, dependence and exploitation, probably a lot of the nitpicky arguments brought up by supporters of “property” (“are you going to use violence against people who want to be wage laborers?”  “are you going to let people rent out rooms?”…) will be rendered forever moot, and we can kick back and live without having to worry about such shit forevermore, as they will no longer be matters of political economy any more than a group of people having a medieval festival is today.   (Also certain constructs we’re used to now may well come to be seen as antiquated with such a radically different social climate.)

For anarchists the burden of proof always falls on the person advocating authority.  They have to give a good reason for why other people should respect this authority.  (A minor digression: even though personal property is, in the strictest sense, a form of authority, it can be very easily justified; if the owner doesn’t have the right to it, why would anyone else?  And what would happen if everyone were stealing from everyone?  So this doesn’t really count as authority/hierarchy, and hence the abolition thereof has never been a proposal of…well, any political movement, really, except for the Khmer Rouge and company.  Might as well get that out of the way.)  Now, as a social anarchist, I am skeptical of the claim that an authoritarian position can be earned at all, or that anyone must tolerate authoritarian relationships on the premise of rightful property.  However in, for instance, an “individualist” conception of anarchism, one could in theory be a boss — it would just be very difficult to find wage slaves.  And there will no doubt be individualist anarchist-leaning communities in a society that has undergone the transition to anarchy.  And that’s fine.


This distinction, as would be crafted in a future liberated society, should not be relevant now.  Either way you look at it, it is so meaningless to speak of who earned what (beyond obviously nonexploitative, personal “property”: a dwelling, possessions, things that one personally crafted, personal projects, or a workspace that you have a personal connection to and made yourself, etc. — i.e. the things that are specifically robbed from most people under capitalism) in the existing mess of things that we can most unequivocally make the following statement: no instance of authority/hierarchy that currently exists has the right to keep on existing.  Why would it?  What could possibly be the justification?  Does any form of interpersonal domination, all of which came to be in the existing morass of various interlocking webs of social totalitarianism, have the right to continue to be enforced at gunpoint?  Think about it a while.  No; every manifestation of hierarchy, exploitation and servility can and should be made unenforceable.  Property is authority, and should be seen as no different from any other form of authority: parental authority, legal authority, traditional authority, etc., all of which should be made unenforceable as well.  This requires a vast change in thinking from what we are taught is “normal”.  And yes, that’s the idea.

The typical argument made by the pro-capitalist is that property-owners shouldn’t be punished for the authoritarian social order they live in (and, in large part, help enforce and sustain).  The problem with this argument is that this is not a punishment.  It’s simply a refusal to continue taking orders.  Not so much because of what they did, per se, but because those on the bottom have decided that taking orders is no longer part of their life, and such a change would inevitably follow.  It’s not a punishment any more than you’re punishing the state by not obeying its laws.  After all, even if we were going to go with “capitalist anarchism” and assume that only the state were to be abolished, there are plenty of perfectly decent, nice, hardworking people — countless teachers for instance — who, in a transition to a free society, will be losing a lot of the authority they had had.  Is it some sort of Maoist purge?  No, of course not.  It is simply the rejection of authoritarianism, and in both cases an effort will be made not to just leave these people behind, and to try to help them adjust to the new way.  Remember: capitalism, much like the state itself, is not this conspiracy of Evil Rulers that just need to be hanged and then everything will be fine.  Those with authority over others in capitalism are just as much as the rest of us bound by the monstrous, anti-human demands of a system that will be endlessly self-reproducing until it is brought to a halt with direct action.  They need healing just as much as the rest of us.  Except for the despicable parasites at the very top of the pyramid,everyone will be gaining far more than they are losing, as we cast off capitalism.

There is ultimately no way to predict or organize from on high all the things that will be happening, if such a time ever comes.  People are going to be making arrangements for themselves from the bottom up — some involving the abolition of the social role of “worker”, of the market economy,  of money itself; some will retain any number of these things.  However, anywhere authoritarianism exists, it should be swept out and smashed.  We certainly don’t have to ask anyone’s permission.  Property is not exempt from this claim any more than any other form of interpersonal authority; it is fundamentally of the same substance.  What I see in these debates is that a lot of well-intentioned people still can’t quite bring themselves to this conclusion, lingering with the view that Property is fundamentally just an extension of individual freedom, when in fact, being Authority as it exists now, it is a negation of all freedom, dignity and individuality.  It has zero legitimacy.

So what does this mean, exactly?  I’ve spoken in very general terms, so far.  At the very least, it means that workers should take over their workplaces, large and small. Calling this “taking over” sort of creates the wrong image anyway: all this really means is that they can stop taking orders and manage their own workplace how they want to.  It was their work that made it possible to exist, in addition to other laborers who have long since been paid their wage and sent on their way, and so in doing this they are not “stealing” from anybody.  The people working at any given workplace together with their predecessors, generally speaking, have long since worked enough to “buy” the building, the capital, and so on from the “owners” — but they didn’t, since they weren’t allowed to, and they were locked into a social order that radically distorts just about every aspect of…well, everything.  So they should not feel at all guilty in assuming control and management rights over the buildings, capital and goods.  If it is a small business where the proprietor works there as well, they can work out amongst themselves how to proceed, or possibly even to return the business to him or her, if that’s what they want to do (this will be easy, as wage labor will no longer be necessary when large-scale expropriation and general rebellion is taking place).  There wouldn’t be any need for violence in these situations.  (Although I suspect capitalists, like they always have, will use death squads to fight tooth and nail to preserve their “natural” authority, as its adherents are none too eager to inform me.  Bring it on, motherfuckers.)  It’ll just be people recognizing that even for the smallest business, because of the labor of all the different people embedded in the capital and goods, and the absence of a clear-cut way to determine who owns what exactly, there simply won’t be any legitimacy in trying to order the workers there around at gunpoint on the premise that they’re “on mah propuhtee” (as would be legitimate if people broke into your house or something).  You will have to all figure it out together, as rational individuals.  Whether the business will continue in its current form (hey, it could happen…I guess), or if the “owner” will be compensated and then it will be a co-op, or if it’ll be a co-op without compensation, or join a syndicate, or become a free distribution center, or a squat, or a hangout, or whatever.   There doesn’t have to be a litmus test as to how much support the business gets from the state, or anything like that.  Anywhere that wage labor exists, whether at one of the Fortune 500 companies or at a local restaurant, it should be stamped out in this way.  The issue here is the authoritarianism that is finally being smashed, not how connected it is with the state.

What else?  People should stop paying rent and seize their apartments, wherever they are, opening all unoccupied apartment/motel/hotel space to the temporary occupation of whoever wants to stop by.  There may be exceptions, but this should hold true in general.  Remember: the people whobuilt the apartments, factories, capital, etc. have long since been paid the wage that under capitalist theory is all they deserve, and it is the rents of the tenants that sustained these buildings anyway.  So this isn’t stealing.  Generally people should stop deferring to “authority” figures.  Or paying taxes.  Or paying the credit card companies.  Or…well, this is anarchy, after all.  All that which was previously “public” (i.e. the state’s private property) — parks, beaches, libraries, roads, public places, forests, and so on — should be made truly public, and taken under the management of whoever wants to and/or is affected by it.  They will not have any enforceable authority over other people wishing to use these things, though.  Rather, they will be merely holding these things for the sake of all, and management over these resources will evolve into a sort of public ownership (about which I will write more later).  I personally tend toward the Kropotkinian view that, given that all of our labor was necessary in bringing society to where it is, there would generally be a pretty high burden of proof for not simply letting someone take existing products, especially essentials like food, freely (in the midst of a revolutionary transition to a new society; afterward it will depend more on the economic norms of a community generally and of the enterprise in question more specifically), but more monetary-based, personal-ownership based norms will also come up, and there’s really no way to say exactly which is right in a given situation a priori without actually being there.  The nuances as to whether the people who happen to be working/occupying somewhere at the time of a social upheaval would acquire any particular rights over it, as opposed to its outright socialization, can be figured out when the time comes, though I think the latter will and should be the predominant tendency, the exception being small businesses and projects that people have an actual interest in.  (I suspect that, as Pumpkin in Pulp Fiction points out, most people don’t really give a shit about their workplace.  But if they do, that’s fine.)  Point being: they have to figure it out.

That’s what a “plumb-line” anarchist upheaval would look like.  In fact it may well be far more…anarchic…than we can really predict.  Anarchism is really a psychological transformation, rather than following some political cookbook.  So you might see a McDonald’s transformed into a greenhouse, a Barnes and Noble turned into a daycare center/squat/hangout, a particularly detested business burned down, and so on.  You might see all records, ID’s, dossiers, debts, titles and laws consigned to the bonfire.  And of course the same would be happening with symbols of state authority, and pretty much every kind of authority.  Think something along the lines of the 2008 Greek rebellion (including the stuff that the news didn’t report on), but happening in every major city in the world, plus with mutual-aid networks becoming prominent and filling in the “vacuum” in the neighborhoods, massive general strikes, the complete breakdown to popular acquiescence to every single manifestation of the state…  But the specifics don’t really matter.  The point is that property will no longer be a valid basis for restricting and controlling people any more than “tradition”, “law” or “authority” — rather, for once, respect for people’s lives and privacy would (so houses and people will no longer, as they are under capitalism, be looted, for instance.  Obviously). And in these cases, people will be working out amongst themselves some rough patterns of ownership and/or use.  But it can’t be used to justify hierarchy.

Guilt has always been a centerpiece of authoritarian ideology.  The neurotic feeling of guilt that one is not worthy to partake in society and owes it all to whoever wields power, rather than the accumulated labor of millions of long-dead people, is at the root of deference to property and its twin brother, the state.  Hence the John Galt-style mystification of our overlords as inherently superior beings, whom we must obey and (in a hilariously Orwellian twist of reality) “leave alone” (and just shut up and obey!  boo-hoo!), applied both to property and the state.  But it is a myth in both cases.  Anarchism must be first and foremost a revolution of the human mind, a revolt against the interconnected psychoses of superstition, fear, obedience, and guilt.  And that’s why the fundamental idea of Property/Dominion — beyond that which can be obviously justified, not qua Property but as extensions of human freedom — has to be torn down, not modified or tweaked.  Anarchism’s not about kissing up to people who think they have authority over others.  It’s about smashing such relations to smithereens.