In the summer of 2021, I tweeted the following: “By the way, abolishing #privateproperty doesn’t mean taking something away from somebody — it means giving something to everybody.” My tweet sparked something of a shitstorm: overnight, #Privateigentum (the German word for private property) became the top-trending hashtag in Germany. The majority of references to it were hostile, and often abusive. Calls were made to strip the clothes from the body of the “Stalinist expropriator-in-chief” (me), to expropriate my wallet and my car, for me to cough up my bank account details — one person invited themselves to breakfast at my place, snarkily surmising that the “people’s fridge” would be well-stocked.
My timeline was flooded with hundreds of messages of this sort, with one of the most incensed users asking: “Does this mean that I can relieve you of your car, bicycle, and furniture? Private property is despicable, after all. Let others work, and buy themselves things, and then hand them over to freeloaders and scroungers who bring nothing to the table themselves? No thanks, I’ll be keeping what I own.”
Reactions tended to fall into one of two categories, both of which were also intimately familiar to me from the heated debate surrounding the “Deutsche Wohnen & Co enteignen” campaign: the allegation that to criticize the notion of private property equated to a call for a return to “actually existing socialism” or even a desire for Stalinism — or the fear that those advocating expropriation sought to take everyone’s personal property away from them.
These fears derive from a very specific understanding of property, one in which, for one thing, the social order that is based on private property as a prerequisite for a free-market economy is considered to be — if not the best of all possible realities — a definite improvement on “actually existing socialism”. According to this perspective, every individual living in a competitive society is free to privately accumulate property by virtue of their hard work. The underlying assumption here is that it is an individual’s own labour that produces the property in question. This fundamental assumption, described in the relevant literature as the “labour theory of property”, also forms the basis for the prevailing achievement ideology of the modern era. If a person can harvest the fruits of their own labour, so the belief goes, they should correspondingly be able to harvest a great deal of fruit if they work a great deal. The implication: no pain, no gain.
The more inequitable societies become, the more wealth is concentrated in ever-fewer hands, and the wider the chasm between rich and poor grows, the more difficult the struggle for personal belongings, jobs, and opportunities for advancement becomes — a battle that must be waged within the arena of a competitive society. This is why critics of private property are so vehemently repudiated by their opponents: given that property has become increasingly difficult to acquire under these conditions, it therefore feels more worthy of defending. What’s more, the hostile brand of individualism that defines the prevailing order centred around property and competition also strengthens its hold in this context.
This property-driven mindset is characteristic of the prevailing public perspective. It is, however, only the visible expression of a much deeper-reaching social relation. By analysing it, we not only turn the preconceptions of the prevailing ideology of ownership on their head, but are also able to reveal exactly why this mode of thought is so influential. Blame should not (only) be assigned to the ideology held by those in power, which in turn becomes the ideology of those whom they govern — rather, it is a specific everyday practice in which we are all ensnared, one that gives rise to the hastily drafted assumptions pertaining to property and thereby engenders the resulting phenomenon of hostile individualism. This will be explained in the following section.
Productive and Personal Property
As far as common understanding goes, property ownership can seemingly only be explained by civil law. We have accordingly established certain rules for ourselves, one of the most important and constitutionally enshrined of which is the right to own property. This means: the right to preclude others from gaining access to a given thing and to use that thing as the owner sees fit. This legal component certainly constitutes a central dimension of the notion of property ownership, but it is by no means its only facet. This much becomes clear when one considers an historical view of property ownership.
It is a general truth, and one applicable to all historical time periods, that in order to survive as a society, humans have had to appropriate the natural world in order to acquire food and protect themselves from the elements. Food, water, and a roof over one’s head — all of these things are the results of appropriation from nature, or, put another way, the fruits of one’s labour. The exploitation of nature presupposes that the natural world can be brought under human control.
There is an enormous distinction to be drawn here between controlling the means by which nature is appropriated (i.e., tools, machines, etc.) or controlling that which is reaped from nature by such means. If two people stand in front of an apple tree, but there is only one ladder (and the ladder is the only means by which the tree’s apples can be reached), then it is clear that if the person without a ladder wishes to access the apples on the tree, they will be forced to rely on the goodwill of the person with the ladder. Put simply, the person with the ladder has the ability to cause the person without the ladder to starve.
These two objects of appropriation — tree/ladder and apple — can be analytically differentiated (although this seldom occurs in public discourse) as a means of production (picking) or productive property, and as a means of consumption (food) or personal property. This distinction makes sense, because the exclusive power to control the means of production confers considerably more power than the power to control the means of consumption.
What lies at the core of critiques of private property ownership is thus not personal property — be it a toothbrush or a fridge — but rather the very thing that precedes any individual object of appropriation: the means by which it is produced. However, the way in which humans behave towards one another in a given society with respect to the means of production differs greatly across historical time periods.
The Emergence of Private Property
The emergence of the modern market economy as we know it today also constituted a shift in the way people related to each other and to the means by which appropriation from nature occurred. Until approximately 500 years ago, land was the most valuable means of production. Within the context of specific individual relations of dependence (serfdom), those who were socially subordinate were granted direct access to land and essentially lived by means of subsistence farming — that is, from the crops generated by the land that they farmed and inhabited.
What we refer to today as the modern market economy first came into being in the wake of the mass expulsion of rural inhabitants from their land, a process that began at the end of the Middle Ages and continued well into the nineteenth century (via “enclosures”). Although these people were now freed from their feudal bonds and had become, thanks to the bourgeois revolution, subjects with equal rights, they now found themselves without land, tree, or ladder and — if they did not want to starve — were forced to engage with those who were in possession of these things. They did this by selling them their labour power, thus transforming themselves from serfs into wage labourers. This also shifted the prevailing understanding of appropriation. It was at this juncture that the two categories that are commonly known today first crystallized in distinction: possession and property.
Possession refers to the actual, concrete power of control over something, while ownership refers to the legal, abstract conception of this power. A person can own something without it being in their possession. Likewise, a person can possess something without being its owner (for example, a person who is renting an apartment is its occupant, without being its owner — for an owner-occupier, these two things are one and the same).
Thus, in their historically novel social role, the former serfs now once again found themselves in possession of the means of production: just as they had previously worked the land as a means of production, they also used and operated the means of production in the modern factory. But they only possess it, they have no abstract legal power over it. This belongs to the owners of the means of production, who are consequently able to determine the way in which it is to be used. This typically involves increasing the value of the capital invested in it by the private owner(s).
Were one to take a closer look at how this curious process of increasing capital value comes about, one would suddenly understand the assumption mentioned earlier — the central assumption that in fact underpins the prevailing conception of property ownership, namely that property is established as the result of labour — in an entirely different light: wage labourers, operating under the command of private property owners, are obliged to produce something that is of greater value than that which they receive as compensation.
An example: Peter, a waged employee in a bicycle factory, constructs five bicycles. Caroline, the owner of the bicycle factory, appropriates all of these bicycles, leaving Peter with none. Peter’s labour does not generate ownership for Peter — it generates ownership for Caroline. Caroline does pay Peter a wage, but this wage is systematically set at a lower value than that of the bicycles — and not by chance. If all goes well, Caroline will sell all five bicycles and pocket the difference between what she has paid Peter and what she has received for the sale of the bicycles. This is known as surplus value, a portion of which will be recorded in the factory’s balance sheet as Caroline’s profit.
What is left for Peter? His wage, which he receives for his labour. This wage allows him, via the market, to access a portion of the wealth produced by all labourers operating under the aforementioned command of private property owners. The amount he receives, however, corresponds only to what Peter needs in order to be able to maintain his labour power, so that he will be able to continue manufacturing bicycles for Caroline. Peter’s control over what he can consume, and thus the nature and extent of his personal property, is therefore both quantitively and qualitatively heteronomous. It is qualitatively dependent on what the market produces while operating according to the criteria of profit maximization, while also qualitatively dependent on what he can afford to purchase with his own wage. Peter therefore has little in the way of freedom under these conditions.
In exceptional circumstances, Peter may ascend in status from unpropertied possessor of labour power to owner of the means of production, enabling him to employ others to work for him. However, the much-vaunted ascension from dishwasher to millionaire is merely a fantasy that leads people like Peter to believe that this is possible for everyone. This also exposes a further myth of the conception of property outlined above: the notion that people like Peter will be able to exert themselves to such an extent that this dream of capitalistic ascension becomes achievable. The reward for his efforts — the wage for his labour — remains, as a rule, restricted to the realm of personal property. He has no control over the means of production.
The effects of preventing the majority of humanity from having the power to control productive property is most painfully evident at the point where their labour power is no longer or not sufficiently profitable. This is because the way in which those who exert control over productive property relate to this property and to those who operate it is purely functional: humans and nature are employed solely for the purpose of increasing the value of the capital invested in them. Moreover, companies produce independently from one another in competition for an anonymous market, never knowing for sure whether their capital is increasing in value, or whether the purchased labour power has made a positive return. This is why productive property is also “private” property: it is not accessible to democratically legitimized forms of public power, nor is it cooperatively produced through a process of transparent agreement among companies; it is instead produced in isolation, behind a veil of secrecy, at the workers’ expense.
This practice contains enormous potential for the periodic eruption of crises and exposes workers to market movements that are both beyond their control and that may already seem to them to be more or less normalized. These can manifest as a drop in wages, an increase in prices, and in the worst-case scenario as unemployment, at which point the separation of workers from socially produced wealth becomes fully entrenched, access to consumptive ownership is abruptly severed, and the individual becomes entirely reliant on the state.
Freedom, Equality, Ownership
For actors operating in the modern market economy, however, the financial system appears radically different to how it has been set out here: namely, as a large, neutral, harmless network of buying and selling, a practice — the market — alleged to be as old as time. No distinction is made between whether it is labour power, means of production, or consumer goods that are being exchanged. Everything is the same, for everything is a commodity. In these millionfold acts of exchange, those who possess commodities and those who possess money encounter one another as legal equals.
In their relationship of exchange, these actors behave according to their own free will, voluntarily entering into contracts with one another: sales contracts and rental agreements, but also work contracts wherein labour power is exchanged for wages. It is this very specific freedom that distinguishes bourgeois society — the freedom of the individual as defined by the market. This appears free in contrast to the lack of personal freedom of prior eras in which interpersonal dependency was the norm (for example, in the contexts of slavery and serfdom), rather than the sale of labour power between two legally equal subjects.
If one only observes the millionfold acts of exchange, abstracted from the sphere of production, it would seem that labour constitutes the basis for property ownership, since exchange usually involves the exchange of products that result from labour. The money that is acquired by the individual and used as a means of exchange must first be earned through labour. Commodities and services, too, are produced by means of labour. When I exchange something, the relation of ownership with regard to that object has long since been established, and is indeed a precondition for its exchange. That which is being exchanged legally belongs to the person exchanging it, otherwise they would not be able to do so. Thus within the act of exchange, labour and ownership appear to become one. The intermediate step — the appropriation of other people’s labour, the absorption of surplus value — remains concealed. It therefore seems perfectly plausible that the nature and extent of an individual’s personal property should be directly ascribed to their own labour.
This perspective is implied by the all-pervasive practice that is the everyday and ubiquitous exchange of money for commodities. It is thus only the free, equal subject who has the capacity for ownership and is thus the architect of their own fortune who is able to rise to the surface, while the relations of power remain hidden. This is the context in which the prevailing mindset of property ownership formulates its assumptions — and generates the corresponding fruit.
The Abolition of Private Property
Taking all of this into consideration, and within the framework of existing social struggles, the abolition of private property would now mean striving for a new purpose for production, with the aim of altering it to the benefit of both human beings and the natural world. In light of the analysis of property ownership presented here, this would ultimately entail the abolition of private production — a goal that would require each and every worker who possesses the tangible and concrete power to control the means of production (possession) but not its legal and abstract equivalent (ownership) to fight for the acquisition of the latter.
If those who operate the means of production — the workers — actually had any real control over it, they would be able to exert influence over their company’s aims and objectives, directing its endeavours away from the valorization of capital and towards a new mode of production — one that transcends any given individual organization and is transparent, harmonious, and cooperative. Collective decision-making on how productive ownership is to be utilized would occur not only among employees in the workplace but would also be embedded in and regenerated by broader social debates. The overarching objective would no longer be profit maximization, but rather the improvement of all working and living conditions, and the emancipation of those previously subordinated to the privately orchestrated growth imperative.
Such an introduction and implementation of democracy into the economic sphere should by no means be mistaken for nationalization, since the modern-day nation state is itself dependent on income generated by the valorization of capital (in the form of taxes) and thus on the continued flourishing of precisely the purpose of production that is to be modified. Alternative role models would instead be cooperatives and non-profit-oriented organizations and modes of operation. These configurations would need to network with one another to a greater extent, go viral, and become the hegemonic social structure — only then would public and private interests cease to exist in conflict with one another.
It is thus not a question of personal possessions; the abolition of private property does not mean taking anything away from anybody, but rather giving something to everybody — namely control over a sphere of society over which they have long had no control, and which has in fact long had control over them. Ultimately, there is an entire world to win: liberation from the yoke of the growth imperative and the obligation to work fostered by our current economic structure, and a reappropriation of the power to control our living conditions. In short: freedom and ownership for all, not just for the privileged few.