We shall never truly defeat socialism until we abolish private property.
Socialism is the inevitable result of modernity’s public/private dichotomy: “public” (i.e. government) wealth exists for the common good, while “private” property is that which exists for private indulgence, that which an owner can do with as he pleases. Given this understanding, it’s no wonder that many think that a society will become more virtuous the greater the fraction of wealth that is under government control, and that a small ratio of public to private wealth is a sign of selfishness.
The public/private split is itself the direct result of what modernity, not without reason, considers its great accomplishment: the separation of persons from their social roles. A feudal lord felt no embarrassment in calling the lands he administered “his” land and the people on it “his” vassals, peasants, and serfs. He could acquire them through personal inheritance or marriage, and he hoped to pass them on to his son. In the modern world, such fortunes of land, men, and other resources belong not to individuals but to corporations–governments or businesses. The person who administers them is a civil servant/employee of the corporate owner. His actual property is just the tiny house and salary the corporation gives him in compensation for his work. This system has its advantages, especially from the point of view of Weberian rationalization. The corporation can appoint/elect the most talented administrator and fire incompetent ones without being hindered by property and inheritance law. The disadvantage is less obvious but no less real: property loses its social function. Once it was an expression of one’s social role; now it has no social function whatsoever. It functions only as an incentive; it exists only to serve its owner’s material needs, desires, or caprices. The very meaning of “mine” changes. It has changed so thoroughly that we now recklessly project our novel ideas of property onto past ages. The feudal arrangement seems evil and inhuman, because we imagine that when a feudal lord said that some land or its inhabitants were “his” that he meant the same thing as a man means today when he says a television set is his, i.e. that it exists solely for his pleasure, and he can smash it to bits if he feels like it.
Premodern man meant no such thing. He had no “private property” in this sense. What he had was a trust: something entrusted to him by his ancestors, something he was bound to pass on unspoiled to his descendents. Not only did he not think of “his” people the way we think of inanimate objects we own, he didn’t even think of inanimate objects the way we do. The land and the estate owned him as much as he owned them.
The author of this heresy of private property was the Whig John Locke. The scholastics had maintained that government is natural–i.e. an integral part of the good life–while property is artificial. By natural law, the world and everything in it belongs to everyone, but the community divides the world into parcels of property for its own purposes. Locke reversed this, making government a pure artifice and property a dictate of nature. What I make is mine because I have “mixed” myself with nature through my labour. Of course, this bears very little relation to most of our actual experience of ownership, but the modern mind was bewitched. Indeed, the failure of Locke’s theory to describe reality was used by Marx to indict reality. The capitalist system is evil because workers do not see their creations as being mixtures of themselves. They are alienated, and, ironically, only under socialism will the Lockean ideal of private property actually be fulfilled. Still, there was no question that a man should see himself–his creativity, his will–objectified in his possessions or products.
According to the scholastic view, which represents the traditional wisdom of mankind, this is all wrong. Property isn’t supposed to objectify the owner; it’s supposed to objectify his place in the community–his status and his responsibilities. If we accept this understanding of property, then the problem of political economy, the problem of social justice, must be radically restated. We should first begin with the human relationships dictated by natural law, those that support integral human flourishing. Then we should ask what property arrangements will best support these relationships. I call this position “neofeudalism”.
Often today, the opposite is done. Not long ago, I was reading an anthropology book from the early 1960’s. It reports that in newly-industrializing areas of sub-Saharan Africa, marriage was collapsing and giving way to cohabitation. The author recommended we not worry about his, because marriage is supposedly only needed in an agricultural community where inheritance of farms is a big issue, and everybody needs to know who everyone’s official father is. It struck me that this is quite backwards, letting economic structures dictate our most intimate relationships. In fact, monogamous indissoluble marriage is an important part of the good, virtuous life, independent of economics. If the latter is discouraging this human good, then the economic arrangement is bad and should be changed. That, to me, is thinking straight.
What are the practical consequences of the neofeudal position? That still needs to be worked out. In a series of future posts, I’d like to argue the following–all in the spirit of the historical Louis de Bonald:
- Incorporation of the family. Conservatives have always opposed inheritance taxes, because in our minds when property passes from father to son, it doesn’t really change hands at all. The family itself is the owner. It would be better to assert this directly, by making families property and responsibility-bearing subjects under the law. Details on how family property should be treated are tricky, since we want to incentivize its correct us and discourage abuses. Also, inheritance becomes a live issue again.
- The abolition of private fortunes. The rich should be given a choice of having their surplus property confiscated by the State or buying their way into an aristocracy, in which case they get to keep their fortunes, but these are transformed into a public trust, to be used to benefit the aristocrat’s locale. Rights and duties need to be spelled out.
- Strengthening and socialization of unions. Trade and workers’ organizations are to be encouraged, but they shouldn’t just exist to promote their members’ self-interest (although they should certainly do this). They should be the forum wherein these workers experience their duty to the wider social order. One possibility would be to put unions in charge of the training and training standards of new workers, which would begin an evolution of unions into guilds.
- A revitalization of anti-usury laws. Activities that obscure the relations between property and social order (e.g. by giving money a life of its own, as the ancients saw it) must be kept from being too lucrative. Lots of details to be worked out here.
Filed under: economy |