Is Private Property Peculiar to Capitalism and Do Socialists Want to Abolish It?

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No, to both questions.  Private property pre-dates capitalism and will survive long after it has been abolished.  But it is important to distinguish personal possessions – your clothes, bicycle, your home (if you ‘own’ it) from capital.  Capital is a particular form of private property — including factories, mines, transport and energy utilities, shops, offices, and, increasingly, financial capital — that enables its owners to make profit from the work of others, and to accumulate yet more capital, and power!

Property that is ‘private’ gives the owner the right to exclude others from its use.  It existed well before capitalism, certainly way back to the ‘invention’ of agriculture (although anthropologists tell us that some supposedly ‘primitive’ peoples today believe that objects are ‘possessed’ only while they are being used – otherwise they are held in common). 

Socialists believe that capital (not personal possessions) should be socially owned.  In Britain after the Second World War, key industries – coal, steel, transport – were taken into social ownership, as were large sections of what we now call ‘public services’.  This was bitterly resisted by the capitalist class and in many areas (including health and education) social ownership was only partial. 

The ruling (capitalist) class has been trying to turn the clock back ever since and in recent decades it has been quite successful, especially in relation to what used to be profitable nationalised industries (automobiles, steel) or where it appeared that a profit could be made (utilities like water, energy, transport). 

Mostly where this has happened it is the consumer (the ‘customer’) who has suffered, along with the workers in those previously public enterprises.  Competition amongst energy distributors would (we were told) drive prices down.  In practice a handful of companies act as a cartel so that even when world energy prices fall, the benefits are not passed on to the consumer. 

The privatised rail operators have been able to manipulate the licensing system so that they effectively pay dividends to shareholders from direct public subsidy which is far greater than the former state support provided to publicly owned British Rail.  East Coast Mainline was able to walk away from its franchise without serious penalties when the ludicrously unreal projections that won it the contract turned out to be fantasy.  It had to be taken back into public ownership where it proved to be so profitable that it was privatised again – it is now part of the Virgin group.  And the story of Southern Rail is notorious and needs no repeating here – commuters continue to suffer the consequences of a franchise which guarantees profits for its owners no matter how poor the service they provide. 

Where wholesale privatisation is not immediately feasible, private capital has milked public enterprises for profits through its control over inputs and resources and though mandatory outsourcing.  The crisis in the NHS is only partly due to lack of resources (financial and human).  Equally important it continues to be bled and undermined by private companies. 

In December last year the drug company Pfizer was fined a record £84.2m for price-fixing with Flynn Pharma to charge £67.50 instead of £2.83 for each 100mg pack of an anti-epilepsy medicine – raising the annual cost to the NHS from around £2m in 2012 to £50m the following year - an increase of 2,600%.  Owen Smith – Jeremy Corbyn’s challenger for the Labour Party leadership – was a parliamentary lobbyist for Pfizer before becoming an MP.  One of his first speeches (in a 2010 debate on epilepsy) called on ministers to ‘improve incentives’ for pharmaceutical companies.  

Add to this the daily profits of companies like Serco and Sodexo which go unchallenged, including non-medical ‘services’ like catering, cleaning and car parking — all paid for by the taxpayer and resulting in a deteriorating quality of provision and increased pressures on staff — and it is clear where the crisis in the NHS comes from.

This is why socialists are concerned about the issue of ownership.  The form that social ownership will take – and has taken – under socialism is variable; there is no single model.  ‘Nationalisation’ in post-War Britain and the relatively centralised management of large state-controlled enterprises in the former Soviet Union contrasted with a more mixed economy in the GDR and a high degree of decentralisation and worker control in socialist Yugoslavia. 

Part of the struggle for socialism in Britain will need to involve a debate around the merits of different forms of social ownership and management.  It is likely that in a socialist Britain there would be a plurality of models – from centralised utilities (like electricity and gas) with a high degree of worker participation, to independent retail cooperatives or partnerships all existing alongside small and medium sized, privately run enterprises – farms, small manufacturers, restaurants, shops, IT and design companies &c. 

Part of this debate will also challenge the notion that ‘freedom’ lies solely in the possession of individual property.  As Marx declared: ‘Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it - when it exists for us as capital, or when it is directly possessed, eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited, etc.’  At the same time Marx and Engels stated, in the Communist Manifesto (using the gendered language of the time) that ‘Communism deprives no man of the ability to appropriate the fruits of his labour. The only thing it deprives him of is the ability to enslave others by means of such appropriations.’

Within socialism, the distinction between capital (property which allows the owner to accumulate more wealth by exploiting others) and personal possessions (including your own ‘means of subsistence’ if you are self-employed or a small business) will be fundamental. 

And what is ‘ours’ will of necessity take on a new meaning particularly in relation to social property.  Our transport systems, utilities, a revived manufacturing sector and our banks, will be truly ‘ours’; the challenge will be to develop that same sense of ownership, pride and responsibility that many people already have for their local park, playground, street or school.  

Read 927 times Last modified on Tuesday, 02 May 2017 14:01
Meirian Jump

Meirian Jump has been the Archivist and Library Development Officer at the Marx Memorial Library & Workers' School in December 2014. She graduated from University College, London’s Masters Programme in Archives and Records Management in 2010, having pursued a research interest in twentieth century Spanish and British history at undergraduate level at the University of Oxford, and postgraduate level at Queen Mary College, University of London.

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