Standing in the Way: Private Property
Thousands of families in Detroit go without running water in their homes – but corporations get nearly unrestricted access to this natural resource in order to maximize their profits. Public education in the U.S. is being destroyed – again, so corporations can profit.
Hedge fund investors profit by speculating on the rate that glaciers are melting into the Earth’s warming waters. The prospect of war haunts here and breaks out there. Arms manufacturers enjoy uninterrupted profits. Eighty-five global billionaires possess more wealth than the world’s 3.5 billion poorest people combined.
People sense that something very fundamental is amiss. But knowing something is wrong is not enough. Fighting against the effects of the problem doesn’t lead to its solution. Beneath the surface of the problems we identify their cause.
Beneath that surface today, we find something new. The problem is not simply capitalism. It is the frantic attempts of the ruling class to preserve and protect private property itself – and the rapid changes in how they exert their political power to do so.
Private Property: Historical Background and Today’s World
To seize the revolutionary potential of this moment, we need to explore what private property is, and its history, a future without it.
Private property is not the same as personal property – someone’s bicycle or home, for example. It is not simply a thing.
The water war in Detroit, Michigan tells the story. Tens of thousands of households suffer water shut-offs for inability to pay. Projections are for shut-offs to 150,000 people by the Fall and another 150,000 by year-end. Meanwhile, water corporations are free to take water from the surrounding lakes and rivers at zero to minimal cost. Their business is to make profits, so their access to water is assured.
Water is a natural resource. It should be publicly owned and managed for the public good. But private property relations ensure corporate access to water while depriving hundreds of thousands of people – in Michigan, Maine, and elsewhere – of this very foundation of life.
Private property relationships of one sort or another have shaped society for the past 5000 years or more. These relationships arose when and where improvements in tools gave the labor power of one person the capacity to produce more than the minimum necessary to sustain one person. Early forms of private property arose because there was a surplus that could be appropriated. The product of the laboring classes became the private property of the non-laboring classes.
Thus came thousands of years of private property relationships – and of forms and stages of the State to enforce the power and interests of the appropriating class. These property relationships came into play at one stage and were cast aside when fundamental change in the tools and motive forces of production called for new relationships.
Such a change is underway today. This one is huge. The microchip transmits the decision-making capacity of human labor. As it replaces living labor in one aspect of production after another, the microchip cuts the old connection between workers and capitalists in production. Capitalism is defined by the buying and selling of labor power as a commodity. It cannot survive this new motive force.
Today this change is not just from one stage or form of private property to another. It is of a scope that makes all forms of private property indefensible. Labor-replacing technology creates the objective foundation for the abolition of all forms and relationships of private property. It sets the basis to reorganize society around the common ownership of the means of production, with distribution according to need.
A strategic shift in the defense of property
The ruling class cannot save capitalism. But it has to defend private property. This is the objective basis for a strategic shift. Here we mean strategic in the political sense – what the ruling class has to do to protect its interests, how it exercises and holds onto its political power.
Objectively the ruling class is on the strategic defensive. It has to try to protect its wealth and maintain the private ownership of the social product under new conditions. It tries to protect and prolong the right of the owners of property to maintain private ownership of the product of society – a product based on the labor of others, the knowledge and scientific endeavor of thousands of generations of humanity, and the natural resources of Mother Earth.
What is happening today is not just the spontaneous workings of capitalism. Capitalism was always exploitative. It always bred inequality. Its rule was always unjust. But at earlier stages of its development, the economic workings of capitalism – the buying and selling of labor power, the expanding buying power and market – could hold the system and society together.
Something is different today. When families of laid off autoworkers in Detroit cannot afford running water in their homes, the ruling class can no longer promise expanding opportunities. The internal economic workings of capitalism are being destroyed.
The ruling class holds political power, and it uses it in the most bold and merciless ways to protect private property relationships. Private property – the private appropriation of the social product – prevails because of the power of the State. Previous forms of rule give way to more desperate measures. The armed force of the State stands between families in Detroit and the water that flows through its pipes.
But political laws cannot overcome economic laws. In this sense, this offensive of the ruling class can only be tactical.
The Tasks of Revolutionaries Today
The strategic defensive and tactical offensive of the ruling class sets the objective basis to strip the mask of “neutrality” off the State. Grasping that political power rests in the hands of the exploiting and appropriating class is a decisive step. It prepares the ground for millions of Americans to recognize the need for political power in the hands of a new class in order to address the people’s most basic needs and to right the injustices of centuries.
Appeals to register voters and elect African-Americans to office cannot calm the outrage at the murder of young people by the police in Ferguson and beyond. Promises from Detroit’s mayor to streamline the payment process for households facing water shut-offs does not meet their urgent need for water.
But what will fill the void left by the so-called leaders who contain people’s thinking inside the bounds of capitalism?
Revolutionaries have the responsibility to move the thinking of the people from the defensive to the offensive – from the politics of defending crumbs, to the view that the problems destroying society can and must be solved. The solution to these problems is simple. It is the program of the new class – the abolition of private property and the distribution of the social product based on need.
Now is the moment to propagate the confidence that the world does not have to be this way. Stages and forms of private property relationships come and go. At one stage, capitalism expanded and the rulers of this country profited off property relationship that allowed for one person to own another person. At another stage, slavery held back the growth and development of capitalism. The struggle over slavery shifted onto the political stage. Books were written. Laws were passed. War was waged. Slavery was abolished.
Thousands of years of exploitation and inequality are heading toward human and ecological catastrophe. But thousands of years of humanity’s accumulated knowledge also make a new world possible. The end of all forms of private property can be the beginning of our full development as human beings.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011