Making Private Property Public
When an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production can no longer provide the basic necessities of life for the vast majority of society, then that society must eliminate private property so society can advance or face total collapse. It becomes clearer every day that private ownership of the socially necessary means of production in America (and elsewhere) is keeping a growing mass of people from having food, water, housing, healthcare, and other necessities.
Today, the need for the means of production to be owned in common by the people, and to distribute what they produce to everyone based on need (not money), is a practical, not an ideological question. The struggle around water provides a clear example. Water is a necessity of life, a raw material used in production and, under private property, a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. This view of water as a commodity extends even to water systems that are government-owned (the majority of US municipal water systems), which raises the question of who controls the State, and whose interest does it serve?
In Detroit, for example, the disappearance of industry (the result of automation and globalization) has left rampant poverty and thousands of households facing water shutoffs because they are unable to pay the city for water. Yet even though people will die without access to water, a Detroit court ruled that there is no basic human right to water. The CEO of Nestle, the world’s largest producer of food products, reportedly made the same statement, saying that water is a commodity like any other. When a joint venture involving the Bechtel Corp. privatized the formerly public water supply of Cochabamba, Bolivia in the late ‘90s, even gathering rainwater for personal use was outlawed. (The people rose up dramatically in 2000 and stopped the privatization.)
While the working class is barred from using what it cannot pay for, industry and agribusiness have ready access to all the water they want, often from publicly owned lakes and rivers. Their water use is subsidized at public expense, often resulting in depriving people in the area of access to water.
With the computer and the robot eliminating labor from the production process, jobs are vanishing permanently and wages for most people are falling. This makes the question of access to basic necessities a practical and immediate one for tens of millions of people. At the same time, because the impact of technology on production reduces the number of profitable arenas in which to invest, the ruling class is forced to search for new ways to make money, so among other things we see formerly public infrastructure like water supply systems being privatized, and the mega-banks and other investors have set aside billions to invest in water as a commodity. Citigroup economist Willem Buiter said in 2011 that, “Water as an asset class will, in my view, become eventually the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.” The value of the global water market has been estimated at $425 billion. Meanwhile, it’s estimated that as many as 3 billion people may not have access to clean fresh water for basic survival.
The question is clear: If water is a commodity—either under the control of a corporate government or under private ownership—and we cannot pay for it, do we still get to live? This question starkly poses the interests of the mass of society against those of the billionaire investors, and it directly challenges private property in the means of production, not in some distant future, but here and now. The same question can be raised with all other necessities, such as food, housing, healthcare and education. The private property system assumes that enough people have jobs to allow commodities to circulate based on money changing hands. But what happens when there are no longer enough jobs? Either private property must become public property, or millions will die and our society will eventually collapse. Either society will be run in the interest of the corporations or in the interest of the people. It’s this simple.
The question of nationalizing industries or economic sectors in the interest of the people is a key part of this discussion. Nationalization is not a tactic that revolutionaries pluck out of the air. It is an objective battlefield on which the central issue of our time can be fought out. Each class needs nationalization to serve its own interests. Nationalization simply means that the State intervenes in the economy on someone’s behalf. With technology eliminating jobs and markets shrinking as a result, the capitalists are forced to rely on nationalization to guarantee their profits and their survival as a ruling class. The working class has to rely on nationalization in its interests for food, water, clothing and shelter.
Nationalization could mean, for example, the State taking over and directly managing an industry—but the question is, managing it in the interests of which class, the capitalists or the workers? The important thing to understand is that, because both classes need it, nationalization is an objective battlefield on which the interests of the two classes can be fought out. The struggle over nationalization raises questions that illuminate the line of march toward revolution: Which class does the State serve? Why should private property in the means of production be allowed to continue when it is clearly destroying society? As people begin to realize that the corporate State won’t redress their grievances, the basis is laid for the struggle to be transformed into a fight for power and for a whole new society.
American corporations are sitting on some $2 trillion in cash, yet our society is unable to tap this capital to take care of its desperate needs. This is absurd. This social capital is too important to be in private hands, and the means of production are too important to be in private hands. As a practical matter, private property must become public property in the interests of society.
This is the second in a series of three Building Block articles on private property. Building Block articles help explain a basic concept of the revolutionary process, challenging readers to explore its meaning for political work in today’s environment.
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