From Lockean to common property: reviving the Swedish Meidner plan

Excerpted from David Harvey:

(Source: Radical History Review Issue 109; Winter 2011)

1. Lockean Property

“For Locke, individual property is a natural right that arises when individuals create value by mixing their labor with the land: the fruits of their labor belong to them and to them alone. This was the essence of Locke’s version of the labor theory of value. Market exchange socializes that right when each individual gets back the value he or she has created by exchanging it against an equivalent value created by another. In effect, individuals maintain, extend, and socialize their private property right through value creation and supposedly free and fair market exchange. This is how the wealth of nations is most easily created and the common good best served.

The presumption is, of course, that markets can be fair and free, and in clas- sical political economy it was assumed that the state would intervene to make them so — ­ at least, that is what Smith advised state leaders to do. But there is an ugly corollary to Locke’s theory: individuals who fail to produce value have no claim to property. The dispossession of indigenous populations in North America by “pro- ductive” colonists, for instance, was justified because indigenous populations did not produce value.”

2. Critique

“So how does Karl Marx deal with all of this? Marx accepts the Lockean fiction in the opening chapters of Capital — ­though the argument is certainly larded with plenty of irony when, for example, he takes up the strange role of the Robinson Crusoe myth in political-­economic thinking, in which someone thrown into a state of nature acts like a true-­born Briton. But when Marx takes up how labor power becomes an individualized commodity that is bought and sold in fair and free markets, we see the Lockean fiction unmasked for what it really is: a system founded on equality in value exchange produces surplus value for the capitalist owner of the means of production through the exploitation of living labor in production.

The Lockean formulation is even more dramatically undermined when Marx takes up the question of collective labor. In a world in which individual artisan producers controlling their own means of production could engage in free exchange in relatively free markets, the Lockean fiction might have some purchase. But the rise of the factory system from the late eighteenth century onward, Marx argues, rendered Locke’s theoretical formulations redundant. In the factory, labor is collectively organized. If there were any property right to be derived from this form of laboring, then surely it would have to be a collective or associated rather than individual one. The definition of value-­producing labor, which grounds Locke’s theory of private property, no longer holds for the individual but is shifted to the collective laborer. Communism should then arise on the basis of “an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labor-­power in full self-­awareness as one single labor force.”

Marx does not advocate state ownership but some form of ownership vested in the collective laborer producing for the common good.” (Radical History Review Issue 109; Winter 2011)

3. Going from Lockean Property to Common Property

“How that form of ownership might come into being is established by turning Locke’s argument on the production of value against itself. Suppose, says Marx, a capitalist begins production with $1,000 in capital and in the first year manages to gain $200 surplus value from laborers mixing their labor with the land, and the capitalist then uses that surplus in personal consumption. Then, after five years, the $1,000 should belong to the collective laborers, since they are the ones who have mixed their labor with the land. The capitalist has consumed away all of his or her original capital. Like the indigenous populations of North America, the capitalists deserve to lose their rights, since they themselves have produced no value.

While this logic might sound outrageous, it lay behind the Swedish Meidner plan proposed in the late 1960s.

A tax on corporate profits, in return for wage restraint on the part of unions, was to be placed in a worker-­controlled fund that would invest in and eventually buy out the corporation, thus bringing it under the common control of the associated laborers.

Capital resisted this idea with all its might, and it was never implemented. But the idea ought to be reconsidered. The central conclusion is that the collective laboring that is now productive of value must ground collective, not individual, property rights. Value, socially necessary labor time, is the capitalist common, and it is represented by money, the universal equivalency by which common wealth is measured. The common is not, therefore, something extant once upon a time that has since been lost, but something that, like the urban commons, is continuously being produced. The problem is that it is just as continuously being enclosed and appropriated by capital in its commodified and monetary form. A community group that struggles to maintain ethnic diversity in its neighborhood and to protect against gentrification, for example, may suddenly find its property prices rising as real estate agents market the “character” of the neighborhood as multicultural and diverse as an attraction for gentrifiers.”

(Radical History Review Issue 109; Winter 2011)

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