Revisioning the sanctity of property

The following is excerpted from the essay:

Essay: The Commons and World Governance. TOWARD A GLOBAL SOCIAL CONTRACT. Arnaud Blin and Gustavo Marín. Forum for a New World Governance. April 2012 (draft version)

Arnaud Blin and Gustavo Marín:

“Another central element to both democracy and capitalism has contributed to the atomization of societies: the sanctity of private property. John Locke, by far the most influential political philosopher of modern times, stated this point very clearly in terms of individuals’ natural rights: “Every man is born with a double right: first, a right of freedom to his person, which no other man has a power over, but the free disposal of it lies in himself. Secondly, a right, before any other man, to inherit with his brethren his father’s goods,” and in terms of their purpose in entering society: “The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property, and the end why they choose and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all members of the society, to limit the power, and moderate the dominion, of every part and member of the society.” Interestingly, it is another seventeenth- century English thinker, James Harrington, who foresaw insightfully that it is essentially power that breeds property (rather than the opposite), a fact demonstrated subsequently with utmost viciousness both by capitalism and totalitarianism.

Since Locke wrote his treatise in the late seventeenth century—at the same time that the modern state was taking launch— property has become a central element of liberal political thought and practices, one that is inseparable from freedom and, for all intents and purposes, one that is effectively written in stone, both in terms of our conception of democracy and through our legal systems. And with the advent of capitalism, the sanctity of individual property in liberal thought has come to supersede individual freedom itself when both come into conflict, capitalism resting on the sanctity of the private means of production with the understanding that “property is value,” as coined by Frédéric Bastiat in the nineteenth century. Throughout the entire twentieth century, communism sought to trounce individual freedoms by “collectivizing” property, that is, by taking property away from individuals and giving it to the state, thereby reinforcing the notion that an attack on private property is an attack on freedom, and giving a new twist to the claim first made by Proudhon that “property is theft.”

Even so, the global world of the twenty-first century is a very different place from John Locke’s seventeenth-century preindustrial England, and the problem of “property” is significantly different today than it might have been in what was essentially an agrarian society. Even the great champion of the market, Adam Smith, warned in The Wealth of Nations (1776) that “[w]herever there is great property, there is great inequality. For one very rich man, there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many.”

Today, it is evident that “property” must be redefined to meet the demands of the day and respond to the abuses of those who lay claim to the sanctity of property. Scarcity, the one element put forward by Lockean theorists that warrants the creation and protection of individual property, is now, in the current environment, a principal motive for moving toward an understanding of property as a collective process destined to protect individuals and communities from the plundering of scarce resources. While private property on a small scale should remain a basic right to be upheld by society and the state in that it does not impinge on the welfare of society at large, both capitalistic property and the “collective” property taken or held by the state infringe on the collective rights of individuals and communities to have free and equal access to common goods and, more generally, to the commons.

Thus the right to private property has been turned on its head and, through the mechanism of the market and the protection of neoliberal policies, has pushed the wealthiest, in the name of freedom, to deny others the right and freedom to access and enjoy the most basic common goods. In many instances the state has intervened to deny access to the commons forcefully, as exemplified recently in China with respect to the Internet. While Locke projected himself in the “state of nature” through the lens of a Westerner bent on defending what was a staple of European society, individual property (through which one garnered wealth, status, and power according to the size of one’s territorial possessions), one should now look at other traditions, for example those of the Australian Aborigines or the American Six-Nation Iroquois Confederation, which foresaw “property” as essentially collective (in the original, not totalitarian, sense) to be shared by all equally and with the respect due to its natural environment.

While freedom and property may be inextricably linked, our definition of what property entails needs to evolve from a very narrow vision of individual property to a broader understanding of collective property, one that not only involves rights, as with private property, but also responsibilities, one that does not simply amount to a “negative” vision of property, as belonging to no one but rather as belonging to everyone, a subtle distinction that in both theory and practice has significant consequences. In this light, the emergence of the commons as a key concept in contemporary political thought might prove crucial in altering our basic conception of property. This, in turn, might be a formidable stepping stone toward establishing the structure for a truly global system of governance.”

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