It was a packed room for the Trinity College Dublin Philosophical Society debate on whether private property should be abolished. I was the first speaker and spoke in an impassioned way for the motion. There was much expression of assent in the room. Next was Martha O’Hagan, a professor of finance at TCD and former investment banker, who gave a clear speech in favor of a centrist position, admitting a need for some public ownership and state regulation, but arguing that innovation and freedom required private property. The three student debaters for the motion engaged in a bit of the expected witty student banter, but also enunciated strong and sincere arguments for the motion. The two student debaters against it were a bit all over the place in their positions. One had built his whole speech around defense of personal property, although all of us on the other side made it clear that we did not want to abolish personal property. The final speaker, Yota Deli, an economist from UCD, was very animated but asserted such things as capitalism and socialism were ideologies and therefore irrelevant and had nothing to with private property, which only muddied the waters. The motion was put to the floor and won decisively. Also polls on Instagram and twitter came down well in favor of the motion. I put this mood among students down to their feeling of being locked out of the standard of living to which they aspire. Earlier in the day, there was a student walkout in Irish 3rd level institutions because of the crisis in student accommodation and the more general cost of living crisis. Quite a few students came up to me afterwards to say they were convinced and converted. I took this as coming not only from my arguments but from their experiences of their times. Believing I was going into the lion’s den, I came out of it feeling more buoyant about the current generation of students than I have in a long time.
Here is my speech:
When the Philosophical Society (the Phil) writes to speakers inviting them to speak here, it lists the names of presidents, prime ministers, famous writers, and other luminaries who have addressed the Phil over the centuries, inviting us, I suppose, to bask in their reflected glory. Although I felt no inclination to do so in the case of Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton—or even Oscar Wilde or Karl Popper—I do feel proud to follow in the footsteps of Frederick Engels. When I first spoke at the Phil many years ago, the question was whether socialism and feminism were compatible. The text I cited most strongly was Engels’s brilliant work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. So, after many years away from the Phil, I am thinking of Engels again as I address the question of private property, as well as of the state and its relation to private property.
I support the motion that private property should be abolished.
Let me first define the private property I think should be abolished. I want to distinguish it from personal property, communal property, and public property.
I do not want to take your clothes, your toothbrushes, your laptops, or, if you should ever acquire them, your homes or your cars. I do not even want small businesses to be wrested from their owners. (By the way, I once lived where all was owned in common when I was a nun. All our clothes, books, pens, whatever, were “For the use of Sister X”).
Not only would I not want to abolish personal property, but I would like to see the personal property of those who work to increase rather than decrease. I would also like to see cooperatives flourish.
However, I would like to see large-scale productive property, currently held as private property, transformed into public property. What has been built by social labor, sometimes over decades or centuries, should be socially owned, primarily to be administered by the state.
I start from this premise: All that exists and is of value comes from nature or labor, or mostly from a combination of both. Everyone who exists has the same number of hours in a day. Why should some people who spend some hours organizing production be able to accrue more in a few seconds than someone engaging in hard manual labor can earn in a year? Even worse, why should others who never in their whole lives do any work whatsoever but inherit shares (or crowns) be able to take enormous unearned wealth extracted from the labor of others?
How did so much built by so many come to be expropriated by so few? It has not, on the whole, despite rags to riches myths, come from genius invention and/or entrepreneurial skill. It has come largely by force, whether by marauding armies or through oligarchic manipulation of the state passing and enforcing laws favorable to such expropriation.
Take Amazon—not the river or rain forest, but the company. Think of nature growing the trees, the farmers cultivating them, the foresters harvesting them, the authors writing books (I am one of them), the workers involved in printing, binding, and distributing them in what are no longer called warehouses but fulfillment centers. And Jeff Bezos, what does he do? Yes, he does something. Entrepreneurial activity is a form of labor. But why should he be able to take so much more of the fruits of this whole process than so many others?
Based on 2018 figures, it took Bezos only nine seconds to accrue what it took the median worker at Amazon to earn in a year. That was based on salary of $1.6 million. On top of that, there was what he accrued from shares, making his share $3,182 every second, according to one estimate. That has since multiplied, especially during the pandemic. How could one person deserve to accrue $162.7 billion from that whole complex collective process?
In this process of massive parasitism, more and more is extracted from those who do the real work, sometimes working long hours in difficult conditions—the farmers, foresters, drivers, factory workers, editors, writers, while CEOs, such as Bezos, accrue millions while they sleep. Moreover, there are some who own stocks and shares who have never even contributed anything at all, not even initial entrepreneurial effort, to the process. This is totally parasitic.
Capitalism as a system is based on private ownership of the means of social production. It is inherently not only unjust but inefficient.
There is currently a crisis of investment. Less and less of the profits accrued in social production are either being reinvested in production or socially distributed. Through low wages, tax evasion or avoidance (even where governments act in the interest of capital and offer favorable tax regimes), owners of capital extract wealth that they either consume lavishly or let accumulate unproductively. There are ludicrous amounts of money being spent in luxury consumption: private jets, multiple mansions, and yachts, while those who do real work struggle to afford food and heat in the current cost-of-living crisis. NFTs are the ultimate expenditure of who have more money than they even know how to spend.
An old song of the labor movement sets out the stark facts:
It is we who plowed the praises, built the cities where they trade,
During the Occupy movement eleven years ago, people came out in every major city on every continent and cried out “We are the 99%,” wanting to take back the world that the 1% had stolen from them, from us. There was an encampment just outside the gates on TCD on Dame St. Some staff and students engaged with it in different ways, but most just walked on by. I organized Occupy University, where we gave lectures on the street about how wealth was created and distributed and how power was exercised as well as about how to build a movement to challenge it. I believe these were often better lectures than the ones taking place inside these gates.
There is still massive disaffection from the global system based on private ownership of the means of social production. There are many parties, projects, and organizations contesting it, but no mass movement strong enough currently to galvanize all that alienation and anger to break the power of that system and embark on a transition to an alternative system. That is what we need—that kind of movement to set us on a path to that kind of system.
That would be socialism, a system based on social ownership of the means of social production. Socialism as an alternative system deals with the process of social production through social ownership and control, thus allowing for more just distribution and more efficient reinvestment, not only in the enterprise itself, but in the whole social infrastructure on which it depends.
It is also the only way to harness the resources of society in such a way as to save our planet from the path of self-destruction on which we are hurtling along a trajectory that is inherent in the logic of capitalism.
I have seen approximations of such a system during my sojourns in Eastern Europe and Cuba. I have seen societies where the expropriators had been expropriated, where the means of social production were socially owned. They were also societies with many glaring faults, where there was a need for greater democratic expression and participation to advance to a higher form of socialism.
Instead, because of the pressure of the global system on anything outside its bounds, they went in the opposite direction, with public property re-expropriated into private property in a massive orgy of accumulation by dispossession. Despite some positive features of the transition in Eastern Europe, such as freedom to travel, it has been overall a tragic disaster, leading to many excess deaths, including by suicide, massive impoverishment, desperation, and depression. The tragic consequences are still playing out in many ways on many levels, including the current war in Ukraine.
I conclude by saying that we need to find a way to expropriate the expropriators, to transform private property into public property and move from capitalism to socialism. This will be very complex and difficult to achieve, but it is necessary if we are ever to achieve a sustainable and just social order.
Helena Sheehan is Professor Emerita at Dublin City University in Ireland where she taught STS as well as history of ideas more generally. Her books include Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History, The Syriza Wave, Navigating the Zeitgeist and Until We Fall (in progress). She has also published many articles on philosophy, science, politics, and culture. She has lectured in various countries in America, Europe and Africa. She has been an activist on the left since the 1960s.
This article was republished from Monthly Review Online.