Friday, November 06, 2009

Ownership and privilege

Ownership, all ownership, is privilege. Privilege derives from the roots privi-, private and -lege, law: privilege is, either literally or metaphorically, private law. My wife and I own a car. Therefore there is a private law letting the two of do things with my car that no one else can do. She and I are legally permitted to drive it to the store whenever we please; you and everyone else are legally prohibited from doing so. She and I don't have this privilege "because of" our ownership; our ownership is this privilege.

An obvious corollary is that just the simple fact of privilege is not necessarily bad. It's not necessarily good, either: we have to look at the details of each particular privilege — how it is obtained, who has it, to what it is applied, and most importantly its effect on the well-being of actual human beings — to come to an informed judgment on the desirability of that privilege.

All ownership, all human privilege, is to an important degree socially constructed. While I physically possess my car, physical possession is not the be-all end-all of ownership. If my neighbor were to merely appropriate my car, a large body of armed, uniformed police would (at least if I caught them on a good day) come down on his ass like a ton of bricks. This propensity of the the police to enforce this kind of ownership is a social construction: they do so because of ideas, ideas in people's heads, ideas written down in statutes and legal precedents, and the ideas about how to use those written-down ideas to focus the coercive activities of the police. These social constructions are not objective in the sense of mind-independent: if all of the relevant mental properties were to vanish, the social construction would vanish in the same sense that a house built of legos vanishes when you disassemble the house.

There are two kinds of privilege: direct and indirect. Direct privilege is like my ownership of my car. Indirect privilege is some consequence or emergent property of a direct privilege. A supervisor is directly privileged to dismiss his subordinates; it's a privilege because his subordinates cannot dismiss their supervisor, neither individually nor en bloc. This direct privilege gives rise to various indirect social privileges: in many environments a supervisor can, for example, be rude or obnoxious in ways that subordinates cannot, without fear of reprisal. This is an indirect privilege because we don't explicitly construct the privilege of supervisory rudeness; it is a consequence of and emerges from the direct privilege of firing.

Commenter cornucrapia challenges the element of the privilege of the owners of capital over the owners of labor power as an essential feature of capitalism*,**. He offers an alternative definition:
Capitalism - an economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations, esp. as contrasted to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth.
He and I are saying the same thing, though: individuals have ownership over capital, and therefore they have some sort of privilege. But what kind?

*This is exactly the sort of conversation I want to have on the blog. We concede nothing of substance to each other out of "respect", but show each other the respect of each assuming the other is a sincere, honest, well-intentioned person eager to discover the truth.

**It's important to note too that capitalist privilege is socially constructed and separate and distinct from commodity relations: commodity relations do not directly and inevitably entail capitalist privilege.

The direct privilege is, of course, the ownership of capital. Capital comes in two forms. First, there's physical capital: the machinery, tools, buildings and other physical things employed in the production of some commodity. There's also the labor capital, all of what what the capitalist must pay to the workers before the commodity is produced and finally exchanged for some price. This ownership is the direct privilege of the owner to produce what he pleases, at the rate he pleases, and exchange the products with whom he pleases for the price he pleases. But what of the indirect privileges this ownership?

First, a production surplus must be concentrated to employ as capital; a surplus equally distributed to the population will mostly be directly consumed. Second, capital is physically necessary to produce the physical things all human beings need — food, housing, clothing, etc. — to survive and prosper.

We must take a closer look at cornucrapia's definition of capitalism, specifically: "[O]wnership of the means of production ... [is held] chiefly by private individuals or corporations." In a trivial sense (and one I'm confident cornucrapia does not intend) ownership of everything is by physical necessity invested in individual human beings. What else could own things? Dolphins? Orangutangs? Rocks? Trees? The Pythagorean Theorem? Cornucrapia (and those establishing this definition of capitalism) must intend something more specific.

The above definition explicitly compares individual and corporate ownership with cooperative and state ownership. Capital also must be concentrated to be effective. We can therefore reasonably interpret this definition in two ways. First, capital is owned by individuals and corporations in its concentrated form; it is not owned by all of those individuals who have physically contributed their personal surplus to the creation of the capital. All working people (and almost all people work, or can and want to) contribute a productive surplus that can be concentrated into capital, but under capitalism as defined, all working people do not "cooperatively" own the capital.

By contrasting private ownership with state (or governmental) ownership, the above definition makes a substantive formal separation between the organ of socially acceptable direct physical coercion (the state or government) and the ownership of capital (the private capitalist). This element exempts the owners of capital from being coerced by the government. Nobody likes to be coerced (even the police loathe those who police the police), and in a perfect world we'd like to rely on voluntary cooperation, but we need some form of coercion (at least under present conditions) for people to act in their mutual benefit instead of their individual benefit*. Therefore, a corollary to this definition is that capital is employed for the individual or private benefit of the owners, without regard for the mutual benefit of everyone in a society.

*This is a very subtle point of ethical philosophy. Read my essays on ethics, Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism, and the Prisoner's Dilemma.

The products of capital and industrial production are necessary to for most everyone to survive; at today's levels of technology non-industrial production can support only only a fraction of the present population. By definition, the owners of concentrated capital can produce and exchange these products as they please, exempt from social controls. It therefore follows that the owners of capital have indirect privilege over the very survival of the population, and there is no systematic compensating privilege for the workers, the owners of only their own labor power.

Thus the individual, private ownership of capital creates a de facto indirect privilege of the capitalist class.

1 comment:

  1. For some reason I couldn't get my response to work in this comment box, something about my HTML being over 4096 characters. Anyway, I've posted a reply on my blog here
    You're welcome to respond in the comments there or back here (or not at all I suppose although I am looking forward to your reply)


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