Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What is ownership?

The communist project is to socialize the ownership of capital. What precisely do I mean by "ownership"?

Ownership is a social construct establishing a specific kind of social privilege, literally a private law. When you own something, your neighbors will permit you to use that something in a way they will not permit others to use it. I own my care: I can drive it wherever and whenever I please and my neighbors will not object; if the guy down the hall tries to drive it without my permission, my neighbors will essentially band together, find him and punish him. My ownership is this privilege.

We typically do not consider certain social prohibitions on use to substantially compromise or affect ownership. I cannot, for example, use my car to run pedestrians over, nor can I use my car to commit a crime. Nor do certain social compulsions necessarily compromise ownership. Assuming that clean air is worth the overall cost, I may be compelled* to pay for the installation and maintain emissions controls on the car for the mutual benefit of me and my neighbors.

*This is a typical Prisoner's Dilemma situation: I (and everyone else) am individually better off if everyone else pays for emissions controls and I do not; even if there were no dissenters from apprehension of mutual benefit, the "selfish" benefit from being a "free rider" requires some sort of compulsion.

What we believe does affect ownership of something is being compelled to use that something for the private benefit of another. If, for example, as a condition of car ownership I were compelled to give one carless neighbor a ride to work, I would feel that my private ownership was compromised. The concept of mutual benefit is inoperative here, since I myself am not carless. Therefore, the sine qua non of private capital ownership must therefore be that the benefits of capital, i.e. the rent* the owner of capital may collect for its use, accrue only to the private benefit of its owner, however she construes that benefit.

*Rent is, by definition, the amount over and above the actual cost of creating and maintaining the capital.

Management, in the sense of making day-to-day decisions about the use of something is different from ownership. How precisely to socialize the management of capital is a completely different issue from the fundamental principle of socializing its ownership. However we choose to manage capital, that management must accrue to the benefit of the people, not to the private owners of capital.

(Indeed it is a communist critique of capitalist democracy that our elected representatives serve for a fixed period of time, which to some extent confuses the issue of whether the people have merely delegated the management of their political power or whether they have actually given their power — even temporarily — to those representatives. It's notable that when the capitalist class delegates their power to executive management, they typically retain the power to arbitrarily dismiss any executive at any time. The only operative political structure that Marx directly approved of was the Paris Commune. Marx identified the construction that the people could arbitrarily recall their delegates at any time as critical to a "truly" democratic political structure.)

Communism goes much farther than solving Prisoners' Dilemma situations regarding mutual benefits that include the individual benefits of the owners of capital. Except in the most rarefied, abstract sense, the transfer of ownership of capital will not be to any sort of benefit of its present owners. They will be expropriated without any meaningful compensation. It is entirely rational for the owners of capital to resist communism by any means necessary and possible, including argument, persuasion, exhortation, propaganda, bullshit, lies, violence, and war. And they have been using all of these means to retain control of their capital, just as the feudal nobility unsuccessfully used all of these means to retain their own privilege during the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.

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