Socialist Property

I am entering Week Three of Economies in Transition: Eastern Europe (ECON 161), in which, among other things, we are considering socialist property. Of course, the term itself rings oxymoronic; like socialist unemployment. And, yet, it raises several interesting questions, the most important of which concerns the relationship between res publica — and therefore republican institutions and values — and public or socialist property. This question interests us primarily because so much popular and traditional Marxist discourse turns upon the question of private property and the socialization of private property.

Rarely if ever is it observed that among the ways that K Marx’s critique of socialism differed from traditional left-wing critiques of capitalism is that Marx built his critique not around property rights, but around labor practices. More generally, since private property has been a feature common to all settled forms of society, it cannot be identified as a feature unique to capitalist society. It follows that resolving this matter, let us say by socializing the means of production, while perhaps a good idea under some circumstances, is not particularly Marxist or even socialist.

The second point to be noted is that K Marx was not specially interested in equitably distributing wealth or the wealth connected to property. This is because for Marx the form of domination unique to capitalism, in his view, was the way that the production of value (as distinguished from material wealth) dominates our lives. His focus was therefore on diverting some portion of the efficiencies of labor away from the production of abstract value and toward the liberation of free time and human development.

My students at least will recognize the Aristotelian origins of this vision. Freedom begins where labor ends. But they should also therefore recognize that this vision forms the heart of traditional republicanism, the institutional and legal framework creating and protecting res publica, the wealth we hold in common.

Insofar as this was the vision embraced by those who met in Constitution Hall in 1787 (although not by the anti-Federalists locked out of the convention), this may mean that we need to find better ways to talk about the wealth we hold in common, about res publica, than the simplistic and uninformative contrast between private capitalist property and public socialist or communist property. Perhaps the framers have more in common with K Marx’s vision than at first meets the eye.

Finally, in place of this simplistic and uninformative contrast, it may be more helpful to think about the ends to which our collective wealth is put: is it put to creating and recreating the treadmill of domination that the production of abstract value requires, so that only a small fraction of us can realize the freedom born of efficiency; or might it not be put to opening up ever greater swaths of freedom in education, creativity, enterprise, and the pursuit of happiness?

There is nothing specially magical about socializing private property; indeed, there is nothing specially socialist about socializing private property. On the other hand, when the wealth we hold in common is invested in freeing us from domination by abstract value (a product of labor’s efficiency), this could be truly revolutionary.

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