The Property Cult

The right-wing proclaims itself a champion of freedom, but an interrogation of its history reveals an altogether different priority – the centuries-long defence of property and the propertied.

Illustration by Montse Galbany.

The classical philosophical texts of ancient Greece which, in many ways, form the basis of contemporary political thought were consumed by the question of democracy. This isn’t a surprise — there was no ‘Greece’ as such at the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, but a series of city-states each governed by rival and distinct constitutional orders.

The most renowned of these was the democracy of Athens. It was not a democracy in the sense we would recognise today, being both more radical and more limited. Its participants were adult, male citizens of the city — including artisans, but not women, slaves, or foreigners, the majority of those who resided in its bounds. But it was also a direct democracy, its assembly comprised the entire citizenry and officials chosen on the basis of sortition.

Writing on the Athenian democracy in the 1950s, Trinidadian Marxist C. L. R. James would remark, ‘Now the average CIO bureaucrat or Labour MP in Britain would fall in a fit if it was suggested to him that any worker selected at random could do the work that he is doing, but that was precisely the guiding principle of Greek Democracy. And this form of government is the government under which flourished the greatest civilisation the world has ever known.’

But it didn’t look that way at the time to many members of Athens’ propertied elite. Plato, an aristocrat who traced his descent from the city’s former king, derided the democratic system of government for ‘dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequal alike.’ When he was writing, the Greek-speaking world was convulsed by the economic chaos which followed the Persian wars — and more radical democratic aspirations were beginning to gain a hearing.

If all citizens were granted equal participation in the political sphere, the reasoning went, why then should vast inequities in the economic sphere be tolerated? A series of contemporaries of Plato, most notably Phaleas and Hippodamus, took up this question — and proposed that property in an ideal city-state should be redistributed to guarantee social equality. These contributions are little known today, and the Athenian democracy never instituted any measures to that end, but the issue of democracy’s relationship to property proved highly influential.

When Aristotle addressed the question of democracy a generation later, he saw in it a system ‘where the poor rule.’ In a pure democracy, he posited, the poor would be empowered to vote away the property of the rich. Democracy, therefore, could not co-exist with poverty — one or the other must go. In his Politics, he experimented with each alternative, from extolling the virtues of monarchies and aristocracies to arguing for a kind of proto-welfare state.

In the end, he concludes, a kind of democracy might be acceptable, but only if it could be curtailed by a rule of law which limited any undue threats to the social order. His conclusion was widely adopted by later political theorists and formed the basis of modern constitutionalism, but the question that prompted it — how best to protect property from the clutches of democracy — haunted elites for generations to come. In fact, it provided the basis for what we now know as right-wing politics.

What the Right Wants

If you were to ask a leftist today what defines the Right, you would likely receive a confused response. Some would focus on bigotry: right-wingers are characterised by racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, or some other set of prejudicial views. Others would concentrate on philosophy: to be on the right is to advocate for tradition, order, hierarchy or, in more modern forms, rugged individualism.

Each of these perspectives holds a certain truth, but none of them gets to the essence of things. For centuries, the chief undertaking of right-wing politics has been the defence of property — and that project, above all else, has structured its arguments, built its coalitions, and sustained it as a consistent political tradition through periods of great historical change.

It is certainly true that the right wing is today, and has been in the past, a font for a great deal of bigotry. But this should not be understood simply as personal prejudice or moral failing on behalf of its advocates. Instead, it is consistent with the project of defending property through the private relations of domination it creates: the slaveholder, the colonialist, the capitalist, the husband, the nuclear family. Even where a great deal of energy has been expended specifically to generate racist modes of thinking — as in the case of eugenics, for example — these have most often been exercises in justifying property relations and the often violent expropriation and dispossession that underlies them.

Nothing is as important as property. The Right defends tradition yet it also embraced capitalism, which produced the greatest period of social change and the most profound modernisation the world had ever seen. It defends order, but it has been prepared to tear up constitutions in countries as varied as Chile, Iran, and Spain when elected governments threatened to interfere with property relations. And it is a champion of the individual and meritocracy — until it comes to the question of whether a worker should control the place where they work, or whether it is just for a child to be born a billionaire on the basis of their lineage.

Understanding the proprietarian basis of the Right is essential because it helps to demystify what can otherwise appear an entirely diffuse tradition. How, for instance, can libertarianism be said to share a common lineage with fascism? And yet it is not polemical to suggest that it does. Ludwig von Mises, one of the fathers of the Austrian school of economics, wrote in his 1927 book Liberalism that fascists were ‘full of the best intentions’ and fascism itself was a necessary ‘emergency makeshift’ in order to protect European civilisation from the threat of socialism. And this was not a one-off — Friedrich Hayek endorsed both Pinochet and Salazar as ‘authoritarian governments under which personal liberty was safer than under democracies’, and Milton Friedman’s Chicago Boys provided the economic blueprint for Pinochet’s government itself.

This is not to say that libertarians are the same as fascists, rather it is an argument that something fundamental unites them — far moreso than anything which unites a libertarian with a democrat — and that is the project of defending property. Aristotle’s recognition of the potential for democracy to threaten the rule of property is, in fact, directly echoed in Hayek’s writing, wherein he criticises the ‘democratism’ of too many in his own tradition, who threaten property rights by demanding ‘unlimited powers of the majority.’

Without establishing the centrality of property, definitions of right-wing politics rapidly become confusing. Right-wingers are not merely reactionaries, otherwise they would still defend the institution of slavery. Nor can they be said to simply be conservatives in some general sense. After all, there wasn’t much being conserved when Margaret Thatcher lay waste to Britain’s industrial communities or when today’s right-wingers advocate for fossil fuel corporations which are destroying the planet.

The Right is reactionary — and nothing motivates them like a movement from the Left to oppose — and likewise it is conservative. But only in a very particular sense. This was best summarised by Robert Peel, who has the distinction of being a founder of not one but two great right-wing institutions, the Conservative Party and the Metropolitan Police, when he said his objective was ‘to change what you have to in order to conserve what you can.’ And what they are trying to conserve, in almost every case, is property.

Property’s Champions

In his major intervention of the 1970s, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek laid out the philosophical case for this cult of property that dominates right-wing thinking today. ‘There can be no question now that the recognition of property preceded the rise of even the most primitive cultures,’ he claimed, ‘and that certainly all that we call civilisation has grown up on the basis of that spontaneous order of actions which is made possible by the delimitation of protected domains of individuals or groups.’

In this, Hayek was drawing on the classical liberal tradition — the one which first developed a robust theory of property rights. Its intellectual father was John Locke, who believed that property predated states and was the subject of natural rights which existed outside any conditions of human society. Social organisation should be based upon these rights insofar as is possible or, as Locke succinctly put it, ‘the preservation of Property [is] the end of Government.’

But Locke was not easily classifiable as a right-winger. His theory of property was extremely elastic. For Locke, our property included such intangibles as our person and our conscience. ‘Everyman,’ he famously argued, ‘has a property in his person; this nobody has a right to but himself. The labour of his body and the work of his hand, we may say, are properly his.’

So, when we identify its importance to the Right, what do we mean by property? Most contemporary right-wingers are Lockeans in their view of property — that is to say, they see in it a transhistorical phenomenon, something which has always been present in human society and predates any given form of social organisation. In fact, this is even true of more traditionalist conservatives like Edmund Burke, who wove the concept of natural rights into his work. Humans have always traded and bartered and, therefore, always had a concept of property which structured the social hierarchy.

The problem is, this isn’t true. For decades, mainstream anthropology has operated on the basis that early human societies were egalitarian and based on small collectives. More recently, that has come under some challenge — with dissenting voices making the case that there were some more hierarchical and large-scale organisations. It may not be Engels’ thesis of primitive communism, but one thing is clear from the evidence: private property, as we think of it today, did not exist for the vast majority of human history.

At this point, it’s important to make a distinction. To say private property did not exist is not to say there was no such thing as personal property; it seems that hunter-gatherers had their own clothes or possessions with sentimental value, much as we do today. But the difference between private property, which the Right defends, and personal property is a chasm. Think of it this way: it makes all of the sense in the world for a person to possess their own toothbrush, but on what basis does any one person own a toothbrush factory?

In fact, most property that could be said to exist in early human society was communal — no one person had any exclusive claim. Property, rather than being a natural phenomenon, as Locke argues, is a social construction, and indeed one which has brought with it a great deal of attendant strife and suffering. We may have abandoned the innocence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ thesis, but he was surely correct when he described the violence brought about by property’s origins:

The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries, and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: ‘Do not listen to this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!’

Paine versus Burke

When private property — the ownership of parts of the economy itself — first emerged in human life, it was with the institution of slavery. This was followed in due course by the rise of the demesnes of kings and emperors, the enclosure of common lands, and the dispossession of the colonised. These were the bases on which a majority of humanity was separated from the means not just of production but of independent subsistence, and the world was divided between those who live by wealth and those who live by work. Seen in this light, the Right is not so much trying to halt the progress of history as to defend its enduring injustices.

Of course, a world of concentrated wealth could never be a natural thing. In a truly ‘natural’ environment, it would be impossible for small minorities of the opulent to live lives of luxury while the vast majority toiled, lacking the basics necessary for a decent life. Without the existence of a state, without the army and the police and the means of enforcement, the order of property would not have stood a chance — the masses of people would not have accepted such want amid plenty, especially when it derived from the products of their own labour.

For the Left, that was the promise of democracy. For the Right, that was its threat — and why they succeeded in denigrating it as an idea for such a stretch of human history. In fact, it wasn’t until Tom Paine and his Rights of Man that the term democracy ceased to be used predominantly as a pejorative and became a popular aspiration once again. Paine’s book was written in 1791 amid the tumult of the French Revolution, and an intellectual battle with another Lockean whose own treatise had taken a dim view of the events: Edmund Burke.

For Paine, the French Revolution was an opportunity to ‘begin the world over again.’ For Edmund Burke, this was a dangerous concept — the traditions and institutions which we inherited from past generations had brought society thus far, and we should alter them at our peril. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke wrote that society ‘becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.’

Much has been written about the arguments between Paine and Burke over abstract notions of tradition, but what tradition, exactly, was Burke aiming to protect? Throughout Reflections, he saves his bitterest invective for the French Revolution’s threats to property. The entire affair, Burke laments, was characterised by ‘great and violent permutations of property.’ In fact, he devotes an entire section to the ‘importance of property,’ beginning it with the lines,

Believe me, Sir, those who attempt to level never equalise. In all societies consisting of various descriptions of citizens, some description must be uppermost. So the levellers are only changing and perverting the natural order of things; they are loading the edifice of society by setting up in the air what the solidity of the structure requires to be on the ground.

Here, Burke captures something essential about right-wing thought. Property is designed as a bulwark against equality. It is, in fact, the basis of the entire class system — the division of the world between those who own and those who do not. And for the Right, this system is not one of injustice, oppression, or exploitation, it is one of natural and moral order, something which divides the worthy from the unworthy, the extraordinary from the ordinary.

Burke is explicit about this point. ‘The occupation of a hairdresser or of a working candle-maker can’t be a matter of honour to anyone — not to mention a number of other more servile employments,’ he writes in Reflections. ‘Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression if the likes of them, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule. In this you think you are combating prejudice, but actually you are at war with nature.’

Nor is it simply their profession which should preclude them from governing. Their relationship to property is once again essential. ‘The only way to secure steady and moderate conduct in such assemblies is for the body of them to be made up of people who are respect-worthy in their condition in life or permanent property’. The role of government was, as Locke had written, the preservation of property. The French Revolution had disturbed this natural order. ‘Was it to be expected that they would attend to the stability of property, these people whose existence had always depended on whatever made property questionable, ambiguous, and insecure?’

Burke’s defence of property as the essential basis of society, and something which was meritocratic and derived from people’s innate differences in ability, has proven highly influential among right-wing thinkers for generations since. It has united not only conservatives and reactionaries, but libertarians and fascists, each of whom have tended to be more critical of other aspects of Burke’s writing. Property, once again, was the Right’s point of unity.

The Tragedy of the Private

That Burkean idea — that property is earned, and therefore its vast disparities justified — might predate capitalism, but it is undoubtedly its strongest ideological foundation. In fact, the myth of meritocracy was the most powerful ideological weapon of a revived right since the collapse of state socialism.

It is, rather inevitably, nonsense. In fact, it is remarkable that it has proven so durable in the twenty-first century. In 2017, a Credit Suisse wealth report found that, for the first time, the top 1% of the planet owned a majority of all of the world’s wealth. And at the other end of the spectrum, 70% of the planet’s working age population, 3.5 billion people, own just 2.7% of the world’s wealth between them.

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a bonanza for Jeff Bezos and his union-busting Amazon corporation, with his total wealth now topping £150 billion. To put that into context: the median worker in Britain, earning £30,000 a year, would need to work almost five million years to earn that amount (and that’s before taxation) — the same length of time since our first human ancestors appeared on the earth.

That is the real right-wing tradition: defence of towering empires of property which cast shadows back through the entire course of history. But what kind of disparity in ability could possibly justify these inequities? How extraordinary would our rulers need to be to make us believe that one person’s worth could be in excess of 3.5 billion others, or that it was possible to earn in one lifetime as someone else would need millions of years to achieve?

And yet, the Right does defend this with a straight face. They will say, ‘what price can be placed on the genius which drives humanity forward?’ It is a weak argument. As the work of economist Mariana Mazzucato demonstrates, the most meaningful innovation in our economy is publicly-funded — in other words, the risks are socialised as the rewards are privatised. But even if that was not the case, the right-wing position begs the question: is the ownership of the economy by a tiny handful of people the best way to give expression to humanity’s vast resources of genius?

In fact, a world where the majority have no real say over their working lives and are instead forced to rent themselves to the rich to survive is one where genius is habitually squandered. As the science writer Stephen Jay Gould once wrote, ‘I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.’ Einstein himself, of course, felt the same — and was a lifelong socialist.

But even this is to give the Right too much credit. How does the argument about genius and innovation stand up in a world of vast inherited wealth? According to HMRC statistics, more than one quarter of wealth (28%) in the UK is inherited — a statistic that is less surprising when you consider than only 1% of people own half of all the land in England, often passing it down not just for decades but for centuries as part of the country’s backwards aristocratic tradition.

Moreover, what innovation is derived from a housing sector which increasingly represents a casino run by speculators — where a property can accumulate vast sums of rental income, or double its value on the market, with no input whatsoever from its owner. Yet, in Britain today, research from the Resolution Foundation finds that 36% of total wealth is tied up in just such processes. The house, as they say, always wins.

There are other intellectual cases for private property. Perhaps the most enduring is the one turned into a fable by William Forster Lloyd’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. If a resource is owned in common, the logic goes, it will inevitably be depleted because no single person has the incentive to protect, sustain, or replenish it. The vast common lands of human history, we might expect then, were wastelands and deserts — the feckless irresponsibility of socialistically-minded peasants producing profound ecological crisis.

In reality, it has been precisely the era of private property which has coincided with the greatest environmental damage in the planet’s history — from the climate crisis to the ransacking of the Amazon and the ravaging of the oceans. Unlike in Forster Lloyd’s time, we don’t need to imagine vast environmental disasters, we live through them. And they are the direct result of that economic system which resulted from the enclosure of the land in the first place.

But, the last line of defence posits, what about incentive to grow, to develop, to improve? Another English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, made a utilitarian case for property on these grounds. ‘He who has no hope that he shall reap,’ he argued, ‘will not take the trouble to sow.’ To some extent, that may be true — people pursue their interests in the economic sphere. But the interests of the propertied class are pursued at the expense of the working class to such an extent that billions sow for only a handful to ever reap.

In the end, this clarifies the mission of the Right. The defence of property is not fundamentally an intellectual exercise, based on argumentation. It is about defending the interests of a class and a system. And it is on those terms that socialists must fight it.

The World Anew

If we are to defeat the Right in the years and decades to come, it will not be by skirting around the edges of our social order. We live today inside a great property machine in which the plentiful resources of a fruitful planet accumulate to a tiny few — whose only goal, in turn, is to use their wealth to accumulate further wealth. But the gears of this machine turn with the muscle of billions of working people, who could equally dispatch it to the scrapyard of history and build something more worthy in its place.

Our job, as socialists, is to give them the courage to do so. Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ scheme stands as an example of the ways working people can be seduced by the siren song of property — yet, decades later, the richest six people in Britain own as much wealth as the bottom 13 million. The idea of a capitalist system which would disperse property across society rather than concentrate it was a lie, and instead of repeating arguments about extending ownership or converting citizens into shareholders, we must challenge the basis on which such myths are built.

This means building a case, once more, against the property system itself. That is not something the Left has been prepared to do for many decades, preferring instead to leave the fundamental architecture of private ownership of the economy in place. And often with good reason: when we make such arguments, the Right will respond hysterically — they will paint a picture of our movement’s aims as the dispossession of working people at large, denying families the right to sentimental possessions, or granting strangers free rein to invade our personal space.

But nothing dispossesses working people as much as capitalism. It dispossesses us of the fruits of our labour at work, turning them into commodities and forcing us to rent ourselves to survive. It dispossesses us at home when it forces us to pay exorbitant rents to landlords or mortgages to banks for the right to shelter. It dispossesses us in our communities when it steals public assets and services built and sustained by working people.

This is the basis of the deep feeling of alienation engendered by the property system — the feeling that arises in every person living on this earth that the things we value never really exist for themselves but are produced in order to make a profit. And it is there, at the point of production, where socialists propose to challenge property.

Fundamentally, we are opposed not to a person owning this or that consumer good, but to somebody owning the entire structure through which such goods are produced: the means of production itself. In our battle against the Right, we set out to abolish this world of things. They have set out for generations to defend a system in which humanity is made to serve property. We will build a world where it serves itself instead.