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The Heart of the Problem Is Private Ownership

There's nothing neutral or natural about resource ownership being concentrated in the hands of an elite few – and the countless crises now hitting the public make it clear a democratic alternative is long overdue.

Dynamics of ownership—dispossession, concentration, dependency—set in train the locomotive force of capitalism as a social relationship and economic system. (Andrew Small / EyeEm / Getty Images)

How a society operates, and in whose interests, is fundamentally shaped by who owns and controls its productive wealth. Baronial possession of land shaped feudalism, colonial dispossession underpinned the accumulation of empire, slave ownership enabled phenomenal wealth and violence in slaver societies, and still today it is the interests of asset owners that largely dictate how our economies are run and our resources organised. These structures evolved over time; neither neutral nor fixed, the rules governing property rights reflect the ebb and flow of power and class relations within a society. But what exactly constitutes ownership, and why does it matter?

Ownership is a complex and in many ways overlapping and contingent concept. It implies the possession of a set of enforceable rights over defined property, assets, and resources in which the owner holds the ultimate interest. In Anglo-American capitalism, ownership of property and income-generating assets typically confers, at least in the popular sense of the term, the ‘right to use resources exclusively without much acknowledgement of (especially the more systemic) externalities produced by such behaviour’. Regardless of the consequences that follow from ownership of a specific thing or asset, whether exploitation or environmental destruction, ownership is taken to grant the owner the ability to use resources exclusively and extensively for their benefit. Property rules universalise the ability for an owner to exclude others from the control or benefit of assets and resources, while appropriating the rewards.

Ownership is therefore inherently relational. It empowers the propertied at the expense of the propertyless, imposing duties on the latter to benefit the former. Importantly, this introduces a paradox of freedom: ownership’s inherent exclusivity transforms what is a potentially common resource into a source of dispossession and insecurity for some, and economic empowerment, wealth, and comparative freedom for others. The right of property, understood as control over the owned object or asset, generates a power of command and authority through ownership. In the process, it institutionalises an unequal and often unfree relation between people over resources. The way that we arrange and distribute property relations and ownership therefore shapes how power is held and production organised. Ownership ‘underpins all other societal values and interactions, including our relationships to each other, as well as to work, to the rest of the world, and to nature’.

There are many overlapping combinations of ownership, control, and governance, that open or foreclose particular ways of organising our economies and societies. Our crisis-riddled world centres a particular form of private ownership: the large for-profit corporation, controlled by and for a nexus of executives, asset managers, and wealthy shareholders, within a shrinking oligopoly of companies, all while concentrating wealth and power in the hands of a few. This regime of ownership and the property rules undergirding it are created by the state through a combination of legislation and the implicit backstop of coercive enforcement. The way these rules are defined—setting out what can be owned, who can own, what can be done with property, how those rights and rules are enforced, and how property can move between different owners—is both intensely political and systemically pivotal. Understanding the conjoined crises we face therefore requires us to confront our current ownership regime.

From Absolutes to Bundles

Ownership is often discussed—in the media, among policymakers, or in our daily interactions—as entailing some kind of absolute or ‘natural’ right for exclusive use and control of an asset or resource; however, the reality is more complicated. Modern property rights emerged in pre-democratic societies and were intimately linked to histories of colonial violence and empire-building. As Timothy Mitchell has argued, the presentation of the primacy of property rights as the self-evidently correct institutional framework for organising economic and social life masks the violent and ongoing histories of constructing and maintaining property—‘of power, discipline, coercion, and dispossession’—that have prioritised ownership claims over other competing social demands and obligations. Moreover, even if property claims were originally conceived as private, absolute, and wholly exclusive, they are now better thought of as a ‘bundle of rights linking, through a complex set of social and legal relationships, the owner to other people . . . broken down and recomposed according to the situations and times concerned’. In other words, they are the product not of some ‘natural’ and prior right, but rather a complex bundle of legal rules whose content is socially defined, and which varies by context. Very often, those rights have been defined by the powerful in ways that reinforce and reproduce their position; crucially, however, it makes them inherently contestable.

Ownership claims can take many forms: financial wealth, pension wealth, real estate wealth, physical wealth, for example—all of which can generate income from and entitlements of control over assets and resources. While you may have an absolute right over personal property, this absoluteness is rarely the case in questions of economic ownership. Property rights are often disaggregated, with control exercised by actors other than those who ultimately hold the economic interest.

Take the pension system. The ultimate beneficiary—you or me, say, to whom money is ultimately due—may ‘own’ the underlying economic interest of the asset, such as a stock, in which their money is invested, but the other rights that derive from this ownership, such as governance rights within the corporation whose shares our money has helped purchase, are typically dispersed along a chain of financial intermediaries, such as pension fund trustees and asset managers.

In short, property rights are not unchangeable or presocial. Processes of property-making were (and remain) contingent. Their creation has often been violent and ad hoc, and typically privileges the claims of the powerful to particular places or assets against competing interests. In other words, property rights are politically constituted and publicly maintained artefacts of convention, not ‘natural rights’. As political philosopher Martin O’Neill argues,

both the ownership societies of previous centuries and the hypercapitalist societies of the current era have depended on an aberrant, unjustifiable and ultimately destructive ideological mistake that treats property as something ‘sacred’, granting a kind of unwarranted normative authority to a mere social convention which ought to be malleable, and available to be moulded for the benefit of society at large.

With all this in mind, it becomes easy to recognise the ideological gymnastics behind the perspective that prevails today whereby, for instance, taxation or other state intervention to challenge or redistribute market-derived wealth is seen as an indefensible intrusion on the natural prerogatives of private property. If property is first and foremost a social product, nurtured through a complex web of relationships and institutions, these claims make little sense. Existing distributions of wealth and income are only made possible by a system of property rights, entitlements and markets that are themselves made possible by socially licensed government action, to both create and enforce them. ‘Private property’ is thus both created and preserved by collective action. Rather than interference in some pre-political natural property right, then, taxation and similar interventions are just another part of the continual rearrangement of economic claims that society and state undertake—a rearrangement that should be judged on its efficacy and equity in the current context, not held as permanent and beyond the scope of revision.

Ownership is thus indivisible from politics and the collective ordering of our unequal world. It both reflects and reinforces power and class relations at any given moment and in any given place. The form and distribution of ownership coordinates and allocates economic claims between labour and capital, between the commons and the propertied, and between the public and private spheres. The fact that economic claims on societal wealth currently prioritise asset holders is a reflection of ‘bargaining power all the way down’. German public companies offer an interesting example in this respect: their stock market valuations are noticeably lower than similar companies in Anglo-American capitalist economies. This is not because they are necessarily less valuable or productive (very often it is quite the opposite); it is because ‘German households exercise more of their claims on the business sector as workers rather than as wealth owners’. The emphasis on distribution of income through social rights or wages, not ownership claims, reflects the specific institutional arrangements and history of German political economy, rather than immutable laws of property.

Similar examples, such as rent controls to constrict the ownership rights of landlords, or public ownership to remove private property claims through universalising non-market access to health care, point to the diversity of forms that ownership can take—and its unique ability to pattern income, wealth, and power. Once we recognise that the primacy of private property is not natural or inevitable, the issue then becomes, in the words of the political economists Andrew Gamble and Gavin Kelly, ‘where the line should be drawn between the rights of private property and social control’. These lines have been drawn by the law through political processes; they can just as readily be changed.

How Ownership Drives Exploitation and Expropriation

Dynamics of ownership—dispossession, concentration, dependency—set in train the locomotive force of capitalism as a social relationship and economic system. As Marx famously argued, we are free in two senses. Capitalism is premised on the freedom to sell our labour in exchange for a wage on the labour market. But through processes of enclosure, we are also ‘freed’ from the means by which we could subsist without having to sell our labour power as a commodity. Without sufficient assets to leverage for our continued survival or access to the gifts of the commons, we are tethered to our jobs, even if some of us have some relative freedom to choose what that job may be, and how we might spend those wages that are left after securing the necessities of survival. This asymmetrical freedom means those who only possess their labour power are ‘like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but—a hiding’.

The asymmetry of resources and bargaining power between labour and capital means what at first appears to be a fair exchange between the worker and the employer is in fact a contract for legalised economic exploitation: under capitalism waged labour is by definition paid less than the value it produces, with the surplus accruing to the capitalist—for example, senior management or shareholders—who is then free to reinvest the surplus for their benefit. The unfreedom and inequality at the heart of wage labour is thus not the product of some inherent immorality of individuals but rather the unidirectional force of the system: the worker cannot claim the wealth they produce under capitalism because if they did, it would cease to function as a system, premised as it is on the growth of capital and accumulation. Ownership, by creating the conditions of market dependency; disproportionately siphoning the surplus off towards capital over labour; and concentrating coordinating power in the hands of capital owners, is constitutive of this hierarchy.

This exploitation is undergirded by two essential processes: enclosure and expropriation. Property rights (often unjustly imposed) confer on certain individuals and organisations prioritised access and use of resources, allowing them to appropriate huge quantities of what Jason W. Moore and Raj Patel call ‘cheap natures’, those things made actively cheap (nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives) and available in the world for expropriation. Expropriation takes many forms: directly, from wage-labour in production, but also in the (ongoing) violent dispossession of the land of Indigenous peoples to the hyper-modern land and resource grabs underlying the commodity sectors; from the violent accumulation of New World slavery and genocidal conquest to the forms of bondage that suffuse informal employment and global supply chains; from the looting and legalised theft of the resources of the periphery by the capitalist centres, to colonial dispossession and corporate asset-grabbing.

This was and is a process of plunder on a world-transforming scale in which wealth is condensed into and through unequal property claims. In short, the appropriation of the wealth of others is not an unintended side effect, but the whole point. As Walter Rodney summarised in his seminal work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, ‘The acquisition of wealth is not due to hard work alone, or the Africans working as slaves in America and the West Indies would have been the wealthiest group in the world. The individualism of the capitalist must be seen against the hard and unrewarded work of the masses.’ Importantly, the seizure of the ‘free gifts of nature’ goes hand in hand with the mobilisation of the work of social reproduction (in effect the work of the home, from childcare to cooking and all manner of unpaid tasks) to drive capital accumulation, giving capitalism its gendered and racialised character. Throughout the pandemic these tendencies were strongly reinforced, not least with children staying home from school adding further social reproduction to the work of wage labouring.

Contemporary expropriation also increasingly revolves around the question of who issues and controls debt. Unequal ownership of government debt, for example, transfers money from ordinary taxpayers to wealthy bondholders as governments pay interest from elevated borrowing in lieu of higher taxation, a political choice to prioritise financial asset owners. Meanwhile, extortionate rates on consumer credit and overdrafts redistribute money from individuals struggling on stagnant wages to creditors, enriching the creditor-rentier. This financial expropriation became particularly pronounced during the pandemic, from the acute and devastating monetary constraints imposed on governments of the Global South, to indebted households struggling to stay afloat on suspended incomes, to the surge in predatory acquisitions of distressed businesses by private equity firms.

The imperative to expropriate in order to sustain itself means that capitalism is and has always been racially unequal in character. Too often overlooked as the casualties of the 2008 financial crash, for example, the predatory extension of unsustainably expensive ‘subprime’ mortgages—‘disproportionately perpetrated against the poor and communities of colour’ and packaged into tidy financial securities for yield-hungry investors—was borne out of finance’s drive to expand its horizons for expropriation. In the end it was not financiers who lost it all, but these same families whose homes were repossessed and whose security evaporated, and who—more than a decade later—are still paying disproportionately for a crisis they didn’t create.

Expropriation also extends the ability to extract wealth beyond the classical exploitation of market-based wage labour into the unequal division of the impacts of ecological crisis. Property relations enable firms to designate certain lands and people ‘zones of sacrifice’ to serve the demands for resources and ‘sinks’ that sustain the everyday life of the global affluent, from mining sites devastating local ecology to land seizure for carbon offsets. Ownership claims—acting as a vehicle for normalising expropriation—have in this way been central to the construction of racial capitalism, acting as the fulcrum between the ‘mutually constitutive’ dynamics of economic exploitation and racial oppression. The legal codes and property forms that divide and order economic and social life based on exclusive ownership are what enable capitalism to assign differential value to human and non-human lives, communities, ecosystems, and forms of labour. The time is long overdue for their remaking.

Adrienne Buller and Mathew Lawrence’s Owning the Future: Power and Property in an Age of Crisis is published by Verso.

About the Author

Adrienne Buller is a senior research fellow at Common Wealth and policy director at Labour for a Green New Deal.

Mathew Lawrence is the director of Common Wealth, a think tank designing ownership models for a democratic and sustainable economy.