The Modern Understanding of Property (The Problem of Private Property, Pt. 4)

I realized that before I go further in the property series, in which I frequently allude (generally critically) to “the distinctively modern concept of private property”–in contrast not only to other concepts of property arrangements, but also to premodern or non-Western concepts of private property relations, I ought, perhaps, to say just what I am referring to.  After all, a fish doesn’t know it’s in water, and it’s hard for us, all brought up in this paradigm, to recognize it as a distinctive concept at all, or to discern its unique shape. 

Thankfully, however, Kathryn Tanner has done the job for me.  Near the outset of her phenomenal essay “Economies of Grace” (from Having: Property and Possession in Religious and Social Life, ed. by Charles Mathewes and William Schweiker), she offers a thorough and lucid sketch of what in particular is meant and implied by the notion of private property in the modern West: 

“Underlying this modern scenario is an understanding of property that is historically conditioned by the existence of capitalist markets and principles of production.  Under such conditions, as they developed in the industrialized West, property tends to be identified with wealth, with material stuff that might be traded or exchanged for money, or with capital in the sense of what is not to be consumed or used up to meet immediate human needs but used instead for purposes of accumulation, to yield more, to produce profit.  To the extent property is not simply identified with what one has in one’s physical possession, but involves a legitimate claim, property tends to mean simply a right to what one already possesses.  Property in this sense does not include any right to what one does not have but deserves to, or any right to what is not a possible possession (say, rights to develop one’s capacities and talents.)  Nor does it primarily concern rights in things short of possession (say, rights to use what one does not own).  

Property is, moreover, private in the sense of exclusive ownership, the exclusive or negative right to keep others from the use and enjoyment of it.  Only on that condition can property be bought and sold; it makes no sense to put up for sale what both parties to the exchange already have rights to use and enjoy.  Property implies, besides rights to exclude others from the use or possession of what one has, rights to dispose and transfer by explicit contractual conditions of exchange; only private property, over which one has exclusive rights of possession and use, can be alienated in those ways.  Individually rather than communally defined, having property is not a function of social relations; social relations are instead the product of exchanges that (only) persons who already have property engage in freely, to further their self-interests.  Nor does having property imply social obligations.  Property involves an unconditional right of disposal: one has not just an exclusive right to use and enjoy what one has but the right to sell or alienate it freely.  Freely means, in part, without thought of the social consequences and without being subject to social requirements.  One can do with one’s property as one likes (so long as one does not disturb thereby the private property rights of others).  In this way the modern sense of property seems to bring with it unlimited rights of individual appropriation.  Having property in one’s person is understood along these same lines.  If one has nothing else, still one has one’s own life and labor power; everyone possesses something–oneself and one’s capacities for action.  This is quintessentially private property in at least the sense of what is exclusively one’s own: one’s life and labor power are not owed to anybody else; one has the right to exclude others from the use or enjoyment of them; such rights can be given only through one’s free consent.  Exclusive property rights to one’s person and capacities become the means of justifying all other forms of exclusive property–that is, property in material possessions.  If one’s labor is one’s private or exclusive property, then so too are the products formed through its use.  One has rights of exclusive possession with respect to what one has worked for.

Property in one’s person is private property too, in that, at least with reference to one’s labor power, it is disposable property–one can sell it and alienate ownership of the products of it.  A modern capitalist market, indeed, requires persons with this sort of ownership relation to their own capacities to work since only on that condition are they free to contract to sell it in exchange for wages.  Because one always owns oneself, the contracts in which one participates under conditions of extreme inequality can still be deemed ones into which one has freely entered.  Inequalities in initial circumstances and results are, for that reason, not thought to make market exchanges less than genuine contracts.  This connection between the idea of self-possession and market legitimacy means that rethinking self-possession threatens to make manifest the injustice of market relations in situations of economic inequality, that is, in situations where the institution of private property entails that some people will need to alienate their work and its products for the sake of a decent life.  

This logic of modern property brings with it a certain understanding of social relations.  Social relations are, first of all, consensual in virtue of a freedom that is a function of wealth.  Having property allows one’s relations with others to be consensual.  If one has property one is not at the mercy of one’s fellows but can approach them on an equal footing.  The freedom that having property involves is, moreover, primarily understood negatively–as freedom from others and their potentially unjust seizure or use of what is one’s own.  One has one’s own person and the products of one’s own labor without owing them to anyone else; one does not owe them, in particular, to society, and therefore no legitimate social controls determine what one might do with them.  Freedom from others suggests in this way freedom from any rights of needy others to use or enjoy what one has.  Exclusive property rights in things and negative freedom mean that the modern sense of proeprty is not easily compatible with the idea of rights to well-being on the part of the general populace, or with the idea of a social commitment to furthering the livelihood of all.  What a society is all about, what it can be dedicated to, is in this way narrowed by modern understandings of property.” 

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