Fruits of One’s Labor: Possession and Property, Use and Usury

Jan C, a self-described “prioritarian” and “voluntaryist” (new terms on me, I confess) who inspired the previous post, opened another can of worms in his comments that I’d like to look into more deeply. He was responding to this assertion of mine:

“The difference between possession and private property in real anarchism, is the difference between use and usury. Real anarchists believe that what a person uses, a person possesses”

He asked:

So if you don’t use ‘your’ hammer, I can pick up and walk away with it?

I really don’t understand you people. If you’ve worked your ass of and got something for it in return (money, or goods), than you simply own it, and that means you can do with it whatever you like (either use it, trade it, give it away or destroy it). How can anybody not agree with that?

I do see that there are grey area’s. What constitutes property is not always clear-cut in every case. But I find ‘fruits of labour’ a much better rule of thumb than ‘use’.

One thing you should do when engaging in these theoretical discussions is apply the assumptions behind the assertions to the hypothetical situation. When I speak of “real anarchism” (of course  “ideal anarchism” might be a better term), I’m not talking about the world as it is, where if you lay out $10 at a hardware store for a hammer, it becomes yours by virtue of the receipt for it in your pocket. That hammer is your property by the rules of this world. So, of course, in this world, if I put “my” hammer down after using it, I expect it to remain my property. But one should also take into account that this expectation of mine (and of virtually everyone else in the modern world)  arises from the property fetish this world’s conventions inculcate in us. Mind you, it’s an important fetish to have in this world. Not having it can get you in serious trouble with the law.

[Clarification: Having the wrong kind of property fetish, where everything is “mine,” can get you in trouble with the authorities. The “normal” or conventionally correct fetish is one that attaches to each object in the world a pronoun according to who “legally owns” it. In fact, objects are just objects; it’s the fetish, a sort of magic aura, that makes them seem to us to “belong” to specific someone, that makes that “belongingness” as much a part of the object as its color or texture.]

But let’s imagine a different world, where non-proprietarian anarchism defines the conventions. (And before I go further, let me stress that I am not making the case that this world is accessible to us in any way other than the imagination. Then again, neither is the “anarcho”-capitalist world.)  In this world, there are no hardware stores where you go to spend your hard-earned money. People live and work communitarily toward meeting the necessities of everyone in the group. In this world, work is radically different from what it is in the familiar world. It’s not “nine-to-five,” let alone seven-thirty to seven-thirty, unless an individual decides to work for that time. You don’t work for any individual’s profit. You work for the group’s profit, or your family’s, or your own. In any case, you aren’t (ordinarily) compelled to work at all.

If this sounds incredible or impossible, it’s not. It’s the way the world actually worked for thousands and thousands of years, when humans lived in small bands.

But let’s imagine a (remotely, remotely possible, admittedly) post-capitalist return to this form of small-group anarchism. Remember, there are no states–not even city states. There may be urban areas, however, with collectives of collectives sharing resources. So let’s imagine ourselves in such a setting. The world is nearly recognizable in many ways. People live in homes, drive vehicles, engage in industry, meet each other socially for meals and entertainment. The difference is  that people don’t own any property. They don’t own their homes as we do in this one. They don’t rent them as we do. The community builds these houses for them. People alter them to their individual tastes, using the collective’s tools and materials, not to mention willing members of the collective to put the plans into action. The homes are considered “their” homes as long as they use them. But the homes are not their property, because in this world, there is no property as such.

To answer Jan’s question directly, in this imagined world, when I put a hammer down after I’m through using it, what’s it to me if someone who needs it picks it up and takes it away? I’m used to taking what I need when I need it for as long as I need it and no longer. Why should I begrudge anyone else the same privilege or right, if you will?

What holds for the hammer also holds for the house. When I’m done with it and no one else is using it, it’s no one’s until someone comes along and possesses it again–that is, makes it theirs through use of it. Set aside problems inherent in this system for now, such as potential conflicts over the transfer of possession once a house is vacant. Assume the collective has a mechanism for resolving the conflicts in keeping with the principles of libertarian anarchism. The point is, it’s not an exchange of value that determines who owns a “property.” It’s need, desire, willingness to use.

In this system, one thing that no one ever deals with is usury, one of the magic tricks that makes the capitalist world go round. We tend to think of usury as a charge for use of money, a charge that makes it worth a lender’s while to give his money to someone who needs it. In essence, it’s what an owner of anything charges above its worth to allow another person to use it.  But in this libertarian anarchist world, no one owns anything but what they are using. If they stop using something, it’s no longer theirs. No one, then, can charge another person money to live in a shelter they’re not using or to use land they’re not using or to use anything they’re not using, because, simply, if they’re not using it, it’s not theirs.

As I said above, as crazy as this world sounds to us moderns, it’s more or less the world people lived in for thousands of years. Perhaps the magnitude of modern populations and the scale of our economies are what made this system impractical, not to say impracticable.  But it’s not quite so utopian and fantastic as proprietarians seem to think. It was for much of the human epoch the way of the world.

2 thoughts on “Fruits of One’s Labor: Possession and Property, Use and Usury

  1. The results of this system (the only thing which can be used to judge a moral system) would be catastrophic relative to today. People will only work to produce the bare essentials of what they and perhaps their loved ones need. For thousands of thousands of years humans lived in small bands because tribal loyalty was the only thing that kept that small band from each others throats. If another tribe happened along there would very likely be a large fight fought over sparse resources.

    Secondly the idea that no one would be compelled to work is simply foolish. If someone refuses to work for the groups benefit it’s almost certain the group will at best refuse to provide him/her with food and at worst kill him for betraying the tribe. Everyone is now a slave to everyone else.

    Whereas under a propertarian voluntaryist system the only thing which “compels” a person to work is their natural need for food and shelter, a thing which will compel us to work under all systems as long as resources remain scarce. If one does not wish to work he will have to rely solely on the voluntary charity of his fellows. However, I do agree with you that property is not a natural right. Not because I agree that ownership by use is a natural right, I disagree with the concept entirely. Morality is a system of ideas intended to direct behavior, the only criterion there exists to judge such systems relative to each other is their logical consistency and results. I believe that the idea that if we mix our labor with resources those resources become “ours” has benefited us as a species and that if we carry that idea to its final inception, anarchy, we will be better off.

  2. Pingback: What Is Ron Paul’s Notion of Justice? « Tragic Farce

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