The Ethics of Private Property

Ford Assembly Line 1913 - Public DomainFord Assembly Line 1913 - Public Domain

I’m not usually one to talk ethics. It’s metaphysical, unquantifiable, and on the whole too philosophical for my tastes. But if there’s one thing I believe about it, it’s that private ownership of property is fundamentally immoral.

To most people, that’s an extreme view. Most of the readers reading right on this site might feel differently, as expected from those who frequent a leftist magazine, but if I am to convince everybody else, as I hope this article can do, my position definitely needs some explaining first. Private property is immoral. That is the premise. The supporting evidence? That private ownership of property, when used in the sense I mean to use it, inherently relies on the exploitation and expropriation of others and the fruits of their labour. And what do I mean by that?

First, that private property, in the sense I use it in, refers to private ownership (in other words, ownership concentrated in the hands of an individual, or a couple of individuals) over the means of production (any land or property with productive potential; farms, factories, machines, etc). It is important to point out that a distinction is made here between private property, which I’ve just described, and personal property, which is what most people think of as private property in lieu of a Marxist definition. Personal property would be things like your own phone, your car, books you own, your house. None of those things have productive potential (for the most part, though arguments have been made for specific cases, which is where things get a little tricky, and won’t be gone into here for the purposes of this essay), so they are not taken to be private property, and thus I do not argue for their abolition. Nobody really does.

But why is private ownership over the means of production bad? Why does it rely on and necessitate exploitation and expropriation, as I said above? Because the owner of, say, a factory, will need workers to operate that factory. And he owns a factory in the first place to make profit. That profit comes from the work those workers do, the commodities they produce; their labour is guaranteed in exchange for a wage. But in order to ensure he makes a profit, he necessarily must pay them a certain amount below what their labour is actually worth, e.g., what he’s selling the product of their labour for. That is where the “expropriation” part I mentioned comes in; he is expropriating their surplus value (the remainder of the value of their labour left after compensating some of it with wages) for himself. In this way, those workers are not entitled to all they produce; they do not receive the full fruits of their labour.

And that’s where “exploitation” comes in, too. In these workers having their surplus value expropriated, they are not being fully compensated for the labour they perform. Anything beyond what they’re being paid in return for their labour is, in essence, being stolen from them. I think you would agree, stealing is immoral. Except in this case, it is legal. It is expected. Does that make it any less immoral than stealing is in any other circumstances? I think not.

Although we’ve already covered expropriation and exploitation, which should be enough by themselves to prove private ownership immoral, you may not be convinced. And that’s fine. I would continue, then, by pointing out the alienation resulting from private property. Alienation describes (i) a separation of the worker from the product of his labour, (ii) of the worker from the act of working, and (iii) of the worker from the worker. It should be noted that there is one other form of alienation Marx describes, alienation of the worker from his species-essence, but, also for the purposes of this essay, that form will not be explored here.

Separation of the worker from the product of his labour entails the division necessarily resulting from the separation of the decisions affecting the workers’ work from the worker. “The design of the product and how it is produced are determined, not by the producers who make it (the workers), nor by the consumers of the product (the buyers), but by the capitalist, who, besides appropriating the worker’s manual labour, also appropriate the intellectual labour of the engineer and the industrial designer who create the product, in order to shape the taste of the consumer to buy the goods and services at a price that yields a maximal profit.” [1]. They are not the masters of their own product; thus, they are alienated from it.

The second type of alienation, the separation of the worker from the act of working, is described as follows: “In the capitalist Mode of Production, the generation of products (goods and services) is accomplished with an endless sequence of discrete, repetitive, motions that offer the worker little psychological satisfaction for ‘a job well done’. By means of commodification, the labour power of the worker is reduced to wages (an exchange value); the psychological estrangement (Entfremdung) of the worker results from the unmediated relation between his productive labour and the wages paid him for the labour. That division of labour, within the capitalist mode of production, further exploits the worker by limiting his or her Gattungswesen (species-essence) — the human being’s power to determine the purpose to which the product (goods and services) shall be applied; the human nature (species-essence) of the worker is fulfilled when he or she controls the ‘subject of labour’. Hence does capitalism remove from the worker the right to exercise control upon the value and the effects of his and her labour, which, in turn, robs the worker of the ability to either buy (consume) the goods and services, or to receive the full value from the sale of the product. The alienation of the worker from the act of producing renders the worker unable to specialize in a type of productive labour, which is a psychologically satisfying condition; within an industrial system of production, social alienation reduces the worker to an instrument, to an object, and thus cannot productively apply every aspect of his or her human nature.” Their work, all too often, is psychologically unfulfilling, their actions repetitive, their labour unspecialized. They, too, are alienated from the very act of working.

Finally, the worker is alienated with regard to other workers. One’s labour is “reduced to a commercial commodity that can be traded in the competitive labour-market, rather than as a constructive socio-economic activity that is part of the collective common effort performed for personal survival and the betterment of society. In a privatised economy, the businessmen who own the means of production establish a competitive labour-market meant to extract from the worker as much labour (value) as possible, in the form of capital. The privatized economy’s arrangement of the relations of production provokes social conflict by pitting worker against worker, in a competition for ‘higher wages’, thereby alienating them from their mutual economic interests; the effect is a false consciousness, which is a form of ideologic control exercised by the capitalist bourgeoisie.” The workers are convinced to not work together, to squabble among themselves, to compete unceasingly and unthinkingly; once again, alienated from each other. How much more could be achieved in a society characterized by the means of production held in common? When emphasis is placed on the betterment of society and yourself, as a worker not in contest with the others, but in collaboration; where you labour for the good of all and therefore yourself, too, and they for you and therefore themselves? … “after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” [2]

I would finally point out, after addressing exploitation, expropriation and three forms of alienation, that capitalism necessarily promotes class divide. Class divide is the maintenance of one class’s authority and interests over another or multiple and their interests; for instance, the suppression of the peasants under monarchies, or the suppression of the working class under capitalism. This is maintained in a whole lot of ways, for which an entire book, or multiple, could no doubt be dedicated, but I’ll be going into one — the social division of labour. Division of labour by itself, in its usual economic sense, denotes the separation of tasks in, perhaps, a factory, into increasingly specialized and singular actions; assembly lines, for example, where each worker might fit one part into another, and passes it onto the next, who fits another part together before passing it onto the next, and so forth. The social division of labour, then, is “the social structural foundation of the specialized commodity production divided between industries, firms, and occupations of workers, or the technical division of tasks.” [3]. It’s therefore an organic and inseparable part of all division of labour, and not its own phenomenon. And we see now how division of labour clearly serves to maintain class hierarchy, goes beyond the material going-ons in the factory, and manifests itself in actuality in society.

I think it should be clear by the end of this just how and why the current relations of production, that is, the order of private ownership over the means of production, are morally wrong, let alone the host of other problems there are with it; morally wrong in its necessary exploitation of the workers and expropriation of surplus value, morally wrong in all the types of alienation it perpetuates, morally wrong in its forced division of labour. It is morally wrong when a different order, a fairer order, is and has been available to us, but is perpetually ignored or dismissed as idealistic or prone to failure. It is for these reasons that I dismiss the order of private ownership as bad, not only practically or economically, which I haven’t gone into here, but morally; and at the end of the day, I feel the human element, the moral element, is the most important.

About the Author

Bazyli Kronstadt
I write some things. I'm most interested in the Middle East, specifically the Kurds and Rojava.

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