We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain Inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
JW Mason’s talk at Left Forum last month was an excellent guide to current political possibilities for the left.
One small criticism which doesn’t take away from the value of the talk is his use of the term “property claims” in defining Neoliberalism. He says that “neoliberalism is a radical, utopian project to reshape all of society around markets and property claims”. The legal analyst in me would like to nitpick (which is not very important to his point but very important to a legally informed heterodox political economy) that nearly everything is about property claims in a western legal system and that dynamic vastly predates neoliberalism. In fact, the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism is in large part the product of the elimination of communal property claims on public lands and subsistence property claims on putatively “private” lands (called Profit-à-prendre or the “right of taking”).
It is common on the left to speak of private property rights when they mean “alienable property rights”, or more specifically, “capitalist property rights”. I think it is important for the left not to accede to this framing. Property rights are always in fact imposed obligations on others to respect those rights (This is for you Hohfeld heads out there). After all, property rights are decidedly not one’s relation to things but one’s relation to other people in regard to a thing (or a concept for that matter). Thus what are typically described as “property rights” is really the maldistribution (and the “bundling”) of property rights. Thus when we abridge capitalist property rights in large and small ways we aren’t taking away property rights but redistributing them and reducing the imposed burden of maldistributed property rights. Rent control doesn’t “reduce property rights”, it gives a renter a new property interest in an apartment (or storefront) than they did not previously enjoy. The difference is that this new property right isn’t for sale.
I think this example points the way to a third pillar of a left political economy beyond conscious, non-market planning and the democratization of planning apparatuses. This third pillar is “Inalienable Property Rights” but could also be called absolute economic rights. What distinguishes the left’s “end vision” from Neoliberalism is we want to gradually end the alienability of certain property claims and expand the amount of inalienable property rights enjoyed equally by every individual. The end goal of course is a comprehensive suite of inalienable rights to health care, housing, self-expression, freedom of movement, participation in production, material subsistence, procedural and substantive justice, et cetera. It is extremely doubtful we can get close to such an array of inalienable rights under capitalism but we have no alternative than to try and get as close as we can. This is, after all, the essence of class struggle.
I will expand more in a future post but worth noting that this is one motivating factor behind my preference for a Job Guarantee over a Universal Basic Income. Job Guarantee advocates (rightly or wrongly) think that with enough struggle it is possible to give individuals an inalienable property right in a job, broadly defined. This is inspired by an argument that emerged in the 1960s that welfare benefits should be treated as a property right (Morris 1968). The difficulty with UBI from this “rights based” point of view is that no similar property right in subsistence can be created using money without abridging capitalist property rights- something which most UBI proponents do not advocate. This is why I’ve argued before that “single payer in food and housing” is more workable than UBI, at least on a narrow economic level, because it directly abridges capitalist property rights (i.e. the right to sell to anyone). The priority from this point of view is granting an important inalienable right that (ostensibly, at least) can be provided under capitalism which can, in turn, create the political energy to get more inalienable rights (i.e. it is a non-reformist reform).
Beyond the “what is consistent with capitalism” debate, there is something even more controversial for leftists that follows from this argument. Guaranteeing certain rights, such to healthcare, housing, transportation or communication infrastructure, may require coercion of individuals in order to be credible. Of course, it may be possible to guarantee one or two of these things through more indirect methods such as raising wages. However, the more we socialize economic activities and restrict the ways that money can purchase power and prestige, the more difficult it is to guarantee all we want to guarantee through money. On the other hand, use values, especially with things like housing, will always be qualitatively heterogeneous. Allocating different quality use values could be a way to reward people for providing very necessary services like the production of food or medical services. At the same time, we need to clearly think about and potentially plan for the eventuality that obligations to work, whether generated through monetary taxes or direct obligations, may be something a left society of inalienable rights needs.
Of course the traditional solution on the left is to encourage people to do activities through the pride of contribution- the “new socialist man” as it were. However, this “solution” is still coercive in its own way. The dark underside of valorizing volunteerism is “people will die if you don’t get up and do this”. Work distributed via the moral force of social norms tends to be inequitably distributed to the most empathetic. This in turn leads to a disproportionate burden on women, people of color, queer people and more marginalized groups. We’ve all seen activist spaces where marginalized people are scrambling while others don’t pull their weight. Volunteerism leads to inequitable distributions of work, and not on “from each according to their ability” basis . Many leftists don’t see this is as coercive-to the contrary, historical examples of small scale stateless societies are regularly venerated by parts of the left. While these societies may have much to teach us, it is delusional to think that their norm enforcement mechanisms (e.g. communal pressure, expectations, and tradition, along with the implicit threat of expulsion) are not extremely coercive.
For example, communal pressure is often presumed to be much more benign and harmless than it actually is because it doesn’t resemble the brutal forms of formal coercion we’re used to from the history of nation states and capitalism. Thus it’s easy to paint those of us concerned with these types of more informal coercion as “authoritarians” because we think the burden of work should be distributed equitably through explicit, formal coercion. I would argue however that if we’re going to build a truly sustainable left society we need to ensure we don’t accidentally build the foundations of our new world on what may end up being unacceptable and unmanageable institutions of coercion . Cities have historically played a very real, very freeing function for many people, not only because urban anonymity allows us to interrogate, challenge, and subvert the identities previously assigned to us by our immediate communities, but also because in place of informal customs and norms they substitute explicit, formalized rules of social engagement that we can dependably rely upon to structure our interactions with people we know and don’t know alike. In our quest to make a better world we should be mindful not to sacrifice these gains.
To sum up, the debate over freedom and property is a debate the left is much more well situated than is commonly realized. Capitalist property rights are not the totality of property rights and we need to get more comfortable with asserting that ordinary people should have an array of property claims on society in order to create true freedom and human flourishing. The rallying cry of inalienable property rights has the potential to be powerful. However, a corollary that may make the left uncomfortable is that inalienable property rights may need inalienable obligations in order to succeed.
Hohfeld, Wesley Newcomb. "Fundamental legal conceptions as applied in judicial reasoning." The Yale Law Journal 26.8 (1917): 710-770.
Morris, David. "Welfare Benefits as Property: Requiring a Prior Hearing." Administrative Law Review (1968): 487-506.