David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the end of Capitalism
Chapter 3 – Private Property
When is land mine or your and not ours?
What legal provisions underpin private property and how are they enforced?
What are the consequences for us collectively?
We have already spoken about contradictions as being two opposing forces simultaneously present in a given situation. This was manifest in the way in which we have to value products as both objects of use and items on a market. Furthermore we have also considered how we have to regard the specific value we attribute to these items as an accumulation manifest by yet no longer visible within the product. Hence a second contradiction exists in the value manifest in accumulated labour and the necessary mode of its representation in money. Today we are considering private property.
Private property plays a foundational role in how we organise ourselves collectively and the kinds of ways that we are led to think about ourselves within that collective. Private property rights rest on a conception of individual ownership and hence foreground individualism above collectivism as a political value. Despite this these rights need to be vigorously enforced by a robust legal system back by a strong state. The first contradiction is that individual property and the culture of individualism that emerges from it rests on strong state enforcement.
Harvey terms such private property rights as ‘exclusionary permanent ownership rights’, which he contrasts with ‘usufructary rights’ that are based on active use. This contrast underpins histories of colonialism. Whilst, indigenous peoples of Africa and North America based claims to land on histories of active use, colonisers undertook a huge ‘land grab’ where that same land became private property. Private property rights thus underpin the purchasing (exchange) of land. This land became the possession of its new owner in perpetuity even if was left fallow.
Private property rights need to be enforced and this is undertaken through the state’s monopoly upon violence. Centralised state power is used to enforce decentralised property rights. Furthermore, private property can’t function without roads, water supply, sewerage etc, which ultimately rest on collective state provision. Even more … private property rights in no way produce a sense of collective identity, so what often results is the institution of democratic forms of governmentality to suggest an inherent bond between democratisation and capital accumulation (private property).
Another issue that Harvey considers is how private property can produce problems for the collective. Such ‘externality effects’ play a foundational role in environmentalism. Consider how CO2 emissions or effluent from factories impinge upon our shared environment. They are consequences of capital accumulation and private property, yet solving these issues is passed back over to the state in often deeply problematic and unsatisfactory ways.