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Day 3 – Chapter 3 – Private Property

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. 

Day 2 – Chapter 2 – Money

David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the end of Capitalism
Chapter 2 – Money

What is this useless stuff in our wallets that allows us to measure the value of everything else?

What value does it in fact measure?

What different forms has it taken historically?

What forms of stability/instability does money bring to our lives

What is the relationship of money to fact and fiction?

David Harvey claims that we need a way to measure the value of commodities relative to eachother. This led to the invention of money. Different types of money have existed historically. From early barter systems that are grounded in the usefulness of particular goods relative to each other emerged commodity monies (gold and silver), then came fiat monies (paper and coins) that were no longer grounded in the value of the object form that the currency took. Finally, we are now entering an era of electronic money, where money takes the form of a computer read-out and transactions are conducted online. Despite this tendency away from material forms the language of weight still informs the ways we talk about value e.g. one pound, two pounds.

But what is money, what value does it actually embody, how does it allow value to circulate and how does it produce value itself?

Harvey says, ‘Money in the first instance a way in which I can make a claim on the social labour of others: that is, a claim on that labour which is expended on the production of goods and services.’ So we might argue that money is a measure of human productivity in an abstract quantified form. 
The easiest way to quantify such values is to choose a commodity and make quantities of it stand for all the other commodities. Gold historically took on this function in the western world.
But imagine trying to buy coffee with the exact weight of gold. Commodity money is cumbersome. Fiat monies allow us to pay with coins and notes, a much more accurate measure that facilitates the flow of transactions.
But there is also a problem here. Who decides how many bank notes should be printed? If the production of money is not properly controlled prices can also inflate in an uncontrollable way.
Situations can also emerge where money itself can be used to produce value. Harvey describes this as fictitious capital – money loaned against activities that produce no value themselves.

Borrowing on housing values in the run up to the 2007-8 market crash was based on fictitious capital. ‘The bundling together of mortgages into collatoralised debt obligations created a debt instrument that could easily be marketed worldwide. These instrucments of fictitious capital, many of which turned out to be worthless, were marketed to unsuspecting investors around the world as if they were investments certified by ratings agencies to be ‘as safe as houses’. This was fictitious capital run wild. We are still paying for the excess’.

Day 1 – Chapter 1 – Use Value and Exchange Value

David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the end of Capitalism

Chapter 1 – Use Value and Exchange Value

Why do we tend to think of our homes as investments that we might cash in on as well as places for our families to live?

Why are properties on our High St empty and boarded up like commodities in a warehouse awaiting shipping?

Are areas of Levenshulme run down on purpose because they have already been earmarked for more profitable forms of redevelopment?

David Harvey addresses these questions around housing through the terms “Use Value” and “Exchange Value”. These are two incompatible forms of value. Houses are useful because keep us safe and dry (use value), but they also have a price on the market (exchange value). Housing becomes a saving that we look after. We might even decorate our homes in a way that we think will be attractive to prospective buyers, rather than producing the living environment we desire.

These incompatible values also inform the redevelopment of communities. This is evident when developers allow property to fall into decline (use value), so that new properties can be produced with a higher market value (exchange value). Anna Minton, in Ground Control, considers a development in Oldham that was funded by the ‘Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder’, a multi-billion pound programme launched in 2002 with the aim of tackling ‘areas of  market failure’:

‘For residents like Kathleen, Terry and Maureen, Pathfinder strikes them as a case of the local council wanting to make money from the land by demolishing their existing homes and rebuilding new ones, which can be sold at higher prices to wealthier people. Maureen said: “It has been said, and it’s been said more than once, that you’ll get a better class of people. It’s disgusting. It’s social cleansing”.

David Harvey backs up this claim:

“Housing provision under capitalism has moved, we can conclude, from a situation in which the pursuit of use values dominated to one where exchange values moved to the fore. In a weird reversal, the use value of housing increasingly became, first, a means of saving and, second, an instrument of speculation for consumers as well as producers, financiers and all the others (real estate brokers, loan ocers, lawyers, insurance agents etc.)”

Does Harvey’s addition of “Use Value” and “Exchange Value” add to our understanding of housing, or is it adding more detail to a problem that we should look at more straight-forwardly?

Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism – Reading Group

As part of Levenshulme Contemporary Art Centre‘s two weeks of projects (10 – 26 July) exploring the construction of social spaces, we will be reading one chapter a day of David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism on the Village Green (or an indoor location if the weather is very bad!)

Everyday we will have a fun and informal session discussing the ideas and themes of a chapter at 12 midday and a repeat at 8pm.

Don’t worry if you’re not sure you’ll be able to get through it all. The chapters are very short and we will be publishing a short ‘info sheet’ with some points to get us started, a local example that exemplifies them and an explanation of any specialist words. Though the chapter headings sound heavy don’t be put off as Harvey is very good at giving examples that make things clearer.

We hope that you will be able to join us as for as many days as you can but if you can’t you’ll also be able to participate in online discussion here on this blog.

Copies of the book can be bought online for under £10 or even cheaper for an ebook version. Sharing copies could reduce costs even further.


Day 1 Use Value and Exchange Value
Day 2 The Social Value of Labour and Its Representation by Money
Day 3 Private Property and the Capitalist State
Day 4 Private Appropriation and Common Wealth
Day 5 Capital and Labour
Day 6 Capital as Process or Thing?
Day 7 The Contradictory Unity of Production and Realisation Part Two: The Moving Contradictions
Day 8 Technology, Work and Human Disposability
Day 9 Divisions of Labour
Day 10 Monopoly and Competition: Centralisation and Decentralisation
Day 11 Uneven Geographical Developments and the Production of Space
Day 12 Disparities of Income and Wealth
Day 13 Social Reproduction
Day 14 Freedom and Domination
Day 15 Endless Compound Growth
Day 16 Capital’s Relation to Nature
Day 17 The Revolt of Human Nature: Universal Alienation