S. Shabzadeh | Beyond Property?

By S. Shabzadeh


Capitalist conceptions of property and labor were born in the factories and looms of industrial revolution England in the latter half of the 18th century. The rapid accumulation of wealth by England’s industrialists through the mechanization of labor spurred the rapid reorganization of society and political thought around notions of capital and private property. English thinkers responded to the disruptions of early industrialization by developing the theory of market liberalism–the belief that human society should be subordinated to the self-regulating market. As the industrial revolution reached the European mainland, European thinkers rapidly began reacting to the social and political upheaval brought about by industrialism and corresponding notions of capital and private property. It was in this context that Karl Marx and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon became acquainted in the nascent socialist circles of early 19th century continental Europe. Whereas in the beginning, Marx and Proudhon’s relationship was marked by mutual admiration for one another’s work and enthusiasm, their relationship ultimately soured as both thinkers espoused fundamentally different versions of how to confront capitalism–namely in respect to their analyses of private property, labor, and conceptions of a socialist society.

Marx & Proudhon

The splintering of Marx and Proudhon’s once cordial relationship came to redefine the nascent anti-capitalist movement in continental Europe and paved the way for two of its most important progenitors–communism and anarchism. Whereas Marx’s answer to capitalism conceptualized the abolition of private property and redistribution of wealth vis-à-vis the dictatorship of the proletariat, Proudhon sought establish a “third form of society, the synthesis of communism and property” which he referred to as “liberty.”[1]

Throughout his oeuvre, Marx viewed private property as inherently engendering the oppression of the class system. Thus, in their seminal work, The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels declared “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property”[2] Underlying Marx and Engel’s opposition to the institution of private property was Marx’s conceptualization of labor value summed up in Critique of the Gotha Program as “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”[3] Marx’s redistributive conception of labor value represented a rejection of capitalism’s method of distribution and compensation which saw the value of  the product of collective labor doled out to property owners by virtue of their ownership of the land or means of production. Instead, Marx posited that since “labor is possible only in society and through society the proceeds of labor belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society.”[4] According to Marx, to bring about such an “emancipation of labor demands the promotion of the instruments of labor to the common property of society and the co-operative regulation of the total labor, with a fair distribution of the proceeds of labor.”[5] While Marx saw the emergence of capitalism as a natural and necessary phase toward the realization of his conception of a socialist utopia, he ultimately prescribed revolution as the means by which to bring about such a radical political and economic transformation. The revolutionary process would then be led by the dictatorship of the proletariat who would oversee the transition of society from capitalism to a communist utopia.

In contrast, in his work, Proudhon who was often critical of utopianisms sought to reconcile the tension between communism and property. In What is Property?, Proudhon challenges capitalist notions of property as a natural right by tracing the genealogy of property ownership to the “right of the occupant” by which an individual–the first occupant–gains possession of a piece of land simply through occupation.[6] However, Proudhon argued that as the population grows and newcomers arrive, all should have the right to occupy as the world was given to all of humanity and accordingly any portioning must be equal. In this context, Proudhon challenges this right of the first occupant by positing that if the “first occupants have occupied everything, what are the newcomers to do? What will become of them, having an instrument with which to work, but no material to work on?”[7] For Proudhon’s conception of liberty, depriving an individual of their right to provide for themselves is akin to theft–thus, his famous phrase “property is theft!” Proudhon next turns to critique Lockean conceptions of labor property theory and posits that all value is added socially: “There is not a man, then who does not live off the products of several thousand industries; not a laborer who does not receive from society at large the things which he consumes.”[8] Locke’s conception of individual property rights flowing from value added through an individual’s labor are impossible according to Proudhon because “One product cannot exist without another an isolated industry is impossible.”[9] Thus, Proudhon argues that because they were being deprived of an equal share of their work product according to their labor, the working class was entering into the market not quite freely but under the fetters of an unjust property system. To ameliorate such injustice, Proudhon sought to set out a more just conception of property by which the right to the right to means is common (jus ad rem) but the right to product is exclusive (jus in re). Proudhon ultimately did not wish to abolish property outright, but rather, align it with those who he saw as its rightful owners–those who worked the land or toiled in the factories. To bring about such a redistribution of property, Proudhon conceived of a society where economic relations were mediated through contractual agreements by which individuals are free to arrange their relationships under conditions of justice.

Beyond Property?

However, despite their vast differences, their respective prescriptions for radical change seem outdated and ill-suited to face modern capitalism. Whereas Marx and Proudhon’s writings were reacting to capitalism and its transformation of property and labor in its most elementary form, modern capitalism has transformed well beyond even the most dire prognostications of 19th century socialists–conceptions of private property have expanded well beyond the rudimentary notions of land and goods and come to dominate nearly every aspect of modern daily life. Today, nearly every aspect of the contemporary human experience is mediated through capitalist notions of private property which have expanded to include water, education, art, data, information, knowledge, organs, sex and even human life. While the last two centuries have seen once unimaginable amounts of wealth created under capitalist regimes, such wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the wealthy few as inequality in society grows with every passing year. Such concentration of vast wealth has led to the increasing exercise of power by the wealthy over governments whose political systems have been shaped and molded to protect private property and capital through oppressive legal and political regimes. Through reform and ideological transformation, governments around the globe have succumbed to the service of the welfare of the wealthy rather than that of the masses.

Ultimately, property is an artificial concept by which individuals mediate conflict with one another over scarce resources. Contemporary property regimes in capitalist societies are simply a set of policy choices and political decisions that rule and regulate how property is controlled in society and to what end. Thus, to imagine our way beyond property we must do exactly that–imagine a world without property. So, why haven’t we?

To imagine a world beyond property would necessitate the supplanting of capitalist ideology and replacing it with a viable alternative by which we can radically transform our social and economic relationships. Doing so would necessitate supplanting an ideology that pervades nearly every pedagogical institution and has shaped the subjectivity of generations. While Marx’s appeal utopianism seems outdated by today’s standards, both Marx and Proudhon’s reconceptualization of property and labor seem prescient even in the twenty-first century. In a society where only the effort of the individual is praised and billionaires are lionized, it is useful to reimagine labor as a collective effort–it takes a village. Recognizing the collective effort that goes into all industry and enterprise may just be the first step to trans abolishing oppressive conceptions of property and property rights. Through dissecting the works of thinkers like Marx and Proudhon, we can see that conceptions of property and labor are not fixed and can be transformed into revolutionary concepts by which we can begin to imagine our liberation.


[1] Proudhon, What is Property?, 281

[2] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: International Publishers, 1948), 23

[3] Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme in Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume Three, 18

[4] Id., 13.

[5] Id., 29.

[6] Proudhon, What is Property?, 54

[7] Id., 65

[8] Id., 148.

[9] Id., 149.

Fonda Shen