Monday, 17 January 2011

Homes Under the Hammer – Property and Communism

“You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.

“In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so, that is just what we intend”

That is possibly one of my all time favourite parts of the Communist Manifesto. I can imagine Marx, with a wry, all knowing smile, the full force of the moral and ethical argument on his side, putting pen to paper, then sitting back, his work done - “Precisely so, that is just what we intend”.

For when we look at the world, as it is now, and throughout history, the rich are rich because they have property, the poor are poor because they do not. But more than that – the poor are poor precisely because the rich have property. The great cities of the UK were built on the wealth created by slavery in the colonies; the wealth of the modern businessman by the exploitation of wage-labour in his company; the landlord by capital investment in the homes of his tenants.

Now before we go further, one thing needs to be put to rest. The communists do not want to nationalise your i-Pod. For one thing, an i-Pod (or any other item we posses) is a commodity, it is not property in the Marxist sense. While commodities, and commodity fetishism, are important things to be discussed, I'm not going to do it here. So what do we mean by property, and what do we mean by “abolishing” it?

For Marxists property is not just a thing, it is a social relation. A worker owns his or her labour-power, their capacity to work, which is sold to the capitalist for a wage. The capitalist buys the labour of the worker, and owns the means of production which puts the labour-power of the worker to use and generates profit. Some of that profit is paid in wages, the rest goes to the capitalist. The capitalist, by owning the means in which labour is turned into profit, has complete control over the relationship, and ultimately over the worker. The best example of this is to look at how capital responds to labour in a time of recession. In order to preserve profit for the capitalist, the workers are made redundant.

Now some will say there is nothing wrong with this. The most naive and ignorant will say something about “human nature” or “the way of the world”. They can be cast aside as reactionary fools. Others, of slightly more thought, will argue that the capitalist, in owning the means of production, has put his own capital at risk. He has invested, he has generated jobs and wealth, he is providing a service to society and allowing the worker not only to live, but to better himself.

There are two flaws in this. Firstly, by submitting to wage-labour, the worker does not improve his own position relative to the capitalist. Simply by working hard, or indeed harder, at his job, he is only further distancing himself from capital – for by further submitting to wage slavery, the worker simply generates more profit for the capitalist.

Secondly we need only ask one very obvious question - “from where did the capitalist obtain his capital?” - from the very exploitation he perpetuates. The most obscene example of this exploitation comes with the inheritance of property, and the inheritance of capital.

When Marx was writing it was very easy to see the exploitation of labour and labour-power – there were factories full of whole families working for wealthy capitalists. Were a son to inherit the factory, he inherited unearned capital and prolonged the exploitation of the workforce. Nowadays people do not inherit factories. People do inherit capital. This may be inherited directly as cash, which is then put into a bank account and earns interest, it may be as shares in companies. But the fact remains that those shares, that interest, that profit, although not directly used by the beneficiary to exploit labour, is used by the entire financial industry to oil the cogs of wage-slavery.

One aspect of property demands closer examination, as it is the form of property that every one of us will engage with. Whether a tenant, a landlord, a “home-owner” or someone who is paying off a mortgage, we all have to engage with the property we live in. By its very nature this form of property is the most divisive, destructive, exploitative and simply unfair.

Those who own their own house outright, whether by paying off a mortgage, or inheriting a property, are in a position of owning capital. They now have the luxury of a disposable income undreamed of by many. Worse still are those who not only own their own home, but then seek to become landlords – whether through dubious “buy to let” schemes, or simply paying off their own mortgage and then taking on another. For the landlord is the greatest parasite of them all. Every human needs a place to live. In our society we live not in tents, or as nomadic people, but in structures built of brick and wood. We all need a house. But the nature of the ownership of those houses is unlike any other form of commodity.

For example. The house I live in is around one hundred years old. The workers who built this house have not only been paid for their labour, they are also long since dead. But this house has a legacy – a legacy of inherited debt. Like some great stone it hangs around the neck of those who live in it, sucking away their income and burdening generation after generation. And not only is this debt alive, it is growing. The “value” of this house bears no resemblance to its cost of production. It bears no relation to general inflation.

Unlike other commodities, where we can see a relative rise in price, with inflation and wages roughly keeping pace, the value of property has risen astronomically. We need only look back a generation, when the price of a house was around three times the average salary of a worker. Happy times indeed! Now we could easily put the price of a house at ten times average earnings. Has the price of bread outstripped wages on such a scale? In what other sector can we see the chance of ownership slip so far from the hands of average people?

But this situation gets even worse. Firstly as rents and mortgages rise so much faster than wages, the disposable incomes of those who have to meet this expenditure dwindles year on year. As a greater proportion of our incomes goes towards the most basic needs of man, we are less able to purchase all of the other things not only needed for life, but needed to sustain an economy.

This is the bourgeoisification of our society. We are all bourgeois now. For by submitting ourselves to the slavery of home ownership, this free market in property, we force ourselves into buying cheaper and cheaper goods and services. Who would not like to buy locally produced food, or ethically produced clothing? Who can afford it? By enslaving ourselves to property we have enslaved the rest of the world to meet our other needs.

And let us not forget the “financial crisis” of 2008. If we limit ourselves to the simplistic argument that the “crisis” was caused by “bad debt”, “toxic assets”, “sub-prime lending” and “toxic loans” we see the very nature of the evil of property. In order to sustain the rampant fetishisation of property, and to meet the demands of our own subservience to it, we allowed financial institutions to trade in our own misery. Property was the end goal. We had to own, the landlord had to let, the market was king and we were all consuming. Property, and the lust for it, almost destroyed us, and still could.

So what do we mean by abolishing private property? The Manifesto tells us - “In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: The abolition of private property”.

Much has been written, and argued, and even put into practice, regarding the ownership of that property that constitutes the “means of production”. Of far more interest to me is the abolition of home ownership.

Imagine a world where the cost of your house simply reflected the cost of its production. Where the level of rent you pay wasn't subject to the whims of supply and demand, exacerbated by the greed of landlords, or second – and third – holiday home owners. Where housing was actually built by the government at a rate that kept pace with a growing population.

There is a great sentimentality in home ownership. But it is sentimental folly. Most people do not own their homes, they simply rent them from a bank rather than a private landlord. People who do own their homes call renting “dead money”. Well if renting is dead money, then home-ownership is money that is only released when you are dead.

Everyone needs a home to live in. Unless you go and live in a tent, you will never release the money tied up in your precious property. Imagine a world where private property was no more, and upon retirement, rather than selling your home to pay for someone to come and feed and bed bath you, you simply no longer had to pay rent, and were able to live there for free until you died.

And the labourer who for 12 hours long, weaves, spins, bores, turns, builds, shovels, breaks stone, and so on - is this 12 hours' weaving, spinning, boring, turning, building, shovelling, stone-breaking, regarded by him as a manifestation of life - as life? Quite the contrary. Life for him begins where this activity ceases, at the table, at the tavern, in bed. The 12 hours' work, on the other hand, has no meaning for him as weaving, spinning, boring, and so on, but only as earnings, which enable him to sit down at a table, to take his seat in the tavern, and to lie down in a bed. If the silk-worm's object in spinning were to prolong its existence as caterpillar, it would be a perfect example of a wage-worker”

No comments: