1980s >> 1985 >> no-972-august-1985

Editorial: To have and to hold

We live in a society in which almost everything we need is owned by someone else. It is their property. We must buy it from them.

From infancy we are taught: theirs; ours; yours; mine. Possession. “Don’t touch, it doesn’t belong to you.” We learn early about ownership, and when we obey its rules we have been “civilised”. A peasant who watches her child die of starvation while armed guards protect grain mountains is a very civilised person. A homeless father whose family must live in squalor is civilised when he banishes from his mind the thought of breaking into one of thousands of empty properties. Civilisation is not an historical achievement, but an assault on the dignity of those who do not own.

If you own something you can use it. Vast areas of land in Britain are owned by this Duke or that Lord or another yet-to-be-titled dignitary. They can do what they like on their land. You can’t. You are not even allowed to walk on it. for if you do you are a trespasser and trespassing is as illegal as owning is legal. “Private Property — Keep Out.” No “please”, no “thank you”, and what difference would it make if they were polite about it? Ownership is brutal. Go in when they tell you to keep out and you are an intruder — an intruder on your own planet ; now there ‘s a fine state of affairs. But it is not our planet, is it? Not our country, not our city, not even our street. We will soon be evicted from the small bit of property in which we live if we fall behind with the rent or mortgage payments. “Our” is a funny old word: most workers use it when we should be saying “their”.

After all, it is their world. In Britain. 1 per cent own more marketable wealth than the poorest 80 per cent. Across the world it is the same. It belongs to them, not us. A minority of people own and control the means of living — the machinery of producing and distributing wealth, such as factories, farms, offices, transport and the rest. That minority owns the world: it is theirs, not ours.

And how did they get it? Thievery, generally speaking. Expropriation. Plunder. It is a long and violent history, the story of how the capitalists came to own. Suffice to say that they did not get it by the sweat of their labour. The history of property society is the history of robbery of the majority by the minority. That is a generalisation but it will do for now.

So, they obtained it by thievery; but how do they keep hold of it? By law. They passed laws saving “This is ours”. The law of property. Nine tenths of the law is about property. The police are usually too busy to attend to the other tenth.

A law is a decision which must be obeyed — or else. Those who offend against the dictatorship of property are dealt with. They are locked away. Illegal burglars in the prisons; legalised robbers in the country mansions — this is the law of civilisation. Growing numbers of men and women across the world are paid to carry guns — not to help old ladies across the road but because the defence of property, like its acquisition. is a violent business.

In some countries workers can have their hands cut off or be flogged or legally murdered for disobeying the law of property. They had needs; they took in order to satisfy those needs; they took what they did not own; they must be punished. Thus goes the “order” of a society based on ownership.

The laws which permit the owners to own are enforced by coercion. The state is organised coercion. But who gives the coercers the power to threaten the non-owners? In many countries the non-owning majority have the vote. The non-owners — the workers — vote for those who own and control the means of life to go on doing so. And because the owners own the means of persuasion — the newspapers, the TV and radio, the publishing houses — they can put a mighty pressure on the minds of the working class to accept that minority ownership is how things should be, have always been and always will be. In short, the voters endorse the continuation of the property system and the property-owners maintain the voters’ right to be non-owners. And. of course, we who tell the non-owners that the owning class are their enemies are described as enemies of law, order and civilised property society — which in a sense we are.

Why must we buy what we need? Why can we not take what we need from the common store, having contributed to wealth production according to our abilities? “If there was free access to everything people would take too much”. The greedy people. But would they? In a society where there is no buying, but free access, why should you eat more than enough? We know why millions of workers eat less than enough under the buying and selling system: because they cannot afford to buy food. Would people in a society of free access drive more than one car at a time or wear more than one shirt or cover themselves with so much gold that they would be unable to walk?

If there was a society of free access next week, would you take more than you need? If so, why? Because taking freely would be a novelty — but not for long, and then you could get down to just taking enough. Are you really naturally greedy? Or is it not the case that you are intelligent and self-confident enough to know that in a society based on satisfying people’s needs there would be no reason to behave like a kid in a sweet shop when the governor’s out the back? You are capable of acting as a co-operative human being. And if you are, others are. And if others are, then we could live without buying and selling.

But we must buy and sell until ownership is got rid of. We must buy food and clothing and housing and heating and entertainment and all the other necessities and luxuries of life because the means of creating what we need belongs to them. The minority who own and control.

But they only own and control because the majority lets them. The majority, the working class, says, “It’s your world; keep it and do with it what you like”. Socialists are workers who want the world back. We want common ownership and democratic control of the world by all of its people. We want to let the minority know that they have had possession of property for too long. It is time for common property. Or. as a logical consequence, no property. A propertyless society: common ownership — no ownership.

And where there is no ownership, no property, there will be no exchange or money. There will be free access for all people to all goods and services. That is socialism. What do you reckon?