Cooking the Books: Capitalism and Property

When Jeremy Corbyn proposed that the survivors of the Grenfell Tower massacre should be housed in nearby empty luxury properties he was expressing a thought that will have occurred to many others. The Times (16 June) reported it under the front-page headline ‘Corbyn: seize properties of the rich for Grenfell homeless’ and wheeled out a Tory backwoodsman, Andrew Bridgen, MP, to say of Corbyn’s suggestion that

‘calls to requisition private property when there is empty student accommodation available locally fits in with his hard Marxist views where all private property should belong to the state.’

Where to begin?

First, Corbyn doesn’t claim to be a Marxist, not even a ‘soft’ one.

Second,  while Marx did speak of the ‘Abolition of Private Property’ he meant only of the means of wealth production, not of personal possessions. As he and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto:

‘The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few. In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property. ‘

In the last-but-one chapter of Volume I of Capital, on ‘The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation’, Marx wrote that the negation of capitalist private property will be the restoration of ‘individual property’ in the sense of the access by individual producers to the fruits of their collective work:

‘The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labour of the proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation. It is the negation of negation. This does not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisition of the capitalist era: i.e., on cooperation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production. ‘

Third, Marx did not call for everything to belong to the state as he envisaged that the state, as the public power of coercion needed in a class-divided society would disappear once the means of production had ceased to be privately owned (including state ownership which is still ‘private’ ownership as it is ownership by section only of society); its place would be taken by unarmed, democratically-controlled administrative centres.  There would not be state ownership but the ‘possession in common of the land and means of production’; these would belong to everyone and no one and would simply be there to be used, under democratic control, to turn out what people needed both as individuals and as a community.

It is the capitalist state, representing the general interest of a country’s capitalist class, that has wide powers to seize property. It could, if it so chose, do what Corbyn suggested, but is very unlikely to do so as this wouldn’t be in the vital interest of the capitalist class as whole. When this interest is involved then the capitalist state can be ruthless, as when they requisitioned the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean and deported the whole population to clear them for a US military base. An example of hard capitalist state requisition if ever there was one.

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