What Is the Difference Between Private Property and Possession?

Anarchists define “private property” (or just “property,” for short) as state-protected monopolies of certain objects or privileges which are used to control and exploit others. “Possession,” on the other hand, is ownership of things that are not used to exploit others (e.g. a car, a refrigerator, a toothbrush, etc.). Thus many things can be considered as either property or possessions depending on how they are used.

To summarise, anarchists are in favour of the kind of property which “cannot be used to exploit another — those kinds of personal possessions which we accumulate from childhood and which become part of our lives.” We are opposed to the kind of property “which can be used only to exploit people — land and buildings, instruments of production and distribution, raw materials and manufactured articles, money and capital.” [Nicholas Walter, About Anarchism, p. 40] As a rule of thumb, anarchists oppose those forms of property which are owned by a few people but which are used by others. This leads to the former controlling the latter and using them to produce a surplus for them (either directly, as in the case of a employee, or indirectly, in the case of a tenant).

The key is that “possession” is rooted in the concept of “use rights” or “usufruct” while “private property” is rooted in a divorce between the users and ownership. For example, a house that one lives in is a possession, whereas if one rents it to someone else at a profit it becomes property. Similarly, if one uses a saw to make a living as a self-employed carpenter, the saw is a possession; whereas if one employs others at wages to use the saw for one’s own profit, it is property. Needless to say, a capitalist workplace, where the workers are ordered about by a boss, is an example of “property” while a co-operative, where the workers manage their own work, is an example of “possession.” To quote Proudhon:

“The proprietor is a man who, having absolute control of an instrument of production, claims the right to enjoy the product of the instrument without using it himself. To this end he lends it.” [Op. Cit., p. 293]

While it may initially be confusing to make this distinction, it is very useful to understand the nature of capitalist society. Capitalists tend to use the word “property” to mean anything from a toothbrush to a transnational corporation — two very different things, with very different impacts upon society. Hence Proudhon:

“Originally the word property was synonymous with proper or individual possession. It designated each individual’s special right to the use of a thing. But when this right of use ... became active and paramount — that is, when the usufructuary converted his right to personally use the thing into the right to use it by his neighbour’s labour — then property changed its nature and this idea became complex.” [Op. Cit., pp. 395–6]

Proudhon graphically illustrated the distinction by comparing a lover as a possessor, and a husband as a proprietor! As he stressed, the “double definition of property — domain and possession — is of highest importance; and must be clearly understood, in order to comprehend” what anarchism is really about. So while some may question why we make this distinction, the reason is clear. As Proudhon argued, “it is proper to call different things by different names, if we keep the name ‘property’ for the former [possession], we must call the latter [the domain of property] robbery, repine, brigandage. If, on the contrary, we reserve the name ‘property’ for the latter, we must designate the former by the term possession or some other equivalent; otherwise we should be troubled with an unpleasant synonym.” [Op. Cit., p. 65 and p. 373]

The difference between property and possession can be seen from the types of authority relations each generates. Taking the example of a capitalist workplace, its clear that those who own the workplace determine how it is used, not those who do the actual work. This leads to an almost totalitarian system. As Noam Chomsky points out, “the term ‘totalitarian’ is quite accurate. There is no human institution that approaches totalitarianism as closely as a business corporation. I mean, power is completely top-down. You can be inside it somewhere and you take orders from above and hand ‘em down. Ultimately, it’s in the hands of owners and investors.” Thus the actual producer does not control their own activity, the product of their labour nor the means of production they use. In modern class societies, the producer is in a position of subordination to those who actually do own or manage the productive process.

In an anarchist society, as noted, actual use is considered the only title. This means that a workplace is organised and run by those who work within it, thus reducing hierarchy and increasing freedom and equality within society. Hence anarchist opposition to private property and capitalism flows naturally from anarchism’s basic principles and ideas. Hence all anarchists agree with Proudhon:

“Possession is a right; property is against right. Suppress property while maintaining possession.” [Op. Cit., p. 271]

As Alexander Berkman frames this distinction, anarchism “abolishes private ownership of the means of production and distribution, and with it goes capitalistic business. Personal possession remains only in the things you use. Thus, your watch is your own, but the watch factory belongs to the people. Land, machinery, and all other public utilities will be collective property, neither to be bought nor sold. Actual use will be considered the only title — not to ownership but to possession.” [What is Anarchism?, p. 217]

This analysis of different forms of property is at the heart of both social and individualist anarchism. This means that all anarchists seek to change people’s opinions on what is to be considered as valid forms of property, aiming to see that “the Anarchistic view that occupancy and use should condition and limit landholding becomes the prevailing view” and so ensure that “individuals should no longer be protected by their fellows in anything but personal occupation and cultivation [i.e. use] of land.” [Benjamin Tucker, The Individualist Anarchists, p. 159 and p. 85]

This anarchist support for possession does not imply the break up of large scale organisations such as factories or other workplaces which require large numbers of people to operate. Far from it. Anarchists argue for association as the complement of possession. This means applying “occupancy and use” to property which is worked by more than one person results in associated labour, i.e. those who collectively work together (i.e. use a given property) manage it and their own labour as a self-governing, directly democratic, association of equals (usually called “self-management” for short).

This logically flows from the theory of possession, of “occupancy and use.” For if production is carried on in groups who is the legal occupier of the land? The employer or their manager? Obviously not, as they are by definition occupying more than they can use by themselves. Clearly, the association of those engaged in the work can be the only rational answer. Hence Proudhon’s comment that “all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor.” “In order to destroy despotism and inequality of conditions, men must ... become associates” and this implies workers’ self-management — “leaders, instructors, superintendents ... must be chosen from the labourers by the labourers themselves.” [Proudhon, Op. Cit., p. 130, p. 372 and p. 137]

In this way, anarchists seek, in Proudhon’s words, “abolition of the proletariat” and consider a key idea of our ideas that“Industrial Democracy must... succeed Industrial Feudalism.” [Proudhon, Selected Writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, p. 179 and p. 167] Thus an anarchist society would be based on possession, with workers’ self-management being practised at all levels from the smallest one person workplace or farm to large scale industry.

Clearly, then, all anarchists seek to transform and limit property rights. Capitalist property rights would be ended and a new system introduced rooted in the concept of possession and use. While the exact nature of that new system differs between schools of anarchist thought, the basic principles are the same as they flow from the same anarchist theory of property to be found in Proudhon’s, What is Property?.

Significantly, William Godwin in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice makes the same point concerning the difference between property and possession (although not in the same language) fifty years before Proudhon, which indicates its central place in anarchist thought. For Godwin, there were different kinds of property. One kind was “the empire to which every [person] is entitled over the produce of his [or her] own industry.” However, another kind was “a system, in whatever manner established, by which one man enters into the faculty of disposing of the produce of another man’s industry.” This “species of property is in direct contradiction” to the former kind (he similarities with subsequent anarchist ideas is striking). For Godwin, inequality produces a “servile” spirit in the poor and, moreover, a person who “is born to poverty, may be said, under a another name, to be born a slave.” [The Anarchist Writings of William Godwin, p. 133, p. 134, p. 125 and p. 126]

Needless to say, anarchists have not be totally consistent in using this terminology. Some, for example, have referred to the capitalist and landlord classes as being the “possessing classes.” Others prefer to use the term “personal property”rather than “possession” or “capital” rather than “private property.” Some, like many individualist anarchists, use the term“property” in a general sense and qualify it with “occupancy and use” in the case of land, housing and workplaces. However, no matter the specific words used, the key idea is the same.




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