Property rights: a question of perspective.

I have been a mutualist for a short time, but it seems that the main thing people use to argue against mutualism is its theory of property rights. Communists complain that mutualists believe in property rights at all, of course, and use this to dismiss mutualism altogether (even to the extent, as I’ve seen in one blog commenting on this entry, of calling me a “right-winger,” which may actually make sense if you are clinically insane or call everyone who’s not a communist a right-winger). Capitalists, on the other hand, complain that mutualists don’t believe in perpetual property rights, and use this to dismiss mutualism altogether. There is a great deal of things to say about mutualism, but it seems the debate is often reduced to this one issue.

There are two related ways in which mutualist property rights differ from capitalist property rights:

1. Mutualism states that property is acquired and maintained by use/occupancy (which includes homesteading), not by contract or trade.
2. Because of this, mutualism states that property is not perpetual, but rather may become abandoned and thus a natural resource, ready to be homesteaded again.

Capitalists use these two differences to create scenarios which they find clearly unacceptable, and then claim this is what mutualism proposes. For instance, they will say things like “what if I leave my house for a weekend, and other people break into my house and start living in it!” But anyone with any good sense knows that leaving one’s house for a weekend does not mean you abandoned it, by any conception of “abandoned.” Mutualists do not claim that leaving your house for a weekend means abandoning it, either.

But this is used by capitalists to divert from the real issue, which is the property claims made by the State. By far the biggest “landowner” is the State: the government alone owns a third of the land (never mind that property taxes imply that the government owns all the land), let alone all the corporations put together (not even counting lands corporations gain exclusive access to), which must be at least another third. Historically, control over land has been the principal means by which populations were controlled. Feudalism was predicated on the ownership and control of land by a ruling structure. The Industrial Revolution, with all its attendant evils, wouldn’t have happened without the massive enclosure land grabs in England in the 18th century.

Even today we still see land ownership as a tool of control through the process called “gentrification,” which is a weasel word for “kicking poor people out of their homes so rich people can move in.” Here is one such example.

Director Phil Blakeley has publicly pledged to do as much, saying the company is doing its part to “bring along Harlem’s gentrification” as a beachhead in its bid to build a $5 billion real estate empire here. Yet Dawnay Day may have gotten more than it bargained for in East Harlem, known as El Barrio to those who call it home. Here, the powerful multinational corporation has run into a different kind of power -­ the power of a community ready to defend its right to exist. For tenants, the company’s offer to “bring along Harlem’s gentrification” can be translated to mean harassment, eviction, displacement ­ experiences all too familiar to the people of Harlem, if all too invisible in the media.

“Dawnay Day Group is waging a war against our community from their headquarters across the ocean,” they said in a recent declaration, “with the sole purpose of forcing us from our homes in order to increase their profits… Together, we make our dignity resistance and we fight back against the actions of capitalist landlords and multinational corporations who are displacing poor families from our neighborhood. We fight back locally and across borders.”

Who is in the right here? According to capitalist property rights, Dawnay Day Group (the non-existing, purely imaginary corporate person) bought those buildings and is within its rights to evict whoever it wants, and the people fighting for their community are the bad guys. According to mutualist property rights, the imaginary “legal person” Dawnay Day Group cannot own any of these buildings, as they belong to those who occupy them (the “tenants”), and the people at Dawnay Day Group are trying to illegitimately fuck up people’s lives so they can make a profit.

Who is right, in your opinion?

What about the Zapatista natives, defending their land from capitalist farmers who swoop in and claim it for themselves? What about the Basque gaztetxe, organizations of teenagers who take over an abandoned building, renovate it, use it as a place of service for them and the community, and then often get kicked out by the local police for their trouble? What about teenagers and vagrants occupying abandoned factories trying to make a better life for themselves? What about people living on the innumerable acres of “public land”? Should they be kicked out as well?

I think it should be obvious to any reasonable person that capitalist property rights are at least flawed, and that use/occupancy rules are justified at least in some instances.

The fact remains that the State is responsible for the vast majority of abuses of property rights and is the biggest absentee landlord there is, and that any attempt at defending capitalist property rights must be seen as an attempt to defend the privilege system of capitalism. If use/occupancy rules were applied right now, there is no doubt that the whole system of capitalism, based on private owners of the means of production who have no use/occupancy connection with them (including land), would be gone by tomorrow.

Naturally the question arises as to who determines what is abandoned and what is not. In my opinion, this is a pretty pointless question since all such social rules are determined by the society itself, not any specific ideology. To quote Kevin Carson talking about capitalist (Lockean) property rights as compared with mutualism, and how capitalists use a double-standard when labeling mutualist rights as aggression:

To put it in more neutral language, neither the Lockean nor the mutualist property system could function without the willingness of the majority of one’s neighbors to recognize one’s rights claims under that system and to back them up with what they perceive as defensive force, if necessary.

See, when there’s a consensus on Lockean rules, and neighbors band together to enforce each other’s rights under those rules, it’s a defensive action on behalf of all that’s right and holy. When neighbors band together to enforce a consensus on mutualist rules, on the other hand, it’s a band of thugs.

But any system of property rules requires a majority consensus of people willing to enforce each other’s rights under that system, and such a majority will tend to view attempts to enforce any rival system as “aggression.”

Like any other proper form of Anarchy, mutualism does not set specific rules under which free people must be forced to accept, but rather tells us what is morally justifiable and what is not, in view of specific social values to be pursued, leaving the establishment of rules for one’s daily life to the people themselves.

Bonus question: does mutualism also apply to squatter bobcats?

16 thoughts on “Property rights: a question of perspective.

  1. MJP November 25, 2008 at 21:51

    Lockeans believe in abandonment too – as long as *no one* is using the property, not even tenants. Why abandonment doesn’t apply when tenants are using the property is a question we must ask them constantly.

  2. iceberg November 25, 2008 at 21:51

    “In my opinion, this is a pretty pointless question since all such social rules are determined by the society itself, not any specific ideology.”

    To this I can point you to Roderick Long’s response to Kevin Carson’s claim, and to quote Prof. Long–

    “no system of transfer and abandonment rules can be logically derived even from an agreed labor standard of appropriation”… Hence the choice among the three theories, Carson concludes, can be made only on “prudential or consequentialist grounds”; and here, he argues, the advantage lies with Mutualism.”

    You can find it here:

  3. kentmcmanigal November 25, 2008 at 23:43

    No answers; just thoughts:

    Who owned the buildings before Dawnay Day bought them? Who did Dawnay Day pay the money to to acquire the property in question? Were the people who are being evicted renting the property from the previous owner? Why can that/those owner/s not use or sell his property if he wishes?

    Corporations have no rights (being a government-created fiction), but I do think businesses that do not use government favors (coercion) can legitimately buy and own property.

    I have left for long trips in the past (up to 6 months, in some cases), and would not have felt free to do so if I was in fear of people moving into my abandoned property.

    I might not cede property to squatter bobcats, but I would be willing to share and coexist. As long as they did not attack me, I would not initiate force against them.

  4. Francois Tremblay November 26, 2008 at 01:05

    So Kent, are you taking the side of Dawnay Day in this story, and the corporate side in all gentrification efforts? As I said, they are fucking up people’s lives and kicking them out of their neighbourhood so the neighbourhood can be profitable for them. Because Dawnay Day acquired these buildings legally in a capitalist manner, you’re ok with this kind of exploitation on a massive scale?

  5. kentmcmanigal November 26, 2008 at 01:29

    Nope: not taking Dawnay Day’s side. Corporations should not exist and have no rights. If an individual were doing the same thing that Dawnay Day is doing, would you think he had the right to do so? People have the right to be a jerk, but I would not want to associate or do business with a jerk.

    I just had some questions about the background so I would know more of what was going on. I am just wondering if the buildings were previously owned by an individual (which I would guess they were at some point) and asking if that individual had the right to sell his or her property to whoever he chose, or if by renting it to others, he lost his property rights.

    As I see it, it probably matters little to the people who are being forced out as to whether it is a corporation or an individual doing it. I simply think an individual has the right to use his property as he sees fit, and think corporations should be forced to compete without government favoritism.

  6. quasibill November 26, 2008 at 09:40

    I still think that rooting the distinction in the doctrine of abandonment is a mistake. While there is some utility in that, contract enforcement rules make more sense. Prof. Long makes several pertinent critiques in the article Iceberg cites – although I don’t think he makes a strong case for no-proviso Lockeanism on its own merits there.

    If, however, property rights are based upon possession that was not obtained via force or fraud, you can argue that conflict minimization is the overriding goal. Even Hoppe has conceded that this is a major (if not *the* major) goal of property rights conventions. And communists, if they are honest, have to concede that there must be some sort of possessory rights in any society, unless they are primitivists.

  7. Francois Tremblay November 26, 2008 at 17:47

    Where do you think the distinction lies, then, if not in abandonment? That’s the linchpin of the land monopoly.

  8. neverfox November 28, 2008 at 06:23


    Lockean & mutualist property systems both base the transition from unavailable to available land on abandonment or expropriation. So you can’t think it’s a mistake if you hold one of these theories. The difference between them on this matter is simply one of degree.

    There are three parts to property systems:
    1. Appropriation (unowned to owned)
    2. Transfer (owned by one to owned by another via consent)
    3. Expropriation (owned to unowned)

  9. […] Property Rights: A Question of Perspective by Francois Tremblay […]

  10. […] courts would be forced to rewrite their legal codes so that property rights were based on the mutualist concept of occupancy and use. According to this idea, a person can only be said to legitimately own a piece of property if he or […]

  11. Alex May 7, 2009 at 21:51

    So let me get this straight, a person spends years, sometimes half their lifetime working their ass off to build their dream home… they then make the unfortunate mistake of running afoul of a minutiae of mutualist theory by [gasp..] renting the house out where the person is not in current possession of the property, and because of that, they lose the fruits of their entire life’s savings?

    So a person loses their entire life savings the very moment they rent the house out? So within a femtosecond, they have lost everything, just because the owner temporarily ceased to use the house and decided to let a renter stay in it.

    You mutualists expect that idea to be taken seriously? You seriously believe that idea comports with concepts of justice or fairness?

  12. Francois Tremblay May 8, 2009 at 03:09

    What sort of complete and utter retard would rent out a house that represents his lifetime of work in a society that he knows does not consider renting a valid form of contract?

    You capitalists expect us to take you seriously when you come up with such imbecilic arguments? (and believe me, I’ve seen far worse)

  13. Alex May 8, 2009 at 04:01

    What sort of person might do that? I say a person who expects and believes that that fruits of his labour are to remain his own, unless what he has is given freely by explicit consent to others under voluntary contract, or in cases where the owner no longer wants what he has, and voluntarily opts to let it fall by the wayside, never to return to reclaim it (i.e.abandonment).

    I very much expect any rational individual who values his lifetime of work to very much expect that what is his, shall remain his, and to follow exactly that train of though outlined above, that his property shall never be taken from him via force or artful expropriation, save perhaps if maybe he owes restitution for a wrong he committed.

    Furthermore, I do not believe for one flat second, that the majority of armchair milquetoast Internet mutualist would back up their belief if they were put in the exact position I described. I consider my example to be the ultimate “reality check” for mutualists, because I do not buy for one second that 99.9 percent of guys (save a number of people who I could probably count on one hand) would abandon your entire lifes earnings, in a completely non consensual manner. You guys would be screaming bloody murder about the injustice of losing everything you had.

  14. Francois Tremblay May 8, 2009 at 04:06

    Voluntaryist bullshit, followed by a No True Scotsman argument.

    I repeat the question:

    What sort of complete and utter retard would rent out a house that represents his lifetime of work in a society that he knows does not consider renting a valid form of contract?

    Can you answer, or not?

    If it’s the issue of rent that is getting in the way, let me rephrase this question in a slightly different way:

    What sort of complete and utter retard would murder someone in a society that he knows does not consider murder a valid form of relating?

    Social ethics are social ethics, whether they concern renting or murder or any other breach of personal autonomy and social freedom.

    I do not buy for one second that 99.9 percent of guys (save a number of people who I could probably count on one hand) would abandon your entire lifes earnings, in a completely non consensual manner.”

    Your argument makes about as much sense as saying that we would never make a rule against murder because we wouldn’t want to be tried for murder. Of course no one is stupid enough to put himself in a situation where he’s basically risking his life. Brillant deduction, Sherlock.

    Do you realize now that your argument can only lead to total anomie, or did you just fall into that hole all by yourself?

    Furthermore, I do not believe for one flat second, that the majority of armchair milquetoast Internet mutualist would back up their belief if they were put in the exact position I described…
    You guys would be screaming bloody murder about the injustice of losing everything you had.

    No, that reaction would be about as retarded as paying someone to kill someone else and being surprised at being tried for a crime, screaming “I have the right to contract whatever I want with anyone!” Once again, no one is stupid enough to put himself in a situation where he’s basically risking his life, and if I really was that stupid, I wouldn’t be “screaming bloody murder about the injustice”: I’d be killing myself because I would be too stupid to live.

    Since when is the fact that one can be extremely stupid an argument against any system? A person can be extremely stupid and risk his life in ANY system.

  15. Francois Tremblay May 8, 2009 at 04:10

    I changed my answer after I posted it: I realized I interpreted one of your points wrongly.

  16. Nick May 9, 2009 at 03:48

    To Alex:

    Don’t you think you could convince the person staying in your house to leave when you get back? If people were really such assholes that they decided to randomly squat in friends’ houses, then anarchism probably wouldn’t be such a good idea, now would it? Unlike crapitalist property claims, which are enforced at gunpoint, mutualist property is flexible, and can accommodate a wide variety of situations.

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