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Private Vs. Personal Property

No offense, grandma, but socialists just aren’t that into your kitchen table.

Personally-owned tables do not represent the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy

I heard a funny story from someone about an experience they had while talking to others about socialism. When the topic came up, an elderly woman expressed outrage due to her concern that, “The socialists want to take my kitchen table!”

I’ve encountered similar reactions, many of which are undoubtedly attributable to the constant barrage of pro-capitalist propaganda and anti-socialist fearmongering in the media that effectively contorts the differences between capitalism and socialism into a ridiculous caricature along the lines of: lazy communists want to steal all of your stuff! This is definitely one of the top tropes used to scare people into upholding the status quo of capitalism, along with blaming poor people.

The thing is, socialists aren’t interested in taking your personal belongings—not even your kitchen table. The reason why is because this is personal property. When Marxists refer to ‘private property’, they are referring to resources that many depend on for their livelihood or survival, but that are owned and controlled privately. Examples of privately-held property that fit this bill are factories, hospitals, major utilities, transit, communications, banks, and commercial land. These core, critical-need assets that many rely on are often referred to as the ‘commanding heights’ or ‘key levers of industry’. A defining characteristic of private property is that it gives a private owner the power to control or limit access to critical-need resources that others depend on, for their own profit. Private property also allows a capitalist to hold the product of workers’ labor for themselves. When socialists talk about ‘abolishing private property’, we are referring to property of this nature being placed under the democratic control of workers to serve the public interest, not the narrow profit interests of private individuals.

Personal property on the other hand, is the ‘stuff’ you own for your own use and enjoyment: books, furniture, clothes, etc.—even your house.[1] Owning these things does not put someone in the position of being able to exploit others of their labor, or limit access to needed resources. Simply put, personal property isn’t capital.

When someone is worried about their personal property being seized, ask them, “Oh, so how many factories do you own?”. As nice as Grandma’s kitchen table is, socialists have no interest in ‘nationalizing’ it, and she’s most likely not using it to extract surplus value from workers’ labor.[2]

My mom owns a rural boutique arts/craft/quilt shop. I think sometimes she listens to a bit too much talk radio, then frets that Bernie Sanders is coming to take it from her. Again, no offense to my mom, but boutique quilt shops—as lovely as the quilts happen to be—are not the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy. Thousands of employees aren’t depending on it for their livelihood, nor is it monopolizing access to a resource or service thousands depend on.

This article has a nice explanation of private vs personal property. [3]

This is also a good response to a similar question conflating personal and private property. [4]

  1. ↩︎ A house or dwelling might be considered ‘personal property’ if you are occupying it yourself, but not rental properties nor properties retained as speculative real estate that banks or investors hold on to—empty—hoping to drive prices up during a housing crisis. Speculative real estate is most certainly ‘private property’, and a prime candidate to be placed under more rational management that can utilize its potential to serve human needs rather than speculative investors’ portfolios. Singapore solved its housing woes by doing exactly this.

  2. ↩︎ Well, except maybe during the holidays when grand-child labor is employed to manufacture trays of cookies at the table, but we’ll let that one slide—mainly because grandma tends to let the workers consume all of the finished product.

  3. ↩︎ I don’t agree with Jacobin’s overall reformist approach to socialism, but they occasionally publish decent articles on certain topics.

  4. ↩︎ I also have political differences with CPUSA, mainly regarding their historical Stalinist pedigree, but this particular response to the private property question is relevant and one I agree with.