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Property implies ownership, to which rights attach. These rights may take usurpatory, moral, or legal form. The types of things that can be owned as property, and therefore subject to property rights, are enormously varied. Depending on the particular circumstances, they might include, for instance, a human person, a person’s capacities (especially for labor), the products of another’s labor, any material of use or exchange, land, options, patents, ideas, and so on. The structure of ownership is also variable. In ancient societies, classically described as the ”indian village community” in Maine’s Ancient Law (1861), co-ownership or communal property prevailed. In peasant societies, on the other hand, the household rather than the community is typically the unit which exercises controlling rights over productive possessions. From early capitalist societies private property arose as the dominant form of ownership in which individual persons exercise rights over their objects of possession. In late capitalist societies corporate and public property forms emerge, combining elements of both communal and private property. Corporate property is communal insofar as ownership rights are shared by a number of proprietors, each of whom can exercise or dispose of their rights as they choose as individuals without collective constraint, and similarly use the benefits of their ownership as they individually see fit. Public property excludes private ownership and only nominally involves co-ownership, as various forms of statutory authorities exercise such property rights, putatively on behalf of the public, subject to legal and political controls.
The concept of private property, at least since the seventeenth century in Europe, is central in political and social theory. This is because the issue of private property is fundamental to moral, political, psychological, and social principles and outcomes. Private property is closely associated with the concept of individual freedom, for instance, where other forms of property may curtail such freedom. Economic and industrial efficiency is also frequently regarded as optimized under conditions of private property and compromised – if not undermined – by communal or public property. Psychologically, however, private property is more than other forms of property held to promote an unhealthy regard for material possession and corrode ethical orientations, as well as undermine respect for the natural and social environment experienced in common. Similarly, private property is regarded as the source and consolidator of inequitable and unjust distributions of earnings and wealth.
Marxism, on the other hand, focuses not on rights but on the productive relationships constitutive of private property. In this sense private property is understood in terms of power relations rather than rights. Marx holds that ownership or possession of property is the principle of organization within relations of production and distribution. Those who possess private property have direct access to means of consumption; those who do not must offer their labor services to owners, who pay wages in exchange for activating their property productively. In this exchange the reciprocity between property owners and property-less workers is asymmetrical, with the material benefits being greater for owners and the opportunity costs being greater for non-owners. This relationship Marx characterizes as exploitation. In this manner Marx holds that there is a characteristic endogenous dynamic within each form of property, corresponding to historical stages of societal development, including primitive communism, Asiatic society, feudalism, and capitalism.
- Macpherson, C. B. (ed.) (1978) Property: Mainstream and Critical Positions. Toronto University Press, Toronto.
- Ryan, A. (1984) Property and Political Theory. Oxford University Press, Oxford.