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What exactly is property?

The Abuse of Property
Forfatter: Daniel Loick
Forlag: MIT Press, (USA)
THE RIGHT OF USE / Use assumes ownership. Homeless people can't just move into empty apartments. But it is a mismatch between use and property in late racial capitalism. Also when it comes to patents. Property can be financial violence.


When you cycle through Copenhagen with your 12- and 14-year-old daughters, as I do every day, and see small groups of homeless people collecting bottles or selling the newspaper House Past in front of supermarkets to earn a little money, the conversation often falls on the relationship between homelessness and the number of apartments in Copenhagen. My daughters wonder how there can be so many homeless people, at the same time as apartments are being built in many places in Copenhagen. As they note, there should be enough apartments. It doesn't get any better when you can see lots of apartments standing empty. "Why can't they just be allowed to live in the apartments that are empty?", they ask. Esmeralda and Irma's wonder points to the mismatch between use and property in late racial capitalism.

Homeless people

That it can pay off better for homeowners, investment funds and housing speculators leaving homes empty while people live on the streets and young people have great difficulty finding rooms to live in. The speculators and foundations own the apartments, so they decide not only who will live there, but also whether it is more profitable , that they are empty, even though there are people who lack a place to live. Because they own the apartments, they decide over the apartments whether they should function as homes or just stand empty.

The point is, if you need something, you need to own it, it needs to be yours. This is a fundamental premise in a national democratic state of law such as the Danish or Norwegian. Use requires ownership. We can't just use things at will. Homeless people can't just move into empty apartments, although my daughters think that's a good idea.

The profit of the pharmaceutical companies came first

When you start to stumble upon the kind of things that Esmeralda and Irma do, you inevitably ask yourself: What is property anyway? When are ownership and property relationships justified? And who determines the prevailing basic structure of the property system?

The fact that using a thing presupposes that you own it is so ingrained in our way of life that we are often surprised when the consequences of this are made explicit, as when I cycle around Copenhagen with my daughters.

Homeowners, investment funds and housing speculators leave homes empty.

But it also happened during coronathe pandemic, in which multinational pharmaceutical companies and Western nation-states denied countries in the Global South access to the vaccines that were being developed. The pharmaceutical companies that developed the vaccines did not want to share their technology, and the US and EU consistently backed their patent rights. India and South Africa otherwise submitted proposals for an exception to these patents for vaccines and medicines in the WHO. But the US, EU and UK refused and ensured that no patent exemption scheme was adopted, even as the pandemic claimed millions of lives in the Global South. This was the case even after the rich countries had built up huge stockpiles of vaccines. The profit of the pharmaceutical companies came first. Pfizer, which developed one of the vaccines, Cormirnaty, doubled its profits in 2021 and 2022 compared to 2020, when they already had $154 million in revenue from Covid-19 vaccines alone – and the company had sales of more than $80 billion in 2021 .

The Abuse of Property

The German philosopher and critical theorist Daniel Loicks The Abuse of Property is an important contribution to the critical analysis of property and property relations. The book was originally published in German in 2016 and is now published in an English translation by Jacob Blumenfeld at MIT Press in an updated edition. Loick is critical of the mismatch, which my daughters also notice more intuitively. That property rights can prevent use, that apartments can, for example, be left empty and even fall into disrepair if it pays off better financially for the owner. As Loick puts it: «To be able to use a thing in a legitimate way, it is necessary to have the power to exclude everyone else from using it».

Loick takes a philosophical-historical approach in his analysis and presents arguments for capitalist property relations as well as important criticisms of them.

He starts with the English philosopher John Locke, who commonly occupies a role as one of the most important representatives of a liberal justification of property rights. For Locke, the individual can only be free if he or she exclusively disposes of his or her own things and can reject collective demands for usufruct, whether these are articulated by new or old communities, pre-capitalist or proletarian. Loick convincingly shows that in his justification of the individual's right to own and dispose of property, i.e. the right of private property, Locke also justifies colonialism, as well as (capitalist) domination and the ecological destruction of the earth that has been a consequence of the extractivist fossil capitalism.

Property leads to enslavement, colonialism and ecological destruction.

Following Locke, Loick examines Hegel and shows that Hegel's justification of property rests on an asocial notion of recognition, where the individual relates exclusively to others through things. It is a solipsistic view of society, where the needs of others appear completely opaque. According to Loick, Hegel sees «the subject as an effect of appropriation». For Hegel, it is «only by acquiring objects that the subject becomes a subject».

As the title of Loick's book indicates, the point of the analysis is that there is an abuse of people as well as things as long as we operate with a juridical-political notion of property rights, regardless of whether it is taken from Locke, Hegel or other bourgeois philosophers. Property leads to enslavement, colonialism and ecological destruction.

Marx: «stupid and one-sided»

Marx, of course, constitutes an important ally in the critique of property rights for Loick. Marx formulates what Loick calls a 'social critique of property', according to which private property rights result alienation and exploitation when extended to a mode of production. For Marx was the private property right to evade the community something common (produced), it was to take something from the community and make it impossible for others to use it. As he formulated it in the Parisermanuscripts: «Private property rights have made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours if we own it.» For Marx, private property equaled exploitation because it allowed the capital owner to appropriate the surplus value produced by the workers. Something social and common is done privately.

The annual statements from organizations such as Oxfam fully confirms Marx's analysis: a few rich individuals own more than billions of people do together. And they can dispose of this insane wealth as they wish.

Loick completely agrees with Marx in his social criticism, but wants to go further. Marx's critique of property is not radical enough, it remains stuck in a notion of property as something people produce or appropriate. However, it is not sufficient to plead for a different distribution of goods, as Marx does according to Loick. We must develop a completely different idea about the social, about each other and what surrounds us and with which we enter into various relationships when we reproduce.

The radical asceticism of the Franciscans

To get further in the critique of property, Loick resorts to Giorgio agambens analysis of the medieval franciskanermunke, who developed a radical ethic of poverty, in which they renounced all property both individually and collectively. They didn't own anything. For the Franciscans, their radical denial was a way of living in accordance with Jesus' teachings, it was a matter of ethics: Only by renouncing property can one live an ethically perfect life. The radical asceticism of the Franciscans was quickly condemned by the Catholic Church, which was neither interested in renouncing wealth nor seeing its institutional power challenged.

Only by renouncing property can one live an ethically perfect life.

The Franciscans' attempt to find a space without law, where they are not forced into a politico-legal order against their will, forms the starting point for Loick's own attempt to outline what he concludes by calling a 'political critique of property' – extending the critique of property rights to include a critique of the rule of law in general. Loick here refers to radical black thinkers such as Rinaldo Walcott and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who describe how the enslavement of black people continues as mass incarceration and state violence, where certain population groups are exposed to an extreme reification, showing that the national democratic rule of law can easily go hand in hand in hand with the exercise of , atsvold. The critique of property rights opens up a radical critique of the state , cialised#e terror.

Mikkel Bolt
Mikkel Bolt
Professor of political aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen.

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