To the question “What is property?”, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon famously answered, “It is theft”. That it could be taken for a right was already a conceptual confusion, for unlike liberty, equality, integrity of person, the “right” to property was not unqualified. If the former then could be described as natural rights, the possession of property was a positive legal right calling for justification.
Two traditional views responded to the concern: i) property is a civil right, based on occupation and sanctioned by law; ii) property is in fact a natural right rooted in labour.
As regards occupation, it can serve as a source of right if and only if there is actual, physical, effective possession of the thing claimed as one’s own. But the legitimacy of such a right in turn depends on reciprocity. If I possess something through occupation, I have a right to it while I occupy it. The moment effective possession ceases is the moment that another can make equal claim of it (e.g. a shady place “occupied” under an oak tree for a summer picnic). Occupation therefore may serve to ground the right of possession and use, but not the right to private property. The latter can only be secured in this instance if the occupation is followed by dispossession; violence that immediately de-legitimises such property. Equality is a corollary of the right by occupation. It warrants the use of what is possessed, by all potentially. It does not warrant exclusive ownership.
The turn to a natural foundation of property is thus seductive.
“I have done more than occupy,” … “I have laboured, produced, improved, and transformed; I have CRERATED.” (Proudhon, What is Property?)
Yet if labour bestows upon the labourer a right to property, as all classical political economy would defend, it at best would justify claims of ownership over the fruits of labour, and not the means of labour. For the latter are never the consequence of individual labour, but a collective labour of many, almost always over generations. If labour could serve as the basis for claims of property, then the means of labour should fall to all as the collective and common good. (One might add that “individual” labour is also rarely, if ever, individual, and thus even the fruits of labour may be seen as collective). If then the products of our creativity, of our labour, fall to the hands of a few, it is because the means of labour have been occupied and appropriated by them. Labour thus falls back upon occupation as the source of private property and to speak of occupation in this instance is to speak of occupation secured by power and violence.
… the man who takes possession of a field and says, “This field is mine”, will not be unjust so long as everyone else has the same right of possession; nor will he unjust if, wishing to change his location, he exchanges this field for an equivalent. But if, putting another in his place, he says to him, “Work for me, while i rest”, he then becomes unjust, unassociated, and unequal: he is a proprietor. … What is it then to practice justice? It is to give each an equal share in wealth under equal conditions of labour; it is to act socially. (Proudhon, What is Property?)
To contest capitalism is accordingly to reclaim our collective creativity as an autonomous act; it is to occupy in turn, to re-occupy; however not to possess in turn against others, but to return to the commons what was made by many.
The lines of fracture in State-Capital can be mapped in numerous directions. The politics of okupation is one such line of tension and flight. Throughout spain, in the wake of 15M, such gestures have multiplied, both in response to an economic collapse, but also more significantly in the search for other possibilities of human life, possibilities of human conviviality.
On Sunday, April 6th, the Corrala de Vecinas Utopía of Seville, was evicted by the police (over 20 police vehicles were brought in for the task), under orders from the local authorities. An almost two year old occupation, two years of courageous struggle and protest, thus comes to an end for the 22 families who are unable to afford housing due to unemployment/precarious employment and poor or non-existent state assistance; and this in a city with 40,000 empty houses and more than 500 empty city owned houses reserved for social housing.
In Madrid, on Tuesday the 8th, the police evicted a ten year old okupied social centre, the Escuella Taller de Alcorcón. As in Seville, the police presence made all opposition impossible.
And as the State acts to preserve the property of the few, the sources of wealth of those who live from the creativity of others, the theft becomes ever more obvious, ever more obscene; to which there can only be one response …
As the Corrala Utopía was evicted, the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca of Madrid announced the occupation of two empty houses owned by banks and a building owned by the country’s “bad” bank, the SAREB, providing thereby shelter for more than 40 people.
The struggle continues.