Socialism: The Property Problem

[This is the sixth in a multipart series addressing the surge in interest in and support for Socialism. Subsequent entries will explore what the surge means, what it seeks or will seek, where it might extend, and how it might unfold.]

You own your shirt and your cellphone. You decide what to do with them, how to display them, and when and how to use or not use them. I don’t make such decisions about your shirt or cellphone.

Mr. Moneybags owns a company that produces some important product, mines some important resource, or does some other similar function. Mr. Moneybags decides what to do with his company, what to do with the products of his company, and what to do with the employees he hires to make the company productive. I can’t do those things, nor can any of Mr. Moneybags’ employees. Hehas dominion over his company like you have dominion over your shirt and cellphone.

Ownership conveys dominion over that which is owned. It’s true for you and your shirt and cellphone. It’s the same for Mr. Moneybags and his company. So what‘s the property problem?

Your dominion over your shirt and cellphone doesn’t subvert equity, self management, solidarity, diversity, and ecological sustainability. Your dominion over your shirt and cellphone doesn’t subvert the participation, dignity, and freedom of others. But dominion by Mr. Moneybags, and roughly 2% of the population over the resources, venues, tools, and technologies of production, and the work lives of those they sign on to do their bidding, does subvert equity, self management, solidarity, diversity, and ecological sustainability. It subverts they participation, dignity, and freedom of others.

Sensible rules for personal possessions become horrific rules when extended to resources, tools, and venues, because resources, tools, and venues are critical to the lives of countless people beyond the owners. The personal rules for owners of shirts and cellphones benefit everyone. The same rules for owners of society’s productive assets serve those owners at the expense of everyone subject to the owners’ decisions.

This is the underlying reason why socialism has historically always included eliminating private ownership of productive assets. Such ownership creates a division between the owners, called capitalists, and all others. It conveys wealth and power virtually without limit to the owners and consigns others to various levels of enforced obedience and imposed impoverishment all the way down to total subordination and abject poverty. 

But if Jeff Bezos and folks like Bezos can’t own and thereby have dominion over Amazon and other companies, what’s the alternative? That is the property problem for which socialists, and indeed anyone who wants a better economy, needs to have an answer.

Last essay in this series on societal aims we substantially addressed one half of the issue. If a bunch of Moneybags can’t own and thereby accrue a very large part of the contribution to society’s social product of Amazon or any other company, who should get company-created wealth? Our answer was that workers should get income for the duration, intensity, and onerousness of the socially valued work they do. People who cannot work should get an average share. Some of society’s product  should also go to meeting collective needs people have, like health care, safety, public roads, schooling, and the like. And some should go to investment in the future, for example, new construction and research. But none should goes to anyone on grounds they own productive assets.

Why is that only half the issue? Because the dominion that ownership currently conveys is about income, but also about control. Owners in our current economy make decisions about what to produce, how to produce it, who does the work, what they are paid, and much else. If there are no longer owners of companies, mines, and workplaces, who makes such decisions and by what calculus and methods?

To conclude this brief essay rejecting private ownership of productive assets, I want only to assert that such decisions should not be the purview of some individual or group simply because they have a document that says they own the companies, mines, or workplaces in question. Some say the alternative to that is that the state should own the companies. Others say the alternative is that workers in the unit in question should own it. Or that surrounding communities should. Or the entire population. But  suggest is that no one should own society’s productive assets like no one should own the sky, or the oceans. The concept of owning simply makes no sense if applied to companies, mines, and the like. Such ownership should not exist. The substantive issue at stake isn’t some abstract notion of owning mines and workplaces, but instead the very tangible notion of who gets the wealth created by mines and workplaces and who decides what mines and workplaces do and how they operate. Our equity value guided us toward an answer to the first issue regarding income. Next essay, our self management value will guide us toward an answer to the second issue, who decides what.


  1. gary April 14, 2019 3:13 pm 

    What about Richard Wolff’s (Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism) proposal and workers retaining and distributing surplus profit. Is this a first step in creating a just, equitable and hopefully more sustainable future

    • avatar
      Michael Albert April 15, 2019 1:00 pm 

      It is a step, of course, but not a first step, because many things, short of this, on the way to this, and more, are also steps. It is also not Rick’s idea – but has more than a century of history behind it.

  2. avatar
    Michael April 12, 2019 12:30 pm 

    And decent people wonder why there are violent revolutions.

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