Hegel on Property

Short Version: Hegel said some stuff about how private property is socially important. I criticise it, and conclude that while he is onto something, it still implies that communism is a good idea.

What Hegel says: ‘property is the mark of personality.’ Through owning things, that is, you realise your freedom and your personhood.

Now Hegel draws two critical conclusions from this. Firstly, he uses it to argue against a certain sort of ‘communism’, for him symbolised by Plato’s ‘philosopher-republic’, where things like personal families, private property, and the right to make poetry, are all abolished in the name of promoting the ‘greater good’ as divined by the self-selecting caste of ‘philosopher-kings’.

He also, however, uses this view of property as a criticisim of bourgeois society, prefiguring a neat line in the Communist Manifesto: the the necessary condition for private property for capitalists is the lack of property for proletarians. If, therefore, property is a mark of personhood, then those who are deprived of property are not only made, in material terms, worse off, they are also de-personalised, de-humanised. The problem of poverty is one that haunted Hegel throughout his life but to which he could never offer a coherent solution.

Now this all sounds rather fishy though. Is property actually a precondition for personhood? I think there is in fact something of importance here. We can see it better if we bring in an idea which was important both for Hegel and for Marx: ‘alienation’.

Alienation means the situation in which one feels, so to speak, ‘not at home’: not at home with oneself, with one’s life, with one’s surroundings, with one’s world. It can perhaps be most easily seen in direct human interactions. If I walk into a room where a few of my friends are having a party, and they look up, see me, recognise me, smile, greet me, my perception of the situation is very different from if I walk in and they say nothing, or glance briefly at me without aknowledgement.

In the latter case I might well feel hurt: here, where I expected to find myself ‘reflected’ in other people, recognised by them as real and worthwhile, I instead feel ‘alien’, like something that ‘doesn’t belong’ in the party.

Now maybe in that one case I can get over it, but the same principle can apply much more broadly. When I see signs written in a language I don’t understand, adverts appealing to a consumer who I clearly am not, TV shows filled with characters who don’t look like me, buildings or chairs not designed for my body, etc. etc. I’ve posted about this before once or twice. The point is, it’s important for people’s mental health and happiness to ‘recognise themselves’ in their surroundings, to feel that the world is ‘for them’ and they are not some alien intrusion.

So Hegel’s point is that property plays an important role here. My property gives me a little area of the world that responds to my will, that is under my control, that I can design according to my desires, both my profound and important ones and my passing whims. It is a benign form of ‘objectification’, in that I see some aspect of myself ‘turned into an object’ (my relaxation in my room, my power in my disposable income, my skills in the things I make, my tastes and styles in my clothing, my desires in my food) and then, because it’s an object for me (as opposed to the often-criticised objectification of oneself for others) I find a ‘reconciliation’ between me-the-person and me-the-object. It’s the harmony of self and world, in a micro form. And then, crucially, that little area of me-as-world is respected and recognised by others. They have to ask me, and accept my answer, before they interfere with it.

So let’s say we accept this sort of account. What does it imply? Well, for a start, as we earlier observed, it throws the problem of poverty into an even more serious form. It also generates a very serious criticism of the historical restrictions on women owning property, since such an arrangement leaves them with no ‘reflection’ of their personhood in the world. Instead, they must (as is exhaustively discussed in de Beauvoir’s ‘the Second Sex’) find their personhood in someone else, through the man that loves them and through the children they raise. Hegel doesn’t see this as a problem because he thinks women are to men as plants are to animals.

But more profoundly, what sort of property does this really support? I think it supports something much weaker than legal property rights as we know them. For example, it makes sense that I should have some place to live which I can regard as my private space. But that doesn’t mean I should be able to acquire living-places, not live in them, and instead do things with them to get money out of others.That, in fact, ends up contradicting the original principle, since it means that people living in those places don’t ‘own’ their dwelling, but instead depend on me for it.

In essence, Hegel’s argument supports ‘personal property’ as a set of specific, finite entitlements, involving multiple people having justified interests in the same item, and which therefore requires ongoing collective control to resolve those conflicts. This is something I’ve discussed before, and since it requires as an institutional form, ongoing collective control, it is equivalent to ‘collective property’, i.e., to communism.

This differs from ‘private property’, which is accumulable, and goes beyond mere personal use to become ‘capital’, i.e. wealth invested by me in production by others, allowing me to appropriate the product of their work and get even richer.

The difference flows from a simple fact: my value as a person is not absolute, it’s reciprocally limited by the value of others. I can’t claim absolute freedom, only ‘as much freedom as is compatible with the freedom of others’. Property tries to ‘asbolutise’ our ‘personhood’, and thus inevitably brings it into conflict with the personhood of others, resulting in domination of one class by another.

This also, however, differs from ‘Platonic communism’, or more broadly, ‘totalitarianism’. It differs in recognising that even where there are conflicting claims, there are not infinitely many equal claims: some individuals are more involved in a given decision than others, and so some individuals should have more influence on that decision than others. It would reject totalitarian ideas like ‘collective control’ over what clothes I get to wear or whether I can cross a national border or not.

Interestingly, there’s a good article here trying to deal with exactly this sort of ‘dilemma’ – how to get between either depriving individuals (and local groups, who have similar issues) of all their autonomy, or giving them an autonomy that will undermine that of others. It seems like a good sort of plan to me, though I haven’t considered the merits of various different alternative sets of details in depth.

Anyway, conclusion: Hegel has a good point, but the point tells against ‘authoritarian communism’ (even if completely democratic) and in favour of ‘libertarian communism’. He however misunderstands it as telling against communism in general, and in favour of liberal capitalism. This is a regrettably common mistake.

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