Ownerless society – from Marx to neoliberalism

Marx wanted it – but neo-liberalism achieved it: societies without property and owners. The term is, however, inherently contradictory. Someone always exercises control over the physical environment, i.e. e. the houses, offices, workshops, factories, even rivers, lakes, and every square meter of forest. In other words, somebody always acts as the owner of property. In this sense, ownerless society is based on illusion.

In real socialism

To entrust property together with its control to the hands of the collective – that is what Marxist theory demanded. In practice, national property was monopolized by a nomenclature, which believed in the theory of Marx, Engels, Lenin, or Mao. The control of property was by no means exercised by those who in theory were its owners, but by a dominant class – the communist nomenclature -, who controlled it as a matter of fact. This class claimed the right to rule over the majority as did kings and princes in feudal times, the only difference being that they did not rule by the grace of God but by that of Marx and Engels.

Neoliberals

don’t feel the need to hide behind a theoretical fig leaf. Over the past thirty years, control over the majority of resources has passed into the hands of a minority, which is largely invisible, but may be in a rather symbolical way referred to by the single word “wall street”.

The destruction of ownership befalling Western nations has made ominous progress since the so-called Washington Consensus. Jeremy Rifkin, a man with a keen sense of socio-economic turning points, already recognized this years ago, when he announced the “Age of Access” in a book by the same name. The book provides a fine description of a process, which, as a matter of fact, entails a severe restriction of rights. People must content themselves with mere access: access to houses, access to workplaces – i.e. to offices and factories – access to water and soil, access to computer programs, etc. The real thing, ownership of these goods, has been gradually taken away from them. The houses that we live in, the workshops where we earn our living, the water we need to drink, the programs that run on our computers are no longer our property, just like most of the raw materials, to be found and exploited in the national territory. In other words, we have no longer any control of these basic things.

Large global funds

have bought it all, or continue to incorporate it into their ever-expanding portfolios. BlackRock, the largest asset manager in the world, manages approximately $ 4700 billion, which is more than double the market capitalization of all Dax companies together. Vanguard manages 3200 billion dollars, and Fidelity is not far behind with some $ 2000 billion in assets under its management (S. Navidi, 2016). They represent the Plutocracy class, the new world rulers; they exercise the control over national resources which once belonged to the citizens, for they are the owners.

Property: the prerequisite for self-determination

The increasing concentration of formerly national assets in the hands of a world-dominating minority represented by the above-mentioned Megafonds and their creditors is dangerous not so much for the reason that it allows a very small number of people to live in an unimaginable wealth – according to a study by Oxfam 80 privileged individuals currently dispose of the same assets as 3.6 billion of the poorest people – disproportions of this kind always existed. Fortunately even the richest man has a limited capacity for consumption. The real danger is of an altogether different kind. Ownership means power of control over property. If this control is taken away from the majority and gets instead into the hands of a vanishingly small international oligarchy, then political self-determination becomes an illusion.

This is not to be understood as a fear of conspiracy,

but based on the above-mentioned sober figures, which describe the financial clout of those world-dominating funds. Meanwhile they are the true owners in our globalized world. For it is they who, by virtue of their control over property, more or less directly decide on wages and working conditions in the companies they manage. It goes without saying that, indirectly, they also determine the limits of the welfare state. By increasing spending on education or by reducing the costs of business, national governments may meet the interests of these funds, but the final decision-making power over their own economies is largely taken away from them – such power always and necessarily lies in the hands of owners.

Things were quite different in the past

as it was precisely this kind of development that the national state – today a favored object of vilification – had fiercely opposed. In the earlier “Deutschland AG”, which existed until the end of the 1980s, the majority of shares of the largest German corporations, though not in the hands of the general public, were held by the leading banks of Germany, which enjoyed an excellent reputation. At that time, nobody thought of accusing them of creating money for private profit making. All these suspicions came later after the breakdown of the former Deutschland-AG.

Neoliberal forces scorned national self-determination and ownership. Encouraged by the Washington Consensus, they knew how to dissolve the “Deutschland AG” by systematically discrediting the nation-state as an obsolete, anti-progressive and economically harmful force. In intellectually unstable minds, this onslaught fell on fertile ground, as it is undoubtedly true that the great wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had been kindled by national states. The equally obvious truth, that all human institutions could and were regularly abused, was, of course, put aside. Religions, ideologies, and ethnic groups willingly committed all possible crimes, without for that reason being abolished or identified with such crimes.

The national state (or a Union of such states as the EU)

is – or better was – a political institution that makes sure that its population maintains the ownership of its own country, as well as of its institutions and resources. In such a way the nation-state laid the foundation for civil self-determination, known neither by feudalism, where the feudal lord was the owner of all resources, nor by real socialism where total national ownership was seized by the Politburo. Nowadays, however, western states suffer from just the same disease. The nation-state has become the object of expropriation by an internationally active financial oligarchy (the combined wealth of the richest few will soon overtake the fortune of the remaining 99% of the world’s population!).

In the new “propertyless society”, states are replaced by territories for business and industry

where instead of citizens we only find employees and tenants working for the benefit of the profit-seeking global one-percent. Of course, some of these territories will be more successful than others – currently, this is the case for Germany and Austria. So we certainly do not live in hell.

It is only self-determination that looses  sense and reality under such circumstances. People will continue to participate in elections. All outward dummies of democracy will be cultivated and maintained, but they are indeed mere dummies as real power is siphoned off the hands of the working majority.

The concentration of ownership in the hands of individuals

or of oligarchies had, of course, always been the prevailing rule since the emergence of highly developed societies. It was therefore no less than an unprecedented historic turning point that both the American and the French revolutions demanded the distribution of property to ever-wider populations – in principle to the entire population. Expressed in a modern way, we may say that society as a whole should become a middle class.*1*

With this program – and only by means of this program! – the two revolutions created the material basis for genuine democratic self-determination. Their program was not the abolition of property – an illusion, because nobody can abolish the control of property – but its distribution on a scale that could be accepted as fair by all citizens. The personal achievement of a judge, a merchant, a politician, a doctor, but also of a singer, a painter or a footballer should decide on how much personal property they may acquire. This acquisition was regulated in a natural way by the market, that is through the democratic vote for or against the goods they offer. Since society may define achievement in different ways, and since personal achievement disappears with the death of each older generation in order to be reborn with every new one, the program of both revolutions could have laid the foundation for a true classless society. I have discussed elsewhere why this program soon became thwarted by counteracting forces.*2*

Distribution of property

is tantamount to the right of control. On the other hand, the abolition of property affecting the majority of the population means that the latter is disempowered. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of …) and Proudhon created immense confusion when insinuating that property equals theft. Marx, unfortunately, was to follow then on their mistaken track. While unmasking the terrible grievances brought about by the beginnings of industrialization more sharply and morally more sensitively than his contemporaries, Marx was rightly criticized for his vagueness when speaking of future society. As a matter of fact, his vision of what future society should be like was more than just nebulous – it was inconsistent from the outset. One cannot hold up as final goal the abolition of the state while, at the same time, taking property out of the hands of the majority in order to transfer it to the discretion of a tiny minority. This is an infallible way of guaranteeing the concentration of power in the hands of the few. Instead of being abolished the state is thereby transformed into an almighty Leviathan – that was exactly what it was to become in real socialism.

Marx became a living proof

of how left and right approach each other in their extremes. Neo-liberals just adopted the Marxian program in their own way. For them what matters is power without any embellishment by ideological fig leaves. No wonder that civil society in Western countries is becoming increasingly disillusioned – people are aware of their growing lack of power. The disillusionment could, in the end, exceed even that, which people felt in real socialism. There, they did at least know the people responsible for their own impotence – they new the members of the Politburo, who directed them from above.

In neoliberalism, power is largely invisible

hidden behind the mask of anonymous funds and even more anonymous multibillionaires, not even the names of whom are known to the public, let alone their faces. According to the ultracapitalist Nick Hanauer and to the former Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the United States has mutated from a capitalist to a feudalist society, composed of materially strictly different classes.

It should, however, be noted that this feudalism is of a rather special kind. Its modern kings and princes – the upper one percent – that dispose of the property of the lower 99 percent, have no public face, and nobody hears their voices. They are truly invisible. If by some chance they happen to meet the public eye, as did, for example, the real estate billionaire, Donald Trump, people are stricken by utter astonishment. Such people our rulers? Such people are the leaders of our world?*3*

1 The importance of property as a basis for all rights of citizens was made evident through these revolutions. In the United States, the right to vote was at first only given to propertied white and male persons – have-nots were left outside. In France the same reservations were still expressed a century after the revolution when dealing with the Paris Commune.

2 See “Wohlstand und Armut – eine allgemeine Theorie über Eigentum, Geld, Güter und Staat” (Prosperity and Poverty – a general theory about property, money, goods and the state), Metropolis publishing house. In his large-scale study, “The Great Leveler – Violence and the History of Inequality,” Walter Scheidel has shown that, since the Neolithic revolution, which for the first time in human history allowed the accumulation of hereditary wealth, growing inequality could only be reversed by what he Calls the four apocalyptic horsemen: devastating wars, bloody revolutions, total state collapse and disastrous epidemics. The historical argument does not, of course, exclude the logical possibility that man may finally discover a peaceful path to achieve the same goal – this hope must not be abandoned.

3 Unfortunately, there are people who are always on the lookout for confirmation of their own prejudices. I am quite sure that I will get some anti-Semitic comments to my article. Do I not know that Jews, at least in the United States, still dominate the financial sector? To such comments Hannah Arendt had already given a conclusive answer in her classic about totalitarianism. Apart from their leading role in Renaissance banking, Christians had, by the end of the 19th century at the latest, got a firm hold on the bank business. If because they enjoyed an above-average education Jews were disproportionately represented in the financial business, this has absolutely nothing to do with the rise of neoliberalism, just as Marxism has nothing to do with the fact that its founder was of Jewish descent. Such profound transformations of political thinking and political economy are due to much deeper lying forces.