“What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?” -Massasoit
Human history has been bedevilled by the issue of ownership of the means of production. It wasn’t always so. Under the so-called “primitive communism”, there was no concept of ownership of the means of production, which was ‘the land’. Primitive communists were the hunter gatherers and none of them ‘owned’ the forces that sustained them. They just used them at will to sustain themselves. If you think this is odd, it isn’t really. Even in our society where virtually everything has been privatised, no-one owns ‘the sky’, yet we use it all the time. Breathing is the first thing a baby does in the world. Just as it would be weird to privatise the sky, Native Americans did not understand private ownership of ‘the land’, which to them was the entirety of their means of production.
This blog does not argue we should go back to living in a hunter gatherer society. It argues we have much to learn from these ancient ways, and that if only we could develop a new idea that no-one owns the now technologically advanced means of production, we’d be there – at the stage of total human emancipation.
There is now an abundance of evidence from Native American society before Europeans took it over that there was just no concept of ownership over the productive forces. Although there was a matriarchal set up, this only meant the women who also took full part in work would encourage the men to hunt and gather. The products of this primitive work were shared out according to who needed what, be it meat, clothing, or whatever. This was smashed by bloodthirsty Europeans at the dawn of capitalism, servants of the new Empire of capital. As researcher Mary Arnold says:
“Since Native American peoples had no concept of land ownership, the European invaders considered the land to be up for grabs. The Europeans used a variety of ways to gain control of the land. They used deception on Montezuma. They ignored Indian political practices by having a few Indians sell the lands. And when all else failed, the federal government passed laws to relocate the Indians and resorted to warfare if they resisted.”
Thus there has definitely been a period of history, prior to the introduction of the idea of private property, in which the means of production – that is the forces available to man to sustain himself – were not considered ‘owned’. The European invaders with their ‘advanced’ ideas changed all that. This development was not all bad, it contained some good things. Humanity became a species where connections were made all around the globe, allowing us the potential to pool knowledge and techniques and develop new frontiers. The USA today, the world’s leading economy, has scaled heights that were unimaginable to the Native Americans such as putting man on the moon or mapping the human genome. Life expectancy, and in many respects the quality of life, has also massively increased in comparison to that of the ‘primitive communists’, showing the benefit of development of the productive forces. Yet something was also lost – not forever, and certainly not to readers of this blog who I hope will take these ideas on board – that something was an absence of inner antagonisms within the society itself that have now become so developed and magnified, they plague everyone’s lives, make them miserable, and even threaten the survival of the human race itself (nuclear war).
Marx initially designated his outlook as “naturalism, or humanism”. He only later called it ‘communism’ after he saw that the best of the active socialists in the proletarian movement of his day were the communists. This meant they wanted to topple the system of private property which Marx knew was the basis of the capitalist mode of production that divided society into warring classes, was prone to crises, and failed to enrich individual life. But what Marx understood as ‘communism’ was most definitely NOT the perversion of it that characterised many countries in the 20th century. How did the project go so badly wrong?
The material basis for the Marxist project going askew was that the disciples did not understand that the key lay in the issue of ‘ownership’ of the means of production. Even the great Lenin argued only for social ownership of the means of production. That was a terrible idea. ‘Society’ that was in control of ‘the Party’ now became the new owner of the means of production in the name of the abolition of private property! Private property simply became owned by one entity instead of several, and the basic conflicts within society remained. To suppress this, the Party had to become a totalitarian regime that directly oppressed the masses. Terrible result.
But what if instead of society owning the means of production, no-one does. Not only does this abolish private property, but also social property. In such a situation, individuals just use the means of production to produce what they and their fellows need, as and when. Rather than being bled to death as the capitalist and Soviet system entailed, the means of production would be used for human benefit, not its opposite. The means of production wouldn’t be owned by a single soul, they’d just ‘be there’ like the land was in Native American times.
Best of all, we now have high-tech means of production. And we can develop the technology even further. What we are now talking about isn’t the basic subsistence of Native American society, but a life beyond our wildest dreams, full of luxury and devoid of domineering relations between man and man that currently is the source of most of life’s hellish characteristics.