Extinction Rebellion hijacks public spaces in a bid to hijack newspaper headlines. Its pitch for public attention comes with a subtext, but one that gets lost in the noise. The deeper grievance is over property – who has a say on how to use public property? For that matter, who has a say on how to use private property? The Abuse of Property highlights the thinkers that have inspired the utopian yearnings of Protest movements such as Extinction Rebellion. The Abuse of Property was first published in German in 2016 in the midst of media focus on the Occupy movement. Occupy has fizzled out in the meantime, but, as Loick writes for the English translation, new protest movements, such as Black Lives Matter and Fridays for Future, sustain its impetus. All are driven, argues Loick, by a rejection of property rights as currently constituted.
In the first half of the book Loicke sets out his reading of two formative thinkers about property rights, namely John Locke and GWF Hegel. For John Locke, anyone had a right to claim a patch of land as his own once he had done work on it. Granted, land was already there before a human set foot on it, however, land was worthless until it was cleared, tilled, and made to bear fruit. What turned a patch of land into a property was work. Locke appealed to his seventeenth-century readers, poised to acquire power abroad and to exclude the unpropertied from power at home. But, Loick writes, the labour theory of property had a blind spot: it gave all to first movers and left latecomers empty-handed.
Loick moves on to Hegel, who started from a different place than Locke. Property for Hegel comes not through work done to a something, but work done by a someone. Property is the tangible projection of the exercise of an individual’s will. Marxists fitted Hegelian terminology to suit their own ends. They thought that Hegel got it right in making property rights the cornerstone of society, but got it wrong in assuming that subjects acquired property as free agents. Rather property projects interests of members of a class rather than of persons. Marxists did credit Hegel however with highlighting the issue of inequality. Although Hegel was not exercised by unequal distribution of property, it troubled him that want of private property diminished scope for personal fulfilment, and that the class of the unpropertied suffered deprivation in the moral as well as the material sense. For this class, Hegel had a term, the rabble. For Loick, Hegel’s rabble finds its voice in today’s squatters.
The second half of Loicke’s book positions, contra Locke and Hegel, Karl Marx and Giorgio Agamben. The pairing is not intuitive. Marx was a materialist who thought religion was opium for the people, Agamben is a close reader of Martin Heidegger who thinks religion is the fount of political philosophy. For Marx, the crux with private property is that the capitalist division of labour enables more and more contributors to produce more and more output, but with more and more of that output going to fewer and fewer contributors. Marx did not object to property, he agitated for its redistribution. Agamben, on the other hand, critiques the concept of ownership per se. For Agamben, received conceptions of property foreground power as the determinative characteristic of property relations, which contaminate relations through the entire social sphere. Agamben lauds Francis of Assisi who identified the crux with private property long before capitalism was up and running. Renouncing property ownership in any shape or form, Franciscans objected to the terms of dominium, the legal cast of ownership of property. For Agamben, Franciscans in this way were close to the Heideggerian ideal of humans realizing their ‘proper essence.’
Given a cap on book length, The Abuse of Property cannot enlarge on every consideration of his theme. Daniel Loick would not have expanded book length unduly, however, had he found space to present new approaches to those schools of thought with which he is in sympathy. If the nexus between property and poverty in Franciscan debates was brought into focus by Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer, there has been extensive treatment of this subject more recently by Giacomo Todeschini. The legal relevance of medieval dominium had a long afterlife in Scotland, where its legislative regime lived on until 2000. Jurists in Scotland are notable also for recent instances of land re-commoning.
Loick makes passing references to philosophical critics of private property, Proudhon, Stirner, Deleuze, Guattari, Hardt, Negri, Adorno, and WEB DuBois. Truly, a crowded field. He might have usefully touched on juridical as well as philosophical critiques of property rights. Twentieth-century legal thought has been reconfiguring the building blocks of property rights into new hybrids. Wesley Hohfeld erased the demarcation lines between Lockean and Hegelian notions of property – property as an object, property as a subject – with his 1913 article, Some Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Judicial Reasoning. For Hohfeld, property incorporated both. From that point on, property theory branched out, into multiple ramifications of conceptions of property as a bundle of rights. For example, Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means in The Modern Corporation and Private Property observed that a new form of property was created by modern corporations, which segregated management and ownership. One of the most cited legal articles of recent decades, The New Property (1964) by Charles Reich, identified social welfare rights as a new form of property. The hybridisation of the Lockean/Hegelian binary building blocks has gone so far that Thomas Grey in The Disintegration of Property has warned that property has become a concept so malleable as to become arbitrary. Were one to follow the Communist Manifesto’s demand, “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property,“ one would need first to resolve the question: property – what property?
At a word length of 30,000 words, The Abuse of Property serves as a primer for readers who want to know more about the deeper motivations of property protesters.