This article was written by Will Sharkey, a member of Plan C. 

On the 14th of June 2017 a fire started in a tower block, largely populated by working-class people, in one of the most affluent areas of London. This fire should have been unremarkable and easily extinguished, but this turned out to not be the case. A terrible blaze consumed the building, the homes of hundreds of people and, most tragically, no fewer than 80 residents. Chronic under-funding and under-development of social housing made re-homing those in desperate need almost impossible. In response to this urgent situation some argued that it was morally permissible to expropriate properties in close proximity which were not being, and would not be, used as homes. Yet, this proposal was met with complete indignation by the establishment, many of whom would prefer to see people, rather than a property deed, burn. The debate shifted to the question: ‘does the right to a home trump a person’s right to private property?’. But, before we can answer this, we need to think about the presuppositions that this question rests on: asking instead, ‘what is a right?’ and ‘does a person have a right to private property?’

Rights are often viewed as absolute and inviolable. I have an absolute right to walk down Above Bar Street in Southampton (Christ knows why I’d want to) and you do harm (mostly, but not exclusively, to me) if you hinder my attempt to pursue this endeavour. Similarly, I have an absolute right to bodily integrity – I choose whether or not to participate in some genital bumping with the person(s) who demonstrated interest in this, AND I reserve the right to remove myself from this activity at any moment of my choosing. I also decide what medications to take, what food I inhale and what drink I spill down the front of me. While these rights may (I’m not committing myself to anything, yet) be absolute, other rights are not. We realise this when rights come into conflict with each other. Take the following case as an example of such a conflict:

Anne is a keen gardener and has spent years cultivating her ornamental garden. Beatrice has just moved next door to Anne – to celebrate moving to a new home, Beatrice plants an oak tree in her back garden. After a couple of years, Beatrice’s tree grows so large that it cuts the light out of Anne’s garden thus starving the decorative flowers of light and killing them. Needless to say, Anne is pretty furious. Anne knocks on Beatrice’s door and asks her nicely to chop the tree down. Beatrice is unwilling to do this: the mighty oak tree is a symbol for her laying fresh roots down in a new home and she has the right to grow whatever she wants. It is, after all, her garden. Anne acknowledges that Beatrice has the right to grow whatever she wants in her garden, however, Anne would like to Beatrice to recognize that she, too, has the same right and ought to, therefore, be able to grow her ornamental plants as she pleases. Her plans for her garden should not be determined by her neighbours’ plans for theirs.

Both parties here seem to be in the right. Each person should be able to do what they want with their garden. It is, after all, their property.

How this case plays out is a matter for the local authority. What matters is that both persons do have such a right, and these rights are in tension.

Here is another, actual, case where rights come into tension:

You have just been made homeless due to a huge fire which spread throughout your building because, according to our best evidence, the local authority did not ensure that fairly minimal safety standards were met. You have a right to a home and there are several vacant properties in the area that are not lived in. Indeed, the owners of these properties have a) never lived in them, b) have no intention of living in them, c) do not treat them as ‘homes’ but as ‘investments’. We, for the sake of argument, shall assume that these property owners would not grant consent for those who have just been made homeless to live there – even temporarily. They have an absolute right to their private property, and this right includes the right to exclude others from the use of the thing itself (this is really just what ‘private’ means in ‘private property’).

So, again, a set of rights have an antagonistic relation to each other. The property rights of the owner; the right to a home by the victim(s) of a tragedy.

The above example is, of course, the situation for those who survived the fire that devoured Grenfell Tower in perhaps the most painful visual metaphor for society after Tory austerity to date.

What do we do with those now homeless? Can we find them accommodation in less densely populated areas of the country? Perhaps not. The majority of the residents have substantial support networks in the area and many have children in local schools. Finding accommodation further afield is not really a viable option as this would have a profound (negative) effect on the well-being of those who are already traumatized following a harrowing incident in which ~80 died. Scattering people who have a shared experience around the country may (will) rob them of the opportunity to seek solace in some of the few people who will understand what it’s like to go through such an ordeal.

The proposed solution is to expropriate the empty properties held by those who do not, and have never, used them as homes (and who, as far as we can tell, never intend on using them as a home). Compensation for any devaluation/property damage that occurs as a result of the expropriation will be paid. The state will also pay for the inconvenience of the expropriation itself. This seems to me like a good immediate solution, but, as twitter informs me, there are those who are aggressively ill-at-ease with the thought. Those with fury-worn keyboards tended to find themselves amongst three distinct argument types:

1. This would set a precedent and foreign property-investment would be jeopardized as a consequence.
2. There should have been investment in social housing such that were such a crisis to occur, there would have been the infrastructure to deal with it.
3. The property relation to the owner forms the basis for most property relations in the U.K. (and, indeed, in most countries) and this very relation would be undermined (in the general instance) were expropriation to occur. That is to say, our economy has private property as its presupposition. If the institution of private property is undermined (especially by state expropriation), capitalism would be undermined (by state socialism).

On the first objection raised, it’s not clear that this would have a negative effect. Private investment from foreign parties inflates the price of property and removes buildings (that could potentially be used as homes) from circulation. If we were to expropriate unused buildings from foreign (or even resident) investors (even permanently), what would we lose?

On the second objection raised, this might be true – but it doesn’t help those who have been made homeless now. Are we prepared to leave these people homeless because governments have reneged on their responsibilities and don’t have a time-machine? The obviously true statement that governments have been failing to build enough social housing does not help those who need it today, and I suspect it shall be little consolation to them.

The third objection is the most interesting and, probably, the most robust objection. If we have a legally recognised and legally supported system of private property in place, we must recognise the legal and moral right of the owner to a) do what she wants with her property (I can buy two cars and set them on a collision course, I can buy a first-edition book and use it to fuel a bonfire), and b) exclude others from using that property, regardless of their reasons for doing so (indeed, no reasons need to be given by the owner to the party excluded). We acknowledge that the law does, as a matter of actual fact, observe and protect the rights of property owners, the question that really ought to be asked is, is this property relation legitimate?

I see no reason why a person has an absolute, inviolable, right to private property. There are certain things, certain preconditions, required to live a good life. The ability to exclude others from using your stuff does not seem to be one of them. Indeed, rules facilitating excluding others from using ‘stuff’ seems to be a precondition for ensuring that there exists a great deal of people who are not able to live a good life. The privatization of water, land, other natural resources, education, technology, medicine &c. ensures that those who own little live at the mercy of those who own lots. In several parts of Latin America, water has been commodified and several people go without clean drinking water for extended periods of time. This is a completely nightmarish scenario where a basic human need is not being met and, further, is not being met because it doesn’t pay private companies to invest more in infrastructure that would alleviate this problem. Further, scarcity is manufactured, across this and many other sectors, to mitigate the effects of cheap labour to increase the price of necessary goods. Not only does this keep costs high, it keeps people desperate, too.

Where did this system of private property come from? How can an oil company drill into a sea-bed held in common, extract oil (which belongs, at this point, to all of us) and sell it back to the population (the very people who owned it a few moments ago) for eye-watering profits? How is it fair that I put a fence around an apple tree in a field, call the apple tree ‘mine’, and start charging people for apples that, hitherto, belonged in common, to everyone? This is the problem of ‘original acquisition’ and it is essentially the problem of public theft, ecological plunder, captive-population ransom, the mortification of social relations and the promotion of aggressive individualism. The sort of individualism that makes legitimate the view that a person’s right to private property (again, even when not used) trumps a person’s right to a roof over their head. For let’s not get confused. We are not talking about expropriating homes here. We are talking about expropriating buildings that are not used and certainly not used as homes.

To return to a much earlier point about the varying degrees of ‘absoluteness’ of rights, the right to a home is an absolute right, whereas private property is not.

What does private property give us that common property does not anyhow? Of course, I mean apart from poverty, precarity, anxiety, alienation, isolation and depression.

We should expropriate buildings that would make suitable homes for those who have none. We should expropriate the means of production from capitalists who plunder natural resources and exploit workers so that they can take goods out of circulation, thus preventing those who need them from getting them. We should promote any policy that encourages us to recognize the inherent dignity and humanity of an ‘other’. We can achieve this through municipality. We can achieve this by demolishing the structure that serves only to secure the interests of those who own; namely, the state.

Omnia Sunt Communia

Omnia Sunt Omnes

Everything to be held in common.

Everything for everyone.