Blog post

The real definition of "Private Property"

The elite fear the destruction of their property, yes, but even more they fear the destruction of the social relations that make private property possible. And so they fear a world without police.

Verso Books 5 June 2020

The real definition of "Private Property"

An excerpt from Police: A Field Guide by David Correia and Tyler Wall.

Private property does not merely describe a relation between an owner and a thing. It is a social relation—the right to exclude—shot through with violence. If I take food from a grocery store, drive a car off a dealer’s lot, or move into your spare bedroom, and I do it without permission, without paying, and, most importantly, without punishment or fear of punishment, then we cannot say food and cars and spare bedrooms are private property. Without the enforcement of an exclusive claim there is no private property. Private property is therefore always based on force, which is to say that there is no private property without violence.

The capitalist state defends private property rights. “The first and chief design of every system of government,” according to Adam Smith,“is to maintain justice: to prevent the members of society from encroaching on one another’s property, or seizing what is not their own. The design here is to give each one the secure and peaceable possession of his own property.”1  Justice, in other words, is found in the realm of property. The state’s use of violence to enforce property relations is how capitalism defends what it considers just. To speak of enforcement is to speak of police. Property is thus a form of police violence. In Smith’s day, the word “police” referred to an expansive authority to regulate commerce and property. The section titled “Police” in his Lectures on Jurisprudence explained the general principles of law and government as the domain of police. “The objects of police,” according to Smith, “are the cheapness of commodities, public security and cleanliness.”2  In particular “whatever regulations are made with respect to the trade, commerce, agriculture, manufactures of the country are considered as belonging to the police.”3  The point of all this property policing is to produce “liberty”—freedom from coercion, freedom from violence, freedom to pursue one’s fullest potential. The irony, of course, is that the freedom from coercion and violence that capitalism promises is a freedom delivered at the end of a cop’s nightstick. The “invisible hand of the market” is attached to the strong arm of the law.

Private property, established through force, has transformed the world we live in. And it was and is the job of police to patrol the landscapes of private property, to enforce these boundaries and barriers, walls and enclosures. Thus property might best be understood as a police category. Police arrest the trespasser, evict the squatter, and foreclose on the jobless homeowner. Encroachment on private property is a threat to capitalist order, and it is police who manage this threat.

Private property requires violence. Consider the law of adverse possession, for example. The owner of real property—a suburban house or a city lot or a rural pasture—is required to announce and sustain an exclusive claim to property through a variety of acts—paying taxes, erecting fences and “no trespassing” signs, mailing eviction notices to renters who are in arrears, making improvements, and more. These are all performances of an ongoing, exclusive claim. If an owner does not perform these acts, another may do so and claim ownership. Violence too is among the required performances of property. The state of Florida’s Justifiable Use of Force Statute, also known as Stand Your Ground, describes violence as among property’s rights. If a person has “a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm,” the law permits the use of lethal force, but only if an aggressor “had unlawfully and forcibly entered a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle.” The law, however, forbids the use of lethal violence in that same circumstance if the aggressor “has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling, residence, or vehicle, such as an owner, lessee, or titleholder.” In other words, as far as the law is concerned, the authority of the state to sanction the use of violence exists only in the context of a property relation. People do not have an unalloyed right to kill, but property owners do.

Property relations are violent relations, and property has always been a racialized category. Historically, the law has elevated the property claims made by white people. Consider the history of the slave patrol in the Virginias and Carolinas, for example. We should understand the work of the slave patrol as a defense of whiteness as an exclusive property claim—a property claim that extended over Black life. And what happens when the oppressed rise up and riot in challenge to the privileges and whiteness of property? The elite fear the destruction of their property, yes, but even more they fear the destruction of the social relations that make private property possible. And so they fear a world without police.

1 Smith, Adam, Lectures on Jurisprudence, Oxford University Press, 1978, 5.

2 Ibid., 398.

3 Ibid., 5.


[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
This book armed activists on the streets—as well as the many who have become concerned about police abuse—with a critical analysis and ultimately a redefinition of the very idea of policing. The b...
Paperback (2018)

Filed under: police, policing