The right to property must not be inalienable*

Government limitation and enforcement of the duties of property ownership is one of the foundation stones of a good society, not an economic lever.

by Phil Hall

Rather than imagining they are powerful citizens, the ultra rich prefer to believe that they are naturally unconstrained and owe little to individual states. They fantasise they roam the world like Captain Nemo, and assume they have far more rights than duties. But they are only allowed to own what they own by our collective grace.

Everyone lives in a society. It is not possible to become wealthy outside society. The society regulates what people can and cannot own, and what duties those people who own property have to that society. If a person or corporation accumulates too much wealth, then they have done so by skimming off other people’s labour, or their forebears have. Society shouldn’t tolerate the theft and accumulation of other people’s labour by the few.

If a French aristocrat or a great land baron killed the peasants and stole their land, or colonialists conquered and stole the land of the people they colonised – Israel and South Africa and The USA and Australia come immediately to mind. Or a big developer lobbies local and national government and pays bribes and offers inducements to officials, they acquire land and wealth by force. The basis of ownership, hitherto, has been through the violent imposition of ownership by a minority. Therefore, legitimacy and the legitimacy of all forms of ownership can only be expressed and endorsed by a properly constituted democratic state, uncorrupted by the influence of powerful elites, where there is a representative economic, as well as political, democracy.

This need for control of property rights conditioned by the need to ensure the public interest is clearly acknowledged in the European Convention on Human Rights which states that:

(1) Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law. (2) The preceding provisions shall not, however, in any way impair the right of a State to enforce such laws as it deems necessary to control the use of property in accordance with the general interest or to secure the payment of taxes or other contributions or penalties.

The problem lies in the very narrow definition of ‘public interest‘ that gives corporations a legalistic work around and allows them to send their superprofits to hide funk holes in The Caribbean in order to avoid paying a fair amount of taxation, or a definition of public interest that has loopholes in it that allow, for example, water companies to pour human waste in huge quantities into British rivers and the sea.

At the root of the problem of modern capitalist societies are the concepts governing property rights and duties. There should be severe limits set to what can be owned and what cannot be owned. Effectively, nothing is ever really fully privately owned. All property is on loan from a legitimately formed, democratic state.  You may buy your island from a country, but you are not buying a country.

Instead of simply re-nationalisating, (though a few re-nationalisations would be nice) we should reformulate property law. The problem with nationalisation is the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons. In other words, if no one owns something – fishing areas in international waters, for example – then that resource is exploited and exhausted. On a collectivised farm, everything goes to pot and no one takes full responsibility for maintenance.

What is the value of property ownership itself? Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was wrong when he said ‘Property is theft.’ Property is not just theft. Clearly, there is some value to giving people property rights. Property owners look after their property. Property ownership generates value; call it the value of good husbandry. When you complete a transaction, the good husbandry of property has a price tag. It is called Goodwill and people will pay well over the odds for it. Good ownership creates identity, cohesiveness, and permanence. It is worthwhile.

But, ultimately, all property is merely on loan from a legitimate national democratic state. At root, property is is not an inalienable right. It is a right that depends on the agreement of others. Ownership is tolerated and the only permanent ownership – in the people’s name – can be ownership by a democratic – state so long as that state lasts. Property changes hands when the state changes hands. From a constitutional monarchy to a republic, for example. After a revolution, the property of the aristocrats returns to the people. In Cuba, the casinos and brothels became hospitals and schools.

The public highway, the coastline, beaches, land held in trust. These are examples of things which should be owned only by the state and not by individuals or corporations. Individuals and corporate ownership would create privileged access and bottlenecks. It would be deeply unfair.

While trains were used to transport
Photo from Openverse: current regulations regarding ownership are a trainwreck.

Limit the right to own property

 Limit the right to property and expand the notion of the duties of property holders fully. There are effective ways of doing this.

Essentially, property ownership is a civil right, like other civil rights. However, contrast the way the rights and duties of property holders are handled with the way other civil rights and duties are handled. The duties of property owners seem far too ‘negotiable’ and flexible.

Parliament should have more to say on the duties and limitations on ownership. Property ownership should be treated as other citizens’ rights and duties are treated. The duties of people who own land, animals, machines, buildings and other resources should be based on principles of social good, they should not be bargaining chips to attract capital and generate investment.

The right to avoid paying taxes or to pollute the land, rivers and sea should not be framed in terms of ‘deregulation’ and ‘incentivisation’. The way the government enforces the duty of property ownership is one of the foundation stones of a good society, not simply an economic lever.

There must be severe limits on ownership. The reality of ownership should operate more like a renewable license. For example. If you own a certain number of shares in a company, then you should be licensed to own them. You should only be allowed to own a certain amount of shares in a defined set of circumstances. In this way, no one would be able to become unfairly, stinking rich.

Use this concept of extending a license, for example, in order to limit and regulate speculative activity in the financial and commodity markets. Curtail property rights that are overextended. Link property ownership much more closely to civic responsibility and, operating in the public interest, rescind property rights when there is evidence of civic irresponsibility.

The right to property ownership is not inalienable, it is a civil right and to own something carries with it a civic duty. Your car must be licensed and in good working order. It should not pollute. You need to be licensed to drive it. You must follow the highway code.

Property ownership raises moral questions. Certain levels of ownership cannot be licensed. This has always been the case, but it is a matter of degree. Democratically elected governments should adopt a new far tougher approach to the rights and duties of property ownership.

Treat property ownership more like other citizens’ rights and duties and reformulate them in terms of licenses and leases. If a company or an individual pollutes or makes super profits, or bribes, lobbying and corrupting politicians, then it should immediately be taken back into public ownership and stay there.

  • Article updated, amended and adapted from an original article I published in 2008

The Consciousness Economy

We need socialism if we don’t want to turn into capitalism’s cyborgs

The distinction between humans and intelligent machines is consciousness, so in future we must all seek jobs which require consciousness

by Phil Hall

Machines will soon be able to do a lot of the physical work and some of the intellectual work of human beings. At one end of the scale, machines will do machine-like tasks. They will also be able to build machines like themselves. At the other end of the scale, they will do complex things like detecting illnesses and then curing them, or arranging ameliorating treatments. Machines will have more advanced states of knowledge of different kinds modelled electronically in their systems, and they will be able to act on that knowledge.

But machines are not conscious. Everything machines do is without consciousness. And this is true for the foreseeable future. Almost all we know about consciousness, apart from the broad brush insights coming from anesthesia and neurology, invokes correlation, and rationalisation in hindsight, not causation. Consciousness is much better understood from the inside; from the perspective of subjectivity and the mind, not objectivity and the brain – or AGI (artificial general intelligence) homunculi.

Consciousness is much better understood from the inside; from the perspective of subjectivity and the mind, not objectivity and the brain – or AGI homunculi.

Consciousness has arisen in the universe in a kind of invisible, second Big Bang. At a certain point, it sparked off. The world was full of billiard balls and energy and then, bang! Consciousness! Consciousness, like life itself, doesn’t arrive randomly out of electronic circuits just as life doesn’t arrive randomly when amino acids are shaken together and electricity is pulsed through the swirling mixture.

Stella coffee maker, photo Phil Hall

But consciousness, once evolved, can spread order into the universe. It is a powerful force. Let’s think of a simple example: in the anthropocene, if we decide that we love our planet and all life in it then that has a powerful effect on the planet. Life, emotion and even the higher emotions like compassion and creativity can shape whole worlds.

Consciousness has arisen in the universe in a kind of invisible, second big bang.

You can say that once life evolved consciousness emerged through evolution. The survival mechanism at the core. But evolution doesn’t answer the question. Why survive? What is the point of survival? Survival for what? It is not enough to refer to evolution. One must ask what is going on? Where, reductio ad absurdum, some people argue that consciousness is at the service of the genetic code, I would argue that the meaning of the genetic code is to give rise to an expanded consciousness; the genetic code is at the service of consciousness.

The ‘Why survive?’ question behind the adaptive evolutionary mechanism will be, in my opinion, answered through understanding the nature of consciousness.

consciousness emerged through evolution. … But evolution doesn’t answer the question. Why survive? What is the point of survival? Survival for what?

We do not understand the nature of consciousness despite the attempts to plant flags of conquest in its undiscovered country. Consciousness cannot be broken down into smaller components. You can’t convincingly solve a problem by redefining that problem in your own image. Redefining the reality doesn’t change that reality. For example, a putative scale of consciousness conflates the notion of intelligence with awareness. Artificial General Intelligence is not consciousness. And consciousness is not superfluous to requirements. Just because something cannot be explained doesn’t mean it does not exist.

Who is convinced that a child, or an animal feels less pain? Who believes that suffering is more intense because a human can do more mathematics than a frog?

Rose, photo Phil Hall

Consciousness leaves a clear opening for human beings.

In future, we should all train for jobs that require human consciousness; where human consciousness adds or creates value – for other humans. Now, this may not sound very clear, but it really is.

All literature, all cinema, all theatre, all craft, all music, all philosophy, all spirituality, all teaching, the law, all mental health work, all, compassionate work, all world building, the cultivation o new varieties, all cooking, all sports, all architecture all design, all sociological work, all religion, all political work, all economic choices and creative hypothesis formation in the sciences are jobs that are in what I term the consciousness economy. This is not the same ‘consciousness economy’ as that depicted by the purveyors of mindfulness.

All kinds of work, even the most manual, can be consciousness work.

Take, for example, cooking. You know what you like. But what you like is also conditioned by your experience and your thoughts about food, about the world. So your choice of food is a question of consciousness, not merely nutritional optimisation and an analysis of the flavours human beings usually like. So now, when you cook, what you produce is the result of your consciousness. Think of a mother making food for her children. So something as basic as cooking, as practical, can be a job in consciousness. Now this goes for almost everything.

The reason why it would not be the case is simply convenience and affordability. A machine can produce a pastry, for example, every few seconds. But you love your mother’s pie, her pasty, her empanada. As AI progresses, in a socialist world, we will be in a society of surplus. And when we are, instead of always eating AI’s pastries, as humans we will prefer to visit the corner shop and try Ms Best’s famous pie, or Calum Franklin’s in the Holborn Pie Room.

The problem comes in a society of scarcity. In a society of scarcity we will buy the lamp in the shop. But in a society of surplus we will have the hand made lamp. Poorer Europeans shop at Iceland for frozen food and get prefab furniture kits from IKEA. Wealthy Europeans boast hand made and hand carved furniture and hand made furniture, and they shop at Harrods or Selfridge’s, where the food is usually fresh and hand made.

Chapel Matisse, photo Phil Hall

The reason why this has not been clarified is because of a failure in the general culture; a failure to understand of the meaning of the term AI and a failure to understand of the meaning of consciousness.

This distinction between intelligence and consciousness has been wilfully obscured for political, not scientific, reasons; the plan is not to replace humans with machines, that’s silly, but to turn humans into programmable units subservient to machines within the broader context of a capitalist economy.

The job of technology in capitalism is to subsume human behaviour into great networks to monitor and influence

The job of technology in capitalism is to subsume human behaviour into great networks, to monitor and influence, to modify human behaviour and adapt and incorporate our individual and group consciousnesses into the economy in such a way that it benefits our society’s apex predators. We see the process of capture all around us; algorithms are designed to capture attention and manipulate human behaviour.

My uncle, David Hall, was a pioneer of the computer human interface working at the Stanford research Institute in the 60s and 70s. He said that computing roboticises humans. That pogramming roboticises programmers. The danger then comes when we adapt. And this is precisely the nature of capitalism. It is a pecking order. The feeders at the top. They would like us to be embedded in their machine. This is becoming a new Procrustean world with no appeal or recourse. Kafka the prophet!

Sweets in a Venetian shop, photo Phil Hall

So, for example, all creative work is consumed. Artists create works to help expand and feed the consciousness of the wealthy. The capitalist consciousness of the super rich is a heightened, vampiric consciousness. The apex predators consume consciousness when they eat food prepared by a great chef, when they live in luxury bespoke houses, when they sit on designer furniture, or ride in elegant one off cars. The work of a thousand scientists takes them up in a rocket to experience weightlessness and have the unique feeling of seeing the Earth from space. Real wealth is measured in qualia.

They would like us to be embedded in their machine with neuralinks attached.

The difference between the extremely wealthy and you and I is that they feed on creative consciousness and on a delightful assortment of select, raw qualia. The rest of us survive on mass produced off the peg everything, on products designed for mass consumption. They feed on beauty and lives and the time of other people at their disposal, on products and services tailor made and created by talented souls for their consumption.

Guitarist in El Parque Nacional Uruapan, photo Eve Hall

In old-fashioned Marxist terms, the 0.1% feed on labour surplus, on other people’s creativity – and on the bounty of nature which they have a more exclusive access to.

Walter Benjamin tried to get close to the idea of the fruits of consciousness with his concept of ‘aura’. What is that special quality that differentiates a work of art from copies, or the objects produced through the computations of a machine?

That quality is consciousness.

Black Lives Matter a lot in Cuba … since 1959

Cuban culture vigorously celebrates its African-ness

by Francisco Dominguez

When in 1868, Cuban slave-owner Manuel de Céspedes embarked on a 10-year nationalist uprising against Spain, the colonial master, he did not imagine he would be building not only the political bases of an independent Cuba but also the ideological blocks of a new Cuban identity.

Scholars correctly point out that Ten Years War (1868-78) turned out to be the “crucible of mass [Cuban] nationalism” since for the first time ever “blacks and whites… joined together” in the struggle for independence. About 70 percent of the fighters and officers were black or mulatto, and therefore, racist concerns that could make Cuba another Haiti, arose among the reluctant pro-independence white elite. In the second independence war (1895-98) Blacks may have contributed with over 85 percent of the rank and file soldiers, thus exacerbating white elite misgivings about independence.

It is well known that Cuba’s elite, upon being conceded a heavily US-protected independence in 1903, robbed blacks of the fruits of the victory they did more than anybody else to achieve. They were excluded from the police force (officers “had to be White, with fucking blue eyes…” – ex-slave in 1968 interview), but also from the civil service, parliament, and from just about every public sphere. Thus black people rebelled against discrimination in 1912, which was brutally crushed with about 3,000 of them were slaughtered.

Thus by 1959, on the eve of Fidel’s Revolution, the Black population was overwhelmingly poor, were overrepresented among the prison population, had the lowest educational levels, including high levels of illiteracy and chronic unemployment, inhabited squalid lodgements and neighbourhoods or tenements (solares), and were de facto discriminated in every other sphere of social, political and cultural life, which included even public spaces such as parks, i.e. they suffered from institutionalised racism. The promise of equality proclaimed by the republic was by 1959 thoroughly unfulfilled, despite formal laws that abstractly condemned racism and discrimination.

Additionally all forms of discrimination were abolished by the Cuban Revolution starting from an open debate on the issue

Fidel’s revolution ensured full employment on egalitarian bases, many of the jobs created where in industry, social services, health, education and high technology sectors, which recruited year after large number of skilled labour that the comprehensive, universal and free education system was churning out, year in, year out. The significance of this was monumental since by 1959 Cuba’s Black population was about half of the total. In this period 106 social programmes were implemented and instituted.

Cuba has contributed in very practical ways to the liberation struggle of Algeria, Ghana, Congo, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia, South Africa, and a few others

Additionally all forms of discrimination were abolished by the Cuban Revolution starting from an open debate on the issue to which Fidel invited intellectuals, academics, activists, workers, social organizations, members of political parties, and others. Among the many conclusions and decisions coming out of the debate came books, articles, and the promotion of important national and international events in Black History. The constitution prohibits any form of discrimination based on race, gender or ethnic origin, and all relevant institutions educate Cubans from a tender age on the ethical and philosophical principles that all human beings are equal.  Cuban culture vigorously celebrates its African-ness through music, carnivals, and the very widespread practice of Santería, an Afro-Cuban religion brought by slaves to Cuba in the 17th century.

José Antonio Aponte Ulabarra
José Antonio Aponte Ulabarra

Many Black men and women since 1959, have had access to the highest levels of politics, science, education, technology and social life in general. A former British MP struck a powerful chord when he said this truth: Cuba is the only country on earth where the daughter of a sugar cane cutter, could become a medical doctor. Yet some racist social and cultural attitudes persist, but they pale into insignificance compared to advanced countries, such as the U.S. or the U.K. The current Cuban government led by Miguel Diaz-Canel has launched a comprehensive government programme, called Aponte Commission, after José Antonio Aponte, leader of the 1812 slave rebellion, to combat it. Unlike ‘civilized’ countries where statues for slave traffickers and racist generals have been erected.

Cuba is the only country on earth where the daughter of a sugar cane cutter, could become a medical doctor.

And, there is the role socialist Cuba has played in Africa, where its manifestations of solidarity have, on more than one occasion risked the very existence of the revolution itself, such as in Angola both in 1975 and 1987 when Fidel, at the request of the MPLA pro-independence movement requested military assistance, of which he sent sufficient to defeat both Western powers intervention and Apartheid South African elite troops.

Cuba has contributed in very practical ways to the liberation struggle of Algeria, Ghana, Congo, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia, South Africa, and a few others. No wonder, the very first country Nelson Mandela visited after its release from prison in 1991,even though he received red-carpet invitations to many ‘weighty’ countries in the world, was Cuba. At the gigantic rally held in Havana to welcome him Mandela said:

The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa. The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom, and justice, unparalleled for its principled and selfless character.From its earliest days the Cuban revolution has itself been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people.”

Yes, for Socialist Cuba Black Lives Do Matter.

Dr Francisco Dominguez is a senior lecturer at Middlesex University, where he is head of the Research Group on Latin America. He is National Secretary of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign. Dominguez came to Britain in 1979 as a Chilean political refuge. Ever since he has been active on Latin American issues, about which he has written and published extensively. He is co-author of Right wing politics in the New Latin America, Zed Books.

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