The Power of Property

Leon Trotsky, who had spent some time thinking about the implications of property,drew these lessons about the relationship of property ownership to political power, based on his experience helping to foment the Russian Revolution:

Property is a relation among people. It represents an enormous power so long as it is universally recognised and supported by that system of compulsion called Law and the State. But the very essence of the present situation was that the old state had suddenly collapsed, and the entire old system of rights had been called in question by the masses. In the factories the workers were more and more regarding themselves as the proprietors, and the bosses as uninvited guests. Still less assured were the feelings of the landlords in the provinces, face to face with those surly vengeful muzhiks, and far from that governmental power in whose existence they did for a time, owing to their distance from the capital, believe. The property-holders, deprived of the possibility of using their property, or protecting it, ceased to be real property holders and became badly frightened Philistines who could not give any support to the government for the simple reason that they needed support themselves. They soon began to curse the government for its weakness, but they were only cursing their own fate. [Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Ch. 10.]

Perceptive as it may be in noting the essential legal and state recognition of property as the foundation of its power, Trotsky’s analysis seems to omit a perhaps more subtle factor: popular recognition. Perhaps a state may run such an iron dictatorship that it forces acceptance of political control by the rich on the part of a repressed population fully aware of the injustice of its predicament, but increasingly common since 1917 is the ironic situation in which the mistreated majority voluntarily cooperates with its oppressors. Imagine, for example, that the people all simultaneously remove their savings from Bank X, to punish it for its irresponsible financial games on the stock market or its addiction to fraudulent foreclosure proceedings, and transfer those funds to Bank Y, a professionally- rather than criminally-run bank, a bank–to put it bluntly–with redeeming social value. What then would happen to the undeniably enormous political power that had traditionally flowed from Bank X’s vast property?


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