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125 What Is Property? Property usually refers to all the things we own and use in order to survive well. If we’re lucky we own a home and a car, as well as an array of other material bits and pieces—the “stuff” that gives us comfort, status, identity, and pleasure. If we’re businesspeople, our property might include all the things our business needs to operate successfully—whether it’s the merchandise we sell or the land, plant, and equipment that make up a production facility. When we think of property we inevitably think of private property, the legal mechanism that gives us the right to use and control what we own and to reap the rewards that come from ownership. Private property gives us a sense of security. Take housing, for example. All over the world, people aspire to own their own home so they have a space that’s “theirs”—a space they can decorate and change as they like, a space in which they can invest their time and labor, a space from which they can derive enjoyment and pleasure. But private property also means exclusion. The sign “Private Property—Keep Out!” puts this message bluntly. Private ownership designates who has rights of access and use and who can derive benefit from the property. Private property is seen as one of the founding pillars of modern democracies. Property-owning individuals are seen as independent sovereign beings, no longer obligated 5. Take Back Property Commoning 126   take back property to landlords or attached to a clan, who can freely exercise their democratic rights. Of course this vision traditionally excluded the rights of women and slaves, who, until not that long ago, were considered forms of private property and denied a democratic vote. Private property is also seen as one of the foundations of modern economies. The argument goes that land and other resources are best placed in the hands of private owners who will look after them and use them productively. Of course this ignores the countless ways that this productivity rests on shared assets like the common law and the earth’s gifts. The prominence that is given to private property overshadows other forms of property that are also essential to our well-being. Public property , for example, is owned by a government or authority and managed on the behalf of citizens and residents for their benefit. And when it comes to our most basic well-being, survival depends on many things that are not formally owned—our atmosphere, for example, or our water sources, sunlight, the resources of the sea, and our shared intellectual property. These are forms of open-access property that can benefit all. But often there are no formal rules of ownership and use, and, as a result, these essential resources are all too easily degraded and abused. Today there is a push for the privatization of public property. Governments and organizations are portrayed as unwieldy, inefficient managers of public property who should step aside and let private owners take charge. Everything is up for grabs, from roads and water supplies to parklands and libraries. Privateownershipisalsopresentedasthemostefficientmeansofmanaging open-access resources. Privatization is occurring via a sell-off of rights to familiar resources such as water, fisheries, forests, and minerals, as well as new “resources” such as carbon emissions. It is also occurring via the taking of resources that are supposedly “idle.” The long-standing knowledge resources of Indigenous communities are being pirated and commercialized by private companies in a new wave of colonization. The deep-sea floor is being privately mined for copper and gold, and the Arctic Circle is being mined for iron ore and other resources. This period of privatization is beginning at the very time that our global circumstances demand not just collective thinking and acting 127   take back property but a move away from the boundary making that separates mine from yours and you from me. Can we take back property and better care for the resources that sustain all who inhabit this planet? We think we can, but we need to reconsider the ways we relate to the things around us, and we especially need to reconsider the privileging of private property. In the Northern Territory of Australia, Aboriginal people are caring for “their” land not just for their immediate benefit as “owners” but for the good of the wider Australian population. They are creating an “us” that acknowledges the interdependence between humans in very different circumstances...


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MARC Record
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