Rousseau, Marx and Property

In today’s society, property is something taken for granted. No one questions what property is; the only consideration these days is limited to the acquisition, ownership, and dominion of property. Rousseau’s notion of property is quite different. For him, property is an evil thing; or rather, property, and the desire for it, is what brought about the status of inequality in society.

He claims that society will complete a circle of evolution in three stages wherein man will return to his original, savage nature, minus his purity, under the rule of a despot, where he has nothing. For Marx, the abolition of private property and of the state will bring liberation to man and will make him more truly himself, through communism. Rousseau’s gradual evolution is a better view than Marx’s revolutionary upheaval, although the latter is already in practice in some states, because the idea of ownership is almost second nature in man.

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According to Rousseau (1754), there are two forms of inequality in human kind, the first being natural or physical, and the second moral or political. He states that this second kind of inequality consists of different privileges which some men enjoy to the detriment of others, like being richer, more honored, or more powerful. It is context in which he discusses the notion of property. For Rousseau, the problem with property is that, quoting Locke, it is the source of injury.

Although he does not advocate the complete abolition of property, he believes that property is the cause of innumerable tragedies experienced by man, such as crime and war, and that mankind would have been spared from such evils if they kept in mind that “the fruits of the earth are everyone’s property and that the land is no one’s property” (Rousseau 1745). He explains that as long as men are content with what they have, everything remains peaceful, and trouble begins when they begin wanting more.

With the introduction of the notion of property, he claims that work became indispensable, because man could only own the fruits of his labor. With this development came the principle of justice, in that in order for man to be given what is his, he must have something to be given in the first place. However, because of natural or physical inequality, even men who worked equally hard did not achieve the same results. Physical inequality enriched some and disadvantaged other, causing a rift to fall between those physically, or mentally, blessed on those who can only hope to be as much.

As the rift widened, the moral inequality blighted man’s existence. It occurred with such abundance that, soon, the ambition and greed made men turn to war and slavery. For Rousseau, property, or goods, is an alienable thing, unlike a person’s liberty, and property may be abused, while liberty should not. He completes his discourse by saying that inequality as it exists was made possible because of the permanence and legitimacy given to it by the establishment of property and laws. In the end, man’s greed for wealth will result in the rule of a despot, wherein man will return to the rule of the strongest.

For Marx (1844), the problem with property, or with private property, is that human beings lose themselves in things, and believe that they have property only when they are able to use it. He divides private property into objective and subjective states, the first being private property as labor, something internal to man, and the second as the external aspect, or private property as owned and used by man. For Marx, man’s existence is one which began with the slightest of needs, but society cursed itself when it attached so much value to private property.

Man’s obsession with private property led to his estrangement from his true self as a social being, making him un-free. Marx’s solution to this estrangement is communism, wherein the notion of private property is once and for all abolished and is passed on to a central body composed of the proletariat (Marx 1888). In a communist society, everything is owned in common and held for the common interest, thereby eliminating envy, greed, and jealousy. Thus, in communism, everyone becomes more fully human, and thus, becomes truly free.

The concept of communism is first made evident when man realizes his estrangement, finally culminating in armed conflict, a revolution bringing about the resolution of the conflict between existence and being – the complete restoration of man to himself (Marx 1844). Evidently, there are similarities between the ideas of these two great men, as Marx was undoubtedly influenced by Rousseau’s works. In both, property derives a negative connotation, as the precursor of inequality in society. Both advocate a return to the basic nature of man, and strive for his liberation from the evils of society that keep him chained.

However, for Rousseau, property is something completely alienable and external to man, whereas for Marx, with his two-fold notion of property as both external and internal to man, it cannot be. Also, though Rousseau describes the evolution of society, he does not provide a clear solution to the problem presented by property and its effects, whereas Marx proposes a definite course of action. Rousseau’s reasoning is more plausible, given that man, even in his earliest stages of development, was motivated by his instinct for self-preservation, which entails some form of property ownership, just enough for him to survive.

In modern day, his ideas are manifested through continued developments in science and society. At one point in man’s history, he lived in the crudest of shelters, but today he has built shells of concrete, metal and wood. Man continually endeavors to better himself, incidentally leading others to higher levels and standards. Although Rousseau mentions the rule of a despot and may be mistaken for advocating tyranny, the totality of his works present themselves as the basis for modern democracy (Li 2000), with the weak being represented by the strong, or, at least, presenting itself to be on equal footing.

If man is to change, the only change he will be willing to accept is a gradual, almost imperceptible kind. The change, however, that Marx desires is an abrupt change, brought about by armed conflict. If indeed property causes violence, how can it be corrected or solved by something equally violent? This is mainly where the philosophy of Marx diverges from Rousseau’s. Marx argues that for man to be truly free, he must conform to the idea that everything belongs to everyone, and he must subject himself to the rule and will of the state as a people, not as an extension of the government’s authority.

Ironically, however, his concept of absolute freedom involves subjugation; the provision of labor is expected of every man, but he is not entitled to the fruits thereof, as all property belongs to all men through the state. This in itself is a form of bondage, indentured labor to satisfy an ideal which supposedly espouses freedom. Rousseau, on the other hand, idealizes a system turning into a chaotic state, torn by envy, jealousy, and greed until man yearns for moral equality. In so doing, the chaotic system makes every attempt to return to some semblance of equilibrium, where, once again, the strong govern and the weak are governed.

Rousseau separates property from liberty, by saying that property is merely a convention of human institution, and thus they may dispose of it as they please, whereas liberty is something inherent in man, incapable of alienation and protected from abuse (that liberty cannot be alienated and while one might disabuse himself of the notion of liberty, that in itself is a liberty any may enjoy). The evolution of society enabled man to exercise his freedom through the establishment of government, a contract between the people and the heads they choose, to govern and be governed.

This is society as it exists today. There are governments existing today actualizing Marx’s ideals that are far from validating his claim that the abolition of private property is the solution to inequality. It is a fairytale without, unfortunately, a fairytale ending. Although then, Rousseau too, was so naive as to believe in an innocent savagery. The desire for property may cause evils in society, but man is perfectly capable of transcending this desire and liberating himself from the pernicious effects of excess.