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A Reflection on ‘Property Rights vs Human Rights’

A Reflection on Property Rights

I found myself thinking about property rights recently. The uprising occurring nationwide has left storefronts destroyed and the toppling of statues is picking up. The media has, as always, been quick to demonize what is going on and has pointed to antifa, black blocs, and white anarchists as the culprits. Putting aside how that framing manipulates of the struggles of oppressed people,I found myseld looking for a historical reference to property rights as they relate to damage during civil unrest. I found an essay by Lucy Parsons written in 1905 called ‘Property Rights vs Human Rights’.

She provides an analysis of why property rights supersede human rights and how the institutions that uphold it create unnecessary work to support it. The distinction between unnecessary/useless work and useful labor is one that has special relevance today with the societal shifts going on with COVID-19. The terms ‘essential worker’ has become more and more common during this time as a way of describing the workers and the respective industries necessary to keep society running. This shifts have also highlighted how little power these workers have in their workplace and the precarious conditions endured on a daily basis.

Lucy Parsons
Lucy Parsons

It’s also interesting that within this discourse the other part of the workforce is not mentioned. If ‘essential workers’ perform necessary work, what does the rest of the labor force do and what are they called? By omission, they inhabit the space of ‘unessential work’ and the nature of this work is what Lucy Parsons highlighted brilliantly. The ‘unessential workers’ here are the class of workers whose main responsibility is to maintain property rights and the systems that support it. This class of worker are not needed to sustain civilization. The nature of their labor is to protect, uphold, and also benefit from private property and property rights. The value of useful labor performed by essential workers is also extracted to sustain private property and property rights, yet the class of essential workers has little to no share in it. Their labor and wages are extracted through rent across all facets of their lives.

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