Property and Power in Social Theory: A Study in Intellectual Rivalry

By Dick Pels | Go to book overview

Jurists and political economists are often absorbed in definitory conflicts over the precise demarcation between detention, possession, and property; the juridical theory of property is itself parcelled out over disparate technical branches such as the law of realty and the law of persons, family law and public law. Political philosophers and political historians still do not talk much to sociologists and economists, while the latter have long remained imprisoned in sociologically weak theories of distribution. Critical sociologists have duly signalled the ‘common neglect of property institutions’ in their discipline (Gouldner 1958:9), complaining that the contemporary sociology of property presents ‘an extremely fragmented appearance’ (Hollowell 1982:18). 1 In the case of power, concentrated and comprehensive multidisciplinary studies appear less sparse, although some version of MacIver’s observation that there exists ‘no reasonable adequate study of the nature of social power’ (1947:458) is echoed by many modern students of society and politics.

It is correct to say that politically committed strands of theorizing have more successfully resisted this risk of fragmentation than mainstream academic thought. Marxism, for example, has consistently presented the property question as the pivotal question of political economy and the revolutionary movement, while the anarchist tradition has similarly fastened upon power or authority as the alpha and omega of its theoretical and practical efforts. But, as the latter-day cliché runs, socialists have often been too impatient to change the world to await its careful interpretation. As a result, concepts such as property or production in classical Marxism have been swept along in a vortex of ambiguities, and perplexity has reigned about what precisely the abolition or supersession of private property could be taken to mean. A similar perplexity has been fomented by classical anarchists, for whom the ‘abolition of government’ has likewise acted as a close equivalent of the Apocalypse.

But there is more to the problem of property and power than the false transparency of their everyday usage, or the fragmented and ambiguous character of their more technically articulated definitions. It is a rudimentary idea of the present study that they are also interrelated in peculiar fashion, and that it might be profitable to explore the unkempt border area of their definitional distinctions and overlaps from a new and somewhat unusual perspective. The two master concepts of property and power, I am convinced, are tied together by so many historical threads that definitional problems on either side remain insoluble unless they are studied as a conceptual doublet. Indeed, despite the apparent ease with which property and power are routinely distinguished from one another—a distinction which basically reduces to a dichotomy between the disposition of physical things and command over the actions of persons—they are often defined in terms of one another or as mutual opposites, elliptically, without an independent definition of either. The common-sense distinction itself, if subjected to further enquiry, appears to turn upon a more deeply rooted cleavage between ‘material production’ and ‘organization’ (or between ‘economic’ interactions between humans and nature and ‘political’

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Property and Power in Social Theory: A Study in Intellectual Rivalry
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vii
  • Preface ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - The Liberal Dichotomy and Its Dissolution 18
  • 2 - Inside the Diamond 47
  • 3 - Marxism Vs. Anarchism 74
  • 4 - Fascism and the Primacy of the Political 101
  • 5 - Social Science as Power Theory 126
  • 6 - Power, Property, and Managerialism 164
  • 7 - Intellectual Closure and the New Class 192
  • 8 - Towards a Theory of Intellectual Rivalry 225
  • Notes 260
  • Bibliography 287
  • Index 311
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