4 January 2017

Conference description

Why private property? Politics of property and its alternatives

@ Université libre de Bruxelles, 20-21/06/2017

Keynote Speakers :
Pr. Hillel Steiner (University of Manchester), Pr. Karl Widerquist (Georgetown University).

Respondent: Pr. Philippe Van Parijs (Université Catholique de Louvain).

Organizing Committee:
Pierre Crétois (Paris 10), Eric Fabri (Université Libre de Bruxelles), Maxime Lambrecht (Université catholique de Louvain)

Why private property rather than any other system of property rights? This question no longer arises today as private property seems to have been consecrated as a fundamental institution of our liberal societies. Private property, on the self as well as on the fruits of one’s labor, even seems to be a “natural right”. This “naturalization” of private property went along with the development of what C.B. Macpherson called “possessive individualism”, and appears to be the culmination of that paradigm. Nowadays, private property is one of the few axioms on which relies contemporary liberalism and as with every axiom, it seems to be so self-evident that it is rarely questioned.

Yet the political history of modernity shows that the obviousness of this “natural” right has given rise to numerous debates and conflicts. In a social context characterized by a highly unequal distribution of capital ownership, the 19th century socialists notoriously denunciated the abuses caused by the “absolute” right the owners have on their property. As they claimed, this absolute right easily converts in a relation of domination on whoever needs the resource or anything derivate from the resource. Given that private property could ambivalently promote individual autonomy or transform into a relation of domination, many authors like J.S. Mill, Karl Marx, or P.-J. Proudhon felt the urgency to reform and rethink the institutions defining private property in order to conform them to the ideals they should serve.

Besides this old strand of criticisms and debates (which are becoming relevant again), contemporary developments in social institutions and practices as well as in the theory of justice raise new problems and challenges for critical thought on property. Should the distribution of resources be based on individual merit? And in that case, what is “merit”? Is inheritance (i.e. appropriation without labour) a legitimate institution? How to combine private property and public interest in the case of education, heritage protection, or access to medication protected by patents in health emergencies? Does the private property right include the right to destroy or abuse a good in order to raise prices for instance? Or the right to relocate some capital with no other reason than to raise profits? Can we grant inventors and creators intellectual property rights on what they have created without granting them harmful rents? And above all, considering the recent technological developments that facilitate the ability to access a service or a resource on the ownership of that resource, is the old paradigm of private property still adapted to the “age of access”, to paraphrase Jeremy Rifkin? In this conference, we want to address the many questions that shape current debates concerning the right to private property.

To encourage fruitful debates, it is suggested that the submitted abstracts should relate to the following themes:

  1. Private property and normative approaches. The first theme focuses on political dimensions of private property and appeals contributions that aim at clarifying the relationship between the structure of ownership and the political expectations of modern democratic societies such as fundamental rights, democracy, access to essential resources, liberty, inequality … This theme is also open to contributions exploring the links between the institutions defining property rights and the political objectives of modern political societies, both in terms of individual liberty, economic efficiency or interdependencies. One can also ask whether it is reasonable to give substantial or normative value to private property right, given that this right is in fine a bundle of different and distinct rights.
  2. Private property and social issues. This second theme focuses on critical social studies related to property right. It aims at illustrating how the structure of property rights constitutes, maintains or dissolves social relations. Private property has been criticized because it is assumed that it supports the emergence of an individualistic way of life (without being necessarily selfish in itself), and fosters domination when it is related to the means of production. Contributions will critically study how private property can shape subjectivities and have significant social effects on how people relate to each other.
  3. Contemporary challenges to private property and new types of ownership. The objective of this third theme is to address the new challenges to which the concept of private property is confronted today, and the alternative conceptions that they suggest. Do the debates on intellectual property paradigms shed a new light on the justifications for material property? And what does the growing dematerialization of the economy (with phenomena such as digitization or 3D printing) mean for property? Should we move from a paradigm of ownership to one of access, or common property? And what is the impact of the so-called “collaborative” or “sharing economy” on power relations? Can the idea of a basic income be justified in a theory of appropriation, or fair distribution of property rights?

These themes are not restrictive: participants are welcome to submit any proposal related to the questioning of ownership regimes. Since the debates on private property lie at the crossroad between laws, economics, political theory, but also sociology, anthropology and philosophy, this conference is interdisciplinary and will welcome any contribution that articulates the perspective of his own discipline with a reflection on the politics of property. To open the debate as much as possible, the symposium will be held in English and the call for papers will be spread in both the French-speaking and the English-speaking academic communities.

See also the ongoing call for papers for the conference.