I had an interesting conversation with three friends not long ago. They were trying to convince me that they didn’t actually own their homes, because if they didn’t pay their taxes, the government would take their homes away. Hence, they argue, they were only renting their homes–from the government.
After thinking about it, I realized that, although specious, this argument provides an opportunity to examine the question: what does it mean to own something? I speak of this briefly in point #7a here, but it is perhaps worth expanding on.
First of all, there seems to be some confusion between “possession” and “ownership.” While we often colloquially refer to stuff we own as our “possessions,” I want to use a more narrow, precise definition. When I possess something, it is under my immediate control. Right now, I possess a guitar, and I also possess a book that my friend Will loaned me. I own the former, not the latter. Ownership implies a legal right, which, by definition, invokes the courts, the laws, the police–in short, the mechanisms of the State that exist to protect property. My possession of my guitar implies a relationship between me and the guitar; my ownership of it implies a relationship between me and the State–in other words, between me and other people (many of them carrying guns). These people are paid to (barring unusual circumstances) prevent someone from depriving me of the control of something I own, or punish someone who has done so.
This approach makes even more sense if you look at it historically. The question: what can and cannot be considered property? is something that each social class immediately redefines when it takes control of the State. For example, when the State is controlled by a slave-owning class, human beings can be property, and the force of the State is used to protect that property. When the slave-power is overthrown, either by feudal lords (in Asia or Europe), or by emerging capitalists (in 19th Century America), this changes, and those who lately owned property in human beings cry out helplessly against their property being stolen.* And the history of when, where, and how land can be owned, and what can be done with it, is a long and complex tangle of culture and class that I’m not even going to attempt to describe in detail.
At the moment, we live under the control of a State run by capitalists, hence, property is defined in such a way as to serve the interests of those who exploit the labor-power of others in order to appropriate surplus value. The fight over the exact degree of exploitation involves conflict with the individual capitalist, and also, at times, with the State itself, when the State is forced to recognize certain rights that work against the direct interest of capital (the fight for the closed shop, the right to strike, civil rights, &c). As long as class society exists, this fight will exist in some form. It is called the class struggle, and, when carried to its conclusion, it is called revolution. But what I want to emphasize is that now, and at every period of history as long as there has been private property and thus a State, the State gets to decide what property is, and what you may do with it, and when you may keep it. It does not always get to do this however it wants, without conflict or contention; but at the end of the day, it is the State that decides, and it decides in the interests of the ruling class.
So my answer to my friends who say that they are only renting their homes from the government is: Sure, you are welcome to define ownership in such a way that makes that true, but, if you do, the words “ownership” and “property” immediately lose all meaning. The only meaning those words have ever had, is to describe a relation among people in general, and between an individual and the State in particular. The right of the State to define and control property flows inevitably from the interests of the class that controls that State (that is, after all, what “ruling class” means).
In conclusion, if you are going to discuss ownership, or property, be aware that you are talking about property as defined by a particular State working for the interests of a particular class at a particular time. To even discuss the concept as a pure abstraction is unscientific and ultimately useless.
*ETA: I think my favorite music is the wailing of an expropriated ruling class about how their property has been stolen.