Property for People, Not for Profit

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* Book: Ulrich Duchrow. Property for People, Not for Profit. ZED Books, 2004


From the publisher:

"The issue of private property and the rights it confers remain almost undiscussed in critiques of globalization and free market economics. Yet property lies at the heart of an economic system geared to profit maximization. The authors describe the historically specific and self-consciously explicit manner in which it emerged. They trace this history from earliest historical times and show how, in the hands of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke in particular, the notion of private property took on its absolutist nature and most extreme form--a form which neoliberal economics is now imposing on humanity worldwide through the pressures of globalization. They argue that avoiding the destruction of people's ways of living and of nature requires reshaping our notions of private property. It also examines the practical ways for social and ecumenical movements to press for alternatives."


Ched Myers:

"As German theologian Urich Duchrow points out in his book Property for People, Not for Profit , history’s first wave of “privatization” spread throughout Mediterranean antiquity, including Israel, in the eighth century BCE. “The new form of property economy with its credit mechanism seeped into the monarchic, feudal system…. It led to a concentration of land in the hands of large landowners, and drove smallholders into debt… .The nouveaux riches were able to achieve their property concentration quite legally by means of creditor-debtor contracts.” This upper class manipulated laws designed to protect the vulnerable and the poor. It was precisely this wealth polarization in public, social, and economic life which called forth the protests of the great prophets of the era. Isaiah was one of history’s first critics of the inequities arising from economic globalization. He repeatedly criticized the polarization of wealth in ancient Judah and the resulting increase in poverty and landlessness.

One of his most famous oracles is found in Isaiah 3:12–15. The passage begins with a stark description of oppression and its perpetrators. “Oppressors treat my people cruelly; creditors rule over them. My people’s leaders mislead them; they give you confusing directions” (Isa. 3:12). The prophet holds the political leadership of the nation and the newly ascendant credit-debt economy responsible for the rampant economic and social injustice.

Isaiah goes on to describe Yahweh as a judge no less than three times for dramatic effect, and he then directs Yahweh’s divine address to the nation’s political leadership: “God says, ‘It is you who have ruined the vineyard! You have stashed in your houses what you have stolen from the poor. Why do you crush my people and grind the faces of the poor?’ ” (13:14b–15)

Yahweh is portrayed firmly on the side of the nation’s poor against the wealthy political elite. The imagery Isaiah uses parodies the harvest: the working poor—who toil daily to process agricultural staples—are themselves the object of “crushing” (grapes) and “grinding” (grain). The whole field is ruined because their rights to nature’s sustenance have been denied, and that sustenance is stored in the opulent houses of the wealthy.

Isaiah’s oracle alludes to the political economy of land in eighthcentury Israel, in which indebted small farmers were losing their land to wealthy landowners and forced into tenant sharecropping on their own fields.

The vineyard as metaphor for the nation is developed by Isaiah at length in chapter 5:1ff. “Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard,” he begins, proceeding with a careful description of the agricultural process: “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes…” This halcyon and hopeful scene is suddenly interrupted: “…but it yielded wild grapes.”

Isaiah decodes the parable in no uncertain terms: “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a scream! Woe to you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone on the land! The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing: Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant” (5:7–9).

Neither foreign enemies nor social minorities are identified as the cause of Israel’s ruin, but rather the process by which the wealthy landowners increased their holdings at the expense of the poor.

This prophetic object lesson in wealth polarization seems to have seared the consciousness of Jesus of Nazareth, who re-appropriates Isaiah’s parable hundreds of years later to denounce the same economic conditions that persisted in Roman-occupied Palestine (Mark 12:1–9). In Jesus’ midrash, however, the disenfranchised sharecroppers rise up against their absentee landlords, escalating a spiral of violence that begins with injustice and ends with counter-insurgent suppression.

Isaiah’s words haunt those of us who are affluent by every measure on the global scale. How might we, with our own choices, reverse wealth polarization? Concrete, effective responses, such as community investing, are possible. But North American Christians must choose to make “the spoils of the poor” currently socked away in banks and on Wall Street available to our brothers and sisters on the margins. Only then are we hearing Isaiah—and Jesus." (