Should I accept inherited property?

Ethical and political dilemmas abound these days. Seems like we’re all in need of a New Internationalist perspective. Enter stage: Agony Uncle.

Dear Agony Uncle,

I have recently learned that an aunt has left me a small cottage in her will. I have always been skint, live communally and squatted for a few years in my youth. So far I have been of the firm belief that property is theft and the idea of an unearned inheritance is anathema. But now I am wavering... Please help.


Dear Vidya,

When the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon asserted that property is theft (or rather that property is synonymous with robbery) in 1840, he had in mind the great set of historical forces at work in Europe since the Middle Ages: enclosure. The God-given common land, owned collectively by the peasantry, was violently seized by the King and the landowner. (As the Marxist feminist Sylvia Federici has argued, the witch trials of Europe and North America played an important role in this, dividing the peasantry against each other along gender-based lines, breaking their solidarity). In other words, privately owned land was originally stolen in order to make it privately owned.

Proudhon wanted the government to recognize there was a contradiction between the rights of equality and property rights. He was not issuing a moral decree for how individuals should live their lives under capitalism.

As New Internationalist’s Agony Uncle, I often get questions that relate to what you might call ‘lifestyle politics’: the idea that our personal (anti-)consumerism is the most salient of political categories. ‘Should I buy this?’ ‘Should I go here?’ ‘Should I accept that?’… I’m glad you’ve lived a life of bohemian virtues – it is one that prefigures another, better world – but please don’t feel bad about wavering: you are not a monk! Politics is about relating to other people, not obsessing over our bank balance. And everyone, even an anarchist, is entitled to a room of their own.

The question is through which political or economic form will you ‘own’ this house? There are alternative options to private property: you could institute a housing co-operative, living with other people who need a roof over their heads too and sharing ownership rights; you could keep a room for yourself and give the others to the local school, a small trade union or social movement who would make benefit of a place to teach, learn and fraternize; you could make it a safe space for recently arrived refugees or people who just want a short break but can’t afford holidays. Rather than treat this gift like the plague, transform it into an opportunity for social good.

Property isn’t a toxin that infects our bodies. But it is used to enforce an unjust social order. Think of the housing crises in most major cities across the world – engineered by the financialization of homes into investments. Property also creates a class of people who become structurally selfish: when Thatcher sold off Britain’s council homes, she knew she would be consolidating a class of new Tory voters for a generation. And, as the economist Thomas Piketty has demonstrated, intergenerational wealth transfers in the form of assets are a huge bastion of inequality. I say, in this wretched world, take advantage of your aunt’s gift. Collectivize the ownership of the house: clean it up, repaint the walls, and speak to the community to discuss what to do with it – in democratic spirit. If you want it to, it can and will belong to those who need it. Remember, Crosby, Stills and Nash in their lambent ode of 1970 didn’t sing about ‘my house’, but ‘our house’.