News Analysis

The Supreme Court has ruled, 5-4, that local governments have the right to seize private property and give it to other private owners, so long as it is in the “public interest.”

The ruling extends the “takings” doctrine of the Constitution, which allows the government to seize private property for public purposes as long as just compensation is paid. It was always the case that the government could take over your house, farm or business to put in a school or a road under the laws of eminent domain.

The doctrine’s most vocal critics were right-wing libertarians, usually prosperous property owners. Since the rest of us agreed that schools and roads are necessary, we did not oppose this.

However, the seizure by municipal or other government bodies of private property for the purpose of handing it over to other private owners is another matter, when viewed in the real social, economic and political context of 2005. We are seeing massive corporate concentration, vicious slicing and dicing of the social safety net, and mind-boggling public corruption as major corporations buy up politicians by the busload and use their corporate clout to determine public policy with a crassness not seen since the original robber barons.

Immediately, the fear was voiced that Wal-Mart-type operations would use the court decision to mobilize local governments in such a way as to wipe out their smaller-scale competition.

People concerned with housing for the poor are also worried that this will be a major spur to the erosion of affordable housing. They fear that city governments will decide that housing developments for the rich — who pay more property taxes — are better for the municipal budget than are buildings that house the poor. Now city governments can buy up entire neighborhoods of affordable housing and hand the land over to rich developers to turn into upscale condos, compensating only the property owners and leaving their tenants in the street. And some will do just that.

All of this is in tune with the historical moment. What may surprise is that three of the four justices who dissented from this decision were precisely the ones who have been most reactionary on every other issue you can name: Rehnquist, Thomas and Scalia (plus O’Connor). The liberal justices voted for this because of an assumption that governments taking private property must certainly have the public interest at heart. The right-wing judges dissented because they view private property as sacred.

To liberals, this is a surprise and a disappointment. But to Marxists, it should not be, given the way Marxists view the state under capitalism. To liberals, the state, at least in the U.S. and other bourgeois democracies, is either a neutral arbiter of conflicts or a benevolent mechanism for social engineering. Marxists, however, see the state an instrument of class rule.

Feudal states were instruments of rule of the landed nobility over serfs, free peasants, merchants and artisans. Capitalist states are instruments of the rule of big business over workers and small producers. And socialist states are instruments of rule of the working class over formerly dominant classes.

This does not mean one blindly opposes the existence of all state institutions, or refuses to make demands on the state. Since capitalism has existed, the capitalist state has been the focus of class struggle, with workers and their allies mobilizing to demand the abolition of certain laws and for the passage of others: against “criminal syndicalism” laws, for example, or for Social Security.

Everything positive that comes out of the state under capitalism is the product of hard struggle against the overall tendency, which is for the state to favor the interests of capital. And everything that is won from the state by workers is always subject to being taken away by the immense power that the ruling class wields over state institutions, including the courts, if the working class does not keep its powder dry.

Thus, the Supreme Court’s ruling favors an increase in state power that will be used, precisely, in defense of the interests of large property (the ruling class) and against those who have less property, or none at all. And the only way to fight this is to keep up the organizing and active struggle with the working class in the leading role.