In the course of compiling a section of the new socialism book focused on “conservative realism,” I came across a term which was uncharacteristically unique: usufruct. My initial reaction upon seeing it could be summed up as skeptical; I actually figured it was nothing more than a typo, albeit without the friendly red lines of MS Word’s liberal dictatorship. Closer investigation revealed that it refers to a very special idea: the relative status of private property.
Most readers of this blog come from Western countries such as the U.S. or U.K., both nations with storied histories of the longtime struggle to protect property against greedy usurpation by monarchs. Americans in particular are adamant about their rights to do with property what they wish, even as the wretched scourge of HOA’s and property taxes fester well and strong. To us, the notion of being told what to do with our property is outrageous, and bound to result in furious town hall meetings, or angry “letters to the blogger” until such “socialist” wrongs are reversed. Seldom is any other reality considered.
But a lack of appreciation for different models does not mean they magically cease to exist, especially over time, as objectives and crises change our perspective. Here the usufruct proposal gains far more relevance, particularly whilst we wrestle with the issues contained by migratory patterns and environmental degradation. Put simply, it refers to the contrast between Eigentum (private property) and Besitz (possession). In the former, one is free to do whatever he pleases with the terrain, including sales or destruction. Besitz on the other hand means the individual can use the land for his creative or business purposes, but not at its expense or defilement. As one writer notes:
“To have a thing as one’s ‘private property’ means that one can do what one likes with it — can sell it, injure it, or destroy it at will. To have ‘possession’ of a thing means usufruct, that one is entitled to use the thing, to exploit it, but subject to the will and supervision of another, the substantial ‘owner’, whose ‘private property’ it is.”
This supervision and ownership is conceived of typically to be the State, or perhaps a community and people. It theoretically allows folks to develop and advance personal wealth (as opposed to socialist stagnancy), yet prevents them from selling out to foreigners or poisoning the soil with their habits or business practices. Failure (or disinterest) in using the land means it will revert back to the community and be parceled out to another aspiring cultivator, one who must of course be native to the region.
Although a strange concept, we are almost forced to assess how it might help address certain problems currently affecting Western countries. Conservatives have long lamented the decline of identity and culture, yet they also insist on a property system where any foreigner with money can waltz in and purchase land, upsetting the traditional balance of that location. Leftists complain about environmental decline, while also advancing open borders and refusing to seriously explore the possibility of degrowth. Both are victims of their own beliefs, and doomed to failure because of those precepts.
Maybe usufruct is their saving grace.