russet leaves

There is a name for a form of social relation in which a person or people can claim rights to objects “owned” by another: usufruct. It’s common among archaic and tribal peoples: I own a tool, but if you need it, it’s yours as long as you don’t damage it. Ownership depends on use; property is a kind of social trust that we’ll all use things for the common good. As vehemently as most Christians believe that private (read: capitalist) property is part of the essence of creation, usufruct was a governing principle among ancient and medieval Christian writers. It’s there in Luke’s account of the early Christians (“No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had”); in Saint Basil’s injunction about surplus goods (“The bread that you keep belongs to the hungry, the cloak in your closet to the naked”); and in Saint Thomas Aquinas’s argument for the “universal destination of goods.”

John Ruskin’s communism represents a road not taken in history.