To be able to freely buy and sell something means that is has been dissociated from its original matrix of relationships, in other words, that it has become “alienable.”
Charles Eisenstein, "Sacred Economics", p70
We have perhaps a general principle: to make something saleable, in a human economy, one needs to rip it from its context. That’s what slaves are: people stolen from the community that made them what they are. As strangers to their new communities, slaves no longer had mothers, fathers, kin of any sort. [p146]
The mere fact of their [slaves’] existence set a precedent. The value of a human life could, sometimes, be quantified; but if one was able to move from A = A (one life equals another) to A = B (one life = one hundred cloths), it was only because the equation was established at the point of a spear. [p144]
David Graeber, “Debt: The First 5,000 Years”
Property is a deeply flawed concept, because it divides the indivisible. Imagine you have some land with a fence around it. The fence says, “Within this perimeter everything belongs to me. Everything outside this perimeter does not.” What does this claim mean?
I think we can eke out its meaning by stripping Universe of everything except that which falls within the perimeter of the fence. So imagine a plot of farmland, with pigs, goats, sheep, crops, part of a stream, house, apple and pear trees, and sheds. Then imagine completely isolating that ‘property’ from everything that lies beyond the fence. Everything; the rest of the stream, weather, air, the rest of the planet, the sun, stars, gravity ... everything. What is that property then? Absolutely nothing. Fully isolated from Universe it can have no meaning whatsoever, yet this is precisely what we attempt to do with the concept of property; to isolate a ‘thing’ from everything it is not. To rip it from its context. To enclose it. To enslave it. To be in control of it. To own it.
So why do we have it? Well, sir, it was an accident. And very involved. I didn’t mean it, it just sort of happened. Seriously. What with one thing and another it was only a matter of time before we sapiens started experimenting with seeds, building more permanent shelters, and enjoying the feeling, however self-deceptive, of ‘controlling’ nature in that way. Perhaps it made us feel secure and powerful, perhaps it was just exciting and interesting, like when the penny drops and you ‘get’ it. Anyway, such was the beginning of farming, and farming is the beginning of My-Realm=Domesticated, Not-My-Realm=Wild. And an early stage of science too; if I do this, what happens? Farming is at root one consequence of the famous Self-Other split, The Fall, Expulsion from Eden, exit from the Mother-Child Symbiosis; Now I Am And Know It, therefore You Are Not Me.
This Separation is not all bad (nothing is), but it did of course begin in ignorance of the consequences of its outcomes, just as we all remain in ignorance of the consequences of our actions, just as ignorance is an absolutely inescapable part of striving to know. But all this is only the background.
Property as we enjoy it today in the legal and therefore practical sense stems from Roman Law. And property in Roman Law stems from slavery; that is, what rights a slave owner has over a slave. Of course total, including disposal, or destruction. And it is disposal that distinguishes between full access (say as a renter of a property) and private ownership of it. If I legally own a thing, I can destroy it, if I only have access rights, I can’t. And yet there are qualifications; burning flags and such, as well as burning money. Are we legal owners, in the proprietary sense, of the notes and coins we have in our pockets, or of the national flags we purchase? Or are we mere part time users of them, temporary guardians? Is it legal for an ordinary citizen to burn notes or melt coins? Wikipedia:
In the United States, burning banknotes is prohibited under 18 U.S.C. § 333: Mutilation of national bank obligations, which includes "any other thing" that renders a note "unfit to be reissued. In an amicus brief for Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, Solicitor General Seth Waxman writes that arresting an individual who removes the corner dollar values "may expose a counterfeiting operation". It is unclear if the statute has ever been applied in response to the complete destruction of a bill. Certainly people have publicly burned small amounts of money for political protests that were picked up by the media — Living Things at South by Southwest, Larry Kudlow on The Call — without apparent consequence.
And yet the state shreds cash when it is handed over directly in payment of taxes. So money as private property is probably quite a grey legal area, since money is a commons even if the state-market apparatus promotes it otherwise. Being fiat, it ‘belongs’ to the sovereign. And the fractional reserve system is a multiple-claim, multiple-use system; each central bank dollar endures multiple claims on it in the form of credit money. Credit money issued by commercial banks is nothing but a claim on central bank or high powered money, which only the sovereign can create and destroy. We only use the notes and coins that pass through our pockets and purses; we are not their proprietors. Can a sovereign be a legal private property owner? Even a King is several. A democratically elected government more so. Kings are The Land. Governments are The People. They ‘own’ severally, on behalf of. So it’s not clear what’s going on here, right at the root of all exchange, when it comes to property. The very medium we deploy to exchange ownership, we do not own. I see that as a profound contradiction. And that money is a medium; that is a contradiction too. How can we be owners of a medium, like language, or inches?
This is something of a tangent, but it plays into the central idea; property as a concept is illogical.
Let’s look at the human body. Is my body my private property? I argue that the question is absurd, since it implies there is ‘in me’ some Not-Body component which could conceivably be ‘owner’ of my body. Let’s call this Not-Body entity “Soul.” To ‘own’ ‘my’ body I, at the conceptual level, need to have a Soul, a component sufficiently Not-Body actively to do the owning of Body. We have to separate ourselves (strange word, isn't it) in two to talk of ownership of self. To bring this into sharper relief, we would not ask if a tree owns its body, or a mountain. What about cats and dogs, or cattle, pigs, sheep? What about chickens and ‘their’ eggs? It is only because we think, at a very deep level, that humans are somehow Soul and Body (not only Body, or only Soul—to my mind they are the same thing) that we can even come up with the nonsensical idea that a human has ‘ownership’ of his or her body. As for 'control' of the body, how total is it really, and where does it come from? Do you choose your skin colour and gender before you are born? Control your every thought? The aging process? The air you breathe, and its constitution?
In exactly the same way, arising from exactly the same error of thought, we think we can be proprietors of ‘things’ ‘out there.’ We do not have a body, we are body. Or, we do not have a soul, we are soul. (See how it sounds awkward to express reality closer to its ‘truth’? “I am body inextricably embedded in Universe.”) Furthermore, as David Graeber points out, body cannot be separated from its context without either killing it—if the separation is total (e.g., into a vacuum)—or deeply harming it, as in slavery. And aren’t such things always done at the point of a spear?
There is violence of some kind in the birth of property.
And then there’s scarcity. I asked why we have property, and have suggested an error in our understanding of reality gave inexorable rise to the concept, and I think this is a valid observation (it’s not mine; this analysis ‘belongs’ to the anarchist tradition). But there is a ‘practical’ reason for property too, and that is the perception of scarcity, which also arises from the Expulsion from Eden, the conceptual division of the world into Me and NotMe.
Because I am Separate, I must defend myself against those parts of the environment that are dangerous or deadly. Fair enough, and a living system does not need a Separate Self to be capable of self-defense. But as this gets tangled up with farming and self-awareness, the portion of reality I claim as ‘mine’—because I have developed it, worked it, made it into what it is—stays permanently insufficient, even with ‘surplus.’ This is complicated and requires long, winding arguments and discussions to bring into focus, but I hope a short version can do the idea some justice. I’ll begin with a couple of quotes.
What we now call scarcity can only emerge out of these exclusive rights of the proprietor.
“Property, Interest and Money”, Otto Steiger and Gunnar Heinsohn, p44. My translation.
The economic way of seeing the world automatically creates shortage. [ … ] Shortage does not precede the economic communication. Shortage occurs as a result of the binary division of the world into have/have not by the economic code; which, moreover, produces the possibility of economising on the scarce resources whether these be money or as translated into other problems of shortage such as a shortage of competency, shortage of food, shortage of oil, etc.
“Polyphonic Organizations”, Niels Aakerstroem Andersen, in “Autopoietic Organization Theory”, pp156-7, Tore Bakken and Tor Hernes (editors).
Not only at the pragmatic level of crops ruined by intruders, pests or weather anomalies must surplus be a scarce thing we economize the distribution of, but, more subtly and more importantly, our product is scarce because we are now ‘at war’ with a nature we are trying to manipulate to our ends, to force into our service. Nature is no longer a partner, or a seamless extension of what we are; it is Not-Self, mercurial, deceptive, capricious. This fundamental perception-shift—most likely engendered accidentally by idle experimentation—gives rise to the perception of scarcity. Scarcity means we no longer have faith in nature’s bounty, no longer passively accept death and disease, now we want to live forever, cheat death, are fearful, untrusting. We begin to escape, to Ascend, to rise to the stars, to become gods over Earth, are even made in God’s image, born to be Masters of All. To fulfil our destiny we must control unwanted and wanted variables, generate less of the former and more of the latter; we must control everything so that Bad Things don’t happen to us. To control everything we have to own Not-Self, subjugate it to our wills, make it obey us, force it to deliver only the Good Stuff, then fight off the Bad Stuff and all other Enemies, and Ascend. (And what is the state but a monopoly on force protecting private property? What is market but a mechanism for exchanging the private property the state sanctions? One system, ascending, growing, destroying.)
But nothing makes sense in isolation. There is no separate place to ascend to. There is no such thing as Only Good. Diversity is the stuff of life, ‘control’ of it is death, or anathema; diversity controlled is not diversity at all, rather its Frankenstein. Don’t we see this lifeless monster today in the pallid, monotonous, characterless blitz of glamour, glitter and bling that is supposed to be what we want? But we don’t want an anodyne, prescribed-from-on-high cornucopia of shiny consumer goods, totally clean and safe, ‘risk free,’ all disease eradicated, an endless selection of junk to choose in malls which are as close to Hell as any other banal ‘evil’ I can think of. We want an authentic, risky, enriching, meaningful life, and we are waking up to this in our millions.
Back to property:
In that it is obviously about the illusion of control it is illogical.
In that it is about fear and self-protection at the cost of others (zero sum) it is dangerous, seen over the long term; this fear of uncertainty, perversely, generates belief in infinite growth.
In that property has at its conceptual heart “disposal,” it is destructive at its root, and requires ongoing violence to be sustained.
And that the system of exchange underpinning property’s very meaning and existence deploys an ‘unownable’ medium (money), property is a non-thing, a fantasy, a cultural blind spot. Money, the root of property, is a nothing, a mere measuring unit doubling as a claim on unpurchased wealth. And wealth only makes sense in a broader context.
Nevertheless I do not preach the abolition of property. Maybe we naked apes can mature beyond it, learn together how to distribute the fruits of our peculiar genius in a less destructive way; I certainly hope for this outcome. But we have to earn such a new wisdom. Forced abolition on an indignant wave of rage cannot work for long; only an evolution of consciousness can generate the right cultural conditions for transcending that which is dying. In the meantime, we owe it to ourselves to understand as well as we can the system breaking down all around us. For only an informed pubic can select the wiser options. Since the system is the problem, it is outside its remit and paradigm that those wiser options are to be found and created. Look there where the mainstream is not shining its glittering lights, and we'll find each other well enough.