Thursday, November 17, 2011

On Property

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.


Debra said...

I think that this post is really excellent, Toby.
I think that you have pinpointed the boiling emotions underneath our current situations.
As I tell the people on my loony forum, probably emotion number one is FEAR.
FEAR OF LOSING what we "have".
I saw this fear in the panic of a French psychoanalyst who, when I told her that I didn't understand why I had to PAY HER to say things that other people found very very interesting, replied to me "but if you don't pay me, HOW WILL I LIVE ??"
If those capitals sound emphatic, it's because they were definitely emphatic in her mouth, and what came out as a wail.
Making work FOR MONEY into our salvation bottoms out work and money simultaneously.
Work, because when you decree that MONEY CAN ONLY COME FROM WORK (and not from speculation...) you are FIXING AN EQUATION, and that is NOT GOOD.
Money, on the other hand, because you decree that its value exists as a MEASUREMENT of work.
This big equation takes the whole system down, I believe. (I may have said it better on Eisenstein's blog, under the post about abolishing money, the link to the "Le Monde" article.)
Reading the above post, Toby, I can only bite my fingernails, and once more plead with you to open up "The Merchant of Venice" and soak all this up in such beautiful language to boot.
Shylock's philosophy is the philosophy of our modernity, and if you study Shylock very carefully, you will see an example of WHAT WE HAVE COLLECTIVELY BECOME in our constant obsession and striving to HAVE... ENOUGH.

Toby said...

Very funny in a sad way (if that holds) about the psychoanalyst, and my, aren't you provocative! That's a delicious challenge you threw down, that told you far more about her than it told her about you.

"Work, because when you decree that MONEY CAN ONLY COME FROM WORK (and not from speculation...) you are FIXING AN EQUATION, and that is NOT GOOD."

The deeper equation is of course money=value. Work and speculation don't strike me as all that different, not at root anyway. Sure, there's the so-called 'workers' and 'entrepreneurs', but a wiser system could easily blur the boundaries between them. In fact I'd say the degree to which work has been separated from risk, fun, and speculation is one of the reasons 'workers' can be so easily exploited by financiers and their evil speculating with all that accumulated/extracted money (value). Certainly a hot potato right there, another one of those false dichotomies in dire need of a dressing down.

Haben oder Sein. That's the question. And learn to own our shit too, to misuse my own argument for a moment. Actually, isn't all the 'owning the dark content of your unconscious' the wrong way of looking at it (in the light of this article)? Shouldn't we be bringing it up and out and recognizing its origins in the collective? Something like that anyway...

And I promise to try to find time to crack open my copy of Merchant of Venice! And read it.

Debra said...

Yes, Toby, I have always had the infamous habit of putting my analysts on the spot, in the place where.. i become their analyst, or rather, in the spot where their ego is unmasked. It is one of my most irritating traits, and one that gets me a lot of flak.
In all fairness, I must say that I remember vividly the day that I wept bitter, bitter tears on my analyst's couch under the realization that WE ALL BETRAYED CHRIST following his arrest, and that Peter's anguished guilt is the guilt of all humanity.
We are not, and never will be, perfect, nor perfectly trustworthy.
And that "we" INCLUDES ME. Very very bitter tears...
Last night my husband and I watched Frederick Wiseman's film "Crazy Horse" about the Parisian nude review.
All those incredibly beautiful women's bodies..
I think that it is counterproductive to ban ALL of our perceptions of guilt, but.. we cultivate guilt in areas that are destroying us, like guilt about being animals.
Those women are very very beautiful, and very desirable.
When will we start re enchanting MEN'S BODIES, for example, and looking at them in a different light ?
On the equation question, what seems to me to be problematic, perhaps, is the insistance that the price tag EXHAUSTS the value question, in other words, the denial of any form of value that can NOT me measured. Like in, "it can't be measured/counted, thus it does not exist, and has no value".
Fixing the equal sign freezes the system up ?
I'll come back to this later, with a practical example.

Toby said...

Banning and abolishing are counterproductive generally speaking. Only learning enough to perceive things like guilt from a different perspective can have lasting, or rather gelling effects.

“Our guilt is not due to the fact that we cannot repay our debt to the universe. Our guilt is our presumption in thinking of ourselves as being in any sense an equivalent to Everything Else that Exists or Has Ever Existed, so as to be able to conceive of such a debt in the first place.” David Graeber

I'm not religious. I feel no keen emotion when it comes to figures like Jesus or Mohammad or Buddha, so cannot relate to your obviously sincere and heartfelt anguish. My sense is that we are, as a species, on the verge (say in the scale of a century or so) of a new understanding of debt, and guilt (its corollary; same word in German--Schuld). The ideas for a new perspective are there, and so are many mechanisms for achieving it. I like words like gratitude, belonging, contribution, wealth, wisdom, etc., but other people will follow other paths. I see no need for debt equations, or even for the concept of explicit and measured indebtedness. However, I'm one of only (it seems) a handful of people who share this perspective. There's still so much dogma and bigotry 'out there' (in us), such a lack of imagination, so much fear, as you rightly point out.

As for beauty, that's in the eye of the beholder. The beautiful female form has changed a lot over time, as has the ideal male figure. And the male figure is everywhere nowadays (how could you miss it?). Look at 'stars' like David Beckham, Hugh Jackman, Channing Tatum, Jake Gyllenhaal. They get plenty of exposure, and sell millions of magazines, movie tickets, clothes and all sorts. Just because of their figures/looks. Narcissism rules, as does eternal youth, in both male and female versions. Androgyny is the new normal.

Debra said...

Oops.. don't know any of those names, Toby... ;-)
This is Emily Dickinson here..
By the way, I am giving a poetry reading in my hometown, in a local bookshop that doubles as a salon de thé. Pretty neat, huh ? They liked my stuff.
Have you checked out your local English bookstore for reading YOUR beautiful poems ?

Debra said...

I found this place out there in blogoland, Toby, and thought you might be interested...

Toby said...

That's great news about your poetry! You should mail me some, show me your chops.

As for that fofoa chap, I've come across him before. I don't trust him, even though he is very erudite:

Debra said...

Toby... the good news is that you don't really need to trust him.
You've got your neurons working for you. IF YOU USE THEM HARD ENOUGH you can figure out whether you agree with him or not.
Looking at his methods, I'm pretty interested. Especially since he has figured out that interpreting our ancestor's actions, behavior, and attitudes while wearing OUR rose (or should I say.. BLACK ?) colored glasses is not very productive.
Where I don't follow him is in the idea of a PURE concept being perverted through time. I think that that idea is simplistic.
I'm not a big fan of "purity". It is an ideal which underlies all forms of fascism, while we're at it. (It goes with "clean", too, and I'm not a particularly clean person, lol...)
But if you read him while keeping your own ideas in mind, his thought can enrich you, and contribute to yours. After all.. the idea is NOT FOR YOU to wash away Toby's ideas in the river of Jordan of Freegold, now... :-)
I'll send you some of my stuff. It carries a high debt to Shakespeare and the King James Bible...
More below.

Debra said...

This morning I wrote a sermon for my loonies.
On forgiveness... (which also includes... forgiveness of DEBT...)
I like tying in our teeny tiny histories to the BIG HISTORY of our civilization, without needing to have the ambition of becoming the next.. NAPOLEON.
Last Wednesday, while feverishly waiting for my daughter's skype connection, I went downstairs to be with the only companion ? lover ? who manages to take my mind off ruminating : my piano. When I heard noise upstairs, I came up, leaving my office open, and the light on.
The next morning my husband was peeved noticing that the light was on, and the door open. He chewed me out, as always, and I replied, as always "but you know that I don't do this at all often", my usual justification. At which he responded that what infuriated HIM was knowing that I was going to justify my action, and then, FOR THE FIRST TIME I came back with... what infuriated me is that he just can't seem to CLOSE HIS EYES ON MY LITTLE FOIBLES/SINS.
And that, dear Toby, is probably the major flaw of our civilization, right now, evident in our daily attitudes and actions.
Insisting on keeping the register of THE LAST JUDGMENT in any and all aspects of our daily lives.
In theory, at least, the Torah prescribed that every seven years, there was a jubilee year (that word goes way back...). During a jubilee year, slaves were offered their freedom (not all of them WANTED to be free, you know...), debt was forgiven, the land was left fallow for a season, lots and lots of stuff like that.
And that kind of reasoning/planning, of FORGIVENESS, kept the debt from building up, kept the accountant mentality from carrying through.. TO THE POINT WHERE IT IS RIGHT NOW.
Forgiving your neighbor can be economically savvy...
As I like to say, Jesus was an excellent economist : THE LIFE OF THE HOME...

Toby said...

I looked deeply into his work a while back and formed my conclusions. I know he won't corrupt me, that's not a fear I have. But there is much to do and so little time, and FOFOA is very low on my list of priorities.

As for forgiveness, where it really matters it's very hard. It can't be any other way. The Way is Hard. For now, anyway...