A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Monday, October 11, 2010

Property, The Religion

In the beginning, the river was for getting water, for washing, for fishing.  The land was for living on, walking on, for hunting on, to contain the workings of life.  The plants were for all the various things that plants and their products were used for; for food, for materials, for shade, for hiding behind, for the simple pleasure in their presence. Animals like-wise: definers of place and habit, food, materials, partners in the living experience. Each thing had its own existence: the stars, sun and moon; the sky, the earth and all the rest. It had always been this way. 

Today we know that it had been this way forever; that is, forever beginning with the earth’s assembly from space dust 4.6 billion years ago and the geologically ‘immediate’ formation of ‘living’ chemistry as the nearly unique liquid water physical stability of the earth’s surface began to manifest out of the freeze of space and the nuclear fire of stars. 

The living manifestation evolved its billions of slightly different forms of expression.  And eventually one of them was capable of perceiving and storing in an evolved biological structure, a brain, vast amounts of detail from its environment and its own experience. 

Then something happened.  The human capacity to adapt, using the mechanisms of the newly evolved Consciousness System of Order, generated a new design to both carry the information of experience across space and time, and including devices to fit and moderate human action in the environments in which the communities lived, superceding the Living System of Order processes.  This new design, that I call Story [1] became formalized, and like the DNA of the living order, stored the community’s information, incorporated changes and supplied new generations with the information for orderly relationship and action. 

For the stories to have power, they needed to contain a source of power and so was created the ‘special story people’ who could be seen as ‘giving’ the information.  Those entities were said to possess special wisdom and other special capacities, omnipotence and omniscience, powers of creation; all in the service of Story, to make Story more influential and more protected from the vicissitudes of daily randomness.  

One of the consequences (among many) was the magnification and modification of the idea of obligation into a new form of the idea of ownership.  In the form of syllogism: the storied creators of our world have special control of what they have created.  They created not only the world, but us as well, and have therefore control of us.  We have an obligation to the creators for our existence.  The world, and all that is in it, is therefore the product and property of the creators and we owe them obedience as an obligation for living in this world. 

In this construction people’s actions in the world around them are not greatly changed, they still use the needed space and resources, but a new idea is forming: that more than the simple production of one “man’s hand” can be his or hers and exclusive to him or her.  The world and all that is in it is the product of the creating entity’s hand and all of it is exclusive to that entity.  Once such a idea forms it is no great distance to selected humans acting as the agents for the creating entity and claiming “power of attorney” for the Storied Creator.  It is from such humble beginnings that we have molded the complexities of religions… and of our ideas of property. 

Religion has been an important part of both the idea of property and ownership and the processes of change of that idea.  The next essay will look more closely at the functional form that the idea of property has taken in recent times; in this one I am primarily concerned with setting the stage from which Enlightenment notions of property arose. 

Recorded history is to a large extent a working out of the details of how the supernatural “owners” of the world pass aspects of that control to humans – it is the story of the intermediaries: Pharaohs, temple priests, God-kings, oracles, all manner of royalty and their relationship to the sovereignty of the personal body and space.  More cynically, it is the story of how segments of societies and individuals have used (and some would add here, misused) the beliefs that both motivate and adhere to the adaptive behaviors of a changing humanity. 

Two traditions have, since the origin of religion as a supernaturally driven rather than an environmentally driven institution, been in conflict: (1) everything is owned absolutely by a creator that can parcel out rights and privileges or (2) nothing is owned in an absolute sense, all uses are mutual obligations for the maintenance of the system integrity.  

For a hundred thousand years these two ways of relating to the world were one and the same in a simple balance of both action and idea: the world is one creation, we are of it and must give as good as we get.  But as some human communities grew in size, material wealth and complexity, property relations became more difficult.  Religious views and God’s spokespeople were a ready solution.  And we have largely been under the influence of the institutional religious model ever since: God is the absolute owner of the universe and has given the surface of the earth to humans to do with as they will.  Therefore humans have absolute dominion.  And, by the way, God takes care of all the gears and motors so we need only deal with what we want to deal with – those things that make some of us more powerful in relation to others for example 

Property, and our conceptions of it, is both a driver and consequence – chicken and egg – in this process.  John Locke (1632 – 1704) was one of God’s (unofficial) spokespeople, with a difference.  Locke was embedded in the Royal tradition of ownership and so spoke of privatizing property, not from the public commons, but from the universal dominion of the King.  The commons for a European in the mid seventeenth century were royal lands held by religious authority.  This was tradition for almost all of recorded history. 

King John and the Barons worked out, in 1215, a deal that they too should have some authority of dominion and in an enlightened gesture included English citizens in the bargain.  Though, in large measure, property continued to be thought of in the same way.  Blackstone’s statement of the meaning of property in 1760s clearly shows that [2]

Ultimately, in the religious model, there is no authority for the holding and use of property other than force.  I will argue later on in this series for another model, but for now it is the notion of absolute dominion broken into smaller tradable pieces that is the basis for how we view and act with property. 

Locke sought after the ways that property might be assigned its portion of God-given dominion with such devices as priority, use and need.  And the business of law has followed the pattern ever since.  Capitalism is based on this notion of absolute dominion. 

In a typical adaptive twist, today Locke’s argument for private property and its needful separation from the (Kingly) commons has been turned into a rejection of the public commons.  This is, no more or less, than the attempt to restore the Kingly commons under the title of private property.  This is a natural consequence of maintaining the notion of absolute dominion. 

The other model, that nothing can be absolutely owned, that there is only forms of relationship with mutual obligations, has had a continuing presence in minor philosophies, small human communities and as a Zombie in capitalist horror movies.  But for now it is still the old absolutist model fueling our rush toward the ecological crossroads. 

[1] Dawkins and Blackmore call them ‘meme’, but I am wary of the attempt to follow the analogy of gene so closely and fearful of the directions that such thought might be led.  So I, for my own thinking, have chosen an ambiguous term that I must reconsider every time I think or write it. 

[2] Property is that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.”  John Locke’s view interpreted by William Blackstone in Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765 – 1769)


Michael Dawson said...

JK, what is your analysis of the degree to which the religious shift discussed here was merely a matter of surplus-appropriators' hiring of priestly mouthpieces? I've always thought that was the basic core of this topic. Kings who want to keep society's surplus wealth make sure to indoctrinate those who produce it. Ergo, the rise of Property conveying sky kings.

Is this too simple?

James Keye said...

I try to avoid too deeply cynical an analysis. I think that those who come to take advantage of the distortions of the ecologically sustaining community structure often do so as ‘unconsciously’ as others slip away from sustaining order resulting in other consequences. As with any habit, people develop a sense of entitlement to benefits and acceptance of hardship.

There is no question but that there have been and are presently unmitigated sociopathic bastards in the mix, but I don’t see them as drivers of the process, rather more as another of its victims. However, an environment has been created in which such people thrive in all their insanity, and I can well understand seeing them as somehow central to our difficulties. But I think that it is a bigger process driven by forces that would not be corrected if they would be magically disappeared – it is the processes that we must understand, and see our own culpability as well.

Sorry for the delay in responding to your comment. I have been motorcycling, yet again, across the country to attend the imminent death of my 93 year old father. He died minutes before my brother and I, coming from opposite sides of the great American landmass, arrived simultaneously at the hospice in Arkansas.

Michael Dawson said...

Oh, so sorry, JK, about you missing your dad's last moments.

As to the level of cynicism in this question, I share your view that "civilization" hasn't been very consciously executed, even by its "kings" and barons and capitalists. But it does strike me as pretty fishy that sky kings assigning property came into voice right at the same time as land kings who started retaining village surpluses for their royal selves.

Just seems like an important element of the story.

But part of the good news we could tell in the new nature and science-centered movement you have been promoting is the news that we talking monkeys have never really taken democratic control of our macro choices. Stumbling along and insisting Adam Smith was right about personal greed are not going to get our grandchildren a planet to live on, right?