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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Property, The Language

Before the ideas of private property and ownership can be profitably discussed a nomenclatural issue must be addressed: ‘property’ is a word like the word ‘slave.’. One cannot discuss slavery with clarity using only the word slave for those in bondage; the word assumes a subservient position or worse, the inherent denial of fully human status.  If the argument is not allowed to ask, “Is it right to hold human beings against their desire in conditions defined only by the other human beings doing the holding? Is it right that those humans held in bondage be required to do whatever they are told with physical abuse and death as consequences?”, then how is the argument to be made?  To say that a slave is held in bondage is a tautology; to use the word slave in the above questions is an inherent acceptance of the condition.  Calling a human object a slave is very different than calling him or her an independent person. 

Consider for a moment how the status of ‘human being’ is changed by using the word and idea of slave.  The US Constitution defined slaves as 3/5ths of a person – a remarkable assertion on its face.  In the American south slaves were tallied along with the livestock and often thought of and treated similarly; it was the general assumption that slaves were inferior to full humans in most ways.  Male slaves were ‘boys’ or ‘bucks’ and never called or considered as men.  It has been generally true that slaves could have their lives taken from them at the whim of those who claimed to hold them in bondage.  Try substituting human being for slave in those statements. The word slave did not cause these relationships, but supported them [1]

Property is a similar word.  We seldom consider its implications or even to what it might refer.  It is not difficult today to see that a human being held in bondage may have options in behaviors and desires other than those of the master; most, today, realize that to deny those options and desires in another, purely for one’s own desires and benefit, is wrong.  But we don’t see that a piece of land may exist in ecological relationship with adjoining land, that the functional relationships of ecological cycles, nutrient movement, water purification, living relationships of hundreds, thousands, even millions of organisms are part and parcel of that land.  Much of what we call ‘property’ is its own thing, has its own existence and relationships with a functioning biosphere.  

It is not that these are obscure relationships.  They are easy to see and understand, but we have allowed language to cover them, and in our desires for ease and excess we rationalize them; just as slaveholders rationalized holding other fully human individuals in bondage to support their own desires for economic and social achievement.  

That slaves might be fully human and deserving of all human rights of self-determination was incomprehensible to all but a few white Americans in 1860.  That much of what we call and treat as property today should and must be left to its own functioning ecological relationships is just as incomprehensible to most of us.  And again the language makes seeing reality more difficult; we will never get to an appropriate understanding using present language and attendant comprehensions. 

Furthermore, once ‘property’ is established as an unquestioned concept, its ‘privatizing’ is an adaptive outcome, that is, if it is property, then it can be assigned to individual humans and be used in their exclusive interests.  Accepting and using these terms makes arguments opposing such views – and thus real understanding – impossible. 

Again as with slavery, an economic system has become seemingly utterly dependent on a conceptual framework that must be challenged; the language of property gives the continuation of the present framework great momentum and persuasive force.  I apologize in advance (and retrospectively) for some of the seemingly tortured reasonings as I try to construct an appropriate approach to language and conceptual frame out of the even more twisted but wholly absorbed reasonings that we take today for the natural order. 

First and foremost it needs to be realized that the way humans, as a species and as individuals, relate to the objects, processes and spaces of the world around us are adaptations, not finalities that we are in the process of perfecting.  All actions are related to the consequences that follow from them.  That we have come to see the objects and spaces around us as only extensions of our needs has dangerously narrowed and dimmed our vision of the world. 

If our powers to control and dominate the world were as limited as they are for other species, then the fullest demonstration of our power would be, as it is for all other species, completely overshadowed by the vastness, depth and completeness of ecological action [2].  But we are like 4 year-olds with fully automatic machine guns in a glass factory – it has been right to say that we require inhibitions on our behaviors; we need our superstitions, mores, rules, commandments, regulations, laws.  However, the way that we have come to these controls on our incredible powers has been haphazard, and hazard has been the result. 

We have not done such a bad job of designing ways of living that work for some groups and individuals – not such a good job either considering the poverty and suffering in the world – but for larger concentrations of power in institutions like religions, governments and corporations, the limitations and restrictions are almost nonexistent.  To a very large extent this fact has driven and been driven by the very narrow and simplistic view that humans have come to take of the objects, processes and spaces of this world. 

We have created the conception that we can do anything that we think of and wish to any object or place, that only other humans and their wishes need to be considered, and that this is often a power relation; opportunity and action goes to who can bully or fight with the greatest effectiveness.  Objects and spaces that are within our region of power are said to be controlled by us, that we can do with them as we will.  The relationships of objects and spaces to other functioning systems have typically been ignored as irrelevant since the responses of those systems to our actions have been so slow compared to our almost instantaneous speeds; that these systems respond glacially, in both meanings, slowly and overwhelmingly, is only beginning to influence the public mind too long accustom to religious interpretations of the consequences of our actions on the environment. 

The relationship that we call property is really a very narrow interpretation of the objects and spaces so claimed, the idea that an ‘owner’, in the Blackstone sense, can have more than a vanishingly small understanding of the full expression of the object or space is absurd. Yet, without any real understanding of a thing that is called property, the owner claims the right of total domination and the exclusion of all other influences; picks out some characteristics important to the present human condition and uses that characteristic without regard to the consequences to the object or place as a whole. 

Humans, as do all other organisms, need things. They can, with various behaviors and devices, control certain limited aspects of some things.  They can make many things happen with and to much of the world.  What they cannot do is know enough or be powerful enough to be, for more than a short time (evolutionary or ecological time) and with unsteady hand, in control of the world.  Our control up to now has been the control of a home invader, the illusion of control based on an apparent asymmetry of power.  Property is both a consequence of and contributor to that illusion. 

Of course, we must use the world, its objects and places, there are some who use that simple reality to justify our present language and action [3], but there is no inherent reason that we cannot use the world as does the rest of life, the billions of species over billions of years.  Since it is our use of objects and spaces that is ultimately the issue, then it is a use-based understanding that we require. 

While other species also use environmental offerings in selective and narrow ways, their adaptive response systems, based on the genetic consequences of their reproductive success, are responsive to an infinitely broad range of environmental changes.  Biophysical processes in their finest detail – including things about which even today we know nothing – mold and adjust the physiology and behavior of all living things, from bacteria to blue whales.  Such is the nature and function of Living Order evolutionary processes.  Our Consciousness Order adaptive processes are orders of magnitude faster than the evolutionary/geological time frame, allowing us the illusion that we can, and even have, overcome nature.  This illusion is the central source of our difficulties. 

The kind of order that the human species needs and wishes to live in should be the driving motive for how we relate to the world around us rather than having how we live decided by habits of language that force us into narrow conceptions and options of understanding [4].  We need to stop talking about ‘property’; replace that easy and illusory concept with use-based language: not ‘the field is my property’ – that tells us nothing – but rather, ‘I am planting the field with vegetables and some clover.’  

The politics and economics of exclusive property rights need to adjust to the reality of use.  But first, less illusory language and ways of thinking about the use and assignments of space and objects need to begin to invade the public mind.  Without such changes the cycle of ‘concentration of exclusive privilege, then revolutions resetting the egalitarian clock and back to concentration again’ will continue until the world’s ecosystems so tire of our antics that evolutionary process prevails in our serious humbling. 

I have great concern for the suffering that humans would have to endure in such a humbling, but am even more deeply concerned that the damage we are capable of doing to the earth’s living surface as our systems of support fail can only be vaguely imagined, that our most dire projections will fall short of the true devastation of the living order. 

(The other essays in this series: The meaning of Property;   On Property, A Prologue;  Property, The Biology;  Property, The Religion) 

[1] Huck Finn could not accept Jim as a human being until he began to see him as having his own existence and not colored only with the concept of property.  In the same way we must see the full functioning and independent existence of objects, organisms and lands. 

[2] Ecological action is fully embedded in and informed by the Physical and the Living Systems of Order.  If a change in neutrino flux were to shift an environmental stability, that shift would resonate through ecosystems.  If a gene mutation modifies a protein that changes the metabolic efficiency of an organism by 1%, the whole system adjusts to accommodate. 

[3] Butler Shaffer argues that territoriality and resource protection is the biological basis for private property rights.  While I agree with him that there are emotional and behavioral connections spaces and objects, the leap from needing and creating a region of use to total domination of property is a leap into illusion and madness.   

[4] This falls into the ‘easier said than done’ category.  Learning how to live effectively in the world is not even a present goal.   But there are forces gathered and gathering against the eventuality of such a goal since it would involve an honest appraisal of taboo subjects like social justice, inequities of wealth, power and opportunity, nation based murder and many others. 


Michael Dawson said...

Yes!!! Thank you!!!

I have been trying to make this same point about the word "consumer," which even would-be opponents of the forces of evil still take as a neutral, if not empowering, term for our actions as product users.

James Keye said...

Maybe product selectors or product choosers. I am still struggling with a language to use that properly forms meaning around the relationship of spaces and objects to human individuals, communities and legal entities. All I am sure of at the moment is that property and ownership are destructive: unsupportable meanings, false concepts.

Michael Dawson said...

I think the point is a branch of your larger point about the illusion that we can somehow escape bio-physical reality. Because we (meaning especially the privileged elites among us) have been so high on our apparent ability to manipulate things, we have granted ourselves the attending illusion that language itself is a mere toy.

In order to survive, we must make "products," items we extract from nature via mental and physical labor. I suspect that, before capitalism and its industrial revolution, even this word "product" was not very important to 99 percent of reality, which remained smaller in focus, dwelling on specific "products" like food, clothing, and shelter, all of which were made to last, rather than to wear out or suffer the fashion cycle.

Just as "property" jettisons attention to the ultimate inseparability of both ecospheres and human beings, so does "consumer" pretend that our abiding interest in the longevity, economy, and appropriateness of the "products" we use can be ignored, once we have "entrepreneurs" in charge. Never mind that the "entrepreneurial" system is the apotheosis of heedless denial of reality.