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Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Idea of Property, Further Studies

(Proem: These are the most mind twisting ideas.  Not only are the ideas themselves unsupported by our language and habits of thought, they conflict with the seemingly most essential principles of our social and economic order – and yet as I hack my way into them, they seem the undeniable key to our most pressing dilemmas.  I am going to continue these explorations in future essays as I grow the courage and succumb to the foolishness.)

Processes and relationships that are real, that have basis in reality, and can accrue to one person must, to be real, also accrue to others.  In a similar way relationships that accrue to one species must accrue to other species and to other forms of existence.  This has been part of the general learning process throughout the human history of discovery: Who we were in our groups were what humans were – our name for ourselves was, very often, the name for humans.  The land that we lived on was the center of the world.  The earth was the center of the universe.  Our beliefs were the central true and correct beliefs; so on and so forth.

But we have discovered that relationships and ‘properties’ we thought (believed) unique to our group, our country, our species, living things or our planet are not unique at all.  We are fully part of and continuous with the cosmos.

The certainty with which humans once held the notion that they were specially designed to reside in the center of creation is the same sort of confidence with which our present time-ghost holds the belief that we can own the living and physical world.

Property is an idea.  It is a special form of idea of the magical thinking sort.  This does not mean that the magical idea of property is complete illusion: there are consequences of this idea that are quite concrete.  We have come to it in reasonable and understandable steps, but this does not make it any less a fallacy that has taken on more and more dangerous proportions and consequences.  First the nature of the idea [1]:

All relationships are established between things by some exchange of energies.  This is a basic physical principle.  It is becoming more and more important that we humans recognize the preeminence of these principles and stop giving ourselves magical powers, but, of course, we continue on in the old ways.  The rules and laws of the Physical System of Order (PSO) underlie and underwrite the special principles of the Living System of Order (LSO) and the Consciousness System of Order (CSO) – we need always to look to the physical laws and biophysical principles for guidance and metaphor.

Claims of property attempt to relate some object [2] to a person, a group of persons or, today, a ‘legally’ defined entity through the wholly magical device of “ownership.”  This happens when a group of humans agrees to abide by the common belief that the relationship exists – there is no other basis in Reality.  For such a belief to take on importance, it must be attributed magical powers vested in other illusions.  Humanity has created religions, economies, political structures, all in part formed out of the magical thinking around “property.”

This idea has been deeply and powerfully embedded in our language, habits and beliefs.  Its development has been gradual and insidious; many, even most, of the habits and rules by which we organize our daily actions and our societies have been formed directly from or in relationship to property concepts, concepts that on clear analysis exist only in our ideas, but more importantly lead us into conflicts with the biophysical principles that are essential for life to exist on the earth.

To put it simply, we do not “own” the earth or any of its products, yet we believe that we do and act on that belief by dominating the earth with our numbers, with our capacity to adapt far more quickly than evolutionary process and the willingness, fueled by our belief, to change the earth in any way that we wish.  The disconnect is beyond comprehension and seemingly beyond repair.

As with all organisms, each person and each group of persons must gather to itself sufficient physical space and material to maintain life and the enjoyment of life.  This is one of the essential meanings of “property” that we must rediscover [3].

The functional implementing of “property” behavior creates an organizing principle which allows an organism to navigate the complexities of using objects and spaces.  As an organizing principle, it must exist in the information form and structure of the system of order in which it is functioning: in the Living Order “property” has evolved as the highly structured systems of use of space and material encoded in DNA as instinct and, in the more complex creatures, supplemented by learning, both classical and instrumental.

In the LSO, the use of land-space and material is a cost and therefore is kept to the minimum required to meet the organism’s needs.  No predator has a territory of 2 sq. miles when 1 sq. mile will do.  Animals of the same species in the same region vie of the smallest possible home range, not the largest: a large territory results from the space only marginally meeting needs.  Such a range is more difficult to learn, harder to defend and less likely to sustain life in hard times.

The CSO, with its great powers of information selection, storage and transmission across space and time in the form of story, has reworked the use relation of property into a hugely expanded and modified form.  If one square mile is good, then 2 square miles is better.  Our capacity to dominate with our tools and social designs has grown progressively for many tens of thousands of years, at first slowly and then with exponential ferocity.  And along with that domination has grown the magical notion that that which we could, for the most part, keep to ourselves and away from others was actually attached to our being in some way.

There are many more parts to this story: status, intertwining of social relationships and “property” relations, empowering of the sociopathic, misappropriation of religious process, response to “property” concentrations and more.  Since I can’t find a source that has spelled it all out for me, I will have to keep trying it for myself.  If any reader knows of some source or sources that will save me the trouble, I’d be grateful (other than being directed to Karl Marx – important, but not the final word).

A summary position so far: Using the idea of property (especially ‘private property’) as a magical justification to collect excess under one human’s (or group’s) control rather than as a basic organizing principle for the materials and spaces that are used to meet human needs in relation to the needs of all of the rest of the biophysical world must come to be adjudged unacceptable in human society.  This will require, not the removing of the property concept, but its major reworking.  Unfortunately, this thought is almost an infinity away from the way today’s economic and political elites are thinking and acting.

[1] The word “property” is also used to describe qualities appended to an object, process or form of energy.  There is something to be learned about its magical use for this use. Mass is a property of matter.  Gravity is property of mass.  These are indissoluble relationships; not even relationships, but really different measures of what are in reality the same thing.  Gravity is an extension of the presence of a center of mass. This way of using the word and concept ties together mental constructions of apparent differences that in biophysical fact are not differences at all, but different ‘faces’ of the same process or event.  A property of the hemoglobin super-molecule is the reflection of light with wavelengths around 650 nanometers (nm = one billionth of a meter = one millionth of a millimeter).  Many different materials might reflect light in that same range – hemoglobin does not ‘own’ 650 nm light!  And, of course, 650 nm light doesn’t ‘own’ hemoglobin.  Humans (if they have the appropriate words) call 650 nm the color red (or an equivalent translation of the experience).  A property of that wavelength, in the human experience, is the color red.  But this is a purely manufactured property; ‘red’ has no substantial existence.  Blood, certain minerals, concentrations of carotene and a variety of other materials or structures all reflect or transmit light that is called red in human experience.

It is the property of a prism to separate light into its array of wavelengths rather than have them all mixed together as an indistinguishable mishmash. This is a unique property of prisms and prism-like structures.  But even in this unique relationship, the prism and the light are related only by a process, not in anyway by the way “property” is used in human concepts of attachment through the concept of ‘ownership.’  Though the actual human relationships are more like those of the physical world than the human magical idea.

[2] ‘Object’ is used here to refer to physical space, items natural and created, certain behaviors and definable ideas that can take some actionable form.

[3] Living things take up space – this is obvious, but they tend to do this in ways that are different from non-living things, though these are indefinite boundaries. 

A boulder, for example, takes up the space it occupies.  A river, on the other hand, flows in its channel and in varying volumes requiring different amounts of space, and is also the controlling agency for the shape of the land for large areas around the river.  Where or what exactly a river is is not bounded either physically or conceptually in the same way as a boulder.

We do not think of a river ‘owning’ its valley – and the thought of the river ‘needing’ its valley would be considered silly, in that the river is not a thing like the boulder; we cannot move a river to some other place.  The river is the water flowing in the valley.  At some later moment that same water might be a lake or ocean.  It might make more sense to speak of the valley ‘owning’ the river.

Living things take up space, but are characterized by more complex changes of location than a river, the most common differences are the spread of the ‘identical’ living units, growth in size and ‘self-powered’ movement.  Another point of difference is the idea of need or requirement.  This becomes sensible for living things in ways quite different from non-living things.  Crystals require concentrations of particular substances to go through a particular series of changes in order to exist, but once they exist they only require to avoid the most dramatic forces of change to continue to exist.  Living things, however, require constant and specific infusions of materials, a situation for which we have a great deal of vocabulary and which generates a good bit of the form and content of our communication – of all kinds from chemical signals to language.


Michael Dawson said...

This brings to mind Karl Polanyi, who argued that "owning" land and the labor-power of other people were both dangerous fictions.

The scary part is that faith in property is probably stronger now that faith in that other dangerous fiction, god.

James Keye said...

I will look at Polanyi, he seems a sufficient iconoclast to meet some of my needs.

I will be arguing in future essays that the magical thinking that forms Gods is of the same origin as that which forms the beliefs of ownership. I agree that property beliefs are stronger... and more dangerous.

Michael Dawson said...

With the rise of monotheism following and serving the rise of monarchies on Earth, it seems like a surefire line of inquiry. I look forward to reading more.

I'm also interested in the connections to our conception of "family." That seems tied into the process of drawing imaginary boundaries and then treating them as divine and absolute.

Ghostwheel said...

Fantastic. Keep exploring this idea.

Sometimes I become tongue-tied when right-wingers introduce the idea of "ownership" into their discourse. My own enculturation makes it difficult to point out the flaws. I've been desperately looking for another paradigm.

I'd really be interested in that Polyani reference, too.