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

Friday, June 3, 2011

More on Property and Ownership

The question is: How do I begin to discuss a subject, with the intention that other people will read it, when that subject is absolutely clear to them and when I am absolutely convinced that they are completely and utterly wrong about it?  How do I discuss it when the only language available almost completely assumes the ubiquitous common view in the very structure of the grammar and the meanings of the words?  The very language and its structure conspire against understanding.

The issue is property and ownership.  “This is mine, that is yours and this other thing is ours!  What else is there?”  You see, right there in the subject-verb-object structure, and ‘mine’, ‘yours’; the possessive form.  That one thing is possessed by, the property of or owned by some other thing is as obvious as heat on a warm day.

But it is not, not at all, obvious once one begins to look for the roots of the thing.  You search down from the oh-so-clear fruit and leaves, the upper branches, and as you seek to find the well rooted trunk suckling on the solid ground of natural history, biology, the evolution of the species and the relationships of creatures long living on the living earth, it disappears into mists and wisps of possibilities and is gone as solid substance.

Funhouse mirrors catch the reflection of economic certainty, political necessity or a confused grimace of almost angry incredulity, but the essential and founding principles of property and ownership disappear when looked at closely and directly, like a perceptual illusion.

This is not to say that we, humans, do not use these principles; it is not to say that more than a few of us are even uncomfortable with them: but that is just it; these are ideas that are like so many other ideas that we use that have no reality beyond our believing and using them.  Catholics believe in the Eucharist.  Devout Muslims must pray to Mecca 5 times a day.  Most people get excited by piles of rectangular paper printed with pictures of kings or dead presidents.   Astrologers believe that the position of a collection of stars, light-years distant, in a random arrangement has a meaning that influences a human’s future (there is that possessive again, as if there could be such an influence and that one’s future was somehow one’s property).

It is in the human adaptation of the Consciousness Order to both create and respond to these illusions; this is an incredible power: to think and to make thoughts reality.  When guided by Reality, the subordinate ‘instrumental realities’ focus attention, direct activities over time and distance, enhance individual capacities and generally make the human species invincible in the natural world.

But when the instrumental realities free themselves from Reality, when the veridicality of process is lost and old instrumental realities become the basis for the new realities without the intervening guidance of biophysical Reality, then “reality” is ad hoc; these instrumental realities are destined to run hard up against Reality the way a child’s game of Superman must give way to the cape’s return to a towel on laundry day.

The time line is, of course, very different – comparing the child’s game to the ‘game’ that human societies play with physical and living system laws.  Humanity has been playing and building the complexity of its present game for 8,000 to 10,000 years.  Legal thinkers might argue that we can have a reasonable expectation that our game is now Reality, but the other systems of order just don’t work that way – there is just a long time, in human terms, between laundry days.

Property and ownership have gone through a number of iterations in, and before, that time.  The most influential and insidious change, however, has gone largely unnoticed and unnoted: the shift of ownership from being a relationship of mutual responsibilities to an isolated domination of one party over another.  “It is mine,” once meant that ‘I’ created or found ‘it’ and am taking responsibility for ‘it.’  The understanding of the community was that if ‘I’ couldn’t or wouldn’t serve in proper relation with ‘it’, then ‘it’ could and should revert to another who would take up the proper responsibility.  Ownership conferred responsibility in direct proportion to benefits; not only to the object owned, but the whole functioning of the object and the ownership relationship in the community.  ‘Ownership’ was about the husbanding of functional relationships, not about domination.

“It is mine,” has come to mean: 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).  It is this view that has become the foundation for the aberrant human behavior that we call economics and especially capitalist economics.  And it is this view that is running up hard against Reality.

Mother Nature doesn’t recognize unique claims on property.  A fence is just a long bush to be hopped over.  Talus doesn’t agree to boundaries, neither does flood water or wind;  industrial pollutants don’t either.   When our behaviors interfere with the functioning of the biophysical world, it fights back at first with warnings by violating expectations and then with the ultimate argument; it fails to function in the ways that support complex life forms.  It is our distorting of property and ownership ideas that underlies and underwrites our most grave violations of relationship with the living and physical world. 

Blackstone’s definition of property creates an incentive system that isolates the continuous, that commodifies the commonly attainable, that rewards destruction and that rejects the deep ecological behavior and understanding so long a part of the species’ existence.  These 33 words and their rendering into economic behavior are an important source for our difficulties and their intransigence.

This doesn’t mean,  as is often the response of the unimaginative and the narrowly self-interested,  that all property ideas are rejected and thus, dread upon dread,  “communism” will destroy our world.  It does mean that a number of ways of organizing our relationships with each other and the objects of our world would follow aspects of the socialist model; but hey, that’s a good thing isn’t it, to be more engaged in social concerns, habits and expectations?

The good of the community has almost always been held up as more important than the good of individuals – it is certainly used as an argument for sending young men off to war.  Even Kings have claimed that they act in the interest of the common good.  Even princely CEOs claim that they are “compensated” (as opposed to extorting) for the common good.  We all like the argument – except for actually doing for the common good; and that is largely because of the deep ingraining of the Blackstone type definition of property and ownership: “It’s only mine if no one else can touch my stuff.  I am a measure of what I make mine.” So, eventually we become the stuff we have and to hell with the other guy (and since we are the other guy to someone, we are really saying to hell with ourselves).

How different it is to see what we ‘possess’ as benefiting our community, what we have as being in our custody and our responsibility.  How we relate to others and to the maintenance of the property infrastructure of society is our measure.  Humans have lived with this incentive system for thousands of years in thousands of places. 

It is true that the process of change and “development” is slower in this design, but it by no means stops.  Our relationships to such dominant ideas as entrepreneurship would change dramatically.  Status systems would be upset.  However, if these understandings, not new to us only latent in this time, could be reinvigorated we might survive and minimize the extinction event that our present values have created. 

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