That objects, regions of physical space and now ideas can be owned (sometimes even including other humans and non-human animals), i.e., held in the protected control of a person or representatives of a person, is an article of faith even more pervasive than faith in religious values. But there is no basis for this belief and assertion other than the power to enforce it. This can be seen with great clarity with the territories of animals. A bit of ground sufficient to live on is marked off in some way appropriate to the species and supported by a willingness to engage in fisticuffs. The property holder most often “wins” since it is on “home ground.” From this simple model we humans have ramped up designs taking the property holder to the exalted and purely mythical state of property owner. And in the typical fashion of most things carried too far, solved a big problem by creating a number of even larger ones.
One way of looking at economics and its servant, the law, is the processes involved in protecting and unprotecting wealth. Every organism protects its wealth; first and foremost, its DNA and then, in some descending order, the designs and devices that protect that primary protection. Bees sting. Squirrels hide food. Ungulates run fast or get big. A katydid hides its own body as a leaf. “Half” of the behaviors of the biological world can be seen as protections of body, sustenance and place. The other “half” can be seen as behaviors that undo the protections of others.
Unprotecting the wealth of others is also called “making a living” whether it is a spider capturing a fly or a businessman enticing a customer into opening a wallet. Though in the case of the spider and the fly, it is necessary to look to the species level to see the mutual advantage; certainly the individual fly has all of its wealth unprotected by the spider. Before humans began to apply their own consciousness processes to protecting and unprotecting wealth the rules were (and are) those that we call evolution.
Ownership is a form of “protecting” wealth. Humans have carried the ritual fighting for place — the place holder almost always has a home-field advantage — into the idea of ownership. Add to “holder-ship,” a biological construct, the idea of agreed on and enforceable rules that define the conditions of “ownership,” and the process of protecting wealth changes from living process to consciousness process. However, the situation has not become “antiseptic,” the force that drives the action has been moved to the human community and is not immediately contained in the individual, that is, the individual must perform protecting and unprotecting behaviors through the community’s social and legal rules.
Immediately, as such social and legal rules are in place, clever humans go to work trying to unprotect the wealth that is protected by those rules. This can be as simple as picking a good spot for a robbery and as complex as finding a way to get a percentage of every person’s production. The human world is replete with cons and Ponzi schemes, abuses of force and skimming, misappropriations of value added and political redistribution by taxation (99 % from the poor to the rich, which is often how it is that wealth happens in the first place! “Redistribution” from the rich to the poor is almost always a correction for the misappropriation of value added).
The key device is property. In the first instance there was no property beyond what a person or a community could protect by direct action: being physically present or threat of force associated with a marking of object or boundary. In the second, property in immediate holding could be “owned” by a person, but the larger holdings were the property of a priestly or kingly class. From this model it was considered a great step forward to the enforceable concept of “private property,” not meaning that “the thing was mine” so much as “the thing was not the king’s.” This idea has been gradually changed to a rather strident rejection of all things communal, but the origin of private property was not the rejection of communal holdings.
Property, especially real estate, can only be owned in the imagination, though the imagination can work its designs into actual sheriffs and armies and so be enforced. The “right” to property considered so important in the early growth of liberal thought arose less from the assumption of a natural right of humans to the earth and more from the power of private property to secure a foot hold in the struggle with hereditary sovereignty (a strengthening political and economic form today).
The assumption that private property is both an absolute right and essential to “correct” human economic and cultural existence is an artifact of history as well as a very useful device in unprotecting the wealth of others (if a plot of land is held communally, the first step to taking it is to get it broken up and held individually). It is also destructive of the whole living enterprise. A wolf pack may hold a territory, but it doesn’t presume to evict the earthworms or the moths, but humans assume such an absolute right. Part of the Madness of our present thinking is that the earth is ours to do with as we wish — an extension of the “holder” to “owner” model into complete societal insanity.
On the one hand, we imagine our preeminence and believe our own imaginings. On the other hand, the rules of property, as they have been formed in the process of making tools to unprotect wealth, allow greater and greater amounts of wealth to be consolidated into fewer and fewer hands. Both are powerful forces in maintaining this essentially arbitrary and destructive economic and social design. Those who accumulate wealth have more control over the process of designing the social and legal protections of wealth and so give to themselves the tools to unprotect the wealth of the less powerful.
The idea that the world cannot be owned is countered today with the idea that everything, absolutely everything, should be owned so that all of the earth that humans can touch would be invited into the human economic process. Part of the thinking [sic] is that the Market will (is the only real tool to) correctly value the biophysical space. This is like letting a herd of babies loose in a razorblade factory — an utter mismatch of capacities and needs.
Exactly the opposite is essential; we must find a way to structure in social value and law, i.e., make agreed and enforceable, a new concept of the commons and protect it as well as possible from the forces that will immediately go to work to unprotect it.
We are so deep in the madness and perversion of private property and the primacy of material wealth values that there are no clear options forward. We need to keep our wits about us, a vision before us and be ready. The present Madness is driving us, willing joy-riders and captives alike, rapidly toward a cliff. By all appearances we will not stop. But we can prepare: ourselves with knowledge, our children with adaptability and courage and others by sharing a reality based vision.
(This is part of a series of essays that look at the primary articles of faith that seem normal and essential to our present cultural life, but that are the underlying forces for damage to the biosphere, destruction of our specieshood and ultimately devastating to the most positive qualities of the cultural life we are trying to sustain.)