Non-fungible Tokens Unmask the Absurdity of All Private Property

Centuries of ideological justification and normalization can transform the bizarre, unjust, and arbitrary into that which seems natural and inevitable. The modern concept of private property has become so ingrained in society that most assume it has been with us since humans stood upright. The truth is that all the various notions of property which have plagued mankind have only been around for a small percentage of the 200,000 years that humans have walked the earth. Our present understanding of private property has developed alongside the present mode of production, and operates now as a cornerstone of our monstrous socio-economic inheritance.

Sometimes it takes a new phenomenon to shake our assumptions and make a crack in our consciousness. In this way, Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are a hidden blessing. Much has been written about the idiocy of NFTs, with many progressive commentators painting the whole craze as merely some off-the-wall ponzi scheme, either the fever dream of libertarian weirdos, a grift on artists, or a conspiracy to continue artificially inflating the crypto-market. Others point out that NFTs, like other blockchain technologies, are simply trading what little life our planet has left into a tradable asset. And they are not wrong.

But perhaps too much has been made of the peculiar and single nature of NFTs as a purely speculative asset. Jokes abound about how easy it is to save a local copy of a digital file associated with an NFT, whether or not you own it. This discourse, which seeks to paint NFTs as a special case of market irrationality, often mystifies the absurdity of all forms of private property.

It’s not as if property in the modern context was ever about the privilege of exclusively enjoying a one-of-a-kind object. We call it “copyright” for a reason. The fact is that it is a simple matter for anyone possessing an internet connection and an ounce of initiative to save a local copy of any copyrighted music MP3 in existence, without paying a penny to anyone, a process that is only mildly more difficult than copying a JPEG. Nonetheless, Sony Music Group “acquired” Bruce Springsteen’s entire catalog for a reported $500 million at the end of 2021. Jokes on them, right? Didn’t anyone tell Sony that you can download Springsteen’s whole discography via BitTorrent for free?

Of course, Sony is not actually interested in music. They are interested in extracting rents from the enjoyment of music. And, unlike NFT holders, they are able to exact these rents, not through some essential feature of market logic, but because, and only because, a legal framework exists which enforces their claim of ownership through the threat of fines and jail time. Sony and others create artificial scarcity through the exercise of political power which allows them to profit from the leasing and sale of what amounts to no more than copies of a digital file.

This, it turns out, is exactly what NFT investors are hoping to do. Take the case of the collective of buyers who purchased NFTs of the pages of Dune for $3 million. They persist in the belief that this purchase entitles them to create commercial products within the Dune franchise. They are being laughed out of court, of course, but at some point, we must ask what makes this inherently more ridiculous than Disney shareholders raking in billions by leveraging the imaginings of Stan Lee.

The real “strangeness” of NFTs, and the contrasting sense of normalcy, rationality, and inevitably that imbue traditional forms of property, cannot be found in their essential natures, because they are theoretically identical. What really cloaks NFTs in their cloud of absurdity is that we are reacting to this fad in real time, without the filter of the hegemony’s priming. Unlike those property forms our society has inherited, the legal, political, and ideological framework does not yet exist to enforce and reinforce NFTs as a social phenomenon, and so it rightfully seems silly.

One wonders how similarly incredulous the communal farmers of Northern Europe might have been during the Enclosure Movement, which saw the communal land they had worked for generations transformed into private property, sometimes overnight by acts of parliament, and often through simple, bloody theft. How very strange it must have been to learn that the land on which your community’s ancestors had freely grazed their sheep now “belonged” to someone because a piece of paper said so. Who had they purchased it from, exactly, and how much had they paid? Why were we, the men and women who’ve always worked this land, not consulted at any point? Didn’t they know they could come use the land whenever they wanted? Who had gone and decided this?

The simple answer is that elites had decided it was so, and, through the state, made it into a reality through force. What stopped these peasant farmers from laughing all this off as some silly contrivance was the soldiers pointing bayonets in their direction. Instead of rolling their eyes, these peasants found themselves dispossessed of their livelihoods and shoved into overcrowded slums to become the new industrial armies of Capital. This process is what Marx referred to as “Primitive Accumulation,” and David Harvey calls “Accumulation by Dispossession.”

Of course, I am underselling the horrors of Primitive Accumulation. Many wars and massacres were required before the modern concept of private property was fully realized. It may have felt surreal, but it certainly didn’t feel silly. To quote Marx:

Tantae molis erat to unleash the ‘eternal natural laws’ of the capitalist mode of production, to complete the process of separation between the workers and the conditions of their labour, to transform, at one pole, the social means of production and subsistence into capital, and at the opposite pole, the mass of the population into wage-labourers, into the free ‘labouring poor’, that artificial product of modern history. If money, according to Augier, ‘comes into the world with a congenital bloodstain on one cheek,’ capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt. (Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1)

When it comes down to it, copyrights, patents, IP, even equities and real estate, are all just notions that can only exert a material force in reality because of the threat of violence which underpins them. What do you mean, you “own” a piece of a company you’ve never worked at or even seen? Which piece, a chair? A brick? A part of an idea? All you really have is a piece of paper, if that!

Often, these properties are not purchased from creators at all, but extracted by elites from employees, or taken by force in the midst of conflict, catastrophe, or through legalized theft (such as imminent domain or a sweetheart government contract). And just as suddenly as they came into the world, these notions will cease to have any material force if the owners of this “property” can no longer rely on organized violence to back their claims.

NFTs represent a new round of primitive accumulation—a new enclosure of the commons—this time of the virtual spaces that have become so central to our lives, particularly during the pandemic. At least, that’s what investors are hoping. Do we stand on the threshold of a world where we owe 2¢ every time we post that GIF of Michael Jackson eating popcorn? Judging from the thrashing that NFTs are taking in the mainstream press, it’s tempting to assume that the powers that be are generally not in favor of this (though it appears that NFTs are, naturally, highly concentrated in the hands of an elite few). But we can imagine it would be just as disorienting for us to suddenly need to pay for our emojis as it was for those British peasants in the 17th century when their land got yanked from beneath their feet. Already, the new virtual reality being pushed by Facebook and others, the “Metaverse,” is being carved up by investors. Mortgages are being issued with digital spaces as the collateral, and the deed takes the form of… you guessed it, an NFT. To lean on another Marx quote, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

In closing, enjoy this GIF of Keanu Reeves laughing at NFTs. I own it now. You can’t use it.

Image credit: Kiplinger

Zachary Orlin (pseudonym) is an activist, organizer, stay at home dad, and writer. He lives in Boston with his wife and three young children. Pronouns: He, Him, His. Read other articles by Zachary.