Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Nobody Owns Anything

Throughout my tenure as an anarchist one thing has always set me apart from everyone else: my beliefs around the concept of property and ownership. These are some real foundational beliefs for me, because it is based on them that I evaluate various things like "capitalism", "socialism", "communism", even "economics" writ large. My beliefs on ownership are ones that I have largely kept silent about, but recently I have been feeling the need to sit down and elucidate my thoughts on the subject. So here it goes...

As I see it, the concept of "ownership" is a fiction that does not really exist except to the extent that people believe in it and act accordingly. People can chose to believe in it and live their lives by it, or not. Ownership is of course a very popular and prevalent concept that people believe in, but it is by no means inevitable that people have to believe in it. It is up there with other concepts in that regard, such as "money", "government" and "religion", that have shaped history and dominated people's lives and that I think that we all can and should do away with in order to live more free and fulfilling lives.

I opt for a perspective that I consider to be more natural and real, one that I tentatively am calling "non-ownership". This applies to everyone and everything, in that nobody owns anything. This includes all people, places, things and ideas, all of it is unshackled to the concept of invisible lines binding such-and-such with so-and-so. I am not saying that "government" owns everything, or that "the community" owns everything, or that "society" owns everything, I am saying that nobody owns anything, since ownership does not exist.

The rationale behind this is that everyone comes into the world naked and carrying no possessions, and leaves the world taking no possessions with them. The interim period between birth and death is when people usually ascribe the concept of ownership to people and things, but this is a faulty concept given that people can and do accidentally break, misplace, or have their "property" taken from them against their will through various means. If somebody really "owned" something, then at the very least it could not be accidentally broken or misplaced, since it would always be under the complete control of the owner and it could not do anything that goes against the owner's will. The fact that things can go their own way regardless of the desires of the so-called owner shows that there is no invisible sanctified bond between object and owner. It's just make-believe.

As far as property being taken against people's will by other people, whether we call it "theft", "fraud", or whatever, I would say that this is a case of people with different ideas of who should have what things. Different systems that we call law, trade, fair and just business transactions, justifiable means of establishing ownership, all of these are different rules for playing different games with the same basic fiction that we call "ownership". It is similar to how different computer games exist focused on 'Star Wars'. Star Wars is still a work of fiction, even though different games exist that are focused on it, and none of the particular rules or codes that these different games abide by are more "true" or "legitimate" than any other, because it is all still premised on a work of fiction. It is just a game, and we can choose to play different games, or we can stop playing games altogether. The same goes with "ownership".

Often people bring up the idea of finding things and making things as being the basis for ownership. However, people find things (and lose things) and make things (and break things) all the time, usually with the help of predecessors and those around them. To find out the original discoverer or creator of something or somewhere, among a species that goes back hundreds of thousands of years and that is fundamentally social in nature seems like an absurd and arbitrary game of catch-up. People exist, places exist, things exist, let's go with that.

People often bring up the idea of one's own body, "don't people own their own physical bodies?" I would say, no, even that is not really owned by people. I would say that the fact that injuries, illness, aging and accidental deaths all occur are proof that people do not own their own bodies. If people really owned their own bodies, then none of these things would ever occur, because people would control it. This kind of control is an illusion, as is the concept of "ownership".

Usually at this point people are imagining a world of some kind of violent madhouse free-for-all, filled with people whimsically taking whatever they want and doing whatever they want to everybody else. My response to that would be to ask: wow, what kind of dark twisted psyche are you carrying around with you? All of this segues into my ideas around what concepts should be used in lieu of the concept of "ownership" in order to support there being more peace, harmony and happiness for everybody.

First off, I think that it is essential that people have a real sense of care, consideration and connection with both those around them as well as with themselves. If people really knew, understood and cared about the happiness and well-being of those around them, they would not blithely be acting in ways that cause hurt or distress for others. People would be openly talking about situations, thinking things through together, and coming up with creative ways to meet the needs of everyone.

Now that I have just used that word, "needs", I feel that mention should be made of another concept that I find supportive here, and that is of "needs" as articulated by Nonviolent Communication. In this case, "needs" are the underlying motivational drives that inspire all actions, thoughts, and feelings that human beings have. Needs are not quantifiable, they do not look like any particular thing or course of action, and they can exist in the intellectual, emotional, and social realms, as well as the physical. All human beings have the same underlying fundamental human needs, people just express these needs, and their desires to get these needs met, in a wide variety of different ways. Also, the strategies that people use to try to get their needs met can look very different and can be in conflict with other strategies used to get needs met.

An important process that can be used to navigate life in a non-ownership world is that of continually identifying the various different fundamental human needs that are at play. What needs are "on the table", so to speak, what needs are which people wanting to have met in any given situation, and how can we try to meet these needs with the various different resources that are accessible right now? These are the kinds of conversations that I would like to see people develop their skills and capacities for having.

This then begs the question: what needs am I anticipating being met through people pursuing the strategy of adopting the perspective of "non-ownership" instead of continuing on with using a variation of the already more prevalent concept of "ownership"?

My first answer is that more resources and possibilities are freed up and made available without the arbitrary constraints of who-owns-what. "Ownership" creates a whole vast minefield of different tripwires that can go off and areas that are foreclosed on right off the bat. Without that concept existing, the whole world exists filled with different things and places that can be used to meet people's needs. The sky's the limit.

The second part of my answer is that a perspective of non-ownership really forces people to confront the question of what it is that they are really needing. What is it that would truly make them more of a happy and healthy human being? In a world of "property management", of relentlessly pursuing and maintaining that which one supposedly "owns", people lose track of that which is really important to them and what really makes them happy. Non-ownership forces those questions right to the forefront of people's minds: existential self-examination is required.

A third part of my answer is that "non-ownership" provides an additional incentive for people to have strong intimate connections with the other people around them, to have more and better "community" with other people. With the concept of "ownership" being the main operative fiction used in a society, it is easy for people to wall themselves off into separate little enclaves of "me" and "mine". In a world of non-ownership, the question of "how are you doing?" becomes a real and vital question that people ask each other, as well as "how am I doing?" The quality of people's relationships with one another becomes a very important matter for people in a society of non-ownership.

If it is not apparent already, this concept of non-ownership has elements to it that go into both the personal individual realm as well as the interpersonal social realm. It ties in with how people view themselves, their own lives and the various different objects and places that surround them, and it also ties in with how people relate with one-another, how people get along with each-other, what concepts they hold together, as well as what social systems and structures people create together to support one-another.

Non-ownership is not implemented by a lone individual adopting this perspective and deciding to go off and live their lives by it. And non-ownership is not implemented by a group of people collectively deciding to live their lives this way and making sure that everybody abides by it. It is simultaneously both individual and collective, it is a way that people relate with both themselves and each-other. One-sided perspectives with this do not work.

People sometimes mention the possessive language that we use now, such as "mine" and "yours", or the strongly entrenched habits that people have as showing the "inevitability" of the concept of ownership. But these too are areas that people can change if they really wanted to. For example, more neutral language can be used, "the" and "that", for example. And habits can be spoken of and acknowledged directly as such, "that house that you like to sleep in", "that toothbrush that I usually use", etc. If people want to ensure the continuity of their habits, they can openly state it. Likewise, people can also take the opportunity to examine their own habits and see if it is really serving them, or to see if something else could perhaps serve them better.

I also want to acknowledge that people often do have strong emotional attachments to particular things, places and people. These strong emotional attachments do exist, I see that. In the kind of non-ownership society that I am talking about here, these emotional attachments would be openly recognized and spoken of, and they can be worked around or dealt with as needed, depending on the situation and the people involved. The point is not to trample over people or to force them into particular ways of being, but to more clearly see where we are at and where we would like to go. I believe that non-ownership helps with that.

A key here is that of pursuing freedom, the freedom of knowing that infinite possibilities exist to meet all of the different needs we have. The strategies that can be implemented to meet needs are by no means fixed or limited.

Likewise, this freedom is linked together with being in community with others, it openly acknowledges the interdependence that people have with one another, and as such the social relationship becomes an area of prime importance as well.

And tied in with all of that is the quest for increased self-knowledge and self-understanding. For if one does not really know oneself how can one ask for what would truly be supportive for oneself?

All of this is bundled together in this concept that I am calling "non-ownership". This is a concept that I have had for quite some time now, yet it is also one which is always evolving as time goes on. This concept is one important part of my anarchist views, for it is one way that the various systems of authority and domination can be exposed, and freedom and community can take their place. All of this is by no means my original idea, it is rather an idea that I have tweaked and adjusted in my own way. Make of it as you will.


John Taylor said...

Great post. I like it. Yes. Like many other things ownership, property is simply a social construct and we can alter it. We reify it based on an almost religious devotion to adhering to this belief.

Dick said...

The culture of property which I would call propertarianism because it as much an ideology as it is a social order. Control of property is very much the basis of the power of the state and the basis of monetary wealth, money is valuable because it is the means to acquire property, the state sanctions the ownership of property through law and enforcement above the welfare of the people. Our existence is tied to property and it even is a defining aspect of our social status. In reality our lives are impoverished by wealth because to own something is to deny others access, in spite of their needs, and charge fees, rent or use for a means of labour exploitation. The worst thing about property is this use as empowerment, as it is the underbelly of the beast. Social anarchism ascribes to a different concept of economy where property is not viable because the social existence is inclusive rather than exclusive. Rather than divide humanity into haves and have-nots; community and social connectivity become the social norms. Our lies depends more on our ability to work together than on what we might think we "own". Any way that we can express this in our daily lives leads us to liberation, loosens the bondage to power and politics. Our biggest problem is the way property is enforced by the state, I don't care if somebody thinks they own their tooth brush, but to refuse to distribute food because it is property is unacceptable, if not a crime against humanity. We should own our bodies because that is who we are, our lives and living spirit are inseparable from our bodies and we must defend our bodies from abuse, assault, rape, death. Anarchist believe deeply in the individual spirit and aspire that there is the greatest freedom to expand into the greatest fulfillment and social relevance.

Mason Amin said...

"To be radical is to go to the root of the matter, but for human being, the root is human being itself"-- Karl Marx (1818-1883).

The points made by both Ian (the writer of the article) and Dick (a reviewer) are very interesting, delightful, keen, and insightful. I'm convinced that transformation of consciousness is the key, the prerequisite, antecedent factor, and catalyst to any structural and relational change; for transformation of capitalist values, hegemony, and property relations. Transformation of consciousness cannot be achieved by simple act of transferring property "ownership" from individuals and groups to the state, and expecting "a new type of human beings to emerge" as the result of such transfers of "ownership".

In fact, the transfer of ownership to state, and subsequent state capitalism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries failed to produce the "New Soviet Man" because the "ownership" itself had not been questioned; it had only gone from individuals, private holders to the collective "ownership" maintained by the state. I think this is perhaps the "secret cause" of all other failures and eventual disintegration of the "Soviet Power" itself; the centralized power which devoured many lives and even those of its early supporters-- including those of "the body & sole of the party"-- in the purges of the 1930s. The bureaucrats did not "own", just like the rest of the population did not "own", but they had privileged access to products and services, to the fruits of labor of millions throughout decades and centuries; many of whom perished in gulags and prisons in Siberia. But neither the bureaucrats (self-proclaimed guardians/conservators of the person and estate of the proletariat), nor the proletariat "owned" anything except their personal items (clothes, shoes, toothbrushes, etc,).

The point made here (in Ian's article) is not about who should "own"-- individual, corporation, state, etc. The point at issue is about "the given", the assumptions, and conceptions about "ownership". It opens a new horizon, and deepens our understanding of the nature of "ownership" itself. It's about bogus assertions which have been popularly accepted, incorporated, and sanctioned by man-made norms, and customs, and laws as well as allegations about God's wish for them to be so. In short, the point is about demystifying concepts that are popularly assumed to be "divine", "sacred", and "unalterable", and "legal". But in real life they are oppressive, degrading, dehumanizing, and discriminatory to human beings. Simply put, transformation of consciousness is an essential prerequisite in order to overturn subjugation and domination as well as dismantling of all oppressive social, gender, authority relations and the relationship between human beings and nature-- i.e., dismantling oppressive structures and relations. Comrade Ian has gone "to the root of the matter" and exposed "ownership" for what it really is by demystifying it!!which is the key to human liberation.
In solidarity,
Mason Amin

Mark said...
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Mark said...

Interesting article. Reminds me of a conversation I had with my six year old son a few days ago. Kids have a way of suddenly (and often) placing you in a position to defend your ethical integrity.
He asked: "Dad, if you had to choose between saving a building full of a thousand people, and saving just one person, you would always save the building with a thousand people, right?"
I was a bit caught off-guard considering the jarring topic shift from porcupines and their spines, with no apparent segue.
Anyway, I asked him: "Well, what if I had to choose between either saving YOU, or a building of a thousand people I had never met?"
He thought about it for a bit, and sort of realized the depth (and perhaps some of the implications) of this difficult scenario.
And then we talked more about porcupines.
I thought about this conversation as I read this article because I couldn't help but consider the fact that, as much as we try, we can never prevent ourselves from regarding strangers as highly as our family, friends, and fellow anarchists. Ask any mother if she would volunteer her child to be killed in order to prevent 9/11, and I think the hard truth of the variability of interpersonal value becomes quite clear.
But that is an extreme example. We all (or most of us) have close personal relationships in which we are intimately connected with others, and I agree that in these situations, the value of the concepts of 'ownership' and 'property' are diminished (present spouse excluded).
'Ownership' and 'property' are valuable fictions, imho, because people who don't know each other, or even people who want each other dead, can continue to benefit from each other despite this unfortunate, but undeniable and unpreventable social reality.
As far as my son, some time later he confessed that he would feel morally culpable for the death of a thousand people and would therefore have to sacrifice me so that they would live. No, that didn't happen. He's six, and has more important things to think about. But, if a grown up could honestly take that position, and slaughter a loved one in order to save others with no feeling of remorse or injustice, and reject all variability in value of interpersonal relationships, I believe there then, and only then, could be the start of a basis for a sans ownership/property society. In other words, remove humanity from the equation and it might be possible.