Thursday, March 13, 2014

Questioning Property

(From The Technology Of Good)

- Property.
- Yes.
- The great problem.
- The great social problem. As a philosophical problem it is easily solved.
- Alright then.
- What we have here is the rare case where the popular perception is dead-on right.
- That we identify with our possessions.
- Meaning our possessions identify us. We identify ourselves with our possessions. We see ourselves when we look at our possession, our possessions tell us who we are.
- Because they are close to us?
- Property is something we are close to. But that's not it.
- Why not?
- Because when we feel a sense of possession and ownership it always is a claim on the future. Imagine a world where there was no one to take anything away from you. Would you look at your things in the same way?
- I'm not sure.
- In science, one thing next to another becomes known only when by experiment we can establish a law of relation between the movement of those two things. The two things just standing there have no relation.
- You think it is the same with us and our property? We have no relations to our things except in the lawful way we act with them? By law, do you mean scientific laws, or human laws?
- Human laws, including the laws of the state that tell us how to act with each other.
- What is the human law of property?
- 'Don't share'. Now, other than science, what does this remind you of: this lawful relation of people with each other, and an emptiness of direct relationship?
- What does it remind you of?
- Ritual establishes who we are, our power in a group, by repeating the same acts in the company of others doing the same. The people are "ours" and we are our roles.
- Ok. Property is mysterious to us because it arises out of ritual, which you've explained over and over leads us to forget ourselves, forget everything outside what we do in the ritual. Right?
- Right.
- A patient tells the doctor who he is, a car tells the car owner who he is. Who is he?
- The kind of person who drives that kind of car.
- How does he know?
- He's performed his rituals in imagination with the help of advertisements.
- We don't let others touch our property because it interferes with our imaginary rituals. They are not the kind of person who has that thing, we are.
- Yes.
- And the doctor is ready to defend his Ferrari to the death because this mysterious sense of ownership has been acquired at the cost of self forgetting in ritual?
- The sense of ownership has replaced memory of all personal actions besides following the rules of the ritual. Ownership is who we are.
- By following the rules of the ritual, you mean the doctor playing by the rules, going to school, wearing the right uniforms and maintaining the right attitudes. I have this watch because it reminds me of airplane instrumentation and the idea of being that flying kind of person amuses me, and I won't let you take it from me because it then wouldn't be my story but yours. Stories are competitive?
- A doctor needs a patient to be a doctor. The doctor doesn't care about the patient, but has to have patients in order to be a doctor. The doctor is one kind of thing, his patients another. Things don't share. They have relations defined by law.
- So the doctor doesn't care about his Ferrari?
- He cares very much about the power the car has to tell him who he is. He is nothing without it and he knows it, he will fiercely defend his right to keep it. Property rights are protected by force because that is a practical necessity: exclusive use of things, not sharing things, will never be agreed to by people who have nothing. But people don't see property as unfair and made possible only by violence. Property seems to us to be a moral principle*. It tells us our relation to other people. Since we derive our sense of self from ritual in which we have forgotten our real self, without self knowledge our response to threat to property can only be violence. The irrationality and immorality of the state's recourse to violence to defend property so obviously reflects our own passion it is never questioned.
- We're questioning now.

* * *

- Say you are right. Property, what we mean by it, feel it to be, is a product of imaginary ritual. Now what? Property is not sharing. How do we share things? Do you have any idea?
- A couple years ago we were talking about sharing and we imagined this dialog:
- Give me that.
- Here. Give me that.
- You just gave it to me.
- It's better to give it to me now before you become too attached to it.
- OK. Give me that.
- OK. It is just a house.
- Thanks.
- Give me that.
- Why not? It's just a house.
Two good fellows living in the jungle. Both have nice houses made out of tree trucks and branches, and all the time in the world to get something good to eat. They aren't afraid of dying, and like to make gifts. The only thing that really could frighten them would be a life like yours and mine, to not be able to make gifts. One of them kindly hands the property rights to his house over to his friend, who asks for it, and who hands back the property rights when asked in turn. The point of the story is that each of these good fellows almost immediately comes to an obvious conclusion: Ask for something else. This for two obvious reasons: each already has a house, and each cannot get another one by asking because it will be asked back. Economic life can be rational, can have its laws, and also be human when what the human being is rationally doing is also the object of human attention and choice.

Further Reading: