Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Clutter, Gloves Off

1. Clutter

Let’s begin with a quote from “The Objects of Desire: A Cultural Case Study in Hoarding” a 2013 article by Yavar Moghimi, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, George Washington University:
The desire to possess objects has increasingly become a larger part of humans’ lives, especially in North America. Csikszentmihalyi argues that the possession of objects can exert a positive influence on individuals in three ways: by demonstrating power, giving permanence to relationships, and revealing the continuity of the self.

And this is from a novel by the Indian writer Narayan:
The contents of the box were a confused heap of odds and ends of all metals and materials. Here a cardboard box that had once touched Swaminathan's fancy, and there a toy watch, a catalogue, some picture books, nuts and bolts, disused insignificant parts of defunct machinery, and so on to the brim. He rummaged in it for half an hour, but there seemed to be nothing in it worth taking to Rajam. The only decent object in it was a green engine given to him over a year ago by Rajam. The sight of it, now dented and chipped in a couple of places and lying between an empty thread-reel and a broken porcelain vase, stirred in him vivid memories. He became maudlin. . .

Speaking personally, I have a collection of valueless cuff links, most of them single, though presently I don’t own a shirt that can use them. (I have in the past). One of the single links is solid silver, proudly acquired as a pair from a second hand store in Budapest. On the tram ride home a pickpocket relieved me of its partner.

The Washington University psychiatrist continues his article:
When objects end up engulfing usable space we consider it clutter. At its most extreme, clutter can indicate an insatiable yearning for objects and an inability to discard them, known as hoarding or clinically as hoarding disorder. As opposed to collectors, who tend to proudly display their collections in an ordered and methodical manner, hoarders secretively hold onto objects, too embarrassed to reveal their possessions, yet too connected to them to let them go.

The Collyer brothers, two real brothers who are perhaps the most infamous “packrats” in United States history. Their Harlem Brownstone was discovered to be “filled from floor to ceiling with piles of newspapers, suitcases and boxes, 14 pianos, half a dozen toy train sets, chandeliers, a car chassis and more than 100 tons of garbage along with the brothers’ corpses.

In some instances, hoarding of objects can be seen as utilitarian and ‘rational’ as in the hoarding that often occurs in response to unstable economic situations, like in the transition from a state-based to free market economy. Historically, hoards of items have also been observed in anticipation of food shortage with the Anasazi tribe in the Southwest.

Here is a example in the news of economic hoarding:
Affluent Greeks have been moving the bulk of their personal wealth and business accounts abroad or hoarding piles of cash in their homes. For the affluent, life without the euro is almost unimaginable. The single currency made it easier for them to send children to study abroad and purchase property and luxury goods elsewhere in Europe. Now Greek’s rich are sending money abroad or hoarding cash fearing the imposition of capital controls if the country doesn’t strike a deal with Europe. According to data from the end of April, some € 70bn had moved from Greece to other Eurozone countries since the end of November, just before the outbreak of the political crisis that ultimately brought Syriza to power. In addition, private deposits at Greek lenders have shrunk by more than €30bn between November and May, as those with savings choose to stuff cash under the mattress instead of trusting the liquidity of bank accounts.

Possessions are collected for what they can be used for, now or later, or assigned to others to be used by, are collected for the use of impressing others, or for the use of reminding yourself what you have done alone or with others in the past or may do in the future.

Collecting possessions is not a disease, no matter how much you collect. What brings in pathology is unwillingness to arrange, keep the collection in order. The technical term appears to be “clutter”: the failure to keep your things in life clean, safe, free from decay.  Since preventing decay would keep things in condition to serve their function, why doesn’t that happen? Why the clutter?

Psychiatrists observe anxiety of decision making in many of their hoarding patients, what they call a “cognitive” problem rather than a problem of self, or problem of society, or problem of relation between self and society. Clearly the cognitive problem is not genetic – the present epidemic of hoarding has appeared out of nowhere - and arises from problems of self and society.

What about then those self and society problems? Hoarding is a problem of seeing one’s self in objects. Advertising sells the idea 24 hours a day that your possessions define you, and after thousands of hours a year it should be no surprise a pathology develops.

Storytelling with objects is a normal activity. Storytelling with objects associates objects with things we’ve done, while objects hoarded tell only about what kind of self we have. You don’t have to do anything, have any story at all, to have a kind of self. All you have to do is imagine whether that self is approved of by others, has power over others’ imagination. Psychiatrists know this, and suggest to their horde of patients in waiting (they estimate there to be one million or more in the United States) not to see themselves in what they consume, find, possess, or purchase, but see themselves in what they make.

Marx explained his concept of alienation like this:
Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have, in two ways, affirmed himself, and the other person. (1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and, therefore, enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also, when looking at the object, I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses, and, hence, a power beyond all doubt. (2) In your enjoyment, or use, of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature . . . Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.

Now, the word “hoard”, referring to the activity of collecting things and hiding them away, has a sister word you probably noticed I just used pronounced the same with different spelling, “horde”, the demeaning term for a large group of people. And horde is as you’d expect related to the word “herd”, a group of animals that keep to themselves.

This raises a question on the face of it crazy, but maybe not: do the one million hoarding Americans look at the things they collect as a herd of things? Can the behavior of herds teach us anything about hoarding?

Marx says that when a worker produces a product in the factory he becomes alienated from it: he has no idea what happens next to it. And when he buys products the worker has no idea where they came from. The same is true of his salary: it comes out of the same mysterious world of economic transaction that things disappear into between their making and purchase. Because the salary of the worker depends on an unknown process it is inherently unreliable. Economic insecurity, psychiatrists have seen, brings on hoarding behavior.

Consider then that the most transparent and secure thing you can do with money is finance: make money with money. It is the single case where what someone works to produce remains with the producer: interest on the capital goes to the owner of the capital along with the capital as well. Money is not alienated, and is the only thing produced in our society that is not alienated. Money, however, in the mysterious process that happens between the conception of the investment and birth of interest, like the production and consumption of things, enter into the mysterious economic realm, where it obeys mysterious laws, is subject to cycles of boom and bust, rapid advance and reversals. Which, and this where I am going, is characteristic of herds too: they are subject to stampedes and panics.

Money behaves like a herd, and is the only productive activity in our society that is not alienating. This being so, is it possible that the hoarder, collecting and cluttering, is constructing a herd of consumer objects? That the lack of order in his herd of objects reflects the lack of order between one dollar and another? Dollars mass together in a herd, pile one atop each other any which way in mere sums.

Hoarding is an illness, often leading to unsanitary conditions, social isolation, and economic catastrophe. Whereas making money in finance is profitable and doesn’t necessary lead to any of those places.

But making money can lead to those places, and for the same reason. As possessions can become a hoard, mysteriously increasing themselves and subject to no internal order, so money made in finance can collect into a hoard. The natural cycle is that we do something for a good reason and stop doing it when it is done. Then we use the thing done to make our lives good, only later going back to the doing. But the doing can go wrong and be done for its own sake, as making money for the sake of making money. Each increment of money made is seen as a suggestion to more money making, just like each new accumulated cluttering possession of the hoarder suggests making an addition to the hoard. In both cases the good that acquiring was intended to lead us to, the rest activity ought to have ended with is forgotten. Acquiring has becomes self-sustaining and meaningless. And that’s not all. Not only does the hoarder herd his possessions, but he acquires them himself being part of a million strong herd of hoarders.

Herds of hoarders herding money and things. Don't know about you, but to my taste the world’s getting a little cluttered.

2. Herds & Hoards

So much about the private costs and benefits of hoarding. Wikipedia (a collector not a herder of information) says the following about the social and economic costs:
A feature of hoarding is that it leads to an inefficient distribution of scarce resources, making the scarcity even more of a problem. An example occurs in cities where parking is inadequate. In such a case, businesses may post signs indicating that their lot is for their employees and customers only, and all other vehicles will be towed. This prevents businesses from allowing their parking to overflow into neighboring lots when their capacity is exceeded. Thus, when the capacity is reached at one business, there may be no legal place to park, while there would have been, if hoarding had not occurred. If a single business posted those signs, it would, indeed, improve the parking situation at that business, as they could continue to park at adjacent businesses, while the others could not park in their lot. However, when everybody posts such signs, the problem becomes worse for everyone. 

Hoarders have in common with herd animals that their relation to each other is not individual. Their gatherings are temporary and subject to the same herd laws of boom and bust, coalescing and disarray, as their money and possessions. 

The parking lot example of hoarding relinquished is particularly interesting in that business owners retain control of their property. The permission granted is not permanent, thus they keep for themselves economic security of hoarded property.

Looking for a solution to the problem of hoarding, it is a good principle to start with that sharing of superfluous resources, if it is going to happen, depends on basic security. It also depends on the people shared with being in the same community, for example, the community of businesses with parking lots.

Community doesn't necessarily have to be of business. It can be any kind of interest that is shared. However the condition remains that sharing has to be voluntary, that it may be withheld. The late 18th century English philosopher William Godwin said that we all should give away all our superfluous property but only to others who convinced us to. Our job was to give, their job was to convince us it was good to give to them and not others: not to satisfy the vanity of the giver, but to bring out the community of interest between giver and receiver. When such behavior of reason guided community making giving became customary every person would be both a giver and receiver.

Compare the giving that establishes a community of interest with the hoarding that defines a herd: giving is individually satisfying, a creative act creating links and associations with those we live among, while the hoarding self is isolated and undistinguished, economically and socially destructive.

3. Clutter, Gloves Off

- That's all well and good.
- Meaning you don't like it.
- What are you afraid of? Take the gloves off.
- Tell the hoarders what I really think of them.
- Yes.
- There are 2,300 billionaires in the world at last count. On the average they have about 20 percent of their wealth in cash.* To end slavery, buy out of slavery and into a new life 30 million men, women and children, would cost 10.8 billion dollars.** That is less than one percent of the billionaires' hoarded cash. Or if you prefer, it is the hoarded cash of 20 individual billionaires.
- If 20 people spent only their excess cash now sitting in bank accounts not even collecting interest, keeping 80 percent of the rest of their wealth, and all 20 of them remaining billionaires, slavery would be ended.
- Yes.
- Why don't they do it?
- Which 20 are you talking about?
- I don't know. A number of them give away a lot of money.
- They don't ever challenge existing property relations. They try to prevent conditions from getting so bad that others might challenge existing property relations.
- You're turning into a communist.
- Take the gloves off, you said. Want them off, or not?
- Off.
- Rousseau said that the biggest confidence trick in history was the rich hoarding all the world's property, and then saying to the rest of us: we've got a deal for you. You'll have nothing and we'll have everything, but if you agree not to challenge the idea of property, as we chase you from one place to another, places that you don't belong in and don't belong to you, you can collect little souvenirs of your adventurous journey, door knobs, cuff links, and such.
- Cuff links.
- Yes, cuff links. Maybe we'll even let you conditionally possess a little box to live in, subject of course to taxes, loss of your employment as our slave, or being sent to your death in a war that we owners of the world wage between ourselves over our property.
- More communism.
- They let us keep our cuff links and romantic stories, while they hoard everything else, forcing us to slave for them to get their permission to occupy their property.
- Why did we accept the deal?
- Because we'd already come to worship property. The cuff links and door knobs were good enough for us. We had our property gods, the others had theirs. All gods were the same. Property was property.
- Why did we worship property?
- Because we'd learned to find security in manipulating other people. We'd learned to flatter their conception of themselves as kind of things, as property.
- Why did we do that? And how did they get to thinking of themselves as property?
- A fault in our nature, brought out maybe by the repetitive work of agriculture, counting the results and counting our safety in the quantity, then passing on to our descendants the things accumulated imagining ourselves living on within them.***
- As you say, maybe. It's only a story.
- A story no more valuable than the story of the poor soul collecting door knobs while being chased from one place of dispossession to another. Facts are facts, and the fact is people agree not to challenge property. They accept the principle that property should be hoarded by a few forcing the rest to be their slaves.
- Fine. That's hoarding, gloves off. What then?
- What do you mean? Should I try to convince them to stop hoarding? Why should they, when hoarding is the first principle of the way they live their lives?
- How is hoarding the first principle of the way they live their lives?
- How else explain those twenty billionaires who could end world slavery with a few key strokes, a few flicks of the wrist and don't do it. First principles: does a human being, expressing normal human nature, walk by unconcerned another human being being tortured?
- No.
- No. Not unless there is another principle more important than being human to override basic human nature.
- And that principle is property.
- Not property. Hoarded property. Nothing is in the nature of holding property that says it should be permanent.
- Repeat that.
- We like giving away our possessions at least as much as keeping them.
- You know, I think that's right.
- Of course it's right. So how can we ask those billionaires to go against the entire basis of their existence, which fundamentally is about power relations person to person?
- Freeing slaves means giving away power, and that's why we won't ever see them do it.
- Now you've outdone me in gloom. One or two might be willing to be human.

Further Reading:
Bringing Back Stray Sheep
* Billionaires Sitting On Growing Piles Of Cash
** Kevin Bales, TED talk 
*** Slavery On A Walk In Beverly Hills