This is a revised section from my book How Soon Is Now.
It is time to seriously investigate how we could make a peaceful transition to a cooperative society. If humanity chooses sharing and cooperation over control and competition, we can convert corporate and private assets to commonly held resources. We can reinvent our institutions to support social and ecological regeneration.
Currently we are experiencing an astonishingly rapid global economic collapse due to Coronavirus. At this point, all bets are off about the future of our political and economic system. Despite the hardships this is causing, it is a great thing. The pandemic will be a blessing if it redirects our path from where we were heading, which was assured ecological collapse and probably extinction. But this can only happen through a collective awakening. Enough of us have to focus on building the alternative. This requires, first of all, space for reflection, which we now have.
We needed a time out, a pause, to reassess the direction of our society and the meaning of “progress.” Right now, we must take this opportunity to consider how we move forward as a species. Perhaps, finally, people are ready to consider radical ideas for how we reorganize and redesign our social and technical systems for the benefit of people today as well as future generations.
As we know from scientists, the current Capitalist system, based on incessant growth and hyper-consumerism, is totally unsustainable. It was going to break down in a few years, in any case. The melting Arctic, the disappearing butterflies and bees, the forest fires in Australia, Indonesia, and Los Angeles have warned us of this.
Still, the ruling elite will do everything they can to protect their privileges and maintain some semblance of the current system as long as possible. Consider the stimulus bill passed by the US Congress. It offers a meager hand out to the people, but gives hundreds of billions to perpetuate corporate power and Wall Street. The financial services industry is based on complex financial instruments that have little relationship with the real economy of goods and services. Yet these “collateralized debt obligations” and so on must be preserved at all costs.
It’s time to consider a radical line of thought. The current division of the world into “Haves” and “Have Nots” is rooted in private property and hoarded capital. But these are not natural phenomena. They are mental constructs that we impose on the physical world.
A number of political philosophers, over centuries, have asked whether private property, in itself, is at the root of our society’s ills. They have also explored what it would mean to fundamentally transform our social relations so that we no longer live in a society based on private ownership, corporate control, and artificial scarcity.
The United States is a particularly extreme case. Despite the vast wealth generated by the US economy, 40% of the population have less than $400 savings in case of emergency. While a small group possess enormous reserves of capital, most people live paycheck to paycheck. Millions upon millions of renters are now in a position where they can’t pay their rent. Many home owners, similarly, can’t pay their mortgages. Are we going to see massive evictions? Or can we take another path forward: Rather than hoping to preserve the system by delaying rent and mortgage payments, do we need, instead, a fundamental systemic change?
Let’s go back to the Enlightenment. In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, the French philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau investigated ‘the different accidents which may have improved the human understanding while depraving the species,’ that ‘made man wicked while making him sociable’. Looking back through history, he sought ‘the moment at which right took the place of violence and nature became subject to law.’
Rousseau identified this historical event as the beginning of private property: ‘The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying “This is mine”, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.’ Inequality didn’t exist for man in what Rousseau called ‘the state of nature’ – what we call nomadic, aboriginal societies. These societies certainly have their own problems, but they lack the status hierarchies and extreme inequalities based on capital accumulation that we have.
Private property, Rousseau believed, was the root cause of much of our suffering. In a society founded on property rights, everyone finds their positions insecure. We are forced to compete against each other to gain wealth, to protect what is ‘ours’. This has a terrible psychological effect. Those who inherit or generate capital become vain and self-important, while those without it feel depressed and marginalized.
‘It has indeed cost us not a little trouble to make ourselves as wretched as we are,’ Rousseau observed.
The Problem with Property
Private property – a mental construct we protect by laws and police forces – makes our world an unfree world. Today, a pigeon, a rat or a squirrel has far more freedom of movement than a human being. We confront fences, walls, and borders in every direction. These fences and walls also live within us. We internalize them.
Perhaps our world is doomed to remain unjust, unfree, and ecologically destructive until we reckon with the system of property rights, including intellectual property as well as psychical stuff? It is difficult to imagine we can make a transition to a different system humanely and benevolently. On the other hand, impossible things sometimes happen. Many seemingly impossible things are happening now.
Can we envision, and design, a mechanism for superseding property rights that would happen gently and nonviolently? Could we transition into a new cooperative arrangement over time? If we learned from failed revolutions of the past, could we finally get it right?
Of course, most people know that Karl Marx believed hoarded capital, or private property, to be modern society’s essential problem. He believed that we needed a worldwide Communist revolution to transform our social relations. This was the only way to liberate humanity, particularly the workers, from their chains.
Of course, it is commonly believed that Marxism and Communism were abject failures. There is a great deal one could say about this. But first of all, it is worth reviewing some of Marx’s ideas in his own words.
Marx wrote, ‘In the place of all physical and mental senses there has therefore come the sheer estrangement of all these senses, the sense of having.’ He saw that private property contorted the human personality, making us ‘stupid and one-sided’. Under Capitalism, we are indoctrinated to confuse the abstract ‘sense of having’ with a real sense. We imprison ourselves by believing in this abstraction.
Ask yourself if this remains true today? Of course it does.
If humanity abolished private property, if we collectivized our resources, Marx reasoned, people would be free to live in the present again. They would open their senses and reconnect with the world around them. They would also meet each other as equals. This would end our alienation and estrangement from the world.
Oscar Wilde is not remembered as a social theorist, but he wrote one wonderful political essay, ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’, advancing similar ideas. Like Marx, Wilde saw that private property, hoarded capital, was damaging to the human personality. He agreed that we had substituted a removed, abstract social relation for direct connection with the living world:
‘By confusing a man with what he possesses, [Capitalism] has led Individualism entirely astray. It has made gain not growth its aim. So that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be. The true perfection of man lies, not in what man has, but in what man is.’
Mystical traditions remind us that we cannot truly own or possess anything — not even our own body. Everything in the universe is energy undergoing transformation. Indigenous cultures did not believe in the private ownership of land or resources. Yet they developed complex societies that maintained ecological balance. Chief Seattle asked: ‘How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?’
Private ownership supports the low-frequency delusions of the ego that wants to control, possess, and hoard. Capitalism turns the invisible “sense of having" into the most important thing. We forget this is just an idea — an illusion that exists only within our minds.
Like Marx, Wilde believed we needed to devise a new social arrangement: ‘Socialism, Communism, or whatever one chooses to call it, by converting private property into public wealth, and substituting co-operation for competition, will restore society to its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy organism, and insure the material well-being of each member of the community. It will, in fact, give Life its proper basis and its proper environment.’
Wilde did not see a contradiction between art and individuality – which he prized as the highest ideal – and a socialist or post-capitalist civilization. Under socialism, individuality would flourish for the first time, as people would be liberated from domination and control. He noted that ownership of property ‘has so many duties that its possession to any large extent is a bore. It involves endless claims upon one, endless attention to business, endless bother. If property had simply pleasures, we could stand it; but its duties make it unbearable. In the interest of the rich we must get rid of it.’
As a society, we need to consider the possibility that we can never achieve a truly equitable or ecologically stable way of being as long as the basis of civilization is private property and stored capital. One reason for this is that private property (and the rents or interest collected from it) divides the world into two classes of people: Haves and Have Nots.
When somebody becomes wealthy, a Have, their intellect and energy gets channelled into protecting the wealth they have amassed. Perhaps they originally wanted to create beautiful things to help and improve the human condition. With the accumulation of wealth, however, their focus shifts to protecting their own assets and interests against everyone else. The current model of “philanthro-Capitalism” — where the super-wealthy like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet voluntarily contribute a proportion of their wealth back into society — is no solution.
Those without property, the Have Nots, feel little incentive to care for the future of the Earth. The world does not belong to them and they are alienated from it. It is owned – lock, stock and barrel – by the wealthy. They don’t feel the Earth is their problem or responsibility.
Indigenous people around the world have been leading the battle against the extractive industries. Of course, this is partially because their homelands are directly threatened, but it is also because they come from cultures where private property either didn’t exist or had limited value as a construct. They are more connected to nature as inherently sacred.
In today’s ‘Brave New 1984’, a gigantic surveillance and security apparatus hangs over us like an invisible spider web. Its main purpose is to protect property rights, both physical and intellectual forms of property.
‘When private property is abolished there will be no necessity for crime, no demand for it; it will cease to exist,’ Wilde wrote. The enormous waste generated by the capitalist system is caused, at the root, by the individual’s thirst to attain personal wealth – the only way to have at least some security in this system.
Like Wilde, the design scientist Buckminster Fuller thought that private property would become a thing of the past once humanity liberated its creative powers through a design revolution. It would be much better for the planet and more efficient, Fuller reasoned, to subsidize people so they could live in self-sufficient communities where they produced their own food and energy. He proposed giving everyone on Earth who didn’t already have a mission, a ‘research grant for life’, in whatever subject interested them.
Already in the 1960s, he noted, ‘Possession is becoming progressively burdensome and wasteful and therefore obsolete.’ Masses of people, particularly younger people, have been realizing this over the last decades. There’s a cultural trend away from ownership towards a new sharing economy. The New York Times noted, ‘Sharing is to ownership what the iPod is to the 8-track, what solar power is to the coal mine.’
The economic crash caused by the pandemic is going to intensify this tendency toward sharing and mutual aid, out of necessity. Perhaps in the future, people will own little – or nothing – yet live abundantly, joyfully, able to access whatever they need or desire, when they need it. As virtual tools proliferate, property matters less to us than intangible assets such as time and attention.
In The Ecology of Freedom, the social ecologist Murray Bookchin declared that we need to end the ‘private ownership of the planet by elite strata’ if we want to survive. As an alternative, we must establish ‘a fully participatory society literally free of privilege and domination’. Bookchin expressed suspicion of partial ‘solutions to the ecological crisis, like green consumerism, renewable energy, or carbon taxation’.
He believed these reformist initiatives only concealed the deep-seated nature of the crisis, and ‘thereby deflect public attention and theoretical insight from an adequate understanding of the depth and scope of the necessary change’. Bookchin makes a valid point – although one that will be difficult for many people to accept. The fundamental basis of capitalism – private ownership of physical and intellectual property – is ecologically unsound.
What do we do?
The notion that we could engineer a voluntary transition to a society where private property and hoarded capital is either eliminated or reduced to a minimum seems far-fetched. But, as Wilde noted, the progress of humanity is based on ‘the progressive realization of utopias’. Human nature is not fixed. It changes constantly. Due to the pandemic, it is changing quickly right now. We can realize – as Wilde and Marx did – that our civilization made a mistake by prioritizing ‘having’ over being. We can correct this basic error.
Wilde proposed we transition to a system which liberates humanity from drudgery through automation and frees us from the ugly burden of property through socialism. He admitted he was offering an idealistic, utopian program. But he did not think it was unattainable even so:
‘It is unpractical, and it goes against human nature. This is why it is worth carrying out, and that is why one proposes it. For what is a practical scheme? A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish. The conditions will be done away with, and human nature will change.’
Some radicals believe that the only way we can have an meaningful social change is through a mass uprising. They note that many millions of people remain subject to violence, incarcerated in prisons for drug use, and so on. We live in a world dominated and controlled by military force. While mass protests, whether in Hong Kong, the UK, or France, make an impact, they quickly lose their force.
A traditional uprising or revolution, on its own, is unlikely to succeed in our current circumstances. The preponderance of military force, surveillance systems, killer drones, biological weapons and other insidious things makes the overthrow of developed world governments hard to imagine. However, these things can and do happen, often in surprising ways.
As an alternative, or perhaps a parallel process, can we engineer a nonviolent transition of global civilization? Can we supersede the current system of private property and hoarded capital by developing new infrastructures that convert property into cooperatively owned resources or trusts, over time? For this to work, we need digital tools and social networks developed specifically for this purpose. We are now seeing new networks of mutual aid springing up due to the pandemic. These local and regional networks could be prototypes; trials for systemic transition.
Can we establish a global network of early adaptors who have committed to switching to a system of open cooperativism and peer-to-peer production? According to post-Darwinian theories on evolution, cooperation and symbiosis are evolutionary advances over competition and domination. If this is the case, then a system built for cooperation should outperform the old model. Within a few decades or at most a few generations, it might be possible to engineer a global conversion – a planetary reboot of our social operating system. It is worth a shot.
Stewardship and Usufruct
To supersede private property, we need a new social model based on stewardship instead of ownership. Rather than bringing about an abrupt and disruptive change, people could transfer their property over time. There are already many examples of land trusts and worker-owned cooperatives that provide models for this.
One option is to revive the medieval principle of usufruct. “Usufruct” gives people the right to continue to use a property or a tool productively, as long as they do not damage it, and particularly if they add value to it. Under a system of usufruct, nobody can have their primary home taken away from them.
This is how people in traditional societies still live today. In Ladakh, a Tibetan Buddhist enclave in India, for example, families farm the same plot of land for generations. They build their houses without title or legal claim. Another example is urban community gardens where citizens cooperate to enhance the beauty of a plot of land or vacant lot without gaining economic advantage from their efforts.
Perhaps there could be a compromise where we transition to a regenerative society while continuing some forms of private wealth and ownership. No doubt we require, at the least, a redistribution of wealth to create a much fairer and more equitable world. Wealth redistribution through taxation can happen during declared emergencies like wars – there’s no reason we can’t do it as we face this pandemic and the ecological crisis.
People assume private property is good and natural. We think it motivates free enterprise and drives innovation. In any event, we believe it is a fixed and irreversible aspect of our lives. Examples of collectivized property from Marxist countries like the Soviet Union, where the state owned the land and the factories, have no appeal (although there were some benefits to this system which have gone under-appreciated). But state ownership of land and factories is not what we should seek. Our goal is to develop a program which, over time, dissolves the aberrant mental concept of ownership entirely.
People need to have their basic needs and desires fulfilled. If they were guaranteed a basic income, they would not have to work to survive. Rooted in a shared sense of security and social trust, freed from the anxiety of market fluctuations, they could then participate in models based on stewardship and usufruct. This might liberate a great deal of human creativity and innovation, as Wilde proposed.
Peer-to-peers network could make surplus or unused resources – a room, a piece of land, a second car – available to those who need them. Social trust could become a new essential currency, on all levels. People would be able to use collectively held resources as long as they agree to abide by a set of principles. These would include caring for the land and buildings, and sharing with others. When we reach a point where multitudes of people choose to pool their resources voluntarily and work together cooperatively, the shift toward post-Capitalist society will be under way.
The above article is excerpted from my book How Soon Is Now?