Property Is Killing Us (and can’t be reformed)
I’ll discuss three ideas that are unfamiliar to many people:
- We’re in more danger than the corporate news is saying. We humans are rapidly nearing extinction, most likely by nukes or warming. Only rapid radical changes in our way of life have any chance of saving us. Those changes require everyone’s help, including yours.
- Can we solve the problems gradually, through reforms, through so-called “working within the system” ? No, that approach has failed for decades, and now we’re out of time. In fact, our socioeconomic system is causing the problems, as I’ll explain.
- The system is cruel and destructive, but few people see it as it really is. It’s not actually based on democracy and liberty,, but rather on concentrated power, hierarchy, and private property, which most people haven’t recognized as a problem.
This essay is a simplification – for instance, the Neolithic Revolution didn’t really happen all at once, and modern economics is more complicated than what I’ll discuss. And I’ll skip over reforms that many people still want to try. But I believe I’m right on the main points.
Extinction is closer than people realize; we’re in the endgame now. Sure, other problems such as poverty and racism also deserve attention, but those won’t matter if we’re all dead. Here are the two most likely routes to extinction:
First, NUCLEAR WAR will be abrupt, not gradual. But its likelihood is increasing gradually, as our sociopathic rulers try to gain advantage through brinkmanship. Those lunatics have recently said they can “win” a nuclear war. They’re ignoring the aftermath of that war: Radioactive fallout and nuclear winter will kill at least half the world, maybe all of it.
Nuclear war will come as a spinoff from our many “cold” wars and “conventional” wars, which start from lies to make a few rich men richer. After so many lies in the past, why do some people believe our rulers are telling the truth this time?
As long as we have nukes, a nuclear war may begin partly by accident, as in the movie “Dr Strangelove.” We’ve already had many close calls. The invention of nuclear weapons was clever but not wise; to survive we need to wise up. Ending war, and in particular preventing nuclear war, requires universal friendship and disarmament.
And second, RUNAWAY GLOBAL WARMING has already begun. It was initially triggered by humans thoughtlessly dumping vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. But now many of the consequences of warming are additional causes of warming; that’s called feedback. (For instance, melting the Arctic releases frozen methane, and also reduces the reflection of sunlight.) And the carbon dumping hasn’t stopped yet – in fact, it’s still increasing, to make the rich richer in the short run.
The urgency is understated by the corporate press, which describes flooded cities in the year 2100 but doesn’t mention crop failures that have already begun. The urgency is also understated by the IPCC, which hardly mentions the feedback. Each day of feedback makes the warming bigger, faster, and harder to stop.
Is it already too late? Experts are not in agreement about that. Here is my own non-expert opinion: At this point, right now, humanity could stop the warming, but it would require efforts far greater than our governments currently are making. So unless we quickly change our governments, we’re headed toward the collapse of everything. And don’t talk to me about adapting to a post-collapse world. Even after collapse, some of the feedbacks will continue, so the temperature will keep rising, and so after a while there will be no survivors. Even the rich will die when their bunkers run out of canned food.
Warming has long been evident to scientists, with their measurements and calculations. Soon it will be evident to everyone – but that will be too late. Our slim chance of survival depends on persuading more people to listen to scientists right now, rather than to politicians.
Besides war and warming, other mass killers also deserve a quick mention: viral pandemic, forever chemicals, biological weapons, poverty, and so on. Our survival depends on creating a more sane society, in which no one wants to hurt others, we all lend a hand, and we all share the task of caring for the ecosystem, humanity’s life-support system on this Spaceship Earth. But that task offers no quick private profit; I’ll come back to that point.
I’ll begin with our ancient history, for it holds hints about our future. It is partly speculation, as we have no written records. But we have some evidence in things that have been dug up, and in anthropologists’ observations of the few tribal peoples who have survived to this day or almost to this day.
Humans have existed in our present form for about 300,000 years. For most of that time our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, living in small nomadic bands. Their possessions were only what they could carry. They cooperated, and lived and shared as equals. When there was food, everyone ate. No one could be boss, for the whole tribe depended on every member of the tribe. The only way to “get ahead” was to bring the whole community ahead.
The hunter-gatherer way of life was not by choice. Rather, our ancestors knew no other way to survive in the climate and environment of that time. They had occasional hunger and high infant mortality. (Our modern technology could eliminate hunger and infant mortality, but presently it doesn’t, because that wouldn’t make the rich richer.)
But still, our ancestors’ lives were not hard: They worked fewer hours than we do; they enjoyed much playtime. Homicides and wars did occur, but less often than in present-day societies. Think of it as paradise, a Garden of Eden.
Some people have suggested that we are incapable of sharing in groups larger than those small nomadic bands; look up discussions of “Dunbar’s number.” But I disagree. Many of today’s soldiers are volunteers risking their lives to “protect their country,” or so they believe. They identify with millions of people. We could identify with all of humanity; that’s now essential for our survival.
The Neolithic Revolution
About 12,000 years ago the Ice Age ended, making many cultural changes possible:
- farming, a non-nomadic life
- development of towns and later cities
- the beginning of specialization of labor
- the beginning of unwisely used technology
- private property
- hierarchical authority and rule
- economic inequality, and plutocracy
This new culture has spread to nearly the whole world. Indigenous tribes have resisted. Most were wiped out by genocide but a few have managed to survive in isolation.
Not all the changes were necessary. In particular, farming didn’t make private property necessary. Farm communes are possible, and have existed, and do exist.
Perhaps the biblical story of “The Fall” was a retelling of the Neolithic Revolution. We left the hunter-gatherer paradise when we learned “mine” and “thine.” Millennia later, biblical storytellers knew those words so well that they couldn’t imagine ever having not known them, so they figured the new way of seeing things must have been something else. Adam and Eve learned – what? Let’s say “good” and “evil.” Certainly the culture change did bring great new evils, as I’m about to describe.
Ownership and Separateness
Ownership of things and separateness of lives are assertions that support each other. On the one hand, if I own the things I need, then I don’t need to worry about your life. On the other hand, if we see our lives as separate, then the institution of private property seems reasonable.
But each of these two assertions is a delusion, as I’ll now explain.
First, ownership. In our current culture, ownership seems as real as classical physics. Any material object – an apple, an airplane, whatever – has mass, volume, location, color, and an owner.
But classical physics is about what can be measured with instruments, independently of human opinions. Ownership really is different. Ownership is an opinion, a story we humans make up in our heads – but it’s enforced by threat of violence.
And where do “property rights” come from? The owner of property purchased it from someone else, who purchased it from someone else, and so on – but go back far enough, and you eventually come to someone who stole it, either from an individual or from what was formerly the commons, shared by all. If it was stolen from an individual, generally that was with violence. That theft was preceded by other sales and other thefts; originally everything came from the commons. Hence Proudhon’s saying, “property is theft.” Is it wrong to steal what’s already stolen?
By “sharing” I mean the opposite of property. Examples of sharing are friends sharing food, lovers sharing a bed, strangers sharing a bench, many people taking turns with a library book. I do NOT mean rental arrangements such as Uber or AirBNB – my god, I don’t know how those commercial enterprises ever got called “sharing,” but that is surely an example of “Newspeak,” the brainwashing language described in the novel “1984.”
And second, separateness. We perceive our lives as separate from each other; that too is fundamental in our worldview; that too is erroneous. The truth is that we all depend on each other for everything all the time. That’s fairly obvious in our specialized labor, but it goes beyond that. We begin our lives as helpless babies, utterly dependent on caregivers; even a hermit lives with the memory of his mother. We cannot be happy alone; solitary confinement is a form of torture. We evolved as social animals, and that’s still what we are. And even Robinson Crusoe, the champion of self-reliance, living alone on an island, relied on tools and knowledge created by other people.
We humans are endangered together by nukes, warming, pandemics, shootings, and other hazards. We can only achieve safety together. There are good selfish reasons for becoming unselfish.
Separateness, Selfishness, Fear
Separateness makes us all rivals instead of allies: Your loss is not my loss, and might even be my gain. That makes friendship difficult; people are alone more today than ever before. Our material possessions don’t make us happy. We fear failure, unemployment, shame, poverty, hunger, homelessness. Fear can make us desperate. That leads to lies, hate, cruelty, etc. Our desire for friends and community makes us susceptible to demagogues, who preach racism, sexism, authoritarianism, all sorts of nasty stuff. It’s no surprise that often one of us goes berserk and starts shooting, or that we can be persuaded to fight in unnecessary wars. At least some of the fear is intended by our rulers, to make us less likely to fight against them.
When people acquire a house or a small business, they become less eager to change the system, less able to see reasons for changing it. They may even believe that our rulers are like themselves, just bigger. But our rulers are different: They have real power, and they abuse it, as I’ll explain soon.
People find some reassurance in property. But their hold on it is only as stable as society itself. Writing their names on things will be useless if crazed armed looters are running through the streets. And we’re soon going to see more floods and famines, circumstances where a caring community is more helpful than most of our property.
“Having separate property could be manageable, if only we could be kind to each other,” some people will say. But we can’t. Kindness is just empty words unless it is manifested in sharing. Separateness can’t remain neutral: Whomever one does not love, one will eventually objectify, disrespect, abuse, and discard. That’s how we are treated in our workplaces, which are little dictatorships; that’s why we hate Mondays. We’re reluctant to complain about low pay or bad working conditions, for fear of trading places with one of the unemployed. These problems are systemic, but the corporate press depicts them as the shame of individual workers.
Selfishness has become so commonplace in our world that some people believe it is inherent in human nature. That would be a good excuse for inaction: “There’s nothing we can do about it, so we needn’t bother trying.” But look inside yourself, look at your affection for your friends and family, imagine having more friends, and you’ll find that selfishness is not inherent in your nature. And the Neolithic Revolution was only a cultural change, not a genetic change; genetically we are still the same as our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We are capable of returning to sharing. Sapolsky’s baboons changed their culture from bullies to friends accidentally; we humans can make that change intentionally. Try to imagine a world of sharing as friends (as Jesus described it), and then you can begin to see some of the terrible things that property does to us.
Market Myths and Power Truths
Our socioeconomic system is not as it appears. We are fooled by many falsehoods. Earlier I explained that ownership itself is just a story, a myth; following are a few more myths.
There is a myth that “competition brings out the best in us.” The opposite is true: Look at all the terrible things people do to “win.” Dog-eat-dog competition for survival makes us desperate, and drives some of us berserk. Competitive games are psychological training for other competitive activities, such as war. Few people are even aware that cooperative games exist.
Another myth is that “the market is efficient.” And it may look that way in the accounting books, but those books are deceptive – they only keep track of the costs to buyer and seller, the negotiators of the deal. There are many other unmeasured costly side effects borne by the community and the ecosystem, which did not get to negotiate. These side effects are called externalities, or externalized costs, because they are outside the concerns of buyer and seller. They are enormous. Studies have shown that no major corporation today would be profitable if it had to pay all its externalized costs. But it’s even bigger than that.
For instance, corporations don’t pay for most of their pollution. One major type of pollution is greenhouse gases like CO2 and CH4 being dumped into the atmosphere, heating up the planet. That will cause trillions of dollars in damages and kill billions of people, maybe all of us. But the polluters generally aren’t paying for that. So that’s an externality, and the market really is not efficient.
Does anyone ever say “the market plans ahead”? It’s generally not true. Commercial enterprises depend on fickle investors, who pull their money out where profit is slow and move it to where profit is faster. Corporations and their politicians must respond to this pressure. Only short-term profits can keep them in power another day. Our rulers compete against each other for short-term profits in any way they can, including cruel wars and toxic externalities.
Another myth is Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of the market.” That says the market makes the world a better place for all, because you can only get rich by selling goods and services that other people want to buy. For instance, you can get rich by selling a better solar panel. But the truth is that you get rich by persuading people that your solar panel is better. That’s why modern companies spend more on advertising than on research. Or you get rich by killing the other solar panel makers; the USA’s foreign policy is like that.
If we don’t share, we must trade – for money, labor, goods, services, influence – for everything. There’s some truth in the myth that “all traders profit from voluntary trade,” but there’s also a catch: We don’t all profit equally. Greater profit goes to the trader in the stronger bargaining position. That makes him stronger still, so trade increases inequality. Wealth is concentrated upwards.
The gulf between haves and have-nots becomes enormous. Ours is a very sick society, accepting as normal that some people are homeless and hungry while others have more money than they will ever know what to do with.
The have-nots become mere objects, commodities, debt-slaves, to be exploited and discarded at the convenience of the rich. We’re “free” to quit one low-paying, unrewarding, stressful job and look for another just like it.
Wealth is power, and vice versa; each can purchase the other. Politicians, polluters, and weapon makers all subsidize each other at our expense. Professors Gilens and Page proved statistically that the USA’s laws, taxes, and wages favor the rich, regardless of election results, regardless of which money party is in office. The USA is a plutocracy – that’s rule by the rich – it’s just thinly disguised as a democracy. It has been ever since its founding in land theft, genocide, slavery, and indentured servitude. Rule by the wealthy class is as old as the greed of ancient warlords; the only way to end it is to not have a wealthy class. That will require a very different economic system.
And power corrupts. Perhaps not all the powerful are equally corruptible, but it only takes a few to destroy the world. Look at our many, many wars, killing millions of people and bringing great hardship to many millions more. Those wars are all based on lies to make a few rich men richer, though our rulers claim they are defending freedom and democracy. Smaller amounts of power also corrupt – look at police brutality and murder, prison torture, abusive workplace bosses, mass shootings, etc.
In brief: Not sharing necessitates trade, which concentrates wealth, which creates plutocracy, which corrupts government, which is bringing us ultimately to extinction. To survive, we must return to sharing.
Don’t look to the so-called “mainstream press” to explain any of this, for it is really the corporate press, owned and controlled by the same people who own and control our politicians. It is as Baudelaire said: “The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.” The corporate press says little or nothing about the real basis of our society, the context of historical events, or the very different world that is possible. “Reforms” full of loopholes are just for show. “Greenwashing” is ecocidal business-as-usual disguised to look like something good for the ecosystem. “Color revolution” is a term for military coups that are designed to look like popular uprisings.
What is to be done?
We need to switch from hoarding back to sharing. Quite honestly, that’s an enormous change, and I don’t know how we’ll do it, but the alternative is extinction. I’m pretty sure we should begin by spreading the truth. Then we can tell the rich,
“we no longer believe you; we will no longer serve you; we will no longer honor your pieces of paper. Hey, you are no longer rich!”
Perhaps they’ll run and hide, and we won’t need guillotines. But overthrowing the plutocrats is not enough: If we don’t change our culture, it will quickly spawn a new batch of plutocrats.
“But won’t it be difficult to spread all this understanding?” Yes, of course it will. Please join the effort. Start today – we’ve little time left.
We can only spread the truth fast enough if it spreads exponentially, virally, from person to person. Tell people the emperor has no clothes. Call a meeting, carry a sign, write a song or an essay, repost the link for this essay if you like it. That link is LeftyMathProf.wordpress.com/prop-kill.
2023 May 20, version 1.24. I’ve been surprised at how many other people are writing things similar to some of what I’ve written here. That gives me hope; perhaps these ideas are spreading. No, I don’t see myself as the source; I see myself as one of many sources. I am grateful to Tom Skolfield for his many suggestions. Write to me at LeftyMathProf@gmail.com. Thank you.