A Peaceful Transition?
It is time to seriously investigate how we can 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 financial systems. 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 the alternative requires a collective awakening followed by a disciplined effort. Enough of us have to focus on creating the alternative. This requires, first of all, space for reflection, which we now have.
Humanity desperately 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 where we are going as a species. Perhaps, finally, people are willing 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 science tells us, 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 are dire warnings.
We have a ruling financial elite that will do everything they can to keep control and maintain some semblance of the current system for as long as they can. Consider the stimulus bill passed by the US Congress. It offers a meager hand out to the people, but gives hundreds of billions or trillions to perpetuate corporate power and Wall Street. The financial services industry creates complex financial instruments that have little relationship with the real economy of goods and services. It is parasitic. Yet the value of these “collateralized debt obligations” and so on must be preserved at all costs.
It’s time to propose 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. The alternative is what groups like peer2peer foundation call a “commons transition.”
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 hold less than $400 saved for an 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 or health insurance premiums. Many home owners, similarly, can’t pay their mortgages.
Are we going to see massive evictions? Or could the US take another path forward. Of course, the first effort will be to preserve the system by delaying rent and mortgage payments. But what if that doesn’t work? Do we need fundamental systemic change? And is that systemic change now unavoidable?
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’ — nomadic, indigenous, or traditional societies. These societies certainly have problems of their own. But they lacked the status hierarchies and extreme inequalities based on capital accumulation that we have, and maintained homeostatic balance with their local ecosystems.
The institution of private property, Rousseau reasoned, was the root cause of most suffering. In a society founded on property rights, everyone finds their positions insecure. We are forced to compete against each other to attain wealth, to protect what is ‘ours’. This has a traumatic 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 wryly observed.
The Problem with Property
Private property — a mental construct governments 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 have internalized them.
Perhaps our world is doomed to remain unjust, unfree, and ecologically destructive until we reckon with the system of property rights, which includes intellectual property as well as physical stuff? I am well aware it is hard to even imagine how we could make a humane and peaceful transition to a different system at this point, without mass violence. On the other hand, impossible things do happen sometimes. Many seemingly impossible things are happening now.
Can we envision, and then design, a process that would transform property rights over time, gently and nonviolently? Can we return much that is now privately owned to the commons? Can we make a transition into new cooperative arrangements? Can we learn from the mistakes of failed revolutions of the past, to establish a nonhierarchical social order based on mutual aid and direct democracy?
Of course, most people know that Karl Marx believed hoarded capital, or private property, to be modern society’s essential problem. He believed a worldwide worker’s revolution was needed to transform our social relations. This was the only way to liberate humanity, particularly the underclass, from their bondage.
Of course, we are told that Marx was a failure as a thinker because Communism was a disaster. There is a great deal one could say about this. The ruling elite applies intensive propaganda to make socialism seem terrible. They do this because a socialist model poses a real threat to the current hegemony. In fact, Marx said that the kind of socialism he envisioned would only be possible in a highly developed country like the US or UK. What happened in the Communist Revolutions of the Twentieth Century was different: Dictators forced rapid transitions from Neo-feudalism to modern industrial systems, causing great suffering in the process.
It is worth returning to some of Marx’s ideas. He believed that private property contorted the human personality, making us ‘stupid and one-sided’. He 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.’ Under Capitalism, we are indoctrinated to confuse the abstract ‘sense of having’ with a real sense. We imprison ourselves in this abstraction.
Ask yourself if this remains true today? Of course it does.
If humanity overcame the restrictions caused by 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 reality. They would 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 ideals. Like Marx, Wilde saw that private property, hoarded capital, damaged the human personality. He agreed that we have substituted a removed, abstract social relation for our 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. We are programmed to believe that social inequality supported by state-sanctioned violence is natural and inescapable.
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, he proposed, flourish for the first time. People would be liberated from domination and control, freed to think and create for themselves. 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 reckon with 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 their amassed wealth. 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. It has many glaring problems.
Those without property, the Have Nots, feel little incentive to care for the future of the Earth. Since nothing in the world belongs to them, they are dispossesed, alienated from it. Since the world is owned — lock, stock and barrel — by the wealthy, the multitudes don’t feel protecting the Earth is their problem or responsibility.
Indigenous people around the world have led the battle against the extractive industries. Of course, this is partly 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 see nature as inherently sacred and alive, and see themselves as stewards of nature.
Now, in today’s ‘Brave New 1984’, a gigantic surveillance and security apparatus covers everything like an invisible spider web. Its main purpose is to protect property rights, both physical and intellectual forms of property. In fact, Wilde realized, many of our current nightmarish entanglements are based on property rights.
‘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 has noted, ‘Sharing is to ownership what the iPod is to the 8-track, what solar power is to the coal mine.’ As virtual tools proliferate, physical property matters less than intangible assets such as time and attention.
The economic crash caused by the pandemic is going to intensify the movement toward sharing and mutual aid out of necessity. But rather than this happening in piecemeal ways amidst mass destruction, we need to build a movement around it. We can project a vision of a future where people own little — or nothing — yet they live abundantly, joyfully, able to access whatever they need or desire, when they need it.
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 believed that partial ‘solutions to the ecological crisis, like green consumerism, renewable energy, or carbon taxation’ would not work or liberate us.
He believed such 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 made 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 when we prioritized ‘having’ over being. We can correct this error.
Wilde proposed we launch a new social 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 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 of total surveillance, controlled by military force. While mass protests, whether in Hong Kong, the UK, or France, make an impact, they have not yet brought about systemic change. They often lose their force, get stamped out, or co-opted.
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, could 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 the 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. In fact, this may be our last and only hope.
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 the new valued currency, on all levels. People could use commonly held resources as long as they agree to abide by a set of principles. These values would include caring for the land, adding tangible value to physical and virtual projects, and sharing with others. When we reach a point where multitudes of people have the capacity to pool their resources voluntarily and work together cooperatively, the shift toward post-Capitalist society will be under way.
This is a revised section from my book How Soon Is Now, available as hard copy or audiobook on Amazon.
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