(2 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)
I set out here to write about capitalism and how it shapes our relationships to everything. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while. I had planned to write about how competition, individualism, and the insecurity of having to “earn a living” or be denied survival, defines how we approach one another and the way in which we interact with people in our lives. I started by examining the definition of capitalism. I turned to Wikipedia first and got this:
capitalism is “an economic system in which trade, industry, and the means of production are privately owned and operated via profit and loss calculation (price signals) through the price system.”
Most of my prior thinking had been focused on the profit and loss aspect and how the only valuation system capitalism uses is money. I had originally thought that I would want to discuss the lack of any ethics or social values in the definition and how that void gets filled by the profit imperative.
However, what I found myself focusing on first was the phrase “privately owned”. I was immediately writing about the concept of ownership. In the wake of three mass shootings in the US, this week, I found myself reaching the conclusion that any society which embraces the idea of private property is, at it’s core, violent. Violence is the very foundation that society. I found myself unable to focus on anything else. I realized that any system which includes any kind of ownership claim has to be violent. So, this isn’t a strictly anti-capitalist exploration. It’s an ownership exploration.
So, can we talk about how we are a fundamentally violent culture? How that’s a feature and not a bug? Can we talk about whether we want to be that? Whether we can change that?
I’ll walk you through my thoughts which led to “ownership = violence” and my not-yet-fully-formed ideas of alternatives and a vague sense of how to get there. My hope is that we spark the beginning of a growing dialogue.
The Cultural Primacy of Ownership
What is it to own something? I don’t see a lot of exploration of this in our society. It’s an unquestioned tenet of U.S. culture. The American Dream includes owning a house and a car. We love to possess. We use possessive pronouns quite a bit. If I note to people that I am uncomfortable using possessive pronouns regarding the people in my life – such as “my daughter” or “my sister” – I am seen as odd. I’ve even been accused of having some sort of relational dysfunction when I mention it. Even if we pay rent to the actual legal owner for the place in which we live, we call that domicile “my house” or “my apartment.” So much of our legal framework is about the protection of property. How many times have you heard, “possession is 9/10ths of the law.”? What we are saying is that 90% of our social concerns center around possession. We even claim ownership over intangible things such as ideas. We own people. (Slavery is alive in the U.S.. Read the 13th Amendment. It makes a very clear exception to the prohibition against slavery and corporations are taking advantage of that exception.) Our belief in ownership isn’t really debatable. It’s actually a primal aspect of our culture.
How does ownership get established and maintained? We use a system of money to purchase things. We think of that as benign. Money isn’t actually anything in and of itself. In our system, it represents the ability to control resources. We assign a money value to things and agree to give people resources in exchange for that amount of money. The money is only useful if there are resources to be exchanged. One person has to have possession of a resource and accept your money to hand over possession to you. How did all the resources here come to be owned by anyone in the first place?
Think about it. People live in a place. They need the earth’s resources to survive, yet someone or a group can “stake a claim” of ownership of the land and, therefore, access to all it’s resources. They can deny people the ability to survive. Why would anyone just sit back and let themselves die when the resources to survive are right over that man-made line in the dirt? How does the “owner” keep them from taking what they need?
The only way to claim ownership is to be willing to use violent force against anyone who may want to challenge that ownership. Isn’t that how Europeans ended up owning all the lands here? People lived here when our celebrated explorers and founders arrived. For those immigrants to claim this land as “their country”, they had to forcefully remove the previous inhabitants. Then they had to use force to keep those inhabitants from trying to return to the land. In fact, Columbus and the other “discoverers” were the opening salvo in the world’s biggest genocide. A genocide pursued so that Europeans could claim ownership of this land. Then, slaves and indentured servants were violently forced to provide labor for some of those Europeans to generate personal wealth. In turn, these colonists decided they didn’t want to be subject to the violence of the British king. They wanted to be at the top of the violence-wielding hierarchy on this land, so they waged a violent campaign of rebellion. Thus, a “democratic capitalist” state was born.
Violence. Without which not. There is no United States of America without violence.
Once the colonists laid claim to land on this continent and called it a nation and drew lines on paper which they called maps, how did they maintain ownership? Why did the indigenous people here just walk back onto the lands they had lived on and keep on living here? Why did the people who were dragged here from Africa in chains help these people accumulate wealth? What stopped anyone else from moving in and staking a claim?
The answer is always violence. Owners were willing to kill human beings rather than let them live as free people. Colonists were willing to kill Native Americans rather than occupy the space together. The United States invested a vast amount of resources into developing the world’s most formidable military presence, which both stops anyone from overriding our claim to this land and helps us accumulate more wealth by controlling land and resource ownership in other countries.
You can’t maintain ownership without a commitment to use violence to defend that claim.
But, I’m Not Violent!
I’m going to pose some questions to you. I ask that you hold onto the purpose of the discussion when answering them to yourselves. This is not about judging individuals. It’s about taking a step back and looking at the context we’re living in. These questions are meant to help us take a moment to consider some things. They are not meant to make anyone feel badly about themselves. We live in a context. To survive, we make choices and embrace operating principles within that context. It’s natural. I hope we won’t let defensiveness impede a thought experiment. Here we go …
Do you own or live in a house or an apartment? Someone who does not have a place to live enters your house, intent on living in it with you. You can’t talk them into leaving. What would you do? Would you shove them out the door? Call the police? Pull out a weapon and threaten them? In some states, you’d have the legal support to kill them. The fact that this person has no shelter for survival is deemed less important than your ownership claim to this particular shelter. To establish the primacy of ownership, we must be willing to use violence against this “invader.”
We outsource our violence to other people. We give “authorities” the right to commit our violence for us. We have other people kill the animals that we eat. We pay corporations to treat people poorly so that we can have products which cost us less money. But, make no mistake about it, we do use violence as a means of getting thins and protecting what’s ours.
When people are protesting the murder, brutality and enslavement of people with darker skin in our country and a few of those protesters break a window or set a car on fire or loot a store do you see that property damage or redistribution as an excuse to be angry with the protesters? Have you ever said something like, “I want to support them, but not if they do that?” That belies a greater concern for the loss of property than for the loss of lives. This makes sense in an ownership society.
In the same way that one must be willing to use violence to establish ownership over something, one must be willing to use violence to maintain ownership. Everywhere in the world, where ownership is embraced, there are “haves” and “have nots.” Those who “have” are afforded the “right” to have as much as they can lay claim to regardless of whether others don’t even have access to enough to survive. If those who are struggling to survive attempt to access anything they don’t own, they are violently stopped.
As the leading capitalist nation on the planet, where private ownership is fundamental to the capitalist way of life, it is no accident that we have the most military might. It is not surprising that we have a violent culture. We need to stop feigning surprise at the school shootings and the police brutality and the prevalence of rape and bullying. Our forms of entertainment are violent. We turn everything into a competition and the goal is to “kill” the competition. That’s a natural outcome of believing in ownership. You can’t maintain ownership without violence. It is absolutely necessary.
By embracing ownership, we have embraced violence as a way of life. It’s ironic that in a culture of ownership, we won’t own that.
What’s that saying? The first step to facing a problem is admitting you have one?
Do We Have A Violence Problem?
We’ve established that as a capitalist nation, we are an ownership nation. We’ve established that ownership requires violence. The next question is, “is this a problem?”
Whenever we have a significant event such as the mass shootings this week or the murder of an abortion provider or the bombing of a building, there is a surge in public dialogue about how much violence we perpetuate. But, do we really care? Do we really think we have a problem?
I like to play games. Mostly board games. I like games as a way to challenge my brain. Honing my problem-solving skills, etc. I enjoy the social aspect of gaming. More and more I’ve come to enjoy cooperative games rather than competitive ones. Even in our play time, we blithely use the phrase “I beat the pants off of her” or “I kicked his ass.” I’m less and less comfortable with the casual creation of enemy dynamics and the role-playing of battle and victory.
This dynamic is played out in so many venues of US culture that it would be impossible to list them. Look at sports and the language used around sports. We’re talking about other people and we yell, “crush them!” We pay to watch people punch each other and we cheer them on, calling for blood. We are starting to make some attempts to temper the predatory nature of it when it comes to children’s sports, but kids aren’t dumb. They can see how we frame these things when adults are participating. It’s akin to telling children that they have to share their things. We aren’t a sharing society. Adults aren’t required to share and kids know it. They know this whole sharing thing is short-term. They only comply because parents are willing to use force against their children to control them. Children are generally smart enough to pick their battles.
If we’re so in love with the enemy dynamic and the thrill of beating someone or crushing them, are we really concerned about our violent underpinnings? Or do we just have a nagging conscience which we try to satisfy by claiming we are whilst continuing with the status quo?
So What If We Do?
The Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest was meant to apply to species adapting over geologic eras to survive and participate in a sustainable ecosystem. It wasn’t meant to be about intra-species competition in the immediate moment competing for the ability to live right now with no concern for mutual sustainability. While there are individual conflicts and it is a system of consumption which means there will be violence, the violence is supposed to be limited to eating and our species isn’t meant to eat it’s own kind, so it makes no sense that we commit violence against one another. That only happens when someone decides to deny another person access to the things they need. In our culture we’re committing violence over things we want. We shift the definition of “need” to suit our desires and regardless of how meeting those desires impacts others. If we see this as a problem, can we do anything about it, now?
Of course, it is within our power to simply stop. If we had a mass realization that we’re going about things all wrong and would be better off changing our ways, we could will ourselves to change. Abstractly, that would be ideal. Realistically, we function in a more complicated way. Whenever I come to the question of how to manifest change on a large enough scale that it would make a difference, I actually rather stumped. As long as there is even a fraction of the population who embraces violence the rest of us are stuck living with that unless we are all willing to sacrifice ourselves to that violence in a bid to stop those people. We’d have to find a way to keep them at bay and that way would likely involve violence. It’s at this point in my contemplation that I become a bit hopeless and lose my faith in humanity.
Perhaps it is obvious. I believe that all this violence isn’t necessary and that content and mutually sustainable lives could be pursued without it. I’ve held this belief for decades without any faith that humanity could find a way to switch tracks and manifest this change. Attempts at cooperative living communities are interesting, but overwhelmed by the pressures from the greater society they are embedded in. Countries with less military might than ours are not granted unimpeded freedom to explore social structures other than capitalism. (Please note that the USSR and China are not socialist or communist states. They are a form of statist capitalism.) As long as our capitalists are given access to the capitalist opportunities in countries with tyrannical leadership, we don’t actively oppose them. But as soon as a nation determines to exclude our capitalists, we do actively oppose them and will commit or support acts of violence to undermine their ability to pursue their own social experiments.
It’s not simply that I can see that it could be different. It’s that I see that we choose to stay the same. I am considered aberrant for even questioning the value of owning things and have such possessive natures. I am considered a troublemaker for suggesting that we question the goodness of capitalism. I’m practically shunned for having the opinion that competition is a destructive force in society. I’m a bad feminist because I don’t see becoming like the dominant males who perpetuate misogyny as the way toward anti-sexism. I’m an insufficient anti-racism ally because I don’t see turning all the people of color into successful capitalists as the end of oppression. I’m an unwanted trans ally because I cringe when I see people assigned male at birth wanting to be the misogynist definition of feminine and people assigned female at birth wanting to become the misogynist definition of male. All of these things, to my mind, are side-effects of a violence-driven culture which just happens to have been dominated by white males in our part of the world. I am overcome with hopelessness when I see those who are oppressed aspiring to achieve what their oppressors have achieved. You can’t achieve those things without the violence of oppression. You aren’t ending oppression, you are simply shifting it. You can’t accumulate the possessions without being committed to the violence.
Even with persistent social pressure and the searing pain I experience at witnessing how we are with each other, I have not changed how I see this. It’s one of those “once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it” kind of things. I understand that people make choices to survive and to minimize conflict in their immediate lives. I get that. Still, even while making those choices, we can talk about how they are not good choices and how things could be different, can’t we?
Getting people to even imagine a different social structure is so hard. We’re so caught up in our survival milieu that we can’t even tell ourselves another way is possible. Attempts at conversation which start with “imagine if nobody owned anything”, for instance, are met with a stultifying silence. It goes nowhere and any suggestions I make for what it might be like are roundly rejected with arguments based on the current context. For instant, if you suggest that no one owns clothing, that any clothing which is made is made available to anyone who wants it, the response often is “then how do you stop people from stealing your clothes?” In a world where we own things and keep them to ourselves, we are constantly worried about things being stolen. In a world where no one owned anything and everything was freely available, the concept of stealing wouldn’t even exist. This is something most people can’t fathom. A world where the word “steal” might even disappear from our vocabulary due to to lack of use.
And the, of course, there is that very capitalistic response to the idea that no one makes money. Everyone just does whatever they feel compelled to do. Someone might be really interested in plumping and go around fixing or building new plumbing systems, for a while. Then, when they were drawn to making sculptures, they might do that for a while. I have yet to suggest a world where everyone freely does what they feel like without hearing, “what happens when some people won’t work? Are we all supposed to feed them and be okay with that?”
This belies a fundamental misbelief about human nature. There has never been a time in human history where a society fell apart due to laziness. It’s not in our nature. We are social creatures and it is our inherent desire to participate. Some of us might be more introverted or less desirous of company than others, but those people still tend to pursue some kind of activity. Coming from a wage labor world, where we are told we must “earn a living” – that is we don’t deserve to live unless we earn it – and that earning has to be something that an owner of resources deems valuable enough to compensate you for, it seems impossible for us to even fathom that human beings actually find contentment in participating in the pursuit of living. If they are not being actively denied access to their basic needs, they have much fewer anxieties or resentments regarding other people. The things which need to get done will get done because there wouldn’t be any reason that people wouldn’t want to do them. After all, we’d really all be in it together. We wouldn’t be fighting each other.
But, these conversations go nowhere and I live in a sort of quiet despair about that which I can envision but am not likely to ever see.
There are moments where I am pulled up out of that despair a bit. One of those was in the reading of “The Dispossessed” by Ursula Le Guin. In it, she describes a society which does not have ownership of anything. She does a good job of fleshing it out enough that you actually get a sense of what it might be like. It’s no utopia (which I appreciate.) The people of this society have had to separate from their original society and to do so have been trying to survive on a nearly barren moon. Its a rough life. The challenges bring out emotions and compulsions which are counter to the ideals they have established and there isn’t necessarily a resolution of these problems. Still, I realized there was someone else out there who could imagine a world similar to what I’m imagining. I’m not alone and that’s a start.
I speak of my despair as I celebrate the Kurdish resistance facing off against Turkey, ISIS and others who have tried to oppress them. They have embraced a gender-equitable form of social organizing and they are trying within the context of the violent world around them to seek real liberation. They have to resist violence with violence. Are they doomed because of that? There are always these contradictions in pursuing ideals. Still, my fingers are crossed for them.
I live in my despair even as I watch the Bolivians activate Vivir Bien and figure out how to self-govern a plurinational state with a commitment to eco-sustainability and multi-ethnic justice where national decisions are made based on the consensus of different political stakeholders.
There are definitely pockets of activity around the world which suggest a possible auguring in of a resistance to an ownership-based world. How long can they last or how far can these political philosophies spread, though, before the owner class feels “threatened” and will violently end those efforts? Unless we have a critical mass of people willing to stand up to the concept of ownership here, where we send our military might directly or by supporting someone locally, these efforts will be very short-lived. With the advent of social media, perhaps they will have a better chance of influencing the minds of enough people around the world to set something irreversible in motion. I’m not really convinced it will happen, though I will do what I can to support it.
Does Anything Else Matter?
As I set out to discuss how capitalism shapes our relationships, I could’t get past the fact that ownership of land, resources, things, animals, people – any ownership – requires a willingness to commit violence. That is, you must be willing to defend your claim to ownership if someone else wants access to what you claim to own. That defense requires, at minimum, the implicit threat of violence. Capitalism isn’t the only economic or political
ism which embraces ownership. The competing isms just shift who gets to claim ownership. But, in the US we are proud capitalists. So, that is what I direct my inquiries at here.
In the wake of 3 mass shootings in a week, here in the capitalist US, I am compelled to focus on this on our violent culture. I don’t want to distract from it by discussing other relational issues, just yet. The question of whether you can even have capitalism, whether you can even have the concept of owning things, without violence seemed to profound. Everything else is really a side-effect, isn’t it?