This is our first community submission! I hope everyone enjoys and it inspires others to contribute, and inspires you in your life and practice.
What is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris? What’s the proper salutation between people as they pass each other in this flood? – Gotama Buddha ☸
Ownership and New Commerce by Seth Kenlon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Ownership and New Commerce by Seth Kenlon
Ownership is something we’ve been trained to hold very near and dear to our hearts. The term “ownership” usually refers to the idea of claiming things being produced on this planet (clothes, shelter, eating utinsils, a computer, a media player, and so on).
Logically, you lay claim to owning an object as long as you literally possess that object. That is, if I am carrying in a few backpacks my clothes, my computer, my books, and so on, then I claim ownership on those things and isn’t acceptable for someone to come to me and take my things I claim as my own. Most people would agree to this concept of personal ownership, and few people would argue that there should be no ownership whatsoever, and that anyone should be able to go to anyone else and take anything they please, from the food on their plate to the clothes on their back.
That’s a simplified view that becomes more complex when not everything you wish to “own” will fit in a backpack. You have to store the stuff you have somewhere, you have to claim a place that you can sleep. It’s called real estate, or land ownership; you rope off some portion of the Earth and claim it as your own. And usually along with that comes some governing body to register and enforce those claims.
This, of course, is really the basis for most ideas of government, and it is one of the most significant pragmatic questions most often weilded at anarchists: without a governing all-powerful ruler, how can mere individuals ever agree on who owns any given resource?
Such a question, however, may be flawed. Quite possibly, the question should not be “without a government, how can individuals agree on who owns what?” but instead it might be better to ask, “why would people ever argue over who owns something?”
Human beings, stripped of the invented concerns that we have created for ourselves, are simple creatures in need of shelter, food, and companionship. These alone can make a human truly happy, and without these a human will become desperate to acquire them. In fact, a human will do nearly anything to acquire these things if deprived of them. Conversely, if these things are made available, there is little cause for serious arguments or dispute, and any concern above these things are superficial.
Greed has been introduced to the human equation by capitalism, in any of its many flavours. Currently, a kind of ownership making the rounds in popular ideology involves people owning buildings, and in that building they own redundant items, and those items they offer to sell to other people. These property owners do not actually intend to use these items and in fact they would rather destroy the item than let anyone else have them.
This is a layer of abstraction far beyond mere ownership; this is producing excess, and then withholding it from people until a ransom is paid. To remove it even farther from pragmatism, the only ransom accepted for these items is something called “money”. Few, if any, department stores today would let someone barter for goods with either labour or unused items of their own. That kind of trade has been relegated to a completely different model of economy, it has been marked as less efficient and less flexible than a money-based model.
An often-ignored problem with the money-based system is that the value of any given activity or product is completely arbitrary. Since money theoretically reflects amounts of labour performed, one person might think that an hour of labour certainly would earn them, for instance, a tshirt that they need to protect themselves from the sun, especially when there seems to be an over-abundance of tshirts in most department stores. So in theory, someone should be able to go to a store and trade an hour of labour for a tshirt. But for whatever reason, some stores will not accept that as a valid trade, and demand instead four hours of labour for a tshirt. To confuse matters further, if one person’s labour (the store manager, for instance) is deemed more valuable than someone else’s labour, so that person can trade a mere hour for the tshirt, because somehow not all labour is equal (even though the first person works physically harder than the second).
There is an arbitrary value for the things that we want or need, while the work that we do that is supposed to pay for those goods is also valued arbitrarily. In other words, both sides of the equation are variables.
A flimsy foundation for the idea of commerce, isn’t it?
If we look at the idea of a Marketplace, we have this at its root: proprietor (for lack of a better term) has made a widget, so this proprietor owns the widget and no one should be able to take that away without permission. Customer (again, lacking a better equivalent term) comes to the market and wants to buy a widget, so the proprietor and customer talk about a fair trade or fair method of recompensation, and the “sale” is made.
Of course this becomes impractical when it scales; a single proprietor cannot single-handedly make a million widgets, but if a million people want widgets, what does the proprietor do?
The way it happens now is that a proprietor hires people to make widgets, and he pays them as little as he can get away with in order to do this, and then sells those widgets for quite a bit more. The profits from the combined effort are not shared equally.
Read that again, in case you missed it: the profits from the combined effort are not shared equally.
The proprietor feels that his role in the effort deserves a greater reward than everyone else’s role. Quite often, the workers making the widgets don’t even get one of the widgets they themselves have helped make. And the customers must pay whatever price the proprietor demands, or they will get no widget either.
The way it could work (and does, in some communities) is that a group of people get together and decide that they want widgets. Because some organization is required to produce widgets, this group of people decide to appoint the proprietor as the leader of the effort. Her job will be to co-ordinate the effort, but it will not be valued any higher than anyone else’s contribution.
Once organized, they begin making the widgets, and in the end they have plenty of widgets. In fact, they probably could produce more than they actually need. So they could take the widgets and re-“sell” them for fair prices, without any want of profit; they simply trade their surplus for other people’s surplus. And everyone wins, and it scales, because groups of people can get things done, and different groups can specialize in different things and can trade one another for the products of their expertise.
This is not something that works only in theory, on paper; it actually happens every day in worldwide communities like the free operating system GNU/Linux, in independent online craft stores, farming communities, community gardens, artistic communities via the Creative Commons, and in organized trading events such as with nomoola.com and such groups. These are new commerces without the abstraction of surplus ownership, money, and arbitrarily valued labour.
This new commerceless system is often seen as a fairy tale and communist fantasy, and the current system is typically conceded to be sometimes harsh and unfair but one that works overall. It is this anarchist’s believe, however, that the current system does not work, not in a broad general sense nor in a specific individual personal level. Rather, the current system produces junk that people do not need, and makes a few people very wealthy and ensures others are very poor, and causes more waste than we know what to do with. It’s not a working system at all, it is simply the predominant system in motion, but hardly something that cannot be turned off and replaced.