Waking from the Ancient Madness of Ownership
leftymathprof on Jan 24, 2020
For thousands of years we’ve endured wars, poverty, and other cruelties, all unnecessary. And now the madness is about to kill all of us with a climate apocalypse, which is coming much bigger and faster than most people realize. These problems can all be traced to a practice that we have long accepted as normal: the practice of not sharing with our cousins. Trade increases inequality, making corruption and plutocracy inevitable. Competition makes us insane. To avoid extinction we’ll need two revolutions.
Part 1. INTRODUCTION
Our culture is self-destructive, and that’s not recent. For thousands of years we’ve endured wars, poverty, and other cruelties, all unnecessary. And now the madness is about to kill us — all of us — with a climate apocalypse, which is coming much bigger and faster than most people realize. These problems can all be traced to a practice that we have long accepted as normal: the practice of not sharing with our cousins. To avoid extinction, we must awaken to an entirely new way of relating to each other.
Here’s an outline of the discoveries that I’ll discuss:
Part 1: This introduction.
Part 2: Climate change is coming much bigger and faster than we’ve been told; it’s like we’re about to fall off a cliff. We could do some things to halt that, but we’re not doing enough of them, because of madness in our political and economic system.
Part 3: For ages, our lives have been based on private property, and now it’s hard for us to see anything wrong with that or to imagine any other way of life.
Part 4: If we don’t share, we trade. Trade, even when honest, increases inequality, concentrating wealth and power. And power corrupts.
Part 5: Capitalism is ecocidal: Its side effects kill everything. That’s inherent in every version of capitalism; it can’t be reformed away.
Part 6: Property and competition make us insane. They enable loneliness, fear, hatred, racism, sexism, bullying, random shootings, war, etc. But we accept these as normal.
Part 7: Money is influence, so we have plutocracy — that is, rule by the rich. The rich might save the world if they were an organized conspiracy of slave drivers, but unfortunately they’re just an unruly mob of thugs.
Part 8: We need two revolutions — a long-term one to make the deep changes we really need, and a quicker one to keep us alive long enough to develop the long-term one.
And now the details.
Part 2. CLIMATE
Corporate news media keep telling us about flooded cities in the year 2100. But I’m more worried about fire and famine by 2025 and extinction by 2035. Larger parts of the world are burning every year, crop failures have already begun, and the whole process of climate change is speeding up.
Al Gore’s slide show got a lot of people to start thinking about climate change. He’s one of my inspirations for this slide show, but he didn’t go far enough. UN climatologists and corporate news media say too little about feedback loops and tipping points. I’m a mathematician, but I’ll put this in nontechnical terms:
- A feedback loop is a process whose consequences are also causes, like rabbits making more rabbits. There are many feedback loops in global warming; here are two examples:
- Excessive heat kills plants, releasing carbon, whose greenhouse effect causes more heating.
- Warming melts ice, so less sunlight is reflected, so Earth warms more.
- Feedback loops cause exponential acceleration. The exponential curve starts off small and slow, easy to overlook or to deny. But the bigger it gets, the faster it grows. After a while it’s big enough to be seen by the naked eye. And soon after that it’s enormous and growing explosively. That curve won’t level off by itself. Carbon-neutral is not enough — we need to go carbon-negative.
- A tipping point is a threshold level where things change abruptly, in some cases causing a system collapse. You’ve experienced this when you’ve leaned back in your chair a little too far, and suddenly found yourself on the floor. There are lots of tipping points in global warming. Here’s a big one that may be coming soon: Frozen under the Arctic is a huge store of methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide. Already the methane is slowly seeping out into the atmosphere. It may be abruptly released in one huge burp when the Arctic gets just a little warmer.
So the apocalypse is accelerating. We haven’t much time left. If we’re going to dodge extinction, we’d better hurry.
We know what changes are needed. But individual efforts, such as improved lightbulbs and improved cars, barely make a dent in the problem. Mostly we need changes in public policy:
- Ban deforesting.
- Ban fossil fuels.
- Ban meat raised by methods that generate lots of methane.
- Switch to regenerative agriculture, to sequester lots of carbon.
- Use more telecommuting and more public transportation.
- Redesign all our technologies to be carbon-neutral or carbon-negative before, during, and after their use.
- Expand the relevant research.
And so on.
We know what must be done. But we aren’t doing it. That’s because money is influence; the governments of nations are owned and operated by corporations that profit from the way things currently are.
And most climate activists don’t see the underlying problem. For instance, Bill McKibben of 350.org seems to blame the oil companies for how they’re adding to the climate problem, but they’re just doing their job: In our present economic system, their job is to make as much money as they can for their stockholders.
So we need a different political and economic system, and we need it in a hurry.
Part 3. PROPERTY and its HISTORY
Kind intentions will not be enough to fix our culture. Our attitudes and our institutions perpetuate each other. And our institutions are more tangible, so I’ll focus on those.
Some people would blame our problems on capitalism. That’s a convenient simplification, but it’s not strictly accurate. By most definitions, capitalism is only a few hundred years old; it’s the most recent form of property. Most of our problems — war, poverty, racism, sexism, etc. — are much, much older than that. An exception is the rapid destruction of the ecosystem, which is quite recent; I’ll say more about that later.
Our culture of private property covers nearly all the world. It has minor local variations, but it really is one global culture: Nearly everywhere on Earth, we travel on roads, we talk on cell phones, we live as “nuclear families” in houses or apartments. Most important of all, we trade our labor for money, which we trade for material necessities, which we then “own.”
Some people yearn for a past golden age that they think they remember from just a few decades ago. But they are mistaken. The USA — the one nation I’m really familiar with — has been a plutocracy thinly disguised as a democracy ever since its “founding” in land theft, genocide, and slavery. And this social system, which 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes called “the war of all against all,” has been going on much longer than that. I would agree with Stephen Dedalus, who said: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.”
But it wasn’t always this way. Our culture of property only began about 10,000 years ago. For 300,000 years before that, we lived as hunter-gatherers, and shared everything as equals. Genetically that’s still who we are, and a few isolated indigenous tribes have managed to continue that sharing. I’m not advocating a return to hunting-gathering, but we can return to the sharing, and I’ll explain that we must.
Property is so deeply embedded in our present culture that every material object’s “owner” seems as real to us as its mass, volume, or color. But ownership is not an objective fact of physics. Rather, ownership is a story inside our heads, like a bad dream. It’s a story that we agree upon, though it was initially imposed on us by violence, and it’s still maintained through the threat of violence.
Incidentally, nationhood is a similar bad dream. A national border is a line drawn on a map by politicians, who tell us the people on the other side are different. Actually, the people on the other side are our cousins; it is the politicians who are different. I’ll say more about politicians later.
I would not blame all our problems on property. Rather, the concentration of power is the root of all evil. Power corrupts, as we see in domestic violence, police brutality, prison torture, corporate fraud, and all the assorted crimes of politicians. Power is concentrated through property, but also through hierarchy. Those two institutions can be studied separately. But to a large degree, they are interchangeable, because either kind of power can be used to obtain the other. In this discussion, I am focusing on property, because it is more tangible.
Part 4. TRADE & INEQUALITY
Inequality has grown enormous in our society. That didn’t happen by accident. It’s built into the system, as I’ll explain.
If we don’t share, then we must trade — for money, labor, food, rent, everything. Every transaction in our economic system can be viewed as a trade. Even loans with interest are a form of trade: money now for more money later. The rich defend trade, saying if I have something you want, and you have something I want, why shouldn’t we trade? Such trades are the essence of freedom.
They are describing trade as an isolated incident. And trade seems innocuous; most people don’t see anything wrong with it. But I’m going to talk about its long-term consequences.
It’s a lot like the board game Monopoly, which you’ve probably played at least once. In the beginning of that game, all the players have money in their pockets; everyone is on a shopping spree. No one feels threatened. If only life could go on this way forever! But the seeds of destruction are already contained in that pleasant beginning. The rules lead inexorably to a grim ending, where one player owns everything, and everyone else in the world is totally impoverished.
In the real world, a voluntary trade occurs only if both traders benefit. For instance, when a farm owner hires a bunch of migrant farmworkers, he pays them very low wages. The farmworkers benefit by avoiding starvation for one more day; but the owner benefits by getting rich. Thus, both traders benefit, but not equally. Trade favors whichever trader was already in the stronger bargaining position, thus making that trader stronger still.
So inequality increases, and that effect is inherent in the fundamental structure of all markets; it can’t be cured through mere reforms. And this phenomenon doesn’t depend on the monetary system — inequality would increase even from barter. The only remedy is to end trade altogether, and share everything.
Inequality would increase even if the trade were honest — even if there were no fraud, theft, extortion, or political influence. But trade is too seldom honest. To understand why, it may be best to view fraud, influence, etc., as tools of the market. Part of what puts a trader in the stronger bargaining position is the trader’s ability to wield these tools or to resist these tools. Generally, such abilities come from already being wealthy, and making clever use of that wealth.
A big corporation can afford a team of lawyers more easily than can a single consumer or a small business. For instance, Monsanto routinely sues a small farmer if some of Monsanto’s patented poisonous seeds blow onto the small farmer’s land. This differs from an armed stickup only in form, not in substance.
Part 5. EXTERNALITIES
A trade price is negotiated between buyer and seller, but that price doesn’t reflect a variety of unmeasured side effects. Those affect other parties who didn’t get to participate in the negotiations. Those side effects are called “externalized costs,” or “externalities,” because they are outside the considerations of the negotiations. Studies have shown that no modern corporation would be profitable if it had to pay for all its externalities. The basic principle of capitalism is “get all you can, every man for himself, and to hell with the commons,” and that’s why the commons is being destroyed — including the ecosystem, on which we are all dependent. And destruction of the ecosystem is speeding up, because modern science magnifies all we do, for good or ill.
Apologists for capitalism claim that the accidental side effects of commerce are random, like a coin flip, and so they could be either harmful or beneficial. But in practice the side effects are about as beneficial as the random movements of a bull in a china shop.
Don’t trust so-called “market solutions” to climate or any other problem. So-called “green capitalism” is a lie. What makes a company rich is not making a product better, but persuading people that one’s product is better. The coal and oil companies lied for half a century. The only really trustworthy solutions are those which do not involve profit for anyone.
Part 6. INSANITY
Property separates us from each other. You keep your stuff in your house, I keep my stuff in my house, and God help the people who have no house, because no one else will help them. Your loss is not my loss, and may even be my gain. The market makes us all commodities to be exploited or discarded; we are valued only for what we own or produce.
We are forced to compete for our lives; those who lag behind can be seen begging on street corners. Competition kills empathy, and then we find it easy to blame others for their problems and for our own problems too. This enables racism, sexism, bullying, random shootings, austerity, authoritarianism, nationalism, imperialism, etc.
This culture of madness began in the Middle East around 10,000 years ago, with the invention of separate property. It spread by the sword throughout the Old World, and then Columbus brought it with him to subdue the western hemisphere as well. Native Americans already had seen this sickness occasionally, not in a culture-wide phenomenon, but in individuals, and so they had a name for it: wetiko.
We are told that competition brings out the best in us, but actually it brings out the worst: lying, cheating, stealing, murder. To give capitalism credit for science is as foolish as crediting me for Tom Petty’s music (because I was born in the same year). And competition is unnecessary: Anything that can be done competitively, can be done better cooperatively.
We would like to have jobs that are meaningful and creative, jobs that make the world a better place. Perhaps teachers, nurses, and firefighters experience that, but few others do. Most workplaces in our society are owned by just a few people, and most of our jobs are structured primarily to make those rich people richer. Privately owned workplaces are little dictatorships. That, and not laziness, is why we hate Mondays.
We are told that the market pays us according to how much we produce, but actually, the market pays us according to how much we control. Your boss is paid hundreds of times more than you, but he’s not hundreds of times smarter or more hard-working. Rather, he’s standing between you and the money.
And machines are taking the jobs. We can’t stay ahead of them through education, for they are getting smarter faster. If we were sharing the benefits of automation, it would mean leisure for all of us. But the machines, like the workplaces, have just a few owners, and so automation means layoffs for most of us, and soon all of us. Paradoxically, the owners will have no paying customers for the goods and services that their robots produce. Thus, the present economic system cannot continue much longer. What will replace it, and how smooth or rocky the transition will be, depends on whether we plan ahead.
In a caring society, we would be paid not according to how much we produce or how much we control, but according to how much we need. We’d follow the prescription that Marx made famous, “from each according to ability, to each according to need,” with no correlation or connection between those two quantities. And that’s not giving and receiving — that’s sharing, because we’re all in the same boat. But our current society is not one of caring, and that’s why we have public shootings and the world is tearing itself apart.
And by the way, I am not advocating — as Jesus did — that you should single-handedly give away all your possessions. The “war of all against all” cannot be ended by unilateral surrender. It’s a cultural change that we all need to do together. It begins with many conversations.
Part 7. PLUTOCRACY
Money is influence. Thus we get plutocracy, rule by the rich. That has long been apparent by anecdotal observation, but also recently it has been proved statistically. The only way to end rule by the wealthy class is to not HAVE a wealthy class. That will require a very different economic and political system.
The injustice, poverty, and wars all around us are unnecessary, so most of our so-called “representatives” are really liars, thieves and mass murderers. Our laws are written by the rich to favor the rich. Anatole France summed that up neatly: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
And the system is perpetuated by the corporate media. They slant all their news stories in ways that favor the present system. Even our entertainment is full of bias in the background assumptions implicit in every fiction: Almost always, Russians are brutal thugs or devious spies, and American soldiers are heroic; any exceptions are pointed out as unusual.
The rich are fools about climate. They are overconfident because their wealth has always protected them from the consequences of their actions. They’re too unimaginative to realize that the climate apocalypse is different. They’ll emerge from their luxury underground bunkers to find only ashes, and they’ll discover they can’t eat money. But we can’t wait for that; to survive we must overthrow them long before that.
Or maybe the rich aren’t fools. Maybe they are trapped on this crazy train every bit as much as the rest of us, and the real problem is that they aren’t unified: You see, if the rich were unified in some hierarchical conspiracy, like the fabled Illuminati, then they would say to one another, “hey, let’s not destroy this ecosystem on which even we gods are dependent.” And the top-ranking plutocrats would give some orders, and steps would be taken to halt the climate change, and the world would be saved.
But it’s not like that. Really, no one is in charge. The plutocrats are all competing against each other for short-term profits. Each one says to himself, “hey, I just want to make a quick buck for myself right now. Let someone else save the ecosystem.”
Any plutocrat who concerns himself with the future will fall behind in the race, and will cease to be a plutocrat, and will be replaced by other plutocrats. Indeed, if we manage to lock up the entire corrupt plutocracy, but we leave the culture still based on private property, then it will continue with trade, which increases inequality, which will just create a new corrupt plutocracy.
Individual plutocrats are willing agents of the evil, but they are not its source. The real problem is not individual capitalists, but the system of capitalism.
Part 8. TWO REVOLUTIONS
Let me first briefly restate where we are. Climate-wise, we’re about to fall off a cliff, killing us all; we have very little time left for remedial actions. And remedial actions are blocked by our crazy plutocracy, so we need a revolution to overthrow them. And we don’t want to just replace them with a new crazy plutocracy, so we need to end the institutions that cause plutocracy. Those are the ancient institutions of hierarchy and property, in which we have believed for 10,000 years, not realizing that they were the causes of war and poverty and all our other ills. Ending those institutions will be an immense cultural change, our biggest in 10,000 years; we’ll awaken to peace and love. But that spreading of ideas will take a great deal of time, which we don’t have. At first glance, it appears we are f*cked.
But I see some hope in a two-pronged approach. We already have decentralized work going on simultaneously for two revolutions — a quick infrastructure change and a slow cultural change — by two different but overlapping groups of people.
- The slow cultural change is to end hierarchy, property, and plutocracy. Its first step is lots of conversations. If you like this video, recommend it to people. I think this revolution must be completed by about 2030. And I think it will succeed, if the ecosystem doesn’t collapse first.
- The quick infrastructure change is to delay the collapse of the ecosystem. We must redesign all our technologies. This revolution must start getting results by around 2022, or we’re all doomed.
The quick infrastructure change may require negotiating with plutocrats, because overthrowing them would take too long. But in this process, don’t let the “green capitalists” fool anyone — their scams would squander time we can’t afford. And our work to save the ecosystem will only last if the slow revolution also succeeds, so don’t let the plutocrats stop us from spreading the ideas of cultural change.
People working on one revolution don’t have to be working on the other. But of course, they mustn’t block the other.
Here in the USA, I’m endorsing Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign for president. I see that as our best hope for the quicker revolution. Among the candidates who have any real chance of winning, he’s the only one taking climate seriously enough; he’s also the best candidate on all the other issues. He’s spreading some of the ideas we need, more effectively than any socialist party has done in years. As a major candidate, he’s already putting his bully pulpit to good use; as president he’ll have a bigger bully pulpit. He understands — and has stated — that his main task as president is not to negotiate with other politicians, but to rally the public around an agenda that they already agree with. Support Bernie as though our lives depend on it, because they do.
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