With the current fervor for social transformation in the air, it’s a good time to cue an odd-sounding idea at the hidden core of the 1960s social transformation (click for link):
John Locke (1632-1704) left quite an intellectual legacy for modernity to brood over. He was a founding figure of the empirical age, arguing that all knowledge begins with the input of the five senses. (“Perception . . . [is] the first step . . . towards knowledge, and the inlet of all the materials of it” .) He applied this to psychology , arguing that the mind at birth is a tabula rasa or blank slate (a psychological theory that coincidentally supported the views of his Whig patron, Shaftesbury, who despised the old views of inborn superiority of rank and innate ideas about social hierarchy). Indeed, Locke says point blank that there are no innate ideas “as it were stamped upon the mind of man” . And then of course there’s his political theory, with ideas about the government’s role in protecting life, liberty, and property , which would be applied by Thomas Jefferson 100 years later in the founding documents of the US. Jefferson, of course, cagily substituted “pursuit of happiness” for “property” , but it’s the “property” idea that concerns me here.
The same ideas that supported Locke’s epistemology (empiricism) and his psychology (tabula rasa) fed into economics. Instead of the old economic system based on landed hierarchies, suddenly you have “economic individualism” as the cornerstone idea. Each individual is a self-contained unit with a right to their individual property. For “the ingenious Mr. Locke,” as he was often called in the 18th century, ownership was the cornerstone of all social relations. Indeed, Locke argued that ownership over one’s own body is given in the very state of nature, and that all appropriation of additional properties is a natural extension of that relation. (“Everyman has a property in his own Person … [and] the labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his … Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided … [and] mixed his labour with … [is thereby] his property,” .)
Thus we come to a world where social relations take the form of individuals accumulating and competing for property, and governments organically emerge in defense of “life, liberty, and property.”
If I may take what 18th-century wit, Henry Fielding, said of a certain philosophy of the day, and apply it to Locke’s theory, I might say it is “a very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true” .
OK, I can’t quite make the claim that Locke is wrong, but I can raise the question: What if this cornerstone idea of modernity and capitalism, this idea about the primacy of personal ownership, is false? Or perhaps not false, but at least not logically necessary. What if it is but one way of looking at things, and a way that is perhaps no longer the most serviceable?
My alternative would start here. My interlocutor might grant me that the idea of ownership as the primary relation between oneself and one’s own body is speculative and not in any way self-evident. But, my interlocutor might say, the relation between a person and land or objects – there, ownership seems to naturally apply. Surely ownership is fundamentally a relationship between individuals and the things that they own, no? My counterargument is this: Ownership is not fundamentally a relation to self, nor is it fundamentally a relation to objects or natural resources. Ownership at its most fundamental is a relationship between people. “Mine” is a nonsense concept in isolation. “Mine” always means, a priori, “mine and not yours.” Or, one could perhaps narrow that still further and say that (“mine” = “not yours”), and that this is the fundamental equation of ownership. With all due respect to Locke’s contemporary Daniel Defoe and his Robinson Crusoe, an isolated individual cannot own anything . That individual can use resources, can deploy them in the hunt for food and shelter, but cannot own them because there is no “mine and not yours” line to be drawn.
So am I just quibbling or are there consequences to this revision of the ingenious Mr. Locke? I tentatively suggest there are consequences. Once you see ownership and private property in this light, as relations between people and people, not between people and things, it can plant the seed for a new vision of how things could work.
Marx said that the capitalist world of commodity-values converts social relations into the “fantastic form of relations between things” . With social identity thus alienated, we compensate by creating a wedge between “social” and “private” identity, and start to treat private identity as “real” identity.” But what if that world view is coming to an end? Under the pressure of income inequality and ecological imperatives, it seems capitalism must break or evolve into some new form. At least the prevailing definition of human identity and human fulfilment in terms of private identity and private property must break. If we can reverse the Lockean trajectory – instead of casting social relations into terms of private identity and private property, what if we recast identity and property into relations between people?
From Locke to Adam Smith to Marx to Thomas Piketty, we have been in the age of homo economicus, where homo sapiens are defined fundamentally as economic units and human relations fundamentally as economic relations. But is that necessary or is it just the signature paradigm of the 17th – 20th century? I won’t say 21st, because I think it is finally time for a paradigm shift out of the age of homo economicus. Increasing inequality (well-documented in Piketty as an intrinsic feature of capitalism, despite spikes and troughs ) and ecological imperatives require it. If we can reconceptualize ownership and private property into the fundamental social relations that they are, perhaps we can start to turn the ship. Perhaps we can redefine human identity and human fulfilment in terms that render the obsessive desire to accumulate private property for one’s own self into a historical curiosity. There are enough resources to go around. As Russell Brand points out in his cheeky anti-Establishment manifesto, Revolution, “a bus with the eighty-five richest people in the world on it would contain more wealth than the collective assets of half the earth’s population” . Stripped of the debilitating definition of human identity as private self and private property, a technology and a sharing economy in the service of something larger than personal gain might flourish – not that ownership will disappear, but it will be conceptualized differently. Instead of “owning” being an absolute relation between individual and thing, a removal of the thing from the field of social relations for oneself, owning would be seen as something provisional and embedded in social relations, an ongoing negotiation, evolving and flexible as our relations to others are evolving and flexible. This way of looking at things is not only possible but as the current cycle keeps turning, it will become more and more a practical necessity.
- Locke, Essay on Human Understanding, II.ix.
- Locke, Essay on Human Understanding, I.ii.
- Locke, Essay on Human Understanding, I.i.
- Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Chap 7, parag. 87.
- U.S. Declaration of Independence.
- Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Chap. 5, Parag 27.
- Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, Book 15, Chap. 1.
- The Lockean sense of ownership Defoe gives to Crusoe is almost unintentionally comical as Crusoe surveys the island with “pleasure . . . to think that this was all my own . . . and [over it I] had a right of possession” (Robinson Crusoe, 1985 Penguin ed., pp. 113-14).
- Karl Marx, Capital, 1906 Random House ed., p. 83.
- Thomas Picketty, Capital in the 21st Century. The documentation referenced runs throughout the book.
- Russell Brand, Revolution, p. 8.
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As I recall, Larry, the protagonist in Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge,” is a vagabond spirit, a backpacking nomad with friends of all classes on different continents. At one point, a rich friend who enjoys philosophical discussions with Larry offers him a job at a high salary with little or no actual work. He is surprised that Larry turns him down. How could he resist such an offer? Larry responds succinctly:
“Money to you means freedom; to me it means bondage.”
He says this, as I recall, with no arrogance but a genuine appreciation of their differences. That pretty well sums up the two key viewpoints on money. Most everyone’s attitude can be placed in relation to those two poles. And if I got some of the context wrong, well I haven’t read the book in a while. That’s the way I remember it.
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Back to a seasonal favorite …
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I recently read Zizek’s entries on singularity in The Philosophical Salon and have a few thoughts.
Singularity, as far as I can tell, refers to the networking of all our psyches so that we are all sharing one database of ideas, all our brains plugged (virtually) into the external brain, continually uploading and downloading our thoughts. It really just takes today’s thought and emotion recognition technologies a bit further and adds in the networking aspect. I think of it as a digital objectification of subjectivity, the cogntive correlative of the bio-mechanical hybrids proposed by transhumanism. (Disclaimer: I ponder these things strictly as an amateur, but even the experts on such a topic might want to track what we amateurs are thinking 🙂 ).
Sounds scary, but in one sense it’s just the natural evolution of consciousness. Think about it. Every new communication technology is a kind of brain extension, enabling us to take some of the knowledge stored in our head and store it outside in the community or in external spaces, where it can be retrieved later as needed by us or others.
If we wanted to follow the Marxist-leaning Zizek, we could coordinate this line with economic developments, as rapid changes in how information is stored and shared are no doubt interwoven with rapid economic changes. Language allows us to coordinate into agricultural activities, writing allows us to organize into city bureaucracies, etc.
More to the effect on subjectivity, we could see each of these stages as a kind of alienation of the subject, as the knowledge relevant to the subject’s existence becomes increasingly relocated outside of the subject’s own body. But all that “alienation” doesn’t seem so bad to us now. Language and libraries and personal computers — they seem to move us toward greater freedom, greater control over our personal lives, physically and intellectually.
So will the next horizon line – Singularity – play out the same? Will it appear in the form of alienation and dread but liberate us as did those previous technologies? Or will this one be different? Will the moment of singularity be the moment of collapse in the individual’s trajectory of liberation? One could certainly argue for the dystopic turn. What if singularity results in the elimination of privacy, so that our thoughts are exposed to the general consciousness? What if our thinking process elapses in the collective space, our thoughts visible to those around us, all of us wearing Google smart glasses on steroids. Would we allow such a thing? Indeed, we would probably beg for it, the same way insurance companies get customers to beg for more and more onboard monitoring devices to track their every habit, on the grounds that it “helps” the customer.
At the very least, it seems that the mind-sharing aspect of singularity would result in a degree of self-censorship that is alarming by today’s standards, perhaps alarming enough to break the trajectory of liberation associated with prior communication advances. Would each self be censored into a Stepford Wife knock-off? Or would there not even be a self to censor, if our thoughts form and grow in shared space, our physical bodies and brains merely energy sources for that shared space? Maybe The Matrix is a more apt metaphor than The Stepford Wives.
Thus spake the amateur, in reference to technological/AI singularity, not so much to singularity in the Eastern/akashic record sense, although that might be an interesting tangent. But per that technological singularity, I suspect there are many in the world with similar amateurish thoughts. Maybe one of you techie readers can chime in and bring the hammer down on our collectively imagined dystopia before it’s too late.
P.S. Remember these?
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Blogmate Paul Adkin has been posting on becoming and purposiveness lately, so I thought I’d chime in.
Stasis and change. This duality has puzzled brains since the ancient Greeks, if not the primeval mind itself. The laws of physics give you the “how,” but what about the “why”? Why all this movement from one state to another? In our own lives, we can call it “purposiveness.” We might not have a definite destination (or a definite purpose) in mind, but movement is always movement toward a destination, however unspecified.
If “purposiveness” characterizes our movements, or changes in state, “imagination” is the best term we have for the force that drives the changes. Imagination is our capacity to project beyond the immediate real, the here and now of our existence. We can anticipate possible futures, reflect on things remote in time and space or visualize things that seem impossible in real time and space. All the possibilities and impossibilities that are not in our immediate sensory arena. That is the scope of imagination. In this sense, it is the source not only of the arts but of scientific investigation in its theorizing mode. Indeed, the quest for knowledge generally is driven by imagination, a reaching out in the mind to grasp what cannot be presently grasped. The scientific method is nothing but imagination systematized.
One might propose a cognate force in the physical universe (or in that aspect of lived reality that we, imaginatively, call the physical universe). As the seed becomes the tree, as mountains rise and fall, as the solar systems steady into their fixed movements, as black holes expand their mass and devour matter, always this drive to change from one state to another. Why? An intelligent God or anthropomorphic consciousness might be too much to swallow, but the laws of physics express a kind of purposiveness, a method to the continual striving from one state to another. And if imagination is the force behind the striving in our little lives, is it too far of a stretch to assume that the same force is behind the striving enacted by natural processes?
I’ll take Occam’s Razor on this one. If there are two ways to explain a phenomenon, start with the simpler, the one that requires the fewest assumptions. Assuming that the same force that drives the trajectory of our lived reality drives the movements of the (purportedly) physical universe is simpler than assuming that there are two separate but remarkably similar forces driving changes in the two (artificially) separate spheres.
Of course, everything could be entirely random. But my imagination tells me otherwise. The capacity to project and orient toward possible futures and possible outcomes, toward fantastic visions and goals at a distance from present reality – that capacity seems to throw a monkey wrench into the randomness. And once you throw in the monkey wrench, where does it stop?
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Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.
Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.
(Walt Whitman, Song of Myself)
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