MQ-9: Possession (‘Mythquake’ series)

More on the Mythquake book-project – a book I’d been trying to write for some ten years, but now recognise it’s time for me to hand it over to someone else (if anyone else wants it! 🙂 )

The previous chapter, ‘MQ-8: Let freedom reign‘, explored one of the deep-myths of ‘Western’ culture: the notion of rights. Despite the frequent claim that rights are inherently ‘true and inalienable’ and the like, we’re forced to conclude that they don’t actually exist as anything much more than an arbitrary and unsupportable declaration of wishful-thinking – leaving the culture lethally exposed to mythquakes that may be amazingly destructive at almost every imaginable scale. That in itself is worrying enough. Yet there’s one more deep-myth that has an even greater potential for devastating destruction: the concept of possession. That’s what we’ll explore in this final main chapter.

This chapter contains the following sections [all notes-only]:

  • Down to the core
  • A property of mind?
  • The unwantedness of anti-property
  • Possessing or possessed?
  • Sustained by belief

Book-development notes are shown in italics inside square-brackets, [like this]. Further commentary on the development-notes is in ordinary type inside curly-braces, {like this}.

MQ-9: Possession

Richter 9: Rare great earthquake. Devastating in areas several thousand kilometres across. Equivalent to around thirty thousand megatons of TNT (Indian Ocean tsunami, 2004). Around one per twenty years on average.

Mercalli XII Vision distorted; ground moves in waves or ripples; objects thrown into air; large amounts of rock move; river courses altered; almost everything is destroyed.

Down to the core

[The core myth?; “mine!” – a two-year-old’s view of the world; possession-based property as expropriation, theft]

{The idea that we can possess something is probably the most fundamental myth behind all modern societies. Protection of this idea is right at the core of Western capitalism: one of the first preconditions that the World Bank makes in any discussions with national governments is that their legal frameworks must place private possession of property at their very centre. When the communists took over in Russia, they transferred the possession of that property from the individual to the state: yet they never questioned possession itself. Hence the analogy of arguing about the position of deckchairs on the Titanic, because at this deep fundamental level there’s little real difference between capitalists and communists – they’re just minor variations on a ‘possessionist’ theme. Yet possession itself is no more real than that notion of ‘rights’: it’s a nothing more than a social fiction, held together by habits of shared belief. And at some point we need to question how well that fiction actually serves us in practice – because all the indications are that it doesn’t serve us well at all.

In essence, possession is the two-year-old’s view of the world: “mine!!!“. In part it’s grounded in the two-year-old’s fear of uncertainty, fear of loss; the two-year-old’s extreme self-centredness. In British law at least, property is not something we possess directly, but – again like a two-year-old – claim ‘that despotic dominion’ of a purported ‘right’ to exclude all others from access to that resource, either in the present or elsewhen. And it assigns to others – and often those others alone – the responsibilities to create and affirm and protect those ‘rights’, regardless of how much loss or damage that it may cause to them. It also actively promotes the privileging of the short-term over the long-term: purported ‘profit’ – which itself is the creation of further purported exclusive ‘rights’ to shared resources – is obtained only at the moment that this possession is transferred, so there’s a huge pressure to convert everything into ‘saleable commodities’ as quickly as possible to maximise that personal profit. In that sense, it becomes very difficult to argue against the old anarchist notion that “all property is theft”, since in effect it almost invariably involves some form of expropriation from someone – if only from the needs of the future, or the hopes of the past.}

A property of mind?

[Limited application of possession to physical property, increasing absurdity beyond physical realm – e.g. intellectual property, ‘our people’, etc]

{The concept of possession is designed around physical resources, whose key attribute is that they are ‘alienable’: if I give it to you, I no longer have it, and therefore have the ‘right’ to be compensated for the loss. It’s therefore possible to create a trail of provenance for every physical entity, from land title-deeds and so on, which can be made to seem ‘fair’ to everyone involved. (This doesn’t take into account those transactions that are manifestly not ‘fair’, nor the expropriation from those whose future need for the same resource may well be higher than ours, or for that matter the almost unimaginably huge theft represented by colonialism and the like, but let’s skip over those for the moment – we’ll come back to them later.) A possession-based economy can thus be made to seem as if it works, in the short-term at least.

But when we try to extend the same model to other kinds of entities – and hence other kinds of ‘property’ – it breaks down completely. Ideas and other so-called ‘intellectual property’ are ‘non-alienable’ – if I give it to you, I still have it. The model can again be made to seem to work if we bundle the ‘intellectual property’ together with some form of physical ‘property’ – such as a physical book, an audio-disk, a seat in a cinema. But physicalisation carries real costs: so why can’t we just treat the pure digital-information as property, and control it in the same way as for physical property? Surely that would return much more profit? Well, yes, except for two fundamental problems. One is that, to quote the old phrase, “information wants to be free”: it’s transferred by making new copies of itself, so to control access to that information, we have to control every possible copy. Since any ‘escaped’ copy will permanently end that control, increasingly-extreme attempts at ‘digital rights management’ and the like reach a point of diminishing returns where they reduce the the perceived-value of the information or become too unwieldy to work at all. At that point, creating an ‘escaped’ copy becomes less a matter of ‘piracy’ than usability – a fact which renders the possession-based business-models of many industries completely non-viable. Much the same applies to patents, where the whole of a patent is to make something ‘patently obvious’, but is then rendered unusable by increasingly-insane and indefensible attempts at ‘rent-seeking’ – indefensible because the trail of provenance does not reach all possible originators of the components of an idea, but instead is arbitrarily assigned to an individual or a corporation, expropriating all others in the true audit-trail. In short, intellectual-property as it’s currently defined really is theft: there is no other way to put it.

It gets even worse when we look at other categories of purported ‘assets’ – particularly that no doubt well-meant but disastrously-deluded phrase “our people are our greatest asset”. The only time when people are ‘assets’ in that same ‘alienable’ physical sense is when they are slaves… not a good idea… Instead, the ‘asset’ is actually the relationship between people – or, in the case of brands and other ‘aspirational assets’, between people and an idea or belief or the like. And because those ‘assets’ exist only between, they cannot be transferred. Hence purported ‘valuations’ based on employee-relationships or website visitor-numbers or brand-recognition or ‘goodwill’ are, by any sane measure, fundamentally fraudulent, because the ‘value’ cannot be realised in any alienable form.

But – and this is the really serious ‘but’ – the pretence that that ‘value’ exists is used to claim ‘rights’ to physical resources. So we have one part of the possession-economy dealing with real finite physical resources, being lined up against supposedly exactly-equivalent imaginary resources that are potentially infinite. Hence anyone who claims to ‘control’ those infinite imaginary-resources can in effect assign themselves an ever-increasing proportion of the finite physical resources. Yet this is exactly what banks and other ‘financial instruments’ are legally entitled to do: and the result is, by any real measure, a theft on a scale so unimaginably huge that it manages to make even colonialism seem minor by comparison. To say that it is not sustainable is an understatement: and yet it is a direct and inevitable consequence of a possession-based economy.}

The unwantedness of anti-property

[Split between property (desirable) and anti-property (undesirable); anti-possession is ‘right to be excluded from consequences’, to dump it on others; anti-property » “dump it on Mummy”; unsustainability]

{Another way in which ‘profit’ can be made is by what in mainstream economics are referred to as ‘externalities’ – in other words, offloading responsibilities onto others, either in the present or elsewhen. For example, I used to live in one of the old gold-mining areas in central Victoria, Australia: vast personal profits were made by some of the miners during the gold-rush in the 1850s, but tidying up the mess they left behind has cost many times more than that in the decades and centuries that followed – costs which they themselves never bore at all. Many business-models turn out to be ‘profitable’ only via such externalities, exporting the unwanted ‘anti-property’ onto others – much like a two-year-old dumping the half-item ice-cream onto Mother and expecting, or demanding, that she should always clean it up. In effect, it requires that the Other be powerful enough to clean up that mess, whilst denigrating them sufficiently to keep them feeling that they have no choice but to clean it up – a delicate balancing-act of sustained abuse at which some people unfortunately learn to excel during this particular stage of childhood, and seem never to learn to do otherwise. The key point, though, is that it is not sustainable: eventually Mother will learn to say ‘No’, and the same is true of those people and people and whole nations who are dumped-on in this way. This is one class of mythquake that is already starting to hit hard in mainstream economics – and it’s likely only to increase in intensity in the future, as more and more people start to challenge the myths on which that form of theft is built.}

Possessing or possessed?

[Possessing or possessed? – it goes both ways; “till you prise it out of my cold dead fingers”; possession vs responsibility]

{All possession is a two-way street: in possessing something, we are also in effect committed to it, possessed by it. Every transaction in a possession-based economy requires us first to let go of that ‘possession’ – and the emotional attachment can easily reach the extremes of “till you prise it from my cold dead fingers” and the like. There’s also the blunt reality that “we can’t take it with us” when we die – although plenty of people seem to have tried, yet achieved nothing more than an absurd wastage of rare resources. And there are also hints of this even in the words that we use to describe purported possession – such as ‘mortgage’, which literally translates as ‘death-pledge’. Possession slows everything down.

The alternate to a possession-based economy is a responsibility-based model, or stewardship-model: we ‘own’ something because we declare responsibility for its appropriate exploitation, and demonstrate that responsibility in practice. Variations on this theme typify most ‘traditional’ societies and economies, and are actually what most enabled the colonial theft, precisely they state explicitly that the land and the like are not possessed by any individual – which makes it easy for other cultures to then claim that they do now ‘possess’ it.

And although a responsibility-based economy may seem the exact antithesis of mainstream business, in fact almost all business will operate internally on that kind of model: a business-rule owner or process-owner or project-owner is not the person who possesses it, but the person who has responsibility for it – and the moment that someone does claim to possess it is the point at which it ceases to work. There’s an interesting lesson there that could be useful to explore in business on a much, much larger scale. }

Sustained by belief

[Possession is not sustainable, responsibility is; the possession myth colliding with reality – it’s happening right now, whether we like it or not]

{Perhaps the most important point of all is that there  is no way to make a possession-economy sustainable: it trades off short-term gains against larger long-term losses, an in effect can only be made to seem sustainable by operating as a pyramid-game, a ‘Ponzi scheme’ in which those at the ‘top’ steal from those further down, yet conceal the theft for as long as more people can be dragged or deluded into playing the rigged game. In essence, the game is only viable in a context with infinite resources – but in the physical world at least, the resources are definitely finite. The exact timing would vary according to how we calculate the figures, but a best-estimate would suggest that we reached the effective limits of the pyramid perhaps fifty to a hundred years ago – and everything else since then has been much like the cartoon-character running off the cliff, suspended in mid-air only by sheer momentum and a careful refusal to look down. The myth of ‘intellectual property’ as an infinite resource has kept the game going for a little while longer than would have been the case for a pure physical-economy, but even that is already beginning to break down, as we’ve seen above.

In short, the possession-myth is colliding with reality, right here, right now – and there’s no way we’re going to be able to avoid it. So hold onto your hats, folks, because this is a true Big One, a mythquake that will inevitably tear our metaphoric world apart…}

3 Comments on “MQ-9: Possession (‘Mythquake’ series)

  1. Interesting that we independently came to the conclusion that you state nicely as “All possession is a two-way street: in possessing something, we are also in effect committed to it, possessed by it.” I just posted this
    Then, following from your RBPEA pointer to the mythquake, I come to this possession bottom line. This is causing me to think about the relationship between these two concepts, and how this pair of concepts might be the basis of a really powerful positive paradigm shift

    I wonder if you’ll ever notice this comment. I wonder how I’ll know if you do.

    • Interesting post – the connection with Bastiat’s economics. The catch, in the quote you gave about provision of air, is that that example is close to a barter-type relationship: direct point-to-point, at or close to the same time. In a full service-based economy – everything-as-a-service – the interactions may often be very indirect indeed, intersecting at times that may perhaps even be centuries apart. And then there’s the whole ‘possession’ aspect – the distinction between avoidance-of-responsibility (especially in ‘anti-possession’, the attempts to offload responsibility onto others once value has been extracted), versus stewardship that acknowledges whole-of-lifecycle responsibility.

      Something to discuss in more depth, perhaps? – particularly in how possession- vs stewardship-economics intersect with a service-based economy?

      @Doug: “I wonder if you’ll ever notice this comment. I wonder how I’ll know if you do.:

      The way I notice the comment is that a copy appears in my email. If I’ve configured the WordPress installation, and given that you provided a valid email-address when you posted your comment above, you should get a copy of this comment as an email too. (I hope! 🙂 )

  2. It’s intriguing to me to see Possession as MQ9 in your model, given that I’ve been internally wrestling for a few months now with the insight that Possession (which I had been calling “Ownership”) is probably the core piece of “bad code” in the substrate of our social contract templates. That’s a few months longer than I usually require to resolve cognitive dissonance of the myth-vs-reality sort in favour of reality … and the delay is getting annoying.

    Usually I can quickly envisage at least one workable “path” through to a better world, where the “bad code” is replaced with a thriveability-aligned alternative, which really helps me resolve cognitive dissonance. In this case, while I’m pretty sure that we need to replace Possession with Stewardship, all the paths I can imagine from here to there feel dubious (to say the least). How on earth do we trust each other and reality enough to loosen our grip on our toys, and grow into responsible adults?

    I’d love to discuss possibilities some time if you’re interested. 🙂

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