Possessed by possession?

In case you hadn’t noticed, there are some big changes happening right now in the wider world… Lots and lots of them, at every scale and in just about every major context, from political to social, environmental to technological, and much else besides.

Myself, I look at all of these things with an enterprise-architect’s eye – looking at entire economies, societies, cultures, as literal expressions of ‘enterprise‘. And beneath all of that turmoil, there’s one underlying theme that I’ve been tracking for many years now – one really obvious theme, yet oddly one which very few people seem to have noticed, or fully acknowledged its implications. It’s the way in which almost everything in our society – its economy, its cultures, its relationships, its idioms, its concepts of property, and perhaps most of its deep-myths – is ultimately founded on a notion of ‘rights’ of possession. And yet in all of my studies, over all of those years, I keep finding myself returning to one seemingly inescapable fact: there is no way to make a possession-based economy sustainable.

It’s true that a possession-based model gives better short-term results than most alternative (responsibility-based) models; but it does so only at the expense of longer-term sustainability. In effect, possession ‘succeeds’ by borrowing – or stealing – from the future, often in ways that are very inefficient and ineffective – hence what I sometimes call ‘the worst possible system‘, and so on. So the only way that a possession-based model can be made to seem sustainable is by running it as a pyramid-game, powered by an illusion of ‘growth’. When there’s nothing more to pull in at the bottom of the pyramid, the illusory ‘growth’ comes to a grinding halt – at which point the model has no choice but to cannibalise itself, all the way back until there’s nothing left. From all of the signs around us, we’re perilously close to that point now – if not already over the edge.

There are of course many people trying to tackle aspects of this, yet to me it seems that most of them are doing little more than wittering and whittling away at the edges of this problem. For example, there are many, many groups on working ideas for ‘alternative currencies’ and the like: yet none that I’ve seen so far resolve many or even any of the drivers for That Worst Possible System. Currencies are a crude mechanism to attempt to resolve the fact that point-to-point barter – what I call ‘double-entry life-keeping’ – simply cannot handle the complexities of real-world resource-exchange. So currencies don’t work because barter doesn’t work, and barter itself is an overlay on possession-based assumptions that also do not and cannot work. And it’s very frustrating to see so much care and effort lavished on so many variations of a core idea that, by definition, simply cannot work.

There are also many, many groups working towards environmental sustainability: but without tackling the problem of possession, we’re always going to slide back to something that’s inherently unsustainable. To put it in its simplest form, we cannot have sustainability without a system of law that supports it – which it certainly doesn’t at present.

And as we can see on the news every day, there are also many groups struggling to rein in various of the many ‘robber barons’ of the physical and financial and political and other spheres – and yet a possession-economy will always create new ‘robber-barons’ to replace them, because it’s inherent in the ‘winner-steals-all’ structure of the model. So to be blunt, important though those actions are, they’re all doomed to futile failure unless we go right down to the roots of the problem.

Surface-level politics is equally irrelevant here. At this kind of level, those endless arguments about capitalism versus communism versus socialism or whatever are almost entirely irrelevant: they’re merely variations on a theme of possession’, in effect down to little more than arguing about the positions of individual deckchairs on the Titanic. As history shows all too well, redistributing ‘possessions’ will make barely any difference in the longer term: our only chance for real change is to change even the idea of possession.

Which, to say the least, is going to be difficult. 🙂 It’s not just that so many people are seemingly possessed by their possessions, but that our entire culture is possessed by possession itself. Look around at all those instances of the simple possessive-adjective ‘my’, or ‘mine’: every one of those is ultimately an illusion, because in the end we all die – and we ‘can’t take it with us’. (Hasn’t stopped many half-crazed kings from trying to do so, of course… 🙁 ) The only viable alternative is a responsibility-based economy, but for most of us, possession is the only model we’ve ever known: “possession is nine-tenths of the law” and all that. Getting people to understand that possession does not and cannot work is not going to be simple. And we’re not just talking about a few people here: it’s a change in worldview that needs to be taken up, taken almost literally to heart, embedded in every action and interaction, by everyone in the entire globe.

In short, a mythquake of almost unimaginable proportions. But if that change doesn’t happen, the entire human species is dead – not just some of us, all of us. It really is as fundamental as that…

But it’s not an impossible task. In human terms, possession-based economies seem to be a relatively recent innovation – or aberration – stretching back no more than a few thousand years.  (Daniel Quinn’s The Story of B suggests that we can pin the start-point geographically and temporally as somewhere near Babylon at around 3000BCE, but it’s more probably an artefact and side-effect of agricultural settlement just about anywhere and anywhen.) Obsessive possessiveness is also a natural stage in child-development – the ‘terrible twos’ and the like – though usually tempered in later development – typically 5-8 years old – as awareness of social context comes in. (Some children never reach that stage of awareness, of course – which is one of the major drivers for the collective problems we face right now. Even worse, many cultures actively reward childish possessiveness and will often even punish a more adult sharing – a huge disincentive against creating an efficient and effective economy!) The point is that change is possible, and it’s a change to a worldview that arguably is more ‘natural’ in human terms than the literally childish myths of ‘possession’.

The catch is that it’s a change that has to happen fast – far faster than any other cultural change in human history. At a fairly conservative estimate, we have perhaps as few as ten years to get everything in place and starting to have a real, tangible impact on many people’s lives – because even an optimistic estimate places the fundamental failure of current ‘business as usual’ at no more than fifty to a hundred years. (The current upheavals in the Arab world, and relatively recent collapse of the old Soviet states, are and were all messy enough, but will seem almost trivial by comparison with what is likely to happen if or when the real resource-wars start happening later this century…) So in real terms we really don’t have much time at all: we need to get started now.

The alternative to a possession-based economy is a responsibility-based model: one in which we ‘own’ something because we declare responsibility for it and manage it accordingly – much like the notion of ‘process-owner’ or ‘project-owner’ in a business-context, but on the scale of an entire global economy rather than solely within one organisation. There’s a lot more that could be said on this – what it is, how it works, the challenges that need to be resolved, and so on – but for now it’s worth noting some of the real practical constraints that we face:

  • the only cultures that have long experience of responsibility-economies are those that are often currently derided as ‘primitive’ – and they don’t have much if any experience of an economy on the kind of scale and complexity that we need
  • worldwide we still run much the same kind of ‘slave-economy’ that was typical in Roman times: the main difference is that our ‘slaves’ are machines and systems that use prodigious quantities of energy – mainly some 10-100,000 years per year of trapped solar energy, in the form of oil, gas or coal – which in itself creates perhaps even more problems than it solves
  • the change will require a much greater awareness of systems-level impacts of actions and inactions: and whilst we do know how to teach this to pre-school children – such as in the well-known HighScope project – we have little or no experience of doing this on a large scale with adults already embedded in the possession-economies
  • despite the desires of so many dictators and would-be reformers (not that there’s much difference between them at times… 😐 ), cultural changes cannot be imposed from outside: to succeed, they have to be chosen as an act of personal free will – which means that we have to find a way to show that this worldview is preferable by and for everyone

But we’re architects: we’re used to constraints, in fact for most of us it’s the kind of challenge that we relish. Yet this is definitely ‘The Big One’: the greatest architectural challenge any of us will ever face. So what will this challenge mean to you – professionally, personally, in every other way? And what part will you play in this?

Any comments, anyone? 🙂

11 Comments on “Possessed by possession?

  1. I’m not an architect which is probably why I read this and feel initially helpless. Although I am definitely interested in helping to move society forward to the responsibility-based model, and so is my husband (not an architect either!) I’ve no real idea how to get started. But – does anyone else? Or should we just get a whole load of like-minded people together in a room with a whiteboard and start brainstorming?

    If we have to show that this worldview is preferable, how do we go about that? What does this look like in ‘real life’? I guess my ideas, and my husband’s ideas, revolve around some kind of commune/kibbutz type of community – but would that even work as a starting point? Or are these models also fatally flawed?

  2. Hmm… Very good points, yet also pointers to some bee-yoo-tiful traps for the unwary! 🙂

    Feeling of helplessness: yeah, it gets everyone that way at first. In fact if it didn’t, I’d be worried… 🙂 It’s a huge, almost impossible-seeming task – but so’s everything else, really. (Remember that when Kennedy committed the US to landing on the moon, no-one had any clue at all how to do it – and yet they did it successfully just six years later.) So the first requirement is to believe that even though, yes, we do always feel helpless at the start, it can be done. (Because if we don’t choose to believe it, we’re unlikely ever to get started. 😐 )

    Whole load of people round a whiteboard: uh… probably not. This is about culture, not control – and it’s right down at the deep-myth level, a lot deeper than any conventional change-efforts will go. The one thing that we can be certain of is that the path there will be different from what we expect. Whiteboard-sessions will be needed at times, obviously, but they mostly work at the strategy-to-tactics and tactics-to-operations level – which for the most part is a long way down the track from where we are at present.

    Some kind of commune/kibbutz: dunno that they’re inherently ‘fatally flawed’, and might even work in some cases for this context, but that’s actually at a much more surface layer – in fact communes/kibbutzes etc were and are still mostly about how to deal with possession(s) rather than tackling possession itself. In the same vein, Americans who panic at the (mostly-manufactured) spectre of ‘socialism’ etc can ease off from panic, because at the Everyman surface-level there really isn’t much difference between a possession-based model versus responsibility-based. As I understand it so far (and I’m using traditional Aboriginal law here as one very long-proven example), what we think of as ‘personal property’ would look much the same – most of the practical differences are in the ways in which we exchange things, not in ‘property’ itself.

    Where to start: probably the best place is to contrast responsibility with possession. Wherever you see a possessive-pronoun (my, mine, yours, his, hers, theirs), look for the mutual-responsibilities that underpin it; whenever you see any reference to ‘property-rights’ (or any of kind of purported ‘rights’, actually), look for the responsibilities via which those ‘rights’ are actually realised. Look also for ‘anti-property’, where undesirable aspects of resources – waste, pollution and so on – are dumped onto others either in the present or elsewhen via purported ‘rights’ to absence of responsibility. It’s quite an eye-opener…

    Another real eye-opener is the bleak reality that whilst the physics definition of power is [roughly-speaking] ‘the ability to do work’, most social definitions of power are closer to ‘the ability to avoid work – and it becomes very interesting indeed to see what kinds of work are avoided, by whom, and who else is forced to take up the slack on their behalf.

    If you want to show to someone that this worldview is preferable, just get them to do a quick thought-experiment: since money is an overlay on barter, and barter is based on the fatally-flawed notion of possession, then it should be clear that the entire money-system has no relevance or function to a viable economy. Hence money, and everything to do with money, would cease to exist. (It’s not that it’s ‘wrong’, it’s just that it’s irrelevant: it would have no practical purpose.) So every bank, insurance, finance, home-loan, train-fare, cash-register, pension, payroll and the like would vanish overnight. Most people kinda like the sound of that. 🙂

    (The rich wouldn’t actually get any less ‘rich’ in real terms, by the way – or more accurately, probably wouldn’t really notice at first, for lengthy reasons I’ll explain some other time – but they would no longer have the ‘right’ to export their poverty of soul to everyone else.)

    The idea that we can safely ‘disappear’ all of the most parasitic and ineffective structures of the money-economy is certainly enough to get people’s attention, and usually enough to keep them going over the fairly complex hurdles of what needs to replace the current function of taxes and the like. (Sorry, but in any social context it’s still true that the only certainties are death and taxes… 🙁 – but as I understand it so far, the mechanisms to fulfil the equivalent role of present-day taxes are likely to be a lot less onerous. 🙂 )

    Perhaps the most important point is that a responsibility-based model makes it clear that no-one possesses ‘the truth’, and also no-one can possess the ‘right’ to control others. That means that the model cannot, will not and must not tolerate any social structure of any form that is based on ‘control’ of others. And again, most people like the sound of that – a lot. 🙂 Even if, again, only long enough to get them over the hurdles towards something that actually works in practice: but it is still a real outcome of a responsibility-based economy.

    (Interestingly, a responsibility-based model requires what is technically a form of anarchy – but with recognition that a true anarchy (such as practised by the Quakers for the past 350years or so) is actually the most difficult of all political forms, requiring vigilant self-responsibility at all times, whereas what most people seem to think of as ‘anarchy’ – i.e. ‘kiddies anarchy’, “all property must be liberated, but don’t you dare touch my stuff” – is just a childish mess, a childish evasion of responsibility. Not the same thing at all.)

    Yes, sure, “the devil is in the details” and all that. But we’re not at the detail-level yet, and it’s really important not to get too distracted by that detail at this stage. We need to get much more clear on the direction first, with the main efforts at this point focussed on the deep-myth layer. (Sohail Inayatullah’s ‘Causal Layered Analysis‘ is a useful tool for this work, for example.)

    The layer upon layer of ‘possession’ in this culture is what traps us into that feeling of helplessness. Only by taking responsibility in our own way do we have any chance helping ourselves and others to break free.

    Hope this helps, anyway?

  3. Oh yeah, one other rather important point.

    People routinely overestimate what they can do in a week, but underestimate what they can do in a month.

    People routinely overestimate what they can do in a month, but underestimate what they can do in a year.

    People routinely overestimate what they can do in a year, but underestimate what they can do in a decade.

    We probably do have a full decade in which to get properly started. If we can start in that time, we probably do have up to a century to turn everything round (by which I do mean everything, though).

    So the first point is: don’t panic! All we need to do, to get in done in time, is to get started, and do what’s in front of us, right here, right now. That’s it. If we’re clear on the direction, and hold to that overall direction, and keep working, the rest of it tends to take care of itself. 🙂

  4. Thanks for the comments… I don’t want to hijack your blog so I created my own! I have posted here:


    in quite some detail, about why I respond the way that I do… but what it boils down to is one response I have to this comment:

    “We need to get much more clear on the direction first, with the main efforts at this point focussed on the deep-myth layer. (Sohail Inayatullah’s ‘Causal Layered Analysis‘ is a useful tool for this work, for example.)”

    Your high level view of the future has my buy-in on the conditions that a) it actually does progress somehow, tangibly and soon (and I can see that we have a firm deadline of around 2020, which is very positive for me), and that b) I can somehow add value. But in order for me to add value I guess I need to know – who are ‘we’? And how exactly can I help? Causal Layered Analysis is totally new to me and currently somewhat over my head – what is the best use of my energy and time here?

  5. Thanks, Eleanor – will reply in more detail on your blog.

    On your two questions:

    “Who are we?” – by definition, everyone. That’s the whole point. The current mess affects everyone, and in effect is created by everyone, so it’s everyone’s responsibility to find a viable way out of the mess that they – we – personally will live by.

    “And how exactly can I help?” – I don’t know, you do, at some depth within you. Again, that’s the whole point: that’s your responsibility, in the literal sense of ‘response-ability’.

    I’ll go into more detail on your blog, but one practical suggestion – given what you’ve said above – is to forget the deep-myth stuff for the moment: it’ll become more clear as time goes on. Instead, just concentrate on what you see in front of you, in your daily life: the ways in which others around, and you yourself, evade responsibility and offload some form of work onto others (such as asking others to know you better than you do, which in effect is what asking what part you could/should/would play in this would entail 🙂 ). At the start, just observe, observe, observe, and then let that guide your next steps, reviewing what happens, and so on. If you want the theory on this, see John Boyd’s ‘Observe, Orient, Decide, Act‘ loop for real-time, or Deming’s more task-oriented ‘Plan, Do, Check, Act‘ cycle – though note that ‘Act’ unfortunately has different meanings in those two cases… But the important point is just do something to get started – just about anything will do at first, as long as it breaks the starting-friction of ‘frozen’ feelings of helplessness. Once you have started, just do whatever’s in front of you, yet keep the awareness on the overall aim – and trust that whatever you do, in that sense, is the right thing right now.

    I’d also point you back to the para in my previous comment that begins with “Where to start:” – there are a whole load of practical things you can do to get started, focussing primarily on observation and self-observation.

    More later, anyway – hope this helps for now.

  6. Interesting point on responsibility, and self-awareness – I’ve been trying to find out what it is I can truly offer (in any context) for most of my life. I suspect that I’m not alone in this. I wonder whether this might be a sticking point – or whether in fact the impetus to join in with trying to make this change to our world will in fact inspire people on their journeys to self-awareness… on a spiritual level (if one is allowed to discuss such levels here) I think the two will go hand in hand. Maybe this is the spiritual burning platform for humanity – we all (or at least a critical mass) force ourselves down our respective paths at a faster pace than we’ve previously been able or willing to, or it’s the end of the world as we know it. In other words we jump or we die…

    (See this is what happens when you’re up all night with a poorly toddler and no-one to talk to except for those people on the other end of the Web:-)

  7. Hi – Eleanor’s husband here. I get what you’re saying but I think the end result may be different. I don’t see possession as a “side effect” of the agricultural revolution, but a product of it. If you don’t have control or access to the field where you planted your crops, then there’s no incentive to plant them in the first place. I’d even suspect that the hunter-gatherers probably had their favourite spear or bow.

    But, I think what happened is that the idea of possession spread beyond where it was useful. Now, people talk about possessing ideas, and copyrighting words and even attempting to control genetic codes through patents. People aspire to possessing money when it should only be a symbol to make barter easier.

    As for the end result, I don’t see the end of the whole race. At some point in our history a mega-volcano took the human race down to about 10,000 on the whole planet. So we are amazingly resilient. But I do think this contagion of possession ideas spreading to where they’re not helpful is probably what drives the classic boom-and-bust of human civilisations. On a personal level I think that as a civilisation we peaked about 60 odd years ago and now we’re in decline. So think the end of the Roman empire and I think that’s where we’re at. So like you I do see lots of upset ahead but not the end of it all.

    This doesn’t mean that we should do nothing but I see it as how to transition to a smaller less technological world. And how to make sure me and mine survive too!

  8. Hi Eleanor, Graham – again, thanks for comments.

    Eleanor – yes, I’d agree that there’s a very large spiritual component in this. The definition I use for ‘spiritual’ is “a sense of meaning and purpose, a sense of self and of relationship with that which is greater than self”. In that sense, a very significant driver for the ‘possession’ model is the evasion of spiritual work – about creating meaning and purpose, creating and maintaining a sense of self, and of connecting with the systems and ecosystems within which we exist. Purported ‘possession’ of objects (‘things’, ideas, beliefs etc) and subjects (relationships of attempted-control, rather than respect of Other as ‘other’) are common mechanisms to avoid that spiritual and/or relational work. (“Up all night with a poorly toddler and no-one to talk to” is a very good example of spiritual, relational and physical work that many people seem unable to recognise as ‘work’ at all… 🙁 which tells us a lot about our culture’s pathetically-inadequate understanding of the word ‘economics’ as a literal ‘management of the household’.)

    So yes, I’d agree that this current chaos represents a “spiritual burning platform for humanity”. extending that metaphor, I’d say that the platform is now well ablaze and far beyond recovery – if it was ever worth saving anyway – so the real task now is to prepare the liferafts for people to jump into, and seal off as much as we can so that the platform causes as little damage as possible after it’s gone. The only comment I would add to the ‘spiritual’ debate is to keep religion as far away from it as possible: historically, religion has been far more often a tool to prevent spiritual awareness rather than encourage it…

    Graham – yeah, we can quibble about whether possession is a side-effect or a product, but it won’t make much difference: fact is that right now we’re stuck with it, and the real concern is to prevent this ‘noxious weed’ from re-seeding itself. Agree strongly, obviously, about the inanity of ‘possessing’ ideas or other so-called ‘intellectual property’, and also the inanity of obsessing about money for its own sake, without any connection to the real-world implications.

    We could also quibble “the end of the whole race” – I do take your point, of course. No doubt there would be small pockets of survivors for a while, but the nature of a pyramid-game and the logic of possession-economics and its interactions with responsibility-economies indicates that the implosion ‘must’ keep on going until it consumes itself entirely. Either way, given the enormous systems-of-systems complexities and interdependencies of current economics, a full implosion would almost certainly take the human population down from billions to millions at best – which gives “me and mine” a survival-chance way down in the low fractions of a single percent… The point is that once that kind of full-implosion starts happening, it will inevitably keep going until the ‘fuel’ (i.e. people) burns out, or some kind of moderator (to use a nuclear-fission analogy – probably technically incorrect in some ways, but never mind – it’s only a metaphor, after all 🙂 ) is used to dampen-down the action. The ‘moderator’ in this case would be a responsibility-based model combined with a systematic rejection of any form of ‘possession’ – because any form of possession would re-ignite the implosion. That’s where it gets very tricky and very difficult at a cultural level, because possession is so deeply rooted in so many different aspects of mainstream culture.

    So this kind of work is still mostly an academic-style exercise, a ‘thought-experiment’. In terms of need for risk-mitigation, it’s actually a lot more real and urgent than that: but what it brings up is way too scary and way too challenging for most people to face as yet as anything much more than an abstract-seeming thought-experiment – so that’s how we need to frame it at present. We just need to be aware that beneath the ‘academic’ surface, none of this is ‘academic’ at all… 😐

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