For a number of years now my imagination has been tiptoeing around what it means to “own” things, or what we commonly call property. I, of course, am concerned about how many things I personally own. But I have been fascinated with the limits and sustainability of private ownership in general versus a more communal way of life.
The idea that indigenous people considered the earth, sky, water, the animals, as an interconnected web of life of which humans were only one of its integrated, interdependent parts. When the Europeans arrived, however, they brought a concept that was apparently inconceivable to the indigenous people, that the earth could be claimed as one’s own and could be traded and bought and sold. The accounts of transactions and treaties involving agreements that gave the Europeans rights and exclusive ownership of waterfronts and streams, for example, and the naiveté of the indigenous people in response, record how simply incomprehensible the concept of exclusionary ownership must have been to the tribal negotiators.
Conversely, it is equally impossible for me to think now of any part of the earth that is truly free from some form of human ownership and control, even legal rights to various parts of the sky, the oceans and rivers. Our culture may have trust lands and parks, yes, but these spaces are never as truly free as I understand the indigenous people held them to be. For the indigenous people the earth, like the sky, simply was. I have wondered, for example, how vast acres were claimed by timber and extraction companies, and by railroads, and how thousand acre ranches ever came to be “owned.” In fact, how did the land where I now live originally become “owned" and sold? Until very recently when we began to acknowledge how the Europeans came to confiscate the homelands of the indigenous people I don’t believe most - if any - of us gave it much thought. And it is time we did.
To the European property mindset the vastness of this continent was here to be possessed, to become property, to be bought and sold, exploited at will with little or no accountability. The “Doctrine of Discovery” codified this mindset when it established "a spiritual, political, and legal justification for colonization and seizure of land not inhabited by Christians." (a “doctrine” that incredibly still exists!) And when the treaties and agreements with the indigenous people did not adequately satisfy the European’s greed, land seizures and displacements under the force of the military followed. Justification for considering slaves as chattel property would follow.
The mindset of property and ownership eventually became hardwired into our culture in what we know as capitalism. Ownership and wealth are rewarded with power. We are quite aware of the inflated influence of the super rich who have managed to manipulate the economic system. But striving for wealth and property apply to the rest of us, no matter our level of success. Although we may not accumulate significant wealth, the average person works in large part so we can own property - a car, a mortgage on a home, households filled with possessions that overflow into rented storage facilities. Independent control of our possessions also means we are less dependent on others, and we are inclined to feel self sufficient and not particularly responsible for others which is the basis of our wariness of terms like socialism. And then, of course, under our present system, many cannot manage to be able to own property and wealth, and the system fails.
When I ponder such thoughts, my imagination begins to explore other possibilities. At a sort of achievable minimum, I think, it is possible under the present capitalistic structure to establish a much stronger commitment to the common good. This would mean a clear intention to only establish policies and practices that give priority to serving the welfare of all the people - most especially the poor. This would be an extension of the mix of the capitalism and socialized policies we have today. But I am discouraged thinking about how counter culture it is to try to promote the common good against the powers dedicated to unfettered accumulation of property and wealth and personal exceptionalism. Most Americans, foolishly, have a knee jerk resistance to increasing fair taxes, even on the very rich. I will continue, however, to hope that a type of Scandinavian socialism is possible in this country, and we will eventually see the wisdom of extensive co-operatives and tax levels that support the welfare and “commonwealth” of all.
And then I have a an even more radical idea about property that doesn’t quite meet the standard of the indigenous, but does offer historical precedent within the current capitalist culture and therefore a creative possibility.
In addition to the communal life of a Benedictine monastery I love in Vermont, I am particularly impressed and inspired by the contemporary success of the Bruderhof, a network of families and communities radically committed to shared property and income that has existed now for over one hundred years in a number of countries throughout the world, both rural and urban. Members live on communal property and do not receive individual salaries, as I understand it. They have survived with a combination of practical accommodations such as a major industry that produces furniture; the use of extensive technology; well-established schools and training programs in medicine and technology; and commitments to social outreach - all held together with a commonly held Christian faith. (If you are interested you can check them out at bruderhof.org.) I often wonder how I would have fared in such a community, and I even regret sometimes I never got a chance to try!
The issue of the questionable impact of individual property and ownership may not be the most welcome topic on top of our many other concerns these days. However, we are in the midst of an “axial age” when radical change is inevitable and necessary. We can learn so much from the indigenous example of the integrity of creation as an alternative to our segmentations of property ownership. And a sustained commitment to communal life is possible as demonstrated by the Bruderhof. Let us explore alternatives to our present state of being culturally bound to individual property and ownership, and how that must change if we are to sustain our planet and our ability to live in peace.
This we know: the earth does not belong to man - man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood that unites one's family. All things are connected.”
― Chief Seattle (Sealth), Suquamish Chief