Ownership

One of my favourite lecturers ever, Francis, was an apparent walking set of contradictions: a philosopher while simultaneously being a deeply devout Catholic (to the extent that he and his wife even practiced the rhythm method – I know this because one seminar we debated the philosophical implications of birth control). Anyway. He stood out in the philosophy department as one of the few lecturers who was religious and he seemed to get some sort of mischievous kick out it. He LOVED to debate his beliefs with us, and in return we loved it too (what a revelation for our young minds to be debating religion based on logic instead of the usual “blind faith” argument). The last semester of 3rd year he invited our seminar (a group of 12 students) to his house for dinner. He lived in a converted old barn and as we stepped into the expansive, open space of his living room we came face to face with a ginormous deep maroon wall covered in portraits of Catholic saints. As we gathered around the table (underneath said giant, Catholic wall) for dinner (roast lamb – WHAT a treat for us students), Francis began the meal by asking us all to bow our heads to say grace. We all obliged of course. But Francis couldn’t help himself, once he had finished grace his head whipped up, massive grin on his face, and he cheekily said “that was for all you atheists!” and burst into a deep chuckle. And that was the brilliance of Francis: the ability to hold very deeply what he believes while feeling no need to convince others or take himself too seriously; and a genuine openness to discussing ideas, especially the ideas that he disagreed with. What a scarce, exquisite approach to life. 2016 could learn a thing or two.

 

Anyway, the one day Francis asked us to consider the concept of ownership. He suggested that ownership relies on the idea that by me-having-something, it stops-you-from-having-it. For example, my cell phone is mine because it does not belong to anyone else. My owning my cell phone stops anyone else from owning it. Wonderful. Fairly straightforward to understand.

However, Francis then committed the gravest of sins in the academic world and blasphemously asked us if we think that academic ideas (or anything that is not a 3D object) can actually really be owned then? He argued that unlike the cell phone, someone reading about an academic idea (journal etc) does not necessarily stop someone else from doing exactly the same. Ah! The beautiful grey areas that really get us thinking! 🙂

I don’t think that I was convinced by Francis’s argument that day, and I certainly still think that you should reference someone else’s ideas when you write about them, but the greyness of what ownership is has stayed with me all these years. I like the idea that an apparent black-and-white, concrete concept isn’t as black-and-white as we might think. I like the movement, the possibilities that this allows. Suddenly there is room to negotiate, to play, to find a better way forward.

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Which is fantastic news because for some time now I have felt that our current global economic system is utter crap. It’s unjust, unfair and seems surprisingly good at hurting people. I’m sure I’m on the ignorant side of the Dunning-Kruger Effect concerning global economic systems but from what I can gather:

Capitalism pretends to be an equal-opportunity-for-all or hard-work-will-be-rewarded-with-riches system but actually really only makes rich people richer and poor people poorer.

Not kiff.

And so I find myself wondering if communism wouldn’t be better… But communism pretends to be all-warm-and-fuzzy because everyone is equally rich (or poor) but will never really work because it ignores two basic human traits: in groups humans (all individuals being equal i.e. there isn’t a hierarchy within the group) tend not to take responsibility/initiative; and leaders too easily turn into dictators who won’t give up their power (because, surprise, surprise, they somehow get more than anyone else in their country).

Also, not kiff.

And there ends the layman’s knowledge of economic systems. (Enter my rant about WHY personal finance and knowledge of general economic systems aren’t taught in schools. But I digress…) In an effort to educate myself about financial systems I stumbled upon this article on neo-liberalism, which only served to plunge me into further despair and rage… especially because it seems that there is a distinct lack of solutions to the problem. Where are our alternatives? Our possibilities? Our room for movement?

So basically, all very, very not kiff.

But then I read a book, completely unrelated to finance, that got me thinking. The book looked at how we educate children and was called Free to Learn by research psychologist, Peter Gray. It began by looking at the history of mankind and how we have previously educated our children (here’s a summary if you are interested). Educationally it was fascinating but moneywise it got me thinking… Historically this seems to have been our relationship with money:

Hunter-gathers (90% of our history)

  • Nothing was owned and everything was shared or given as needed
  • Wikipedia tells me that this is a gift economy (things are given without the expectation of getting anything in return)
  • Also, violence was completely frowned upon (because it threatened the skill that was absolutely vital for survival: working together)

We started farming (about 10 000 years ago)

  • We started claiming land as “ours”, living in permanent dwellings (and so accumulating things for the first time) and growing crops (that were “ours”). Which then meant that we needed to protect what was “ours”… Exit sharing. Enter violence.
  • Suddenly, the more someone had, the more likely they were to survive (because the sharing had stopped). And so began the concept that materialistic wealth is good.

Industrial Revolution

  • Divorced people from the land (nature), making money the necessary entity for survival.

You can see, dear Reader, that it went belly up when we started farming and decided that we could “own” things. Which made me think back to Francis and what exactly ownership is. It made me think of the often reminder that when die, we can’t take anything with us. Surely this proves that we can’t actually really own anything? Certainly not anything materialistic. And then The Prophet by Kahil Gibran  popped into my head. Specifically his “On Children”:

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that ownership is actually a fairytale we tell ourselves to help us pretend that we are safe and in control. Ownership is something that we think lets us sleep better at night but, as any Minimalist would tell us, only serves to rob us of our freedom and the things that really matter in this world. Enter my growing interest in minimalism.

My problem is that I still live in an ownership dominated society. And even if I were to become the most minimalist of Minimalists, I would still consider my money to be “mine”. I’m growing a whole life, a Brat Experiment life, based on the assumption of ownership: that the money we earn is “ours” and that when we invest, save and grow it that it will continue to be “ours”. I’m a part of the problem. A part of the system (that makes rich people richer, poor people poorer, unjustly traps people and encourages violence). Eugh. And the worst part is that I don’t know how it should or could be changed… but I do know that we need to start playing in these grey areas more. We need to find more movement, more possibilities and maybe, just maybe, a new way.

What do you think, dear Reader? I would love to hear any input you might have.

Xxx

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