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by Ulrich Duchrow
Wednesday, Jun. 02, 2010 at 9:24 AM
No one can own what exists in nature except nature. A human cannot own its own mother. However western ownership systems have been forced on us again and again that contradict our worldview and our values. Ubunto is another example: "I only live when you live."
CAN A PERSON OWN HIS/HER MOTHER?
Intercultural Alternatives to Western Possessive Individualism
By Ulrich Duchrow
[This article published in: “Wem gehort die Welt? Die Wiederentdeckung der Gemeinguter,” (Who Owns the World? The Rediscovery of Common Property) Silka Helfrich and Heinrich Boll Stiftung (ed), 2009 is translated from the German on the Internet.]
The destructive transformation of our whole life world in “predatory capital” (Martin Luther) advances inexorably. But more and more people and communities are resisting. What are the sources of their resistance and their creativity? Where are their roots nourished? Where do their lungs find air and their spirit inspiration? In raising the question, we must remember the history to understand and survive the present. The riches of the cultures in which communal property gains form are central.
THE ANCIENT CRITICISM OF AN ECONOMY BASED ON PROPERTY, INTEREST AND MONEY
According to Heinsohn and Steiger, an economic form based on property, interest and money arose in the 8th century B.C. Firstly, the focus on (land-) ownership was a fruit of the struggle of farmers against feudal lords. The triumph of these new landowners led to the formation of the Greek polis. But the value of the property as a basis of the new rural freedom led to a credit system in which borrowers had to repay the loan and additional interests (the authors call them “property premiums”). For the credit (at that time mostly seed after a bad harvest), one’s labor power and the family land were bet as a rule. In the event of insolvency, families went into debt slavery or lost their land. Rich creditors could accumulate more land, slaves and money.
Since the 8th century B.C., the prophets – beginning with Amos (social-critical prophet from the southern kingdom of Judah who preached in Israel’s northern kingdom in the 8th century B.C. The book ascribed to him is one of the series of the twelve little prophets of the Hebrew Bible) – sharply criticized these mechanisms of the division of society into the impoverished and the enriched. In Isaiah 5,8 the following formulation is found: “Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land.”
The legal reforms of the Book of the Covenant (Ex 21-23), the Deuteronomium (Dtn) and the priestly writings (Lev) proposed measures for how Israel could avoid the danger of this new economic form, for example with the help of the interest-prohibition and a social reform of the debenture system (Ex 22,24). The Sabbath year with debt cancellation, liberation of debt slaves every seven years (Dtn 15,2) and redistribution of the land after 50 years in the Jubilee year (Lev 25( are corrective laws.
The key theological argument is: The land belongs to God. “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25, 23) (according to the translation by Martin Buber).
Thus people are sojourners on God’s land. God makes available the means of production for the life of everyone. The Bible rejects absolutizing private property and commercialization of the land and instead pleads for the right of everyone to use landed property. Should there be usable property? Yes. Should there be exchange value property for accumulation of riches at the expense of others? No.
The opposition of two economic modes is implicit. One is the “economy of `enough for all.’” The manna story (Ex 16) is its classical example. God gives enough for all when no one amasses more for himself than he needs. “When they measured it with an omer (vessel in which the manna bread was gathered), he that gathered much had nothing over and he that gathered little had no lack; each gathered according to what he could eat” (Ex 16,18). Jesus also teaches us to pray for the “daily” bread. He rejects the temptation of the devil to make bread out of stones with the allusion to the manna story. (Matt 4, 4 refers to Deut 8 where the manna story is reinterpreted against the multiplication of riches and trusting riches). In the feeding of the 5000 (Mk 6,35ff), sharing what the people brought along made everyone full. Paul also referred the collection for the distressed in Jerusalem to the manna story (2 Cor 8, 13-15).
This approach of sharing and balancing was also characteristic for the original community as manifest in the internal communal equalizing of possessions in the Acts of the Apostles. Here the voluntary sharing of property in the community inspired by the Pentecostal spirit is described as a general practice. “All who believed were together and had all things in common.” No one called what he had his property. With great power, the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of Jesus, the Kyrios, and great grace rested on all of them. “There was not a needy person among them” (Acts 2,44f; 4, 32-35).
The speech of Jesus as Kyrios points to an important aspect that is true for all New Testament scriptures. An alternative to the Roman Empire is presented here. The title “Kyrios” was reserved for the emperor. The Roman law also made legally absolute the Greek-Hellenist understanding of property. This was already implicit in the Greek word for the father of the house, the owner of land, house, woman, children, slaves and animals: “despotes.” In the Latin, he is called “Dominus” and property itself “Dominium,” rule property. Later this was summarized: “Dominium est jus utendi et abutendi re sua, quantenus juris ratio patitur” (rule property is the right to use and misuse affairs as compatible with the ratio – the logic of the law) [The origin of this sentence is unknown. It is probably a teaching from the Middle Ages (cf. Hans Christoph Binswanger: Die Faith Community of Economists, 1998, p.128ff).]
In an address “Can Dalit/Buddhist Culture be an Anti-Capitalist Resource?,” the Indian historian Uma Chakravarti [unpublished 2005. Cf. Uma Chakravarti, The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism in India. Delhi 1967] describes the context where the Buddha experienced his conversion and enlightenment. Between the 8th and 6th centuries, a new economic form intruded in North India based on private property and money and supported by the king’s power. The society was divided in impoverished and enriched. The experience of this poverty and suffering led the prince out of compassion to renounce his goods and dignity to find the way to overcome suffering in society. Poverty and suffering are caused by greed. Overcoming greed through meditation and slipping off everything superfluous was his way out. The description of the context corresponds to that of the Hebrew Bible. Thus we have the astonishing social fact that Judaism and Jesus building on Judaism on one side and Buddhism on the other side discovered their central feature in the same context. This context is the genesis of the property-money-economy, the pre-form of modern capitalism.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle (4th century) generally recognized that boundless desire cannot only depend on consumption (cf. Aristotle Politics Book 1, Ch. 8-13). Sometime or other, the most insane luxury consumption cannot be increased any more. Aristotle concluded the core problem must be boundless multiplication of money [cf. Ulrich Duchrow. Alternatives to the Capitalist World Economy – Biblical Remembrance and Political Initiatives to Overcome the Life-Endangering Economy, 1`997]. Money does not spoil and can be hoarded immeasurably. Therefore it provokes the desire (“epithymia”) to accumulate food immeasurably and thus eternal life. The inability to come to terms with one’s death and one’s limitation as a needy physical being underlies the desire to hoard. Since the one striving for boundless multiplication of money, Aristotle continues, he destroys his own life which as a needy being depends on community. An economic system that aims at the accumulation of riches of a few destroys the others and the horderers themselves. As counter-measures of the polis, Aristotle demands political interventions in the economy, that is regulation, interest- and monopoly-prohibitions and the ethical education of citizens.
In the first manifestation of the property-interest-money economy, sources of resistance and alternative creative approaches of prophetic criticism and justice from faith in the God Yahweh occurred in different cultural contexts of antiquity. Reason-oriented politics and ethics were experienced as the power of liberation and solidarity and spirituality of empathy through sharing God’s gifts and in overcoming greed.
THYE CAPITALIST PROPERTY MARKET SOCIETY OF THE MODERN AGE
From the 14th century B.C., the absoluteness of private property has been constitutive for capitalist development. Allied with the money- and the new capital mechanisms, private property is the material basis of the calculating individual. Therefore MacPherson uses the term “property market society” for developed capitalism [C.B. MacPherson, Democratic Theory, Oxford 1973]. The capitalist market functions with the basic institutions of property and contract. Property, understood as “Dominium,” is correspondingly central for developing the relations of production, money, capital, labor and for dealing with land.
The earliest decisive transformation from basic feudal rule to middle class property in Europe occurred in the 14th century in England. A cooling of the climate took away the foundation of life from farmers in the north of the island and shook the balanced fee system. Then there was the plague that killed many farmers. In 1381 the Lollard rebellion erupted, which according to Heinsohn and Steiger represented the beginning of the modern property society. In its train, serfs (“villains”) were free for the first time in the modern age while their masters simultaneously robbed the serfs and became the owners of the land.
The change to middle class land property beginning at that time represented a revolution of all life relations. That change was fundamental for the whole nascent modern age. The village communal land, the land cultivated in common by medieval farmers, became private land through enclosure or fences. Karl Polanyi described how all traditional relations between people changed [Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: Political and Economic Origins of Societies and Economic Systems, first edition 1944]. Contractual- and competitive relations mediated by money came out of mutual aid and the common work of farmers [Jeremy Rifkin, The Biotech Century, New York 1998]. Seen economically, a commercial agriculture and textile production originated. In this context, the decisive institutions of the market society, property and contract, developed since the courts increasingly defended the absolute unconditional discretion of the owners.
The classical author of liberalism, John Locke, provided the legitimation of this system after the victory of the upper middle class in the 1688 Glorious Revolution. Locke defined the person as an owner in three regards: owner of land, goods and capital, owner of one’s body, above all labor power and owner of freedom. For Locke, increasing property with the help of the money mechanism was the central meaning of the economy. A human agreement or understanding precedes all society and every social contract and is implicit in the use of money. People agreed to disproportional and unequal property. With their silent and voluntary consent (to the use of money), they found a way for the person to possess more land than he could use by receiving gold and silver as an equivalent for the surplus in products – metals that can be hoarded without harming anyone because they neither perish nor disintegrate in the hands of the owner” [John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, 1690, section 50].
Only secondarily the state has to protect property and its increase. “Since they (the slaves) are in the state of slaves and incapable of any property, they cannot be considered in this state as a part of middle class society since its main purpose is maintenance of property” (Ibid, section 65].
Locke drove this approach to the extreme. According to the economist von Hayek, only owners and persons capable of contracts had a right to life. Whoever was without land and capital or could not sell labor power on the market had to die or – as Hayek says in another place – will only be dragged along by the society.
The earth cannot be grasped with the category owner and thus has no right to life. It is considered a troublesome cost-factor for multiplying property through production. Neither destitute persons nor nature on principle are entitled to an independent right to life in consistent neoliberal capitalism. Rather the capitalist economy aims only at the increase of the owner’s property measured in money value, whether through real production or speculation in financial businesses. In addition, those who gain plenty of financial assets and purchasing power develop a luxurious way of consumption that consumes too many natural resources and burdens nature with wastes and emissions of pollutants. The poor fighting for their survival are also driven to practices destructive of nature.
A market for increasing assets through competition based only on property and contract prevents solidarity and sustainability in production, distribution and consumption. A state that only protects property and contracts and gives free rein to the market sacrifices people and nature. Such a state inevitably sacrifices common property, the bond of people to their natural and cultural foundations of life.
The contradictory position of neoliberalism toward the state should be understood. On one side, representations of neoliberalism say markets should be deregulated and liberalized. The state cannot meddle in the accumulation of private property because this mechanism rests – in a natural law argument – on the market’s capacity for self-regulation. On the other side, the state is used as a security state to guarantee this deregulation and liberalization and protect property so capital through privatization of all areas can subject all life on earth to the logic of capital accumulation.
Capitalism is now assuming a blatant imperialist character again. This is clear in the “Statement of Principles” (1997) and report (September 2000) of the neoconservative think-tank “Project for the New American Century” [cf. www.newamericancentury.org]. These documents provided the basis for the National Defense Strategy formulated later by the Bush administration. Going back explicitly to the Roman Empire, the Pax Americana refers to the common property – under the title “Control Space and Cyber Space.” “As control of the high seas- and protection of international commerce – defined global power in the past -, control of the new `international commons’ will be a key to world power in the future. An America incapable of protecting its interests or its allies’ interests in space or the `info-sphere" will find it hard to exercise global political leadership.
CULTURAL RESOURCES OF RESISTANCE AND ALTERNATIVES IN DIFFERENT WORLD RELIGIONS
In many cultures there are important sources for resistance and alternatives. As a first example, the “Declaration of Communities on the WTO agreement on trade-related rights of intellectual property” (TRIPS) from 7/25/1999 says: “No to patenting life! We the indigenous communities from all over the world believe no one can own what exists in nature except nature itself. A human being cannot own its own mother. Humanity is part of Mother Nature. We have created nothing and therefore cannot claim to be owners of what does not belong to us. However western ownership systems were forced on us again and again that contradict our worldview and our values.” Concrete conclusions are drawn for the rejection of the TRIPS agreement.
Another example is Ubuntu in Africa. Tutu formulates it as follows: “I only live when and so far as you also live.” People are relational beings living in a community and dependent on community. People are not relationless individuals. The practice of communal land exists up to today. For example in Mogopa, a community in South Africa, communal lands were expropriated in 1984 by the apartheid government. After the turn the communal land was successfully demanded back.
For Asia, I refer to beginnings in Buddhism, Islam and Mahatma Gandhi’s tradition. On the first, different theoretical publications offer suggestions for the West, particularly for regaining empathy or “compassion.” [cf. for example David R. Loy: A Buddhist History of the West. Studies in Privation. New York 2002; ibid. The Great Awakening. A Buddhist Social Theory, New York 2002; Paul S. Chung, Martin Luther and Buddhism. Aesthetics of Suffering, Eugene 2002; Ulrich Duchrow, Reinhold Bianchi et. Al: Becoming a Solidarity Person. Mental and Social Destruction in Neoliberalism – Ways to New Life, Hamburg 2006].
Efforts to show the cultural forces of solidarity and justice are also shown in Islam. An Islamic liberation theology fights for the new respect of the original revelation and aims at the solidarian unity of people in just relations. Similar beginnings also exist in Hinduism. As a whole, Gandhi’s position is a counter-design to western civilization, as Dieter Conrad emphasized. Gandhi explicitly joined Hinduism: “The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection. To me, cow protection is one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. It takes the human being beyond its species. The cow to me means the entire sub-human world. Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives” [“The central element of Hinduism is protection of the cow. For me protection of the cow is one of the most marvelous phenomena of human development. It leads people beyond themselves. For me the cow symbolizes the whole sub-human world. Through the cow, persons see their identity as part of all other life.”] Gandhi sees this orientation in all religions – in contrast to western “possessive individualism” that produces violence. “There are many religions but religion is only one.” This religion penetrates all areas of life. “Through religion we can recognize our true relationship with other living beings.”
This central theme joins all alternative approaches: relationship. Persons are understood as relational beings, not competing individuals. This is also characteristic for alternative approaches in western sciences. Modern brain research shows people are wired for empathy. Relational psychology speaks of the end of egomania [Horst-Eberhard Richter: The End of Egomania – The Crisis of Western Consciousness, 2003]. David Korten summarizes all this in his design of a new cultural paradigm that understands the economy according to the model of living organisms in relation to one another and no longer un-embedded from human society and nature (Polanyi) – according to the mechanistic model of the machine [D.C. Korten, The Post-Corporate World. Life After Capitalism, 2000]. For the political economy, this means property must be oriented in the concrete present and future life of all people living in community and no longer in the isolated individual and his unrestricted development. In this way life and public interest become the fundamental criteria of an alternative property order “from below,” on all planes from the local to the global.
The social obligation of property guaranteed in the German Basic Law (Art 14, 2: “Property is obligated. Its use should serve the well-being of the general public.”) and the possibility of declaring ecologically necessary resources as common property (Art 15: “Land, property mineral resources and means of production can be transferred into common property or other forms of social economy to the end of socialization through a law regulating the manner and extent of compensation) are systematically neutralized in neoliberal globalization by the EU. This often delegitimates political action. Resistance and a new paradigm oriented in the public interest protection of common property are vital. This can be realized through struggle in a double strategy.
The possibility exists of realizing alternatives on local and regional planes before the whole system is changed [cf. R. Douthwaite/H.Diefenbacher, Beyond Globalization. Handbook for Local Economies, Mainz 1998]. Cooperative dealings with money and the world of banking, alternative energy, local production and marketing of foods are essential.
Alliances are necessary between social movements, unions and faith communities on political interventions in the macro-systems for a permanent control over common property. The concept of common property is helpful because it can bundle diverse conflicts and problems.
The goal of this strategy is the “social (re-) appropriation” [cf. Chr. Zeller (ed) The Global Expropriation Economy, Munich 2004] of common property. Worldwide it is reflected in what is described as the “solidarity economy” [cf. Elmar Altvater/Nicola Sekler (ed), Solidarity Economy, Hamburg 2006]. Fortunately the international ecumene in the last ten years has intensively supported these efforts. Since the 1990s an ecumenical process has envisioned alternatives in overcoming neoliberal globalization. The resolutions of the 2003 plenary assembly of the Lutheran World Alliance in Winnepeg were important [cf. on Winnepeg and Accra, Kairos Europe: Economics Serving Life, Heidelberg 2005]. The fundamental significance of private property for neoliberal capitalism was clearly grasped and problematicized there: “In our diverse situations, we are all confronted with the same negative consequences of neoliberal economic policy that lead to growing distress, increased suffering and greater injustice in our communities. As communio we must counter the false ideology of neoliberal economic globalization by resisting this reality and its effects and revolutionizing and changing them. This false ideology is founded on the assumption that the market based on private property, unbridled competit6ion and the unalterable authority of contracts is the absolute law ruling human life, society and the environment. This is idolatry. This idolatry leads to the systematic exclusion of those who do not possess any property, destruction of cultural diversity, dismantling of unstable democracies and the devastation of the earth.
In 2004 the 24th General Assembly of the Reformed World Alliance4 in Accra went the furthest ecumenically. Its confession “Covenanting for Justice in the Economy and the Earth” is in the tradition of the 1934 Barmen Theological Declaration directed against the “German Christians” who legitimated National Socialism pseudo-theologically. Substantively Accra went beyond Barmen. Beside the false doctrine supporting neoliberal capitalism, the RWA also reproached the system itself and the ideology undergirding the system. “We believe God rules over the whole creation. `The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein’” (Ps 24, 1). Therefore we say No to the present world economic order as forced on us by global neoliberal capitalism.”
The 2006 plenary assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Porto Alegre also went in the same direction. As preparation, a study document was composed and sent to the member churches [Kairos Europe (ed); Alternative Globalization Serving Humankind and the Earth. AGAPE background document for the 9th plenary assembly of the WCC in Porto Alegre 2006]. The Greek word for love “agape” was interpreted here as follows: “Alternative Globalization Addressing People and the Earth” (AGAPE). At the plenary assembly an AGAPE call was the basis for a liturgical feast. There we read:
“4) Sustainable Use of Land and Natural Resources
We commit ourselves again to join in actions in favor of sustainable and just methods in using and reducing resources and in solidarity with indigenous peoples who try to protect their land, water and communities. We commit ourselves again to questioning consumer mania in affluent societies so the latter will increasingly decide for self-restraint and a simple lifestyle.
5) Public Goods and Services
We commit ourselves again to join the worldwide struggle against the forced privatization of public goods and services and actively support the right of every land and every people to determine and manage its common property itself. We commit ourselves again to support movements, groups and international initiatives that intercede for protection of vital goods like bio-diversity, water and air.”
Many churches in Europe in this worldwide ecumenical process stepped and step on the brake. However the base communities work stubbornly on moving faith communities to cooperate with the social movements. Only when the civil society base is expanded will we have chances for putting the slogan “Another world is possible” into action. The question of the social control over common property which includes a revision of the existing property order is central.
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