The violence of property

Property is a social construct that is a product of literacy, as it is the substantiation of violence in the form of paper. Regarding the violence, I defer to Derrick Jensen’s discussion from the film “ENDCIV”:

…I said, ‘OK do you pay rent?’ and he’s like ‘Uh, yeah.’

And I said ‘Why?’

And he said, ‘Because I don’t own.”

And I said, ‘No no no – what would happen if you didn’t pay your rent?’

And he said ‘Well the Sheriff would come and evict me.’

And I said, ‘I don’t know what that means, I mean, what would happen?’

‘Well, so the Sheriff would come and he would knock on the door…’

So OK, great – what happens if you open the door and you say, ‘Hey – I’m just finishing up making dinner, you want some?’ So the Sheriff sits down and you feed him, you don’t poison him, and after dinner you say ‘Well, you’ve been somewhat pleasant company but not all that pleasant so I would like for you to leave my home now.’ What would happen?
So, he said ‘The Sheriff would pull out his gun and say I’m here to evict you because you didn’t pay rent.”

So I said “Aaaah – so the reason you pay rent is because if you don’t, some guy with a gun is going to come take you away.’

What is missing from Jensen’s argument is the position of text mediating these relationships.

The renter signs a contract with the landlord. The text of this contract which is printed on a piece of paper is composed on the assumption of a set of property relations, most specifically that the house is the property of the landlord. When the renter signs the paper he is agreeing to this property relation, and is committing to giving the landlord a certain amount of money over a specific period of time, as part of a “lease”, thus forming a contract between the renter and landlord.

Government has a variety of purposes. Historically, its primary purpose has been to protect and project the interests of a local ruling class. Since a ruling class is meaningless without an underclass, government must also protect, to some degree, the interests of the local underclass, and this has been theorised since Hobbes’s Leviathan and Roussseau’s theory of the Social Contract. That the interests of these two classes are largely opposed to one another has been clear for quite some time and well articulated by Marx. This can be seen as the strategic position of Government – the protection and projection of the interests of a local ruling elite. While local is scalable by technological and political valence: it can mean a municipality (Athens city/state) or global (The American Empire). The interests and the ruling class remain the same – the ability of a small number of people to live off the labour of many others. In this way, government acts to protect these interests from enemies external (other governments acting in the interests of other ruling elites) and internal (the vast majority of people that the ruling elites parasitically extract the surplus labour value that provides their ability to survive – a majority that could easily sweep them away). It is against these enemies both internal and external that government protects the interests of the ruling class.

As Jensen formulates in Endgame, Civilisation is an arrangement of living that is based on the maintenance and growth of cities. And cities are a living arrangement where the size and density of a human population is so great that it requires the importation of resources, as the population cannot live from the locally available resources alone.

Jensen stresses the requirement point, and rightfully so, as this leads to the other purpose of government: to project the interests of the local elite. Since the local elite must maintain its position of privilege, and does so through the protective auspices of government, and the local elite is ensconced in a city – both actually (the city) and metaphorically (the City), and the C/city requires the importation of resources, it is then the role of government to acquire these resources, so the City may continue and the ruling elite may continue their reign. Those who live in proximity to the C/city may not be interested in sharing their resources with the C/city, and that is where government comes in to project the interests of the ruling elite who have a distinct interest in maintaining the C/city.

The formation of City is open to discussion and seems to be prior to that of Ruling Elites. There is some evidence to support this – the earliest cities (which by today’s petroleum fueled standards would qualify as small towns) don’t seem to have great differences in living spaces or great privileges in living arrangements. This is likely so due to matters of scale – a small town can live sustainably in a given environment indefinitely. Whatever the reason for the transition from egalitarian Town to hierarchic City is not relevant to this discussion. What is important is that it did happen and that it happened through spoken language, and then soon through writing which amplified the reach and power of these arrangements by orders of magnitude. The tool for acquiring these resources from those outside the City was government, as it projects the needs and interests of its ruling elite into the countryside to acquire resources to maintain their privilege and the arrangement of City living in the city.

It is within this historical movement of the City, and thus, Civilisation, that the local maintenance role of government becomes fairly clear: the fair execution of contracts and the disbursal of property. As Jensen notes in Endgame, the only thing that the landlord has that says he owns a piece of property is a piece of paper – the deed, which is granted by government.  The internal practices of government revolve around just that – contracts and property, especially contracts about property. Without that contract, that deed, the landlord has no claim. An example of this has been the widespread foreclosure fraud going on in the USA, where people are being foreclosed on, forced to leave their homes, and the bank who is claiming ownership doesn’t have the paperwork to prove it. Without it, there is no claim.

So, in fact, there is no property. If all copies of all deeds and contracts of property were destroyed, property would cease to exist. Property only exists on paper.

There are responses to this, and those are dispensed with by examining three different levels to material association between humans and things. There is the mythical: Property. There is the social: Belongings. And there is the Immediate: Possessions. In a demythologised world, Property ceases to exist, and we are left with the Social and the Immediate (or Practical, if you will) – Belongings and Possessions. This demythologisation of society works against the interests of the ruling elite, as it deprives them of Property and lays bare the purposes of government as outlined above. Thus, a demythologisation of society is a process of decivilisation, which is not the same as barbarism and brutality. It is insight into the objects of civilisation – an object that retreats into its necessary opposites – barbarism and brutality –  for its ontological and existential continuity and survival. For it is not the Hobbesian “State of Nature” that is brutal, but the conflict of the City and its requirements on the world that creates brutality through the imposition of the lens of death as the arbiter of authenticity, rather than reciprocity and compassion.

Hence, the necessity for the Sheriff to arrive and evict the renter, using violence if need be to accomplish this. The mythology of (Intellectual) Property must be maintained – and critiqued, as fascist brutality of the text has its price – it becomes the Joy Division of the Intellect.

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About misterwarwick

I am an Associate Professor of Media Theory, Sound Synthesis, Audio Production, and "Digital Things". I am very much involved with issues of Archives, Access To Knowledge, and the pathetic predicament collectively understood as "Civilisation". I am also a composer of electronic music and I have an online music program called "Something Completely Different". I also like to play with digital imaging. I live in Toronto. It's a nice place.
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