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Rifkin on Private Property, Part 1 of 2

March 4, 2012

Excerpted from The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, by Jeremy Rifkin:

Patent law dates back to the early patents issued in Venice and other Italian city-states during the Renaissance to encourage invention and protect local craftsmen in the glass-blowing industry and other crafts. Today the idea of holding a patent on a process or product for twenty years, when product life cycles often run their course in a few years or even a few months, seems almost quaint.

Similarly, copyright laws have run up against file sharing, blogging, and open-source collaborative ventures whose modus operandi is “information likes to run free”. On the Internet and in the blogosphere, where volumes of information are routinely made free…holding on to copyrights means restricting, not expanding, one’s commercial outreach.

The challenges to intellectual property rights are part of a larger challenge to the notion of property relations itself, the foundation upon which classical economic theory is built. Recall that John Locke, Adam Smith, and other Enlightenment philosophers believed that acquiring property was intrinsic to human nature and that the market provided a self-adjusting mechanism to ensure the continuous acquisition and exchange of property among sellers and buyers.

The very idea of the propertied autonomous individual is the cornerstone of Enlightenment thinking and the leitmotif for the modern notion of individual freedom. for the philosophers and jurists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, freedom was defined in neative terms as the right to exclude others. Ennobling the idea of private property rights allowed the emerging bourgeoisie of Europe to create an alternative legal bulwark to counter ancient obligations to the Church and feudal estates and the limitations imposed by craft guilds, as well as the many other conventions that kept them indentured to an old order. Understandably, an emerging capitalist class came to see private property rights as a symbol of personal freedom. Property rights, protected by law, meant that no man could be bullied, oppressed, or made subject to another man’s will. Greater accumulation of property and control over its use ensured increased autonomy and mobility, which, in turn, ensured personal freedom. If one were secure in one’s property, then all of the other rights would be guaranteed-the right to privacy, the right to be free of coercion, and especially the right to happiness.

At a time when Great Britain and the other European countries were beginning to establish the rudimentary elements of a capitalist market, expand their colonial reach to large parts of the globe, and advance a mercantilist policy designed to secure more control over land, resources, people, and markets, the idea that man’s very nature is to be acquisitive and to secure property assured them that their policies were a societal reflecton of the natural order of things.

The metamorphosis in thinking about the nature of property paralleled the many other changes that were transforming a continent from a feudal economy to a market economy and from a dynastic rule to nation-state governance. The new concept of property was a way for Europeans to reorder their relationship to space and time. The new technologies opened the door to vast new spaces and dramatically quickened the human tempo. Space that had for so long been conceived of as cloistered and vertical was suddenly horizontal and wide open to the vanishing point of the horizon. Time, which for eons had been experienced as cyclical and relatively closed, suddenly was experienced as linear and expansive. The old feudal institutions, with their constricted spatial and temporal boundaries, simply collapsed in the wake of what appeared to be an endless frontier running alongside an infinite future. The development of a private property perspective was the critical mental tool for domesticating the new spatial and temporal frontier.

The whole of earthly reality was reconfigured into a single formula – “mine versus thine”. And with this formulation, Europeans set out to colonize the whole of space and time. In the new future being born, every person would become his or her own private god whose divinity lay in amassing property, inflating his or her being, and casting an ever larger shadow over existence and duration. More mine, less thine. Those who could, by talent and cunning, acquire the most property, could transform it into capital and use that capital to control not only nature but the lives of other people as well. They were called “capitalists”.

The modern market economy and the nation-state, in turn, became the institutional mechanisms to speed along this new reorganization of the world. The market would serve as the impartial arena where each capitalist would lock in battle against his fellow warriors in the struggle to capture space and sequester time in the form of private property. The infant nation-state, in turn, was to be the protector of every person’s property by establishing legal codes and enforcement mechanisms, and, by so doing, guarantee his or her freedom.

Embedding private property relations into the heart of human nature was a double-edged sword. Securing each person’s right to the fruits of their own labor against the privilege of a fuedal order and, later, monarchial regimes, furthered the process of differentiation, individualization, and selfhood. Each propertied white male became sovereign over his own propertied domain – an island to himself. The development of the natural law theory of private property relations has marched side by side with the emergence of the autonomous individual in Western history.

A deepening sense of individuality and selfhood helped elevate the idea of the unique importance of each individual life in the grand scheme of things while fostering a greater sense of one’s existential aloneness in the world. These psychological changes hastened the empathic drive, as individuals became increasingly mindful of each other’s unique being and their existential struggle to overcome their isolation, connect with their fellow human beings, and find meaning in their life and prosper.

Yet the near fanatical commitment to private property – to the point of anointing it as the primary aspect of man’s nature – also had the opposite effect of establishing a boundary line between “mine and thine”, walling people off from one another in wholly new ways by creating new social barriers between the privileged and the unfortunate. Ensconcing private property relations at the center of societal organization helped flatten human discourse on one level by extending the idea that every propertied man is sovereign, while establishing a new exclusionary principle of “mine versus thine” as the basis for managing economic, social, and political relations between people to the end of both advancing and thwarting empathic extension at the same time.

Now, however, the rationale that spawned private property relations is beginning to fray in the wake of new technologies that are once again altering our sense of space and time. The quickening connection of the central nervous system of every human being to every other human being on Earth, via the Internet and other new communications technologies, is propelling us into a global space and a new simultaneous field of time. The result is that property exchange in national markets in the twenty first century is going to increasingly give way to access relationships in vast global networks.

Diminished attachment to a private property regime has great potential import both for the future of gloal commerce and the collective human psyche. If the commercial, psychological, and ideological attachment to private property continues to weaken, what will be the eventual fate of the marketplace? Equally important is the potential impact of such a change on consciousness and our conception of human nature.

The market economy is far too slow to take full advantage of the speed and productive potential made possible by the software and communications revolutions. The result is that we are witnessing the birth of a new economic system that is as different from market capitalism as the latter was from the feudal economy of an earlier era.

Nor is it just a matter of finding new organizational formats to upgrade the conduct of business in a market economy. It’s the market exchange mechanism itelf that is becoming outmoded.

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