Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The philosopher's dogbox: reflections on property

My latest essay for New Philosopher magazine, 'The Philosopher's Dogbox', is now online.

It examines recent housing trends in Australia and the UK/US, and asks: might this shift our conception of property? A sample:
For many, ownership is existentially supportive. The mortgagee is not simply someone who has a house – she is an owner, with all the conscientiousness and safety this suggests.
And this selfhood is also bolstered against its shadow: the renter, whose unreliability and untrustworthiness bring about deserved unhappiness. Property has all the solidity of nature itself: ownership is part of the order of things. 
But this tradition hides a more complicated illusion. As Marx notes in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, property distorts human possibilities:
Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it – when it exists for us as capital, or when it is directly possessed, eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited, etc., – in short, when it is used by us.
For Marx, property is seen in two ways: as my labour, something inside of me which I sell to my boss; and as capital, something outside of me, which I get for labour (mine or someone else’s). But each of these is only one alienated part of a whole, which is humanity itself – what Marx calls our “species being”. What belongs to us is not simply this commodity or that asset, but our basic creativity: the ways in which we develop in history, by transforming nature and ourselves. Marx suggests that private property, even when a bargain, is selling our existence short. 
In this light, renting might help to make some less stupid, in Marx’s sense. When we no longer identify as owners – successful or failed, canny or imprudent – we are one step away from this emphasis on having. 
Yes, we still use our homes, chiefly to stay alive, rested and sane for tomorrow’s toil. “The life which they serve as means is the life of private property,” Marx wrote, “ – labour and conversion into capital”. And we are thronged by things to buy: the latest must-have, soon-to-be passé brands, for example. There is no simple escape from capitalism. But for many, the mortgage is the chief purchase of their lifetimes – the property that justifies drudgery and symbolises superiority. 
Without the illustrious dream of purchase, property can lose its enchantment. If we are not labouring for the mortgage, what is the point? Perhaps there is more to life than debt, compliance, and competition.
(Photo: FSUPGM)

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