What I described last time as a key passage of Cosmopolitan Progressive scripture, John Lennon’s “Imagine,” says this in its third stanza:
Imagine no possessions,
I wonder if you can.
No need for greed or hunger;
a brotherhood of man.
Imagine all the people, sharing all the world.
Coming posts will examine whether, or at what cost, human nature can be made to do without countries, as suggested by the second stanza, or without religion, as suggested by the first. Here, the question is whether human nature can do without possessions.
We can do no better than by beginning with Property and Freedom, by the famed historian of Soviet communism Richard Pipes. Its main thesis is that you can’t have the latter without the former, and its key lesson from history is the contrast revealed by “England, a country where property rights and parliamentary government advanced hand-in-hand” compared to “Russia, where restrictions on ownership have for centuries consistently abetted authoritarian regimes.”
Pipes thinks that the better political economy choices for a modern nation are those which more thoroughly protect private property and which encourage market-centered activity. We must note that there are a number of possible departures from such choices that have no intention to ditch the institution of private property. A nation might seek, for example, to remain largely agrarian, which would require land-sale regulations, and in modern times, very strict restrictions on trade. A nation might adopt a menu of protectionist policies, or a menu of restrictions upon financial instruments and stock trading. A nation or sub-government might seek to establish various sorts of “commons”: hunting-grounds, bicycles, Central Park, etc. Or a government might adopt an administrative scheme to price-fix, of the sort beloved by progressives, and shown again and again, by the likes of Hadley Arkes, Amity Shlaes, and Friedrich Hayek, to be foolish and unjust. But whether any or all such policies involve an undermining of private property or not, they all assume its continued existence.
Nor, to look at things from the other side, would more market-friendly policies abolish the opportunities for families, friends, and associations to act the way the Jerusalem Christians acted in Acts 4, by voluntarily “sharing all they had” out of their private property.
(They Shared Everything They Had, by the contemporary Christian Indonesian artist Wishu Saskongko)
So what we want to stay focused upon here is the radical question of whether property can simply be dispensed with. For that purpose, Pipes’s most interesting chapter is the impressively interdisciplinary one on the “Institution of Property,” which by its very subtitles reveals how deeply the institution is woven into human nature: 1. Possessiveness among animals; 2. Possessiveness in children; 3. Possession among primitive peoples; 5. The emergence of property in land; 7. Private property in antiquity…
Can it be unwoven from human nature? Well, politically speaking, every despotism tries to do this, either openly or in a de facto manner, with respect to the legal definition of property. Psychologically speaking, however, the unweaving gets more difficult, as Pipes demonstrates in the section about children. He does this particularly by considering the experience gained in the Israeli communes known as the kibbutzes:
Bruno Bettleheim learned to his surprise that while it was possible, over time, to inculcate in kibbutz children indifference to private belongings, this exacted a heavy price. Israelis brought up in a such a Spartan environment showed exceptional group loyalty and grew up to become excellent soldiers, but they experienced great difficulty making an emotional commitment to any one individual…Kibbutz youths admitted to being inhibited about writing poetry or painting, because such activities were considered “selfish” and brought the opprobrium of the group.
The mention of Sparta reminds us of the original philosophic musing about whether humans could do without private property, those conducted in Plato’s Republic, and in response, in Aristotle’s Politics. For it was Sparta’s success at cultivating collective spirit, and diminishing selfish attitudes towards property, aided by equal distribution of landed property, and by policies that diminished motives for trading, hoarding, or producing non-necessities, that prodded thinkers to wonder if such arrangements could be taken further, if directed by philosophers. Thus, in the ideal republic imagined in the course of Plato’s Republic, a fairly simple life is lived by all, and the elite guardian class lives entirely communistically, owning nothing individually.
Aristotle responded to this in the Politics by making a number of eminently sensible points, among them that 1) things held in common are typically not very well cared for and tend to bring their users into conflict, that 2) eliminating private property would eliminate the pleasure of doing favors for friends and the virtue of liberality, and 3) that “to seek to unify the city excessively is not good.”
But whether Aristotle was aware of this or not, correctly interpreted, the Republic is actually against the communism it seems to propose. One of the key ways it shows that a perfect realization of justice is impossible for humans, is that it demonstrates what would really be required to prevent inequalities of wealth from gradually insinuating themselves again into a communistic system namely, the elimination of the family, and thus of truly erotic (i.e., romantic) love also. That is not only impossible—i.e., utopian—but also simply monstrous—i.e., dystopian.
And Plato goes further still. He has his Socrates act as if the perfect republic would have to clamp down as much as possible on the very notions of mine and thine, and that what we would truly hope for in the pursuit of this would be an elimination of individual self-consciousness, so that when any one citizen is pained or pleasured, all are as well. The hostility toward human nature found in this (ironically-recommended) quest against possessiveness would thus culminate, if it could, in eliminating the human mind as we know it, so as to bring about a new hive-like or Borg-like organism.
Plato thinks the only point in imagining this utopia is to get one to recognize what the un-removable traits of human nature are, so as to accept those limits to the quest for political justice. But “Imagine” says that the point of the imagining is to eventually realize the dreams.
Lennon did think it would be harder to rid humanity of possessions than of religions and countries: according to the song, the imagining of no heaven is easy if you try, and that of no countries…isn’t hard to do, but about the third imagining, that of no possessions, Lennon admits he wonders if you can. He would have been thoughtful enough to agree with Plato that the idea of property is woven into our very language, and perhaps that attempts to move beyond it would have to either abolish the family or find some way to separate familial love/care from the acquisition of private property.
Lennon was not, however, thoughtful enough to see that these deep roots of property in existing human culture, and really in perennial human nature, made any imaginable abolition of it not simply impossible, but quite repellent. As Pipes shows, when one poses oneself against property simply, one poses oneself against the cause of democratic freedom. Indeed, one poses oneself against any sane cultivation of our nature.