Ownership and property are the cornerstones of the modern society. But where do they come from? Where are they going? Do they have a ticket, or are they just getting a free ride? And more importantly, are they real?
The sense of ownership is but a refinement of a much more basic and raw force within us: the territorial instinct. And we are not the only ones that possess one. Wolves have it. Birds have it. Even the bees have it, although it might be argued that for the later we should consider the entire bee-hive as an organism.
Territorial instinct, the spatial awareness of our boundaries, is so important that it is hard-coded in the genes. Wolves born and bred in captivity become nervous and agitated when they are introduced to the territory of a wolf pack, and the only way to calm them down is to bring them back to “neutral” territory. Simply put, they’re scared howlless, as well they should be, since the pack would rip them to shreds if they were stupid enough to linger on these foreign hunting grounds.
The reason territory is so important for a wolf – and for other animals as well – is because it is a cheap way to avoid confrontation. In the wolf world, confrontation is not sought, nor desired; victory in a fight to the death oft comes with its own price of grievous wounds on the part of the victor. The pack would have to care for him and nurse him back to health, if possible, and a valuable hunter would be temporarily or permanently lost. Wolves risk confrontation, but only as a last resort – for instance, if food becomes so scarce that the alternative is death by starvation. Otherwise posturing and grandstanding will suffice – and if that doesn’t work, running is always better than dying. At least for a wolf.
The tribes from the forgotten dawn of the age of mankind were quite similar in approach and social organization to a wolf pack. The most experienced and successful hunter assumed leadership, and the others would follow. The catch was shared within the tribe, to each according to their needs in times of plenty, hunters first in leaner times. It was a rather communist society in that regard, and possession, as much as it was, would be enforced by strength alone. Do not imagine that these men were constantly fighting amongst themselves – that would be as stupid for them as it was for the wolves. Instead, there would be trials and games, enough to assert one’s domination without endangering the tribe.
I do not know how ownership as we know it came to be. Perhaps the practicality of giving the best weapons to the best hunter was turned on its head, so that the one with the best weapons was considered the best hunter. Those weapons thus became a symbol of power, and even if their bearer would only be mediocre, he would still enjoy the benefits associated with them. Ownership is power manifest, and the power was for the first time in history derived from a mere symbol. The world’s first currency was born.
In today’s world, ownership is still power. I own a house, therefore I am entitled to do with it whatever I want. But instead of manifesting the power to hold this possession, I – and you, and everyone – delegated it to a symbolic entity called state. We empowered the state to assert our claims of ownership, and we called this empowerment “law”. Thus, when I say that I, by law, I am the owner of the house, what I mean is that the state allows me to stay in it and protects me from those who would seek to take it from me. I am recognized as owner by the state via a piece of paper, a so-called title of property.
Could the state choose to do take this property from me? Indeed it could, and historically this has happened countless times. If the majority agrees to this, the state is allowed to pass laws to confiscate my property without compensation if need be. The state must do everything in accordance to its laws, as an expression of the will of the people. Even if the laws are immoral or unjust. The majority hath spoken.
And if the state collapses? Then, as portrayed in countless post-apocalyptic books and movies, I will own only what I keep others from having. I’m sure that, given three or four determined individuals with baseball bats, I could be persuaded to give up what I have. And if they’re starved to boot, I’d better run pretty damn fast while enacting this donation. What would my possessions be then? And what would be their worth?
Indeed, all I own is some paper. With that and a match I can light a fire before the wolves get here.