Monday, August 2, 2010

If you don't feel like reading all this the upshot is I'm a hypocrite

Last night before going to bed I finished reading China Miéville's The City & the City, which is a novel with a wonderful concept (actually it's a pretty great application of infrathin, whether Miéville was aware of it or not), albeit only a pretty-good execution--I wish he had chosen a different plot to explore this concept, really, but still: good book, overall.

Anyway, I finished it and then went to bed. I actually managed to fall into a pretty deep sleep, and was having some interesting dreams, inspired by the novel, when the sound of somebody outside trying to open my bedroom window woke me up at about a quarter to three in the morning. This is, to me, a fairly surreal thing to wake up to, and coming out of a dream as I was it was hard to figure out if it was real or not. Coming out of the specific dream I was having made it even more difficult, because, thinking I might still be somewhere in Miéville's Besźel and Ul Qoma I wasn't sure how to tell if I was allowed to hear the noise. After a moment or two, though, I managed to shake it and realize that, no, I was awake, and no, I wasn't in a fictional split city, and yes, there really were people outside my window trying to get it open.

I sat up. What with the angles and the lighting I don't think they could see me do it, but my bed is very creaky, and when I sat up it made a lot of noise. They must have heard it, because the noises I could hear immediately changed from fiddling with my window to running the fuck away. I heard them hop the fence, and by the time I was out of bed they were long gone.

I'm not going to pretend like this is some sort of big traumatic deal, because it definitely, definitely isn't. But I admit that I immediately reacted like it was. I turned into a quivering granny, scared of every sound, scared that the scary intruders would come back and do something scary. Far, far more shameful than this (I can deal, personally, with being a wuss) is that I thought, "If I call 911 now, maybe the cops can catch them." Catch them.

Anyone who's going to try to break into my house and steal something probably, frankly, needs it more than I do. Either that, or they're going to be thrill-seeking kids. Actually, that second in this case seems more likely to me, judging both by the size of the footprints I can see outside today and by the ineptness of the attempt--trying to break in in the middle of the night, when people are pretty much guaranteed to be home, and considering also that the Baronette and her car--the only car at this house--just got back from being away for almost a week, which means that for the first time in several days the house is displaying what most people consider a definite sign of occupancy.

So: either desperately poor, or young, dumb and bored, or both. And my immediate reaction was to send pigs with guns and electric torture devices after them so that they could be locked up. And I know what the cops are, and I know what the prison system is. There is no excuse.

In my own defense, I didn't consider it for very long before I decided that given a choice between people trying to break in in the middle of the night on the one hand, and fucking pigs on the other, I know who I more trust in my home. And hell, if I'm going to have potentially violent thugs trying to get into my house at quarter to three in the morning, the least I can do is not invite them.

But oh man. Nothing like an attempted break in to bring me face to face with my attachment to my property, and my own instinctive hypocrisy. Stuff to work on.


Richard said...

I think you're being too hard on yourself. It's not like you actually called the cops. We all think things we wouldn't countenance in our better moments. The important thing is what you do with those thoughts, if anything.

Also, the problem is that we're all attached to our property. We just are. It's going to take quite a lot for most of us to shake it.

Dan said...

So, when I was living in a rough neighborhood in Chicago, I got mugged. At gunpoint. When the mugging was done, I got pistolwhipped (and forgive this expression) something fierce.

As there were a bunch of muggins in that neighborhood that summer - and a whole bunch of UofC students lived there - there was a cop about a block away. I went up to his car, approached the drivers side and he turned to me and said, "did you get mugged?"

I told him that I had, in fact, been mugged. His response? "Goddamn it, I wasn't even supposed to be working tonight (sigh). Get in the car!"

Anonymous said...

There's nothing wrong with personal property or private property.

There's definitely something wrong with using privatization as a way to gain advantage over something public (i.e. a govt using eminent domain to reclaim real estate which it then "develops" for the contracting profit of a select few).

Sure as shit, I don't want anyone stealing my MTBs or my ski equipment. Mainly because I can't afford to replace the stuff, and I'm not always insured, and even when I'm insured, I don't want to wait on the claims person's adjustment and the loss of $$$ when the deductible kicks in.

IMO any notion of a social system in which there is no private property, that notion is impractical.

And I think your response to the notion of being burgled explains why, Ethan. I don't think you have anything to be ashamed of.

I would think you should be ashamed, however, if you found yourself depriving yourself of food, shelter, or other actual personal stability/security merely to own a new trinket.

M said...

Also, the problem is that we're all attached to our property. We just are. It's going to take quite a lot for most of us to shake it.

We are attached to our property because we need it and we use it. Many people don't get attached to things they own because they are things, but because they are things they need and use every day, which they spent their hard-earned money on, and which, if they were to lose them in a burglary for example, they might have to go into debt or work more hours to replace. The things ordinary people own are the things they only manage to obtain because they sell their labour under value. Every thing lost or stolen is a thing that represents the, most often poorly paid, labour that was exchanged for it. I'm very attached to my computer, not because I love it or because it's particularly good (it's not, it cost €500 and was the cheapest I could buy at the time), but because I couldn't work without it and I couldn't survive without work. I cannot "shake" that attachment no matter how I try, as long as I need to work for a living. And I'm reluctant to shake my attachment to my camera (given to me as a gift) because photography makes me happy and helps me when life is shit; or to my books, because I bought most of them by doing some pretty shitty jobs for a miserable wage and they're the only things I have to show for years of crappy work and I love them because some of them have totally revolutionized how I think and feel about the world. How do I detach myself from the things that I need -- whether I need them to live or to flourish or to better understand the world?

Ethan said...

Dan, good story.

Richard, thanks.

Charles, I do think that there's something wrong with private property. It may (I'm not sure) be a necessary evil, but it's still an evil.

And I think what ASP says (hi, ASP!) kind of gets at why, even though she's semi-disagreeing with me--because ownership by private property is at odds with ownership by use and by need. If I buy all the rice in the store, it's all mine, regardless of whether I need it, and regardless of whether anyone else does. And if anyone disputes me, I can call in the cops, and they'll side with me, because it's their job to enforce private property.

ASP (hi again!), this: The things ordinary people own are the things they only manage to obtain because they sell their labour under value. Every thing lost or stolen is a thing that represents the, most often poorly paid, labour that was exchanged for it. is I think important, and very true, but as usual when we differ I tend to see it as a symptom of the same problem I'm talking about. First of all because the wage system treats our lives as property that can be bought--cheaply, as you point out--and so is part of the same system of exploitation that makes up private property, and second because once you start up with a system of private property you have to get into figuring out how that property gets apportioned--and then you get into the scheduled permission to own things, even necessities, that the wage system grants us.

I think my big problem with my reaction in this situation is that someone poorer than me stealing from me is at least trying to direct their action up the chain of power, which is the right direction to go, whereas the impulse to call the cops is exactly what I always say people shouldn't do--appeal to those up the chain of power to suppress those down it.

BDR said...

This is a great subject for a debate macro and micro re: power et al, but mostly I'm just glad you and yours are safe.

Ethan said...

Thanks, friend. Really I'm pretty sure it was just some bored teenagers, nothing to be concerned about, but the concern is definitely appreciated nonetheless!

Picador said...

So: either desperately poor, or young, dumb and bored, or both.

In my personal experience, muggers and burglars are mostly junkies. Desperately poor, young, dumb, bored, sure -- usually all four. But these are not people who are going to sell your stuff in order to pay their rent or buy a meal.

So while I agree that the police can't solve this problem, you're probably wrong when you say that they "need" your things more than you do.

Anonymous said...

It is not an inescapable path from private property to robber baron capitalism.

It is not even an inescapable path from private property to capitalism.

Every social ill we experience today is a result of a combination of things, but mainly, at the base level, it is due to human greed -- acquisitiveness, lust for power/control.

Other social systems one can imagine will have to face this human flaw. None that I'm aware of can get around it. Some get around it better than others; most of them are small groups of autonomous people (Rainbow Family people, other modern day equivalent of hoboes, etc).

I'm talking about America here.

What is the real alternative? That whatever is in my house belongs to whomever wants it?

Whomever needs it?

What, then, is the definition of "need" and (1) who gets to define it; (2) using what tools as reference points or justifications; (3) for whose benefit and/or from whose perspective.

Perhaps we could all agree to create a large mass of land where all present human-made things are discarded and forever gone from human society. We can use flint to create fire; we can make tools to work the land and, for those who eat meat, to catch and kill the animals the meat-eaters want.

To whom will these tools belong?

How will the foodstuffs cultivated or hunted and killed be proportioned?

I think a person has to hopscotch over a lot more pressing, more directly causative events and features of human society on the way to simply blaming private property for social ills.

We might first examine how private property has come to be mis-used. That would be an honest, somewhat intelligent start.

M said...

Hi, Ethan! I get what you're saying, but if it is possible to come up with a way of life where some people will not tend towards hoarding of property and exploitation of others, then it is also possible to devise a system of private property in such a way as to avoid/eliminate the hoarding and exploitation. What I'm saying is that I don't really think it is inherent to the system that it tends towards exploitation, but rather that this is the consequence of how it's implemented. I could be wrong, of course. But even if I am, that is still the system we live in, and one in which I think people are not likely to detach themselves from the things they own, due to reasons I mentioned. And, to be honest, even if they managed that on an individual level, I don't see how that changes the system as a whole.

Richard said...

It might be useful to maintain the distinction between "private property" and "personal possessions", which has been successfully eroded by liberal/neo-liberal brainwashing. What we're really talking about is the latter. We are of course attached to those things, for the various reasons suggested by ASP. I suppose when I spoke of "shaking" our attachment, and the difficulty in doing so, I was referring to the process along the way of trying to make a better world, which wouldn't be one in which we had no personal things of our own, but in which we didn't invest so much of ourselves in them, and hold them greedily to ourselves. My need to have a car because of how society is constructed indeed makes me likely to be very put out if someone breaks into it, or steals it. But do I have to be attached to the car qua car? Perhaps that question is not translatable to all manner of our possessions, nor am I saying they should be. But I guess it's an attempt to modify the attachment.

Now, on the other hand, "private property" really is theft.

Anonymous said...

A personal possession is a piece of private property. That's not a bastardization of liberalism. It's just simply the truth.

Natural resources should never be privately owned. Nobody made them, so nobody should be allowed to own them.

Each of us should be allowed to own personal belongings that are exclusive to us. Without this, we have two options: the entire mass of humanity agrees on everything, and therefore nobody's personal tools, etc, are subject to another's wanting them; or there is an utter absence of things like tools and we go back to using whatever is found naturally occurring.

I'm pretty sure the latter course results in about a 45 year lifespan with massive discomfort during those 45 years.

But it would put us on a much more honest natural existential level with those other living organisms with whom/which we share the planet.

Anonymous said...


Richard, as I was writing my first comment, I had a few thoughts. I said I would be mad if someone expropriated my MTB or skiing equipment. If someone stole my truck, I'd be less angry. My truck is just a way of getting around, I have little personal attachment to it (which seems very UN-American) and it has 106k miles and I plan to drive it until it literally dies. If I lost my truck somehow, my zone of travel would shrink and I would relegate my bicycles to my only means of travel. I could survive on that. How many Americans could? This is something Jim Kunstler has written about extensively and his views on the auto-centric nature of American culture ring very true to me.

My skiing equipment and my MTB, though, they are my tools for enjoyment, for relieving stress, for staying fit, for exploring the backcountry in an enjoyable way. They are also highly personalized -- I am a methodical, technically oriented athlete who tunes his equipment to his own needs. It would be very costly and time-consuming to replace my bicycles or skiing equipment, and it would severely depress me and put me in an existential funk.

Is that a negative commentary on humanity's inclination toward private ownership of personal items?

Or is it a recognition that we have different ways of enjoying the world?

An entirely cerebral person who doesn't do anything physical and needs no tools but his or her own mind, that person would be happy in a world of minimal or no personal property, I'd wager.

But I'm not one of those people, no matter how intellectual I may be.

Richard said...

"A personal possession is a piece of private property. That's not a bastardization of liberalism. It's just simply the truth."

No, it's not.

Anonymous said...

Petulant arrogance is not proof, Richard. Bring the proofs.

I suggest trying to take one of my bicycles from me. That would be the most concrete proof you could offer.

If you are a coward, then try using legal arguments.

(NOTE: this is not a threat, but an attempt to get someone who hides behind arrogance to behave as a fellow human.)

Ethan said...

I'm exhausted from an utterly shitty day at work, so I can't really compose any thoughts right now, but until I can: lots of interesting points here, and there is no need to fight while disagreeing. I hopefully will have something closer to a functional brain tomorrow. Assuming I do I'll continue my end of the discussion here.

JRB said...


I don't know how I would respond either!