Adam Curtis and Henry George

Thinking about how Adam Curtis’s documentary series have explained how we have been manipulated into thinking that individualism liberates us, by rejecting common spaces, being part of a society, and how Henry George wrote about how more people living on — and paying for access to — a finite resource like land are connected. This piece from Earthbound underscores the idea:

Capitalism pushes us towards private affluence. We aspire to acquire our own things. Shared things are seen as second best, something of an inconvenience. Politics responds accordingly, prioritising economic growth and ‘more money in your pocket’, rather than shared goods and services. So everyone has their own lawnmower while the grass grows long in the park. People get their own exercise bikes or rowing machines, and the gym at the local leisure centre starts to look tired and under-funded. The wealthy pay for childcare or hire a nanny, but the early years nursery closes down.

We see this in many cities, where the schools in the wealthier neighborhoods are better resourced, have the more experienced teachers, better equipment (funded by the PTSA/parents).

Having access to your own things looks like progress, but there is a cost. Community is one of the victims. Shared spaces are places where community happens, where people mix and meet. Nobody makes new friends on their own rowing machine, in front of the TV. Inequality is another. Those who can afford their own won’t notice, but those on lower incomes rely much more on shared resources. When a library closes, it’s those on the margins of society who lose access to books, internet access, or a warm place to sit and do their homework. There is also an environmental cost, as private ownership means endlessly duplicated goods, many underused objects across many owners rather than a few well used objects that are shared.

Yes, it looks like progress, like independence and freedom. But as anyone who drives in a city knows, more cars make each one less useful. Metcalfe’s law doesn’t apply to cars in an urban environment. Unlike computers or cellphones or people, more cars degrade the network. They don’t transmit value like a computer or cellphone or a person. A bus with 60 people is carrying more value than any single car you can name.

There’s a balance to strike here of course. Not everything should be shared, and there is a dignity in having your own toothbrush. Ownership can be a sign of belonging and inclusion, that you have a stake in the economy. But where does that balance lie? And have we tipped too far towards private consumption?

Here the author touches on one of the great misunderstandings of socialism, that one can own nothing, that you can’t even call your toothbrush your own. This is, of course, nonsense. Private property — property taken from the commons, like land or anything else that no one person can claim to own or have built — is not the same as personal property.

Imagine the value we could create for ourselves and for each other if we didn’t have to fight for access to the land on which to do it.