Less obvious perhaps is the idea that voluntary simplicity is an act of nonviolence. Most of the time, we are not directly aware that the right to possession is maintained by violence, but it is only thinly concealed by time and distance. At the physical level, the production of any material object often requires the cutting, grinding, tearing, milking, dismembering, uprooting, crushing, heating, freezing, etc. of some living or formerly living thing. What we make is literally built of the corpses of other beings. It is not my purpose to sentimentalize this violence because it is a violence that is inherent in all living things that rely on other living things for their life. I only wish to point out that at the physical level, the decision to maximize one’s possessions necessarily requires maximizing this kind of violence.

Equally important, however, is the realization that the illusion of possession implies violence between people. In fact, no one can really possess anything. We appear in the world naked and we disappear from it equally naked. During our brief tenancy here, we can attempt to claim the more or less exclusive right to use certain things, enjoy their properties, and dispose of them as we please, but we don’t really possess them. Thus, possession, having, owning, are merely words describing a set of social arrangements that confer rights of use and disposal upon some individuals to the exclusion of other individuals. Such arrangements are not always agreeable among all parties in society and then the enforcement of exclusive rights of use and disposal comes to involve the coercive power—i.e. violence—of the state. The implied threat of violence or its actual application is thus the social force that supports ownership. To try to “own” something is to participate, more or less, in this system. The more I claim to own, the more I participate.

 

Photo by Andrew Mogridge

 

Evidence of this is everywhere. There is a disturbingly direct relationship between increasing material wealth and security systems. The larger the house, the more expansive the grounds, the bigger the office building, the more we see surveillance cameras, fences, alarms, dogs and guns. Where very great wealth is concerned, these tools of violence and this evidence of fear is well-concealed and manicured into the landscape but a single breach, no matter how innocent, brings it into clear view.

We recognize yet a deeper meaning of “ownership.” While it is true that the coercive power of the state enforces property “rights,” many thoughtful people see a basis for this right that is intrinsic to human nature. That is, if I, by my effort and ingenuity, transform some trees into lumber and the lumber into a house, my right to claim exclusive possession of the house derives from my labor and my creativity. Had I not applied my talents thus, the house would not exist. Since it does exist through my constructive activity, it is said to belong to me. Some would argue that it is this relationship between a human being and the fruits of labor that constitutes ownership and that we authorize the state to protect.