In the language of chaos theory, Western civilization in general, and its American branch in particular, are in a state of turbulence. Fundamental changes are occurring around us, but we are not inclined to see them. It is as though we were living in the eye of a hurricane, where relative calm and regularity prevail. Our immediate surroundings appear normal, our family lives and work environments are subject to no more disruption than usual, while we tend to dismiss impending storm warnings.
But at the periphery of our world, destructive forces are tearing apart the foundations of our society. As with a real hurricane that brings down trees, buildings, power lines, billboards, and transportation facilities, societal turbulence is confronting perpendicular structures whose elevated centers of gravity make them vulnerable to collapsing forces. The social hurricane moves laterally, its centrifugal energies overpowering any resistance it meets. The institutional order declares war against the turbulence, and acts desperately to reinforce the weakened footings of its antiquated structures. Persons living in hurricane regions, on the other hand, have learned the futility of fighting the storm. As the study of chaos and complexity advises us, our survival depends upon our discovering the orderly patterns within the turbulence to which we can adapt our efforts to productive, life-sustaining ends.
We may, of course, continue to accept the institutional order’s explanations for the tempest as well as its proposed remedies. But neither terrorists nor immigrants have been the cause of the decline of Western civilization any more than were the invading barbarians the cause of the fall of the western Roman Empire. Each such group was but a symptom, among many, of the vulnerability of a civilization that had become weakened by its own contradictions and lack of responsiveness to the conditions upon which life depends. Should we continue to delude ourselves that outside forces are responsible for our inner collapse, and that more powerful mechanisms of state coercion are all that is needed to correct our course, our civilization will most likely continue toward its entropic fate.
On the other hand, the creative implications of chaos and complexity remind us that turbulence need not result in social collapse, but may provide us with opportunities to develop alternative practices that allow us to transcend our present destructiveness. In the words of Erich Jantsch, “the dismantling of social control hierarchies and strengthened autonomy of the subsystems”33 provide the means for discovering more orderly, life-enhancing social systems. Such changes are already occurring. Into the void generated by the increasingly enervated institutional order, are arising new, informal, and relatively unstructured systems that serve the interests of those who choose to associate with them. The decentralized nature of the emerging social systems has been no better stated than in the words of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Shirin Ebadi. She described the organizational model used by Iranian feminist groups in these words:
They are very strong. Their approach is unique because they have no leaders. They do not have a head or branch offices. … The movement is made even stronger by not having leaders. If one or two people lead it, the organization would weaken if these leaders were arrested. Because there is no leader, it is very strong and not stoppable.34
Decentralization leads to a more robust, resilient organization. Centralized authority provides a jugular vein which, when attacked, can greatly damage or destroy the entire system. If you topple the head of a pyramidal organization, the structure may collapse. On the other hand, as Ebadi points out, if you eliminate a key figure in a decentralized network, the system quickly adapts. The distinction between the ease with which Nazi Germany was able to force the central governments of Holland, Poland, and France to surrender, and the impossible time the Germans had in their efforts to subdue the decentralized French underground, illustrate the contrast. Such is the emerging model in which the collectivist doctrine “in union there is strength”—which has made us vulnerable to the power ambitions of others—is being replaced by an awareness that in autonomous and decentralized systems we can maximize both our liberty and the benefits from social organization.
In 1951, John Steinbeck provided an interesting contrast between vertically-structured and horizontally-networked systems. Surmising that “perhaps our species thrives best and most creatively in a state of semi-anarchy, governed by loose rules and half-practiced mores,” he contrasted the likely social consequences that would occur from the “sudden removal of twenty-five key men” in the governments of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, with the United States. “A too greatly integrated system or society,” he warned, “is in danger of destruction since the removal of one unit may cripple the whole.” In America, on the other hand, “we could lose our congress, our president and our general staff and nothing much would have happened. We would go right on. In fact we might be better for it. …”35
If, as seems to be the case, our traditional organizational forms are disintegrating, it will be incumbent upon us to reexamine our basic assumptions concerning how we relate to one another. Whether we are to live in a pyramidally-structured, centrally-directed society, or a holographically-modeled society in which authority is decentralized among individuals, will be reflected in how property is owned and controlled. The reason for this should be apparent: decision-making is always over human lives and property interests. Each such system tells us where the focal point of human action is to be found. Will decisions be made and conduct imposed by a few upon the many, or will individuals undertake such responsibilities for themselves in free association with others? For centuries, we have indulged ourselves in social and political illusions that presume the insignificance of private property ownership, and we are now paying the price for our delusions in the conflict, violence, warfare, genocide, and other dehumanizing practices that beset us all. In one form or another, we are at war with our fellow humans because we neither respect the inviolability of their interests nor demand that of our own.
As Sumner reminds us, property is the most fundamental of all our social concepts, and yet we have relatively little conscious understanding of either its nature or importance. In our materialistic and monetarily defined culture, most of us regard property as little more than “things” or other interests to be owned and used, and measure the success in our lives in terms of the quantity and value of the things that we have accumulated. We largely fail to understand the deeper social and spiritual meanings of property; that how property is owned and controlled tells us how, and by whom, decisionmaking authority is exercised in our lives.
A holographically-modeled system would, by definition, be incompatible with political systems that rely upon centralized force to control the lives and property of subjugated people. Social order would be thought of less as the product of central planning than of informal and spontaneous self-generation. Only a system of privately-owned property—in which authority to make decisions rests in the hands of individuals—is consistent with a diffused model of social organization.
Life functions in a material context: if they are to survive, organisms must occupy space and consume resources to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. This is not a normative proposition—a matter of ideological faith—but a statement of indisputable fact. From the simplest to the most complex life forms—be they animal or vegetable—every living thing is engaged in a continuous process of possessing and absorbing some portion of its physical environment.
At the same time, in a complex and uncertain world, for an organism to remain viable, it must be able to respond to specific conditions and events within its immediate environment with the resources available to it. Life functions at the margin. A species neither “survives” nor “dies” in some collective manner, other than as a consequence of the success or failure of individual members to sustain themselves by resisting entropy. This fact, alone, should alert us to the importance of decentralized private ownership to our survival.
In a quantum world of possibilities and “tendencies to exist,” the absolutism of Newtonian physics will be found wanting. Institutional demands for uniformity and standardization must give way to autonomy and spontaneity as the organizing principle. If we are to reverse our downward course, we ought to heed Toynbee’s warning: “[a]s differentiation is the mark of growth, so standardization is the mark of disintegration.”36 Erich Jantsch has provided this succinct statement of the premise that must underlie our efforts: “[t]he more freedom in self-organization the more order.”37
When we are acting for our own purposes and with our own resources—instead of presuming to act on behalf of multitudes who have never acquiesced in our decision-making over them—the range of both the options available to us and the consequences of our conduct are more narrowly circumscribed. An awareness of the indeterminate and unpredictable nature of complex systems, as well as the subjective nature of our understanding and the preferences we pursue, act as a check upon our hubris. If we err in our judgments, the resulting harm is greatly confined. In either event, whether our actions benefit or harm us, others can learn from what we have done and calculate such lessons into their own conduct.
Such thinking has underlain the philosophy of pluralism, which recognized both the individual and societal benefits of the kind of diversity that has long been submerged in the stultifying concrete of uniformity, egalitarianism, factionalism, and other expressions of institutionalized thinking. The pluralistic practices that foster the individuality and the consequences, from which all of us may learn, depend upon a decentralized system of decision-making authority in society. If we are to have the resilience to make life-enhancing responses to the world— to assess risks and other costs, and to settle upon an efficacious course of action—we must enjoy the autonomy to act upon our portion of the world without interference from others, a liberty to be found only in a system of privately owned property.
In answering the question as to how and by whom property is to be owned and controlled, we shall be telling ourselves how we regard both ourselves, and others. Are we but the producers of the material values that serve both personal and organizational ends, or is there an underlying dignity to our being that precedes such physical needs? Are we individuals entitled to pursue our own ends through the control of our own resources, or are we but the means to the ends of others, to be exploited and disposed of as befits their purposes? Are we worthy of the respect of others—as well as ourselves—as self-directed individuals?
“Authority,” one dictionary informs us, is the “power to require and receive submission: the right to expect obedience: superiority derived from a status that carries with it the right to command and give final decisions.”38 Authority relates to the decision-making processes in our world, and decisions are always made about some thing by some person. By its very nature then, the concept of authority relates to how and by whom decisions are to be made over the lives and property of people. Whether such authority is exercised by each individual over his or her life and other property interests, or whether it is exercised by others over such individuals, determines whether societies will enjoy liberty and be free of conflict.
The property concept is so basic to our lives that most of us have never bothered to think about its meaning or implications. How property is to be owned and controlled is the most functionally relevant social question in any culture. It begins with that most basic inquiry: do individuals enjoy self-ownership?, a topic to which we shall return in chapter five. Property is a purely social concept, having meaning only as it relates to our relationships with other people. If, for example, I were the last person on earth, I would have no need for a property principle upon which to govern my behavior. Let us imagine that I have a toolbox in my possession. There being no other person to challenge my authority over the toolbox, I would be free to do with it as I chose. I would have no more need for an appreciation of “property” principles than I would for a lock on the doors of whatever house in which I chose to reside. Everything in the world would be a potential resource available to me in my efforts to sustain myself. The question of “who is the owner of this tool box?” would have no meaning to me whatsoever. Such was the initial condition experienced by Robinson Crusoe upon his arrival at the island.
But now introduce another human being to my world—a modern version of Friday—and the two of us must arrive at an understanding as to which of us will make decisions about what resources, as we each pursue our self-interests. A preliminary question we must ask each other—as was also implicit in the Crusoe-Friday relationship—is whether each of us will acknowledge the other as self-owning beings, or whether we shall look upon each other as but another resource to be owned and controlled for our personal ends. Whether we expressly articulate the issue this way or not, our relationship will be defined by how we resolve the property question. This matter cannot be avoided, no matter how well-intentioned each of us might be, or how well we get along with one another, or what methods we might agree upon for resolving the problem: we may even agree to share the tool box. Whatever the outcome, the problem is an unavoidable fact of our existence, as each of us endeavors to consume the energy that will keep us alive and allow us to realize our self-interested ends. What makes this a social issue is not my exercise of control over the toolbox, but the presence of a potential competitor—or even a cooperator— regarding how, and by whom decisions regarding the toolbox will be exercised. The property question, in other words, has nothing to do with my relationship to the toolbox, but with my relationship to my neighbor concerning the toolbox.
As the property concept illustrates, to think of our relationships with others in holographic terms is not to repress one’s sense of individuality in favor of a new-and-improved collective dogma. Consistent with our emerging understanding of the dynamics of complexity, it is to see ourselves and others in terms of relationships grounded in the kind of existential equality that presumes no person to have rightful authority over another. As we learn to see our individual uniqueness and selfinterested nature as the qualities we share with all others; as we begin to comprehend how a holographic model ends the divisions we have created amongst one another; we may reverse our destructive course. We may discover how to live cooperatively in society without either diminishing the importance of our sense of self, or regarding our neighbor as an exploitable resource.