Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Owning and Being Owned

A 1972 essay by the Czech philosopher Erazim Kohak somehow came my way, and I read it this week with such fascination that I read it again, making notes as I went.

The essay is entitled Possessing, Owning, Belonging, and it contained some observations I needed to read or hear. In fact, it articulates why I really am not a socialist -- at least, not a movement socialist.

Kohak fled communist Czechoslovakia in his youth, having lived through both the German and Russian occupations, and lived in the United States for a long time. He is devoutly Christian and living once again in his homeland, teaching at Charles University in Prague.

The essay contains an insightful critique of the socialist movement in theory and practice -- Marxism, Leninism, and the contradiction between the collectivist soviet state and the western socialism of the welfare state (distributing palliative care for the victims of boom-and-bust capitalism).

He then demonstrates underlying, socially-conditioned stereotypes about ownership and what it means to own something. Kohak is very sympathetic to the concept of a socialist system that allows "private" ownership of one's own work. He dismisses the "private ownership good, public ownership bad" dialectic as a fallacy, since the soviet system was no less alienating to the worker than unregulated capitalism. If you divorce an individual from their bond to the earth, to their own labors, and to their own bodies, you are alienating them from their own identity. In such a predicament, "liberation" has no meaning whatsoever.

By working, we become intimate with our world and our community. As Pai-Chang said when the young monks took his gardening tools away, "No work, no eat," and so they gave him his tools back. I think of my 90-year old neighbor in Rhode Island, who still shovelled his own walk, using a little toy shovel so he would not strain his heart. "Takes me longer," he would say, "But what's the hurry?"

In turn, Kohak is quite sympathetic to a different kind of socialism, one that would honor and preserve these bonds. He invokes the concept of communio viatorum from the Reformation ("free as Christ made us free"): we need not rely on priests to be moral and obey our God, yet human beings cannot conceive of a state without an owner or possessor. If it is not a king, it may be an aristocracy or a wealthy class who is allowed to buy political representation; even Marx was snared, putting the party in place of the king!

The link to the Reformation is a beautiful stroke. Kohak speaks of democracy as an expression of the Reformation in the sphere of politics:


“Democracy is the political equivalent of the Reformation: the conception of society as a community of free humans who accept the responsibility for governing themselves and dare do without masters on whom blame can be shifted.”


He then envisions an expression of this responsibility in the sphere of economics, of a truly liberating economics of democratic responsibility.

There is more I could say, but I must depart. I'll post this much and see if conversation ensues, and maybe I can present other quotes from the essay.

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