Posts Tagged ‘fascism’

On the Concept of Ownership

Monday, 23 May 2016

I have long and often encountered discussion that implicitly or explicitly involves notions of property or of ownership, which discussion is rendered incoherent from a failure to consider what it means for something to be property, what it means to own something.

Some confusion arises because we have come often to use the word property casually to mean an object (physical or more abstract) to which some sort of ownership may apply, without our considering whether the object is well conceptualized for purposes of considering property rights,[1] and without considering that actual ownership associated with that object might be distributed in some complicated ways amongst multiple parties.

One might, for some reason, associate a plot of land with an object imagined as beginning at the center of the Earth and extending to some sort of limits of the atmosphere (or beyond); from such an association, and then from a presumption that the whole object were property, farmers were once known to shoot at airplanes as trespassing vehicles. Yet other folk would assert that owning a plot of land as such only entitled one to control things to lesser depths and heights, in which case the rights could be associated with a smaller object, representing a sub-object as it were. One person might be thought to have the right to farm the aforementioned land, and another to extract its mineral resources so long as he didn't thereby interfere with the farming. Possibly others would claim peculiar easements, allowing them to travel through some or all of the object without thereby trespassing. There might be purported rights entitling still others to flows of resources such water, air, and electromagnetic radiation travelling through the object. In the case of sunlight (an electromagnetic radiation), the rights would typically be presumed to involve only some space above the soil, and the farmer might both have claims against her neighbors doing things that reduced her sunlight and be constrained by similar claims for her neighbors.

If we are thinking in terms of one object, and then change to thinking of an object within it, previously relevant rights of ownership may become irrelevant. If we instead think in terms of an object of which our original object is but a part, then new claims may become relevant. Two objects, neither of which is completely contained in the other, may share some third object as a part; so that any thorough consideration of ownership involving these two objects containing the third may involve rights that are literally identical and rights that are different. The minimal object relevant to describe some asserted set of property rights might not be sufficient to describe other rights none-the-less associated with that object. The minimal object in each of the previously mentioned cases (of farming, of easement, of mineral extraction, and of unobstructed resource flow) is somewhat different from the minimal object in the other cases.

A farmer who somehow forfeits her right not to have sunlight artificially obstructed may still be imagined to own the plot of land on which she grew her crops, yet she doesn't own what once she owned. Likewise, a house-holder who somehow surrenders his right to come and go from the plot on which the house sits doesn't own what once he owned. And, though it would perhaps seem very unsual, one might imagine these rights not transformed into claims for those who have prior rights to surrounding spaces, but instead coming into possession of third parties. For example, perhaps I speculate that I can buy whatever rights I need to build a skyscraper, on the assumption that I can buy a right to block the sunlight to a neighboring farm; I could purchase that latter right first, then discover that I am thwarted as to other purchases. This might work nicely for the farmer, but she no longer has a right that she once had; she no longer owns something that she once owned.

We can still express what things are owned as if they are objects, but we must then select our objects to match our rights of use. And our discourse can become strained and unnatural if we insist on always treating the thing owned as a distinct object rather than as a right of use. For example, if Timo is exclusively entitled to inhabit a cabin in the Winter and james is likewise entitled to inhabit it in the Summer, and we must express them as owning distinct objects, then we must treat the cabin in Winter as one object and the cabin in Summer as another. Indeed, we will surely have to be far more contrived in our construction of objects to account for what the two jointly do not own of the cabin! On the other hand, we can say that each has a right to use the cabin in some way without necessarily specifying how other rights of use are distributed; the concept of the cabin is available without first settling questions of ownership.

I don't propose that we generally stop using the word property as in the ordinary sense of a piece of property, merely that we understand that this everyday use may be misleading. Nor would I suggest that we should somehow stop thinking in terms of objects when we carefully consider ownership. But we must be alert to the fact that our choice of objects with which to think is largely taxonomic and to some degree arbitrary, and we should not take results that are no more than artefacts of that taxonomy as anything more profound.

In fact, the right of use may be recognized as itself an object of an abstract sort, but the right to use a right of use is not distinct from simply that right of use, and thus cannot be dissociated from it.[1.5]

My laboring of the relationship of ownership to objects and their uses isn't quibbling nor pirouetting. People who imagine an object as such to be owned tend all too often to imagine it somehow being owned beyond any of its various possible uses. They thus imagine that it can remain the property of one person or group even as another party — most often those in control of the state — appropriate its use, and even as this second party seizes every right of use. It then also becomes absurdly thinkable that one person might retain every right of use that she had, associated with an object, yet transfer ownership to some other party. Ownership would be reduced to absolutely nothing more than something such as a formal title.

When the state regulates property, it is taking rights of use and hence ownership. This transfer is relevant to questions of compensation (as in the case of the guarantees of the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution[2]), and of whether state regulation of the means of production is a form of socialism.

[1] The word object comes from the Latin ob-iacere, meaning throw-before, and referred originally to that thrown before the mind. What we now call objects are, however, mental organizations of what is thrown before us. Thus, to use a classic example, we can talk about my hand as an object, and my fist as an object; they seem to be the same object, yet only sometimes. (We may still, in good conscience, use the word objective for perceptible external reality. And extending it to include unperceived and imperceptible external reality shouldn't cause more than mild discomfort; the rightful demands of etymology are not unlimited.)

[1.5] This paragraph was added on 24 May.

[2] That Amendment (with an underscore by me) reads

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Urban Renewal

Friday, 4 July 2008
Missing reels from Lang's Metropolis discovered by Tony Paterson in the Independent
A print of Fritz Lang's Metropolis has been found that includes almost a quarter of the silent film which was thought to have been lost.


Yesterday, Anke Wilkening, one of the team of historians, said all but one scene of the full version, last viewed in May 1927, had been rediscovered. Almost everything that had been missing has been found, including two key scenes, she said.

I am not, properly speaking, a fan of Metropolis; I have considered its message to be fascistic, and don't see it as plausible that its fascism was an artefact of the scenes in question having been dropped. But Metropolis is none-the-less a very important film, and I am actively pleased that this material has been found.

(I went looking for this story after reading an entry at the Horrors of It All.)

Cook's Tours

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Some days ago, the subject of machine guns came-up in conversation with the Woman of Interest, and I noted to her that fully-automatic firearms had first come under tight regulation as part of a war on a drug — the drug in question being alcohol. Synchronistically, within a day or so I received and watched the original Scarface (1932).

The film is prefaced by text that declares that it's essentially doing no more than presenting events that have really happened, that the government is not doing enough to protect the citizenry, and that the citizenry must act to get the government to act. Part-way through the film there's a moralizing scene in which community leaders confront a newspaper publisher, claiming that he's glorifying gangsters. He responds essentially with the same message that had prefaced the film — that he is reporting the facts, that the government is not doing enough, and that the citizenry must act to get the government to do more. Then we learn what he thinks ought to be done: outlaw machine guns, effect martial law, and accept the offer of the National Commander of the American Legion to act as a militia against the gangsters. As part of the case for martial law, the publisher notes that the governor of Oklahoma had effected martial law to regulate oil production and claims that surely then we should use martial law against guns. (At some point, the publisher stops qualifying the attack as against any particular sort of gun.)

Many people might not know about that business of martial law in Oklahoma. What specifically happened is that, on 4 August 1931, Governor Alfalfa Bill Murray had 3000 oil wells forceably shut-down to reduce production and thereby drive-up price.

And let's talk about the leadership of the American Legion in that era. Here are the words of American Legion National Commander Alvin Mansfield Owsley, in January 1923:

Do not forget, that the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States.
In 1931, the Executive Committee passed a resolution praising Mussolini as a great leader, and the National Commander of that year, Ralph O’Neill, presented a copy of the resolution to Mussolini’s Ambassador to the United States. In 1935, during a trip to Italy, National Vice-Commander William Edward Easterwood pinned a Legion pin on the lapel of Benito Mussolini.

What the character of the publisher is preaching is the displacement of individual liberty and of procedural rights with command-and-control fascism.

The problem of that era wasn't alcohol per se, nor was it fully-automatic firearms per sese. The problem was Prohibition, that war on a drug. We didn't need even less freedom and even more government, we needed more of the former and less of the latter.

Most of the moralizing in Scarface is not well integrated into the film. One could discard the prefacing text and the publisher's speech without any apparent gap in the story-telling. What would remain would be what seems to be an objection to writs of habeas corpus being used to free gangsters before the truth can be beaten out of them, and perhaps just a hint of the notion that fully-automatic firearms are evil. That overt moralizing seems, then, an after-thought intended to mute or vitiate criticism of what was, by the standards of 1932, a very violent film, depicting fairly ruthless characters.

The 1983 remake was likewise violent for its era, and also controversial for what many took it to say about the Cuban immigrants of the Mariel Boatlift. The remake had its own bizarre moralizing, mostly effected around the film, as in proclamations by director Brian De Palma and in the advertising campaign for the film. The conceit was that this Scarface was an indictment of the profit motive. Of course, the profit motive shouldn't be indicted — objecting to the profit motive is no more or less than objecting to purposeful action. At best, one might object to how someone conceptualized profit. (As, for example, in For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?)

It is interesting to note what elements within the story were preserved in producing the remake, and how things were transformed. Antonio (Tony) Camonte is a distinctly less appealing character than is Tony Montana. Paul Muni looks like one of Joe Kirby's sloppy drawings for Timely. Camonte plainly likes violent extortion, and he dies like a panicked rat. Montana isn't vicious, his downfall is precipitated by a refusal to allow children to be killed, and he dies a berserker. But, because the dialogue in the original is vastly better, it is easier to understand Poppy being drawn to Camonte than Elvira Hancock becoming Montana's mistress. (Poppy's choice may not be more laudable, but it is more plausible.) On the other hand, while the visual device carrying the message The World Is Yours in the original has more potential than those in the remake, that potential is largely wasted in the original whereäs the the remake makes very effective use of its devices. There is the barest suggestion of incestuous desire in the original, and that's probably almost optimal; the crude references in the remake cause the characters to be both more disgusting and less interesting. On the other hand, the original treats Antonio as falling apart in the wake of killing Guino, but it isn't clear why Antonio falls apart; he expresses no regret for what he has done, and he has hurt 'Cesca in the past without apology or collapse. Further, Guino seems to chose to let Antonio kill him, without good reason for doing so. In the remake, Manny is simply an idiot, and didn't appreciate that, even if he and Gina were married, Tony might still reäct violently. Tony doesn't appear to regret killing Manny, and Tony''s collapse is a result of other things (problems with his business associates, a lack of anticipated gratification from material success, and drug use).

Steele on Fascism

Sunday, 13 April 2008