The Western idea of private property is flawed. Indigenous peoples have it right

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Julian Brave NoiseCat
March 27, 2017

We live in a world dominated by the principle of private property. Once indigenous people were dispossessed of their lands, the land was surveyed, subdivided and sold to the highest bidder. From high above, continents now appear as an endless property patchwork of green and yellow farms, beige suburban homes and metallic gray city blocks stretching from sea to shining sea.

The central logic of this regime is productivity, and indeed it has been monstrously productive. In tandem with the industrial revolution, the fruits of billions of acres of dispossessed and parceled indigenous land across the Americas, Africa, Asia, Ireland and Australia enabled two English-speaking empires – first the British and then the American – to rise to global dominance. The latter remains the most productive economy in the world.

Property also embodies and upholds a set of values and relationships to land. It propagates a utopian vision called the American Dream, wherein hard work, land and a home are platform for boundless opportunity – or at least escape – from capital domination. It separates humanity from all other animals and cements man’s mastery over the natural world and all living things.

While property has transformed the world, its flaws have never been more apparent. Open land on the frontier, if it ever actually existed for the common man’s taking, is long gone. Homeownership no longer provides the economic security it once did, and appears out of reach for younger generations. The richest 1% holds more wealth than the rest of the world combined. At the same time, environmental degradation and climate change proceed at a terrifying pace.

Our capitalist property regime and economic system have succeeded at producing remarkable surplus. But the benefits of this system too often flow to a small fraction of the population, while land, water, air and people pay the long-term price.

Prior generations responded to similar crises by turning to communism. But today, Marx, Lenin and Mao no longer offer a scythe sharp enough to fell the stalks of capitalism.

Another, more cutting-edge possibility is to heed the diverse indigenous voices displaced and drowned out by imperialism. From Standing Rock to Queensland, colonized and indigenous people are demanding new relationships to water that sustains the life and land which provides for the people.

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