Have you ever stopped and wondered ‘what do I really own’?
This is a question that cuts across all demographics: men and women, the young and the elderly, minimalists and protestants. This is not about being materialistic.
At first glance, the very definition of ownership is possession. In modern times, you possess what you pay for. In our post modern times, things have changed slightly.
Now take a minute to get your credit card statement and read through the charges. Any Netflix there? Spotify? Uber or Airbnb, perchance? If you happen to live in the United States, chances are you are either paying your mortgage installments of student loan…or both.
The relationship people have with money and expenses tend to vary accordingly to their ages. Those born during/after WWII grew up under the stigma of scarcity: they are big savers and stability seekers. The baby boomers – those born before 1965 – experienced the blooming of a consumer society, and the perks of buying on credit. Then there came the Generation X, the best educated so far, pragmatic but also highly skeptic.
And then, of course, we have all heard about the millennials. Their work ethics, their passion for accumulating experiences rather than goods, even their ways of establishing romantic relationships – it has all been thoroughly discussed. However, have you ever heard about the centennials? There is still much to discover about them, because they were only born between 1994 and 2010…but still, there are slight differences between them and the millennials: centennials have even more of an entrepeneurial spirit, and consider technology a tool rather than a consumption item. They too regard experiences and flexibility as higher values.
If a conclusion is to be extracted from this theoretical journey, that is the following: as age increases, so is the attachment to stability and tangible goods. The opposite can be said about the subjects on the other end of the spectrum, who are more experience-driven.
Notwithstanding, I would like to provide a different approach to the matter.
About two centuries ago, German philosopher Karl Marx took a concept from Adam Smith and gave it an interesting twist. For Marx, the origin of capitalism is a phenomenon called primitive accumulation. At a given moment in time, some workers took the means of production (land and tools) from the others. The appropriators accumulated wealth by expelling residents from their lands, and the dispossessed were left with no option other than becoming a work force.
Adam Smith believed that the origins of this primitive wealth were only ‘a more diligent disposition towards work’ of a certain group of non-violent labourers. Marx’s twist, on the other hand, explains why such things as war, human trafficking and colonialism came to be.
According to Marx, primitive accumulation enables capitalism to autoreplicate, from its inception to this day and age. And it is true, we cannot understand the world today in the terms of marxism solely, but the notion of primitive accumulation is still enlightening.
Technology tends to be showcased as revolutionary, and sometimes is. And sometimes, it is same old same all over again. We live in a highly technified age that just cannot seem to stop replicating the old ways.
At this point, I am starting to think that it is not a generational thing: no matter how old we are, no matter when or where we were born…we are all dispossessed. And we lost our possessions willingly! We almost gave them up. Loans and mortgages give off a scent of ownership, a sweet promise of being tenants or clear of debt one day. But that day may never come, courtesy of the neverending cycle of market crashes that capitalism produces every ten years or so.
Moreover, this time we lost ownership of culture. We pay big dollars for subscriptions to stuff that will never grace our shelves. Over the years, living rooms have been emptied of movies, records and magazines. I am all for decluttering, but I cannot shake the feeling that too much is being given away. What if one day Spotify decides to remove all Beethoven from its catalogue? This month only, Netflix is taking down almost fifty shows and movies: The Godfather’s three installments, three seasons of Law & Order and The Fellowship Of The Ring are all leaving in January 2019, and that is just to name a few.
Actually, Adam Smith was right this time around. We lost ownership willingly. There were no wars. No one broke into our houses and took our DVDs. The transition was insidious, yet consensual. Alas, owning culture is not forbidden – we can still buy records, we can still buy movies, we can still buy magazines…it’s just that we don’t want to.
Argentine writer Omar Rincón has given a name to this place we are in right now, and that is the coolture:
“(…) A democracy for young people, poor but joyful. Multitasking instead of specialization. Pleasure instead of effort. A society whose emotions are its capital, therapy is a way of life and happiness is a consumer product (…)”
There are a thousand shades of gray between materialism and poverty. Maybe millennials give it all up to travel around the world because they had nothing to hold on to in the first place. Maybe we live on stream air, an air that we pay for, because someone else took the goods first. Maybe minimalism is just ‘happy poor’.
Maybe life is all about experiences and not things…or maybe that is just the illusion that covers the biggest pillage of all times. It will be up to us to discover the possibilities in between.