In the city, very few actually own their own house. The bigger the city, the fewer that own. Also, the bigger the city, the bigger the management companies that own the apartment complexes. These management companies are owned by rich folks, either publically-traded or privately-held. Those individuals also own other things: stock in companies, bonds that represent government debt, etc.
So, wake up in the apartment owned by a man or men that are not known. On the way to work, stop off at a store to buy a soda, and the store and the soda company are both owned in some small part by similar man or men, if not one and the same. At work, be a good employee and work hard, that the corporate profits may increase; the profits go back to a man or men who own the stock and probably own real estate investments. At night, go out to dinner at restaurants or shop at grocery stores that are owned by these same small groups of women and men. One’s whole life is spent, then, with every piece of the life monetized by the same small groups of investors, owners, the 1% of the 1%, so to speak. Stock portfolios and real estate portfolios and company profits all combine inside portfolios that are held by so few.
It smells like feudalism, doesn’t it? Except it doesn’t often feel like it. The great trick of the democratic system is the ability to blame oneself for one’s failure to escape serfdom. It is a choice. One must make a living, and short of wandering homeless and rootless or living in someone’s basement, to be active in the world means working for other people, at companies that are owned by other people. To rise into affluence is to become a lord, then, with all the prestige and privilege that entails. Money buys good lawyers, good investment vehicles, good property in nice parts of town. The simplification of lordship has opened it up to anyone who is lucky enough, brave enough, cunning enough.
Defusing the lordship out across many masters diffuses lots of the tension that comes from knowing one is owned. One could easily, if there is enough money lying around, buy ownership in things and work out of serfdom into the lordship. This is America, and that is the American dream, after all. But, it comes after years of service to masters you do not even know in the street. Who owns you? What is the name of the man who owns the bank who holds your mortgage? What are the names of the men who sit on the board of investors for the company where you work, and who owns them? Is anything tangible even at the top of this pulsing pile of debt and equity we call an economy, or are they just bunch of computer programs gaming the markets for bankers that compete with each other for computer processing speed?
This is the new feudalism: We are owned by masters we do not know. We cannot rebel against what we do not know. We are kept in just enough debt, but not too much. We must work to live, and we must work hard, and our time and energy and labor is converted with every step and consumable and night spent dreaming under a roof and every vacation into someone else’s wealth.
It is a kinder feudalism. We do not feel the whip, mostly. We do get to vote and propose laws that affect how we are held in bondage. The customer service economy will always try to take exceptional care of all of us.
Is it even possible to imagine a world without ownership?
The great democratic experiment was designed to remove kings and monarchs. It has succeeded in that, at least. But, as I write in imaginary worlds, I wonder how wonderful it must be to know who is to blame, who is responsible, and who do we speak with to instigate change in our lives. It must have been so comforting to know who the owners were. It must have been a great comfort to storm the gates of their mansions with pitchforks and torches and drag them from their beds. We have a peaceful feudalism, now, where our protests are peaceful and our rage pours over the internet instead of blood and knives. The peace is a good change. The customer service is such a comfort. In fact, it is so easy to fall into the lovely dream of personal responsibility, where we are in control of our lives and our actions and never feel like there is anyone else to blame but ourselves.
I wouldn’t go back to the violent past; I wouldn’t think for a moment that this form of feudalism is the end state. The arc of history, etc. etc.