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Are We Possessed by Our Possessions?

Virtually everyone agrees that people in the advanced capitalist nations have way too many possessions. Three and four car families, multiple televisions and numerous devices to send and receive messages and media all day and all night. Of course, many more people have considerably less, even in the United States, where possessions are totems to the public’s capitalist faith. In recent years it seems that more and more observers of this need to possess have called on the consuming masses to slow down and consider their buying practices in terms of the planet’s future. The fact that this addiction to things has helped create and ecological disaster is finally sinking in.

Bruce Hood, author of Possessed: Why We Want More Than We Need, is among those observers calling for a reconsideration of the “need” to possess. His book takes a look at this phenomenon through the lens of psychology. His conclusions are somewhat disenchanting, to say the least. According to Hood, the desire to possess things is hard-wired into the human consciousness. In making this claim, Hood cites examples of what he claims are early human attempts to own things, beginning with animals and land. From there, he expands his gaze to the human transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural and then urban one. All along he cites examples of the growing desire to own and its effects on humanity. Those who owned obtained more power over those who didn’t. As those individuals who owned gained power, they began to exercise it against those who had less. Landowners began taking away the commons where peasants grazed their animals. This created a situation where the peasants either had to diminish their herds, pay rent to the landowners to graze or get rid of their animals altogether. This created a surplus wealth for those with the land. It also provoked resentment and rebellion amongst those without. In order to defend and expand their power over property and the people who wished to use it, political power was assumed and grabbed by the landowners. Their surplus wealth was often used to buy things they did not need to exist, but wanted because they were either considered beautiful or symbols of wealth and status.

All of this makes sense and is part of a certain historical understanding of human history. This reviewer can find no fault with the author’s text in this regard. It is with his claim that the desire to won is hard-wired that demands an examination. If humans are wired to possess unnecessary items, how do psychologists like Hood explain those humans who don’t care about such things and intentionally live without them? Throughout history, there are numerous examples of collective and communal actions done for the common good. Indeed, the existence of the commons, as discussed by various academics and others, is a prime example. Hood, being a psychologist, uses various experiments conducted by himself and others in the field, to examine this question. His experiments, as explained by him, seem to provide verification of his theory. The drawback to this, however, is that his subjects are primarily from the very societies and cultures that have raised the cult of possession to religious heights. In other words, they are hyper capitalist and focus on the importance of the individual to the point of narcissism. Hood even acknowledges as much when he notes that the bulk of adult subjects in most psychology experiments are college students in countries where the majority of students are white and economically fairly well situated.

Although Hood discusses the rise in individualistic behavior and a greater focus on possession as capitalist nations develop economically, he barely mentions that capitalism and capitalist development (which is quite different than more collectivist versions) encourages egocentrism and selfishness. He does discuss how the rise of the consumerist society in the twentieth century intensified these traits in consumerist economies. This is the psychology of capitalism. Empathy is discouraged while competitive individualism is raised to the primary human trait. Other scientists, perhaps most notably Gary Olson in his text Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain, argue that empathy is as hardwired into the human consciousness as competition and possessiveness. Olson continues, stating that capitalism and its culture is destroying that element of humanity. In Possessed, Hood does seem to agree with Olson’s conclusion, but not necessarily his claim that humans are hardwired for empathy. The likelihood is that humans are hardwired for both, since the survival of the species demands empathy and perhaps even a bit of possessiveness. Both men seem to understand that if the species is to survive, it is empathy which must come to forefront now. Hood ends his text with a sentence stating exactly that. Olson goes even further, insisting that humans must adopt a “dangerous” empathy that includes both humans and non-humans and goes beyond capitalism. Only a movement founded in this empathy can reverse the current course of humanity’s race toward ecological disaster. Hood, by focusing on individual psychologies, stops short of any such universal call.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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