You'll Own Nothing, and Hate It
As property ownership becomes a pipe dream, many young people are turning to socialism.
You could call it the “Property Paradox.” It is one of the many strange phenomena belonging to the present, seen through the dark glass of a dissolving relationship between property and liberty.
Since Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy and America, many have propounded that a crucial relationship exists between property ownership—the ultimate refuge for safety and privacy—and liberty. A solid property-owning middle class is an essential bulwark against a plutocracy exerting undue influence over a state. “The home is the foundation of sanity and sobriety,” stated Robert Menzies, the longest-serving prime minister of Australia. “It is the indispensable condition of continuity; its health determines the health of society as a whole.”
But for increasing numbers of Americans, as in my home country, the U.K., property ownership is a dwindling pipe dream. That is especially true for younger generations, left navigating a nightmare of a rental market. But even while the ground beneath property ownership for ordinary people crumbles away, ownership as an abstract principle is lusted after in increasingly absolute terms.
Again, it is the younger generations most caught up in this abstract quest for ownership, especially in regard to the human body.
“‘It’s my body, I can do anything I want with it’—you can see how that motivates the abortion debate, it certainly motivates sexual orientation debates and ultimately it orients the transgender debate,” Mark T. Mitchell, a professor of government and author of Plutocratic Socialism: The Future of Private Property and the Fate of the Middle Class, recently noted in a First Things podcast appearance. “Increasingly it’s going to be a central feature in the transhumanism debate.”
This logic, Mitchell says, can only be “diverted” if, instead of thinking in absolute terms of ownership, “we think of ourselves as stewards, caretakers who have been entrusted to care for what we have been given so that we can improve it, if possible, and pass it on to future generations.”
Increasingly, though, especially in terms of property, it is not clear how much we will be permitted to hold on to that might be passed on.
“You’ll own nothing—and you’ll be happy,” stated the now-infamous World Economic Forum social media video that in 2016 made eight predictions about the world in 2030, adding: “What you want you’ll rent, and it’ll be delivered by drone.”
Sounds handy. What the video didn’t fess up to was that by 2022 the digital revolution would see a “drive towards digital currency and digital ID that has been accelerated by the Covid crisis,” as Alex Klaushofer, a British writer specializing in dystopian trends in public policy, has noted. “Around half the world’s governments are looking into introducing a central bank digital currency or CBCD, a digital version of fiat money which would be issued and regulated by the state.”
Klaushofer notes that organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Groups are throwing their weight behind the “benefits” of CBDCs and digital IDs. They probably would be convenient in some ways. Such technology is also the foundation of social credit systems like China’s.
The U.K. is getting more of a taste of this than is the U.S. due to the rapid expansion of cashless, card-only payment systems throughout the British economy.
“It’s a fundamental shift,” as Geoff Norcott said recently, noting the disturbingly sangfroid acceptance by so many of an “easily manipulated centralized currency,” especially among younger generations. “There will soon be no way of operating without having your movements and affairs logged on some level. This creates an anxiety I haven’t felt before.”
The political thinker Hannah Arendt pointed out that totalitarianism doesn’t just come from an all-powerful state. It can come more subtlety, in the erasure of the separation between private and public life. We are only free, Arendt argued, when we have a degree of control over what people know about us and the circumstances in which they discover more.
The loss of boundaries, rather than "liberating" us—as so many of today’s narratives around fluidity claim, and which are gobbled up by younger generations—make us more vulnerable to manipulation and authoritative governance. The safeguarding barrier between the public and private realms took a further hit during pandemic lockdowns and remote working from home. Suddenly people were working at the breakfast table in their pajamas, appearing on Zoom for meetings as colleagues peered into each other’s homes. Society is still sifting through the psychological and material detritus of having external work and school for most families pushed into the home. Not to mention all the other consequences of the response to Covid.
Get daily emails in your inbox
Hence, perhaps, the hard swing happening to the left, especially among the young. After all, if you own nothing, and have next to no prospects and nothing to lose, why not risk everything or embrace whatever dogmas are offered with promises of help? Rather than just criticizing those embracing socialism and state intervention, those who claim to be conservative and to care about preserving institutions and the way of life bequeathed by the struggles and sacrifices of the past need a dose of more honest self-reckoning. Republicans and conservative types are just as culpable for the ruthless economic landscape that has developed in the U.S. and in the U.K., which is delaying if not denying property ownership, with all the attendant social costs: less marriage, deferred parenthood, familial breakdown, cultural atomization, plus all the further knock-on problems and destructive trends each of those fuels.
Since Covid, we have seemingly lurched from one crisis to another, giving rise to a state of so-called permacrisis, with the pandemic giving way to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to runaway inflation and economic meltdown, all the while steeped in clarion calls about race conflict, oncoming environmental catastrophe, or demographic collapse. Some would argue that this sense of permacrisis has become the norm since 9/11, that younger cohorts have spent entire lives immersed in this uncertain, unpredictable and crises-ridden ecosystem and echo chamber, knowing nothing else.
Amid the resulting social and generational strife, as people lose the ability to stake a claim to privacy and agency—especially in the form of brick and mortar—they grow only more reliant on, whether they like it or not, the suffocating embrace of the state and all its misplaced munificence.