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Noam Chomsky: Destroying the Commons - How the Magna Carta Became a Minor Carta

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The rise of capitalist practice and morality brought with it a radical revision of how the commons are treated, and also of how they are conceived.  The prevailing view today is captured by Garrett Hardin's influential argument that "freedom in a commons brings ruin to us all," the famous "tragedy of the commons": what is not owned will be destroyed by individual avarice. 

An international counterpart was the concept of terra nullius, employed to justify the expulsion of indigenous populations in the settler-colonial societies of the Anglosphere, or their "extermination," as the founding fathers of the American Republic described what they were doing, sometimes with remorse, after the fact.  According to this useful doctrine, the Indians had no property rights since they were just wanderers in an untamed wilderness.  And the hard-working colonists could create value where there was none by turning that same wilderness to commercial use. 

In reality, the colonists knew better and there were elaborate procedures of purchase and ratification by crown and parliament, later annulled by force when the evil creatures resisted extermination.  The doctrine is often attributed to John Locke, but that is dubious.  As a colonial administrator, he understood what was happening, and there is no basis for the attribution in his writings, as contemporary scholarship has shown convincingly, notably the work of the Australian scholar Paul Corcoran.  (It was in Australia, in fact, that the doctrine has been most brutally employed.)

The grim forecasts of the tragedy of the commons are not without challenge.  The late Elinor Olstrom won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 for her work showing the superiority of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins.  But the conventional doctrine has force if we accept its unstated premise: that humans are blindly driven by what American workers, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, bitterly called "the New Spirit of the Age, Gain Wealth forgetting all but Self."

Like peasants and workers in England before them, American workers denounced this New Spirit, which was being imposed upon them, regarding it as demeaning and destructive, an assault on the very nature of free men and women.  And I stress women; among those most active and vocal in condemning the destruction of the rights and dignity of free people by the capitalist industrial system were the "factory girls," young women from the farms.  They, too, were driven into the regime of supervised and controlled wage labor, which was regarded at the time as different from chattel slavery only in that it was temporary.  That stand was considered so natural that it became a slogan of the Republican Party, and a banner under which northern workers carried arms during the American Civil War.

Controlling the Desire for Democracy

That was 150 years ago -- in England earlier.  Huge efforts have been devoted since to inculcating the New Spirit of the Age.  Major industries are devoted to the task: public relations, advertising, marketing generally, all of which add up to a very large component of the Gross Domestic Product.  They are dedicated to what the great political economist Thorstein Veblen called "fabricating wants." In the words of business leaders themselves, the task is to direct people to "the superficial things" of life, like "fashionable consumption." That way people can be atomized, separated from one another, seeking personal gain alone, diverted from dangerous efforts to think for themselves and challenge authority.

The process of shaping opinion, attitudes, and perceptions was termed the "engineering of consent" by one of the founders of the modern public relations industry, Edward Bernays.  He was a respected Wilson-Roosevelt-Kennedy progressive, much like his contemporary, journalist Walter Lippmann, the most prominent public intellectual of twentieth century America, who praised "the manufacture of consent" as a "new art" in the practice of democracy. 

Both recognized that the public must be "put in its place," marginalized and controlled -- for their own interests of course.  They were too "stupid and ignorant" to be allowed to run their own affairs.  That task was to be left to the "intelligent minority," who must be protected from "the trampling and the roar of [the] bewildered herd," the "ignorant and meddlesome outsiders" -- the "rascal multitude" as they were termed by their seventeenth century predecessors.  The role of the general population was to be "spectators," not "participants in action," in a properly functioning democratic society.

And the spectators must not be allowed to see too much.  President Obama has set new standards in safeguarding this principle.  He has, in fact, punished more whistleblowers than all previous presidents combined, a real achievement for an administration that came to office promising transparency. WikiLeaks is only the most famous case, with British cooperation.

Among the many topics that are not the business of the bewildered herd is foreign affairs.  Anyone who has studied declassified secret documents will have discovered that, to a large extent, their classification was meant to protect public officials from public scrutiny.  Domestically, the rabble should not hear the advice given by the courts to major corporations: that they should devote some highly visible efforts to good works, so that an "aroused public" will not discover the enormous benefits provided to them by the nanny state.  More generally the U.S. public should not learn that "state policies are overwhelmingly regressive, thus reinforcing and expanding social inequality," though designed in ways that lead "people to think that the government helps only the undeserving poor, allowing politicians to mobilize and exploit anti-government rhetoric and values even as they continue to funnel support to their better-off constituents" -- I'm quoting from the main establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, not from some radical rag.

Over time, as societies became freer and the resort to state violence more constrained, the urge to devise sophisticated methods of control of attitudes and opinion has only grown.  It is natural that the immense PR industry should have been created in the most free of societies, the United States and Great Britain.  The first modern propaganda agency was the British Ministry of Information a century ago, which secretly defined its task as "to direct the thought of most of the world" -- primarily progressive American intellectuals, who had to be mobilized to come to the aid of Britain during World War I. 

Its U.S. counterpart, the Committee on Public Information, was formed by Woodrow Wilson to drive a pacifist population to violent hatred of all things German -- with remarkable success.  American commercial advertising deeply impressed others.  Goebbels admired it and adapted it to Nazi propaganda, all too successfully.  The Bolshevik leaders tried as well, but their efforts were clumsy and ineffective.

A primary domestic task has always been "to keep [the public] from our throats," as essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson described the concerns of political leaders when the threat of democracy was becoming harder to suppress in the mid-nineteenth century.  More recently, the activism of the 1960s elicited elite concerns about "excessive democracy," and calls for measures to impose "more moderation" in democracy. 

One particular concern was to introduce better controls over the institutions "responsible for the indoctrination of the young": the schools, the universities, the churches, which were seen as failing that essential task.  I'm quoting reactions from the left-liberal end of the mainstream spectrum, the liberal internationalists who later staffed the Carter administration, and their counterparts in other industrial societies.  The right wing was much harsher.  One of many manifestations of this urge has been the sharp rise in college tuition, not on economic grounds, as is easily shown.  The device does, however, trap and control young people by debt, often for the rest of their lives, thus contributing to more effective indoctrination.

The Three-Fifths People

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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