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The Private, the Public, and the (Re)Public; The Danger of the Right's Ideas on "Liberty"

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Reprinted from  hygiecracy.blogspot.com

A considerable degree of historical irony inheres in the fact that though the term 'republican' derives from the Latin res publica - which means the public thing - Republicans (though not only Republicans) are everywhere these days privatizing, and thereby eliminating, every public thing they can get their hands on. From the privatization of public utilities, and public broadcasting (recall Mitt Romney's campaign promise to cut funding for PBS in spite of his "love" for Big Bird?), to the charter school movement which aims to privatize public schools and extract profits from that "market," to ongoing lobbying efforts to sell off more and more public land to mining and other industries - distributing and redistributing public wealth to private interests - Republicans (though not just Republicans) and conservatives are indefatigable in their desires to convert the public thing - the res publica, or the commons - into a private thing, transforming the  public good into fiscalized, private goods.  

While it is questionable whether such policies do much aside from further concentrating wealth into ever fewer hands, one of the conservatives' main rationales for pursuing such a path is that such a privatization of the world leads to greater and greater "liberty." Among the more vocal proponents of this view is the conservative radio host and author Mark R. Levin. In broadcasts of his popular radio show, and in the pages of his best selling books, Levin consistently invokes not only the notion that "private property and liberty are inseparable", but that a person's right to live freely and safely is inextricable from his or her "right to acquire and possess property." In spite of his and others' tireless proclamations, however, this so-called right to acquire property is more often than not hostile to actual liberty. Indeed, in many respects the acquisition of property is indistinct from what Levin posits as the very opposite of liberty: tyranny. For, one must recognize the historical and economic fact that - contrary to Levin's and others' contention - property and wealth do not originate merely from one's personal labor and effort (anyone saddled with unforgivable, interest-bearing, student loan debt will be familiar with this). More often than not property derives from the coerced labor of others. Fast-food workers, Walmart employees, and other low wage workers, for example, generally have little choice but to labor for poverty wages (insufficient to meet basic needs), all the while providing billions of dollars in profit to the top 1%. This, however, is hardly all.

In addition to being derived from the world of people - from labor, knowledge, and culture - property is also extracted from the greater world of nature. And in a finite world, of finite resources, the free - unregulated - extraction of what comes to be designated as "property" generally necessitates depriving others of what exists as a commonly held thing - the res publica, interwoven in complex, interdependent ecological and cultural networks. Because the disturbance of the  res publica's equilibrium often results in significant harms, interventions must be undertaken with respect and care; that is, beyond laws prohibiting theft, kidnapping, and fraud, limitations must be imposed on persons' so-called rights to acquire property. Additionally, because the right to acquire property has historically involved - and presently involves - monopolizations of resources which place people in increasingly dependent positions (contrary to the requirements of liberty), the right to acquire property must be limited further. In spite of the fact that such limitations - including, but not limited to, environmental and antitrust laws - protect people from actual harms and, so, are vital to liberty, they tend to be anathema to conservatives. What appears to be a contradiction here, however, is reconcilable when one considers the fact that, for conservatives, concepts such as liberty and 'distribution of wealth' are usually narrowly, uncritically, and self-servingly framed.

For example, while conservatives, among others, disparage attempts to regulate the economy in ways that would protect the public, they do not seem at all disturbed by the actual, de facto day-to-day  regulation of the economy that occurs as a result of the 'normal' course of things. War, subsidies to businesses, tax breaks - these all regulate the economy, and redistribute wealth, as much as anything else. Indeed, though there seems to be no end to the pleasure conservatives derive from proclaiming their disdain for 'social engineering,' the fact of the matter is that policies that include cutting taxes on the rich, giving away valuable public lands to corporate interests for pennies, subsidizing a gargantuan military industry, spending public money on private building projects - like multimillion dollar sports stadiums - are social engineering projects just as well; it's just the engineering of a far less egalitarian society. While conservatives tend to find the idea of redistributing wealth and property to be generally repugnant, they very rarely find anything problematic with the manner in which wealth is distributed (and inertially re-distributed) in the first place. The narrowness of the aperture through which they view history not only allows them to confuse the historical for the natural, it allows them to turn a blind eye to huge swaths of reality as well.

To be sure, one must not neglect to consider the historical fact that wealth has been distributed into its present arrangement not, as the conservative ideology has it, simply through the industrious efforts of individuals; rather, it has occurred through massive, violent appropriations of commonly held land and resources - that is, through the seizure of the res publica. In England, for example, land was not even regarded as property in the sense of something salable until well into the medieval era. Only after the 14th century, when the price of wool increased - imparting great wealth and power to wool merchants - did the merchant class begin to change the feudal property laws to their economic advantage, and to the disadvantage of everyone else. What had for centuries been commonly held lands, which everyone freely used, was increasingly enclosed by fences and hedges. Divided into private plots, these were turned into privately owned pastures for sheep raising. Evicted, the peasant population that had historically lived on these common lands - and had property rights to these lands, along with their feudal duties - was rendered into droves of homeless beggars. As sheep grazed on the land that once supported their families, thousands of the peasantry were converted into vagabonds, frequently executed for mostly petty crimes. This is the historical context of Thomas More's Utopia, in which he writes of the sheep that they "may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns." Rendered superfluous by the new economic arrangement, where the surviving population could not find work they instead found themselves locked up in poor houses and work houses. Years later, their descendants would not only colonize the British Isles, the Americas, Australia, and Africa - where more common lands, resources, and people would be "privatized" - they would also form the bulk of the industrial working class.

Though this process of privatization did not everywhere proceed in the same manner, it nevertheless occurred (and continues to occur) throughout the world - with as many variations as there are cultural distinctions. For instance, while the Cherokee people of the southeastern US owned their land in common, working as much of the land as they liked so long as such use did not infringe on others' interests, this way of life came into conflict with US territorial expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries. Initially encouraged to privatize their land - so that they would in turn sell it to white planters who wanted the land to grow cotton (to be picked by slaves kidnapped from Africa, in an ongoing cycle of expropriation) - the Cherokee nation refused. While their sovereignty was respected so long as the US feared the Cherokee's military might, by the time of the Jackson administration US military strength was sufficient to force the Cherokee nation to the will of the US. When the Cherokee nation refused to sell its land, it was "ethnically cleansed" - i.e. the Cherokee people were forcefully "removed" to present-day Oklahoma on the infamous Trail of Tears; the land (the res publica) was privatized, and remains so to this day.

Later in the 19th century in Africa, among other places - as Karl Polanyi informs us in his seminal The Great Transformation - the conquest of the commons proceeded differently. When told that they would have to labor for their new masters if they wanted to eat, for example, the indigenous populations generally expressed no small degree of confusion. Why should we have to work on plantations in order to eat, they asked, when food is growing freely all around? The imperial response to this was generally to destroy the sources of freely available food (part of the res publica), compelling the people to either starve or work in order to earn money for food, all to the immense profit of private companies, and European states.

From http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Indigenous_Australian_Hunters_1901_Korensky.jpg: Indigenous Australian Hunters 1901
Indigenous Australian Hunters 1901 by Wikipedia


All of this is to say that - contrary to the claims of apologists of the status quo - a present-day redistribution of the world's wealth is not merely a question of distributive justice (of dividing society's wealth equitably among its members); the redistribution of society's wealth is required in order to correct a monumentally unjust enrichment. That is, justice requires ensuring not only that the people of the world receive those resources necessary for human flourishing; it also requires dispersing murderously obtained concentrations of wealth, restoring the people of the world to an approximation of their pre-wronged position. In other words, redistributions of wealth ought to be regarded more as restitution, or reparations for past harms, than as charitable or otherwise generous acts.

This leads to an important point. While conservatives - among others - may be concerned with tyranny, and with the potentially tyrannical power of the State (a potential that has been glaringly actualized by the Bush administration, as well as by the Obama administration - whose tyrannical indefinite detention, disposition matrix, PRISM and XKeyscore programs, not to mention drone strikes, among other draconian policies, have ossified what during the Bush years were still regarded as temporary expansions of power), one must not overlook the fact that the State is hardly the only power actually tyrannizing the people of the world. Insofar as it regulates and determines nearly every aspect of our collective lives - in concert with the enforcement powers of the State - the so-called business community is just as tyrannical. 

Yet while the very real dangers posed by the State are often exaggerated to the point of absurdity by conservatives (e.g., fear of fictitious death panels, and fear of environmentalism, among other things), the regular, concrete harms and dangers posed by businesses tend to be overlooked entirely. A telling instance of this stilted view is visible in the unequal attention paid to the recent Boston Marathon and West, Texas explosions. On April 17th, just two days after the Boston Marathon explosion killed three and injured dozens in Boston, a far larger explosion flattened several square blocks of West, Texas. Though the latter explosion killed 15 people - five times as many as lost their lives in Boston - and could have been avoided had the West Fertilizer Company followed the safety laws they knowingly breached, the explosion in West was treated more as an improbable act of nature than as a wholly preventable consequence of (anti)social behavior. And while the corporate press devoted around the clock coverage to the lockdown of the entire city of Boston, and to the search for the bomber, the explosion in West, and an investigation into who might be culpable, garnered hardly any attention at all. As spectacular and as deadly as the harms occurring in West, Texas, (not to mention the Gulf of Mexico, Savar, Bangladesh, or Fukushima, Japan) may be, however, it is important to point out that far less spectacular harms systemically plague all parts of the world on a daily basis as a normal function of the business class's tyrannical exploitation of the res publica. And though the concrete dangers created by business threaten and sicken all of us (polluting the world, destroying our oceans and air, exposing our bodies to environmental and industrial harms, advancing policies that reproduce poverty, and other ills, not to mention promoting and profiteering from the wars that allow businesses to continue to privatize the res publica) these concrete, widespread dangers are either denied, ignored, or forgiven by conservatives.

It is not simply the case that conservatives' efforts to protect "National Security" (which for all intents and purposes means little more than the securitization of the profits and privileges of the rich) tend to entail sacrificing (privatizing) every vestige of "Social Security" - i.e., the well-being of everyone else; insofar as Social Security in its broad sense involves protecting the res publica, "social security" presents a positive obstacle to conservatives' privatizing agenda. 

To be sure, though conservatives such as Mark R. Levin portray the expansion of the administrative state inaugurated in the early 20th century, and culminating in the New Deal and the Great Society, as the birth of a great tyrannical state, the facts are not so simplistic. Let us recall that during the so-called Lochner Era the Supreme Court maintained that laws protecting worker safety, the regulation of transportation and banking, and other practices (which had existed to a limited extent throughout the 19th century), violated the right of contract, and therefore amounted to violations of what they claimed was a fundamental right to be free from economic regulation. This deregulation of the economy, of course, is really just a regulation of the economy by another name. And it is nothing short of a historical fact that this regulation of the economy by the business classes led to the proliferation of every conceivable manner of exploitation. Regulating society according to the dictates of the market resulted in a world in which slums flourished, the environment was mercilessly mined and exploited; and working people (including small children) regularly worked as long as 16 hours a day, six days a week, in unsafe, unventilated working conditions for starvation wages. And it is precisely this state of affairs that conservatives are working so hard to reinstantiate. 

In addition to the notorious industrial tragedies that accompany deregulation (such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, or the Dhaka fire of 2012), the more mundane aspects of social life were and are equally endangered by unregulated, laissez faire economics. As "muckraking" journalists and writers such as Upton Sinclair revealed in works like The Jungle, not only was the food supply contaminated, the food industries, among others, posed dangers for workers and consumers alike. While consumers were exposed to the harms of poisoned food, workers faced these same dangers along with the possibility of losing life and limb to unsafe working conditions. Because milk, for example, was not regulated, so-called swill milk proliferated in the unregulated economy of the 19th century. Drawn from cows that were fed the byproducts of liquor production, instead of grass, swill was a thin milk adulterated with plaster, among other additives, and was consumed by the less affluent, more vulnerable members of society - in particular children, many of whom regularly died as a result of ingesting this nutrition-less decoction. These types of incidents, reminiscent of the 2008 milk scandal  in China involving melamine, are foreseeable outcomes of unsupervised economic production. To be sure, in spite of free market ideology to the contrary, unless "efficiently" means profits for the rich and disease for the rest of the world, a deregulated economy does not function efficiently. Rather, an unregulated economy produces consistent, predictable, and ongoing harms of which the historical record is replete.

To the extent that so much of the res publica  has become privatized, and so much wealth has polarized over the past few decades, it has become a truism that we live in a political climate so reactionary that a figure as conservative as Richard Nixon (who not only established the EPA, but signed into law the Clean Air Act Extension of 1970, and enforced the desegregation of public schools) resembles a liberal. What's just as true but less frequently remarked upon is that the Republican president Teddy Roosevelt comes off these days as an outright Leninist; for even this imperialist president recognized that, as historian John Milton Cooper paraphrases him, "if you're going to have big business, you're going to have to have bigger government in order to control it and regulate it." Among other things, Roosevelt recognized that absent such regulation, society devolves into a dictatorship of the rich - a dictatorship in which such things as swill milk, poisoned food, a devastated environment and a sickened people provide not the exception to normal life, but the norm itself. Indeed, such a deep conflict of interest exists between the res publica and profit-making enterprises that, in order to protect the general welfare of the world, it is arguably necessary to remove large areas of the economy from for-profit activity altogether. That is, in order to protect the general welfare, some things should just not be for sale. 

It must be explicitly remarked at this point that none of the above should be construed as a defense of the State. However, just because the State is without a doubt highly problematic - and every concentration of power is potentially harmful - this should not justify the delegation of the power to regulate society from the State to the so-called "business community." Rather, the elimination of systemic tyranny requires a model of self-governance that precludes tyrannical concentrations of power in the first place - i.e. one that operates beyond the tyranny of the State and beyond the tyranny of the market as well.

At this point it is interesting to remark that, in addition to the historical irony inhering in the Republicans' efforts to privatize the res publica, it is in no small part ironical as well that Republicans (though not only Republicans) tend to dismiss those advocating for the creation of an entirely new society as idealists. For idealists, let us recall, are those who live in a fantasy world of sorts. And insofar as they live in a fantasy world in which rich and poor alike have an equally fair shot of having their human needs met, and endless, pointless production doesn't lead to ecocide (a fantasy world estranged from the "real world" in which a market-based economic order consistently reproduces extreme wealth for a few, extreme poverty for the many, and all the while deforms the natural world into so much pollution), it is the conservatives and the liberals/progressives who in actuality are the true idealists. 

For though both progressives and conservatives recognize that the present arrangement of society does not come close to satisfying people's actual human needs, their respective faith in the so-called free market (that is, their respective fantasy worlds) prevent them from engaging in meaningful political-economic change. For their part, progressives tend to insist that things will eventually work out if we keep progressing into the future - that is, that the market, in spite of all of the evidence, will rectify things if we keep marching forward out of the political-economic storm. Conservatives meanwhile, contrary to all but their cherry-picked evidence, likewise maintain their faith in the market. Unlike progressives, though, conservatives by and large are defined by their desire to retreat from the present storm to some imaginary, past world. However, even if their past world of picket fences and church-going families, among other such fantasies, did at one time exist - side-by-side with Jim Crow and "removed" people - that world is by now long gone. Not only have its forests been chopped apart, what remains of the once idyllic world is vastly polluted. In spite of conservatives' global warming denial (which reflects a degree of superstitiousness tantamount to belief in witchery), the climate is in fact warming. Beyond the floods, droughts, and storms that continue to intensify, with the rapid melting of snowpacks and glaciers - whose slow melt through summer months has historically provided drinking water to billions of people - aquifers across the world are being pumped dry; and where they are not drying up, lakes and rivers are being contaminated to no end. In other words, even if conservatives could somehow recreate their fantasy world, it wouldn't have any  drinking water.

To protect the res publica (the general welfare, the commons) we must not only recognize that its natural aspects - such as water and the natural environment - must be protected; we must also recognize that its cultural aspects - including our educational systems, our libraries, our public utilities, public hospitals, and other resources - must be preserved and expanded as well. To be sure, in order to preserve and restore the res publica - the public thing - those resources that we rely upon for our collective well-being, like health care, and vital natural resources, must be removed and protected from the degrading world of commerce entirely. Contrary to those who insist that liberty is inseparable from the right to acquire property, we must recognize that what is necessary for our collective well-being should not be for sale at all. And insofar as society owes a duty of care to its people - a duty to protect people from known harms - it is in breach of this duty to the extent that it fails to remove the res publica  from the harmful effects of capital, and fails to restore the cultural and natural wealth of the world - the res publica - to the people of the world.

 

Elliot Sperber is an attorney, teacher, and researcher/writer focusing on legal theory, political theory, and human rights.


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