Friday, August 30, 2013

Freedom from Jobs

published on CounterPunch

While gains have certainly been made toward a more inclusive, egalitarian society over the half-century since Martin Luther King delivered his iconic I Have a Dream Speech (as part of the March for Jobs and Justice in Washington, D.C.), in many respects – particularly in economic matters – there has been little or no progress at all. Indeed, by certain measures equality has significantly diminished in the US. Accompanying a minimum wage that, when adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was in 1968, and wages that – except for the wealthy – haven’t risen in decades, the economy has polarized wealth to a greater degree than ever, reducing the economic classes more and more to two - rich and poor - and squeezing the middle and working classes into little more than a memory in the process. In among other places, this lack of change is observable in the fact that it’s five decades later and people are still talking about jobs – coveting jobs as though jobs were those necessities and luxuries that work is obtained to secure.
Notwithstanding this culture of work’s ideological claims to the contrary, jobs are less preconditions for freedom than impediments to freedom’s concrete realization. Beyond consuming most of workers’ waking hours (consuming that which constitutes the precondition for freedom – time), jobs also wreck people’s health, vitiating freedom in the sense of bodily movement as well. Moreover, that people are compelled to work a job – irrespective of the job’s need, or function – demonstrates the consanguinity of jobs and dependency, rather than in-dependency. Some may counter at this point that needing a job is just a natural, unavoidable fact – that people must work to live. But the inordinately excessive amount of time that people devote to work in the US (and capitalist societies in general) is less a natural fact than a cultural one.
Indeed, let us not neglect to consider the fact that when people talk about “good jobs” they are not necessarily discussing the correction of some pressing problem, or providing some truly desired service, or satisfying some actual need. When people discuss “good jobs” they are primarily discussing ways to make money. If one can turn a solid profit selling known carcinogens, such will count as a “good job” - irrespective of the fact that such enterprises wreak far more concrete, objective harm than good.
Contrary to popular opinion, then, people don’t actually need jobs; we work jobs in order to acquire money. And money’s another thing we don’t in truth need – we need those things that this socioeconomic system only provides in exchange for money: food, housing, clothing, etc. Jobs are but a middleman – a means to acquire resources, not an end. Rather than representing any instance of simple irrationality, however, this treatment of jobs as ends, rather than means, reflects the upside-down logic of capital - a rationality contrary to critical reason, for, more often than not, jobs don't rectify problems so much as they reproduce them. 
Another aspect of this that should be pointed out when discussing people's demands for jobs is that, though owners cannot function without workers’ cooperation, jobs are not extended to workers out of any sense of generosity or concern for the public. To be sure, the public is only valued to the degree that it can be transmuted into the private. Unless a worker’s work brings the owner an amount of money that exceeds the amount that the owner pays the worker, the owner won’t hire anyone at all. This simple, straightforward, arithmetical fact is commonly referred to as “business sense.” For a hire to make “business sense,” an owner will only hire a worker if the owner can derive more value from the worker's efforts than the owner pays the worker. Another way of saying this is that jobs are exploitative. Workers provide more value to owners than they receive in return. As such, in asking for jobs, people are asking to be exploited – which, by definition, is the opposite of freedom. Of course, as they say, this is just the name of the game. And, as Dolly Parton informs us in her hit song 9 to 5, “it’s a rich man’s game, no matter what they call it – and you spend your life putting money in his wallet.”
This exploitation is not limited to people. To be sure, it is hardly limited by anything at all. Even advocates of capitalist economics admit that capitalism functions by exploiting as much as it can: people, animals, plants, earth, water, etc. All are regarded as materials to be bought and sold, their value reduced to a price - their unique qualities to interchangeable quantities. So-called externalities – wholly preventable harms ranging from ecological devastation caused by such practices as fracking, to preventable occupational and environmental diseases like cancer and asthma, among other concrete, systemic harms – are regarded as little more than inevitable, collateral damage. And though the historical record is replete with examples of unregulated business producing poisonous foods (such as the notoriousswill milk), killing workers through negligent and reckless practices, and trashing the ecosystem in order to yield higher profits, contrary to all but blind faith, ideologues of capital insist that it is only through the unimpeded exploitation of the resources of the world that humanity can flourish. 
To the extent that it bears on the relationship between freedom and jobs, it is worthwhile to reflect on the political thought of Thomas Jefferson - not because his thought is authoritative, but, rather, because it provides an example of mainstream, if not canonical (i.e., not alien) US political thought on the matter. As Michael Hardt informs us in his Jefferson and Democracy, Thomas Jefferson maintained that a society could not be truly free if its people were not economically independent. Economic independence for Jefferson, it should be stressed, did not mean possessing a job. Having a job simply meant that one was subject to the caprice of one’s employer – that is, not independent. In order to rectify the unequal conditions extant in his home state of Virginia, Jefferson advocated distributing land to (certain) people, enabling them to be independent of others’ power and caprice.
As Hardt informs us, in order to create a democratic society Jefferson’s original draft of the Virginia state constitution included provisions bestowing 50 acres of land to all who did not already possess at least 50 acres. In other words, freedom required that people possess those resources necessary for economic independence; and land was fundamental to this end. People would still have to work the land, of course. But such work is qualitatively different than the alienated variety of labor involved in serving a boss (a word, by the way, derived from the Dutch baas, which means master). Although Jefferson’s thought is marred by, among others, his racist perpetuation of slavery, his misogyny that relegates women to little more than servants and playthings, and his imperialism that seizes the land for his “democratic” distribution from the autochthonous people, one should not throw out all of Jefferson’s babies with his backwards bath water. In spite of his flaws, Jefferson still makes a vital point concerning the relationship between equality and independence. There is a crucial difference between being free, or independent, and having a job. Not only are these diametrically opposed, the above example also highlights the distinction between jobs that are exploitative and meaningful work.
Not jobs, then, but free access to resources is what people need to be free from dependence on others, and equal in any meaningful sense. And though one must work to some degree to maintain these resources, along with one’s standard of living, any work beyond what is necessary or voluntary is inimical to equality. In this respect, it is telling that the ongoing mechanization and automation of agricultural and industrial work (continuing more or less apace since the 17th century) has not resulted in an overall diminution of work. In many respects mechanization has even increased burdens on workers. Though electric lights allow people to see at night, they also enabled the world of work to colonize what once was outside its domain. Though computers may drastically increase productivity, this increase is not accompanied by any corresponding diminution in work. The demands only increase. To be sure, one would imagine that an egalitarian society would employ these technologies in a manner that would create less work, not more. And in the 1930s, people thought just that – that the mechanization of production would lead to a three day work week. This was the goal of the more critical factions of the labor movement: not jobs, but the elimination of jobs and the development of a just society. Needless to say, such has not transpired. People are working more than ever – producing, it should be added, largely toxic products.
Whether these are the toxic plastics that are polluting the world, or the toxic financial instruments that are further enriching the 1%, the toxic food industry, or the unnecessary advertisements inducing people to buy this garbage, it is an economic fact that people are working more “productively” than ever, while earning less and less. Not only are people less free to relax and rest, and less free from stress – among other occupational and environmental diseases – the pollution from our incessant work is increasingly destroying our natural environment as well. Every way you cut it, jobs do not bring freedom so much as they preclude it.
Not only should jobs, then, be recognized for what they are – means, not ends – an emancipatory politics should work toward creating fewer, not more, jobs. Though a just society requires the presence of certain conditions – the conditions of health, for instance – a just political-economy would create these conditions directly, as a social priority, not as a more or less incidental outcome of profiteering. Because they are rooted in exploitation, and inextricable from the harms they spread, jobs for the sake of jobs are simply obstacles to conditions of health - such as equality, peace, housing, nutrition, etc. As such, they should be retired. By itself, however, this does not adequately respond to the question concerning how the multitude's daily needs will be met; if we transition to a political-economy that eliminates millions of jobs that serve no salutary purpose, how will the unemployed and underemployed pay the rent? Distributing 50 acres of land to every person, as Jefferson suggested, is obviously not practicable today. A simple solution – one advocated, by the way, by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1967 book Where Do We Go from Here – would be by adopting a basic income law
Unlike a guaranteed minimum income, or a minimum wage, a basic income is not contingent on work. Basic income laws (such as the one the Swiss people are presently debating) provide that each person receives an income sufficient to live well irrespective of whether or not s/he is employed. While a basic income law still presupposes a commodity economy, and is therefore not desirable in the long term, in the short term the implementation of a basic income would not only free people from poverty, it would allow humanity to dismantle harmful industries and institutions without compromising the well-being of those presently dependent on these industries for survival. In freeing people from destructive labor, implementation of a basic income would open space necessary for rest and recovery from the present abusive political-economy, all the while creating conditions that would support the development of an actual politics (as opposed to the semblance of politics - the political theater - that we are subjected to today). In other words, a basic income law would allow for a transition from our present-day war economy to an actually just, economically democratic, peace economy. If we are to overcome the contemporary barbarism presently determining our lives, we must recognize that our “job” requires creating the conditions necessary for collective and individual well-being directly. This can be accomplished - not, however, by creating more, but by creating fewer, jobs.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Extreme Times, Extreme Demands - The Health of the People Should Be the Supreme Law

posted originally on AlterNet

Among the crucial issues raised by the prosecution of Bradley Manning and the persecution of Edward Snowden is the question concerning what law should serve. Is law's basic purpose order or justice - the maintenance of the way things are, or the instantiation of what ought to be? What is primary, the letter or the spirit of the law?

Over the course of history, the spirit of the law has generally been regarded as law's more important dimension. Indeed, without serving a higher spirit or ideal - such as justice, fairness, or the common good - the mere letter of the law tends to be conceived of as nothing more than brute force. It is just this notion that provides the rationale for acts of civil disobedience; as Martin Luther King put it, citing Saint Augustine, an unjust law is no law at all. Consequently it has no authority, moral or otherwise. And while it may sound counter-intuitive, it is no exaggeration to remark that what is known as the Right of Resistance has to some degree been a feature of law since biblical times - for even the bible allows for the breaking of the sabbath, and other laws, if a person's health, or welfare, is in jeopardy. Axiomatic of justice, this notion of the spirit of the law prevailing over its mere letter underpins the US Constitution itself; for in its preamble the Constitution clearly states that its purpose is, among other things, to "establish justice," and "to promote the General Welfare." That is, implicit in the Constitution is the idea that law, the order of things, must yield to the demands of justice - and that the law that does not prioritize the general welfare, that is not animated by the spirit of the law, is no true law at all.

What is of especial relevance in interpreting the meaning of the General Welfare is the ancient legal maxim salus populi suprema lex esto. Ingrained in US Constitutional law, the maxim is attributed to the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero (106-43 BC). Once a feature of Roman law, the maxim spread throughout the Roman Empire. And by the time the empire dissolved, centuries later, the maxim had become embedded in legal systems across the former Roman world. Indeed, within early English common law the maxim carried the force of law itself. Usually translated as the health of the people is the supreme law, in his Table Talk, the 17th century English jurist John Selden (referred to by John Milton as "the chief of learned men reputed in this land") pointed out that since the term esto is in the imperative mode, its proper translation ought to be 'the health of the people should be the supreme law.' In other words, the maxim is not a statement about how things are, but a command as to how things ought to be. And that is how the maxim has functioned. It has been used to nullify laws that conflict with this higher principle. When faced with the question of how things should be, of what the supreme law should be, the maxim holds that the deciding factor is the health (or welfare) of the people. Cited in dozens of US state, federal, and Supreme Court decisions, this maxim continues to exert persuasive power in US law. However, because the maxim suffers from the same ambiguity that law itself suffers from, over the centuries the maxim has been construed to mean either order or justice – the welfare of the people, or the welfare of the rulers.

For example, while Machiavelli (in his Discourses on Livy) interpreted the maxim in a manner that emphasized order, during the 17th century - while common lands were being converted into salable things, enclosed, and sold off, rendering the people that had historically lived on those lands into homeless refugees - the so-called Levellers cited the maxim to justify their efforts to fight off these enclosures. The health of the people should be the supreme law, they argued. And because the health of the people requires land on which to live, its alienation is contrary to the supreme law and must therefore be halted. Reacting to the Levellers, among other things, Thomas Hobbes invoked the maxim in his Leviathan, emphasizing the order of Absolutism. A generation after Hobbes, John Locke famously employed the maxim as the epitaph to his Second Treatise on Government. Referring to the maxim, Locke wrote that it "is certainly so just and fundamental a rule, that he, who sincerely follows it, cannot dangerously err." By way of Locke, the maxim influenced the Founders of the US who, like Locke, emphasized the emancipatory dimension of the maxim in their efforts to free themselves from the domination of the British Crown.

While the maxim has been instrumental in justifying the shift from Monarchy to Democracy, it is not limited to such a use. Incorporated into US law, the maxim has been cited as an authority from before the ratification of the US Constitution to the present day - though with varying interpretations. After the Revolutionary War, for instance, while former soldiers were besieged by war debts - leading to Shay's Rebellion, among other uprisings - in South Carolina southern debtors argued that their war debts should be expunged altogether. The health of the people should be the supreme law, they argued. And because such debts were sapping the peoples' strength, thereby harming their health, these debts should be against the law. The South Carolina courts agreed with this argument, and debtors' debts were forgiven. While the above example is problematic, not least because of the proliferation of brutal slavery (which apparently did not violate the Health of the People), it is nevertheless an important event in the history of the maxim - a precedent that contemporary debtors could invoke today to nullify consumer, student loan, and other debts.

After the ratification of the US Constitution, and throughout the 19th century, courts across the United States employed the maxim to justify the power of municipalities to pursue ambitious public health programs. Not only were the people empowered to build things - such as sanitation systems - the maxim empowered people to tear things down as well. If, for example, a slaughterhouse, or tannery, or any other noxious activity were found to impair the public health, polluting waterways and other things, the courts found again and again that the people had the power and authority to eliminate the offensive operation.

Although the maxim would be invoked by courts during the early 20th century, and even by FDR, with the rise of the power of the industrial business classes the courts employed the maxim less and less frequently. And when the courts did employ it, they began to emphasize its dominating aspect. To be sure, this (mis)interpretation has held for much of the 20th century and into the 21st. Recently, for example, the maxim has been cited by John Yoo, among others, to support the power of the state to perpetrate torture. Torture, which is directly contrary to the health of people and justice, does support order and the "health," or strength, of the state. And, because the notion of the general welfare suffers from the same ambiguity that law itself suffers from, John Yoo would very likely argue that torture is itself necessary to achieve the general welfare. What, however, does the general welfare really require? What do people require to fare well?

Because threats to our physical, ecological, and psychological health are threats to our general welfare (consider, for example, the adverse effects that global warming, pollution, and war, not to mention poverty, unemployment, an overblown prison system, and our crumbling infrastructure have on our collective health), the general welfare requires that we re-interpret the maxim that the health of the people should be the supreme law and employ it to direct our collective resources into creating a genuinely healthy world. To be sure, in many respects, the creation of the actual conditions of health is no different from the implementation of concrete conditions of justice. And, though aspects of this may run counter to the letter of the law, this is precisely what the spirit of the law demands.

According to a critical reading of the maxim, if the health of the people should be the supreme law, then that which is contrary to the health of the people ought to be against the law too. As such, not only would social, economic, and other conditions that cause occupational, industrial, and other diseases be against the law, those institutions and practices that create - or recreate - obstacles to the conditions of health (not just obvious practices, like fracking, but deeply exploitative institutions, like rent) should be against the law as well. Moreover, if unhealthy conditions such as air pollution, malnutrition, poverty, war, etc., are illegal - against the supreme law - then this implies that there is a duty to correct unhealthy conditions; for if the mere existence of such unhealthy conditions is against the law, a society would be under a duty to get rid of such conditions of disease in order to comply with the supreme law. This interpretation of the maxim leads to the conclusion that where they are absent society has an obligation to create actual conditions of health - an interpretation of the maxim that gives rise to positive rights to housing, nutrition, education, recreation, rest, and other conditions of physical, psychological, and ecological health. One should not, however, infer that such an interpretation would allow for intrusions on people's autonomy. Because autonomy is a constitutive aspect of a critical notion of health, people must be free to partake in activities that could be seen as harmful to their personal health - such as using recreational drugs - so long as such personal activities are consensual and do not interfere with the health of the people in general.

Some will no doubt argue that, though conditions of health may not exist, a market economy provides the most efficient means of achieving these conditions of health. Among its other deficiencies, however, this argument overlooks the fact that a fundamental conflict of interest arises whenever a condition of health - such as health care, nutrition, housing, etc. - is subordinated to market forces. Because production and service delivery in a market economy is under a compulsion to derive a profit (it is, after all, a business) a conflict of interest of necessity arises between securing profits and securing "health-value." Because profit is primary in such a system, it is the decisive, determining factor and as such prevails in conflicts of interest, exposing people to conditions of disease (sleep deprivation, toxins, etc.) contrary to the supreme law. Properly creating the conditions of health (which, according to the maxim, a society has a duty to provide) therefore requires that these conditions be free from the pressures of the market. As such, conditions of health (nutritious food, housing, health care, etc.) must be produced and distributed in a democratic manner outside of market relations altogether.

This issue of profit, health, and value brings us back to the question concerning the purpose of the law. What, in the end, is the law (and the economy) for in the first place? Is it to merely reproduce what is? Or is it, rather, to produce what should be? And what should be? Should "the health of the people" be subordinated to the economy (as it presently is, resulting in epidemics of cancer, not to mention ecocide, among other harms)? or should the economy, and other institutions, be subordinated to the "health of the people"? As already noted, the maxim maintains that "the health of the people" should be the deciding factor, the ultimate value, the supreme law. That the word value itself is derived from the Latin term valetudo, which means health, only further attests to the deep complementarity of these two notions.

As we hurtle toward ecological calamities of ever greater magnitudes - among other harms to our collective health - it is crucial to recognize that a critical interpretation and application of the maxim that the health of the people should be the supreme law would not only allow us to prioritize our collective health and mitigate these actual - and intensifying - harms, it would also, in many respects, allow for the concrete realization of conditions of actual justice (housing, nutritious food, health care, the elimination of war and poverty, the creation of a healthy environment, the securing of civil liberties, etc.) throughout the world. While many will no doubt resist such a radical transformation of the status quo, the reasonable person will recognize that one must have priorities. And who can reasonably maintain that our collective health - broadly defined - should not take precedence over the narrowly construed notions of wealth and order presently ravaging the planet?

When one considers the fact that the US Constitution's stated purpose is to further "the general welfare," and that "the general welfare" is entirely congruent with a critical, comprehensive, supranational health (not a superficial, instrumental notion of health, but health as an end in itself), it is hard to reject the argument that the instantiation of such a radical, critical health would be nothing less than the realization of the spirit of the law - the notion that provides the basis for the legitimacy of law in the first place.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Bozos Like Bezos and the Crooked Cory Booker, or The Californian Ideology Becomes Hegemonic

originally published on CounterPunch

Along with a considerable deal of surprise, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' sudden 250 million dollar purchase of the Washington Post (a trifle for him at 1% of his estimated fortune of 25 billion) has elicited no small share of conjecture as well. A libertarian who has funded legislation opposing taxation in Washington state, as well as the legalization of same-sex marriage, Bezos' economic conservatism, social liberalism, and demonstrated interest in political issues will very likely influence how he runs the Post. Whether Bezos' motives for acquiring the legendary newspaper stem from a desire to enhance his cultural legacy, aggrandize  his hold over public opinion, or whether the acquisition is simply a hobbyhorse of sorts - akin to his Clock of the Long Now, his collection of long lost space rockets, and his other space projects - remains a mystery. Irrespective of Bezos' motives, though - which even he may not be wholly conscious of - the purchase is indicative of a more empirical, observable, configuration of power in the US. To be sure, it is difficult to overlook the fact that, as the oligarchs of the tech industry begin to exert more control over national policy (from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's, to the industry's general interest in tax policy, privacy issues, immigration reform, and intellectual property rights), the Post - the paper imbibed by Washington politicians along with their morning coffee - is now owned wholly by one of the giants of the technology industry. 

Bezos' faith in capitalism and technology - his desire to eliminate taxespublic education, and other aspects of the public sphere - along with his liberal position regarding "social" issues (as though the economic were not subsumed by the social) are both major facets of the so-called Californian Ideology. Prevalent among the libertarian-leaning members of the tech community, not to mention many Republicans and Democrats, the Californian Ideology (whose name derives from a 1995 article describing the phenomenon) is marked by a faith in the so-called - state-funded - free market, as well as by a faith in the ability of the - equally state-funded - high technology industry to triumph over every human challenge. As the likes of Obama proclaim their anti-statist/small government Reaganisms, declaring their faith that technology (clean coal, green energy, etc.) and the market can deliver society from the harms inflicted largely by technology and the market itself, it is not difficult to see that the Californian Ideology is not all that different from mainstream ideology these days.

This nominally anti-statist faith, however - along with its dogma - should not be confused with other, more critical types of anti-statist thought. For in spite of his libertarian suspicions of the state, Bezos (and the tech industry in general) has worked intimately with that great agency of the state, the CIA. Partnering with the CIA to develop quantum computing, Bezos has contributed a considerable degree of expertise to the CIA's development of programs designed to break encryptions. As such, in many respects Bezos is the opposite of computer experts like Edward Snowden. Like Bezos, Snowden was also a CIA contractor. Unlike Bezos, though, Snowden's use of encrypted material was central to his disclosure of the NSA's spying operations. That is, rather than collaborating with the state as Bezos has, Snowden used encryption technology to subvert its power. Another tech figure who comes to mind in this light is Julian Assange. In addition to aiding Snowden in the latter's flight to safety from US wrath, via WikiLeaks (and help from whistleblowers like Bradley Manning), Assange has fought and continues to fight against concentrations and abuses of state power. This polar opposition between Assange and Bezos is only heightened by the fact that Assange's maligned and persecuted WikiLeaks - through which Assange has exposed war crimes and crimes against humanity, among other things - is itself something like the opposite of Bezos' freshly purchased, propagandistic Post. 

That said, it is unsurprising that political views such as those that define the pro-business Californian Ideology would be held by the current Newark, New Jersey mayor, US Senate candidate, and Silicon Valley darling, Cory Booker. As disclosed in a penetrating CounterPunch article by Linn Washington Jr., as well as by Glen Ford,  Booker is hardly the proponent of social justice he portrays himself to be, and is portrayed as. Very much like Obama, Booker merely masquerades as a person concerned with the public. When not performing political stunts such as briefly living off of food stamps, however, the Twitter enthusiast of a mayor spends his energies aggrandizing the fortunes of the rich - and lining his own pockets to boot. Notorious for his absenteeism, traveling around the country delivering speeches, Booker has picked up a fortune in speaking fees while the people of the City of Newark remain largely neglected. While he delivers lip service to investing in public education, he is in fact advocating for the privatization of Newark's public school system. And while he tweets quotes by Plutarch concerning the trouble with the polarization of wealth, he is all the while plotting to dismantle social security. To be sure, corporate profits are up in his corner of New Jersey, unemployment and home foreclosures are higher than in the rest of the Garden State, and this is all a result of his actual, economic policies. 

In light of the fact that they share the same ideology, it is hardly surprising that Cory Booker should be bankrolled by, among others, the technology industry. As disclosed in a recent article in the New York Times, not only has Booker raised millions from fundraisers thrown by such figures as the late Steve Jobs' widow, Laurene Powell Jobs; tech giants Eric Schmidt (Executive Chairman of Google's Board of Directors) and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, among others, have funded and created a start-up company for Cory Booker. Ostensibly a video curating operation, Booker's start-up - called Waywire - appears to be little more than a lavish political gift. As the Times article relates, though Booker has likely invested little of his own money into the enterprise, he owns the biggest ownership share. Estimated at somewhere between 1 and 5 million dollars, Booker's stake in Waywire is worth more than all of his other assets combined. One needn't worry, though, that such gifts will influence Booker's decision making; Booker's mind is already firmly shut. A staunch believer in virtual democracy, Booker seems oblivious to the fact that, by reproducing prevailing distributions of power and wealth, virtual democracy is in many respects inimical to the demands of actual, concrete democracy.

With its libertarian attacks on economic regulation and its laissez-faire attitude concerning social issues, the ideology of the tech industry has no difficulty supporting measures designed to roll back such things as worker protections and taxes while supporting social legislation, like gay marriage, in equal measure. As far as protecting the environment is concerned, those who believe strongly enough in technology feel no need to worry about that, noting that, no matter how bad it gets, technology can fix it. That this techno-fetishism is tantamount to religious belief doesn't seem to be reflected upon by these ostensible lovers of science.

From the regressive egalitarianism involved in condoning gays in the military, to the institution of Obamacare - which firmly places private, for-profit, insurance companies in charge of health care policy and distribution; from the repeal of the Voting Rights Act, to endless surveillance, fracking, and the fascistic privatization of the state itself - all are subsumed within the ideology and values of the hegemons of the tech industry. And should their investment pay off, Cory A. Booker will prevail in his race for a seat in the US Senate. Ensconced in the Capitol of Capital, he will no doubt continue to serve the Californian Ideology of free markets as US Senator from New Jersey. And, like others, he will no doubt receive much of his (dis)information from Bezos' newly acquired Washington Post.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to He lives in New York City, and can be reached at

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Private, the Public, and the (Re)Public

Published originally, in a slightly different form, on AlterNet

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.

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 theres 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.