|These essays by Karen Coulter originally appeared in By What Authority, a quarterly publication of POCLAD, the Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy, founded by Richard Grossman and Ward Morehouse. Part I was Spring '05, Part II was Winter '06. |
The Rule of Property , Part I
Editor's note: This is the first article of a two-part series on the connection between property and power. Part one tells the story of the enclosure of the Commons in England as historical antecedent to the rule of property in the United States. The development of the modern corporation as the primary instrument to "enclose" every aspect of our lives is described. Part two (next issue of BWA) follows the rule of property into the colonies of the "New World," reveals the history of popular resistance, and outlines the role of the U. S. Constitution in creating the dominating power of private property rights. It concludes by exploring a shift toward revaluing the Commons, granting it cultural and legal protections by laying claim to people's governing rights in a democracy.
Historical Concepts of Property and the Commons
In 1942, British Labourite Member of Parliament Aneurin Bevan, said, "Either poverty must use democracy to destroy the power of property, or property in fear of poverty will destroy democracy." This fundamental conflict between individual property rights and an egalitarian or radical democracy remains on center stage today. Its deep roots rest in historical political clashes that brought a redefinition of property, rapidly shifting it from the hands of the many to those of the few. The authority to define equates with the power to govern.
The meaning of the word "property" has changed dramatically over the course of history. Most cultures of the world held property to be one's personal possessions, such as clothing, household goods and the tools of one's trade. Land, on the other hand, was held in common and often viewed as inseparable from God or Nature, denied to human ownership. Under Iroquois Confederacy law, the buying, selling and monopolizing of land was illegal and immoral. The commons concept underlay many cultures' mode of community organization. These included indigenous traditions of Native Americans, West African villages, the Irish kinship-based society before the English conquest, and the more recent Mexican ejido communal land system. These cultural commons varied widely in organization, being based on clan rights, gender rights, or powers conferred on some other social group. They had differing practices regarding member participation, equity and relationship to the natural world.
Knowing the world as a commons generated a very different reality from that held by most of us in today's ownership society. When missionary John Heckewelder scolded a Native American for grazing horses in "his" meadow, he heard this response: "My friend, it seems you lay claim to the grass my horses have eaten because you had enclosed it with a fence. Now tell me, who caused the grass to grow? ...(T)he grass which grows out of the earth is common to all."
The commons shapes a social system and defines human arrangements. It is not just bodies of water, acreage of land and natural resources. Examples of commons that are acknowledged today include government-owned property (e.g. public lands); natural systems such as the oceans and atmosphere; user-managed regimes such as community gardens, land trusts and Linux computer software; social networks based on gift exchange such as public libraries, and inherited information or understandings such as historical knowledge, scientific developments, and cultural traditions. Writers in The Ecologist magazine describe the commons as "...the social and political space where things get done and where people derive a sense of belonging and have an element of control over their lives."
The more limited such shared democratic space becomes, the more inequality, ecological devastation, dehumanization and totalitarianism prevail. Anatole Anton describes the antithesis of the commons-based society: "...privatization, commodification, and the increasingly exclusive control of nature, communicative space, the social order, the political order, and the economic order that is characteristic of our time." Put directly, the seizure of common property has translated into illegitimate governing authority for an owning elite.
Enclosure as Means to Deprive and Define
The commons has largely been removed as a keystone of democracy from the framework of U. S. cultural perception. Therefore, it is important to examine the 17th Century enclosure of the English Commons, a momentous revolution by the privileged few against the many poor. British imperialist policies went on to impose this enclosure model on the common lands of cultures around the globe. The American colonies did not escape this tumult.
The authors of the U. S. Constitution consolidated the heritage of enclosure and ensured the primacy of private property rights over the common good in the United States. For example, the Constitution's slave system turned people into private property. While the Articles of Confederation gave states control over their economies, the Constitution's commerce clause took that control away, even denying people the right of protection against harmful property being transported into their borders. So the landed minority, using property as its tool, designed a system of governance to take charge of the majority with little difficulty. The United States has gone on to perfect the strategies, law and lore of property – its privatization, commodification and appropriation – to control peoples, cultures and ecosystems worldwide.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the French Anarchist (1809-1865), equated property with theft, defining property not as the simple possessions of the peasant or artisan by which to make a living, but as the "sum of its abuses: competition, isolation of interests, monopoly, privilege, accumulation of capital, exclusive enjoyment, subordination of functions, individual production, the right of profit or increase, the exploitation of man by man."
Feudal society in England was characterized by strict hierarchy – lords and masters over serfs; insistence on a particular religion as a means of maintaining the social order; exclusion of rights and advancement from those without property. There was also a growing resistance to these oppressions. Incorporating efforts to preserve liberty within their daily lives, new religious sects sought to democratize God; cottagers and squatters lived freely within commons, "wastes" and forests; urban "masterless men" – agitators, criminals, vagabonds and beggars – roamed the countryside and spread news of resistance movements. Sylvan liberty in the forests was an escape from the rule of property, as immortalized in the Robin Hood stories. Extensive forests then served as a shield for a free and mobile society while greater governmental and religious control reigned in the agricultural plains. The people of the woods were said to live without laws, government and dependency.
The controlling few considered the commons as "the nurseries" of those who refused to labor for others. And so deforestation and enclosure were promoted as ways to get rid of beggars, make the land more productive in a capitalist sense, and "employ thousands of idle hands." In the mid-17th Century, the ancient commons were literally fenced by the landed gentry, replacing the age-old planting practices of the many with crops for the profits of a few. The resulting push by the ruling class for universal wage slavery was advanced by both enclosure and the takeover of individual craftsmanship by new industrial technology. A person laboring for wages would be more dependent on the capitalist system, both in England itself and in its growing colonies abroad, than one who was self-sufficient and independent. This fundamental shift to dependency on capital and control originating elsewhere culminated in the current, vulturous "free trade" regime that now creeps into every nook and cranny on the planet.
The English Civil war contributed to the uprooting of people and the breakdown of authority. Destructive campaigns against squatter life filled the years from 1646 to 1660, but the rabble refused to wither under the onslaught. After 1640, commoners increasingly asserted their rights through direct action.
The Diggers' Resistance
On Sunday, April 1, 1649, a group of poor men gathered on St. George's Hill and began to dig – planting carrots, parsnips and beans as a way to claim ownership of the common lands and reject conventional piety by ignoring the Sabbath. A contemporary observer witnessed, "They invite all to come in and help them and promise them meat, drink and clothes... They will be four or five thousand within ten days... It is feared they have some design in hand." The Digger colony on St. George's Hill was just one well-documented example of many such undertakings by those in resistant occupations.
The Diggers' ordered the lords of the manors to stop cutting down "our common woods and trees... for your private use" (as the U. S. National Forests are now cut down by corporations for private use). After Oliver Cromwell's reformist victory over the monarchy, the Diggers demanded in 1650 that "confiscated church, crown and royalists' land be turned over to the poor." Such statements deeply challenged existing property usurpations with the consequence that direct military intervention on behalf of private property was soon taken by the new English republic. The commoners were forced from St. George's Hill by the end of the year.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Property and rights deemed the domain of a ruling elite have long been protected by the armed military and police forces of a country. Whether we speak of people's claims to the commons in the seventeenth century, the American colonists' claims to fair governance in the eighteenth century, women's claims to voting rights and workers' claims to safety on the railroads in the nineteenth century, activist claims against corporate harms to our communities, environments and economic lives in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the response is always the same. People acting in unison on behalf of equality, fairness, ecological sanity, worker and public health, or real democracy are brought to heel by the "Rule of Law" in service to property and backed by government force.
The Diggers were accompanied in their rebellion against the elite's redefinition of property by many other common folk including the Anabaptists, Antinomians, Familists and Ranters, the Quakers, New Model Army and the broader Leveler movement. These resisters put forth schemes to limit wealth and land concentration in English society. They demanded that the property of the rich be shared among the poor and redivided yearly. The Levelers reality was the commons and so they called for changes in their society that are unrecognizable in today's dominant frame of reference. They advocated the abolition of buying and selling, with the resulting absence of property in a possessive, legal sense. This would greatly reduce the need for judges and lawyers – and by extension, for the coercive state. Like their counterparts in every generation, they established arrangements for everyday life that manifested vastly different values, that put in place commitments to collectivity and fairness.
In contrast, in 1641, Sir Thomas Aston defined "true liberty" as knowing "by a certain law that our wives, our children, our servants, our goods are our own." This patriarchal sentiment illustrates why Levelers equated enclosures and the coercive power of the state with slavery.
In the pivotal Putney debates of 1647 the landed gentry argued these issues with the New Model Army and Levelers. Henry Ireton, a spokesman for the gentry, acknowledged, "Liberty cannot be provided for in a general sense if property be preserved." As authors Linebaugh and Rediker put it in The Many Headed Hydra, "The fork in the road at Putney pointed to either a future with the commons and without slavery, or to one with slavery and without the commons. The commons were a reality, not pie in the sky."
Corporate Enclosure of Modern Forms of the Commons
The corporate form is the primary means to governing power of today's ruling class. Its mission of unlimited production at lowest cost serves nicely to reinforce class divisions and cement the property relationships set forth by the Federalist Constitutional victory. The nation's founding documents asserted the primacy of private property rights over political rights of the community and the common good.
Anatole Anton characterizes the corporation as "an engine of enclosure, a device constructed to take over public goods." The process of that construction he attributes to "judicial legislation," presented as apolitical. Thus, with the corporation "...a structurally antidemocratic entity was created and the way was paved to legitimate the ever-increasing swallowing up of public space within an already disempowered liberal democracy. The most far-ranging political decisions, from the uses of technology to those concerning employment and the environment, are corporatized and therefore privatized. This new kind of person begins to strut on the legal stage, claiming wider and wider constitutional rights... Rather than being seen as part of the political order, the court has ruled them outside of politics."
Corporate enclosures affect commons as diverse as child care, the environment, family assistance, public education, language (e.g. private ownership of brand names), public health (e.g. HMOs) and federal drug research. Then there is the privatization of public knowledge, the commercialization of culture and public spaces such as privatized shopping malls and sports arenas bearing corporate names. A present focus of corporate acquisition is the water and sewage systems of communities throughout this country and abroad. Indigenous knowledge and genetic heritage do not escape the clutches of the privatizers as they go after patents to the Neem tree, Basmati rice and human gene lines.
Lawrence Lessig, in his book, Free Culture, How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, analyzes corporate enclosures of the cultural commons such as radio, film, recorded music, cable TV and the Internet, using the tool of "intellectual property rights." He contrasts "permission culture... in which creators get to create only with the permission of the powerful, or of creators from the past" with "free culture" which supports innovation by limiting the reach of intellectual property rights.
Extremism in privatizing intellectual property has led to out-of-control technological developments, mad scientists running rampant with novel genetic combinations and nanotechnology schemes for human cyborgs – part machine, part human. In Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance and the Culture of Control, Derrick Jensen and George Draffan painstakingly describe this technological past and present that inexorably places the vast majority of us under the watchful eye of a minority.
The diminished state of today's commons is neither accident nor inevitable trend. It is the consequence of deliberate and methodical intent. The fact that its roots remain invisible to so many leaves people powerless to change it. As activists our work must begin with revealing invisibilities and unveiling deceits. Only with deeper understanding can people build a sustained, effective movement to claim what belongs to us all.
"Another world is possible" is a phrase with currency in many languages today. In order to bring that world into being, we need to familiarize ourselves with people's historical struggles in various cultures, redefine property and property relationships, and renew the concept of the commons with its deep democratic promise.
The background materials for this article, including quotations, were largely drawn from the following sources:Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Boston: Beacon Press (2000).
Dean Ritz, ed., Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy: A Book of History and Strategy (POCLAD), NY: The Apex Press (2001).
Derrick Jensen and George Draffan, Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control, VT: Chelsea Green (2004).
David Bollier, Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth, NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul, (2002).
Anatole Anton, Milton Fisk, Nancy Holmstrom, eds., Not for Sale: In Defense of Public Goods, NY: Westview Press (2000).
Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution, London: Maurice Temple Smith Publishing (1972).
George Wookcock, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: A Biography, Toronto: University of Toronto Press (1987).
The Rule of Property, Part II
New World Revolts and Communes
Colonists arriving in the " New World " included common people from England and Ireland who had been inspired by the numerous urban and rural revolts and popular theories of self-governance in the British Isles . As indentured servants, white slave laborers and exiled religious heretics, they often found common cause with dispossessed Natives and enslaved Africans.
The Virginia Company was synonymous with the slave labor plantation of Virginia , England 's first New World colony. The Virginia Company represented a gathering of wealth in pursuit of world trade, which then as now, had such far-reaching global impacts as expropriation, repression, ecological and cultural destruction, and the imposition of class discipline – the taming of the aspirations of the people along with the taming of the wild. Modern capitalism largely emerged as a result of vast expansion in trade, the conversion of self-sufficiency to wage labor, growth in urban populations, and the establishment of colonial systems. These developments were made possible by the enclosure of land and removal of thousands of people from the commons. The source of the original accumulation of capital was expropriation and force that transformed land and labor into commodities.
A broad spectrum of contrary popular traditions inspired the peasant emigrants to resist hierarchical discipline in the New World . The struggle against repression and slavery and the formation of autonomous democratic communities was diverse and vibrant across the New World colonies and on the high seas. Some colonists succeeded in establishing communes through democratic experiments. Resistance to the Virginia colony led to a multiracial refuge from slavery in a swamp with slaves, paupers, pirates and general rebels living under the protection of the Tuscarora Indians in the 1640s. They were antinomian (against law and judiciaries) and abolitionist, calling as early as 1675 for an end to slavery. West Indian communities of fugitive slaves threatened the Virginia Colony as a possible base of attack on the plantation system and delayed the establishment of North Carolina as a colony for years.
Public officials used witchcraft statutes to prosecute religious radicals in England , resulting in an estimated 1000 women losing their lives between 1643 and 1647. Radical religious movements led by women in the 1640s offered the hope of social equality, promoted skepticism about the authority of the Church and challenged patriarchal control over women as the property of men. The ruling class had an interest in increased fecundity to breed labor for the expanding capitalist system. Women at the time – such as Anne Hutchinson in the Massachusetts Bay Colony – affected childbearing practices through their work as midwives, herbalists and advisors for one other. This was a peak period for criminalizing women accused of infanticide, abortion and witchcraft in the colonies and in Europe.
In contrast to the repression, hierarchy and forced labor of the New World 's property system, the native Algonquin Confederation of 14,000 people consisted of small-scale societies without ownership of land, class divides or a formal state. They pursued little economic specialization or trade, but worked toward self-sufficiency.
With the American Revolution came an escalation of the Europeans' enclosure of native lands, as well as the enslavement of native people. As indigenous cultures held different conceptions of property (land was not bought and sold), it is doubtful that their treaty signers understood the ramifications of "signing away" property rights to settlers. Military defeats of native territory usually meant that lands were occupied and enclosed, imposing a property regime on a culture that had no conception of "property."
Six thousand armed men from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia made war on the Cherokee in 1776 with instructions from William Drayton, a leading patriot: "And now a word to the wise. It is expected you make smooth work as you go – that is, you cut up every Indian cornfield, and burn every Indian town – and that every Indian taken shall be the slave and property of the taker; that the nation be extirpated and the lands become the property of the public." Thus were people converted to property, cultures extinguished, and land, natural resources and the commons appropriated, a process continuing today through global corporatization.
The colonial definition of people as property met with resistance. Many African slaves ran away to join one side or the other of the revolutionary conflict in hopes of attaining freedom. A slave owner complained in the November 7, 1775, South Carolina Gazette about his runaway slave: "...for though he is my Property, he has the audacity to tell me he will be free, that he will serve no Man, and that he will be conquered or governed by no Man." As others have discussed at greater length, the Revolution was a quagmire of contesting theories about the nature of property and societal ideals. For those who wanted to hold onto their acquired wealth and govern the new nation, a solution was needed.
Property Bias En Route to the Convention
The sanctity of private property over public welfare was hotly contested in the ideological debates and popular rebellions leading to the Constitutional Convention. As Jennifer Nedelsky observes: "In 1787 government regulation in the name of basic principles of equity was a standard practice. The regulation of the prices of bread and other basic commodities was an old and deeply entrenched practice. The prevailing concept of contract still included a notion of equity that could void ‘unfair' agreements, contracts which were not based on the ‘just price.' " By pitting the primacy of individual property rights against people's self-governing, democratic "incursions" on the rulers' power, the Federalist Constitution's authors attempted to redefine the concept of property.
Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States documents the biases toward property that precluded widespread popular involvement in the framing of "We the People's" governing structure. The shift of the Constitutional Convention – away from the state-based, decentralized Articles of Confederation and toward more centralized control – was originated and implemented principally by four groups of property interests: capital (creditors), public securities (stock and bond holders), manufacturing and trade, and shipping. Interestingly, the same property interests hold the reins of power in the U.S. today. It is not surprising then, that the Constitution was designed as an economic document based upon the concept that the private rights of property are the primary concern of government and morally beyond the reach of the propertyless majority.
The Significance of Property in the Framing of the Constitution
Property was conceived by the Founding Federalists as the origin and benefit of civilization, and its protection seen as the primary purpose of government. Private property was generally recognized as the source of social inequality. Nonetheless, economic inequality was posited as both inevitable and necessary in order to protect the wealth of the ruling elite and perpetuate their political control.
Nedelsky summarizes it this way: "...(T)he original focus on property placed inequality at the center of American constitutionalism. For the Framers, the protection of property meant the protection of unequal property and thus the insulation of both property and inequality from democratic transformation. Effective insulation, in their view, required wealth-based inequality of access to political power. It also meant that the illegitimacy of redistribution defined the legitimate scope of the state."
Following their self-interested reasoning, the Constitution's authors designed the new government's institutions to encourage the conflation of economic with political power and discourage the political engagement of citizens. The legacy of this structure is clear: long-lasting obstacles to the attainment of the majority's political rights, economic and social equality, general public welfare, and real democracy.
The Structure of Government Institutions Designed to Protect Property
The framers devised numerous ways to ensure unequal allocation of political and economic power, including:
An example of a lasting check on the political ascendancy of the majority is the composition and tenure of the U.S. Senate. Designed to protect property interests, it was composed of a small number serving long terms to prevent easy displacement. In the tenth issue of "The Federalist," James Madison lays out his reasoning for a system of checks and balances to prevent majority rule: "Since the contending classes cannot be eliminated and their interests are bound to be reflected in politics, the only way out lies in making it difficult for enough contending interests to fuse into a majority, and in balancing one against the other."
Nedelsky observes: "... Madison came to see that formal restrictions on political rights were neither necessary nor optimal to contain the political power of the people. The indirect mechanism could structure the whole relation of the people to the federal government, shape the patterns of participation, and limit the effectiveness of the poor. The necessary control of popular injustice would thus be embedded in the very foundations of the political system, in its daily practices, rather than being accomplished by explicit exclusions of the people from office or franchise..."
Thus the Madisonian Constitution launched a complex system of government in which the people do not govern themselves but are encouraged to believe they are governed with their consent.
Under the Articles of Confederation, individual state legislatures represented the will of a poor majority by issuing paper money and forgiving debt. Speculators and creditors resented this shrinking of their capital. With the new Constitution this threat was addressed by prohibiting the states from issuing currency, emitting bills of credit or creating laws impairing the obligation of contracts. For good measure, the states were also prohibited from interfering with international trade through import duties.
Judicial Review: the Federalist Consolidation of Power
Judicial review institutionalized the supremacy of individual property rights over democratic political rights by claiming that law and politics were separate realms and that property fell within law's domain. This removed fundamental property issues from popular engagement and control. Nedelsky argues that judicial review and the law-politics distinction were justified and supported by a distorted conception of property: "...The courts could make a strong claim that property belonged in a distinctly legal realm, which had the sanction of the long and honorable tradition of common law. The need for the judiciary to protect this venerable realm from legislative encroachment could then be seen to rest on a neutral legal tradition rather than on the fear and suspicion of the people... this distinction has sustained a mythic quality of property as not merely social construct, but a basic right, linked in powerful ways to cherished values of freedom and autonomy. The myth of property and the image of the law-politics distinction... have together provided the foundation for the American conception of limited government."
It is important to note that the judiciary is appointed by the President and the Senate, both with longer terms than the House of Representatives. At the nation's founding, only membership in the House was directly elected. Control over the judiciary can be countered only through the power of appointment. To change that appointment process requires the near prohibitive task of amending the Constitution. To add insult to injury, Supreme Court justices – the ultimate arbiters – are in for life.
The Antidemocratic Legacy of the Framers
This institutionalized concept of property was used as a foundation for the nebulous entity of "the market" and its eventual elevation above every other concern. Viewing property as private or public and seeing it in the context of ownership, buying and selling, exclusion and exploitation became the norm. In contrast, property seen as either personal or social, associations and distinctions that might have engendered a sense of participation and stewardship, received little consideration. The sacred cow status of private property and the limited involvement of the public in politics are now assumed to be natural rather than the product of institutional design. Thus the gradual expansion of the right to vote failed to deliver real democracy.
Gouverneur Morris, a Constitutional framer, held that "Where political liberty is in Excess, Property must be insecure and where Property is not secured Society cannot advance." Part of the thinking was that investors would not risk their money in a country whose government would not uphold the rights of property, such as in contract and trade agreements. Modern ramifications of this still widely held distinction between economic and political rights include the paradox that while political equality is now widely supported, economic inequality is accepted as inevitable. The fact that matters of production, commerce and international trade overwhelm concerns such as community welfare, worker rights and environmental integrity is a legacy of the Constitution's framers.
The Federalist concept of property equated private property with the idea of freedom from government interference and thus, with liberty and justice generally. Therefore, government regulations have come to be regarded by many as a violation of individual liberty rather than a way to prioritize socially determined rights. Today we see this reasoning running through Libertarian ideology and the justification for "takings" claims in which rights of private property are presumed to take precedence over the jurisdiction of the federal government or broader community concerns. For example, Oregon passed a referendum requiring the state to compensate private property owners for losses of property value due to environmental or zoning restrictions on the use of their land. The possibility of redistributing capital or property remains outside the popular frame of reference, denounced as an unlawful intrusion of government, or heaven forbid, as socialism or communism. Should we not be asking why we persist in this relentless materialist, competitive, unsustainable, and violent system designed for us by those late eighteenth century framers?
By contrast, Brazilian land law assumes that private land not being used should be redistributed. On this basis, a vibrant social movement has arisen called "O Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem-Terra" – the Landless Workers Movement or MST. Like the earlier Diggers movement in England , the propertyless MST families physically occupy vacant land claimed by the wealthy. However, this activist model goes further by incorporating democratic community structures allowing for full participation in political decisions and ongoing challenges to the entrenched political patronage system. Other social rights are addressed, including schools and health care, and ecologically sustainable farming practices are encouraged.
We see here mutual participation and shared power at work, rather than Madisonian factionalism. The arrangement reflects the writings of the Anti-Federalist, "Centinel," who penned: "A republican or free government can only exist... where property is pretty equally divided. In such a government the people are sovereign and their sense or opinion is the criterion of every public measure; for when this ceases to be the case, the nature of government is changed and an aristocracy, monarchy, or despotism will rise on its ruins." The Bush administration has made this transformation into despotism and an aristocracy of wealth and privilege more blatant than ever.
The Constitution could have been written differently since other models existed at the time. In the spring of 1776, radical members of the Philadelphia militia initiated a provincial conference which unseated Pennsylvania's elected representatives, expanded the vote from 50% to 90% of free adult males and called for a convention to write a new state constitution. The militia advised that "great and overgrown rich Men will be improper to be trusted" as delegates. The first draft of the constitution included this clause: "That an enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the Rights, and destructive to the Common Happiness of Mankind; and therefore every free State hath a right by its Laws to discourage the Possession of such Property."
A blueprint for direct and democratic governance evolved in which all governmental power was vested in a unicameral legislative body directly responsible to the electorate and short, nonconsecutive rotations were prescribed for elected representatives. All bills had to be made available for the consideration of the people before voting. Today's greater numbers and diversity of eligible voters are hobbled by structural limitations on their political participation that were unacceptable in 1776 Pennsylvania.
Replacing the Rule of Property
Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins writes: "The market-industrial system institutes scarcity in a manner completely unparalleled and to a degree nowhere else approximated. Where production and distribution are arranged through the behavior of prices, and all livelihood depends on getting and spending, insufficiency of material means becomes the explicit, calculable starting point of all economic activity."
While most modern commentators tend to focus on the insufficiency problem as exclusively economic, more in the past recognized the threat posed to democracy. In 1908 Theodore Roosevelt noted the consequences of concentrated political power through the corporate monopolization of property: "The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they themselves called into being."
Although it was not a majority of U.S. citizens who called these large corporate interests into being, the disempowered and wealth-deprived majority must now act to remedy rule by property so that people and ecosystems across the world might achieve their inalienable rights and vitality.
Our task is nothing less than revealing the hidden history of structured inequality and Commons enclosure in order to dislodge the deeply held assumptions about property that allow private property rights to dominate all other social and ecological concerns. We need to reawaken dormant imaginations with real life examples of popular struggles and egalitarian social experiments in the past and present.
Organized resistance outside the boundaries of any "system" has always been necessary to achieve lasting systemic change. As a poster for a demonstration against the G8 governments and their proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment invited, "Join us in protesting against their world... where everything has a price and nothing has a value."
Endnotes The background materials for this article, including quotations, were largely drawn from the following sources:
Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic , Boston : Beacon Press (2000).
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
The Rule of Property I and II, by Karen Coulter
Posted by Bill Huston at 7:33 PM