Enclosure of the Mind

“[T]he chief matter . . . being now not the fruits of the earth, and the beasts that subsist on it, but the earth itself; as that which takes in, and carries with it all the rest.

John Locke, Two Treatises

“Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave …
And birds and trees and flowers without a name
I sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came.”

John Clare, The Mores

“Strangely enough they have a mind to till the soil and the love of possession is a disease with them. These people have made many rules that the rich may break but the poor may not. They take their tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich and those who rule.

Sitting Bull

The time has arrived when we should definitely make up our minds to recognize the Indian as an individual and not as a member of a tribe. The General Allotment Act is a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass. It acts directly upon the family and the individual.

Teddy Roosevelt, Address to Congress

The early modern period saw the legal push for land enclosure, privatization, and consolidation. It became a powerful force in the 18th century, which destroyed the ancien regime, destabilized the social order, and precipitated revolts and eventually revolution. This was central to Enlightenment thought in the creation or exacerbation of Jaynesian consciousness, post-bicameral nostalgia, Platonic/Cartesian anxiety, atomistic individualism, capitalist realism, social Darwinism, and WEIRD culture. In a short period of time, land reform, agricultural improvements, and technological advancements led to the first dependable grain surpluses, particularly the increase of wheat production, the sudden availability and affordability of white flour, and the industrial development of the high-carb standard American diet (SAD). Also, with colonial trade, tobacco, tea and sugar replaced local smoking herbs and herb-infused beer. Heading into the 19th century and continuing into the next, all of this combined might have contributed to the disappearance of the fairies and the emergence of a crisis of identity, followed by moral panic along with the rise of widespread mental illness and drug addiction and other diseases of civilization, which continues to worsen, not to mention increasing rates of such things as autism — all of it central to what one could call the agricultural mind, exacerbated by mass urbanization, industrialization, and big ag.

This is an ongoing line of speculation, but the land enclosure angle is somewhat new. We’ve previously written about the enclosure movement, privatization and the loss of the Commons, as it obviously is one of the most central changes in recent history, arguably key to understanding nearly all other changes in modernity. It coincided not only with capitalism, corporatism, and industrialization but also colonial imperialism and its vast trade network. There really is no way of comphrehending what all the fuss was about, from the English Peasants’ Revolt to the English Civil War to the American Revolution, without knowing how feudalism was forcefully and violently dismantled not by the peasants and serfs but by aristocrats and monarchs. Other economic practices and systems were seen as more profitable or otherwse attractive. Eliminating the feudal system of parishes and commons, for example, eliminated all of the inconvenient social obligations and traditional roles of noblesse oblige that constrained power according to the authorizng precedence of living tradition and custom. Part of the complaint of some aristocrats, including the more radical-minded like Thomas Jefferson, was that the ancien regime was perceived as oppressively confining to everyone, including the aristocracy. But to destroy that old order meant creating something radically new in its place, which would involve new subjectivities, identities, and roles.

That was the self-enforced task set before the Enlightenment thinkers and later reformers. Individuality and independence was praised, but some at the time admitted to or hinted at the fact that these were not natural law and human birthright. They had to be artificially created. First off, let’s set down a distinction: “Like social constructionism, social constructivism states that people work together to construct artifacts. While social constructionism focuses on the artifacts that are created through the social interactions of a group, social constructivism focuses on an individual’s learning that takes place because of his or her interactions in a group” (Wikipedia). Another way of thinking about this was described by Richard M. Doyle: “The philosopher Louis Althusser used the language of “interpellation” to describe the function of ideology and its purchase on an individual subject to it, and he treats interpellation as precisely such a “calling out.” Rather than a vague overall system involving the repression of content or the production of illusion, ideology for Althusser functions through its ability to become an “interior” rhetorical force that is the very stuff of identity, at least any identity subject to being “hailed” by any authority it finds itself response-able to” (Darwin’s Pharmacy). A social artifact, once socially constructed, offers an affordance that unconsciously enforces the authorization of social constructivism through the interpellation of calling out a particular behavioral subjectivity we become identified with in responding. So, to give a concrete example, we are enacting the propertied self when, after seeing a no trespassing sign, we don’t cross a fence. We’ve been hailed by the authorization of an implicit ideological realism that makes a claim over us, constraining not only our behavior but more importantly our identity. But that response has to be taught, modeled, and internalized — fences and walls, like roads and sidewalks, become the infrastructure emblazoned upon the mind.

This civilizing process was more starkly apparent at the beginning of modernity because so much of what we take for granted, within this dominant ideological realism, did not yet exist. To establish private landholdings was necessary to form the structure for the propertied self, far beyond mere self-ownership in not being a slave (i.e., liberty). The danger, to the emerging capitalist class, was that there were competing structures of identity with the communal self and bundled mind that continued to assert itself. Consider the elite intellectual William Godwin (1756–1836) who saw “associations as constructing their members’ subjectivities, not merely directing their energies incorrectly,” writes Robert Anderson. “In this sense, then, associations are analagous to what Louis Althusser calls Ideological State Apparatuses which provide material rituals and practice, which subjects recognize themselves. Unlike Althusser’s state apparatuses, which hail subjects as individuals, political associations, in Godwin’s view, construct a “common mass” subject, in which subjects are undifferentiated one from another. Since, as Sayer and Corrigan argue, the construction of subjectivity is central to the success of a nation-state, this function of political associations is no trivial matter” (“Ruinous Mixture”: Godwin, Enclosure and the Associated Self). Those like Godwin thought collectivities were a bad thing, since individualistic propertied elites such as himself represented the ideal in his utopian ideology. During this same era, George Washington warned of the threat of politcal parties and one wonders if he had similar worries on his mind, considering his treatment of the collective action of Shays’ Rebellion. Robert Anderson explains what this entails:

“The Enclosure Movement, which yokes the realms of the subject and of property, gives some historical grounding for Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject, which describes the psychic imperatives that drive the subject to distinguish itself from a “common mass.” This force, I am suggesting, determines the movement towards the enclosure of both the commons and the “self.” It concerns an anxiety about the “clean and proper” (“le propre”) boundaries of the self (“le propre”). The subject is constructed through a process of exclusion and boudnary-defense which involves an attempt ot ensure the singularity and integrity of the self within its boundaries, and an attempt to protect those boundaries of the self—not merely the self, but the boundaries themselves. Abjection names the proces of “exclusion” through wich “‘I’ expell myself” from indifferentiation and wildness/animality. The abject, then, threatens to “engulf” the subject because it is a reminder of what it must push aside in order to live. We can se this at work in Young’s claim that enclosure transformed the country from “boundless wilds and uncultivated wastes” into “well-peopled” “inclosures . . . cultivated in a most husband-like manner . . . and yielding an hundred times times the produce.” It is to guard against the “ruinous Effects of a Mixture of opposite Interests” and the “untidiness” of common and use-rights, that enclosure takes place. It cleans and distinguishes le propre—the self, the property—from the “improper.” In his chapter on “The Principles of Property,” Godwin argues that property performs this very function. In spite of the great injustices it causes, the right to property is so “sacred” that no exertion or sacrifice to protect it can be too great (2.440-50). It creates an “essential” “sphere” which protects man from outside intervention, thereby freeing up a space for the operation of “private judgment,” which is necessary for the improvement of man” (2.433). This improvement is threatened if the self is not protected from being “resolve[d] . . . into one common mass” (1.289). Abjection, then, is the psychological engine for improvement.

“The history of enclosure bears out Kristeva’s argument that abjection is ultimately a reliance on the law, which “shapes the body into a territory protected by the “differentiations of proper-clean and improper-dirty” (72). Thompson reveals the extent to which “reasons of improvement” had acquired the status of legal terminology, in particular as a justification for the enclosure of the commons (“Custom” 134-60 passim). A. W. B. Simpson’s A History of Land Law articulates the historical change from “communal rights” of the commons to individual rights, which both made possible and were produced by the enclosure: “[t]he tenurial system converted the villagers [who used the land as common village property] into tenants, and the theory of the law placed the freehold of most of the lands of the manor in the lord. . . . Thus a theory of individual ownership supplants earlier more egalitarian notions” of property. And with this change, common rights came to be seen as having originated “in the grant of the lord,” rather than as a “customary rights associated with the communal system of agriculture practiced in primitive village communities.” In cases where enclosure was contested, however, court rulings often reversed the implicit chronology of “improvement” to suggest that enclosure was the natural state of property rather than an innovation.”

This demonstrates how the conservative authority of hierarchical individualism usurped the role of traditional authority of the ancestral commons, the latter a vestige of archaic authorization of the bicameral mind. The historical revisionism of the conservative project of individualistic privatization hints at the underlying reactionary mind that fuels the radical transformation through the invented tradition of ideological realism dressed up in robes from the wardrobe of moral imagination, proclaiming it has always been this way and putting a narratized spell of historical amnesia upon Jaynesian consciousness — and so individuality erases the evidence of its own origins, like the scaffolding removed from a cathedral after being built by thousands of laboerers over centuries. The threat of collective action of worker associations, labor unions, etc is not that they represent something radically and entirely new but that they are old impulses/habits carried over from the lingering habitus of the ancien regime and traditional communities that keep challenging the radical modernity of reactionary conservatism. The conservative counterrevolution is itself revolutionary, as it is also authoritarian. As noted many times before, the ideology of independence of hyper-individualism is inseparable from dependence of authoritarianism (as violently oppressive militarism, totalitarianism, imperialism, and statism) — concentrated and centralized power, concentrated and centralized land ownership, concentrated and centralized psychic energy (withdrawn form the common world-self and enclosed). It requires concerted political effort and monopolization of violence to break apart communal land and identity. The capitalist self of hyper-individualism began with the wealthy elite precisely because they were the initial beneficiaries of the enclosure movement. They were enclosing not only land but their own minds and selves from the ancient common mass of the lingering traces of the bicameral mind. Many were thinking about these issues.

Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine’s land reform proposals are as much, if not more, about selfhood and social identity as they are about economics (the elimination of entail and primogeniture was intended as a direct attack on aristocracy). Neither trusted an elite to control all land and all benefits from land but they (fatalistically?) accepted that the enclosure movement was irreversible or necessary for the society that was being created, even as they acknowledged the loss of freedom as demonstrated by Native Americans who could act freely precisely because they were acting within a commons (Benjamin Franklin also made such observations about the greater indigenous freedom and its attraction). These specific founders wanted to make all individuals either land owners (Jefferson’s yeoman farmers as republican citizens) or beneficiaries of land ownership (Paines’s citizens dividend), in both cases a response to the enclosure movement as it encroached in on the New World through land consolidation. Self-development had been limited to the elite, but what if self-development could be made available to all. The most radical challenge of Enlightenment thought was that all of humanity, even women and the poor and non-Europeans, shared a common human nature and that self-cultivated individuality was a universal potential, while others saw it as a necessary demand and obligation (develop an individual self or be punished). Like these two, Adam Smith thought inequality opposed a free society of individual citizens. And for this reason, Smith worried that, as opposed to agriculture, the new industrial labor might dumb down the population and so public education was necessary. Without land to cultivate as part of Jeffersonian republicanism, society would have to teach other methods of self-cultivation. Godwin likewise was concerned with education motivated by a belief that every individual should independently research, analyze, and assess everything for themselves; such deification of individualism being an impossible ideal, of course; but that apparently was of no great concern to him beause he was of a less practical bent, as opposed to Jefferson and Paine’s aspirations to offer real world solutions. From Godwin’s perspective, the point was to create and enforce individualism, including actively destroying collectivities, and then everything else would presumably fall into place.

Godwin opposed the commoners re-creating the ancient practice of the commons for the very reason it was such a natural and deeply entrenched impulse within the shared psyche. Later on, it would be the same reason collective adoptions had to be illegalized to destroy Shaker communities, collective land ownership had to be constrained to weaken Hutterite communities, and collective labor unions had to be busted to shatter working class communites. Individualism isn’t created only one time in the past but must be constantly re-created through the policies and actions of government, the punishment and coercion of law, and the encouragement of incentives and subsidies. Individualism is such a weak, unstable, and unnatural state that it would break apart without constantly being shored up and defended. The modern psyche is ever seeking to return to its origins in the bundled mind of bicameralism, animism, or some other variant. The inherent failure of individualism is regularly affirmed by how individualist realism is entirely dependent on collectivist institutions of state governments, state-created corporate charters, etc — such as giving greater rights, privileges, benefits, power, autonomy, and representation to corporate persons than to most individual humans. We are suffused with an authoritarian collectivism that is the actual system behind the charade of individualism. As with Edmund Burke, Godwin’s fear of combinations, mixings, and associations — the undifferentiated masses — expressed a fear of the impure and disorderly; like an obsessive-compulsive child forever lining up her toys and panicking whenever anyone touches them. This is the demand for principled consistency in the WEIRD mind, but the only principle is order for the sake of order, as demonstration of hierarchical power to assert the authority that authorizes ideological realism. It must be an enforced order because the ancient organic orders of tribe, kinship, village, commons, etc or the grassroots organizing of communities and workers can’t be trusted because it can’t be controlled hierarchically through centralized authority and concentrated power. When the last traces of bicameral voices have been silenced, conservatives see hierarchy as the only authority left to command authorization, be it the hierarchy of Klan, church, military, or something similar.

Hierarchy, though, can only accomplish this if it has been narratized and internalized, by way of the interpellation of symbolic conflation where an ideological realism recedes from consciousness in becoming the calcified frame of thought and perception. This was what made the enclosure movement essential in reifying an abstract ideology. It had to be imprinted upon not only the human psyche but the land itself, the literal ground of psyche as our embodied sense of place. The early land reforms rigidified boundaries, regimented land ownership, and systematized infrastructure — roads were straightened and waterways channelized. As the echoes of the living bicameral voices of ancestral spirits were transformed into the written word as the “dead hand” of corpses (i.e., widespread literacy), the soil became mere dust and land mere property with the earth being mapped and bounded. Some traditions such as Quaker living constitutionalism sought to hold onto the remnants, as part of the memory of a former British communalism. The living landscape invoked by Australian Aborigines maybe was not so different than the English practice of beating the bounds and wassailing that reinforced a collective enclosure of a shared subjectivity. Once the commons were gone, there were no bounds of the commons left to be ritually beat as a community nor communal lands inabited by spirits to be wassailed. Land reform was social reform and moral reform. Godwin’s described education of the mind like the cultivation of enclosed land, which reminds one that Lockean land rights were defined not merely by use but by cultivation or improvement of enclosed land (including John Locke’s consitutional defense of slavery; propertied self going hand in hand with the embodied self literally being property to be owned; though Locked suggested a vague qualification about how much could be enclosed, which meant the rich could accumulate vast tracts of land as long as theoretically somewhere there is still land available for others), wherease the pre-Lockean land rights of Roger Williams acknowledged that any use of even non-enclosed land proved (demonstrated and expressed) ownership, which might simply have been an invocation of the old Charter of the Forest, “guaranteeing the right to commoning (recovered in 1217), which in turn recognized subsistence rights, e.g., the right to widow’s estovers (wood needed for housing repairs, implements, etc.), and to subsistence usufructs (the temporary use of another person’s land)” (Carolyn Lesjak, 1750 to the Present: Acts of Enclosure and Their Afterlife); some of the practices continuing into 19th cenury American property law and still barely hanging on today in certain Western countries.

It is intriguing to think about how recent this happened, but first consider where it began. “In the Middle Ages, fifty per cent or more of the land was commons, accessible to everybody,” says Mark Vernon (Spiritual Commons). Then the enclosures began. “Overall, the pace of enclosure rose dramatically after the 1760s as landowners turned to parliament for the legitimization of their claims,” writes Nina Mcquown. “Michael Turner estimates that more than twenty percent of the area of England was enclosed by act of parliament between 1750 and 1819, the vast majority of these acts occurring after 1760 (32). A high concentration—twenty-one percent of the whole of acreage enclosed by parliament—was enclosed in the decades between 1770 and 1780 and in the years of high grain prices during the Napoleonic wars (Yelling 16).11 Although enclosure continued until the end of the nineteenth century, by 1815 only small and discontinuous patches of common fields remained” (“Rank Corpuscles”: Soil and Identity in Eighteenth Century Representations). Then some further details from Gary Snyder: “between 1709 and 1869 almost five million acres were transferred to private ownership, one acre in every seven. After 1869 there was a sudden reversal of sentiment called the ‘open space movement’ which ultimately halted enclosures and managed to preserve, via a spectacular lawsuit against the lords of fourteen manors, the Epping Forest.” To put that in context, following the Englsh Civil War, the Glorious Revoluion reinstated the monarchy in 1688, but there now was a powerful Parliament. That Parliament would be the agent of change, beginning to take strong actions in that next century. Not only were the commons privatized for the colonies were legally constructed as for-profit corporations, along with the creation of quasi-governmental corporations like the East India Company. This led to the complaints by the colonists in demanding the king stand up to Parliament, but the monarchy no longer held the reigns of power. Capitalism was now running the show.

Even then the Charter of the Forest as the founding document of the Commons, having been established in 1217, didn’t officially end until 1971. It almost made it to the end of the Cold War and a new millennia. One might suspect the Commons seemed too communist to be allowed to survive. If it had been maintained, the people might have gotten the wrong idea about who the country belonged to. Even as the politics of it is more than relevant, what made the enclosure movement a revolutionary moment was the transformation of the Western mind. The real issue was the enclosure of the common identity and moral imagination. That is why, as colonial imperialism took hold and expanded, the rhetoric so heavily focused on the symbolic ‘wilderness’ left remaining. Though the “percentage of wastelands—forests, fens, sheep walks, and moors—enclosed and improved during the period of parliamentary enclosure was relatively small,” writes Nina McQuown, they “loomed large in the imaginations of the propagandists responsible for encouraging the expansion of both enclosure and the innovative agricultural practice that it was thought to support.” Carolyn Lesjak writes that, “If enclosure in the 16th century was largely “by agreement” and, in fact, condemned by both the church and the government, who sided with the commoners’ claims regarding “common rights,” by the 1750s the government had taken the lead and over the course of the period from 1750-1830 passed over 4000 Acts of Enclosure, resulting in over 21% of the land (approximately 6.8 million acres) being enclosed (see Ellen Rosenman’s BRANCH essay on “Enclosure Acts and the Commons”). By the end of the century, virtually all the open fields in Britain were gone.” Everything had to be cultivated, even what was deemed useless. All material was to be fodder for improvement and progress, at least in the new mythos. “After the 1760s,” McQuown explains, as the “British improvers turned the logic and language of colonialism inward, towards the wastes,” they also turned inward to colonizing the uncultivated mind.

This makes one realize how false it is to blame everything on the later political revolutions and freethinking radicals. The enclosure movement actually began much earlier around the 14th century, around the time of the English Peasants’ Revolt. Even Parliaments’ legal justifications and enforcement happened generations before the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party. This reform of land, self, and mind unsurprisingly preceded and then overlapped with the early modern revolutions. John Adams famously wrote that, “What do We mean by the Revolution? The War? That was no part of the Revolution. It was only an Effect and Consequence of it. The Revolution was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington. The Records of thirteen Legislatures, the Pamphlets, Newspapers in all the Colonies ought be consulted, during that Period, to ascertain the Steps by which the public opinion was enlightened and informed concerning the Authority of Parliament over the Colonies.” His only error was limiting his scope to the colonies and not pushing it further back. Enclosure of land became reform of mind became revolution of society became rupture of history. The cultivation of farming that once followed astrological cycles of return (i.e., revolution) had ground down the bones of the dead into dust. Humanity was uprooted from the past and temporally dislocated in an abstract narrative, as cyclical time became linear and nostalgia became a disease. The colonists surely experienced this most clearly in how the early waves of colonists largely consisted of the most destitute landless peaseants, many recently evicted from the commons and feudal villages, often arriving as slave-like indentured servants and convict labor — one can imagine the desperation and despair they felt, as being sent to the early colonies was practically a death sentence.

The colonial era may seem like a distant time from the present, but we can sense how the world we now live in was shaped then. Most Westerners remain landless peasants. The commons that once defined a communal experience of reality only remain like the shadows of a nuclear blast, the traces of a living world that remains our ancient inheritance, however cut off we have become. It may seem the egoic boundaries of our individualism have toughened into place like scars, like the crust of parched earth. We feel tired and anxious from the constant effort of mainaintiaing the walls of our mind, to keep the self separate from the world. It takes only a moment’s lapse when our guard is let down before we begin to sense what we have lost. An aching tenderness remains below. We are so hungry for connection that simply stepping into the commons of a forested park can feel like a spiritual experience for many people today. Yet such moments are mere glimpses too often quickly forgotten again. We have no shared experience, no living memory to draw from. We have no solid ground to stand upon. And the path to a different world that existed in the past has been gated shut. Or so it seems. But is that true? Where else could we be but in the world? Nature knows no boundaries nor does the human psyche, if we root down deep enough into our own soil. There is no sense of self without a sense of place for we mould ourselves out of the clay, as we breathe the dust of our ancestors.

Landscape is memory, and memory in turn compresses to become the rich black seam that underlies our territory.

Alan Moore, Coal Country, from Spirits of Place

Ever place has its own… proliferation of stories and every spatial practice constitutes a form of re-narrating or re-writing a place… Walking [into a place] affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects… haunted places are the only ones people can live in.

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

* * *

“Ruinous Mixture”: Godwin, Enclosure and the Associated Self
by Robert Anderson

In this argument, I turn on its head Godwin’s claim that the right to private property “flows from the very nature of man.” While Godwin argues that the right to property is “founded” on the “right of private judgment” which “flows from the very nature of man” (2.169-70), I will argue that this argument runs counter to his notion that private property “unavoidably suggests some species of law” to guarantee it (2.439). To be more specific, I argue that Godwin’s defense of the “sacred” and “essential” “sphere” surrounding the self (1.1.70, 1.257), which is necessary to potect it from being “resolved . . . into the common mass” (1.289), draws upon the conceptual framework which informs the rhetoric of the Enclosure Movement. In particular, I note his argument that cutting off the individual from the “common mass” is necessary for “improvement”—another term for enclosure. [….]

Part of his “extensive plan of freedom” involved the socialization of the self and (ideally) property and the rejection of all restraints on individual liberty; his “reprobation,” I argue, stems from this same defense of private judgment, which can be said to serve the conservative interests of the powers that be.

  1. The Subject of the Commons

Political associatons came of age in the latter part of the eighteenth century in response to the upheavals wrought by the industrial revoltion. Associations were contesting the state’s efforts to regulate subjectivites. Albert Goodwin recounts that in 1790 in the industrial center of Sheffeld, for example, “the master scissorsmiths,” apprehensive of the collective power of striking scissor grinders, “called a general meeting of the town’s merchants and manufacturers ‘to ooppose the unlawful combinations of the scissor grinders and the combinations of all other workmen.'” The same anxiety about the collective strength of the poor which led the Sheffield city leaders to oppose combinations also led to attempts to eradicate collective landholding arrangements by enclosing the commons. Following the passage of the Private Enclosure Act of 6 June 1791, in whch 6,000 acres of commons were redistrbuted among the wealthy “local land-holders, tithe-owners and large freeholders,” an angry mob, comprising both peasants and industrial laborers, rioted, threatening to destroy “the lives and properties of the freeholders who had approved the enclosure” (165-67). The fact that the mob opposing enclosure included industrial laborers as well as peasant farmers whose land was being appropriated reveals the close connections between enclosure and industrial capitalism. Sayer and Corrigan make the connecton between enclosure, capitalism, and subjectivity in this period more explicit.

But the great catastrophe which above all pervades the eighteenth century is the acceleration of the great “freeing” of labour (and thus making labour-power) that divides wage-labouring from generalized poverty; the long movement from service to employment, from provision to production/consumption, from political theatre to the individualism . . . of the vote: enclosures.” (96)

As Marx argues, enclosure ensures that workers, expropriated from their means of subsistence, are thrust into relations of dependence on the capitalists.

Goodwin goes on to relate that the response of the commoners and laborers also took forms more organized and intellectual than rioting. “When ‘5 or 6 Mechanicks’ began to meet . . . to discuss ‘the enormous high prices of Provisions,'” they initiated the creation of political societies, associatons, for the (self-) education of the working classes (166). They attempted, in the words of one charter, “to persuade their benighted brethren to defend themselves against private and publiic exploitation by the assertion of their natural rights” (qtd. in Goodwin 167). Political societes provided laborers with an organized forum—an institution—to exert influence on the opinions of their fellow laborers, and by extension, on society at large. Godwin opposes political associations on just this account. The “interference of an organized society” to influence “opinion” is “pernicious” (2.2280. “[E]ach man must be taught to enquire and think for himself,” uninfluenced by either “sympahy or coercion,” guided only by “reason.” The “creeds” of politcal associations, on the other hand, encourage “each man to identify his creed with that of his neighbour” (1.288). He goes on to argue that sympathy, like a disease, is especially contagious among undisciplined laborers: “While the sympathy of opinion catches from man to man, especially among persons whose passions have been little used to the curb of judgment, actns may be determined upon, which the solitary reflections of all would have rejected” (1.294). Like the unenclosed commons, sympathy threatens the distinctions upone which general improvements is predicated: the “mind of one man is essentally diistinct from the mind of another. If each do not preserve his individuality, the judgment of all will be feeble, and the progress of our common understandng inexpressibly retarded” (1.236).

1790, the year the Sheffeld master scissorsmiths moved to oulaw the combinations of “grinders” and “workmen,” was also the year in which Edmund Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke reserved his greates hostility—and fear—for the “confusion” of the “swinish multitdude” (314). Reflections reveals the extent to which concerns about the collective power of the masses, the upheavals of the industrial revolution, and anxiety about the French Revolution are intertwined. The “French Revolution,” he argues, was brought about “by the most absurd and ridiculous . . . by the most contemptible instruments. Everything seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies.” And further, it is a “monstrous tragi-comic scene, the most opposite passions necessarily succeeded, and sometimes mix with each other in the mind; alternate contempt and indignation; alternate laughter and tears; alternate scorn and horror.” Burke’s concern about the inappropriate mixture driving the French Revolution invokes a common rhetoric for disparaging forms of life among peasants and the laboring population. It appears, as I will argue, in condemnations of the “waste” and the “ruinous . . . Mixture of opposite Interests” in the subsistence economy of the commons, and in Godwin’s critique of the tumult of political associations—both of which are seen as threats to individual integrity and “progress.” It also appears in his analysis of the “mechanism of the human mind.”

“Rank Corpuscles”: Soil and Identity in Eighteenth Century Representations
by Nina Patricia Budabin McQuown

The teleology of improvement could even stretch towards man’s transcendence of matter itself. This idea is amply represented in a notorious reverie from Godwin’s first edition of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), where Godwin projects the complete domination of matter—not only the matter of the soil, but also and especially the matter of the body—as the eventual outcome of human progress, beginning with its progress in agriculture. His logic traces a line from improved agriculture to a human transcendence of appetite, illness, and death: “[t]hree fourths of the habitable globe is now uncultivated. The parts already cultivated are capable of immeasurable improvements” (2: 861), he offers, and if we can gain control “over all other matter,” Godwin suggests,

“why not over the matter of our own bodies? If over matter at ever so great a distance, why not over matter which . . . we always carry about with us, and which is in all cases the medium of communication between that principle and the external universe? In a word, why may not man one day be immortal?” (2: 862)

Godwin’s questions are only the most succinct statement of the radical hope that is at the center of late eighteenth-century bourgeois liberalism, which, as Kramnick has argued, linked agricultural improvement to “middle-class disdain for the past, for history, and for custom” (Kramnick, “Eighteenth-Century Science” 9). For reformist thinkers, in all areas of human ambition, improvement was articulated as a break with the past and an optimistic orientation towards the future.

Even so, reformers relied on an analogy between human self-ownership and landownership that draws on inherited parallels between human bodily-economy and the social system.5 Reformers saw an obvious parallel between agriculturally improved land and the human subject, who, cut off by self-reliance from the prejudice of contemporaries as well as the inherited prejudices of the past, could “cultivate” himself towards perfection, so that, as Robert Anderson puts it, “[t]he moral economy and political economy merge in the social and semantic fields covered by ‘improvement’” (630). In the works of both Godwin and Priestley, both subjectivity and soil are divided into discrete properties whose content is to be determined by one and only one owner, protected by the integrity of the individual conscience from absorption into the “common mass” of human thought and opinion (620).6 Enclosure of both self and soil meant divestment from the influence of history—those ancient patriarchs and their prejudices—as much as from the influence of the rights of commonage. If earlier authors imagined the soil as disseminating ownership of England’s past, bearing it physically into the bodies of nationals, later eighteenth-century reformist authors often render the soil as a failed medium for the transmission of historical experience and lingering subjectivities. Such failure is, paradoxically, reinscribed as improvement. Priestley destroys the “foundation” for the prejudicial thought of the past, and Charlotte Smith, as we will see in the conclusion to this chapter, insists on a failure of communication between the present and an incomprehensible past that is buried well below reach of the ploughshare, and is in any case unworthy of transmission. Smith and Priestley deny the relevance of the past to the present because both prefer to build on a different foundation.

This chapter examines late eighteenth-century reformist representations of the soil primarily in the field of agricultural writing. It offers an analysis, first, of Arthur Young’s writing in support of the enclosure of waste soils in several works of the 1770s and 1780s. In contrast to the revolutionary rhetoric of Priestley, Godwin, and Smith, Arthur Young is usually thought of as a political conservative for his response to the French Revolution.7 Yet to call Young a conservative is to fail to appreciate common ground he shared with the likes of progressives such as Godwin and Priestley in his advocacy for enclosure and against tithes and poor rates. Moreover, in the field of agriculture at least, Young was hardly an advocate for the careful and conservative restoration of the edifice of the past. For Young, the waste spaces of Britain must be rendered into an inviting blankness empty and available enough to rival the magnetism of America’s putatively untouched interior. We start by acknowledging the ways that his arguments for the enclosure of wastelands require the figuration of Britain as Locke’s tabula rasa, ripe for human improvement, and move on to a specific discussion of Young’s descriptions of moor soils as the prototypical waste, where we find him forcibly unearthing and dispersing the evidence of other histories and interests in the soil in order to make the past available for improvement towards a progressively more fertile future. In Young’s improvement and enclosure propaganda, we can see that eighteenth-century agricultural writing does not, like Dryden’s translation of the Georgics and Defoe’s Tour in this dissertation’s chapter two, simply mediate, reframe, or cover up relics that it cannot fit into an acceptable narrative of British history, or, like Powell and Philips, allow the concept of recirculation through the soil to provide an alternative, inarticulate, and immediate relation to the past. Nor does Young, like Smollett or Tull, suggest sequestration from the violating agency of decay. Instead, Young offers an improvement that actively un-earths the past. The coherence of Young’s improved Britain is based not on a hermeneutics of repression, where fragmented and conflicting histories are buried out of sight, but on the agricultural improver’s active recycling of the past into fertile soil that will produce a better future. His texts acknowledge the tangles of historical and legal relics and material and customary restraints in and on the soil in order to enact their exhumation and dispersal. By claiming and controlling the power of putrefaction to break down and disseminate relics, Young’s improver takes over the soil’s work of decay. He releases the value of the past for the production of future goods.

In fact, Young’s program—which became the program of the new Royal Agricultural Society in 1793—was so successful that by the end of the eighteenth century, the landscape of Britain was entirely changed. With private enclosures replacing open fields formerly held in common, it was divided into subdivisions set apart by hedgerows, ditches, walls, and straight(er) roads. Where Godwin imagined a mind that could be enclosed and cultivated like soil through improvements, the poet John Clare asserted that by the first decades of the nineteenth century, that the British landscape had indeed come to imitate the private boundaries of the individual conscience. In this poem on the enclosure of his native village in Northhamptonshire, “The Moors,” for example, Clare shows,

“Fence meeting fence in owners’ little bounds
Of field and meadow, large as garden grounds,
In little parcels little minds to please,
With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease.”
(46-49)

For Clare as for others, the consonance of a private landscape and a private subjectivity came with a sense of loss, both of individual rights, and of continuity with the past, whose paths “are stopt—the rude philistine’s thrall / Is laid upon them and destroyed them all” (64-5). The sense that improvement had turned out to mean the parceling up of experience into discrete and discontinuous blocks led, for Godwin, to his eventual anxiety that the possibility of future progress had also been lost. How can men whose lives are so strongly separated engage in the communication that leads to human perfection? This anxiety motivates Godwin’s An Essay on Sepulchres (1809), a text in which Godwin ultimately abandons his advocacy for a historical soil, and proposes that dirt—literally the dust of the buried corpses of great men—could be the foundation of improvement by materializing cultural and historical continuity. Godwin’s Essay proposes a different kind of soil-fertility, land that fruits out in knowledge, experience, and sentiment instead of only food. Yet Godwin’s essay is unable to imagine an immediate and therefore openended relation between human bodies and the dust of the dead. He strives to secure stable access to corpses that are also subjects, with particular memories and ideas to represent to their living interlocutors. Intent on controlling the legacy that the past leaves for the future, Godwin can only approach the dead through the medium of their representations—both the texts they leave behind and the monuments he wants to erect at their gravesites. Ultimately, his Essay offers less a plan for the stable continuity of experience across generations, than a revelation of the limits of what representations and mediums can accomplish when they refuse the immediate agency of soil.

The Early Modern 99%
by Harry C. Merritt

Reverberations of battle are the soundtrack to developments in England at the time, where King Charles I would be executed the following year and his kingdom transformed into a commonwealth. During the course of the film, the educated and principled Whitehead is forced into labor together with the alcoholic Jacob and the simpleton Friend by O’Neill, a rogue Irishman seeking self-enrichment. […]

Not just England was in turmoil at this time — much of Europe and the growing number of territories it ruled across the globe experienced extraordinary upheaval during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Though the “General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century” thesis originally developed by Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has since been challenged and amended, a number of broad themes can still be distilled. Religious dissent and political radicalism challenged the authority of both the Catholic Church and monarchs who ruled by the grace of God. Conflicts like the Thirty Years War descended into endless nihilistic pillage and slaughter before lending themselves to the creation of the modern state system. The ruthless quest for precious metals and profits fueled the conquest of Native American peoples and the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade.

Perhaps one of the most powerful conceptualizations of this period can be found in Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s book The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. According to Linebaugh and Rediker, the ruling classes imagined themselves to be the latter-day incarnation of Hercules, laboring to bring order to a chaotic world. The embodiment of their enemy was the mythological Hydra, whose many heads represented its multifarious elements: religious dissenters, radical commoners, rebellious African slaves, fiercely independent Native Americans, and freethinking women.

In the Americas and on the Atlantic, “the plebian commonism of the Old [World]” encountered “the primitive communism of the New World” and formed a hybrid, alternative vision that set itself against the emergent order of modernity. Late in A Field in England, a hallucinating Whitehead declares, “I am my own master”; this realization is precisely what the ruling classes feared most in the Hydra.

Despite its multitudes, the Hydra was ultimately unsuccessful at challenging the emerging capitalist, colonialist order of modernity. In the centuries since, it would be difficult to imagine a group that parallels the Hydra in its diversity, utopianism, and in the threat it poses to the ruling classes — that is, until today. The emergence of the 99% as a social grouping that has come to be dreaded and despised by members of the 1% reproduces the dynamics and the discourse of that era.

While a new era of globalization erodes the economic security of the vast majority of the US, the 1% and their political supporters insist that they work harder than the rest of us and thus their ownership of nearly half of the world’s wealth is for the greater good. Recently, we have been treated to numerous declarations from members of the 1% suggesting that they are under threat from the 99%.

These shrill cries about impending repression — invoking Nazism seems popular — reveal the degree to which the 1% identify with one another and fear the masses. Like the Hydra, the 99% is a rhetorical construction rather than a social formation with clear class consciousness. Its very diversity constitutes its greatest weakness. The repeated spread, defeat, and resurrection of movements like Occupy Wall Street and Spain’s indignados resemble the scattered but persistent revolts of the Hydra. Today’s Occupy activists should recall that a revolutionary conspiracy by a group of New York City laborers — black and white, slave and free — emerged in 1741 out of a waterfront tavern just blocks from today’s Zuccotti Park. With goals that are simultaneously utopian and practical, these movements appeal to both the basic needs and the deepest desires of common people around the globe. […]

Alain Badiou sees “the invariant features of every real mass movement: egalitarianism, mass democracy, the invention of slogans, bravery, the speed of reactions” embodied in both Thomas Müntzer’s movement of the 1500s and in Tahrir Square of the 2010s. As disparate groups occupy public spaces from Cairo to Madrid to New York, asserting their rights and presenting an alternative vision of their societies, we should not forget the members of the Hydra who fought against the exploitation of the ruling classes in favor of another world during the early modern period.

Some will argue that our present time is too distant to draw many practical lessons from this period. But that does not mean we cannot look to its events, personages, and symbols for inspiration. By coincidence, the rainbow flag used by today’s LGBT and peace activists bears a striking resemblance to the rainbow flag Thomas Müntzer once used to rally the German peasantry — a fitting symbol in any period for uniting a diverse coalition and insisting that another world is possible.

The Effect of Land Allotment on Native American Households During the Assimilation Era
by Christian Dippel and Dustin Frye

Toward the end of the 19th century, with the conclusion of the Indian Wars and the closing of the frontier, reformers and the U.S. government turned their attention towards the cultural assimilation of Native Americans, ninety percent of whom were living on the reservations created in the previous decades. This is signified by the famous 1892 quote: “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”1 Assimilation efforts were centered on land allotment policies that broke up tribally owned reservation lands into individually owned homestead-sized land allotments. As the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) commissioner noted: “if there were no other reason [for allotment], the fact that individual ownership of property is the universal custom among civilized people of this country would be a sufficient reason for urging the handful of Indians to adopt it.” Allotment was the cornerstone of federal Indian policy beginning with the passing of the General Allotment (or ‘Dawes’) Act in 1887 until it ended with the passing of the Indian Reorganization (or ‘Howard-Wheeler’) Act (IRA) in 1934 (Carlson, 1981, p18).

When a reservation was opened for allotment, all families on the reservation were given allotments, and these allotments were held in a trust managed by the local Indian agent (the BIA’s local superintendents in charge of a reservation). Trust-status meant allottees could not sell or collateralize an allotment. In order to obtain full ‘fee-simple’ legal title for their allotment, allottees had to be declared “competent” by the BIA agent (Carlson, 1981; Banner, 2009; Otis, 2014). In short, Indian allotment was designed as a conditional transfer program aimed at cultural assimilation. The first ‘treatment arm’ was an unconditional transfer program: receiving an allotment gave the allottee the unconditional right to use the land for their own purposes, as well as the right to leasing rents. The second treatment arm was only obtained conditional on proving one’s “competence.” Allotment’s conditional transfer arm (full title) was worth almost 20 times annual per capita incomes in our data, orders of magnitude larger than modern-day conditional transfer programs. Our paper is an investigation into how individual households responded to the incentives created by this program.

We hypothesize that individual allottees responded to the allotment policy’s incentive structure by signalling cultural assimilation to the BIA agents in order to be able to obtain full property rights over their allotments. First evidence of this comes from an annual panel of reservation aggregate data from the BIA’s annual reports from 1911 to 1934. In addition to schooling, these data include very direct measures of assimilation or assimilation-signalling, namely the number of “church-going Indians” and of those “wearing civilized dress.” We combine these data with the universe of Indian allotments, which the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has digitized with geo-location and issuance year. In a within-reservation over-time comparison, we find that school-attendance, the number of church-going Indians and the number of those wearing civilized dress increased in lock-step with the expansion of allotment, even after controlling for potential changes in school and clerical infrastructure.

1 Quote from a speech by Capt. Richard Pratt, founder of the first Indian boarding school. Appendix-Figure A1 shows one of the many “before/after” pictures one finds in association with the Assimilation Era.

The Commons of World, Experience, and Identity

The commons, sadly, have become less common. Mark Vernon writes that, “in the Middle Ages, fifty per cent or more of the land was commons, accessible to everybody” (Spiritual Commons). The Charter of the Forest formally established the commons within English law and it lasted from 1217 to 1971. That isn’t some ancient tradition but survived far into modernity, well within still living memory. The beginning of the end was the enclosure movement that was first seen not long after the Charter was signed into law, but the mass evictions of peasants from their land wouldn’t happen until many centuries later with sheep herding, coal mining, and industrialization.

It’s hard for us to imagine what was the commons. It wasn’t merely about land and resources, about the customs and laws about rights and responsibilities, about who had access to what and in what ways. The commons was a total social order, a way of being. The physical commons was secondary to the spiritual commons as community, home and sense of place (“First came the temple, then the city.”) — “Landscape is memory, and memory in turn compresses to become the rich black seam that underlies our territory” (Alan Moore, “Coal Country”, from Spirits of Place); “…haunted places are the only ones people can live in” (Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life). The commons also was a living force, at a time when Christianity permeated every aspect of life and when the felt experience of Paganism continued in local traditions and stories, often incorporated into Church rituals and holy days. Within the commons, there was a shared world where everyone was accountable to everyone else. Even a chicken or a wagon could be brought to court, according to the English common law of doedands (Self, Other, & World).

The parish was an expression of the commons, embodying local community and identity that was reinforced by the annual beating of the bounds, a practice that goes back to ancient Rome, a faint memory of what once was likely akin to the Aboriginal songlines in invoking a spiritual reality. It was within the parish that life revolved and the community was maintained, such as determining disputes and taking care of the sick, crippled, elderly, widowed, and orphaned. We can’t genuinely care about what we feel disconnected from. Community is fellowship, kinship and neighborliness, is intimate relationship and familiarity. This relates to why Germanic ‘freedom’ meant to be part of a free people and etymologically was related to ‘friendship’, as opposed to Latin ‘liberty’ that merely indicated one wasn’t enslaved while surrounded by those who were (Liberty, Freedom, and Fairness).

“It is the non-material aspects of life,” Vernon suggests, “that, more often than not, are crucial for finding meaning and purpose, particularly when life involves suffering.” He states that a crucial element is to re-imagine, and that makes me think of he living imagination or what some call the imaginal as described by William Blake, Henry Cobin, James Hillman, Patrick Harpur, and many others. And to re-imagine would mean to re-experience in new light. He goes onto speak of the ancient Greek view of time. John Demos, in Circles and Lines, explains how cyclical time remained central to American experience late into the colonial era and, as the United States wasn’t fully urbanized until the 20th century, surely persisted in rural eras for much longer. Cyclical time was about a sense of recurrence and return, central to the astrological worldview that gave us the word ‘revolution’, that is to revolve. The American Revolutionaries were hoping for a return and the sense of the commons was still strong among them, even as it was disappearing quickly.

Instead of time as abundance, the modern world feels like time is always running out and closing in on us. We have no sense of openness to the world, as we’ve become insulated within egoic consciousness and hyper-individualism. As with beating the bounds of the parish, cyclical time contains the world into a familiar landscape of the larger world of weather patterns and seasons, of the sun, moon and stars — the North Wind is a force and a being, shaping the world around us; the river that floods the valley is the bringer of life. The world was vitally and viscerally alive in a way few moderns have ever experienced. Our urban yards and our rural farms are ecological deserts. City lights and smog hide the heavens from our view. Let us share a longer excerpt from Vernon’s insightful piece:

“Spiritual commons are often manifest in and through the loveliness of the material world, so that matters as well. It’s another area, alongside education, where spiritual commons has practical implications. That was spotted early by John Ruskin.

“Consider his 1884 lecture, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, in which he noted that “one of the last pure sunsets I ever saw” was in 1876, almost a decade previously. The colours back then were “prismatic”, he said, the sun going into “gold and vermillion”. “The brightest pigments we have would look dim beside the truth,” he continued. He had attempted to reflect that glorious manifestation of the spiritual commons in paint.

“He also knew that his experience of its beauty was lost because the atmosphere was becoming polluted. As a keen observer of nature, he noted how dust and smoke muddied and thinned the sky’s brilliance. In short, it would be crucial to clean up the environment if the vivid, natural displays were to return. Of course. But the subtler point Ruskin draws our attention to is the one about motivation: he wanted the vivid, natural displays because he had an awareness of, and desire for, spiritual commons.”

That is reminiscent of an event from 1994. There was a major earthquake on the West Coast and Los Angeles had a blackout. The emergency services were swamped with calls, not from people needing help for injuries but out of panic for the strange lights they were seeing in the sky. It scared people, as if the lights were more threatening than the earthquake itself — actual signs from the heavens. Eventually, the authorities were able to figure out what was going on. Thousands of urbanites were seeing the full starry sky for the first time in their entire lives. That situation has worsened since then, as mass urbanization is pushed to further extremes and, even though smog has lessened, light pollution has not (Urban Weirdness). We are literally disconnected from the immensity of the world around us, forever enclosed within our own human constructions. Even our own humanity has lost is wildness (see Paul Shepard’s The Others: How Animals Made Us Human).

We can speak of the world as living, but to most of us that is an abstract thought or a scientific statement. Sure, the world is full of other species and ecosystems. That doesn’t capture the living reality itself, though, the sense of vibrant and pulsing energy, the sounds and voices of other beings (Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond) — this is what the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor, in her “Stroke of Insight”, described as the “life-force power of the universe” (See Scott Preston’s Immanence of the Transcendent & The Premises of Our Existence), maybe related to what Carl Jung referred to as the “objective psyche”. One time while tripping on magic mushrooms, I saw-felt the world glistening, the fields shimmered in the wind and moonlight and everything breathed a single breath in unison.

That animistic worldview once was common, as was the use of psychedelics, prior to their being outlawed and increasingly replaced by addictive substances, from nicotine to caffeine (The World that Inhabits Our Mind). And so the addictive mind has built up psychic scar tissue, the thick walls of the mind that safely and comfortably contain us (“Yes, tea banished the fairies.” & Diets and Systems). Instead of beating the bounds of a parish, we beat the bounds of our private egoic territory, our thoughts going round in round like creatures caught in a tidal pool that is drying up in the harsh sunlight — when will the tide come back in?

* * *

Here is some additional historical info. The feudal laws were to some extent carried over into North America. In early America, legally owning land didn’t necessarily mean much. Land was only effectively owned to the degree you used it and that originally was determined by fencing. So, having a paper that says you own thousands of acres didn’t necessarily mean anything, if it wasn’t being maintained for some purpose.

It was every citizen’s right to use any land (for fishing, hunting, gathering, camping, etc) as long as it wasn’t fenced in — that was at a time when fencing was expensive and required constant repair. This law remained in place until after the Civil War. It turned out to be inconvenient to the whites who wanted to remain masters, as blacks could simply go anywhere and live off of the land. That was unacceptable and so blacks need to be put back in their place. That was the end of that law.

But there were other similar laws about land usage. Squatting rights go back far into history. Even to this day, if someone shows no evidence of using and maintaining a building, someone who squats there for a period of time can claim legal ownership of it. Some of my ancestors were squatters. My great grandfather was born in a house his family was squatting in. Another law still in place has to do with general land usage. If someone uses your land to graze their horses or as a walking path, some laws will allow legal claims to be made on continuing that use of land, unless the owner explicitly sent legal paperwork in advance declaring his ownership.

There was a dark side to this. Canada also inherited this legal tradition from feudalism. In one case, a family owned land that they enjoyed but didn’t explicitly use. It was simply beautiful woods. A company was able to dredge up an old law that allowed them to assert their right to use the land that the family wasn’t using. Their claim was based on minerals that were on the property. They won the case and tore up the woods for mining, despite having no ownership of the land. Those old feudal laws worked well in feudalism but not always so well in capitalism.

I’ll end on a positive note. There was a law that was particularly common in Southern states. It basically stated that an individual’s right to land was irrevocable. Once you legally owned land, no one could ever forcefully take it away from you. Even if you went into debt or didn’t pay your taxes, the land would be yours. The logic was that land meant survival. You could be utterly impoverished and yet access to land meant access to food, water, firewood, building materials, etc. The right to basic survival, sustenance, and subsistence could not be taken away from anyone (well, other than Native Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, etc; okay, not an entirely positive note to end on).

Americans Can’t Afford Kleptocracy

“While countries have shown aspirations to reduce emissions, the reality is far more bleak and complicated. The global economy is currently hardwired to run on fossil fuels. As incumbents, the multibillion corporations that extract gas and petroleum have a huge built in advantage over upstart renewable companies. In addition, fossil fuels enjoy $5 trillion in direct and indirect subsidies, and there’s ample infrastructure to extract and burn them. As a result, the levers of policies are pulled largely in favor of preserving this status quo despite the existential risk it poses.”

That is part of a damning critique by Brian Kahn over at Gizmodo (Building All the Fossil Fuel Projects Already in the Pipeline Would Wreck the Climate). The argument he is making there is about why it is hard to make rational changes everyone knows we have to make when there are so many vested interests. It’s an entire system of wealth and power, as always. That is the point I made in looking at California’s environmentally-unsustainable economy (Is California a Canary in the Coal Mine?). But that isn’t why I decided to quote the above.

What disturbs me is that the US ruling elite throw around trillions of dollars as if it were chump change. That is trillions of dollars every year (quite possibly an undercount at that, as not only is wealth given away but resources, opportunities, and access are given away before they are measured as wealth in any accounting, all of it defended and enforced by a military empire that is costly beyond imagination, costly also in terms of lives and human potential callously sacrificed). And we are talking about only one industry. They also waste trillions of dollars in selling other natural resources below market prices, in no-bid contracts for the defense industry, in all that goes into big ag, and much else. A few trillion here, a few trillion year, and on and on, in every sector of the economy every year, repeat ad nauseum for decades and generations on end. Yet we are told we don’t have enough money for basic needs of survival for Americans, that we can’t afford even to raise minimum wage for those who don’t earn enough to pay the bills, despite working multiple jobs. There are millions of Americans without affordable healthcare, sometimes without homes even, and going without food on a regular basis. But we can’t afford to ensure the public good. Well, I’m pretty sure those trillions upon trillions multiplied over a lifetime or longer could have gone a long way in investing in housing for all, universal healthcare, good schools even for the poor, clean water that is free of lead, and on and on.

Compare that to another country rich in natural resources, Iceland. They used a public company to sell their oil on the market and they sold it at market prices. The oil is still part of the same environmental problems, but at least the profits went to create a massive national surplus in preparing for the future. That surplus equates to millions of dollars per citizen and it can only be used for the public good, such as funding their large social safety net. That is what a functioning democracy looks like. Instead, what we Americans have is kleptocracy. What is going on is outright theft of the commons. The fact that such theft is part and parcel of the destruction of the world makes it all the worse. But even ignoring that, I want back the millions of dollars that were stolen from me. How about you? Do you want what was wrongfully taken from you? Or would you rather remain a slave?

What we’re talking about is reparations, not only for African-Americans descended from slaves and Native Americans whose ancestors survived genocide. This would be reparations for all Americans who have had wealth, resources, and opportunities stolen from them. Think about those who died young because of a lack of healthcare. Those are years of life stolen, loved ones taken from us too soon. How does one repay that? There is no amount of money that can undo the harm caused by the evil from generations of theft, corruption, and injustice. Even if we took all the wealth from the rich, it still couldn’t offset the harm caused to individuals and to society. The plutocrats have already wasted most of that wealth and so it’s gone. That is what psychopaths and authoritarians tend to do with other people’s money. They waste it. Yet they still have some of the wealth they sole from us Americans. Getting recompense for a fraction of what they stole is better than nothing. We only want what is rightfully ours. The kleptocrats took it from us and we want it back.

The ruling elite say we can’t steal from the rich because they only have so much money. I don’t want to steal from them. I want back at least some of the wealth they stole from me and my fellow Americans (easily hundreds of trillions of dollars over the past generation alone), not to mention what they stole from foreign populations. It should be given back because it is the right thing to do. It’s that simple. How do the police retrieve stolen property? Well, there is a well established protocol for enforcing justice in cases of theft. It’s done by the police pointing a gun at the robber, arresting them, placing them in jail, and then putting them on trial. All we Americans are asking for is justice, that our our free society be defended and our rights protected. Why aren’t the police doing their job? That is their job, right? If not, maybe others should do the job for them. Fear of violent oppression can only maintain the social order for so long.

Why do we accept this, allow this? As the American founders made clear, it has always been in our hands to choose our own government, our own constitution, and it has always been our right and responsibility to demand it by any means necessary, even revolution as our country was founded*. In dealing with this existential crisis humanity is facing, we are going to need all of our wealth to re-invest in a better society. We never should have tolerated kleptocracy, corporate welfare, and socialism for the rich. We can’t afford it.

* * *

*Whether revolution will be non-violent or violent would depend on the response of the government and ruling elite. If they choose violence, it will be violent. But I’m sure the American people would prefer a peaceful transition, if that is allowed by the powers that be. That is what Bernie Sanders is asking for when he speaks of revolution. And there is historical precedence for this, such as Portugal’s Carnation Revolution.

Either way, know this. Revolution will happen. It cannot be stopped. That is because the system is unsustainable. As I said, it’s simply unaffordable. The costs are too high. Shifting those costs onto the poor and future generations, shifting the costs onto foreign populations and the environment… that doesn’t solve the problem. It only delays it for a while. Now we are at the end point. No further delays are possible. The bill has come due. We can do this the easy way or the hard way.

As Ralph Nader put it, “there’s always a party before the party’s over.”

* * *

Cookie Cutter corporate media hack trying to defend plutocracy:

“Do you then ultimately believe that the most ultra-wealthy of us should give back in this way by being taxed in this way? I know you wrote a book Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! Do you really believe that that’s their duty and they should do it through a wealth tax of this sorts?

Ralph Nader:

“Well, definitely Warren Buffett and Lawrence Fink of Blackstone and Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia and others have talked about a reset in terms of corporate response and in response to the wealthy. But look. After years of political campaign cash and sending their candidates into high office, the super-rich have got huge tax escapes; they have huge subsidies, bailouts, giveaways, Wall Street, General Motors; they have huge antitrust protection, monopolistic prices; they’ve stalled or frozen wages.

“These are trillions and trillions of dollars that come from people who work hard every day, but have not received what they should have received given their earned effort. So this is like a restoration of fair play. And let me tell you. You’ve heard the old saying, there’s always a party before the party’s over. And some good guys in Wall Street and some of the more responsible corporate executives know they’re pushing that envelope too far in the face of the American people. And that’s why they’re huge polls supporting a lot of Sanders and Warren’s measures and they include quite a few conservative voters. You can’t have 65, 70, 75 percent vote for cracking down on corporate abuses, for a living wage, for universal health care unless you have quite a bit of conservative voters as well, right?”

A Sign of Decline?

Considering the fall of early civilizations, decentralization and privatization come into focus as important for understanding. They have, in at least some major examples, been closely associated with periods of decline. That doesn’t necessarily imply they are the cause. Instead, it may simply be a sign. Decline just means change. An old order changing will always be perceived of as a decline.

The creation of centralized government is at the heart of the civilization project. Prior to the city-states and empires of ‘civilization’, people governed themselves in many ways without any need of centralization for most everything had been local. It required the centralization (i.e., concentration) of growing populations to create the possibility and necessity of centralized governance. A public had to be formed in opposition to a private in order for a public good to be spoken of. Privacy becomes more valued in crowded cities.

Early hunter-gatherers seemed to have thought a lot less about privacy, if they had any concept of it at all, certainly not in terms of sound-dampening walls and locked doors. In that simpler lifestyle, most everything was held in common. There was no place that was the Commons for all of the world was considered the commons, for the specific people in question. Personal items would have been the exception, rather than the rule. Before the modern condition of extreme scarcity and overpopulation, there would have been less motivation to fight over private property.

It should be no surprise that periods of decentralization and privatization coincided with periods of population dispersal and loss. The decline of civilizations often meant mass death or migration.

We live in different times, of course. But is it really any different now?

When people today advocate decentralization and privatization, what does that mean in the larger sense? When some fantasize about the decline of our present social order, what do they hope will result? What is motivating all this talk?

If it is a sign, what is a sign of? What changes are in the air?

* * * *

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed
Eric H. Cline
pp. 152-4

DECENTRALIZATION AND THE RISE OF THE PRIVATE MERCHANT There is one other point to be considered, which has been suggested relatively recently and may well be a reflection of current thinking about the role of decentralization in today’s world.

In an article published in 1998, Susan Sherratt, now at the University of Sheffield, concluded that the Sea Peoples represent the final step in the replacement of the old centralized politico-economic systems present in the Bronze Age with the new decentralized economic systems of the Iron Age— that is, the change from kingdoms and empires that controlled the international trade to smaller city-states and individual entrepreneurs who were in business for themselves. She suggested that the Sea Peoples can “usefully be seen as a structural phenomenon, a product of the natural evolution and expansion of international trade in the 3rd and early 2nd millennium, which carried within it the seeds of the subversion of the palace-based command economies which had initiated such trade in the first place.” 57

Thus, while she concedes that the international trade routes might have collapsed, and that at least some of the Sea Peoples may have been migratory invaders, she ultimately concludes that it does not really matter where the Sea Peoples came from, or even who they were or what they did. Far more important is the sociopolitical and economic change that they represent, from a predominantly palatial-controlled economy to one in which private merchants and smaller entities had considerably more economic freedom. 58

Although Sherratt’s argument is elegantly stated, other scholars had earlier made similar suggestions. For example, Klaus Kilian, excavator of Tiryns, once wrote: “After the fall of the Mycenaean palaces, when ‘private’ economy had been established in Greece, contacts continued with foreign countries. The well-organized palatial system was succeeded by smaller local reigns, certainly less powerful in their economic expansion.” 59

Michal Artzy, of the University of Haifa, even gave a name to some of the private merchants envisioned by Sherratt, dubbing them “Nomads of the Sea.” She suggested that they had been active as intermediaries who carried out much of the maritime trade during the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BC. 60

However, more recent studies have taken issue with the type of transitional worldview proposed by Sherratt. Carol Bell, for instance, respectfully disagrees, saying: “It is simplistic … to view the change between the LBA and the Iron Age as the replacement of palace administered exchange with entrepreneurial trade. A wholesale replacement of one paradigm for another is not a good explanation for this change and restructuring.” 61

While there is no question that privatization may have begun as a by-product of palatial trade, it is not at all clear that this privatization then ultimately undermined the very economy from which it had come. 62 At Ugarit, for example, scholars have pointed out that even though the city was clearly burned and abandoned, there is no evidence either in the texts found at the site or in the remains themselves that the destruction and collapse had been caused by decentralized entrepreneurs undermining the state and its control of international trade. 63

In fact, combining textual observations with the fact that Ugarit was clearly destroyed by fire, and that there are weapons in the debris, we may safely reiterate that although there may have been the seeds of decentralization at Ugarit, warfare and fighting almost certainly caused the final destruction, with external invaders as the likely culprits. This is a far different scenario from that envisioned by Sherratt and her like-minded colleagues. Whether these invaders were the Sea Peoples is uncertain, however, although it is intriguing that one of the texts at Ugarit specifically mentions the Shikila/ Shekelesh, known from the Sea Peoples inscriptions of Merneptah and Ramses III.

In any event, even if decentralization and private individual merchants were an issue, it seems unlikely that they caused the collapse of the Late Bronze Age, at least on their own. Instead of accepting the idea that private merchants and their enterprises undermined the Bronze Age economy, perhaps we should consider the alternative suggestion that they simply emerged out of the chaos of the collapse, as was suggested by James Muhly of the University of Pennsylvania twenty years ago. He saw the twelfth century BC not as a world dominated by “sea raiders, pirates, and freebooting mercenaries,” but rather as a world of “enterprising merchants and traders, exploiting new economic opportunities, new markets, and new sources of raw materials.” 64 Out of chaos comes opportunity, at least for a lucky few, as always.

Iowa City: Public Good & Democratic Government (pt 2)

This is a continuation of a previous post which can be found here. Read that post first in order to understand the background to this post. I’m writing this post with the assumption someone already knows what I’m talking about.

* * *

I first noticed outsourcing in Iowa City government when I began working a seasonal job for Parks & Recreation, the job I had immediately prior to being hired by the Parking Department. I worked in the Central Business District (CBD) at that time. Our job was to clean the downtown area, mow some grass, and occasionally do a bit of gardening. Their were garbage cans that needed to be changed regularly and it was part of the work that was the responsibility of Parks & Rec, but it had been contracted out. I’m not sure the reasoning for it being outsourced. All the work I did in Parks & Rec could have been outsourced. There was no obvious logic for why some jobs are outsourced and others not.

The same goes for Parking. They are trying to outsource some of the janitorial work, although the City Council supposedly denied the request earlier and Parking management is planning to make a second request. I know neither the ultimate reasons of management in making the request or the reasons of the City Council in their initially denying the request. I also don’t know why management is making a second request. I did go to a meeting where management explained their basic reasons, but I still don’t know what is motivating their choices. I see no rhyme or reason it beyond saving money. However, why not outsource all of parking? Instead of just taking part of the work away from city maintenance workers, why not just outsource all of their work and eliminate their positions entirely? These are questions I have no answers for.

A maintenance worker told me that management wasn’t entirely sure how to keep the maintenance workers busy if and when the outsourced workers take over the janitorial part of their work. This maintenance worker was wondering why they had outsourced the work of maintenance workers when it was that work that partly justified the very existence of maintenance. They still have other work to do. There is always equipment to be fixed, painting to be done, and other maintenance type work. However, in the past, maintenance workers in Parking did more janitorial than they ever did maintenance. So, it makes one wonder about the future of maintenance positions. Once a part of the job has been outsourced, it logically follows all parts of the job can and should be outsourced if saving money is the priority.

The City government combined the Parking Department with the Transit Department, and so the work and some of the positions of the two is now combined. The building where the buses are housed and where the offices are located was partly funded by federal money. From what a bus driver explained to me, they can’t outsource the work done in a federally funded building. Management has dealt with this challenge by having Parking maintenance workers take over some of the janitorial work in that Transit building. So, some of the work is being shifted around while some positions are being entirely eliminated in Transit.

This outsourcing seems like a possible trend. Even before recent problems in the national economy, Parking management had already contracted out some of the work: window cleaning, ramp washing, etc. As far as I can tell, outsourcing has increased over time, at least in the departments I’m familiar with. However, not all work is being outsourced which is what I find curious.

Some office work, for various reasons, has increased in the Parking Department. So, even as they’ve been eliminating the lower jobs, they’ve been increasing the office jobs which includes an increase in management positions since I began working. Why do they need more managers if they are outsourcing more? They could outsource much of the management as well and just have a head of the department to oversee it. They could even eliminate both Parking and Transit as an independent department and put it under the management of some other department. Or they could contract the entire ramps to be run by a private company while the city would maintain ownership and certain control of standards and pricing. Certainly, they could at least outsource most of the office work, especially that which deals with secretarial work. And they could have the entire fiscal side of parking taken over by the department that deals with the city’s other areas of fiscal management.

Parking management, by going down this path of increasing outsourcing, might be making it inevitable that their own jobs will eventually become obsolete, assuming the reasons they have given are followed to their logical conclusion. Ignoring logical conclusions, let us just consider it from a moral angle. Why do managers who eliminate other people’s jobs feel so safe that their own jobs won’t be outsourced? This relates to a similar conundrum: Who watches the watchers? I remember when management put in cameras to watch cashiers, but they conveniently didn’t put cameras in their own offices. Managers handle money as well and have many more opportunities for illegal activities than cashiers do. It’s similar to congressmen having publicly funded health care while refusing to cooperate with health care reform that would create single payer or public option. Obviously, there is a moral hypocrisy involved in this. I don’t think it’s intentional. It’s just people acting like people, and it is simply difficult for people to take as seriously what effect others as they take what effects themselves. It’s not a matter of management or politicians being bad people, but only a fair system can ensure fair results. If the system isn’t democratically operated with public transparency and public responsibility, then unfair results are inevitable no matter how good the people or how good the intentions.

The point I’m trying to make isn’t about the moral intent or moral self-awareness of management. They are just normal people doing their best in a challenging situation where a lot is expected of them in terms of finding solutions. Everyone’s motives and biases can be questioned. My intentions can be questioned for I’m certainly not a neutral observer, both as a city employee and as a union member along with being a longtime resident of this city who feels a part of the community. The intentions of the union can be questioned since union members are specifically being targeted. The intentions of private businesses seeking government contract work can be questioned, especially if there were any personal or professional ties to government officials (crony capitalism) and maybe even more especially if there was any lobbying that happened about this issue (a slippery slope toward possible corporatism). Anyway, everyone’s intentions are potentially suspect because these are decisions that affect everyone in this community, even random citizens who are completely unaware of what is going on. Everyone has skin in the game for the future of Iowa City is at stake.

It’s precisely because everyone has skin in the game that I hold the position I’m advocating here. Government decision-making, especially at the local level should be as public, as transparent, and as democratic as possible. What I’m advocating, however, isn’t how the decision-making has been done so far. In particular, issues involving local government increasing outsourcing and/or privatization of public services are obviously publicly important and should therefore be publicly discussed. I only learned of management’s decisions long after they were made, although I should be fair in pointing out that management has made some efforts in being transparent such as eventually telling about what they are trying to do. Still, it is obvious that transparency hasn’t been the priority of Parking management (along with city manager and city council). That is the main issue that the recent article pointed out:

“In an email to the City Council, Steven Miller, president of A[F]SCME Local 183, took city administrators to task for notifying workers of the layoffs a week before the holidays and days after the union and city had reached a tentative five-year contract deal that included union concessions.”

This kind of dealings creates mistrust. The union made concessions in good faith. Having learned of this afterwards, it is impossible for the union to not feel deceived and betrayed. The management knew about this when asking for concessions from the union. It is conveniently self-serving that management decided to withhold this information until after the conclusion of a five-year contract discussion. That is not democracy. In fact, that is anti-democratic or at least undermining of democracy which amounts to the same difference.

This isn’t about pitting employees against management or unions against union bashers. That is part of the problem. We are all part of the same community. What harms any of us harms all of us. And what helps any of us helps all of us. I doubt management was intending to attack or undermine democracy, but intentions aren’t the point. Rather, the point is about results, intended or unintended.

If democracy is harmed, then it should be seen as undesirable by all involved, including management. To be democratically fair, management should go back to the discussion table with the union. They essentially lied to the union in order to manipulate them or that is how it appears from the outside. In essence, that seems like union bashing in that it has the seemingly intentional result of targeting the union in an unfair way (without such an intention, such actions make no sense). I realize management wouldn’t think of it that way. That is what I keep coming back to. It doesn’t matter how any of us perceive ourselves or how we rationalize our own actions. The main thing that matters in a democratic society is democracy itself. Everything else should follow from democracy and everything should reinforce rather than weaken democracy. That is what we should aspire toward in all of our dealings, even when it isn’t to our personal advantage. If we give up on democracy for short term personal gain (or even just for bureaucratic efficiency and cost-savings), then we don’t deserve democracy. When the government acts contrary to democracy, the consent of the ruled becomes invalidated.

From my perspective, this keeps coming back to clarifying the purpose and meaning of democracy. Our government, in theory, is based on the consent of the ruled, i.e., “We the People” (note how “People” is capitalized and directly referred to with the plural “We”). According to the Constitution, what exactly is it that We the People do? We the People establish the government, not the other way around. As later clarified throughout the 19th century, this is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” (the wording of which was probably based on the similar wording of previous Americans, specifically the abolitionist Theodore Parker and the Senator Daniel Webster; but the idea behind the wording probably was most compellingly expressed by Thomas Paine). Despite the imperfections and failings of Democracy and the American Dream, it is this ideal of self-government that has continued to inspire generation after generation of Americans.

It’s easy to forget this in the messy details of running a government bureaucracy. That is understandable. People are just trying to do their jobs. Democracy and bureaucracy don’t always mesh well together, not without a lot of self-sacrificing effort and seeking of consensus. Democracy is not easy. If you want easy, then try dictatorship or monarchy, try theocracy or fascism. But democracy is purposely designed to be difficult, at least in the short term. It is the long term that democracy most clearly proves its worth. Because of this, many people feel uncertain about democracy. Do we really want to put all that effort into protecting our freedom and rights? Why not just be lazy by going for for the quick and easy answers? The democratic process of transparency and consensus is messy, tiresome and often irritating.

It’s something Americans have struggled with from the beginning. Even early colonists, founding fathers and otherwise, were of mixed opinion about democracy. Many wanted democracy, especially the majority of Americans who were being oppressed and disenfranchised (non-whites, non-protestants, indentured servants, slaves, women, those without property, etc). If it was up to the majority, we would now have a democracy where all were treated equally. But among the elite, opinions were more conflicting. Some of those with influence (Paine, Franklin, Jefferson, etc) were more egalitarian in their vision of a democratic society while others opposed democracy because they correctly understood that democracy undermined their elite status and power over everyone else. It was class war right from the beginning. The Revolutionary War wouldn’t have been a success if the majority hadn’t fought for democracy, but the moment independence was won the democratic majority was legally and militarily put back in their place.

This class war continues to this day in every decision made by every government, local and national. Recently, this has been seen with the Occupy movement. The legal question has been raised about who owns public lands, i.e., “The Commons”. In a democracy, “We the People” own “The Commons”. So, to ask who owns “The Commons” is to ask whether this is or isn’t a democracy. If the government owns “The Commons”, then such public property is no longer “The Commons”. Either the government is “of the people, by the people, for the people” or it isn’t. Either the people own and control the government or otherwise the opposite becomes inevitable. The consent of the ruled necessitates that there is actual consent. If decisions are made undemocratically by Parking management or anyone else, then there is no opportunity for consent of the ruled. It simply is rule that seeks to force consent or else to disenfranchise anyone who doesn’t consent.

I’m trying to be very clear that this isn’t just some small, insignificant issue of local politics. It’s symbolic of everything going on in the country right now. And it is symbolic of the conflicts that have existed for longer than this country has existed. In every decision our government makes, in every government decision “We the People” do or don’t accept, the future of our communities and our society is being formed. This isn’t ultimately about outsourcing. It is about a collective vision of who we aspire to be. We become what we do. We become what we allow to be done to us, what we allow to be done in our name.

Iowa City: Public Good & Democratic Government

Here is a local issue that effects me personally, but it’s very similar to local issues all across the country.

Union calls city layoffs ‘deplorable’
Proposal would eliminate five full-time positions

“Miller says the union wants the city to explore other cost-cutting options before laying off workers, and he points to “extras” such as city vehicles driven by the city manager and police and fire chiefs, and the temporary specialists hired during the flood recovery process as areas that could be axed. Miller also questioned the immediate need for capital improvement projects like the $30 million parking facility slated for downtown and the multimillion dollar pedestrian ramp recently built over Interstate 80 on North Dodge Street.

““Not all avenues have been explored that we need to explore yet before we start laying people off,” Miller said Thursday. “That’s my opinion. We’d like to sit down with the city, get in touch with employees and see if we can find any cost-saving measures and suggestions they may have to avoid layoffs.”

“Vic Zender, the transit worker whose job is on the chopping block, has worked for the city for 15 years and said he is the city’s lone transit body mechanic. His job includes repairing not only the city buses but maintaining other vehicles, such as police cars.

““Since it’s a one-man operation, I cover everything for the city,” Zender said. “It doesn’t seem logical for the budget cut to come from that one area, since it’s a one-person area and it serves the whole city.”

 * * *

I have an insider’s view. I’ve worked for Iowa City Parking for more than a decade, and so I’ve been there longer than some of the people in the department’s management and longer than many people in the local government. I’m not even surprised by the changes that are happening. I saw it all coming. Some of the changes are even things I talked about with a supervisor years ago before I even knew the city officials were considering such changes. It was just inevitable that changes would come. These changes involve factors beyond mere economic challenges.

Let me explain where I’m coming from.

In attitude, I’m more or less a typical Midwesterner. And it is as a Midwesterner that I care about what happens in this Midwestern town.

In terms of politics, I’m liberal-minded and a union member, although I don’t vote for Democrats (actually, I’m supporting Ron Paul at the moment, not that such things should matter). Despite being on the left, I often have discussions with right-libertarians and fiscal conservatives, and so I know that perspective.

My ‘liberalism’ is of the moderate variety that seeks compromise and agreement, win/win instead of win/lose. Also, my ‘liberalism’ crosses over with libertarianism, especially with issues of civil liberties but I’m also suspicious of big government when it comes to collusion between the public and private sectors (hence the Ron Paul support). If I had been alive when the GOP was a moderate party, I would have voted for Eisenhower (corporatism and military-industrial complex being of the same cloth).

Even as a union member, the union angle isn’t my primary concern here. I am glad to see the union speak out, but I’m not writing this post from the perspective of a union member. Besides, it’s not as if I’m a union representative or anything. I’m not even an active member of the union. The union is small and very few employees belong to it. The union doesn’t even have the power to strike. Mostly the union just negotiates contracts. This is a rare moment when the union makes an offical criticism of the city government. And the reason the union spoke up is because they felt decieved and betrayed.

Even as a city employee, I’m not thinking about this in personal terms. It is true that the changes the city government is making threatens my job. My position will be eliminated in the near future and it’s not yet clear if I’ll be offered another position or if it will be a position I will want. My particular job isn’t being outsourced but is instead being eliminated because human cashiers are being replaced by self-pay stations (the future is here and the machines are taking over). My department is Parking which a while ago was combined with Transit, the former runs the parking ramps and the latter the buses. It is personal to me, of course, but my concern here is more as a citizen who happens to have an inside view of the situation.

It is, however, the personal angle that causes me to write this as a blog instead of as a letter-to-the-editor. As a city employee who still has a job at the moment, I have absolutely no desire to draw too much attention to myself and I for damn sure don’t want to be the center of attention. I made some comments to the article in the local newspaper, but that is as far as I wanted to take it. This post is a continuation of and an expansion on what I said in those comments.

 * * *

I’m skeptical of big government (as I’m skeptical of big business) and I’m strongly critical of our present corrupt political system on the national level, but I think about local government very differently than federal government. If democracy is possible (something I occasionally doubt), it is most likely to function well on the local level. I’m very Midwestern in my faith in community and grassroots democracy. I don’t hate government, but I do want a democratic government that is responsible to the local community and serves the public good.

I know the people who manage parking/transit. They are good people dealing with a difficult problem. Everyone is struggling with the economy in its present state, but that is all the more reason we should be careful about the decisions we make in duress. It’s true we must solve the short-term problem of saving tax-payer money. However, if we don’t use enough foresight, we might find that short-term solutions could lead to unintended long-term problems. The public good is a very precarious thing, difficult to create and maintain while easy to destroy and corrupt.

Iowa City, like many communities, is in a tight spot. But such difficult times can be opportunities when great improvements are made because people become aware of the need for change. In the past, this led to great public good such as the use of government funds to renovate downtown and build the ped-mall. We should be wary of wasting tax-payer money, but we should be also careful about slowly picking away at the government services that produce public good for our community.

Outsoucring easily becomes a step toward privatization. I don’t know if outsourcing is always bad, but we should consider the potential results of the choices we make, esepecially when those choices become permanent. Do we want to move in the direction of privatizing public services? It’s quite likely true that a private company could operate parking ramps, buses and even libraries cheaper than the government. But that doesn’t mean that a private company would necessarily charge less (might even charge more) to customers who use those services. And they might not even offer a better service (might even offer a worse service).

I take these issues seriously. Over the years, I’ve often wondered why the city operates parking ramps when private companies could do so. The reason the government does so is because the government has been able to offer a high quality service at a low cost to the public, something that a private company probably couldn’t accomplish. The government can do this because the government isn’t concerned about profit. So, do we or do we not value this service provided by the city? Oursourcing suggests private companies can do a better job in terms of offering cheaper services even if not a better service. If saving money is what the local government cares about, they could entirely privatize these departments and they would never have to worry about costs again. Why not?

I don’t mean this just or even primarily as a criticism of outsourcing. I mean this as a serious set of issues that should be publicly debated by the community rather than decided in private by non-elected government officials. We are at this moment experiencing changes that will determine the future of Iowa City. This is something everyone should be concerned about and so everyone should be involved in. I offer my opinions on this matter as both a public servant and as a concerned citizen.

* * *

The following is actually the first comment I made. Although I stand by the truth of what I wrote, I felt like I was being too harsh or too absolutist or else just no showing my full perspective. This led me to writing the above thoughts for balance. So, here is my initial gut-level response:

This is what I don’t understand. If something is done for the public good and can’t be done well by the private sector, then it should be publicly operated entirely. If something isn’t being done for the public good or can be done well by the private sector, then it should be privately operated entirely.

The city has sought to outsource work for both parking and transit (i.e., buses). If the city keeps outsourcing these jobs, obviously the city is saying that they think the private sector can do a better job than the city can do. The only rational reason why the city doesn’t simply privatize the entire departments by letting them be made into private businesses is that the city wants to keep the profit while using cheap outsourced labor.

The city likes outsourced labor because it isn’t unionized and the labor is cheap because such jobs rarely have good pay or good benefits. But mere profit isn’t a good reason for the city to continue operating these departments. Fiscal conservatism has caused a warping of the very purpose of public services run by the government.

Either privatize these departments or keep the jobs in the city. It is the mixing of private and public that has led to corporatism on the national level (especially with contractors in the military). Once businesses develop a dependency on government contract work, a cozy relationship develops between certain sectors of business and the government. Once money starts flowing back and forth between politicians and business owners, it is unlikely to lead to positive results in the long run. Do we really want our local government copying the bad habits of our federal government? Do we really want to risk the possibility of increasing corporatism in Iowa City?

* * *

More than anything, what is on my mind is the issue of community. As a liberal-minded left-winger (or as socialist-leaning left-liberal), I realize community isn’t something that happens by accident. This goes way beyond this or any other recent issue. For many years (much of this past decade), I’ve been thinking about the importance of community and what it means on the local level. I’ve even written about it before on a number of occasions (for example: Public Good vs Splintered Society).

The issue of community, however, has become particularly important with recent problems of economic downturn and political divisiveness. Add to that the risk to our very democracy, especially of the local grassroots variety, from rabid fiscal conservatism and corrupt neoliberalism. On the local level, there have been many things that have come up.

Most recently, for example, there is the plans to build yet another multi-use apartment building (Red Avocado, Defunct Books to make way for new multi-use building: Iowa City bookstore, restaurant ordered to leave). This is about the endless conflict between community and capitalism. There are already many multi-use apartment buildings and many aren’t even filled to capacity, specifically the ground-level storefronts. There is a boom in student numbers at the moment which has promoted growth, but this boom isn’t likely to last. More importantly, most of these new apartment buildings aren’t being built to last as long at the houses that they are replacing. It’s quite likely that these apartment buildings will not be maintained once a profit is made out of them which means they almost inevitably will fall into disrepair and get bought up by slumlords. Neighborhoods, like communities, are hard to rebuild after they have been destroyed. Besides, who wants a future city filled with decrepit apartment buildings where once beautiful old buildings used to be.

Many people have a nonchalant attitude about community. They just don’t understnad its value or they don’t appreciate how difficult it is to create and maintain. This is particularly true among fiscal conservatives which is a distinction between them and more traditional conservatives.

I spoke to a fiscal conservative who is a Christian (a combination I’ve always found odd, at times verging on the hypocritical with some views) and he demonstrated this difference. The church he attended had reached capacity and would require a new building for the church to grow. As a fiscal conservative, he assumed growth was better than maintaining the past. This fiscal conservative also had moved around a lot because of career and so had little investment in the community. He didn’t understand why many church members didn’t want to move. It took my liberal mindset (or, rather, my Midwestern liberal mindset) to explain it to him. The church wasn’t simply a physical structure. It was part of people’s sense of community and home. It was where people grew up, got married, and raised their kids.

Fiscal conservatives, however, just see the economic and the physical aspects, and so they can’t see the difference between one building and another, between an old church and a new church, between a thriving neighborhood of beautiful old houses and a multi-use apartment building with no character. I understand what might be gained by building something new. I’m not against economic improvements if they are done with foresight and done with a goal of long-term benefits for the entire community. The problem isn’t that I don’t understand or value such faith in improvements through entrepreneurial investments. Rather, the problem is that fiscal conservatives and many capitalists don’t understand the view of those living in a community who want to defend their community. They often don’t understand why laissez-faire capitalism shouldn’t always or usually trump local grassroots democracy, why individual decisions shouldn’t necessarily trump community decisions. They have faith in laissez-faire capitalism and it can take a lot to shake that faith.

There is a trade-off that should be acknowledged and taken seriously. It isn’t just a decision to be made by individuals. The impact of these decisions will be communal and will last a very long time, for generations in fact; the direction we choose to take as a community might even be felt a century from now by the future residents of this community. For this reason, these decisions should be made by the community. If the community doesn’t want a neighborhood destroyed, why should they allow it be destroyed?

It’s not even about being for or against free markets. What is about is how one chooses to define free markets. To me, a market isn’t free if the people involved in and impacted by the market aren’t equally free; this means feedom in terms of real impact on real people instead of just theoretical ideals of ‘freedom’; if some people are more ‘free’ than others in their influence over the future of the community, then it ‘freedom’ becomes a facade of power. Community is about everyone being involved, not just wealthy capitalists or well-connected politicians. It relates to a confusion many people have about socialism. Socialists are against laissez-faire capitalism but, despite what many think, not necessarily against free markets. Many socialists, in fact, are for free markets as an antidote to laissez-faire capitalism. For this reason, socialism has its deepest roots in the Midwest, a region that has always valued both community cooperation and a hardworking entrepreneurial spirit, both being seen as in alignment rather than in conflict. It was the Milwaukee Sewer Socialists who cleaned up the corruption of crony capitalism and built a thriving economy and community by working with small, local businesses.

In the Midwest, there is a history of small, local business owners who care about community. This culture of community still influences Midwestern business owners to this day, but it is a value system under threat. Capitalism has led to big businesses taking over family farms and thus destroying the once thriving communities that were built around those family farms. Having grown up and lived in this particular Midwestern town for most of my life, I have a good sense of and appreciation for the Midwestern business sensibility. When I was a kid, there were still many corner grocery stores, but they went out of business for various reasons such as licensing fees being put in place that favored big businesses. For most of the time I’ve worked for the city, I’ve rented from the Alberhasky family who have run a number of businesses for generations in this town. Doug Alberhasky operates the rental part of the family business is a perfect example of the Midwestern businessman. I’ve interacted with him a lot over the years. You can tell that he cares about the buildings he owns, many of them historic, and that he cares about this community he lives in and is a part of. Being responsible to his business isn’t separate from being responsible to his community.

Iowa City is lucky, unlike many other towns in Iowa (and the rest of the rural Midwest) that are facing far more severe problems. It’s people like the Alberhaskys who help maintain what is still good about this town, even during these economic hard times. Just because there are economic challenges, it doesn’t follow that we should stop prioritizing community. If anything, we should prioritize community and all aspects of public good even more during economic hard times. That is what made the Midwest so successful in the first place, what made it into what we now know of as the ‘Heartland’. As explained in The Middle West – Its Meaning in American Culture by James R. Shortridge (p. 19), the Midwestern conflict with laissez-faire capitalism goes back to the first generations who settled here:

“The economic depression helped to foster a sense of regional identity and independence for the Middle West, in part by bringing people together and forcing cooperation to temper frontier individualism,. The experience also broke many of the financial ties that bound the region to the East. Much Eastern capital had been invested in Kansas and Nebraska prior to 1887. Some of it had come as loans from family, some as support from the Free State movements prior to the Civil War, but most had been pure business investments. The money encouraged large-scale speculation in land, town sites, railroads, and nearly every other aspect of life that accompanied the settlement of the praire in the two postwar decades. Some fortunes were made from this speculation, but when hard times in the early 1890s produced defaults on loans, the two regions blamed each other for the troubles. Prairie farmers were irresponsible spendthrifts in Eastern eyes; Easterners were selfish, unfeeling exploiters from the Western perspetive. The financial troubles quickly became a regional political issue, spawning debates over free silver, protective tariffs, and populist reforms in general. They even created the first hero for the Middle West, Nebraska’s William Jennings Bryan.

“The financial crisis affected familial as well as financial ties, dividing peoples who had already begun to drift apart. Kansans and Nebraskans who had been Eastern born and thus were “full of Eastern thought, energy, method, and sympathies” were replaced by a generation who had known only the prairies. “To such people the West was home,” wrote a Kansan; “Western ways and Western ideas are inbred.””

In the past, economic hardship strengthened local communities. But now economic hardships are so much larger than in the past. And sadly it seems more likely that community will be weakened in the process.

* * *

This hard-earned community spirit is easily lost if we aren’t careful. This brings me back to the original topic that I began with. The city government, for good or ill, is often the last defense of local community. Citizens can’t protect their commuity if their government doesn’t represent them.

The challenge of modern government is that so many decisions are complex. I can understand why the management of city departments would rather not involve the public in their decisoin-making. Democracy is messy, difficult, and time-consuming. But that is also the strength and advantage of democracy. It disallows decisions to be made too quickly that might end up having very bad results. Careful decision-making is particularly important when considering issues that will have long-term impact on the community.

Working in government, it could be easy to lose sight of the community aspect of one’s job even if one grew up in the community. It could begin to feel as if it were a job like any other job and one might forget that it in reality isn’t a job like any other job. Running a government isn’t just about cutting costs and increasing efficiency. If government isn’t about the community, then it is worse than useless. This should never be forgotten.

In recent decades, however, fiscal conservatism has become dominant in politics. A major element of fiscal conservatism is either privatizing government services or else outsourcing them. That such fiscally conservative strategies have even been introduced into a liberal college town like Iowa City shows how much power social conservatives have over our society. Even conservatives in Iowa tend not to be radical right-wing fiscal conservatives. The Republican-voting Western Iowa gets more federal welfare through farm subsidies than does Democratic-voting Eastern Iowa. Iowans, whether on the left or right, tend to be very moderate.

I see this connected with community for moderation is necessary in maintaining communities where people sometimes disagree. Cooperation isn’t possible without a willingess to compromise when it benefits the public good.

I feel like those making the decisions to outsource maybe don’t fully appreciate what they are doing. Too many decisions are made without enough foresight. I don’t know if that is the case in this situation, but I would advise that we follow the precautionary principle in considering massive changes. The city hasn’t even offered any evidence that outsourcing would either save money or create better results for the public. That is their argument, but as far as I know they’ve offered no data to back it up. Yes, outsourcing is an easy answer for providing a quick fix of cost-saving. But is it the best solution for all involved?

All I want is public discussion, just the good ol’ fashioned grassroots and community-oriented democracy that the Midwest is known for. If the community decides it is in favor of outsourcing, then I’ll support it as part of this community.