15 November 2018

Fighting the "Commodification of the Commons"

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Hiking in Denali National Park and Preserve Hiking in Denali National Park and Preserve https://www.nationalparks.org/connect/blog/beginners-guide-backcountry-hiking-prep

I begin here a two-part blog post that revisits a theme I raised in Earth, Empire and Sacred Text: the strong propensity since at least the 1970s of those with power, be they multinational corporations, rich individuals, or some governments, to privatize goods that should belong to the wider public, or the “common good.”

I want to end up next time in the American West, where President Trump has shrunk two recent collections of public lands in Utah – the Bears Ears National Monument (1.35 million acres, created by President Obama in his last month in office) by 85% and the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (almost 1.9 million acres, created by President Clinton in 1996) by 46%. Five lawsuits challenged this move and are still pending.

But that story we will follow in the second installment of this piece, and especially the key role a coalition of five Native American nations played for the first time in lobbying an American president to designate their ancestral lands as a national monument. In this first part I want to paint a much wider landscape in space and time. I mean to expose a six-century-old rapacious colonial movement that not only plundered the lands of native populations in South, Central and North America while decimating millions of their people, but also laying the foundations of corporate structures that continue to widen the gap between rich and poor in our country and around the world.


The two walls of social injustice and environmental degradation

In the first four chapters of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text I set the stage for the kind of Muslim-Christian dialog and cooperation that is needed in the twenty-first century. I did so by arguing for a particular conception of our time as “postmodern,” which comprises both “postmodernity” and “postmodernism.” I followed historian Arthur Mitzman’s thesis in this last book, Prometheus Revisited: The Quest for Global Justice in the Twenty-First Century (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003), to describe postmodernity as a set of power configurations in the contemporary world, which portend an ominous future for humankind.

In modern times, the myth of Prometheus was interpreted as the victory of the industrialized world over nature. Mitzman begs to disagree. That hubris of modern man has sent us careening like a speeding car out of control which is now about to crash into the two walls of postmodernity: the one just mentioned, the wall of rising economic inequality and injustice, and then the wall of climate change and pollution of our planet. We’d better go back to another more venerable interpretation of that myth, he says, one which many European Romantics in the nineteenth century saw as a symbiosis of man with nature.

As for the first wall, we now know that the Nixon administration colluded with the Saudis and Iranians to drive up the price of oil in 1973. A resulting glut of dollars on the international financial exchange threatened to bring down the international financial system put in place by the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944 which used gold as the final guarantee of the system’s solvency, whether in individual nations or in the international financial institutions as a whole. This allowed the US to impose its solution, which was to use dollars as the currency of international exchange, which certainly helped to boost its power in the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union.

William Greider in his 2003 book, The Soul of Capitalism: Opening paths to a Moral Economy (Simon & Schuster), shows how that new system rendered capital “abstracted and etherealized, mystified by dense mathematical calculation and accounting definitions, invested with unknowable intangible qualities like corporate ‘goodwill’” (p. 95). This could read as prophetic: the “Great Depression” sent the world economy reeling just four years after these lines were written precisely because all these increasingly complex financial instruments were hiding enormous quantities of bad loans.

It’s not clear in 2018 that all the safeguards have actually been put into place in order to avoid the onslaught of another financial meltdown, which once again will further enrich thousands of wealthy one-percenters and devastate the middle and lower classes. In fact, the rate of inequality between these classes has only widened over the years and shows no signs of abating (see this Aug. 2018 graphic piece in marketwatch.com).

Enough said about the wall of neoliberal capitalism, which fifteen years after Mitzman’s book, may be even more formidable in light of the recent rise of authoritarian regimes in different parts of the world (think Philippines, Hungary, Brazil, etc.). In turn, this only reinforces the already expanding influence of China and Russia and their totalitarian regimes. Now, ironically, should the world economy still largely based on the dollar crumble, the potential of a global conflagration is just waiting at the door.

No need here to go in any detail about the second wall Mitzman foresaw – environmental disaster. Besides the poisoning of the air and water in many parts of the world, it’s the mega cities of the developing world that suffer the most. This article based on a study of the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that nine out of the ten most polluted cities are in India. In eighth place is Bamenda, Cameroon. But much worse for humanity in the long term is the dramatic warming of the planet due to the excessive production of greenhouse gases. And that is something I’ve written a great deal about in this website (see my 2018 post, “Rising Tides”).

I’ll simply quote myself in closing this section. You can read the wider context of this argument, which represents the lion’s share of my first chapter. I just posted in Resources.


“What is needed is a holistic vision that jettisons the fetishism of growth inherited from modernity and encompasses the aspirations of Third World peasants, native peoples and the urban poor, as well as the majority of working and middle class people in other countries. This vision will have to focus on a sustainable modus vivendi for all people in harmony with the earth for which they share a common responsibility.”


Privatizing state institutions

I am not a socialist. My nine years in Algeria taught me how wrong it is for a state (especially one controlled by only one political party!) to monopolize all the major industries. For one thing, they are very inefficient and poorly managed; for another, they spawn rampant corruption, all in favor of the ruling elites who already control the country politically. A very bad idea.

My experience in Algeria from the late 1970s through the 1980s was constant shortages of basic foodstuffs, a nightmarish bureaucracy to contend with at every corner, and an economy that would never have survived hadn’t Algeria been rich in oil and natural gas.

I get it. Free enterprise allows lots of people to create wealth for themselves and others. Capitalism can be a blessing, as long as the state can set some ground rules that level the playing field and curb the human inclination toward greed and the exploitation of others. After all, the American Declaration of Independence reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But how do you ensure that a modicum of “equality” is maintained?

Indeed, this vision leaves a lot of leeway as to how it might be translated into public policy. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) lists a number of rights, including work, education, and social security, as well as the basic freedoms of conscience and religion. And after the enumeration of these rights, Article 28 says, “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” This formula set the framework for much subsequent work in crafting various international covenants, the sum total of which represents the body of “international law.”

Now, moving back to the national level, each state is free to institute its own legal structures. Part of Article 29 reads, “In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”

This simply means that the state must enact laws that maintain a balance between freedom, equality, justice, and morality. I am free, yes, but my freedom must not infringe upon my neighbor’s freedom. Equality also means that certain goods are deemed public goods, worthy of being protected for the good of all citizens, rich or poor, from whatever religious, racial, or ethnic background they may come from. Clean air and water, parks all can enjoy, but also schools which prepare children and youth to become active citizens who will then be able to contribute to the good of society while earning a decent living through their work.

So I end with an example of what I find goes against these principles of justice and equality among citizens – something I see as a “commodification of the commons.” In the next installment, I’ll mention how under the president’s directives Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior, has made it his mission to shrink public lands and make the rest available to private business interests, mostly energy companies. Here I highlight Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who is doing everything in her power to privatize public education. Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post introduces an excellent background article on this by Joanne Barkan, “Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Story of Privatizing Public Education in the USA,” in these words:


“We now have an education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who is admittedly doing everything she can to promote alternatives to traditional publicly funded education. Many state legislatures are helping her with programs using taxpayer money to fund private and religious education. Supporters of America’s public education system are concerned about what they say is an assault on the most important civic institution in the country.”


The history of public education in America is fascinating. I will summarize it in three movements:

1. Starting in the nineteenth century, and particularly in view of a growing immigrant population, a consensus quickly grew in the US that government should fund and manage an educational process that would “impart general knowledge and practical skills, prepare young people psychologically and socially for self-sufficient adult lives, educate for democratic citizenship, unify a diverse population, and create opportunity for upward mobility.” Education is a democratic right, and in turn it is a necessary building block of democracy.

2. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka: the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were “unequal” and therefore “unconstitutional.” Despite much opposition, the role of the federal government expanded “to include protecting the civil rights of all students and offering financial assistance to public schools with high percentages of low-income students.”

3. The 1980s witnessed the dramatic ascendancy of the neoliberal ideology of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: allow market forces to foster competition and everything will be run more efficiently, from schools to healthcare, to the economy as a whole. In practice then, neoliberalism meant cutting taxes and government spending, and transferring as much as possible to the private sector. The neoliberal economist, Milton Friedman, had the ear of President Reagan, and unwittingly became the founder of the ed-reform movement that gained advocates on both sides of the aisle, though often for different reasons.

Two instruments epitomize this neoliberal, market-driven approach: vouchers and charter schools. Reagan made several unsuccessful attempts to pass laws favoring educational vouchers. To this day, however, the term has taken on negative connotations, so politicians had to find other formulations to transfer government funding into the private sector. Here is how it works:


“When students receive a government-funded voucher for a set amount of money, they give the voucher to a private or religious school as payment or partial payment for tuition. All of the taxpayer funds that end up in private and religious schools are funds no longer available for public education.”


By contrast, the private administrators of charter schools receive government funding for each student enrolled in their school. But again, this comes with the same catch: “The allotments are transferred directly from district schools to the charter schools, shrinking the district public school budgets. The public schools are left with the same fixed expenses but fewer students and therefore less money coming in.” Those public schools, therefore, deteriorate.

Barkan lists 67 sources after her article. This is serious research. One of the striking findings is that charter schools generally underperform, even after sending special needs and difficult students back to the public school system. The same can be said of the voucher system that is operative is 30 states and the District of Columbia. Here are two examples:


“In late 2015, researchers reported that Indiana’s “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement” in math and no improvement in reading. In June 2016, a study of a large Ohio voucher program, published by the pro-reform Thomas B. Fordham Institute, found: “The students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools…. Such impacts also appear to persist over time….”


Barkan also documents the frequent occurrence of corruption in these schools, mostly because there is little or no accountability to the district or the state. These are for-profit organizations eager to tap into the nearly $600 billion earmarked by the federal government for K-12 education! But perhaps the greatest drawback of these schools is this: “they increase racial and socioeconomic segregation.” African-Americans are twice as likely as whites to attend a charter school, which on average is 90 percent black. Unsurprisingly, the largest and best-known African American ed-reform organization, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, shut down in 2017. Already the year before, the NAACP issued “a moratorium on the proliferation of privately managed charter schools.”


Revitalizing the Commons

Clearly, unleashing the power of the free market with all the deregulation that entails is no panacea for building a more prosperous and just society. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Betsy DeVos’ brother, Erik Prince, invested his half-a-billion-dollar inheritance in founding the Blackwater corporation which was responsible for the 2007 Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad, forcing him to resign two years later. So you see, Betsy wants to privatize education, while Erik seeks to privatize the army. But as this fascinating article reveals, “Erik Prince is all over the map – literally.” Prince has his share of detractors, however: He has been questioned in the ongoing Mueller investigation regarding his ties to Russia; he and his mercenaries have conferred with the Saudis to assassinate top Iranian leaders; long before that too, Prince moved to the United Arab Emirates in 2011 where he was hired to train their army.

I will stop here with this reminder: to revitalize the commons also means holding on to a holistic vision which calls for “a sustainable modus vivendi for all people in harmony with the earth for which they share a common responsibility.