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The Battle Of Ideas, Part 1; Private Property vs. The Commons

By Tom Stephens

22 February, 2010

(in memory of Howard Zinn)

“It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, cultivated state, was, and ever would have continued to be, the COMMON PROPERTY OF THE HUMAN RACE. … neither did the Creator of the earth open a land-office, from whence the first title-deeds should issue. … The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust… It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be and it is necessary that a revolution should be made in it… The contrast of affluence and wretchedness, continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together…”

- Tom Paine, “Agrarian Justice” (1797)

“Permit me to issue and control the money of a nation and I care not who makes its laws.” - Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812), founder of the Rothschild banking dynasty

“At bottom, the Court’s opinion is a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”

– Justice John Paul Stevens, Dissenting in Citizens United v FEC (January 2010)

The last year and a half came in like a tsunami. A series of fear-numbing aftershocks, or nightmares, continues to inflame what passes for public life. Several things now haunting the millennium’s second decade became very clear, in the few weeks between the collapse of the venerable Lehman Bros. investment firm in mid-September 2008, and Congress’ passage of the “Emergency Economic Stabilization” Wall Street Bailout Act at the beginning of October:

· The US federal government was willing to shovel unimaginable amounts of money - $700 billion, as just a down payment on what would eventually become trillions of dollars in credits and cash – to their Wall Street puppet masters.

>They were willing to do it very fast.

> They were willing to do it even after then-Treasury Secretary, and ex-Goldman Sachs CEO, Hank Paulson requested absolute, sole and unreviewable authority over the money.

> They were willing to do it even in spite of the, shall we say, questions that Paulson’s infamous 3-page request raised about the credibility and good faith of the banksters in charge.

> At least in the short term, we couldn’t do anything about it.

> This is not good for children or other living things.

> And this is absolutely not OK. Tom Paine said it’s “as odious as it is unjust… It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be and it is necessary that a revolution should be made in it…” In modern terms, it’s the exact, balls-out, 180-degree neo-fascist opposite of OK. Like, seriously f%$#*ked up, dude.

Back then George W. Bush, inspired once again by a catastrophe on his watch in Manhattan , rediscovered his famous corporate media eloquence, or at least temporary dim coherence, for the last time as President. He solemnly pronounced “This sucker could go down.” It became painfully clear that the next couple years were gonna be one helluva time. And so it has been. The battle of ideas – and classes, sound bites, partisans and voices on all sides of the collapsing imperial society was joined.

Today, in the wake of 5 US Supreme Court Justices’ benediction for unlimited corporate funding of US election campaigns, the economy is as cold, jobless and heartless as ever. The battle of ideas between self-described “liberals” and “conservatives” dealing in phony labels and manipulation, as well as other folks who actually have some real ideas, is hot, heavy and getting more intense all the time. The overall social situation is bad, even if you aren’t stuck in Haiti with millions of other people who have nowhere to live and nothing to eat or drink. And we need to get some things clear if we’re ever gonna be able to do anything about it.

To be clear about what’s at stake, we need some basic understanding of: 1) human rights, and 2) property rights. How they fit together or don’t, with each other and with the basic institutional features of our society and our world, tells us why things are happening the way they are. Telling people crazy stories about why these things are happening – the wilder and scarier the better – is big corporate media business these days.

Trying to find some way to counter the utterly false reality created by corporate lies and bullshit, and to articulate an alternative vision and understanding of the world that makes some sense, is crucial work for those who would join the world’s suffering billions to take back our common wealth, our lives, and our planet. A battle of ideas about who we are and how we should live is inevitably arising out of the wreckage of the bastard neoliberal world, conceived by the unnatural acts of Thatcher and Reagan some 30 years ago. In the comprehensive failure of their policies, a new generation will rediscover old ideas and values, and invent new ways to pursue them in a world that’s hot and getting hotter.[i]

One of the more amazing things about this crisis, even to those of us who have been detainees in the corporate lie machine’s echo chamber for decades, is how readily those responsible for wrecking the economy and trashing the planet embrace the same old “solutions.” Privatization, exploited workers, corporate domination and the mythical “free market” will somehow get us out of the trap they’ve caught us in. Behind the corporate media’s daily blather about nothing at all, something quite different can be seen by those who have eyes: the manifestly inadequate result of the market’s alleged efforts to deliver prosperity, equity and justice for all.

Rapidly spreading pain and injustice may be setting the stage for a new round in the battle of ideas among the survivors. Another era of collective struggle for common rights, popular power and expansion of authentic democracy will probably not be as simple as the swing of an imagined historical “pendulum.” But it may nevertheless be a reinvention born of necessity, in this millennium’s ecological, social and economic crises. The democratic principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, largely developed under the influence of mid-twentieth century, New Deal USA , taught in the world thru the United Nations system, and largely forgotten in today’s American Idol Tea Party society, remain available as the bedrock of modern human rights.

On December 10, 1948, the newly created UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration. It declared that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Amen. Combine that elevation to supremacy of political and economic human rights, with Tom Paine’s revolutionary American-as-apple-pie recognition of humanity’s common property rights in the earth. You get a different understanding of the relationship between human rights and property rights. If acted upon, making the connections between such ideas could help us begin to address the real issues and problems of our traumatized, globalized, privatized and personal-politicized twenty-first century. As we say around the US Social Forum – coming to Detroit June 22-26, 2010 – “Another world is possible, another US is necessary, and another Detroit is happening.”

See, it’s like this: Today, the battle of ideas over the concepts of property and human rights pretty much comes down to two words: 1) crisis; and 2) change. Several things are already clear about these two central realities of our time:

· The crisis is everywhere, in all ecological, economic, political, legal, psychological, and cultural dimensions of community life.

· The changes are here. They are real, not academic or imaginary projections of pointy-head intellectuals.

· Standing still, or going back to what was “normal” before these things suddenly became clear, is not an option.

· We have to choose, not whether to change with our world, but how to deal with the changes.

· Fortunately, we have way more options than those that are generally acknowledged in the silly happy talk of our corporate-dominated media, educational institutions, government and other dominant powers. We are not the fools they try to take us for.

· If we want to get what we deserve, we will have to fight for it.

· Learning, thinking thru the issues, standing in solidarity with others facing the crisis and the change, and continuing to put one foot in front of the other while doing it – simply refusing to give in to the comforting, corrupt, corporate lies, continuing to actively resist and advocate real alternatives – will be essential weapons in this nonviolent struggle.

There’s the battle of ideas, and the struggle for survival. What’s becoming clearer today to more people, in the ruins of the neoliberal corporate era that shaped the last 30 years, is what’s always been true, even if obscured by imperial faux-realities. While fights in the intellectual and the material worlds are not identical, there is always a strong relationship between them. Contrary to the ads and the news that’s so hard to tell apart from the ads, it’s not just a matter of buying comfort and a good life, of accepting what power tells us is true and doing what we’re told to do. On the contrary, our very survival depends on not accepting those lies. On figuring out what really matters and what’s true in ways that make sense for us. Ideas matter. The quality of actions based on ideas; the sources of the ideas that get discussed in public and acted on by power; the changes over time in each generation’s understanding of ideas like “property” and human rights. All these things matter. And today all these things have to change, as they are already changing. What they will mean is, as always, up to us.

An editorial in the People’s Tribune newspaper January 2010 sums it up:

Centuries of history have moved our country to a fork in the road. Which path will we take? Will it be the merger of corporate economic power with the legal force of the government in order to tighten control of the people? Or will it be a government of, by and for the people that makes these indispensable corporate giants pubic property? Time is short and the future is up to us.[ii]

What we need is the opposite of the rule of money and authoritarian corporate property. The world needs to be turned upside down. We need common rights to food, shelter, water, education, information, political power and authority, all democratically administered to get us out of the mess created by capital and its political charades in the last decades of the violent 20th century, right thru the transition to this perilous moment. We have to push the money power, historically fronted by men like Rothschild and Paulson with their crimes and their ideas, back from the brink of global catastrophe. Failure to do so will cause endless disasters. Among other things, such a revolution in property and human rights will be essential to achieving the energy transformations required to preserve a livable climate. The necessity of social revolution for physical survival is the overriding conclusion from the battle of ideas in our time.

Consider the signs in just the last month of 2009 and the first one of 2010. In December world leaders came together in Copenhagen for the long-awaited global warming conference that was supposed to be the last best chance to save the planet from climate catastrophe. George W. Bush’s obscene corporate- profiteer and science-denier government had been gone for a year, succeeded by a new US President who had recently received a controversial Nobel Peace Prize, apparently based on hopes for his re-engagement of the US with the world community.

These recognized leaders and activists from around the world met, discussed and appreciated the climate crisis and the inescapable environmental changes that are already upon us. These changes threaten to accelerate imminently and beyond control, unless immediate forceful actions are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Such action critically includes a massive, comprehensive and equitable conversion of the planet’s energy systems to renewable non-carbon alternatives, together with crash conservation policies modeled on the mobilization for the victorious fight against Central European fascism (which ultimately produced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). The leaders failed (or refused) to reach an agreement in this ultimate high stakes forum. They locked the activists out of the building, where the police beat them in the streets.[iii]

The pattern for the relationship between the battle of ideas and the struggle for survival in the new era was again clearly established. It’s the brutal “Miami model” of Free Trade Act in the Americas repression from 2003, the hollowing out of democracy, “extraordinary rendition,” “free speech zones,” “national security events,” and “enemy combatants” or “extremists” of the Cheney/Bush terrorism era (that is, anybody who challenges reigning authorities – what used to be called “communists”).

Then came January 2010. A major earthquake leveled Haiti . Hundreds of thousands died and were maimed, in a raped and defiled nation, defined in history and the public imagination by imperialist theft of its resources and liberty, and by heroic endurance of crushing poverty. The survival of the rest of the Haitian people is still endangered, and will continue to be so for some time, no matter what further develops in the battle of ideas. After that apocalyptic earthquake, the US Supreme Court reached out to re-shape a piece of litigation involving the domination of politics and government by giant corporations – by projections of ideas embodied as private property. In possibly the most arrogant act of class-biased judicial legislation in its long history of such injustices, the Court ratified the corporate takeover of government thru the power of Big Money Corruption.

What connects these three recent shocks - the corporate and government leaders’ suicide pact in Copenhagen; the lack of resources in Haiti, as a result of centuries of corporate imperialist abuses, that turned the earthquake into a national death camp; and the Supreme Court’s slavish bow to corporate political power - is the dysfunctional, destructive and sick relationship between human rights and the power of private property organized as intangible corporate entities. It’s the unjust power of the rich to set the terms of life and death for everybody else, starting with unmentionable agonies of the poor, and ending by driving even the sacred “middle class” from their homes and jobs. The vicious circle of private property destroying human rights and the commons is becoming clearer all the time, as their system collapses and fails to deliver.

Whether these physical and moral earthquakes will perpetuate the neoliberal Mad Hatter’s tea party that gave us W Bush 10 years ago, or whether “hope” and “change” will eventually start to mean something other than changing the color of the man at the top – hopes of ordinary people changing our lives and our world for the better – will continue, as always, to be the real terrain in the escalating battle of ideas.

[i] The ideas in this essay about human rights and property are merely a way of raising the subject and starting an investigation or discussion. For a much fuller and more interesting recent exploration of the historical roots, traditions and developments superficially discussed here, see, e.g., “The Magna Carta Manifesto; Liberties and Commons for All,” by Peter Linebaugh (University of California Press 2008).

[ii] www.peoplestribune.org, “ America at the Fork in the Road,” January 2010, p. 2

[iii] The climate catastrophe and climate justice literature is vast and growing rapidly. Three recent items are especially noteworthy: 1) In “Renewable Revolution: Low-Carbon Energy by 2030,” principal authors Janet L. Sawin and William R. Moomaw of Worldwatch Institute and the Fletcher School at Tufts University (Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership 2009) describe how humanity can prevent catastrophic climate change if we act now and adopt policies that reduce energy usage by unleashing the full potential of energy efficiency in concert with renewable energy resources. 2) In “Climate Catastrophe: Surviving the 21st Century,” Ronnie Cummins and Will Allen of the Organic Consumers Association (Common Dreams, 2/14/10) describe the massive socio-economic changes, focusing on agriculture and food marketing systems, that will be necessary to preserve any decent quality of life in the face of carbon-based global warming and climate change. 3) In “Who Will Build the Ark,” leading urbanist Mike Davis (New Left Review Jan/Feb 2010) powerfully makes the case for a radical, utopian agenda, because sticking with business as usual means we’re dead.

Tom Stephens is a people's lawyer in Detroit. He has advocated environmental justice for over 20 years, and is currently coordinating community safety for the 2010 US Social Forum.

Another world is possible.
Another US is necessary.
Another Detroit is happening.
US Social Forum
June 22-26, 2010

Tom Stephens