Number 470 January 11, 2011

This Week: Social Wealth

"Quote" of the Week: Destroying an Alternative Way
Social Wealth, Part I: Cargill, the Rainforest, and Carlos Slim
Social Wealth, Part II: "Civilizing" by Stealing
Social Wealth Sidebar: John Locke on Property


Two issues ago I wrote what I expected to be the final installment of a short series on Deficit Mania. I intended to conclude with a list of resources for people to explore if they wanted to work on "the deficit" in a more constructive way than our political leadership seems to be able to do. As I started to write that "resources" piece, I started to realize that this was a really good opportunity to talk about some more fundamental issues that are raised by the Deficit Mania discussion, but which are rarely noticed.

As a result, I do plan to offer some resources for working on this issue, but I don't plan to offer them until after I go off on what will at first seem like a tangent, but that will ultimately go a good ways towards illuminating the issue. I hope. So let's get started on a new series that I will call the Social Wealth Series. I don't know how long this series will go on, as I haven't written most of it yet. As usual.

Welcome to the new readers! Starting off the new year right, I say!



"Quote" of the Week: Destroying an Alternative Way

In this issue of the Notes I discuss at some length the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887. "Allotment" was the term used to describe the division of Indian lands in the U.S. that had been held in common, into individually-owned parcels that could be bought and sold. Writing about this process in his blog on the "On the Commons" website, cultural critic Lewis Hyde spoke of the motivations of the supporters of the Dawes Act:

"As for those who promoted allotment it is hard from this distance not to see them as either naive, self-righteous, cynical, or all three. The Act's supporters took one way of life — possessive individualism as embodied by Jeffersonian farmers — to be the way of life, and then set out to destroy an alternative way — tribal collectivism. They did so in the name of high ideals: self-improvement, self-reliance, education, citizenship, civilization, and Christianity."

Hyde's essay is worth checking out. Find it here.


Social Wealth, Part I: Cargill, the Rainforest, and Carlos Slim

Two weeks ago I introduced the perhaps bizarre-sounding idea that some portion of our society's wealth might belong not to you, nor to me, nor to Bill Gates, but to all of us. Following up on that idea, I would like to introduce the idea that many "things" might actually belong to no one. A few examples will illustrate what I mean when I say this.

Cast your mind back to Nygaard Notes #450, when I was talking about the Cargill Corporation selling its palm oil operations in Papua, New Guinea. I wrote that "According to the Star Tribune [my local newspaper], one reason for Cargill leaving Papua New Guinea, or PNG, is that 'The nation uses a complicated system of land ownership tied to family and tribal connections that makes it difficult for large corporations to buy up large tracts [of land].'" PNG's system is based on a conception of land as a communally-held resource, not as a commodity that can be bought and sold. I don't know that this is really all that "complicated," but it may seem that way to people who believe so deeply in capitalism that it limits their ability to understand alternative economic models. Or, more to the point perhaps, models that are not "economic" at all.

A Cargill spokesman explained that Cargill was getting out of New Guinea because "We believe there is more value for our shareholders and customers in focusing on Indonesia." There's no way of knowing if the folks at Cargill are aware that there are indigenous communities in Indonesia, as in Papua New Guinea, who also operate under a traditional system of communal ownership and customary land rights. I'm not sure why Cargill thinks it will be less difficult to buy up large tracts of land in Indonesia than it is in PNG, but that's what the guy said.

All of this reminds me of a time, many years ago, when I was visiting my sister and her family, and my young nephews excitedly told me that they had made a purchase of which they thought their environmentally-minded uncle would approve. They told me that they had each purchased an acre of rainforest in Costa Rica, and that their purchase would protect the forest from exploitation. I asked the first question that came to my mind: From whom did you buy it? They didn't know. Nobody knew. Yet it seemed to me to be the most important question to ask. Which leads me to talk a little bit about the world's richest man.

The world's richest man is not Bill Gates, but a Mexican man named Carlos Slim. He owns a lot of things, and among them is the Guatemalan telecommunications company Telgua. Back in 1973 Telgua bought some land in a Guatemalan town called Chichicastenango, where 98.5 percent of the population consider themselves to be indigenous. What does this have to do with Cargill, or with my Costa Rican-forest-owning nephews?

It turns out that Telgua bought the land from someone who didn't own it – just as Cargill likes to do and just as I suspect my nephews unwittingly did. In fact, it appears that, in the process, Telgua had come up against a different way of seeing the world, a way in which land cannot be "owned" at all, and thus cannot be sold. Back in 1973 Telgua supposedly purchased the land from civil and legal authorities who, according to Guatemalan journalist Lucía Escobar "did not know or did not want to understand the difference between the Municipality of Chichicastenango, which administers government assets, and the Indigenous Mayoralty of Chichicastenango, which administers communal, indigenous resources." Lucia explains: "In other words, the municipal government began to usurp the rights of the Indigenous Mayoralty, selling communally held indigenous properties to private entities. One property was ceded to Guatel, today called Telgua, the Guatemalan telecommunications company owned by [Carlos] Slim."

The best things in life are free, so they say. And it turns out that the best things in life are not only free, but actually cannot be assigned a monetary value at all, meaning that they cannot be bought or sold in the "market." And this includes not only such intangible "best things" as my affection for my nephews (which was not affected by their misguided rainforest purchase), but also some very tangible things, like land. This fact causes great problems when The Market rears its head. That's because one of the core concepts of capitalism is what is known as "commodification," which is the assigning of economic value to something that traditionally would not be considered in economic terms. Is the rainforest a "commodity," or is it something else entirely? This question is not settled.

There is a note of good news on the Chichicastenango story, and that is the report in March of this year that "In a landmark decision in the country, the indigenous mayor of Chichicastenango obtained an injunction to regain ownership of land occupied by [Telgua]."

A happy ending there, but the dispute goes on as it has for hundreds of years. What Telgua—and pretty much every corporate entity that exists under capitalism—calls "property" is considered a communal indigenous resource by the people in Chichicastenango. The same is true in many other places, like Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and in many other places where indigenous voices can still be heard. That includes native land reservations all over the United States, to which we now turn.


Social Wealth, Part II: "Civilizing" by Stealing

From the time the Europeans came to this hemisphere there was an irreconcilable difference between the colonizers and the indigenous people who lived here. The result was the physical and cultural genocide of the natives, which made possible the ascendance of the European culture and the ideology upon which that culture was and is based. Neither the physical nor the cultural genocide was completely successful, however, and one of the results is that the conflict based on the irreconcilable difference is still being played out.

In the previous essay I mentioned a process known as "commodification," which is when we make it possible to buy and sell something that couldn't be bought or sold before. Under capitalism, that requires money, so anything that exists in the "market" has to be assigned a monetary value. Yet, as I pointed out in the last essay, there are many people in the world—from Papua New Guinea to Guatemala to what is now called the United States of America—who do not accept that everything must make sense in "the market." To get a glimpse of how an Empire deals with such dissent, let's go back briefly to 1887.

The Indian Question

The 1880s was a time when the U.S. Empire was concerned both with Reconstruction after the Civil War, and also with "The Indian Question." As the Empire expanded and European settlers surged out from the East into the West, the 140 million acres of land occupied by Indian people generated a "wide popular interest taken in the dealings of the Government with the Indians," according to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Francis A. Walker. Pondering this "interest," Walker expanded his 1872 annual report beyond the standard account of the previous year, taking the opportunity to "present at this time a pretty full statement of the situation of Indian affairs, and of the policy of the Government in view of that situation." He addressed the "situation" in a section entitled "Submission the Only Hope of the Indians," saying:

"No one certainly will rejoice more heartily than the present Commissioner when the Indians of this country cease to be in a position to dictate, in any form or degree, to the Government; when, in fact, the last hostile tribe becomes reduced to the condition of suppliants for charity. This is, indeed, the only hope of salvation for the aborigines of the continent. If they stand up against the progress of civilization and industry, they must be relentlessly crushed . . . They must yield or perish . . . It is not feebly and futilely to attempt to stay this tide, whose depth and strength can hardly be measured, but to snatch the remnants of the Indian race from destruction from before it, that the friends of humanity should exert themselves in this juncture, and lose no time. And it is because the present system allows the freest extension of settlement and industry possible under the circumstances, while affording space and time for humane endeavors to rescue the Indian tribes from a position altogether barbarous and incompatible with civilization and social progress, that this system must be approved by all enlightened citizens." [Emphasis added.]

Following the lead of Walker, many white "friends of humanity" began identifying themselves specifically as "Friends of the Indian," arguing not only that the literal survival of the Indian people was at stake, but that "social evolution inevitably led toward a European-American type of civilization and that private property and labor were the necessary preconditions of civilization." Those are the words of Chris Landon, formerly an American Indian Resource Specialist in the Portland Public Schools. Landon's words on the subject are worth quoting at length. After noting that "Federal policy aimed at 'civilizing' Indians reached a high point of administrative refinement around 1880," Landon writes:

"'Friends of the Indian' in Congress institutionalized another blow against the integrity of tribal life when their decade-long lobbying efforts resulted in the passage of the Dawes General Allotment Act in 1887. This was named after its major sponsor, Senator Henry L. Dawes.

"The Dawes Act overtly sought to ... end the continuing Indian cultural practice of the collective, tribal occupancy of reservation land. Allotment, as the process of granting personal title to tribal land was called, was expected to transform Indians into individualistic farmers on the European-American cultural model..."

"Not a Pauper in That Nation"

Lest we think that it was the abominable state of affairs on Indian reservations that moved these "Friends" to take up the cause, let's consider the words of Dawes himself. In a speech to the annual Lake Mohonk Conference in 1885, Dawes spoke of a visit he had made to the Cherokee Nation, saying, "there was not a family in that whole nation that had not a home of its own. There is not a pauper in that nation, and the Nation does not owe a dollar. It built its own Capitol . . . and built its schools and hospitals."

That doesn't sound too bad, does it? "Yet," said Dawes, "the defect of the system was apparent. They have not got as far as they can go, because they hold their land in common . . . there is no selfishness, which is the bottom of civilization. Till these people will consent to give up their lands, and divide them among their citizens so that each can own the land he cultivates, they will not make much more progress."

While the overt reasons for allotment offered by the Friends of the Indian included "progress," "civilization," and even "survival," somehow the Indians involved weren't so wild about the idea. Back in 1879, when the first Allotment act was introduced by a Texas Senator named Coke, the 'Five Civilized Tribes' of the Indian Territory—the Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, Chickasaw and Cherokee Nations—filed a petition against the measure. "The petition," says Landon, "records the arguments of these tribes about the unsuitability of European-American land ownership practices to the needs and cultures of Indian people. The petition offers this statement of tribal opposition to the bill's provisions: 'In your treaties with us you have agreed that this shall not be done without our consent; we have not asked for it and we call on you not to violate your pledge with us.'" One tribal leader said that allotment "plucked the Indian like a bird."

If the supposed beneficiaries of allotment rejected the plan, how is it that the Dawes Act passed into law? It turns out that there were other forces at work in the growing Empire that stood to benefit from "civilizing" the Indian people. Here's Landon again:

"The widespread adoption of allotment under the Dawes Act extended the opportunities for land speculators to convert Indian lands into private gains." The result was that "many millions of acres of reservation lands were 'left over' after Indians took their allotments of land under the Act. The Dawes Act declared these unalloted lands 'surplus' to Indian needs and threw them open to settlement by U.S. citizens."

Quechua scholar Sandy Grande quantifies the loss: "As a result of the Dawes Act, the aggregate Indian land base was legally reduced from approximately 138 million to 48 million acres or by nearly two-thirds."

This process of transferring land, and the wealth derived therefrom, into the hands of European settlers was described by Landon as "The covert purpose of allotment," as opposed to the "overt" purposes claimed by the "Friends of the Indian."

Lewis Hyde reports that "There were even a number of U.S. senators who said clearly (in a minority report of the Committee on Indian Affairs) that 'the main purpose of this bill is not to help the Indian,' that the 'real aim' was to 'get at the Indian lands and open them up to settlement...'"

In case anyone thinks this "real aim" was something just coming into vogue in 1887, it wasn't. Massachusetts historians Angela Goebel Bain, Lynne Manring, and Barbara Mathews quote John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, explaining the right of the English to take Indian land by claiming "[t]hat which is common to all is proper to none. This savage people ruleth over many lands without title or property; for they enclose no ground... [I.e., they don't assign ownership to individuals.]" So, asked Winthrop, "why may not Christians have liberty to go and dwell amongst them in their wastelands and woods (leaving them such places as they have manured for their corn) as lawfully as Abraham did among the Sodomites?" (Winthrop was speaking in 1629.)

Bain, Manring, and Mathews explain that "In Native societies, land was home and communally held. People could not alienate [sell] the land any more than they could sell air or water. In contrast, individual land ownership conferred wealth and status in European society. Land was a commodity that could indeed be bought and sold."

And so we come back around to the commodification that was part and parcel of the European culture and its imperial project, and still is today. When the Empire needed land, The Friends of the Indian provided the rationale for larger and more powerful nation to dispossess the smaller nations of their lands. And this issue—of private ownership vs a common wealth—is with us still, as I'll illustrate later in this series.


Social Wealth Sidebar: John Locke on Property

I want to offer a small but relevant sidebar to the Social Wealth series. As I was writing this week's installment, the new U.S. Congress was getting to work, and the first order of business was the reading of the U.S. Constitution on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The news about this publicity stunt was mostly about the details; there was some controversy about editing the original text of the document, and there apparently were a couple of members who hadn't been sworn in yet, blah, blah, blah. But it's worth thinking a little bit about why it is that Tea Party members seem to like the Constitution so much.

I've actually talked about this in these pages a couple of times. The first time was in 2007 (NN #379) in a piece called "The Values of a Democratic System." I returned to the subject a couple of years ago (#422, March 2009), in "On Freedom, Part Two: Freedom and Social Class." My point then was that the Constitution was written based on the interests of its writers. Many parts of the U.S. Constitution are wonderful, and have inspired many around the world. And some parts of it are simply aimed at protecting the "rights" of the propertied classes who pushed it through, and their descendants of today.

All of this puts me in mind of a college philosophy course I took when I was in high school. (I can't for the life of me remember how I weaseled my way into that class; all I remember is that I had to hitch-hike to the next town to get there.) It was an introduction to philosophy, and thus it covered a lot of ground in a shallow way. But I do remember learning something about an English philosopher named John Locke, whose ideas were very influential in the formation of the U.S. Constitution.

Mr. Locke's ideas about property were particularly important in shaping the consciousness of the people running the young Empire. Chapter Five in his 1689 "Second Treatise of Government" was called "Property," and in it he explains specifically why private property is the only thing that makes any sense, as far as human beings are concerned.

Right off the bat Locke says that "it is very clear, that God . . . has given the earth to the children of men; given it to mankind in common." Here's the key passage:

"And tho' all the fruits [the world] naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of nature; and no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state: yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man. The fruit, or venison, which nourishes the wild Indian, who knows no enclosure, and is still a tenant in common, must be his, and so his, i.e. a part of him, that another can no longer have any right to it, before it can do him any good for the support of his life."

I added the emphasis. Notice that, in Locke's world, nothing has any "use" unless it belongs to some individual person. Locke then underlined his point: "Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself."

And how do things pass from being "common to all men" to being "property"? Locke says this happens through the labor that people have to do to make them useful. "[I]t is the taking any part of what is common, and removing it out of the state nature leaves it in, which begins the property; without which the common is of no use." Locke gives all kinds of examples: "He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself." And "the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut; and the ore I have digged in any place, where I have a right to them in common with others, become my property, without the assignation or consent of any body. The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them."

(Locke reveals something about his class location when he refers to "the turfs my servant has cut" as "The labour that was mine.")

Now, to return to my memories of my philosophy course: I remember reading about Locke and a bunch of other Big Thinkers from Europe. But I don't remember ever hearing anything about Native American philosophy. And I certainly don't remember considering the relationship between the ideas of this hero of the Founding Fathers as they came into conflict with the radically-different ideas of the indigenous people who saw things very differently. Had I been better educated, perhaps it wouldn't have been so difficult for me to see that the enormous violence of the early U.S. Empire is part of a process that continues to produce enormous violence today, and for the same reasons: Powerful people want the stuff that indigenous people need and the taking of it somehow needs to be justified.

So I learned about Locke's idea of "property," and the capitalism that flows from those ideas. The fact that the Constitution is based on such ideas has a lot to do with the fact that so-called "conservatives" adore it so much. Many of them were, like me, raised in the mainstream of U.S. intellectual culture, and thus never heard about the ideas I'm writing about in this series. Which is why I'm writing about them now.