Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Trinity of Terror: individual liberty, private property & inviolability of contract

The National Civic Federation (NCF) was an American economic organization founded in 1900 which brought together chosen representatives of big business and organized labor, as well as consumer advocates in an attempt to ameliorate labor disputes. It favored moderate progressive reform and sought to resolve disputes arising between industry and organized labor. 

The NCF was not formed out of an altruistic need to make the world a better place for the great masses of poor and struggling people on the Earth, it was formed to offer the fewest possible concessions to the great masses as a way of preventing anarchist or socialist revolution. By the beginning of WWI the NCF was pretty much defunct, but at least one idea suggested by the group ultimately became one of the major building blocks of the neoliberal revolution that has brought us to the present day state of unparalleled economic inequality, extinction level ecological disaster and endemic class divisions.

Howard Zinn, in his The People’s History of the United States, chapter 13, writes:
A privately circulated memorandum suggested to one of the departments of the National Civic Federation: ‘In view of the rapid spread in the united States of socialist doctrines,’ what was needed was ‘a carefully planned and wisely directed effort to instruct public opinion as to the real meaning of socialism.’ the memorandum suggested that the campaign ‘must be very skillfully and tactfully carried out,’ that it ‘should not violently attack socialism and anarchism as such’ but should be patient and persuasive’ and defend three ideas: ‘individual liberty; private property; and inviolability of contract.
Today, those three ideas, after a century of crank libertarian and Objectivist cheer-leading and the multi-billion dollar efforts of conservative think tanks, are the cornerstones of our ideological imprisonment.

I will take each in turn:

individual liberty

Individual liberty is a term that sounds as enlightened and American as it can get, but what it means in the hands of the monied powers that benefit from such ideas is not what you think. The poor and middle class think of liberty as the right to marry, have children and to live and work as it pleases them and according to their ability. To the rich, all the things the poor take as “inalienable rights” are simply assumed. This is why virtually all rich people are social liberals. They don’t care about things like gay marriage or abortion rights because they can always afford to indulge their whims and lifestyles. They live above the considerations of a society that might judge them, and they can afford a level of privacy to shield themselves from view.

To the rich, individual liberty is the right to build factories where they please, to pollute as they wish, to privatize natural resources and force people to pay for what is by right already theirs. The rich take the water of the great lakes, and charge the citizens of Detroit to drink it. They will ultimately commodify the air we breathe. They will determine what the poor are worth being paid and they will make and break the rules of society as they please.

This is the individual liberty championed by the rich. The right to maintain a system that keeps the rest of us poor.

private property

When the poor and middle class talk about private property, they speak of clothing, personal possessions, homes and vehicles. Perhaps a small business. Everyone fears losing these things, because they are expensive to replace,and needed to maintain well being and status.

When the rich talk about private property, they are talking about all these things, and vastly more. It’s not just that the rich own bigger, better and more of everything owned by the poor. The rich live in mansions, the poor live in houses. The rich fly in private jets and drive private yachts and the poor drive bikes and cars, the poor wear clothes and the rich wear thousand dollar suits, etc.

The rich own things like banks, which give them control over the economy. They own intellectual ideas, like movies, patents, trademarks, recipes, copyrights, books, computer codes and secrets. The rich own natural resources, like land, air and water. When the rich talk about defending property rights, they are not talking about protecting your right to your house: Believe me, when they want your house, they will take it.

They are talking about their ownership of everything else. They own the world, which means they control the world, and they dole it out to the rest of us in bite sized chunks, for as long as we are of use to them.

inviolability of contract

This one is the most pernicious of all. All decent people realize the importance of keeping their word. This is an important part of a person's character. Most who say they will do something, they will endeavor to do it, with all their ability, with all their body and soul. Contracts are simply formal representations of these promises, enshrined into law and backed by the power and violence of the state.

If your friend borrows ten dollars, then falls on hard times, loses their job and become homeless, you will most likely forgive their loan. You will release your friend from the promise made, and maybe offer more money in support.

The same sense of forgiveness does not exist in the world of formal contracts. Sure, a person unable to pay can always declare bankruptcy, but many debts are immune from bankruptcy protection, including many if not most forms of credit debt and student loans, the kind of debt most likely to be taken on by the poor.

The rules for inviolability of contract are written one way for the poor and another way for the rich. When pensions are lost in a banking scam, or contracts with public workers are broken due to the bankruptcy of a city or municipality, the inviolability of contracts is never cited.

But if the poor owe money to the rich, all bets are off. The poor will be squeezed for every drop of blood, work and utility. When they die, their debts will be assessed against their families, if possible.

After all, contracts are inviolable…

...for the vast majority.

Over the last century the ideas of individual liberty, private property and inviolability of contract have been hammered into the consciousness of the poor. Few dare to challenge the ideas because they have been shaped to fit our preconceptions and sense of sociability.

Yet, if we are going to save ourselves from complete economic, ecological and social collapse, we must seriously address our relationship to these failed and poisonous concepts and re-prioritize the important of persons.

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