Today’s Solutions: May 25, 2024

As George W. Bush promotes his corporate-controlled vision of an “ownership society,” other observers explore what a true ownership society would look like.

Jonathan Rowe | March 2006 issue

Last year, when U.S. President George W. Bush declared the “ownership society” the theme for his second term, he was doing more than throwing up a polemical smokescreen for his policies of providing corporate executives and Wall-Street investors with everything they could possibly want. He was also introducing a radical vision for the entire world.

Through trade agreements and diplomatic and military muscle, the president and his cohorts are intent on re-engineering the world for the convenience of corporations. They want to eliminate every centre of power, every vestige of tradition or social values, that stands in the way. With the exception of a few nods in the direction of family and religion, the market will be the engine driving every aspect of modern life—every moment of time and every inch of space. The impact of this goes far beyond American national politics. Through leading international institutions such as the U.N., World Bank and World Trade Organization, Bush’s ideas about an ownership society are setting an agenda that will transform the world into a playground for multinational corporations.

Following this trajectory, the concept of the commons, which traditionally was a check on the excesses of the market basically will cease to exist.

This may sound alarmist, but it is a statement of fact. The desire to make everything private, and to transform government into a security force for protecting these property rights, has become a common refrain in Washington and around the globe. This idea is gaining ground in many other places too, even in countries once seen as resistant to it.

By seeking to undermine the Kyoto accord, for example, the Bush administration is showing its predilection for maintaining the atmosphere as a corporate dump. Throughout Asia, it has made the enforcement of “intellectual property” rights—i.e. patent and copyright protections—a centrepiece of its diplomacy in the region.
In Europe, the Bush administration is attacking bans on genetically modified foods on behalf of U.S. corporations anxious to profit from their biotech patents. And of course, re-engineering the world for corporate convenience is the main thrust of the World Trade Organization.

This didn’t start with George W. Bush. Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, declared back in 1987 that society “does not exist.” But it has certainly accelerated under him. Concerns about workers, communities and the natural habitat have just about disappeared in American politics.

Implicit in all of Bush’s policies and pronouncements is the belief that these ideas represent a return to America’s true nature, and are rightly the mission America should bring to the world. The U.S. is the nation born out of history, the pure state conceived of by British philosopher John Locke, in which free men tolerated only as much government as was needed to protect their own property. The machinery of the market would take care of everything, running smoothly and unencumbered by any interference from social traditions, community need or other values not directly linked to the process of monetary gain.

In this view, monetary gain and the property that makes it possible represent the ultimate value and the highest good. There is no denying this part of the American psyche. It’s connected to the dazzling but reckless adolescent nature of this young country. But there is another aspect to the American psyche that runs deeper in the nation’s history, and offers more maturity and wisdom. It can be seen in the history of the very thing George W. Bush and his backers are holding up as the justification for their total free-market crusade: property.

Property is a mirror. The way we think about it says a great deal about the way we think about ourselves. And the way Americans thought about property for much of their history is very different from what the most powerful politicians and economists profess today. In place of the ownership society, the positive message Americans ought to proclaim to the world might be: “Don’t do as we do. Do as we used to do.”

As the late historian Perry Miller observed, the early settlers in New England had a host of internal conflicts. They were bidden by their theology to attain earthly wealth as evidence of God’s election; yet they were not to take pleasure in this wealth or regard it as of any consequence. Yet for all their Protestant striving, they sought to build community. They built their settlements around a commons, which was a shared pasture and meeting grounds. (Many survive to this day, most notably the Boston Common.) Farm plots were on the outskirts, the traditional pattern in England and many other places.

The idea of the commons—of property invested with a dimension of community—was part of economic life. It was embodied in a common-law principle called “the public trust.” The trust doctrine went back to Roman times. It said that waterways, coastlines, the air and wild animals were common by their very nature, and could not be enclosed under a private ownership regime. Private woodlands too were deemed common for hunting, fishing and even timber-cutting unless the owner fenced them.

There was no iron curtain between private and common property. Freedom meant not just independence from the community but the right to participate in it.

The pull of cheap land held by Indians in the West put strains on the community-mindedness the early settlers sought to establish. Historians have cast the years after the American Revolution (1775-1783) in particular as a rapid turn in the direction of the market.

Yet the traditional economic values persisted and in some ways grew stronger. An example is the form of corporation that prevailed well into the 19th century. These legal constructs were deemed agencies of public purpose rather than engines of private gain. State legislatures granted corporate charters one by one for undertakings that served a public need, such as building a toll bridge or a railroad. They were limited in size and their charters expired after a given number of years.

The dominant view of the time was that private-property rights must yield to the public welfare, and to urgent human need as well. This view goes back to philosopher Thomas Aquinas, who contended in the 1200s that even theft is justified when the situation requires it. “In cases of need all things are common property,” he wrote, “so that there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made the thing common.” Under canon law, the needy in the congregation actually could demand help from the well off; and seek censure or excommunication if this help was not forthcoming.

America’s founders embraced some of these notions of the commons along with the nascent ideology of the market. In a general way, they became part of what historians now call the “civic republican” view of property, most associated with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the third and fourth president of the United States. The civic republicans were no foes of private property. But to them it served essentially a civic role. Properly distributed—a crucial if—it could enable people to be genuine citizens.

It was Madison, chief author of the U.S. Constitution, who drafted the Virginia law that made unfenced woodlands a common for hunting and fishing. Jefferson advocated a nation of individual farm owners not because he believed in a rural arcadia, but because this was the form of property ownership most consistent with civic virtue.

In the Preamble to the Constitution, Jefferson famously changed Locke’s formulation “life, liberty and property” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He didn’t explain why, but it is clear he was trying to focus on the end property might serve rather than to enshrine it for its own sake.

In the U.S. Constitution itself, the thrust of civic republican thinking appears most clearly in the copyright and patent clause. This clause deals with ideas, and since America itself is an idea, the first nation so conceived, the clause is especially telling.

It makes clear that these government-bestowed property interests are privileges and not rights. They are tolerated only to the extent they serve the common good. To this end, the monopolies they bestow are restricted to “limited times,” much as corporate charters were then. After this, the writings and inventions are to flow back into the public domain that nurtured them. Prominent Founder Benjamin Franklin expressed the civic republican view when he explained why he—like Jefferson—didn’t seek patents on his numerous inventions. “As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others,” he wrote, “we should be glad to serve others by any invention of ours.”

No clause in the Constitution has been more violated, in both letter and spirit. So-called “strict constructionist” justices on the U.S. Supreme Court have interpreted “limited” times to mean essentially unlimited ones. The scope of patents meanwhile has expanded to a ridiculous degree. A recent study at the Harvard Business School found that countries such as the U.S. that have expanded these monopoly property claims have had no increase in innovation as a result.

To the contrary, the patent system is actually discouraging invention, by creating a minefield of excessive and often frivolous monopoly claims that inventors have to negotiate. Nevertheless, it is precisely this flawed system that the U.S. is inflicting upon the world. In Asia, it has launched an enforcement jihad. It is pressuring the Philippine government, for example, to crack down on the thousands of vendors who eke out a living selling unauthorized CDs at prices ordinary Filipinos can actually afford.

China is the main target. Yet China has an artistic tradition based on copying rather than originality. Copying was a form of homage to a master, not “infringement” in the Western legal sense. And even in Iraq, the U.S. occupational government officially decreed that the nation henceforth would enforce U.S. patents on genetically engineered seeds. The provision will disrupt the traditional practice of saving seeds from one crop to plant the next, and could subject Iraqi farmers to the kind of legal bully tactics that the Monsanto corporation has inflicted upon those in the U.S.

The truly strange part of this story is that the U.S. itself was a shameless pirate at a similar stage in its development. In 1843, a copy of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol cost the equivalent of $2.50 in England. In America, a pirated version could be bought for six cents. That’s a far bigger margin than you find in Asia today. In Manila, a Barry Manilow CD costs some 700 pesos at a chain store, while a “pirated” verson costs about 90 pesos at a market stall.

The fact is, the U.S. launched its industrial economy through the theft of designs for patented British textile machinery. (Britain itself had stolen the art of cotton-making from India, and in fact had colonized the country largely for this reason.) A young Boston blueblood by the name of Francis Cabot Lowell used family connections to get detailed tours of British textile plants. He memorized the patented designs, hid sketches in his steamer trunk and returned to start a cotton industry in New England.

Not only that. Lowell persuaded the U.S. Congress to impose a tariff on British cotton of almost 85 percent. As a developing nation, the U.S. was a poster child for much of what it now complains about in China and other developing countries–both the violation of copyrights and patents and the “protectionism” for the benefit of local industries.

Today, despite the corrosive effects of economic dogma and corporate interest, remnants of the traditional thinking continues, even in the U.S. Zoning, fire codes, restrictions on the operation of motor vehicles are all based on the principle that private property is not absolute and must yield to the public health and safety to some degree. In recent years, state courts in New Jersey and Michigan have invoked the public trust to guarantee public access to beaches claimed by private owners.

The Bush administration may actually be helping, by pressing the claims of private property to such a degree that it has prompted a reaction. When Americans see proposals to relinquich the national parks to real-estate developers, to auction off the oceans to corporate fish producers, and to turn their precious Social Security savings into a Wall-Street giveaway, it does give them pause.

Not only that, the rise of the cyber-economy has strained conventional notions of property to the breaking point; and market economic dogmas along with them. These and other changes have brought the concept of the commons back into the political debate. Cyber-mavens are rising up to protect the new town square called the World Wide Web against corporations that want to wall it off into private enclaves with admission fees. Municipalities are establishing public WiFi systems to give all their residents entry to this new town square. At the same time people are fighting to preserve their traditional Main Streets and the social commons these embody against Wal-Marts and other big-box stores that aim to decimate them.

Throughout the world, people are resisting assaults on their local food traditions by McDonalds, assaults on their agricultural practices by Monsanto and other GMO giants and assaults on their personal surroundings by advertising and noise. In Hong Kong, an organization called Hush the Bus is trying to stop the blaring TV screens that have appeared in buses in that already hyper-commercialized city. In some ways, Hush the Bus speaks for people everywhere who are saying to this corporate commercial culture: “There have to be boundaries. You can’t have it all.”

This is about something even bigger than boundaries. It’s about the recognition that the commons—the space and resources we own together—is a realm of productivity and value in its own right, one that becomes increasingly important as the market claims more time and space.

The root meaning of the word privatize is “to deprive.” As people across the world take a long look at the unchecked power of multinational corporations and the ruthless programs of privatization, there are fewer and fewer takers for George W. Bush’s version of the ownership society. Nature is driving the situation too. The reality of climate change is penetrating the minds of even the ideologically resistant. Then came Hurricane Katrina, which reminded us that we really are in this together.

Virtually every penny of property value in the city of New Orleans, it turned out, was dependent upon two things. One was the society as a whole, embodied in the elaborate system of dikes and levees that was supposed to keep the flood waters at bay. The other was nature, in the form of miles of coastal wetlands that would have buffered the shock of the storm had the oil industry not decimated them. These made the city possible. Neglecting them spelled its doom.

All of us around the world are in New Orleans. Virtually all of what is called our “private” property is a co-production between owners and workers on the one hand and the large invisible hands of society and nature on the other. What would oil be worth without highways on which to burn it? What would an expensive mansion be worth in a city on any continent with no police protection, sewer service or zoning laws?

Honest entrepreneurs are the first to acknowledge this. “I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned,” American investor Warren Buffet has said. As one of the world’s richest individuals, he does know something about wealth and where it comes from.

An ownership society that works for the world is one that pays as much attention to that which we own together as to that which we hold apart.

Jonathan Rowe is writer and co-founder of the Tomales Bay Institute, an organization which is working to revive and reinvent the concept of the commons ( and He wrote an essay on the commons in the first international issue of Ode (January 2003).

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