Privatization: A Platform Issue

by Milo Clark

March 15, 2004   


[Author's Note: For the first time since the early Muskie campaigns in Maine, the mid 1950s, I am taking part in the pragmatics of local politics by serving on my Democratic Precinct committee and working on the Hawaii County Democratic Platform. The privatization issue is central to showing the hypocrisy rampant on the issue. Hawaii's Congressional Delegation, all Democrats, favor privatization as does the Republican Governor.]

2004 Hawaii Democratic Party Platform:

         Privatization converts community assets to private assets
         for private gain at community expense. Privatization is
         contrary to the principles of the Hawaii Democratic Party.


Privatization means giving away community assets, The Commons, to private investors or corporations for a fraction of their societal value. Politicians who profit from privatization argue that private corporate management is better than public management. Better for whom? Politicians want us to believe surpluses should belong to corporate owners or managers rather than to the public. A nasty little secret of corporate management is that Enron, WorldCom, ImClone, et al., are norm rather than exception. A nastier fact is that politicians depend on corporate money to finance their campaigns. The Commons are secondary.

Privatization is part and parcel of the now sacrosanct concept of private property. Few know that concept is a relatively recent idea, little more than 400 years old. Yet, given the present weight of that concept, few dare to question it. Public practice and policy march in lockstep.

If the world cultures divide into West and East, Western evolutions of property as a concept and practice follow two general threads. The Commons, as understood in our parent culture largely based in the British Isles off Europe, we would now call public or community property. In communities, local areas, villages, bio-regions people once shared their physical and economic assets. People organized themselves along communal lines. Grazing, as one example, took place on physical areas known, in English, as The Commons. Crops were planted in The Commons. Houses were built on The Commons.

The second thread in the West we call feudalism. Feudalism established local hierarchy within The Commons. These local hierarchies branched upward in complex patterns of relationships in part governing physical or geographic entities. The community or tribal chief evolved into local liege or lord of the manor. The local laird was involved upward in a regional hierarchy. He, rarely she, exchanged services and allegiances with other lords of larger manors. Feudal lords first saw themselves as stewards of The Commons rather than owners in our sense.

The French expression "noblesse oblige" describes this essential character of relationship. The nobles, in return for services and allegiance, were obliged to return services and allegiance such as protection from bandits, maintenance of The Commons, resolution of community conflicts, etc. What was important in feudalism, what characterized it, was this complex web of relationships which was internalized by all who took part. There was no concept or practice which we would call private, personal or property. In present terms, The Commons was tribal. Group was paramount.

Elsewhere, human evolutions of community organization tended to take two directions. One was similar in many ways to Western feudalism. The other we have come to call autocratic or absolute. A lord or ruler owned everything and everyone. Relationships were determined by whoever ruled. This individual was paramount over any and all. Use of property was the sole province of the ruler. He delegated or loaned but never gave. Regal whim governed. An autocrat could choose benevolence, tyranny or whatever alternative appealed at whatever time it appealed. Common people were of no consequence other than as economic assets. Over time, autocracies came to characterize Russia, significant areas of Asia, church and state.

The history of Hawaii, taken broadly, also has two general phases. The earlier Polynesian immigrants tended to follow community-focused or common practices. After the later arrival of Tahitian Ali'i, an autocratic model was imposed. The people existed to serve the Ali'i. They expected little in return and got less.

Throughout the world, ideas of personal, private and property tend to be associated with developments such as agriculture and trade. Very early humans existed within rich areas abundant with fauna and flora, tropical regions where food was easy. They were as often prey as predator. Extending to temperate regions, hunter/gathers were small groups, tribes, nomads who moved camp to follow the migratory patterns of prey and seasonal patterns of plants.

Planting food crops and domesticating animals also created sedentary rather than nomadic patterns. Evolving more slowly, dynamics of community organization long continued to reflect nomadic patterns. As human populations expanded, camps gave way to villages. Movements to temperate areas with seasonal patterns coupled with agricultural surpluses led to expansions of relationships and specializations. In relatively recent times, these led to trade, hierarchy and differences within communities.

People who seasonally moved between villages or camps carrying surpluses or specialties to exchange spun off others who evolved into full-time traders. Trade is hierarchical. Trade relationships categorize people. It develops classes of people who are in one sense nomadic and in another sense separated in an economic framework from those who stay and sow and reap. Evolution of tools also contributes to specializations within which people who make tools trade them for food or clothing or materials or baubles.

Adam Smith, writing from Scotland in the late 1700s, in a book we know as The Wealth of Nations, described these evolutions in detail and understood the economic relationships underlying them. Separating people from The Commons and making them cogs in economic systems also spelled the evolution of Western Feudalism into its modern forms which we call Capitalism. In extreme cases, slavery or serfdom dehumanized peoples less benignly than present day dependence on cash and wages -- wage slavery as it has been named.

In fifteenth and sixteenth century England very dramatic events were converting The Commons into what became private property. A first stage was to associate feudal lords with the lands over which they presided. When such lands were The Commons, those who lived within them understood their roles, rights and privileges. Who tilled where, what was grazed when, and how produce and animal products were distributed and shared in the relevant annual cycles of the community. When local lairds or lords carved off parts of The Commons and declared them separate, private and for personal rather than community uses, private property concepts and practices begin to enter the culture.

Robin Hood is a story about destruction of The Commons and community responses to it.

An evolutionary stage comes when traders morph into merchants. Merchants distance themselves from The Commons in the sense that they separate whatever they trade from common access. They lock it up. Access required exchanges, barter or money. No residual or inherent rights to once community resources existed. Sharing disappeared. History records that both commoner and lord despised and feared traders and their evolutions into merchants. Today's merchants are corporations. The love-hate relationships with community persist, viz. Wal-Mart.

Merchants extended their property concepts from trade goods into other areas. Villages evolved into towns, towns to cities, cities to principalities. In time, trades and crafts people evolved guilds to offset and to replace lords. Merchants saw no reason not to be lords in their own right. Merchants built storage which evolved into warehouses. They built houses which evolved into manors on the way to estates. They defended their merchandise, warehouses and estates with personal guards who evolved into mercenaries and merchant armies. The merchant armies came to contest feudal and then autocratic forces for dominance. These merchant armies are now incorporated into police, paramilitary and military who protect, defend and expand corporate interests as required.

The classic case is The East India Company formed by Queen Elizabeth in 1600, which became lord and master of its domains on the Indian sub-continent. A private stock company, it was managed from London with local bureaucracies in India, The East India Company aggressively expanded at the expense of local rulers and peoples.

It waged imperial wars. It sparred with neighboring powers, especially Russia and China. It was an extension of British policy. After a disastrous war in Afghanistan in 1838-1842 and a savagely repressed rebellion in 1857, the Crown finally dissolved The East India Company in 1874. It assumed direction and named Queen Victoria to be Empress of India. Now, as the Raj of India, a second quarrelsome Afghan war began in 1878 and dribbled on to a 1907 treaty between Russia and Great Britain establishing spheres of influence. The public utterances of the time mirror those of today with the United States in the role of British Raj.

From these processes and rivalries, private separated from community. Individual separated from group. Corporation separated from public and became person. Corporate persons came to dominate public processes. Now Globalization is the name given to economic or corporate imperialisms daily reducing what remains of The Commons to allow exploitation of resources and peoples. The merchants won.

The Commons or public property can be defined in many ways even today. On one level, today's economic, legal and political systems still pay lip service to The Commons. Our deeds for real property are typically limited to the surface of land and so many feet below it. That practice recognizes that mineral rights are still in The Commons. In actuality, that exclusion of mineral rights from surface property rights means that corporate persons may "buy" or take the minerals of The Commons, pay paltry if any royalties to property holders or public bodies and take profits for themselves.

Mining and oil companies, typically corporations, own mineral and extraction rights taken from the public. Those mineral rights take precedence over private rights. A mining company with mineral rights under "your" land can take "your" property. Lumber companies take lumber from public lands. Oil and gas companies drill on public lands. Corporate trawlers and factory ships sweep the oceans clean. Corporations, with minimal and lessening restraints, pollute air and water and land. Corporate rights take precedent over public responsibilities. The Commons shrinks and is further extinguished every day, day by day.

The public owns the air within which private interests may buy exclusive access and bar the public. Airlines buy travel lanes and landing rights at airports built with public funds on lands nominally public. Broadcasters own access to wave bands and wave lengths from which the public is excluded. We cannot have community broadcast stations. Cell phone and other antennae can be imposed to match technical needs determined by corporate interests.

The world histories of imperial expansions are stories of private interests taking over The Commons. In most of the world, the first peoples of an area, the indigenous peoples, held property in common. Invaders destroyed and still destroy these peoples to take their land and resources into private use and profit.

Now, in the United States, politicians of both political parties routinely kneel before corporate lairds and push privatization schemes with bi-partisan fervor. Public programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are to be privatized as last gasps of The Commons. Water services and education, even prison systems are being privatized. Nothing is to be held back.

Where are our Robin Hoods?

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America the 'beautiful' on Swans


Milo Clark on Swans (with bio).

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Published March 15, 2004
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