Monday, February 11, 2019

Our Common Wealth by Jonathan Rowe

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This little book has been on my list for a while. One of my kinda-sorta new years resolutions was to order a couple of books on my list and read them.

At less than 100 pages, this is a super quick read. It consists of short chapters, which are more about the philosophy than the implementation of author’s ideas. Since Rowe already distilled his ideas into a concentrated and succinct form, I risk quoting the entire work in summarizing.

The basic idea is this: alongside our “official” economy, there exists a giant parallel and complementary economy that he calls the “commons.” These are things, like the ancient version, which entire communities hold together, and which benefit everyone. These “commons” are not counted in economic reports, because they don’t register actual economic activity, even though the “official” private and public sector economies depend greatly on their existence.

The ancient idea of the commons is easier to understand. Certain places were held in common, for everyone to use, subject to unwritten understandings about how to protect them. These included, of course, the common grazing lands of England (and elsewhere in Europe), the fisheries and forests, and so on. There are modern equivalents too. Our oceans, atmosphere, sidewalks, and the internet are specifically mentioned. In Rowe’s view (and I tend to agree), the commons are under assault in our time, the prey of powerful corporations interested only in the next year - or next quarter of profit, rather than the long term. Because the Commons are less visible, they are not protected. Thus, a lot of what we call “profit” or “economic expansion” is really just the raping of the Commons.

While I don’t think this book and its ideas are the entire picture, I do think Rowe does capture a significant part of the reason why we are facing runaway inequality, a crumbling environment, and a lack of commitment to the common good. Rowe is absolutely correct, however, that this is largely a modern phenomenon, driven by a certain worship of private profit above all else. He may blame Adam Smith more than I do, where I think Ayn Rand and others are more to blame, but his underlying premise is solid.

Let me start with the quotes at the beginning of the book, which are fascinating:

First is a couple of lines from Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village,” one of the first poems to deal with the urbanization caused by the Industrial Revolution. (The whole poem is all too applicable today, with our rapacious profiteering, vulgar ultrarich, and more…)

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay

The second is a quote from Wendell Berry, who I have come to love - and need to read more of.

A proper a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members - among them the need to need one another.

In the introduction, Bill McKibben references Garrett Hardin’s essay from the 1960s, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Rowe refers to it in the body of the book. The problem is that this essay was highly influential...while turning out to be almost entirely bullshit. The Commons existed and functioned for literally hundreds of years - far longer than our imploding klepto-capitalism has been in existence. Communities around the globe have been able to manage the Commons wisely and carefully. It is when the commons are invaded by profiteering that they break down.

With this idea, Rowe aligns himself with an older version of Conservatism, that of Edmund Burke. While Burke had his wince worthy moments (colonialism anyone?), his conservatism was a vastly different breed than today’s Right. I share Rowe’s natural affinity for classical conservative thought - that concerned with the preservation of social institutions and the Commons. I too have been appalled at the takeover of the Right by “billionaires, yahoos, and zealots.” (All of which found their Platonic “form” in the person of Donald Trump.)

Rowe pretty much nails it when he notes that the operating principles of the Commons are different from the Market.

Unlike the market, which is organized to maximize short-term private gain, the commons is (or should be) organized to preserve shared assets for future generations and to spread their benefits more or less equally among the living. If government nurtured this sector as zealously as it nurtures the market, the modern world would be a healthier and happier place.

I also liked Rowe’s attempt to define the Commons - a task as difficult as defining “the market” or “the state.”

In fact, the commons includes our entire life support system, both natural and social. The air and oceans, the web of species, wilderness and flowing water - all are parts of the commons. So are language and knowledge, sidewalks and public squares, the stories of childhood, the processes of democracy. Some parts of the commons are gifts of nature, others the products of human endeavor. Some are new, such as the Internet; others are as ancient as soil and calligraphy. What they have in common is that they all “belong” to all of us, if that is the word. No one has exclusive rights to them. We inherit them jointly and hold them in trust for those who come after us. We are “temporary possessors and life renters” as Edmund Burke wrote, and we “should not think it amongst [our] rights to commit waste on the inheritance.”

Rowe then notes that the need is not for the government to run or own the commons, but to use laws, rules, boundaries to protect it - just like it does aggressively for for private property.

Later, Rowe directly addresses Hardin’s essay. As Rowe sees it, Hardin assumed that people exist outside of social structure, and lack the basic ability to communicate with each other, let alone cooperate for the common good. It is this idea of economic “rationality” which dominates our discussion of how people behave, despite overwhelming evidence that people don’t actually act like this. (Witness as one example, the fact that whole groups of people consistently vote against their economic interests, in favor of their tribalistic interests.)

There is a whole section on a story which has a lot of personal significance to me: that of Pacific Lumber.

Those of us who live in California are usually familiar with our majestic redwoods - the tallest trees in the world. They grow in a limited band in the coastal hills of the northern part of the state. While they were once widespread, only five percent of the original old growth forests remain - fortunately these have been protected.

 Old growth Redwood forest, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, 2016. 
Picture by me.

Well into the 1980s, most of the forest that was still in private hands was owned by Pacific Lumber - a family operation dedicated to sustainable operations. When I was a kid (age 9 or so - 1986?), we visited the redwoods for my first time. As part of that trip, we took a tour of the mill in the town of Scotia. It was a real highlight, and I remember all of the documentation of sustainable practices and so on.

What I didn’t know then, was that that the year before, Pacific Lumber had been taken over - in one of those 1980s hostile takeovers - by a predatory company, Maxxim, which shortly thereafter started clearcutting. Hey, maximize those short term profits!

In early 2002, the first year of our marriage, Amanda and I took a trip to the redwoods ourselves. Because of my memories, we stopped at the mill. But it was largely vacant, and you could just see a little bit of ongoing operations. By the time we visited with the kids years later, the company had gone bankrupt, and the mill was shut down, leaving environmental devastation in its wake.

 The Scotia lumber mill back in the day - click to enlarge.

As Rowe notes, the forests are gone - perhaps forever, or at least for hundreds of years. A few people made huge profits, and the rest of us lost. It was a classic case of plundering of the Commons. Had the forests been viewed - and protected - as belonging to everyone, this predatory behavior would have been stopped. And this applies to pretty much every pressing environmental issue today: private profiteers aren’t actually creating wealth - they are plundering it from the commons.

Rowe correctly notes that this is permitted - nay, encouraged - because the benefits of the Commons are not easily tied to money. My electric bill may be lower because I have shade trees, but they don’t figure in the economy the way that PG&E does.

I’ll also briefly mention the concept of “community of goods” as being of interest to lawyers. In general, thinkers from Locke on down have recognized that the right to property is superseded by necessity. As Lock put it, the property claims of the rich man “must give way to the pressing and preferable Title of those who are in danger to perish without it.” Something to keep in mind in our own times, when the modern Right insists that it is more important that the ultrawealthy keep more of their income than that everyone else have enough to survive. As Rowe points out, this was justified historically by the idea that the needy had a prior property right which came before the right of private property.

I think my favorite chapter was on Conservatism, however. As one who is temperamentally a conservative, and yet who is morally appalled by the modern Right, with its racism, social darwinism, and reactionary politics. Let me quote a bit.

Few things would shake up American politics as much as clarifying the term conservative. From the daily media one might surmise that conservatives are people who hate taxes and gays and love markets and religion. But the conservative tradition runs deeper than that, and in some ways contrary to it.

Yes!! Rowe goes on to quote Burke as noting that society is an organic whole, and those with more have a duty to support the common good with their taxes. (Say what?!!) And how about this Burke quote?

“[Society is a partnership] not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

Kudos to Rowe for pointing out as well that Burke and Smith and the other founders of Conservative thought defended individual private property, not corporate property. (Smith, for one, loathed corporations and banking, and considered them serious threats to society.) Rowe goes on to note that even some of the most doctrinaire libertarians eventually expressed reservations about unregulated corporate klepto-capitalism. One was Wilhelm Ropke, a disciple of the rather loathsome Ludwig Von Mises, who eventually wrote a book entitled The Humane Economy, which questioned much of the market-based views he had previously held. A key quote:

“The highest interests of the community and the indispensable things of life have no exchange value and are neglected if supply and demand are allowed to dominate the field. The supporters of the market economy do it the worst service by not observing its limits and conditions.”

I have to quote the last paragraph in its entirety, because it is so good:

In recent decades, authentic conservatism - the kind that respects community, locality, tradition, and virtue - has been displaced by a phony kind that is politically expedient and cynical to the core. It channels the conservative impulse into a few red-meat issues - abortion, gays, school prayer - that pose no threat to the bankrollers of either party. Thus, one does not often hear a Fox News commentator talk about the limits of the market, as opposed to what else should be given over to it. What this phony “movement” really professes is not conservativsm, but the opposite - a belief that it is okay to waste the patrimony so long as somebody makes money doing it. Edmund Burke would be turning in his tomb.

I want to mention a few other ideas in closing. The first is the idea that time is part of the commons. One of the pernicious developments during my lifetime is the idea that work should bleed over into an increasing share of total time. Hours have increased, and more take work home via electronic devices. In essence, the Market claims ever more of our time - and it isn’t workers who benefit from this, but the corporations which demand it. This leaves less time for the uncompensated work which keeps society functioning. (Side note here: this “worked” for decades because women were expected to do all the uncompensated work. Now that this has changed due to a combination of feminism and declining wages, a lot of “women’s” work just isn’t getting done…)

Another thing I want to touch on is the fact that the Internet is the “sidewalk” of the 21st Century. Rowe mentions this, although the book was written before Facebook and other social media became such important parts of our lives. Rowe was prescient in this. Thus, when we discuss Net Neutrality, for example, what we are in a sense discussing is whether the Commons of the Internet (which was invented by government and academics using government funding) will be taken over by private profiteers. Will it remain a commons, or will it be entirely monetized. In large part, the last election was evidence of the monetization of the sidewalks of our century. Fake news pushed by foreign governments was allowed to squat and take a shit on our public spaces. It is every bit as offensive as nailing posters to the trees in our national parks.

The book is a little less solid on concrete solutions. Given its scope, this is understandable. It isn’t intended to be a policy manual, but a book of ideas. And I think it succeeds at that.

After all, the most important thing here isn’t a specific policy, but a different way of looking at things. A way that recognizes the Commons as a property right that deserves protection. A view of pollution, for example, that views it as a theft of the Commons - a taking of property from everyone else, that deserves full compensation. An idea that libraries and schools aren’t expendable luxuries - or assets to be sold to private interests -  but part of our Commons, to be preserved for the benefit of all. A return to the idea (common until Disney) that a decade or two of copyright protection was the maximum before ideas (which never occur in a vacuum) are returned to the public domain for the benefit of all.

I want to be clear about this: Rowe is not a communist by any stretch. He is not anti-capitalism. He’s not arguing for a government takeover or anything. Rather, he notes that the private sector, the public sector, and the Commons exist (and have always existed) side by side. It is in recent times that the private sector has metastasized to endanger the Commons, and it is now the Commons, more than the private sector, which needs a renewed effort of protection.

Our Common Wealth is an interesting book, and one that really resonated with me as an old school Conservative who is alarmed at the replacement of the idea of preservation for future generations with a reactionary push to re-create all the injustices and cruelties of the past. It is a good reminder that the great Conservative thinkers of the past were genuinely concerned with the common good, and willing to place limits on the market as much as on government. And that they recognized the need for preserving our Common Wealth for the benefit of all, not just for the ultra-wealthy corporatists and those most skilled at exploiting and plundering the Commons. I, along with other classical Conservatives, wish to see the Commons available again for our children and grandchildren - like they were for our grandparents.

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