The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth

Gerrard Winstanley evnuk at
Sun Jun 5 19:47:25 BST 2005

"the rise of market fundamentalism as the established state religion 
has greased the way for such developments and turned the media into an 
approving choir. The result has been an orgy of enclosure"

Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth  
David Bollier

Book Review - Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth 
by David Bollier
by Jonathan Rowe		

Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth

by David Bollier
£22.00, Routledge,
260 pages, 2003

- When our times finally come to rest in the history texts, I think 
they will be called the Age of Enclosure—the age of privatization. It 
is a time when everything has become a commodity, and everything is 
for sale. 

- The opinion establishment was in raptures over the resulting money 
gush. Now that the party's over, they pine for a return. Yet as the 
concept of the market comes to define all human experience, so too 
does the market's central paradox: the way it creates scarcity even as 
it produces abundance.

- A market requires scarcity. You can't sell what people already have, 
or feel they can do without. Thus, for example, health becomes scarce—
or at least dear—as it becomes attached to a commoditized system of 
expert interventions and pills. More broadly, we feel a scarcity of 
that which the market displaces and degrades—of restfulness and peace, 
of unspoiled open places, of neighborliness and human interaction, of 
clean air to breathe and honest food to eat. 

- Most of us are aware of this at some level, I suspect. We experience 
it as a vague, chronic gnawing, a sense of being under siege, a 
nemesis without a name. We see our civic spaces turn into ads for 
corporations, childhood turn into a marketing free-fire zone. We see 
the basic elements of life—water, seeds, the genetic code—turn into 
commodities like pop-tarts and beer, subject to the same corporate 
contrivance and hype. 

- We can see the aggressor. But what exactly is the thing aggressed 
upon? How can we defend it, if it is a hundred different things, and 
not one thing we can name?

- In Silent Theft, David Bollier provides that name, and with it a 
narrative from which a defense might grow. What appear to be a 
multitude of separate issues, he says—global warming here, the 
patenting of seeds over there, the looming destruction of the public 
library a bit further off—are really part of one big issue. It is the 
destruction of the commons, the pillaging and commandeering of that 
which belongs to all of us—if belong is the word—for private and 
usually corporate gain. This is not the government or public sector. 
It is the diminishing space that lies outside the government and the 
market both. 

- The commons has been under attack for centuries, ever since the 
British parliament enclosed the common lands and forced peasant 
farmers into cities where they became an impoverished labor force. 
(China is doing the same thing now on behalf of industrialized 
agriculture.) Today, thanks largely to technology, the process is 
exceeding all previous bounds. The ability to manipulate genetic 
material makes it possible to own it, for example. The internet, which 
was supposed to liberate information, instead has provided a chilling 
means of owning and charging for it.

- At the same time, the rise of market fundamentalism as the 
established state religion has greased the way for such developments 
and turned the media into an approving choir. The result has been an 
orgy of enclosure, and Bollier documents the major ones. There are 
chapters on the giveaway of public assets, such as broadcast airwaves 
and mineral deposits on public lands; the enclosure of computer code 
and the internet; the privatization of culture and public spaces; and 
the corporate takeover of academia and the quest for knowledge, among 
numerous others. 

- It's a broad swath, but with a simple theme. As the title suggests, 
this is a book about takings, a kind perpetrated by the very interests 
that complain about takings when done against themselves. In fact, 
Bollier shows that the government these interests complain about has 
been their loyal accomplice. It is the government that gives away the 
public airwaves and mineral rights to public lands; the government 
that has expanded the copyright and patent laws far beyond Jefferson's 
intent, thus setting the stage for the emerging oligopolies of the 
mind—and the ownership of life itself. 

- And of course, it is the government that created the legal fiction 
called the corporation that perpetrates most of these takings in the 
first place. There's a lesson here in what used to be called 
"political economy." Those who complain about government the most, use 
it the most for their own ends.

- For many readers, the mere mention of the commons will call to mind 
the notion of tragedy. That's because of an essay called "The Tragedy 
of the Commons," written in the 1960s by the biologist Garret Hardin. 
The so-called "tragedy thesis" has hung like a pall over the concept 
ever since. It is a rote recital in the economics texts. Basically it 
says that commons are prone inevitably to over-use, and that the only 
answer is a regime of private property rights. Turn the common lands 
into real estate and everyone is better off. 

- Bollier shows that the tragedy thesis is a myth, embraced by 
economists because it suits their preconceptions. In practice it has 
become a "Procrustean rack," he observes. "Circumstances that do not 
fit its premises must be stretched or slashed to fit, or ignored." 
What's ignored is that commons work often and wonderfully—the piazzas 
(public squares) of Italy, for example, and the community gardens of 
Manhattan. "The New York City community gardens thrive precisely 
because they are not governed either by the market or the government."

- All that's needed, in most cases, is a structure of law or custom 
that enables the commons to flourish. The market can't work without 
rules, and a commons can't either. 

- In fact, often it's enclosure that invites the tragedy. Academic 
research flourished when it operated as a commons, for example. 
Academics published their work openly in professional journals. Reward 
came from the respect of one's peers, not patent claims and money. 
Pioneers like Jonas Salk, who discovered the original polio vaccine, 
did not seek patents for their work. They thought science should serve 
human kind, not gouge it.

- Today, by contrast, academia is in a patent frenzy, prompted by 
corporate research dollars and a new cash-grabbing ethos. The result 
has been an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia. Researchers 
practically need a patent lawyer by their side as they negotiate a 
growing minefield of competing patent claims. Scientific research is 
"ratcheting itself towards paralysis," Bollier observes, from the very 
thing—property rights—that is supposed to serve as "incentive" for 
discovery and innovation.

- The point here is not that the commons somehow could replace the 
market. It is, rather, that the commons is a parallel realm of 
freedom, resource, and endeavor—one that the market itself depends 
upon and that is equally in need of government protection and support. 
Bollier offers numerous examples of a new commons movement, from 
Linux—the computer operating system developed through a commons on the 
World Wide Web—to service barter networks and land trusts. 

- The concept of the commons has large political potential. It is the 
missing link between the ecosystem and the social system, between the 
destruction of species and the destruction of languages and cultures, 
between cyber space and open space, between the depletion of the ozone 
layer and the depletion of our peace and quiet. If this does indeed 
become known as the Age of Enclosure, then Silent Theft will go down 
as one of the crucial texts that helped the age to see itself and thus 
pointed the way out.

Runaway market culture has convinced us that everything is better off 
owned by companies, not citizens. Land, scholarly research, internet 
protocols, life-saving medical discoveries, and the very DNA of plants 
and animals - rather than stay in the hands of the people, its all 
being sold off on the cheap. Its the difference between Linux and 
Windows and its a battle that could shape countless areas of Western 


'They hang the man and flog the woman That steal the goose from off 
the common, But let the greater villain loose That steals the common 
from the goose.' - Traditional nursery rhyme Until a 1998 federal 
court decision, a Minnesota publisher claimed to own every federal 
court decision, including Roe v. Wade and Brown v. Board of Education. 
A Texas company was recently allowed to calm a patent on basmati rice, 
a kind of rice grown in India for hundreds of years. The Mining Act of 
1872 is still in effect, allowing companies to buy land from the 
government at USD5 and acre if they pan to mine it. These are 
resources that belong to al of use, yet they are being given away to 
companies with anything but the common interest in mind. Where was the 
public outcry, or the government intervention, when these were 
happening? The answers are alarming. Private corporations are 
consuming the resources that the American people collectively own at a 
staggering rate, and the government is not protecting the commons on 
our behalf. In Silent Theft , David Bollier exposes the audacious 
attempts of companies to appropriate medical breakthroughs, public 
airwaves, outer space, state research, and even the DNA of plants and 
animals. Amazingly, these abuses often go unnoticed, Bollier argues, 
because we have lost our ability to see the commons. Publicly funded 
technological innovations create common wealth (cell phone airwaves, 
internet addresses, gene sequences) at blinding speed, while an 
economic atmosphere of deregulation and privatization ensures they 
will be quickly bought and sold. In an age of market triumphalism, 
does the notion of the commons have any practical meaning? Crisp and 
revelatory, Silent Theft is a bold attempt to develop a new language 
of the commons, a new ethos of commonwealth in the face of a market 
ethic that knows no bounds.

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