Monday, December 31, 2012

American worship of the individual

The world is full of willing people, some willing to work, the rest willing to let them.
― Robert Frost
And that is the very problem with socialism. The same can be said with property of capitalism. One should not get hanged on labels.

Once the rules are set, human beings will be able to follow the letter while circumventing their spirit in search of personal gain.

Independently of government ideology there are always three classes in society: upper, middle, and lower. And the real purpose of government is to protect the prerogatives of the upper class. Change always comes from the middle class trying to take over the upper class and the lower class is cannon fodder for both.

Labels are a tool used to herd people. The essential thing for democracy and freedom is not the ideology, but the existence of check and balances to limit the power of the government. There are socialist democracies and autocratic capitalist regimes. A country like Canada, for example, with a more socialist government than the States, has a gentler society than the US.

Freedom and democracy peaked in the US in the late 1930s and are nowadays in decline.

The dichotomy Capitalism/Socialism is actually dated. In the USA the term socialism, let alone communism, is used solely as a pejorative term to discredit individuals and ideas, often arbitrarily. If one understands socialism as government control of the economy, all, 100%, of the world's governments, even Republican's are socialist to some degree.

There is a confusion of capitalism with the American worship of the individual and the nuclear family. It can be argued that these ideas are related but they are different and independent. According to the American work ethic you only get what you work for, but this is not what Capitalism is. Capitalism is the idea that market forces, carried out by intelligent agents looking for profit (self interest), let by themselves will generate wealth and prosperity for society as a whole. From this perspective the ideal government is indeed one with zero regulations and that concentrates in providing security and guaranteeing social order, without levying taxes.

Down the road only a few generations, the millennium of Magna Carta, one of the great events in the establishment of civil and human rights, will arrive. What we do right now, or fail to do, will determine what kind of world will greet that event. It is not an attractive prospect if present tendencies persist -- not least, because the Great Charter is being shredded before our eyes.

The first scholarly edition of Magna Carta was published by the eminent jurist William Blackstone. It was not an easy task. There was no good text available. As he wrote, “the body of the charter has been unfortunately gnawn by rats” -- a comment that carries grim symbolism today, as we take up the task the rats left unfinished.

Blackstone’s edition actually includes two charters. It was entitled The Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest. The first, the Charter of Liberties, is widely recognized to be the foundation of the fundamental rights of the English-speaking peoples.

The significance of the companion charter, the Charter of the Forest, is no less profound and perhaps even more pertinent. The Charter of the Forest demanded protection of the commons from external power. The commons were the source of sustenance for the general population: their fuel, their food, their construction materials, whatever was essential for life. The forest was no primitive wilderness. It had been carefully developed over generations, maintained in common, its riches available to all, and preserved for future generations -- practices found today primarily in traditional societies that are under threat throughout the world.

The Charter of the Forest imposed limits to privatization. The Robin Hood myths capture the essence of its concerns (and it is not too surprising that the popular TV series of the 1950s, “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” was written anonymously by Hollywood screenwriters blacklisted for leftist convictions). By the seventeenth century, however, this Charter had fallen victim to the rise of the commodity economy and capitalist practice and morality.

The rise of capitalist practice and morality brought with it a radical revision of how the commons are treated, and also of how they are conceived. The prevailing view today is captured by Garrett Hardin’s influential argument that “freedom in a commons brings ruin to us all,” the famous “tragedy of the commons”: what is not owned will be destroyed by individual avarice.

An international counterpart was the concept of terra nullius, employed to justify the expulsion of indigenous populations in the settler-colonial societies of the Anglosphere, or their “extermination,” as the founding fathers of the American Republic described what they were doing, sometimes with remorse, after the fact. According to this useful doctrine, the Indians had no property rights since they were just wanderers in an untamed wilderness. And the hard-working colonists could create value where there was none by turning that same wilderness to commercial use.

In reality, the colonists knew better and there were elaborate procedures of purchase and ratification by crown and parliament, later annulled by force when the evil creatures resisted extermination.

The grim forecasts of the tragedy of the commons are not without challenge. The late Elinor Olstrom won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 for her work showing the superiority of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins. But the conventional doctrine has force if we accept its unstated premise: that humans are blindly driven by what American workers, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, bitterly called “the New Spirit of the Age, Gain Wealth forgetting all but Self.”

Popular struggles to bring about a freer and more just society have been resisted by violence and repression, and massive efforts to control opinion and attitudes. Over time, however, they have met with considerable success, even though there is a long way to go and there is often regression. Right now, in fact.

The most famous part of the Charter of Liberties is Article 39, which declares that “no free man” shall be punished in any way, “nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.”

The capitalist model has exhausted its usefulness because in its implementation requires a consumption society with infinite resources and relentless growth. I recommend to check the site Do the Math by a UCSD Physics professor and start with the article about the irrationality of this way of thinking (

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