Appropriating the Commons

In Sunday’s New York Times, Arthur C. Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute admonishes us about the “politics of envy.”

This phrase has become a code to disparage critics of the status quo as complainers who want to appropriate the private property of others. What the phrase really does is shift the discussion from the content of the criticisms to the motivation of the critics.

People who say income and wealth inequality is a problem, like Robert Reich, Bill Moyers, James Howard Kunstler, and Charles Hugh Smith, are not “fomenting bitterness over income differences” as Brooks accuses. They’re making a factual observation. They’re putting their finger on a root cause of both the French and American Revolutions: the increasing and structurally reinforced concentration of economic power (and by extension, political power) into fewer hands.

There’s a strong sense that the wealthy and connected are consolidating their advantage by doping our political system. Thus was it ever so, I suppose. But politics today is driven more by money than any time since the robber barons of the 19th century. All the early 20th century democratic reforms of Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt are being subverted before our eyes, under the rubric of “freedom.”

In older days, one could at least point to the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the oligarchy and call out the injustice of inherited or unfairly acquired wealth and position. Today’s aristocracy is hiding behind and leveraging the colossal power of corporations, dark money, and technology to rig laws and alter the structure of society while simultaneously insisting, without a trace of irony, that their success is based on individual effort and merit.

It’s true that a number of today’s wealthy are first-generation entrepreneurs. What about the self-made, like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Steve Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, or Elon Musk? Are they part of the nexus that’s snaring the rest of humankind in a web of others’ ambition?

Of course they are.

I trust they intend just the opposite and see themselves as benefactors. But the technology they’re creating isn’t unequivocally wonderful. At the same time it extends the personal power of those who can participate in it, it heightens the power pyramid, and puts more distance between the fewer at the top and the growing numbers at the bottom.

The “freedom” of the few at the top to leverage technology, promulgate their proprietary systems, and insinuate them into society makes freedom for the rest of us illusory. It is superficially simple and seductive but internally inscrutable, which makes us dependent on it and beholden to them.

As power becomes more concentrated, the democratic process becomes more ineffectual. We the people have less control. The technology that appears to give us so many choices actually binds us to a certain kind of society we did not choose. It’s a bit like the way we parented our kids when they were two years old: you may have your broccoli in big pieces or little pieces, you can have it before, at the same time as, or after your other food, but you must have broccoli.

Here’s a tech equivalent: you may buy an Android, an iPhone, or a Blackberry, but you must have a cell phone (and spend to upgrade it constantly) if you want to be part of normal society.

Google’s business model—emulated by Facebook, Amazon, and others—is to be the conduit of all commerce. They aspire to a cut of every purchase and sale made in the world. Meanwhile, the tech they create collects vast amounts of personal data from us. Is this trove of data not ripe for plundering and abuse? Edward Snowden may be vilified as a “traitor” to the United States, but one thing’s for sure: he’s showing us the true future.

Socialize the Risk, Privatize the Profit
All this wealth is extracted from the commons. Our political and legal system is a commons that’s being abused to facilitate the “freedom” of the few to create these systems that capture us, while requiring little in the way of equitable compensation, like a tax system that will prevent unearned wealth from being perpetuated across generations of descendants, or one that prevents transnational corporations from escaping taxation altogether.

Most of all, our air is a commons. All modern wealth is predicated on fouling the atmosphere with carbon emissions.  So far, there is no check on this, or accountability for the consequences.

Little pieces of what we all share, like our Constitution and the very air we breathe, are being appropriated to our detriment and channeled to the aggrandizement of a few. That instinctual recognition is driving the deep sense among many that wealth concentration is profoundly unjust.

We have a right to raise these issues without being labeled envious.


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