Resistance Against Empireby Derrick Jensen
A scathing indictment of U.S. domestic and foreign policy, this collection of interviews gathers incendiary insights from 10 of today’s most experienced and knowledgeable activists. Whether it’s Ramsey Clark describing the long history of military invasion, Alfred McCoy detailing the relationship between CIA activities and the increase in the global
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A scathing indictment of U.S. domestic and foreign policy, this collection of interviews gathers incendiary insights from 10 of today’s most experienced and knowledgeable activists. Whether it’s Ramsey Clark describing the long history of military invasion, Alfred McCoy detailing the relationship between CIA activities and the increase in the global heroin trade, Stephen Schwartz reporting the obscene costs of nuclear armaments, or Katharine Albrecht tracing the horrors of the modern surveillance state, this investigation of global governance is sure to inform, engage, and incite readers.
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Resistance Against Empire
By Derrick Jensen, Theresa Noll
PM PressCopyright © 2010 Derrick Jensen
All rights reserved.
Interview conducted on July 13, 2000, at his home in Santa Maria, California.
Economist J.W. Smith has a trenchant truth to tell us: "an enormous share of our wealth is stolen." That theft begins with the monopolization of land by especially a few wealthy elites, and in addition all settlers, then quickly moves on to the monopolization of technology and labor. At first, people fought back against the thieves, but initial conquest has given way to laws structured to protect the "rights" of the thieves. The final step is the erasure of this history from our social memory paired with a concomitant mythology that condones the theft of the commons declaring any suggestion of a more equitable arrangement infeasible, inefficient, or impossible. We now accept monopolization as normal, and thus its harms — to the world's poor, to workers in the industrial world, and ultimately to the planet — are rendered invisible.
But beneath the gospel of private property is the heresy of truth, and Smith is one of its heretics. He argues that cities have always depended on the countryside for their sustenance — food, building materials, and other resources — and this dependence is backed by military power. People of the countryside are forced to hand over their resources to cities and are thereby forced into the position of having to buy goods rather than produce their own. In doing so the people of the countryside give up their economic independence. This process was extended to imperial nations and their colonies and has now encircled the globe in what Smith calls a "movement from plunder by raid to plunder by trade."
The final truth is good news: the last effect of monopolization is revolution. Smith has written, "Eliminating poverty is not philosophically complicated." It's simple: people in a given region need to regain control over their own economies. And they will fight for what is theirs. Once people get a "taste of freedom, it is very hard to take that away."
J.W. Smith holds a PhD in Political Economics. He has written six books on the elimination of poverty and war, including Economic Democracy: The Political Struggle of the Twenty-First Century (Sharpe) and Cooperative Capitalism: A Blueprint for Global Peace and Prosperity (IED). He is director of research for the Institute for Economic Democracy.
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Derrick Jensen: You've written, "Eliminating poverty is not philosophically complicated." To do so, you've said, we would need to "eliminate the monopolization of land, technology, and finance capital, and equalize pay for equally productive work, both within internal economies and between trading nations." Can you comment on this?
J.W. Smith: Let's first talk about monopolization of land. If someone were born into our culture with the fully developed intelligence of an adult, but without our social conditioning, one of the first confusing realities she or he would face is that all of the land belongs to someone else. It's a crazy situation. Before this person could legally stand, sit, lie down, or sleep, much less gain sustenance, she or he would have to pay whoever owned that piece of land. Now it's one thing to own something that you've built — a chair, perhaps, or a table, or shoes — but land, air, and water are entirely different categories. They nurture life, are necessary to life, and were here before we were born (meaning they're not our creation). Depriving others — all living beings, not just humans — access to land is to have the ability to kill them. I don't know if this has been put more clearly than by Rousseau, who wrote, "The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself as saying 'this is mine,' and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: 'Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.'"
DJ: That reminds me of that famous saying by the nineteenth-century anarchist Proudhon: Property is theft.
JWS: Having been so thoroughly acculturated, and having never experienced or imagined anything else, few people realize that all land ownership is nothing more than social convention; that is, that the huge timber and mining and real estate and oil companies and so on "own" their land only because we all agree — all have been taught to believe — that they own them. This social belief deprives others of their rights to what nature has endowed this earth.
DJ: Are you against all land ownership?
JWS: Not at all. I'm against this monopolization of land ownership that we all accept as seemingly natural. And this monopolization isn't that old, when you consider it in terms of human existence. Of course, most indigenous peoples do not believe in private ownership of land but rather view communally held land as a form of social wealth, something to take pride in, to take care of. Then, as Rousseau stated, along came civilization, with its basis in private property.
DJ: The word "private," by the way, comes from the same root as deprive, the Latin deprivare, because wealthy Romans walled off land for their own private use, depriving everyone else of access.
JWS: It didn't take long for the Romans to get around to doing that. At first all Roman citizens had inalienable rights to a homestead, with everything else held in common. But by the end of the Roman Empire only eighteen hundred men owned all of the "known world." Earlier the Greeks had tried the same thing: at one point only 2 percent of Greeks owned the entire empire. Today we see the same thing happening again: in 1974 the Federal Reserve estimated that 25 percent of all American citizens had no net assets. By 1988 it had risen to 54 percent. And of course today it's even higher. This inequality becomes clear when one learns that socialist Cuba has 85 percent home ownership ratio with no debt while America has 68 percent home ownership with massive debt. If one's debt is 85 percent of the value of the home, one only owns 15 percent of one's home.
DJ: How does land monopolization come about?
JWS: At first by conquest, and then by inequality continually being restructured into law. The powerful already understand the advantage of laws facilitating monopolization of land. And of course it is they who gain title to the majority of the land. The Greek aristocracy took it by force from the barbarians and from the peasants. The Romans did the same. Then after the collapse of the Roman Empire, in what is called the Dark Ages, peasants reclaimed their land. A belief in freedom and natural rights lasted for many centuries, until the church, nation-states, and powerful clans combined to wrest this land away from the people. Petr Kropotkin calls the slaughter of small landowners — hundreds of thousands of them — by the aristocracy the "birth of the modern state."
Once the land had been taken from the people, laws were passed to make the theft legal, and attempts to redress it were punishable by the full power of the state. Between 1760 and 1844, for example, nearly four thousand enclosure acts were passed in Britain. The result was that soon enough fifteen hundred families owned 90 percent of all the land there.
Once this monopolization of land ownership has been legalized, the next step is to attempt to erase our collective memory of social ownership. All major forms of discourse, from pulpits to universities to media outlets, tell us again and again that the sorts of communal mutual support means by which humans kept themselves alive until the rise of the state are infeasible, inefficient, damaging, or that they never existed. Those in power preach that their ownership of the world's wealth is efficient, just, and in the interests of the people. If we hear this often enough, and since we do not realize that an enormous share of our wealth is stolen form others, we believe it. Of course we are also unaware of the enormous wealth that is wasted maintaining a system that appropriates the wealth of the weak.
All of this has also happened in the United States. First the land was taken from the Indians by force. Then it was parceled out to the wealthy. Three quarters of New York was given to thirty people, and other lands were sold by the government to the rich at two cents per acre. Or they were granted to the rich on some excuse or another.
DJ: Ten percent of the landmass of the contiguous United States went just to the railroads.
JWS: In Texas, the government actually gave the railroads eight million more acres than it had the right to bestow!
And of course it was not only Indians who were killed, but non-Indian Americans, too, who attempted to resist. There were numerous bloody rebellions through the years — especially by farmers, who have historically been repressed — rebellions large and strong enough that they have constituted a threat to the land monopolies. But once land had been more or less legally granted to the elites, Americans were taught to believe that this was how our society should be arranged. Consider the fervency with which the gospel of private property is preached to all of us today.
DJ: What are the effects of the monopolization of land?
JWS: The entire wage economy, indeed, capitalism, is based on this monopolization. How do you get people to work for you at jobs they don't like? Well, there's always naked force. But that's expensive and would too closely resemble slavery. Since people need land to survive, if you can control their access to land, technology, and money, you can control them. You can force them to work for you at whatever wages you want to pay.
Another effect of this monopolization is waste. Whenever someone owns timber, oil, coal, or mineral rights, profit maximization requires maximum sales of these resources. Timber is clearcut, destroying ecosystems. And so-called sustainable forestry often only sustains profits, because the eucalyptus and other trees they plant to replace old growth are not native. They can be invasive species, water thirsty, and so on, and inevitably impact the land around the forests as well as those who depend on those forests. The tops are taken off of mountains to get the coal it is most economical to retrieve. Oil wells are put in wherever possible — and in the rush to extract oil, it's often wasted. Far more natural gas has been flared off because it doesn't make economic sense under the current structure to transport and sell it. Industrial agriculture leads to topsoil erosion, water depletion, chemicals in the water supply, and so on, while small family-owned farms are more efficient, and biodiversity-based agriculture is less costly to the environment. What I'm saying is that those who have title to resources inevitably sell them to make money, and that rush to make money wastes a lot of resources.
The same general dynamic is at work in the monopolization of technology. At one point all technology was owned by the group, to be used for the benefit of the group. But over time it has undergone the same shift as with land. The electric power industries form a good example of the effects of privatization of technologies: about 24 percent of the population of the United States is served by consumer-owned electric utilities. Even though much of this population is rural, and thus has a lower density, meaning higher per capita costs for the providers, privately owned utilities charge 42.5 percent more. This showed up vividly during the 2001 electricity crisis in California. Consumer-owned electric companies, instead of being threatened by blackouts, earned huge profits selling electricity to the private sector.
It's impossible to talk about monopolization of technology without talking about patents. Patent rights have a really interesting history. Did you ever wonder why payments on patent rights are called royalties? It's because kings and queens conferred patent rights to land and inventions on their favorites, with the understanding that the person so favored would rebate a share of the earnings — the royalties — back to the royalty. In short, the origin of patents is indistinguishable from the paying of bribes for the privilege of doing business.
And just as monopolization of land has been emplaced and maintained by force, so, too, has the monopolization of technologies. In the Middle Ages, for example, technologies for making and dyeing cloth were discovered that were more efficient than ancient hand methods. But the technologies were easily reproducible, so the question became, how could the cities maintain their monopoly on the technology? The answer is the same as with land. Throughout the fourteenth century regular armed expeditions from the cities went into outlying villages, breaking or carrying away looms and fulling vats.
DJ: Free trade in action ...
JWS: Exactly: it was the birth of the modern market economy. But we'll get to that in a second. The point I want to make here is that just as was true with land, the technology monopoly that was originally kept in place by force is now kept in place by tradition. Today, because we're accustomed to it and unaware of society's (and our own) loss, we accept this monopolization of technology as normal. In fact, we are unaware that these monopolies even exist.
I'm glad you brought up the notion of free trade, though, because the grand movement that we would call the historical development of capitalism has really been the movement from plunder by raids to plunder by trade.
DJ: I don't know what you mean.
JWS: Well, the important thing to remember about those cities I mentioned a moment ago, and in fact about cities generally, is that they have no resources. They depend on the countryside for their subsistence. That's the way it is, and that's the way it always has been with cities. When those serfs came to town from the outlying villages and looked at looms and fulling vats, they said, "Well, we can do that." They already had the resources, the raw materials (which the cities didn't have). Back they went to their little villages, where they just produced their own looms and fulling vats, and whatever else was required. But if they were allowed to keep doing that, what would happen to the city? Down the tube it would go. If the city doesn't have that monopoly on capital, the city doesn't survive. So for several hundred years the rulers of the cities raided those countrysides, destroyed the equipment, and forced the people to sell their resources to and purchase manufactured products from the cities. That exchange between the world's powerful cities and their countrysides is still happening today.
Now, cities having conquered countrysides, the next step in this evolution was competition between different cities. If one city was able to take over the markets and resources of another city, that second city would go down the tubes just as fast as if the countryside was producing their own clothes and their own tools. So the cities go to war. We learned about the wars between Greek city-states in school, but no one ever told us why they were fighting. They weren't fighting for nothing, nor were they usually fighting over ideological or philosophical differences. They were fighting for their very living, as they perceived it. The winner got to control the resources and impose rules of unequal trade upon the one that lost the war. This same dynamic was then transferred to nations, and those nations became empires. Wars are fought over control of resources and trade.
The problem with war, from the perspective of the rulers of these cities, nations, or empires, is that it is very expensive. It's much more efficient to simply impose unequal rules of trade. Of course force of arms always stands behind those unequal trades, but plunder by trade doesn't cost nearly so much as plunder by raids.
DJ: What do you mean by plunder by trade?
Excerpted from Resistance Against Empire by Derrick Jensen, Theresa Noll. Copyright © 2010 Derrick Jensen. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Derrick Jensen is the author of The Culture of Make Believe, Endgame, How Shall I Live My Life?, and A Language Older than Words. He lives in Crescent City, California.
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