Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Fencing the Commons

Before industrialization brought about capitalism and capitalism brought about privatization, society believed that the land was not something to be owned but something to be cherished and cared for. The earth was held in common and we viewed private ownership of land as a sin against God because this earth was his creation and we were mere stewards of it. Towns set aside small plots of land for the building of houses but the rest of the land, the tangible and intangible aspects of the environment, the "commons", were to be taken care of and enjoyed by the community as a whole.The commons created a collectivist community that not only grew food together and cared for livestock together but also brought the people together to create strong community bonds based on interdependence and cooperation. Towns were self-sustainable and since the townspeople depended on each other and the land to survive, their existence depended upon their connection to one another and their understanding of the health and needs of the earth that sustained them. Sharing land in common built strong families and strong communities.

In the early 19th century American farming communities were confronted with a new alternative, factories. In the spirit of the Industrial Revolution Henry Ford dreamt of an unbroken line of human laborers acting as cogs in a machine to manufacture goods in the most efficient and profitable manner possible. Ford broke the craft of building products into constituent parts and highly skilled mechanics who used to take pride in their creations found themselves turned into mere assemblers, reduced to performing a limited set of tasks. Instead of craftsman people were delegated the task of tightening a bolt or fastening a single rivet while being timed with stopwatches, thousands of times everyday.
By 1910, these once-independent craftsmen refused to accept what they experienced as the mind-numbing and degrading division of their labor and began to walk off the job. They registered their revulsion at this systematic destruction of their knowledge and skill and walked off the job in droves, calling Henry Ford a slave driver. It was apparent that the Ford Motor Co. had reached the point of owning a great factory without having enough workers to keep it running. For the year 1913 alone, the employee turnover rate reached 380 percent. So great was labor’s distaste for the new machine system that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963 of them.

What was Henry Ford to do? All these new factories and no one willing to sell their freedom and alienate themselves from their families and land. What do you do when people refuse to sell the most precious and intimate parts of themselves, their very identity, refuse to be purchased like an object and used like a machine? The answer was simple, privatize the commons and take away their livelihood. Industrialization was the means and capitalism the ends. Sell off the public lands and create property taxes, making it impossible for communities to self-sustain.
An industrial empire blossomed, one that was bent on the conquest of the earth's goods. Ford's terrific effort to manufacture wealth prevailed and brought upon society a deadly conflict, one that deprived it of life itself. The conflict is a war between technology and the ordinary human functions of living. Human inventions turned humans into inanimate objects creating a moral and spiritual suicide. Without the commons people had no choice, they were forced to sell their dignity and their humanity in order to care for their families. Families and communities were torn asunder. Fathers went off to the factorizes working 12 hour days, no longer able to parent their own children. Children left the home in search for work elsewhere. Traditional values such as cooperation gave way to competition as people were forced to compete for jobs that they never wanted.

Our culture and politics are intrinsically tied to our economic system and an economic system that turns people into objects that can be replaced, separates and pits people against one another, treats the earth and her people as nothing more than a means to make a profit. Capitalism works like a dog chasing its own tail, one can never have enough money or objects in their lives - in other words insatiable desire is programmed directly into Capitalism. Possibly the biggest problem created by Capitalism, however, is that in order for money to be made a product must be sold to someone willing to buy it. Mass production compounds this problem by producing vast quantities of a given product, requiring vast numbers of buyers. In order to solve these problems the upper crust of America, Henry Ford and his compatriots, decided that they needed to make the populace to be dissatisfied with their lives and to convince them that satisfaction could only be found by purchasing the very same products they were working so hard to create. In a capitalistic society contentment with one's life and circumstance, formerly a virtue, become a dirty word. Capitalism reveres the pursuit of happiness while vilifying anyone who dares to be happy with their life the way it is. The lives and the communities of the agrarians were forever changed, their relationships with the land and with one another lost to the sands of time, and all because the suck of the others is so unreservedly gluttonous.