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Kill the Landlord

by ELLIOT SPERBER

Some expressions are so familiar, so deeply entwined in our history that, although they are thoroughly racist, even homicidal, they fail to elicit much surprise or shock. Familiar with their presence, we become inured to their depravity. And, because they fail to surprise us, they oftentimes fail to offend us as well. While the degree to which they influence us is subject to dispute, few will doubt that our culture is stitched together by just such threads. Maintaining an infamous position among these is the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

Derived from statements delivered by the Civil War hero Philip Sheridan, the notion that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” contributed to not only the justification of the conquest of the continent; it also abetted that which is indistinct from the conquest, the dehumanization and genocide of Native Americans. What deserves to be considered alongside this fact is that, intimately related to Sheridan’s phrase is the somewhat more subtle, though no less genocidal, civilizational motto of the founder of the Carlise Indian Industrial School: “kill the Indian, save the man.” To be sure, as Ward Churchill, among others, apprises us, the Carlisle School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was designed to assimilate (by force, and with the express intent of eradicating the cultures of) the indigenous people of North America.

The association and affinity of these two phrases is not subject to contention. The founder of the Carlisle School, Richard Henry Pratt, himself admitted as much. In 1892, in his Official Report of the Annual Conference of Charities and Correction, after referencing the statement attributed to Sheridan that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” Pratt added: “I agree with the sentiment.” However, he went on to explain, this agenda can be pursued in a far more effective and profitable manner than Sheridan’s. One can “kill the Indian,” Pratt continued, and still “save the man.”

In light of this, it may come as a surprise to note that, in his time, Pratt was regarded as something of a progressive. Among certain crowds, his position would even be regarded as progressive today (which, obviously, doesn’t speak well of today’s general social atmosphere). For, in spite of his racism, mingled in with his white supremacism, lurked the fundamentally universalist (even egalitarian) recognition that, when born, each person is, as he put it, “a blank, like the rest of us.” That is, contrary to prevalent conceptualizations, Pratt did not maintain that people from different cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and “races” possessed some distinct essence. Rather, Pratt recognized that, though not exclusively, people are largely products of their environments and cultures. As he put it, “Transfer the infant white to the savage surroundings, he will grow to possess a savage language, superstition, and habit. Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit. These results have been established over and over again beyond all question.”

Needless to say, Pratt’s “open-mindedness” is very much restricted. Not only were Pratt’s characterizations of indigenous people (as savages), and of mainstream US culture (as civilization, and superior) unambiguously racist. The violent manner by which students were forcibly removed from their families (a process hardly distinct from kidnapping) evinced a deep lack of respect for his students’ humanity. This should not come as much of a surprise since, according to Pratt, the humanity of indigenous people was not so much present as merely potential – a potential to be developed by force. For let’s not forget, Pratt’s intention was to destroy his students’ languages and cultures. His students, and all Native Americans in his opinion, were to be transformed – or deformed, rather – into the “blanks” referred to above. Once blanked out (as cells in the cloning process are flushed of their genetic material), new information – imperialistic US culture – was to be inserted, replacing his students with a type of cultural clone. It is from this perspective that we should read Article 2, section (e), of the Genocide Convention. According to this, the crime of genocide is defined as “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group,” “with intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, or religious group.” And, as the legal scholar Kurt Mundorff argues in the Harvard International Law Journal, it is only by ahistorical circumlocution and dissimulation that the actions of Pratt, and others, can not be recognized as genocide.

Along with outright conquest and murder, the forced removal of indigenous people to reservations, and the removal of children to boarding schools like Carlisle (schools designed to delete a culture, to “kill the Indian, save the man”) were part of a sustained effort that, among other harms, reduced formerly economically independent peoples to conditions of utter dependence. As such, there is a heinous irony in the fact that, as Pratt put it, the Carlisle School (and all of the boarding schools participating in these policies) strove to teach its students how to live “by the sweat of his brow.” For Native American people already knew very well how to live “by the sweat” of their brow. Before their territory was appropriated (by way of deceptive treaties and fraud as much as by outright force), and before the resources they, for the most part, lived in respectful interdependence with were – like the bison – negligently, recklessly, and intentionally destroyed, First Nations people lived “by the sweat” of their brows very well. Pratt must have known this.

As a career soldier who served as an officer for eight years on the Great Plains, and fought in several campaigns in the so-called Indian Wars, Pratt may be said to have contributed directly as well as indirectly to the destruction of Native Americans’ independence. As such, it seems tremendously unlikely that he was unaware that indigenous societies very much knew how to live, and did live, by “the sweat” of their brows. Beyond this, it takes an astounding degree of hypocrisy for Pratt to state that US culture (which is inextricable from the exploitation of slave and “free” labor alike – the sweat of others’ brows) could meaningfully instruct a formerly independent people to live by “the sweat” of their own brow. This hypocrisy is only amplified by the fact that the abject poverty and dependence indigenous people were reduced to by the late 19th century was the direct result of the bloody colonization of the US. Insofar as hypo-critical literally means sub-critical, however, it is very likely that Pratt was not even aware of this twisted irony.

Irrespective of whether or not Pratt was able to recognize this irony, or whether he was aware of the degree of harm he caused, it ought to be remarked that, as the English philosopher Francis Bacon observed in his essay Of Usury, it is the command “in sudore vultus tui comedes panem tuum; not, in sudore vultus alieni [“in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread—not in the sweat of another’s face]” that is “the first law.”

That is, from the biblical exhortation delivered to Adam that “in the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread” (that one must derive one’s bread from one’s own labor), Bacon infers a deeper truth: that, beyond this, one should not eat, or profit, from the toil of another. And while living off the sweat or toil of others is a clear violation of this “first law,” this is precisely the law that both undergirds the US economy historically, and continues to subtend profit-making in general.

No person (or social role, rather) exemplifies this eating in the “sweat of another’s face” as unambiguously as the institution, or arrangement, of the Landlord – the rentier, in general, who simply sits back and lives off of the rents, “the sweat” of others’ labor. Some, no doubt, will contend that because the Landlord provides a much needed service (housing, among other things), the Landlord is rightfully entitled to collect this sweat. It takes little scrutiny, though, to see that this claim is hardly more than an unsupported assertion. For what is the service that the Landlord provides? When it comes to housing, the Landlord merely pays other people, plumbers, for instance, to provide services – a payment, by the way, that is always less than the amount of rent the Landlord obtains. Were this not the case, the Landlord would suffer a loss, and would have no incentive to maintain the relation at all. In other words, if the “duties” of the Landlord outweighed the Landlord’s “rights,” if the Landlord derived no profit, it would be in his or her interest to simply surrender the property, or to evict everyone. The landlord, however, very rarely does this. And this is so because, supported by the police, the courts, and other apparatuses of the state, the landlord is always deriving a profit from this business relationship. That is, the Landlord is always eating from the “sweat” of his or her tenants – in violation of what Bacon referred to as “the first law.”

Another argument that people may raise in favor of the Landlord is that, because the Landlord owns the land, the Landlord has a right to collect rent, or sweat, from his or her tenants. Aside from the circularity of this reasoning, however, one should ask how this landlord came into possession of this property in the first place. One person, no doubt, purchased land from another. But how did a piece of land become a piece of property? No one built land. As George Orwell reminds us, the original owners “simply seized it [the land] by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to supply them with title-deeds.” And it hardly takes an expert in the intricacies of US History to see that, in the context of the United States (though not only in the United States), all of the land now owned as property was taken by just such force from the continent’s indigenous people. As such, property owners do not provide a service so much as profit from a harm. Or, rather, they profit from two harms: the harm of the seizure of the land, and the harm of the ongoing consumption of their tenants’ “sweat.” Those who regard the nullification of title to excessive real property as a harm simply confuse a harm for a harm’s correction.

This argument, however, should not be construed to mean that people should not have the right to be secure in their homes. As George Orwell phrased it in his As I See It column of August 18, 1944, “It is desirable that people should own their own dwelling houses, and it is probably desirable that a farmer should own as much land as he [sic] can actually farm. But the ground-landlord in a town area has no function and no excuse for existence. He is merely a person who has found out a way of milking the public while giving nothing in return. He causes rents to be higher, he makes town planning more difficult, and he excludes children from green spaces: that is literally all that he does, except to draw his in-come.”

As more and more people spend ever larger portions of their incomes on rent, and as more and more homes are being foreclosed upon and acquired by hedge funds and banks (which now comprise society’s largest class of landlords), and as society continues to polarize into the extremes of rich and poor, it may be time to consider adopting Bacon’s “first law.” Insofar as this relates to property ownership, by nationalizing, for instance, and then internationalizing real property, land and the resources derived therefrom can be shared among the people of the world – as opposed to being hoarded by the few, as they are today.

Among its other benefits, the elimination of Landlordism (which is nothing short of the legalization of Warlordism) would alleviate up to half, and often more, of people’s financial burdens; in so doing, this would free people from unnecessary work – an unburdening that would allow for not only a resurgence of community, but a democratization of society. Additionally, the elimination of excessive work would result in the lessening of the pollution that such work produces – leading to a far healthier environment. That is, in addition to ameliorating social harms, the elimination of Landlordism could also contribute to the correction of climate change.

In light of people’s tendency to resort to violence, it must be stressed that the Landlord, as a human being, is not exclusively responsible for the harms reproduced by contemporary socio-economic relations. Though the Landlord profits from exploitation, insofar as this particular political-economic system reproduces myriad social, ecological, and other harms, it is this system that needs to be changed – and such a change is negated to the extent that it involves harm to any person, including the Landlord. Rather than harming the Landlord, the elimination of Landlordism entails simply the vaporization of the excessive advantages the Landlord enjoys, and the concomitant restitution of the land s/he hoards to the community. In other words, a necessary though not necessarily sufficient pre-condition for advancing toward an actually just, actually democratic, actually egalitarian political-economic system requires, among other steps, that we strip the Landlord of the right to gross excess – that we Kill the Landlord, and Save the Man.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to hygiecracy.blogspot.com He lives in New York City, and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com, and on twitter @elliot_sperber

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com and on twitter @elliot_sperber

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