Privatization: National Descent into Hell

One does not have to be a Marxist to say that property in our times, i.e., in a system of modern capitalism, is a curse on human intelligence and the endeavor to lead a meaningful life when it has been set against the concept, practice, and reality of the PUBLIC realm as such, whether the moral obligation of government to provide for the general welfare or, as immediately before us now, the nation’s public lands, reserved as the heritage for all the people symbolizing freedom and common purpose, no longer capitalism trumping the principle of democracy, exploitation trumping the natural wealth of present and future generations, raw greed trumping the sense and sensibility of a living culture fulfilled through social cooperation and altruism. That the US has already fallen well below the standard of democracy, conservation, altruism helps explain the systemic pickle America is in, when among its most precious possessions, the LAND itself, is subject to the venomous thirst of a depredatory political culture consonant with the existence of massive wealth differentials and the ideological enshrinement of wealth as self-justifying, protected by while remaining above the law. In fact, what LAW, when society’s unifying act is ownership conferring absolute rights of usage and, as wealth increases, shaping institutions and laws alike, with ruling groups forming the chief beneficiaries of this privatized structure which is heavily dependent on human separation and indifference to the needs of community. In short, America 2016, a continuity of societal process in its present form since at least the latter 19th century, exemplified by the plebeian fascism of armed insurrectionary ranchers in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as mere shock troops for the more basic corporate fascist takeover of America requiring symbols to justify and legitimate what, under the heading of antigovernment protest, is in reality the seizure of national wealth, the little guys cut in for the crumbs, by the militarized oligarchy of financial-industrial capitalism.

Item: today (1-12) we read in the NYT that yesterday, in Princeton, Oregon, armed occupiers of the refuge, appropriately calling themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom (using national symbols to advantage while transvaluing their meaning into the opposite—even the Orwellian world turned upside down), “have escalated their defiance of the federal government … using bare hands and a Wildcat excavator stolen from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to rip apart a barbed wire fence erected by the government at a far end of the vast refuge.” The rape of the environment is an ongoing fact of life in America, USF&WS hardly an adequate protector (same old story of US regulatory agencies in the hands of the interests which are to be regulated, dating back to at least the ICC and railroads of an earlier time), except that here issues are, in microcosm, so dramatically drawn even the agency is driven to protest. This, with Burns triggering the takeover of federal lands, while only a blip on the historical-ideological radar screen, is indicative of the fascistization now underway of the American polity, a wider context, even with respect to public lands, necessary for such insurrection to be possible. Yet daily in all ways the private encroachment of the public goes on, as in harnessing imperialism to such hegemonic purposes as global market and financial domination, the American military the ragtag propertied forces of Ammon Bundy writ large, literally, property on the march, privatization at home matching control of the internal economies of other nations abroad, a fetishism of capitalistic absolutism, with B-52s, regular and paramilitary forces, the CIA, and, briefcases in hand, the IMF and World Bank, the enlarged functional equivalent of the Wildcat excavator.

Complicating the process of government as the representation of the people’s interests is that with rare exceptions, chiefly, in the New Deal, where public service was somehow extricated, as in CCC and WPA, from the swamp of Corporate Servitude, the history of regulation in America has been a betrayal of the people and the philosophy of democracy. So, even before this, with the public lands; but now, blatantly emblazoned, along with such ideological signs as in carrying weapons openly, as advertisement of things to come—dismantlement of the social safety net, for starters, an end to protective legislation in the workplace, abolition of progressive taxation, grab-as-grab can extraction of natural resources, further growth of the military budget, steps in the direction, all in all, toward full-blown totalitarianism, Ammon’s ranchers prototypical shock troops, and the legions of recruits drawn from small business, disillusioned labor, and the white collar sector of insurance agents and other examples of Babbittry standing shoulder to shoulder with them nationwide, as so much window dressing for the large-scale skullduggery normalizing the pattern of wealth and power systemically rooted in a private-rights economy and society. Grazing rights are on a continuum with Individualism run amuck, an ideological springboard to unrestrained capitalist development in increasingly fewer hands.

But while our attention is on Burns and east-central Oregon, we see a parallel process at work far more damaging to the public realm, precisely because appropriating the mantle of legality, yes, privatization via legislative action rather than armed insurrection, the latter an energizing tool which also lends respectability to the former. (A Far-Rightist projection makes the Right itself look Centrist, the usefulness of shock troops to ongoing privatization.) I am referring to Jack Healy and Kirk Johnson’s NYT article, “The Larger, but Quieter Than Bundy, Push to Take Over Federal Land,” January 11, which describes, in this area, what is going on promiscuously everywhere in the nation’s law-making, including this week, what appears to be the Supreme Court’s serious crippling of public-sector unions: a contagion of feeling and doctrine aimed at bringing America to its knees with respect to human rights, equality, and the moral-political obligation of government and society to their full realization and preservation. Healy-Johnson begin: “Ken Ivory, a Republican state representative from Utah, has been roaming the West with an alluring pitch to cattle ranchers, farmers and conservatives upset with how Washington controls the wide-open public spaces out here: This land is your land, he says, and not the federal government’s.” Aside from negating the whole thrust of Pete Seeger’s magnificent anthem in celebration of the commonweal, a polity of justice, now caricatured so as to be the basis for its destruction, we see in Ivory an advanced agent of plutocracy providing the nuts-and-bolts actions, one of many such persons, for that destruction: “Mr. Ivory, a business lawyer from suburban Salt Lake City, does not fit the profile of a sun-scorched sagebrush rebel. But he is part of a growing Republican-led movement pushing the federal government to hand over to the states millions of acres of Western public lands—as well as their rich stores of coal, timber and grazing grass.”

Selfless modern-day Minute Men, not hardly unless you give the Koch Brothers fife and drum: “’It’s like having your hands on the lever of a modern-day Louisiana Purchase,’” said Mr. Ivory, who founded the American Lands Council [always the names, in Goebbels’-style propaganda, seem so innocent and harmless] and until recently was its president. The Utah-based group is funded mostly by donations from county governments [presumably still closer to appeals for privatization], but has received support from Americans for Prosperity [another beauty!], the group back by the billionaire Koch brothers.’” They continue: The idea of “radically reshap[ing] the West” fits well with Bundy’s occupation effort, and “has grown amid a dust storm of rural anger” at Obama’s supposed [my interpretation, not theirs] “efforts to tighten regulations on fracking, air quality, small streams and other environmental issues” accounting for the anger. Here Rightist Centrism merely drives the Far Right to further extremes, a pretext using Obama to pull out all stops. “In the past few years,” the reporters note, “lawmakers across the West have offered up dozens of bills and resolutions seeking to take over the federal lands…. Some of the legislation has been aimed at Congress, to urge it to radically revise the laws that have shaped 550,000 square miles of national forests and terrain … stretching from the Great Plains to the Pacific.” The Bureau of Land Management, reading some of the statements in Congress, would seem to be a branch of the Soviet Politburo—and even Ted Cruz had jumped in early (July 2014) with a proposal “preventing the federal government from owning more than half of any state’s land.”

As the reporters point out, details are meager on how to execute the provisions of privatization, the important point being first to knock out the federal government, the mission statement of the American Lands Council strategy “for securing local control of public land in the West” thus involving “four tenets: education, negotiation, legislation and litigation.” When fascism comes to America (if it has not already) it may involve, not armed insurrection, but the lawyerly stealth of vested interests via the utter transmogrification of constitution, law, ethics, the whole nine yards of inverting principles of democracy and social justice. Not to worry: Phil Lyman, a San Juan County, Utah commissioner “received a 10-day jail sentence after he led a protest ride on all-terrain vehicles through a federal area that had been closed to motorized use,” showing the government is on the people’s side, handing out stiff sentences for breaking the law. Bosh. The law is contemptuously broken with occasional slaps on the wrist, with larger numbers of Americans echoing Lyman’s own statement: “’It seems to be getting worse, and the federal agencies, they are expanding. Their restraints are being overstepped. It’s not the way this country was set up. It’s not the founders’ design.’” No siree, America’s greatness more and more has come to mean, property over all else, government be damned, nature just one more hostage to the appetitive spirit.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at