A common treasury for all

A common treasury for all

Editor’s Note: This essay is the last in a series of three. Part one explored the differences between the money code of value and the life code of value. Part two chronicled the author’s experience of the money code of value while working in a turkey breeding facility.

Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?

Gerrard Winstanley

The 1640s were a period of great political and economic instability in England. The disruption caused by the civil war was exacerbated by a series of disastrous harvests from 1647 to 1650. It was also a time of intellectual unrest. The execution of King Charles I in January 1649 had seemed to signal the beginning of a new era in history, in which all of the old certainties had been turned on their heads, and a total reshaping of society seemed a real possibility. In the midst of this turmoil, a small collection of disenfranchised peasants known as the Diggers, led by the pamphleteer Gerrard Winstanley, began to lay claim to the common lands in various parts of England to till and plant them in their belief that the earth had been created “as a common treasury for all.”

The Diggers were soon dispersed by raids and legal action, but their experiment, and the writing of Gerrard Winstanley, remain as one of the most coherent expressions of a tradition of radical thinking that has its roots in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and is directly relevant to anti-capitalist movements today. Winstanley and his followers were reacting to a process of enclosure of common lands that had begun in earnest over a century before. Land that had been accessible for all members of the community for grazing their livestock began, under the Tudors, to be appropriated by the nobility who wished to make a profit from the increased demand for wool by the growing textile industry. An advantage of enclosure for the lords was that a wage-earner deprived of his common rights would be less self-sufficient and therefore more dependent on his employer. In addition to the enclosure of common pasture lands, lords often sought to deprive peasants of land in more aggressive ways: by not renewing leases, seizing land upon death, and when all else failed, simply evicting them by force.

By the eighteenth century, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, enclosure had become standard parliamentary policy. The majority of members of Parliament were landowners, and from 1700 to 1845 more than 4,000 acts authorizing the lords to divide the commons, consolidate lands, and enclose them were enacted by Parliament. Traditions of land use and co-operation that in many cases stretched back to the Iron Age were thereby destroyed and the outcome of the process was that vast properties of from 100,000 to 400,000 hectares, together totaling one-third of the entire country, came into the hands of about 2,000 landlords, while the majority of English peasants were forced to migrate to the cities to become industrial day-labourers or emigrate.

It is obvious to anyone with a passing familiarity with history that there is nothing new about the pathology of greed. The main difference in our time is simply the scale and reach of the global financial system. John McMurtry’s book The Cancer Stage of Capitalism, originally published in 1999, and released in an expanded second edition in 2013, provides a detailed analysis of the system of enclosure practiced by the lords of our day and age, as well as the complicity of the modern state in spreading it.

McMurtry makes a distinction between “the social state” which fulfills a mandate to protect and enable the life-functions on which its citizens depend for their well-being, and the “corporate state” which betrays this mandate and its citizens by reducing or destroying the life-functions on which its citizens depend in the interests of private capital. It is important to recognize that McMurtry is not a Marxist. According to his critique, neo-Marxist thinking is an inadequate ground for life value accounting. His criticism of neo-classical economic policy is not a question of advocating for the political left or right, but simply of right and wrong.

His description of this late stage of capitalism as cancer is more literal than metaphoric. Much like the 2003 documentary The Corporation set out to demonstrate that corporations, granted the rights of personhood in an 1886 United State Supreme Court ruling, systematically behave in ways that fit the diagnostic definition of antisocial personality disorder, McMurtry systematically enumerates the ways in which the global financial system fits the diagnosis of cancer.

He quotes Chicago economist Milton Friedman who has said, “The one and only responsibility of business is to make as much money for stockholders as possible.” The only logical outcome here, McMurtry explains, is that “grounded in an engineering model of perfectly divisible inputs and outputs, life itself is in principle ruled out…. What money wants is all that exists.” An exponentially multiplying and unregulated demand, that serves no life function, is by definition cancerous, and as it consumes the life-ground society requires for healthy functioning, “the rising majority become ever more insecure, stressed, dispossessed and malnourished beneath GDP and market measures.”

A key feature of the cancer diagnosis is that the immune system of the host organism doesn’t recognize the invasive growth as a threat. Instead it relinquishes more and more health in the face of the parasitic growth. In McMurtry’s critique—and Chris Hedges made the same argument in his 2010 book Death of the Liberal Class—the very institutions that are tasked with guarding the life-ground of society, with naming and resisting the disease—government, media, universities, the medical community—become complicit in feeding its growth. McMurtry cites a laundry list of policy developments since the Reagan-Thatcher era that have fed the disease at the expense of the societal “immune system”:

Ruin of government programmes, workers’ jobs and small business with the cranking up of interest rates to over 20 percent prime in the 1980s … the race to the bottom of wages, benefits and social legislation by global competition with no life-standards… cannibalist interest rates and debt charges… ‘market reforms’, trade-treaty edicts prohibiting legislation reducing ‘profit opportunities’, wars on resource rich regions with social control… supranational treaties in vast all-or-nothing tranches of ‘investor’ rights… according all rights only to transnational corporations… private bank displacement of sovereign control over currency and credit.

There is a treatment for rampant market capitalism, according to McMurtry, but it amounts to a “Copernican revolution of Economics”—that is, a fundamental shift in perspective away from the money code of value and towards a grounding concept currently missing from economic theory that will “recover step by step the missing life-ground of values and the ultimate meaning of how we are to live.” The life ground is defined, simply enough, as “all that is required to take the next breath; axiologically, all the life support systems required for human life to reproduce or develop.”

More specifically, this new approach to economic theory is built on four principles: the life-ground; life value (whatever enables life capacities); life capital (means of life that can produce more means of life); and the civil commons (any social construct that enables universal access of community members to life goods).

The principle of the “civil commons” is particularly important as the social immune system we need to reclaim. It consists of those developments that McMurtry considers as defining features of civilization itself, and the birthright of all humanity that is at risk of being consumed by the march of cancerous capital. The “civil commons” is not an idealistic or utopian vision of society, but has already proven more robust in its ability to protect and provide the life-goods of society than any exclusively “for-profit” system. The “civil commons” includes clean air, life-protective laws, universal health plans, the world wide web, common sewers, parks of every size and description, open science, the local food movement, community heritage groups, pollution controls, streetscapes and sidewalks, old-age pensions, universal education, fair elections, minimum wage, unemployment insurance, clean water, community fish habitats, and public broadcasting, along with much else that we value, all of which must be protected from “corporate partnerships” which McMurtry exposes as nothing more than opportunities for private capital to steal public wealth.

It is not that there is no role for a market economy to play in society. In his earlier book, Unequal Freedoms: The Global Market as an Ethical System, McMurtry argues that the market is important to society as “a negotiating site through which independent, individual producers and buyers can exercise their free choices and wills to each other’s mutual advantage in an equal-opportunity framework of supply and demand.” The market does what it does best according to this perspective, but it is constrained to serve the needs of human society and the biosphere, not the other way around.

In Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities the aged Kublai Khan senses that his empire is diseased, about to crumble beneath the weight of corruption and bureaucracy, and he feels powerless to do anything about it. He spends his evenings listening to the tales of travel told by the young Venetian trader Marco Polo, who offers the emperor glimpses of an empire he will not otherwise experience.

Towards the end of the book, the Great Khan grows melancholy:

“It is all useless, if the last landing place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.”

And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

In thousands of ways large and small the Diggers of our time are engaged in the project of “bottom-up globalization.” Individuals and communities on the grassroots level are digging in, both literally and metaphorically, to reclaim the civil commons in their home places and to slow the spread of cancerous capital by participating in alternative local economies: lending, bartering, sharing, gifting, and adding real value to the lives of those around them, planting the seeds of a more hopeful future.