enclosures

A New Commodity Is Born: Breast Milk

It’s not everyday that we get to see great masses of people alter their attitudes as a cherished act of motherhood is converted into a lucrative market. That’s what is happening these days with breast milk, as recently reported by the New York Times. Biotech firms want to capitalize on the rich therapeutic potential of breast milk by turning it into high-tech medical products that can fight infections, improve blood clotting and deal with intestinal and infectious diseases. 

This keen commercial interest in acquiring breast milk – an intimate part of the human body associated with maternal love and nourishment – raises all sorts of troubling new questions.  Who will have privileged access to breast milk in the future – biotech firms backed by the deep pockets of venture capitalists, or premature babies who need the milk, especially from their own mothers?  Will the emerging big business of breast milk lead to the closing of “milk banks” that provide donated breast milk to hospitals and nursing mothers at cost (i.e., the costs of donor-screening and pasteurization)? 

The rise of a new market for breast milk brings to the fore the fundamental issue of inalienability – the idea that certain things are so valued that it is not ethically appropriate to exchange them for money in the marketplace. This is a topic that is near and dear to commoners, of course, who are constantly trying to prevent and reverse market enclosures that commodify everything from water and the atmosphere to the human genome and childhood.

Years ago, I learned a lot about inalienability from Margaret Jane Radin’s book Contested Commodities:  The Trouble with Trade in Sex, Children, Body Parts and Other Things (Harvard University Press, 1996).  She argues that liberal societies have a recurrent problem caused by a philosophical conundrum:  It values freedom and individual choice, but it also values the dignity of personhood.  So what happens when our “freedom of choice” in the marketplace runs over our integrity and dignity as human beings – such as having intimate aspects of our bodies converted into market commodities?

People in tech circles often talk about the “attention economy” with knowing nonchalance.  Instead of things being scarce, they note, the real shortage these days is people’s attention.  Hence the ferocious drive to capture people’s attention. 

This analysis is true as far as it goes.  What it fails to address is that the “attention economy” is not really an “economy.”  It is a predatory invasion of our consciousness. Sellers are using every possible technique to colonize our minds and emotions at the most elemental levels in a relentless attempt to prod us to buy, buy, buy.    

Author Matthew B. Crawford made an eloquent case for the “attentional commons” in an opinion piece, "The Cost of Paying Attention," in Sunday’s New York Times (March 8).  “What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common?" he asks.  "Perhaps, if we could envision an ‘attentional commons,’ then we could figure out how to protect it.”

Crawford recounts a series of all-to-familiar intrusions upon our attention:  ads on the little screen used to swipe credit cards at the grocery store…. ads for lipstick on the trays at airport security screening lines…. “endlessly recurring message from the Lincoln Financial Group” along the moving handrail on an airport escalator….the ubiquitous chatter of CNN and TV ads in the airport lounge. 

“The fields of vision that haven’t been claimed for commerce are getting fewer and narrower,” Crawford writes.  He concedes that you can put on headphones or play with your smartphone – but the point is that neither of these strategies prevent a shared social space from being destroyed. Without such spaces, we are deprived of the opportunity to develop certain types of attitudes and relationships.  Our inner imagination and ability to reflect atrophy.  Such subtle, inner virtues that pale in the face of cold, hard cash!

What does enclosure feel like from the inside, as a lived experience, as a community is forced to abandon its “old ways” and adopt the new worldview of Progress and Profit?  British author Jim Crace’s novel, Harvest, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, provides a beautiful, dark and tragic story of the first steps of the “modernization” of a preindustrial English village.

The story focuses on a hamlet that is suddenly upended when the kindly lord of the settlement, Master Kent, discovers that his benign feudal control of a remote patch of farmland and forest has been lost to his scheming, cold-hearted cousin, Edmund Jordan.  Jordan is a proto-capitalist who has a secret plan to evict everyone and turn their fields into pastures for sheep.  He plans to become rich producing wool for the flourishing export market.  But Jordan can’t simply announce his planned dispossession of land lest it provoke resistance.  He realizes that he must act with stealth and subterfuge to take possession of the land and eradicate the community, its values and its traditions.

The story is essentially a tale of what happens when a capitalist order seeks to supplant a stable and coherent community.  But this states the narrative too crudely because the book is a gorgeously written, richly imagined account of the village, without even a hint of the ideological.  Told through the eyes of a character who came to the village twelve years earlier, the story doesn’t once mention the words “enclosure,” “capital” or “Marx.”  (Indeed, the Wall Street Journal’s reviewer praises the book for “brilliantly suggest[ing] the loamy, lyric glories of rustic English language and life.”)

Harvest depicts the sensuous experiences of a village community wresting its food from nature, but with relative peace and happiness.  "Our great task each and every year is to defend ourselves against hunger and defeat with implements and tools. The clamour deafens us. But that is how we have to live our lives," the narrator tells us.  The book also shows how easily this world is shattered by a brutal outsider who uses fear and social manipulation to rip apart a community in order to install a new regime of efficiency, progress and personal gain.

The Enclosures of Appalachian Commons

The recent industrial disaster in West Virginia, which saw the leakage of vast quantities of toxic chemicals into the river and drinking water supplies, prompted Grant Mincy of East Tennessee to reflect on the enclosure of countless commons in the Appalachia region of the US.  His piece in Counterpunch, “Reclaiming the Commons in Appalachia,” caught my eye because it pointed to the extreme inequalities, suffering and dispossession that have occurred in Appalachia as corporate control has gotten more concentrated.  A sudden – the huge spill of chemicals into the river – then shines a bright spotlight on the situation.

Mincy notes how the “extractive resource industry” – chiefly coal companies – have used their property rights and political influence to enclose the commons of Appalachia:

The use of eminent domain and compulsory pooling has robbed communities of their cultural and natural heritage.  Capital is the authority of the Appalachian coalfields, and has created systemic poverty and mono economies.  Instead of prosperity in the commons, the mechanism of authority has spawned tragedy.

Property is theft in Appalachia. The current system is concerned with the well-being of the politically connected corporati instead of the common good – Appalachian communities. This system exists because legal privilege is granted to industry. The development of this socio-economic order is political, as opposed to free and participatory. The current authority in the coalfields, the corporate state, is illegitimate. It is far past time we transition to society free of it.

There are the official stories that we tell ourselves about constitutional democracy and citizen rights -- and then there are the ugly political realities of the struggle against unaccountable power.  Gary Ruskin, a veteran activist (most recently in the California voter initiative for GMO labeling), shines a bright light on the latter in a new report, Spooky Business:  Corporate Espionage Against Nonprofit Organizations (pdf file), just published by Essential Information

Ruskin’s report exposes a world about which we have only fragmentary, accidental knowledge.  But enough IS known to confirm that large corporations carry out a broad range of corporate espionage activities against citizen activists for exercising their constitutional rights (to petition their government for change and to publicly speak out on public policies).  

“The corporate capacity for espionage has skyrocketed in recent years,” writes Ruskin.  “Most major companies now have a chief corporate security officer tasked with assessing and mitigating ‘threats’ of all sorts – including from nonprofit organizations.  And there is now a surfeit of private investigations firms willing and able to conduct sophisticated spying operations against nonprofits.”  Many of these “security” personnel are former intelligence, military and law enforcement officers who once worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), US military, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Secret Service and local police departments. 

None of this should be entirely surprising.  The early labor movement in the US was often illegally attacked and infiltrated by Pinkerton thugs.  In 1965, General Motors notoriously hired private detectives to investigate Ralph Nader’s private life and try to dig up incriminating information about him.  Nader, then a 31-year-old unknown, had just published a book, Unsafe at Any Speed, which exposed the designed-in dangers of automobiles.  The revelation of GM’s tactics and its awareness of its cars’ defects unleashed a ferocious backlash, enough to make Nader a famous crusader and to spur enactment of a new federal agency to regulate auto safety.  More recently, police and corporate infiltration of the Occupy movement has occurred.  (David Graeber’s recent book, The Democracy Project, has some good accounts of this.  See also The Progressive magazine.)

While Ruskin concedes that his accounts represent only “a few snapshots, taken mostly at random arising from brilliant strokes of luck,” his report documents an alarming range of acts of corporate espionage or planned espionage.  Among the highly unethical and/or illegal acts committed:  surveillance, infiltration, manipulation and dirty tricks.

It happens all around the world, every day – corporate enclosures of shared, sustainably managed renewable resources.  Brutal abuses of the land, colossal disruptions of communities.  And yet investors and corporate management always cast themselves as the champions of progress, civilization, jobs and the public good – and respectable opinion somehow accepts the ecological insanity of the plans as necessary.  We know the rest of the story. 

These thoughts were provoked by a recent commentary about a massive proposed open-pit mine near Bristol Bay, Alaska.  The project is being pushed by a British-Canadian corporate alliance, the Pebble Partnership, which audaciously claims that its mining could power “green energy initiatives.”  The Pebble Partnership's website helpfully notes that “the difference between being a stone age culture and a post-stone age culture is metal,” implying that the Pebble Mine is just another step forward for civilization and away from the Stone Age. 

The truth is that under a best-case scenario, the mining of copper, gold and molybdenum near Bristol Bay will destroy up to 90 miles of streams and 4,800 acres of wetlands.  The mining operations will supposedly confine billions of tons of mine tailings within 700-foot tall dams.  But in a place where earthquakes are common and the land is wet and the wilderness pristine….well, we all know that “accidents will happen.”  If the mine is built, you can be sure that a BP-style disaster will eventually ruin the biggest spawning grounds for sockeye salmon in the world.

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has been doing pioneering work for many years in trying to protect the rights of communities against corporate enclosures, especially in its home state of Pennsylvania.  This work is impressive for trying to blend civil disobedience and law at the municipal level:  a bold, creative strategy to forge new legal standards to protect the environment and the rights of communities.

The executive director of CELDF, Thomas Alan Linzey, recently published a powerful piece about a landmark ruling by a Pennsylvania judge holding that corporations are not “persons” under the state constitution. The litigation revolved around a claim by Range Resources, a gas extraction corporation, that it has a constitutional right to privacy under the Pennsylvania Constitution.  The corporation had tried to prevent the public release of a sealed settlement agreement between it and a family in western Pennsylvania that said its water had been contaminated by fracking. 

But Judge Debbie O’Dell-Seneca of the Washington Court of Common Pleas denied the request, saying that “in the absence of state law, business entities are nothing.”  If corporations can claim independent rights, she held, then “the chattel would become the co-equal to its owners, the servant on par with its masters, the agent the peer of its principals, and the legal fabrication superior to the law that created and sustains it.”  It turns out that Range Resources and other corporations had paid out $750,000 to settle claims of water contamination caused by fracking.

Cloud Computing as Enclosure

As more and more computing moves off our PCs and into “the Cloud,” Internet users are gaining access to a wealth of new software-based services that can exploit vast computing capacity and memory storage.  That’s wonderful.  But what about our freedom to create and share things as we wish, free from corporate or government surveillance or over-reaching copyright enforcement?  The real danger of the Cloud is its potential to limit how we may create and share what we want, on our terms.

There are already signs that large corporations like Google, Facebook, Twitter and all the rest will quietly warp the design architecture of the Internet to serve their business interests first.  A terrific overview of the troubling issues raised by the Cloud can be found in the essay, “The Cloud:  Boundless Digital Potential or Enclosure 3.0,” by David Lametti, a law professor at McGill University, and published by the Virginia Journal of Law & Technology.  An earlier version is available at the SSRN website.   

Lametti states his thesis simply:  “I argue that the Cloud, unless monitored and possibly directed, has the potential to go beyond undermining copyright and the public domain – Enclosure 2.0 – and to go beyond weakening privacy. This round, which I call “Enclosure 3.0”, has the potential to disempower Internet users and conversely empower a very small group of gatekeepers. Put bluntly, it has the potential to relegate Internet users to the status of digital sheep.”

I’m pleased to report that the English edition of a new anthology of essays, The Wealth of the Commons:  A World Beyond Market and State, is now available!  I’ve been working on editing the book with my German colleague Silke Helfrich for nearly a year and a half, so it’s wonderfully satisfying to see the book in its final, printed form. 

Let me immodestly state:  Never before have so many different international voices about the commons been brought together in one volume.  The Wealth of the Commons consists of 73 essays by a diverse roster of international activists, academics and project leaders. It consists of descriptions of specific commons innovations, essays on the theory and economics of commons, accounts of different types of enclosures around the world, and much else.

There are accounts of fishing commons off the coast of Chile; fruit sharing from abandoned orchards in Germany; and an overview of subsistence forestry in Nepal.  There are many accounts of market enclosures, from dam-building in India to mining in South America to the international land grab now underway in Africa and Asia.  The book also features a series of essays on knowledge commons and more than a dozen essays focused on commons-friendly policy innovations.

The soft-bound, 442-page book is published by Levellers Press, a small, innovative publisher here in Massachusetts that is also a worker coop and itself ardently committed to the commons.  I love the fact that a book on the commons is being published by a publisher that truly honors the Levellers, one of the great movements of commoners in the seventeenth century.  The book can be bought from the Levellers website for US$22.50 plus shipping and handling.  More about the book can be found on its website, www.wealthofthecommons.org

The Texas Supreme Court has dramatically rolled back the scope of the public trust doctrine as it applies to Texas beaches in a 5-3 ruling by the all-Republican court. This means that the public’s right to enjoy shorefront on the Gulf of Mexico will be sharply curtailed in the years ahead -- a major victory for private property fundamentalists.  Judicial activism, anyone?

The court’s decision focused on the public's access rights to beaches when hurricanes or storms have eroded a public strip of beach.  Should the public be prohibited from using the "new beach" that might now be situated on privately owned land?  Or should there be a “rolling easement” that recognizes public access no matter how natural forces remake the actual shoreline? 

For decades, the Texas state public trust doctrine gave a rolling easement that assured public access to beaches.  That access right did not inhere in a particular strip of land, but in a general right of access.  Now, the court ruled, reversing decades of established law, if a storm washes away the public beach, “the land encumbered by the easement is lost to the public trust, along with the easement attached to that land.”  As reported by the Texas Observer, “the court dismissed the 180-year-old custom of public enjoyment of Texas beaches as ‘unsupported by historic jurisprudence’ and ‘a limitation on private property rights’.”

State attorney general Greg Abbott noted:  “With the stroke of a pen, a divided court has effectively eliminated the public's rights on the dry beach….The majority could only cite—nothing.  Not a single case, rule, precedent, principle, empirical study, scientific review, or anything else.”  Even the Galveston Chamber of Commerce joined the attorney general in seeking to uphold the historic understanding of the public trust doctrine.

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