I recently spoke at a conference, “Property and Inequality in the 21st Century,” hosted by The Common Core of European Private Law, an annual gathering of legal scholars, mostly from Europe. They had asked me how the commons might be a force for reducing inequality. Below are my remarks, “The Commons as a Tool for Sharing the Wealth.” The conference was held at the University of Göteborg, Sweden, on June 12-13, 2015.
Thank you for inviting me to speak today about the relationship between property law and inequality – a topic that receives far too little attention. This should not be surprising. Now that free-market ideology has become the default worldview and political consensus around the world, private property is seen as synonymous with freedom, economic growth and human progress.
Oh yes, there is this nasty side issue known as inequality. Malcontents like the Occupy movement and renegade economists like Thomas Pikketty have brought this problem to the fore after years of neglect. Their success has been quite an achievement because for years the very existence of inequality has been portrayed as an accident, an aberration, a mysterious and shadowy guest at the grand banquet of human progress.
I wish to argue that hunger, poverty, inadequate education and medical care, and assaults on human dignity and human rights, are not bugs in the system. They are features. Indeed, market ideologues often argue that such deprivations are a necessary incentive to human enterprise and economic growth; poverty is supposedly needed to spur people to escape through the work ethic and entrepreneurialism.
Property rights lie at the heart of this dynamic because they are a vital tool for defining and patrolling the boundaries of private wealth, and for justifying the inevitably unequal outcomes. So it’s important that we focus on the role of property rights in producing social inequality – without ignoring the many other forces, including social practice, culture and politics, that also play important roles.
I’d like to focus on the obsession in modern industrial societies to propertize everything, including life itself, and to use law as a tool to impose a social order of markets and private property as expansively as possible. This cultural reflex is known as the enclosure of the commons. The term describes how property owners assert sweeping rights – often with the active complicity of governments – as a way to appropriate collectively owned resources for private gain.
We can see this dynamic in the international land grab now underway, the incessant attempts to privatize groundwater and municipal water systems, the grotesque expansion of copyright and patent law to privatize scientific knowledge and cultural works, and the use of the Earth’s atmosphere as a free waste dump by polluters. The mania for privatizing the world has reached such an extreme stage that even intangible wealth as public spaces, microorganisms, genetically created mammals, artificially created nanomatter and human consciousness itself are claimed as objects of private property rights.