Wealth comes from what you belong to, not what belongs to you.

The Hawaiian Kingdom in the 1830s, fifty years after first contact with Europeans:

The old konohiki system, under which a chief appointed an agent or steward to manage his lands and collect his taxes, was replaced by a system under which each owner determined for himself the best use to which his land might be put, being free to cultivate, lease, or sell at will… For the foreigners, certainly, it was the beginning of a new era; but for the Hawaiian commoners it was the beginning of the end. In their first exercise of free choice they chose to uproot themselves. They were liberated at last from the burdensome tax payments to the chiefs that had kept them tied to the land, and most of them found more interesting things to do than grow taro, which required a long time and a lot of hard work. The idea of the kuleana, the small freehold lot cultivated as an independent family farm, never took hold. In the old days the taro patch and the family had flourished together; a single word, ohana, served to describe both a cluster of taro roots and a family group. The Great Mahele, the great division, cut the connection, because once the commoner was free to buy land he was also free to sell it, and that was a freedom he understood. So the great division became the great dispossession. By the end of the nineteenth century white men owned four acres of land for every one owned by a native, and this included chiefs’ lands. The commoners had had their moment, and it had passed by. They were left with not much more than a terrible sense of deprivation.[1]

ed398-dispossession

When you read this description of Hawaii long ago, you might reflect with pity on what happened to the poor natives, those innocent indigenous people who could not have known what kind of damage the newcomers would inflict on their ancient way of life. There is a tendency to think of a clear dichotomy between the ways of the white man and the ways of the dark-skinned hunter-gatherers whose culture was destined to be replaced by that of the former. However, pre-contact Hawaii was far from being the classic hunter-gatherer culture described in anthropology textbooks. The land was so fertile that it led to the growth of an agrarian feudal culture that would have been perfectly understood by any European of the 15th century. In fact, what happened in Hawaii in the 19th century was similar to the termination of the English commons, known as the Enclosures, which began in the 17th century and forced English commoners off rural lands and into the factories of the industrial age, or onto ships that took them to the New World to work as indentured servants—a move which turned them into accessories in the dispossession of the native inhabitants there.[2] So if Europeans and North Americans pity what happened to Hawaiian peasants in the 19th century, they must also pity their ancestors and the loss of their indigenous heritage. In fact, they must also pity themselves in the present age because attempts in the 20th century to regain the commons (known by demonized term “socialism”) have also been reversed with devastating effects. Every generation we get sold and bought again and relearn the same painful lesson. Anthropologist David Harvey explained the modern dispossession in a recent interview:

The main argument about accumulation by dispossession rests on the idea that when people run out of the capacity to make things or provide services, then they set up a system which extracts wealth from other people, and that extraction then becomes the center of their activities. And one of the ways in which that extraction can occur is by creating new commodity markets where there were none before. For example, when I was younger, higher education in Europe was essentially a public good. Increasingly, it has become a private activity. Health service is another. So many of these areas which you would consider not to be commodities in the ordinary sense become commodities. Housing for the lower income populations was often seen as a social obligation, but now increasingly it has to be provided through the market… So you impose a market logic on areas in which you really shouldn’t.

It’s all about having entrepreneurialism in oneself, and then what happens is that people start to speculate on what they can get out of somebody else. You have some assets that I want and I lend you some money, and then I suddenly say, “I want all my money back tomorrow.” You can’t pay it, and I say “OK, give me your assets.” So I take away your land. I take away your house… a large percentage of the British population was housed in social housing [before the 1980s]. In some cities it was as high as 80 percent and she [Margaret Thatcher] basically privatized it, and she turned it over to people, and said, “OK, you can become the private owner of this if you want.” So you become a private owner. Now poor people often get into difficulty. They get into debt. They can’t pay their debts, and so somebody comes along and says, “Well, you’ve got a very nice [former] social housing house there. Why don’t you trade it to me? So after a bit, suddenly all of that social housing where poor people were living becomes a sort of a living space for the very ultra-rich, and you get gentrification. You get all those kinds of things driving out populations from neighborhoods, and pushing up prices. So again, one of the ways in which you start to extract value from people is by speculating in land values and speculating in housing, and then people have to pay more and more for their housing, and more and more for their health care, more and more for the education of the children, more and more for the services that they get. So in the end, people are just paying and paying and paying.

[There is also] depletion of the global environmental commons: land, air, water and proliferating habitat degradation that precludes anything but capital intensive modes of agricultural production. These have likewise resulted from the wholesale commodification of nature in all its forms.

When I was a kid, water in Britain was provided as a public good, and then, of course, it got privatized, and so the private companies come in and you start to pay water charges and water pricing… They privatize transportation… right now in Britain… the Labour Party says we’re going to take all of that back into public ownership because this privatization is totally insane and has insane consequences, and it’s not working. And I think the majority the population now agrees with that. We’re always told the private sector is far more efficient than the state sector, but actually a lot of evidence is the other way around.

Financialization takes the debt economy and starts to import it. If wages start to be curbed, then people need money, so they have credit cards… then the credit card companies start to put charges on… Education should be a public service, not a commodity, and it’s a commodity right now. And of course when people get heavily indebted they become less and less politically active… When mortgage housing was introduced [that meant] homeowners don’t go on strike, and so this is a social control mechanism. They [government planners] were very well aware of it. There was a great poster once which called the building societies [the privatizing institutions] “the first defense against Bolshevism.” So this was going to stop any kind of left-wing politics because people were going to say they want to keep their houses…

This was really done by deregulation to allow the financial system to become one of the main centers of redistributive activity, through speculation, predation, fraud and thievery, stock promotions, Ponzi schemes, structured asset destruction, through inflation asset stripping, through mergers and acquisitions, the promotion of levels of debt incumbency that reduced whole populations, even in the advanced capitalist countries, to debt peonage—to say nothing of corporate fraud, dispossession of assets, the raiding of pension funds and their decimation by stock and corporate collapses, by credit and stock manipulations. All of these became central features of the capitalist financial system.

…think for a moment about what Donald Trump has done since he came in. Forget all the Stormy Daniels nonsense. What’s he done? He’s deregulated almost everything. He’s allowed drilling on the federal lands. He’s passed a tax bill which is giving all kinds of goodies to the bondholders and the rich and the corporations. So the deregulation and the privatization that has gone on under Trump has been absolutely astonishing. You see right in front of you an economic program that is a classic neoliberal program, and it’s happened over the last two years of the Trump administration.[3]

One more example makes the point and illustrates how the process of dispossession is cyclical. After citizens are dispossessed of their common property, privatization then strips all value from that property, and finally the citizens, after paying the costs of this asset stripping and the resulting social devastation, win back control of the commons to some extent—only for the process to be repeated again. Here is Noam Chomsky describing how the process unfolded in South America in the late 20th century and is being repeated again now with the rise to power of the fascist president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro:

Guedes [Bolsonaro’s chief economic adviser] is an ultra-right-wing Chicago economist. He spent time in Pinochet’s Chile. He’s been very frank and open in interviews in the Brazilian press about his plans. It’s very simple: As he puts it, privatize everything—infrastructure, anything you can think of. The reason, the motive, is to pay off the debt which is owned by the predatory financial institutions that have been robbing the country blind. This will give away the resources of the country for the future… one part of it is Bolsonaro’s favorite program of opening the Amazon to agribusiness. So, he’s exactly the kind of person who succeeded in driving Chile’s economy to utter disaster within only a few years.

It’s rarely remembered that when the Chicago boys took over the Pinochet economy, they had every conceivable advantage. There couldn’t be any dissent. The torture chambers took care of that. They had the advice of the top stars of [University of] Chicago economics, the right-wing economics system. They were clever enough not to nationalize—not to privatize—one of the major bases of the Chilean economy, the highly efficient, nationalized copper corporation, the biggest in the world, Codelco… Within about five years, they had created such an economic disaster that the state had to take over the economy. People, as a joke, used to call it “the Chicago road to socialism.” They have left a residue which is pretty bitter.[4]

I hope this selection of quotations convinces readers that the process of dispossession under capitalism is essentially the same no matter who it happens to. There is no reason for the descendants of settlers in North America to look at the descendants of the original inhabitants and feel secure, to feel that “what happened to them could not happen to us.” It has happened and it is happening again. Anyone can be relocated to a figurative or literal reservation at the margins of society.

This leads to my final point about identity politics as a distraction from the root of the problem. The Canadian university student Lindsay Shepherd explained it well when she spoke out against the misguided policy of “self-congratulatory” Indigenous Land Acknowledgments that many Canadian institutions now require before holding official events.[5] She notes that they are recreating condescending “counter-productive stereotypes which are a re-packaging of the noble savage stereotype.” The acknowledgments involve no obligation on the part of the speaker or the institution to stand up for a radical change in the economic system. They are virtue signals and soothing balm for the conscience of the descendants of settlers and little more. The acknowledgments also often pay tribute to indigenous people as the “designated caretakers of the land,” a status which implies all indigenous people feel, or must feel, this obligation and that other races have no such responsibility. Indigenous people may have better insights into the problem because their experience as victims of a slow genocide has left them with no illusions about Western civilization (the descendants of Europeans still have a bit of work to do in this regard), but this does not mean that they have the power to save the world. Far from it. They are among the most dis-empowered and are unlikely to succeed without help from the majority of the population.

Finally, the acknowledgments are problematic because while they imply that descendants of European settlers must atone for their past, Canada now has millions of refugees and immigrants who came after the original wave of European settlement. What about them? Are they the oppressed minority struggling to survive in a new land, or are they a new wave of oppressors on stolen land?

The hour is getting late. The economic and social devastation described above continues unopposed partly because people have been brainwashed into thinking every social problem is rooted in identity politics, as illustrated by the example of the land acknowledgments. As Martin Luther King noted near the end of his life, the struggle for racial equality had to shift to a broad concern with fighting against poverty, war and the nuclear arms race.[6] Real solutions involve recognizing our common humanity and common interest in restoring the commons.

Wealth comes from what you belong to, not what belongs to you.

I’m not sure how this proverb came to me as I wrote this essay. Did I hear this proverb somewhere long ago? Was the same thing said by someone else in different words? Would it make more of an impression if I put it in a photo of Albert Einstein? Whatever. The proverb now exists in the wild. It doesn’t belong to me. I like it because it expresses well the way Hawaiian commoners lost everything when they gained their private property. They lost not only the material necessities for survival, but also meaningful connections to their traditions and their community. As David Harvey said about their modern counterparts, mortgage holders and other indebted people become politically alienated and don’t go on strike. They are dispossessed and dis-empowered.

Notes

[1] Gavan Daws, Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands (University of Hawaii Press, 1968), p. 128.

[2] Jay Walljasper, “A Brief History of How We Lost the Commons,” On the Commons, March 9, 2013.

[3] Chris Hedges, “On Contact: Interview with David Harvey—Part 2,” Russia Today, November 17, 2018. The interview is a discussion of David Harvey’s book A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2007). Parts of this citation are excerpts from the book read aloud during the interview.

[4]After Visiting Brazil’s Lula in Prison, Noam Chomsky Warns Against ‘Disaster’ Under Jair Bolsonaro,” Democracy Now, November 22, 2018.

[5] Lindsay Shepherd, Why I Reject Indigenous Land Acknowledgments, October 15, 2018.

[6] Vincent Intondi, “W. E. B. Du Bois to Malcolm X: The Untold History of the Movement to Ban the Bomb,” Zinn Education Project, July 30, 2015.

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