10 September 2016

Private Property and Neoliberal Religion

I'm still slowly reading and thinking about The Communist Manifesto.
"You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths." 
"Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labour of others by means of such appropriation." 
"It has been objected that upon the abolition of private property all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us. 
According to this, bourgeois society ought long ago to have gone to the dogs through sheer idleness; for those of its members who work acquire nothing; and those who acquire anything, so not work." 
The Communist Manifesto. 1848.
This narrative is not unfamiliar, though again it is striking how pertinent this social analysis is 150 years later. Its clear that mainstream ideas of private property are constructed by and for what we would now call the 1%. Oxfam said in January 2016 that the wealth of the 1% was now equal to that of the 99%. They wish to protect that they have; but what they have comes from the exploitation of the labour of others. They appropriate all the products of society and dole out a minimal amount to workers. Too much, they argue will allow the inherent laziness of workers to manifest.

Doing away with private property mainly affects the bourgeoisie because they have appropriated nine-tenths of the property. Those who work for a living, especially in the mid-19th Century had very little to lose from this policy.

Since then I think things have shifted. The 1% have encouraged the middle-classes to aspire to climb the social ladder, to climb the housing ladder, and so. The idea is that if one only climbs the ladder it becomes a stairway to heaven - one can retire to the 1%. The narrative is striking religious in tone. It imitates elements of the Egyptian Book of the Dead for example and of course Christianity. The major difference is that whereas religion encourages people to accumulate good deeds as defined by some divine code, the Neoliberal religion encourages and rewards the accumulation of wealth. Wealth is the modern measure of morality. And one only becomes wealthy by appropriating the products of the labour of others. As such the supposed stairway to heaven becomes a highway to Hell for most people.

As immoral as they might be by other standards, the 1% are deemed good by their own lights simply because they have accumulate much wealth. Wealth is the measure. The wealthier a person is, the more moral they must be. This is the essence of Neoliberal morality. This is why no modern government has been interested in perusing tax reforms or chasing tax reforms. The 1% see taxation as theft of their rightly acquired wealth by people who have not earned it. They believe that "unearned wealth" cannot be spent wisely. No government can spend wisely.

The internal contradictions of this narrative about wealth and accumulation are not apparent to those who live by the Neoliberal creed. But even in 1848 Marx and Engels saw the incoherence of this worldview. As they say "bourgeois society ought long ago to have gone to the dogs through sheer idleness". The wealth of the 1% is not earned. At best it is acquired. But the fact is that wealth is accumulated by the appropriation of the products of other people's labour. In other words, as  French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon said, property is theft (this was in 1840, a bit before the Manifesto).

It would not be so bad if the 1% were not so obviously stupid and incompetent. If they were some kind of benevolent tyranny that cared for the people and the environment they would be a lot less objectionable. Instead we see consistent mismanagement of the world by the 1%.

It is now clear that if we do not put the breaks on and change direction, we will be facing environmental catastrophe on several fronts: toxic, mutagenic, and carcinogenic pollutants, warming, flooding, extreme weather events, species deaths (bees are a particular concern), and so on. This is not because the 1% are doing such a great job of managing things. It's because they are stupid and incompetent. They behave like monomaniacal psychopaths. And really, we should treat them like psychopaths.

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