Public Commons Private Schemes

July 6, 2013

waterWhat is the public commons and who controls it? That question’s almost as old as “Who am I?” and comes with a host of similar implications — political, religious, social, personal. It’s one we’ve been trying for centuries to answer by means of creeds, philosophies, ideologies, economic systems, war — you name it. Who owns the earth? Who has dominion over it, its lives and its resources?

The political expression of the will to power is always about controlling the commons: defining and enforcing its boundaries, profiting from its resources, and reaping its bounty. This will is inherent not only in political movements but also in religious ones; two realms often idealized as being distinct that are often indistinguishable.

The idea of a Commonwealth was expressed by our founders in the official names of certain state entities — the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and those of Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

Writer and media talk-show host Thom Hartmann notes “ . . .the founders understood that when they were creating these state entities they were acknowledging a common pool of wealth that was collectively shared by the citizens, and the common functions that needed to be taken care of; we need the police, we need fire, we need schools, roads (et cetera) . . . all part of the commons: the Us taking care of Us.”

This is bedrock enlightened government, but Hartman, recognizing our present circumstances, warns “the extent to which the concept of the commons has been lost benefits the large corporations . . .when we give up control of the commons, say our water supply, not only have we lost control of it but we’re at the mercy of those corporations.”

This is bedrock rationality.

When we give our means of sustenance over to profit-making corporations whose incentive is not the common good but profit, our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness becomes secondary to their business plans. This would be a deal made only by ignoramuses or masochists, but we, through elected crooks, are making it. By our quietude we are acquiescing to it.

Not all of us are mute in the face of corporate coups to command the public commons. The Illinois Coalition to Protect the Public Commons calls for action. The problem is stated on its Web site ( “When public assets or the public commons are privatized, citizens relinquish control of our communities to the corporate state. We lose good jobs, money, access, our sense of community, accountability, and legal recourse. The corporate state grows while democracy shrinks. Whose rights are protected in an ownership society?”

In every policy statement and political speech dealing with the privatization of any aspect of our public commons — our police and fire departments, our public education system, our water systems, healthcare, elections, highways, infrastructure, transportation, parks — the question of that last sentence should be first and foremost in our minds: Whose rights are protected in an ownership society?

There’s a weird selective blaming game that permeates the right in this country. It has always been there, but it gained traction again with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Reagan, The Affable Wealth Re-distributor (as I think of him), with his acting and communications skills, was able to sell to Americans the idea that government is the problem. Reagan had the slippery, glad-handing abilities of a snake oil salesman, but behind his charm lurked a spirit mean enough to undermine the well-being of middle-class Americans and the poor. His happy callousness might be summed up in a pronouncement of his USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) that, in the case of federally subsidized public school lunches, ketchup could be considered a vegetable.

During his administration Reagan busted unions, undermined the oversight of public agencies by placing at their heads managers who worked to sell them out. Under him school lunch programs were severely cut back, pre-natal programs were sliced, federal job-training programs were ended, the Legal Aid Corporation was eviscerated, et cetera.

But what’s most amazing is that the selective memorizers of the right who today have taken Reagan’s ideas to the max — who blame government for every ill that faces us, who blame progressive government for driving us into debt — what’s amazing is that under Reagan “ . . .the U.S. went from being the world’s largest creditor to being the largest debtor nation.” (The Daily Kos, 6/2/11.)

Since Reagan, we have gone from a government that governs to one that is determined to turn everything over to entities over which we, the governed people, have less and less control. The problem is not government, it’s government corrupted by private interests. This is what libertarians and the right in general omit from their political equations. There was a pointed example of the attitude of the champions of corporate capitalism in the news recently: “Nestlé chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe believes that ‘access to water is not a public right.’” (

Privatization of our water supply is a sure road to public dehydration as corporations buy water rights in states like Maine leaving residents with depleted aquifers to pay to wet their whistles with Poland Spring. If you don’t believe that, look up Nestlé’s corporate record. It pushes junk food along the Amazon (CSRwire Talkback) and lies about its support for the proposal to label GMO foods (Natural Society) and has unethically marketed baby food formula against the World Health Organization’s international code that promotes the healthier option of breast feeding (Corporate Watch). What’s more, Nestlé has instituted “a cyber army” to monitor our attitudes to their products (a kind of corporate NSA non-food snoop program).

Corporations are not in the business of public well-being, they’re in the business of their well-being. Left to their own devices, corporations will lie, cheat, steal, bribe (public officials), maim, poison, and eventually kill, if their bottom lines look shaky. Only the seriously ignorant, stupid, confused, lazy, economically squeezed, self-interested (stockholders), etc. would turn over our common wealth to be managed and sold back to us by private entities with (really) just one thing on their minds: profit, and more of it. So what do we do when even our government is largely in the pockets of corporations?

Just last week tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to protest and hopefully protect their commonwealth.  They unseated a president. We may not have exactly the same end in mind, but we can take to the streets.

The next time you have a chance to flank the cash-twisted political process laid upon us by the Supreme Court’s Citizens-United-money-is-free-speech ruling by attending an anti-corporate demonstration, don’t pooh-pooh it as having sprung from the minds of radicals. Join up; do it!

Honest, it will not make you a socialist.

by Jim Culleny

Related: The Water Thief
The Water Thief


One Response to “Public Commons Private Schemes”

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