I. The common good, and what happened to it?
In the beginning there was the world, and nobody owned the world, and the world was with humanity, and humans lived in the world under egalitarian social relations based on common interests—common good. Now, a few thousand years later, were we to describe the world we inhabit, we would have to acknowledge that the world is not the same. It belongs mostly to capitalists and corporations, and consequently humans live under social conditions of such stark inequity that the common good is nothing but a fading image in the euphemistic political discourse of our democracy.
To illustrate this condition, let’s consider an Oxfam report—a non-profit organization based in Oxford, England—which in 2017 concluded that eight (yes, you read it right, EIGHT) super-wealthy people in the world, six of whom are Americans, owned the same amount of wealth as half (yes, you read it right again, HALF) the human race combined, that is to say 3.8 billion people. Convergently, at a national level, Nicholas Kristoff, writing for the New York Times in an article titled “An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality” (July 22, 2014) reported that the richest 1% in the United States now own more than the bottom 90%. Within this framework, it is either ironic or delusional to ask where the common good of society is located. Also, given this context, the fact that millions of people in the US still take pride in the idea that ours is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people as envisioned by Abraham Lincoln, highlights the depth of the political incongruity in which we live.
What is the Common Good?
From a general political perspective, the common good should be the goal of every true democratic government. The concept refers to what is beneficial to most members of a given society. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy includes some partial (it leaves out a public health care system) canonical examples of “common good” in a liberal democracy, such as: the road system, public parks, police protection and public safety, courts and the judicial system (Kavanaugh comes to mind), public schools, museums and cultural institutions, public transportation, civil liberties, clean air, and clean water (Flint, Michigan comes to mind), etc. That is to say, the common good is the sum of the material, cultural or institutional facilities directly provided or made possible by the government for the wellbeing of the citizens.
Within this general definition of the common good lies a third rail—the track in the subway that delivers the electricity that makes the trains run: money. The resources available to a government with which to provide material, cultural or institutional facilities for the wellbeing of people are a function of choices made about how much money to collect from individuals and corporations through taxes and fees, and choices about how those funds should be distributed (e.g. what to spend on the military vs. what to spend on healthcare or education). The common good, in other words, depends on policy choices.
We live in a time when choices about how to collect revenue increasingly protect corporations and wealthy individuals while choices made about how to distribute revenue privilege those same corporations and wealthy individuals. Yet, the wider the range of accessibility to facilities associated with the common good, the stronger the possibilities of societal wellbeing.
Shrinkage of the common good and expansion of capital
It is not news that the material and cultural facilities in place for the wellbeing of people have decreased, which in turn has generated a sense of apprehension about the future in America. Things seem to have deteriorated: from road infrastructure, to public urban and rural spaces; from general services such as health care, to education.
From gerrymandered elections (the recent Republican directed removal of more than 340,000 Georgia residents from voting rolls comes to mind) to the increased partisan character of the judiciary system.
From the tacit official tolerance and encouragement of neo-Nazi organizations and white supremacist ideology, to the public and quasi-official diminishing of women (the case of Christine Blasely Ford and the rabid behavior of the Republican senators at Kavanaugh’s hearing comes to mind).
From the accelerated rollback of environmental antipollution legislation (e.g. the new EPA regulations and the US withdrawal of the Paris climate agreement), to the proliferation of nuclear weapons within our military budget. The possibility of human annihilation via nuclear war or via anthropogenics induced changes in the biosphere also add a new sense of emergency and anxiety about everyday life.
Within this context it’s worth noticing that the portrait above, depicting the deterioration of the common good, is not the result of history’s capricious spirit, but the end result of choices made by the dominant class, ruthlessly focused on capitalist expansion and deregulation policies. The hegemonic, wholly coordinated and aligned orchestration of the production, distribution, and consumption of material and ideological goods for the benefit of this class is everywhere visible. The opioid “epidemic” is just one example, as Purdue Pharma raked in tens of billions in revenue. After their wildly effective and deliberately misleading advertising, they are now poised to rake in even more as they sell a medication designed to treat the very epidemic they promoted.
Against this background, it is not surprising that more and more facilities previously considered part of the public good have now been privatized and turned into for profit enterprises. This is particularly noticeable in areas such as education, health care, infrastructure, national security, and the environment. A recent and particularly crass example of this move towards privatizing everything, contradicting any hope of maintaining a common good, occurred in April 2018 when the US House of Representatives passed The American Space Commerce Free-Enterprise Act, which states that “ outer space should not be considered a global-commons” and makes explicit that the intention of the Act is to “insure that the United States remains the world leader in commercial space activities”. Capitalism is no longer limited to telluric planetary restrictions; the commercialization of space has officially begun.
“There is no such thing as society”
It was Margaret Thatcher who best summarized neoliberal ideology when she stated, “there is no such thing as society.” Ever since, her ideological guards and backers have been performing complicated acts of verbiage to justify the dominant class-based political unconscious revealed in her remark. Individuals have no right to expect anything from the government; there is no common good in the social agenda of capital. More specifically, as Thatcher articulated it, the existing common goods (public services, natural resources, etc.) were to be privatized or unleashed from any regulatory limits in order to shift control from public/government to private hands. Inebriated by the defeat of the Soviet Bloc, this became the karma of the political economy during the Reagan and Thatcher administrations. It continues to be the political lighthouse for capitalism and the dominant class today.
In Dream Land, a book about the opiate epidemic, journalist Sam Quinones describes the national Zeitgeist at the time:
“By the time I began research for this book in 2012, we had, I believe, spent decades destroying communities in America, mocking and clawing at the girdings of government that provide the public assets and infrastructure that we took for granted and that make communal public life possible.
Meanwhile we exalted the private sector. We beat Communism and thus we came to believe the free market was some infallible God. Accepting this economic dogma, we allowed, encouraged jobs to go overseas. We lavishly rewarded our priests of finance for pushing those jobs offshore. We demanded perfection from government and forgave the private sector its trespasses”
II. And how do we get it back?
Remember, money never sleeps
Think of a vault of greenbacks heaving, breathing, desperate to get out to consume land, goods, hopes and dreams. Capital dies when it’s still. It demands to expand into new spheres and to amass an ever greater share of value produced. The dynamic is that every inch of land should be privately owned and exploited for profit. That every need and desire should be satisfied in the marketplace – nothing would qualify as a free good – you would have to buy everything: water and shelter, education; justice, peace of mind; a child… (oh, wait: we’re there already).
Capital has many ways to pursue these ends
Tax laws that favor or exempt their property, their expenses, their profits, so they can avoid contributing anything to goods we use in common. Financial mobility that allows them to hide the money they can’t otherwise preserve from taxes. To invest across boundaries where labor can be most readily exploited. Demanding concessions that starve towns and cities of essential revenue. Taking over public services and stealing the commons itself (privatizing, “developing” ). Contracting to perform for a profit tasks that were once the province of city employees. Destroying land, water and lives and then selling products to repair the destruction. And not least, the commodification of money itself —financialization is ever available. Then there are the standard mechanisms—bribing officials, bankrolling politicians, drafting laws, and so on.
An awakened and organized citizenry
Money never sleeps, but an awakened and organized citizenry has at times been able to prevent our capitalists from turning everything into a profit center. The labor movement succeeded in giving workers some measure of power over the conditions of employment. Demands by environmentalists secured some of nature’s bounty for common enjoyment, protected certain threatened species, forced the clean-up of our air and water. The civil rights movement challenged racist practices and the persistence of poverty in the midst of wealth. From that came the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid, legislation providing new funding in support of public education from grade school to university. The anti-war movement ended a war and defied the authority of the defense establishment. Disability activists forced Congress to pass legislation that required accommodation so they could access facilities both public and private.
Still, money never sleeps—so gains hard-won by organized movements and backed by democratic majorities can be eroded as conditions change and vigilance falters. That’s what’s happening now—here’s a tiny sample.
Tax laws that starve government
In Oregon, a long chain of alterations to tax law resulted in corporate payments for timberland falling from $119 million per year in the in the 1990s to $18 million a year from 2007-12. Timber tax revenue to the state fell from $41 million a year from 1995-99 to about $4 million/year in 2003-04, while logging volumes remained steady. For all legislative revisions to the tax law, the Oregon Forest and Industries Council was at the table. Today, all over rural Oregon, libraries are closing, public safety services are curtailed, hospitals are in crisis and communities are at a breaking point.
“Privatizing” common goods
Corporations consider water an “asset class,” and they have converted municipal systems to a for-profit status in dozens of states. Food & Water Watch has documented abuses by the new purveyors in California, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana and many other states. A notorious example is the Nestle corporation which buys water for less than a penny per gallon and sells it back for $10. After polluting water, companies like Dow and Monsanto invest in purification technologies.
Seizing new areas for profit
Twenty years ago Lehman Brothers identified the education sector as offering investment opportunities amounting to $600 billion – positing “education maintenance organizations” like HMOs…! Since then, for-profit elementary and secondary schools have proliferated and funding for public universities has dropped steeply. Students in 2017 owed money to corporations in the range of $1.5 trillion dollars. The promise of public education as an opportunity for all children to achieve their potential has all but disappeared.
Ransacking the commons
The Trump administration has proposed to open great portions of the parks and the ocean to oil exploration and drilling; and to mining. They would expand offshore drilling in the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, and Arctic Ocean, putting coastal communities, beaches and marine ecosystems at risk. In terms of national parks, the Interior Department has proposed to eliminate rules meant to ensure clean and safe development in order to reduce “burdens” on globe-straddling corporations..
Transforming public space into commercial space
The Apple Corporation is proposing to surround its Apple stores with its own “town squares” that will create an enticing atmosphere—and lead to more buying… Of course, like other private “public” spaces, it will have its own security to remove people who aren’t compatible with commercial interests (poor, tired, homeless), or those deemed undesirable, say, protesters. Or something else – because it will be the creature of a private company with its own goals and practices that have nothing to do with community or the notion you and I might have of the “town square.”
The urgency for vigilance and organization
There’s a reason that democracy was considered the enemy of capitalism. Democratic majorities, organized and voting, threaten the ability of capital to define and defile our lives. (There’s a reason the Right is hell-bent on shutting out voters.) But there’s more than voting.
Let’s let Boots Riley, director of the film Sorry to Bother You have the last word: “Electoral politics is the easy way out. If everybody’s putting their time into the electoral side, we’re going to get caught in this loop where you get an elected official and they’re not able to do much because there’s not the movement to do things.
The biggest reforms under capitalism in the 20th Century might be the New Deal and the civil rights bill. And how did we get either of them? Was it by electing the right person? Or was it by having a m