Friday, August 4, 2017

Privatization vs the gods (and the people)

image: Zeus with Thunderbolt, and eagle. Jean-Pol Grandmont, Wikimedia commons (link).

The world's ancient myths and sacred traditions speak with some clarity regarding the important subject which we usually categorize as "natural resources," declaring them to be the gifts of the gods, to be treated with respect just as the gods and goddesses themselves, who give these gifts to humanity, must be treated with respect.

In his Works and Days, the poet Hesiod of ancient Greece -- a poet of great antiquity who is thought to have lived during the eighth century BC -- advises:
Be careful to avoid the anger of the deathless gods. [ . . . ] (ll. 706).
Never cross the sweet-flowing water of ever-rolling rivers afoot until you have prayed, gazing into the soft flood, and washed your hands in the clear, lovely water. Whoever crosses a river with hands unwashed of wickedness, the gods are angry with him and bring trouble upon him afterwards. (ll. 737 - 741).
This should be sufficient to establish the fact that the ancients saw water -- and specifically "sweet" water (the kind fit for us to drink) -- as belonging to the gods, and as sacred.

Elsewhere, Hesiod displays the same understanding regarding the planted fields: what they produce is clearly seen as given by the gods: "Pray to Zeus of the Earth and to pure Demeter to make Demeter's holy grain sound and heavy, when first you begin ploughing, when you hold in your hand the end of the plough-tail and bring down your stick on the backs of the oxen as they draw on the pole-bar by the yoke-straps" (ll. 465 - 478). 

That passage concerns the acknowledgement of the gods when one first begins to plow -- and later, Hesiod repeats something similar when he describes the time of winnowing the fruits of the harvest, saying that it is time "to winnow Demeter's holy grain, when strong Orion first appears" (ll. 57 - 608).

In both cases, the grain which the land produces is explicitly described as belonging to the goddess Demeter, and as being set apart to her.

Much later, the philosopher Plutarch echoes this sentiment, when he describes the abundance of the crops as the gifts of the same goddess Demeter, and the gift of wine as being given by the god Dionysus, in his essay "On the eating of flesh," saying that to disregard these bounties or to imply that the crops and vineyards cannot satisfy our needs is to slander and shame the gods themselves.

And further evidence to establish this principle can be found in the many ancient sources which attribute all the riches of mineral wealth which are found beneath the earth's surface as belonging properly to the god of the underworld, Hades. This formidable deity so filled men and women with awe that his name was not to be spoken lightly -- and was frequently not spoken at all. Instead, men and women would refer to him by another name, Plouton, a name which itself sounds like the Greek word meaning "wealth" or "riches" and which probably included that reference to the god as the ruler of all that is beneath the earth, including gold, silver, gems, and other forms of sub-surface resources.

I would further assert that the ancient wisdom demonstrates that the sacred myths portray the people themselves in the same light, in that each and every birth of a child was seen as a gift from the gods, and presided over most directly by a specific goddess, the goddess Artemis (in the case of ancient Greece). 

From this fact I would argue that the gifts of the gods in the natural resources of the land (including the sweet water, or the bounty of the lands produce, or the underground mineral wealth, and even the blessings of the sunshine which makes the crops to grow and which ultimately sustains all life) are given as a bounty to all the people whom the gods allow to be born in that land! 

I would further support that assertion with the observation that the world's ancient wisdom in some places quite explicitly demonstrates that the gods and goddesses dwell in and act through individual men and women. We can see this expressed in the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (or the Book of the Coming Forth by Day), as well as in the fact that in the scriptures of ancient India (and other myths around the world), divinities can appear in an instant when a man or woman calls upon them -- which shows that we have an instant connection with the gods available to us at all times, and may in fact be telling us that the gods are present in or with us always.

This clear principle in humanity's ancient wisdom -- that the riches of the earth and the abundance of nature belong to the gods and must be respected as the gifts of the gods, as well as the assertion that these gifts are for all men and women whom the gods allow or cause to be born -- should be kept in mind when we consider the modern question of "privatization," which is the practice of taking the natural resources which the ancient myths clearly show to be the gifts of the gods, and "selling them off" to be the property of some men and women, rather than to all the people of that land.

As if someone can rightfully sell what properly belongs to the gods, and what the gods give to all people!

And yet there are those who wholeheartedly advocate for just such a principle, as if it is far more moral and righteous to take the gifts of nature -- the water supply needed for drinking, the mineral wealth of the earth, and a host of others -- and give them to enrich a favored few, at the expense of the rest of the people, than to see them as the bounty and blessing from the divine realm, for which no individual can take credit.

Here is a link to a host of articles from one such group, arguing that "Privatization has generally led to reduced costs, higher-quality services, and increased innovation in formerly moribund government industries." Some of the articles advocate privatizing virtually all public lands -- including national parks and forests -- and turning them over to the ownership of a few! Note that the very word "privatize" comes from a root that means to "take away" or "restrict" -- as in taking them away from the many for the benefit of the few: the word "deprive" contains the very same root. Other articles on the same page urge the privatization of roads, airports, and the postal service. 

No articles so far seem to explicitly argue for the privatization of the air we breathe -- but if technology were available to allow that, you can probably safely bet that these same authors would get busy penning arguments to convince us that privatizing the air (and no doubt the sunshine) would also lead to "reduced costs" and "higher quality."

The Libertarian Party in the united states propagates the same arguments, declaring in their "2016 platform" that, unlike governments, "Private landowners and conservation groups have a vested interest in maintaining natural resources. Governments are unaccountable for damage done to our environment and have a terrible track record when it comes to environmental protection." 

Apparently, these "vested interests" will somehow motivate those who claim ownership over the natural resources (which by definition are the gifts of nature) to not abuse their privileged access to those resources, or set up excessive toll booths for those who have been declared to not have such ownership. Once again, I would guess that if we could find a way to enable air and sunshine to be purchased and administered by these benevolent groups, that would greatly improve the situation in the opinion of these thinkers.

The same Libertarian Party platform also declares its unqualified support of "the removal of governmental impediments to free trade" and the "unrestricted movement of human as well as financial capital across national borders" -- which is draped in the language of freedom from tyranny, but which anyone with a passing familiarity with economics or with the history of the past 150 years should also be able to interpret as meaning unqualified support for the unrestricted access by trans-national corporations to the natural resources of any other country on our planet, regardless of the desire of the people of that country to use the blessings bestowed by the gods on their land (in the form of mineral wealth, drinking water, forests, etc) for the benefit of all the people in that land, rather than for the benefit of the trans-national corporations alone.

Below is a screen-shot of some of those positions (in case the 2016 platform that is up on their site now is later taken down):

The Libertarian arguments are seductive and attractive in the way that they are phrased, expressing concern for individual rights, but they are deliberately phrased in ways that evoke a mental image of a virtuous family pumping water at a hand-pump without being molested by an evil government, but they ignore the reality of the modern situation in which corporations are actively buying pieces of property and then building massive pumps to drain the entire aquifer underneath everyone else, which is in fact going on today, wherever there are good aquifers and wherever governments are not motivated or empowered to stop such draining by the few of the gifts of the gods which are intended for all the people.

Professor Michael J. Hudson, one of the most forceful and articulate defenders of the need for protection of the public domain from privatization, eloquently details the damaging features of privatization in an extremely insightful interview recorded back in February of 2004, which Standard Shaefer for Counterpunch. In that article, he discusses the problems with privatization in general, but focuses most especially on the privatization of "the airwaves" (aka the electromagnetic spectrum -- which I would argue would probably have been seen as belonging to the god Zeus, in ancient Greece).

Entitled "How privatization sterilizes culture," this interview features Professor Hudson's arguments that the airwaves properly belong to the public domain (they are a natural resource) and should not be sold off to unrestricted commercialization -- because doing so debases journalism, culture, and ultimately even conversation and thought.

This interview was recorded before the incredible revolution in mobile connected devices (three years before the very first iPhone was released, in 2007, for example), and before the popularity of sites such as Facebook. His arguments seem even more prescient today, when many people in fact get much of their news from Facebook -- a thoroughly commercialized platform and one that exemplifies many of the debasing aspects that Professor Hudson is describing.

Here are some selected quotations from Michael Hudson during this interview from 2004. Beginning with a portion discussing land grants to railroads in the united states during the 1800s (based upon the same kinds of arguments put forth by advocates of privatization today), Professor Hudson says:

The land grants were supposed to enable the railroads to provide transportation and freight services so that the government would not have to undertake, plan and pay them. But the cost of privatization ended up involving a giveaway to insiders who gained control of the economy's commanding heights, much like Yeltsin's kleptocrats did in the 1990s in Russia. 
The land grants made the railroads the nation's largest real estate companies. Their financial managers were interested in supplying transportation only to the extent that it helped increase the value of their stocks and bonds, which dominated securities markets by the late 19th century. [ . . . ] A parallel development has occurred with the broadcasting companies, which have all but abandoned the public-interest dimension of the bargain originally envisioned in the 1920s. The difference is that they have not yet officially bought their frequencies, but are still nominally leasing them from the government for merely nominal sums, much like mining companies and paper companies lease mineral, oil and timber lands out west. [ . . . ]
Like the railroad land grants, most of the media deals for positions on the radio and TV dial were insider arrangements. This is a common denominator of privatization in almost every country throughout history. [ . . . ]
Governments are supposed to determine the public interest and defend it. Their sovereign duty is to protect their citizens against the private appropriation of the public domain -- essentially, opportunities for rent extraction -- to be taken over. This problem becomes especially important in view of the fact that the financial sector's objective is to disable the government's sovereign power and its threat of regulation.
The effect is to derail economic growth into rent-taking.
This is the financial sector's own path of least resistance to appropriate [i.e. "take"] resources whose revenue can be converted into interest payments. It is what makes finically controlled policy-making so destructive.
Finance is inherently rent-seeking. It searches out all the areas of the economy that can siphon off the fruits of economic growth as a monopoly charge. These are the best opportunities for lending money, because so many buyers want to obtain rent-yielding resources because their price rises as population and prosperity grow. Land is the prime rent-yielding asset, because all real estate needs a land site. Tat is why 70 percent of bank lending in the United States and Britain take the form of mortgage loans. Most of the remaining bank loans are for rental sites or monopoly positions of one form or another. This explain's the financial sector's interest in lobbying for their privatization. The air waves are a prime example. 
The effect on culture -- on TV and radio -- is indirect, but major. Under privatization these sites will be sold to the highest bidders. And the highest bidders are those who will rent these sites for commercials or for mass-market media. Noncommercial culture cannot compete on price, because it is not selling anything. So it is outbid. In fact, the aim of culture throughout the ages has been to minimize personal self-indulgence and to promote altruism, just the opposite personality characteristics promoted by the commercial media. Society loses culture, and gets nuisance value of commercials instead.
Somebody needs to write a new history of how the great American fortunes of the 20th century were formed. You would find that they came largely from insiders grabbing rent-yielding activities from the public domain. 
Economic rent is a kind of super-profit. It is best thought of not as profits that are earned by producing output, but are a free ride simply from charging more for natural monopolies. Finance has promoted privatization and provided loans to buyers, recognizing that this is its major market, after real estate mortgage lending. [ . . . ] So the financial lobby has backed the monopolies in urging deregulation of the checks and balances put in place from Teddy Roosevelt to Franklin Roosevelt during the first three decades of the 20th century. The more monopoly rent can be extracted (or real estate rent, for that matter) the more revenue can be pledged as interest to creditors putting up the money to buy these assets. 
[ . . . ]
Banks and brokerage underwriters have long seen that privatization creates a market for buying public enterprises and assets to be financed on credit.
[ . . . ]
Privatizing the airwaves has decoupled broadcasting from traditional culture and its educational functions, promoting cultural values that are opposite from those traditionally held. The object of TV and radio programs is to serve as a vehicle to attract an audience to commercials. [Note that the same can be said of sites such as Facebook today, but not just to sell ads -- also to collect data on the audience and sell that as well]. This is achieved more by absorbing attention than by engaging the mind. The cultural effect of this media and data overload is a spread of Attention Deficit Disorder. This particular form of alienation is a thus a byproduct of privatization. [. . .]
At the end of this process, monopolists such as Microsoft's Bill Gates head the list of "most admired men," along with Donald Trump and even Citibank's Sandy Weil [remember, this interview was recorded in 2004!]. I guess Enron's Ken Lay used to be on this list. Even more confusing, they are admired as industrialists, not as exploiters whose main achievement was to get something for nothing. 
[ . . . ]
This is just the inverse of what culture traditionally promoted. The function of culture traditionally has been to deal with the most important spheres of life [ . . . ]. It dealt with basic socialization issues to shape personality, and specifically to promote altruism. That is why so much art was linked to religion. Instead of seeing a moral, active personality actuating itself through labor, the mass consumer personality is that of passive conformity and escapism. Today's mass consumer culture encourages consumption and narcissism and promotes self-indulgence. There is a tendency to dumb down culture to the most common denominator in order to turn audiences into extroverted brand-name consumers.
These are amazing insights into the impact of privatization in just one (albeit extremely important) arena -- and its detrimental influence on culture and discourse. This process obviously did not begin in the twentieth century, or with the "airwaves." In fact, much of Professor Hudson's work details the way that the "classical economists," beginning in the seventeenth century, were trying to undo the arrangement of the so-called nobility of Europe, who had long ago created the same kinds of "privatization" or monopolization of the gifts of the gods (primarily over the land and the produce of the fields). 

As Professor Hudson shows, the progress made by the classical economists from the seventeenth century through the nineteenth century eventually sparked a major backlash by the interests who didn't want to see their monopolies ended. The campaign to paint "privatization" as moral and ethical (rather than as a deprivation by a few of what rightfully belongs to the gods, and is given by them for the benefit of all the people) is a manifestation of that counterattack.

As discussed in the previous post entitled "Collaborators against the gods" (and in my 2014 book, The Undying Stars), this campaign against the gods has been going on for a long time.

It is dismaying to see so many of those in the non-corporate media (including podcasts) and those listeners and readers and thinkers who are aware of the level of manipulation taking place in the corporate media and in world events around us embracing "libertarian" (or anarchist, or voluntarist) agendas. It is understandable that some people might explore those philosophies as a rejection of and reaction against many of the ills brought about by the kind of degradation of culture that Professor Hudson describes above. In fact, I myself was attracted to libertarian and voluntarist rhetoric for some time (if you search this blog, you might find some evidence for that in years past). 

However, as Professor Hudson's arguments in the above 2004 interview (and even more forcefully elsewhere) should make perfectly clear, the so-called "libertarian" position is an abdication of our responsibility to demand democratic government that prevents the kinds of kleptocracies in which the birthright of the people is wrongly and fraudulently "sold" (or given away) to benefit the few (all the while telling the people that it is for their own good that this happen). This is the main responsibility of government by the people -- and only government (held accountable by the people) is strong enough to stop the kinds of machinations that will be employed to try to grab natural resources such as the land's mineral wealth, or monopoly access to swaths of the electromagnetic spectrum, or the life-giving water upon which all people and animals and plants depend.

Ultimately, the libertarian (and all other "pro-privatization") philosophy is not moral at all, no matter how much it drapes itself in words like "liberty" and "freedom" and "prevention of tyranny," because it advocates the giving away (or the selling for a mess of pottage) the birthright of the people (in whom the gods dwell), which cannot be rightfully given away, or owned by the few. The land and the water and the electromagnetic spectrum belong to the gods -- to Zeus and to Plouton and to Demeter and to Dionysus, whose names may change from one to another culture, but whose reality does not change. 

They cannot be sold, or "privatized."

image: Persephone and Hades, Wikimedia commons (link).

"Be careful to avoid the anger of the deathless gods."

 -- Hesiod