Much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth has transpired over the despoilation of “our” collective “resources” since William Forster Lloyd introduced the concept, in 1833, which would come to be known as the tragedy of the commons. As some would have it, if we don’t turn every last acre, ounce, and inch of land, water, and air rights respectively over to corporate management, we risk the further deterioration of our already tragically degraded “patrimony”.
To reference but two broad counterexamples, nonviolent resistance to corporate resource grabs is widespread across the Americas and there is an actual civil war raging across the heartland of India (unreported upon in corporate media) between indigenous (and other) land and water protectors and corporate and state actors. In such a world historical moment, it may seem trivially easy to dismiss the trite and disingenuous notion of corporate stewardship of public goods, and yet, privatization proceeds apace (of water, infrastructure, public transporation and emergency first response systems, public schools), and at heart, I wonder how many educated and progressive individuals continue to believe that, were we all left to our own devices, the ravaging of the planet would only be made that much worse.
Sitting between these two extremes is, of course, the much-derided public option; here in the United States, our public lands, our public Postal Service, our public safety net — limited as it is — are all under attack at the behest of ravenous, world-encompassing capital, but, just as there is ample evidence that publicly-administered programs and services often deliver better outcomes at a fraction of the cost, so too are there good reasons to believe that the so-called tragedy of the commons is a function of the pathological logic by which it was, itself, created, and that only in a post-enclosure, post-privatization world do we see the collective spirit of neglect that has bred Americans who, as Lou Reed put it, will “shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream.” When people bow not to a pathos of private ownership, but embrace an ethos of collective stewardship, there is good reason to believe that the outcomes are generally far more sustainable, and far more sane than corporate propagandists would lead us to believe. Sometimes there is a paradise in heaven, and not just in hell.
All of this clearly has to do with values. I find myself musing on a fundamental question though: What is value?
First there was use value, as of a primitive tool. Then there was exchange value, as in ancient and modern barter economies. Then there was monetary value, really just a subset of exchange value, but predicated upon the intermediation of some form of money. Lots has been written about all of this, and I won’t trouble the topic further except to point out that perhaps we should also speak of abuse value, though its definition remains arguably more mobile — maybe it is the “value”, in the form of political capital, extracted from the marginal targets of a cynical politics, or perhaps it is itself a subset of monetary value describing the profits which can be extracted from otherwise expendable bodies. Certainly, prisoners are often a source of de facto, or outright, slave labor, but through profitable incarceration (as with the frequently involuntary and indefinite detention of the denizens of psychiatric wards), these surplus bodies can also be converted through a type of carceral alchemy into respectable, securitized, corporate wealth.
Value, then, is arguably manifold, and pretty clearly subjective, but that does little to assuage the desire to tease out the root sources from which it springs.
I’m told, for example, that we live in an attention economy, and I have personal reasons to believe that that may be true. For instance, even in starting to write this brief essay, I wondered to myself, “Shouldn’t I lead with something a little bit more bombastic? Something click worthy? Something sexy?” In our contemporary moment, all worthy fictions, be they journalistic or otherwise, should start with an explosion or a murder. Preferrably both. And a kitten. Or a puppy. That’s what gets the clicks.
But, if we are living in an attention economy, as many smart people postulate, and in an era now characterized by capital glut — if also tragic capital misallocation and distributional inequity — then does that mean we are free, at last, of the tyranny of capital and no longer have our chains to lose?
Sadly, it would seem that, even as attention (theoretically) usurps capital as the economically-definitional scarce resource — as capital previously usurped land, and land itself rose upon the ashes of less hierarchical and territorial societies — we are still stuck with capital. Walk to the Manhattan waterfront on any given afternoon and see how long it takes you to spot your first Hamptons-bound Blade or private yacht to keep this point in clear focus. And although capital usurped land, there is, after all, still only so much land in the world. And, given that essentially all of the land in the world — with the possible exception of the rapidly thawing Antarctic — is, in theory, subject to the sovereignty of modern nation states, I’d argue that we can locate the true meaning of the old adage, “Death and taxes”, in the irreducible hegemony of the state and the effectively invincible monopoly on violence of state power.
Of course, as climate breakdown, population growth, and global conflict drive our collective existence on Planet Earth towards ever greater degrees of precarity and engender ever deepening misery for an ever greater number of Earth dwellers, and as ever more “territory” lapses into statelessness (US invasion being a leading current generater of “failed states”) or is designated as “sacrifice zone” by the fossil fuel, chemical, electronics, and mining companies upon which we all depend, we may yet have reason to wax nostalgic for the unshakability of state sovereignty.
But if attention remains, for now, only a source of capital, and even the most abstract capital-generating ventures remain fundamentally dependent on terrestrial resources (so land), what options exist for people who are truly interested in alternatives?
Question this framework? Consider the currently circulating apocryphum that maintaining the Bitcoin blockchain consumes something approximating the energy consumption of Denmark. Or Estonia? Something like that — hence its apocryphcality — but what seems certain is that, given our present constraints, there an be no cryptocurrency (digital gold) without oil (black gold), which I, at least, find troubling.
We are all, or almost, digital hoarders, and our digital hoarding habits — based, now, as they are, mostly on “the cloud” — depend in fact on massive data centers that, in a US context, accounted for roughly 2% of all energy consumption as of 2014, and are, hence, massively energy intensive.
One can take refuge in the increasingly elusive “American Dream” of property ownership. Try not paying property taxes on your beautiful home though, and see what happens. Or take it a step further and declare independence from whichever sovereign state to which “your” land falls subject. Stop paying income tax, given that you are now an independent non-nation. Then wait. It shouldn’t take too long. If you’re really serious about the undertaking, you can look into what happened at Ruby Ridge or to the Branch Davidians.
Perhaps the adage should actually read, “Death or taxes.”
Occupy ended in a bloodbath of police riot and brutality. The same — making allowances for the far greater degree of militarization of the repression — can be said of peaceful protest encampments at Standing Rock. It seems that, at least in the case of North America’s most militarized nation state, the government has rather limited patience for challenges to its territorial authority. Even the heavily-armed Bundyites in Oregon eventually faced a crackdown, if a much gentler one (and followed by much lighter legal persecution) than is typically meted out to native “eco-terrorists” and Black Lives Matter activists.
Looking further afield towards other (white) men with assault rifles, we see that on the land which is nominally the territory of a notional nation-state called Afghanistan, native people have been subjected to decades of misery by superpowers — but particular by the United States — hungry for natural resource wealth and geopolitical advantage.
Similar things can be said of a great many places on the Planet, and as we consider the nature of value, it can be instructive to consider the nature of power — in particular, American power in the form of our 800+ “overseas” military bases. Clearly, a very concrete notion of value, if not necessarily values, informs the American garrisoning of the globe. Meanwhile, corporate persons — the form of person most central to the American project — continue to enjoy largely unfettered opportunities to despoil the “wealth” of the entire Earth.
It should be clear to anyone who is paying attention that these values-less corporate entities are predicated on a sense of value that is not compatible with continued human life on Earth. The game theoretical reasoning of the “masters of the universe” has us all trapped in a murder-suicide pact of sorts; War Games is not a good movie, and yet, it is a War Games-type transformation of consciousness that is necessary in this moment. We are all — or almost — implicated in this global corporate nightmare; many of us, in fact, benefit from it explicitly — “benefit”, that is, if we accept the framework of value which has been foist upon us, and either way, unequivocally, are privileged by it.
Will it be nice to be among the survivors on a post-apocalyptic Earth? Ask the billionaire maniacs buying up New Zealand ranches and bunker condominiums in old nuclear silos; maybe they can tell you. I have no doubt that John Nash had “A Beautiful Mind” — that is why he is one of our many corporate heroes — but as we set aside the nuances of ideology formation, and I humbly acknowledge my limited grasp of game theory, I think we can at least posit that solutions — if we can even talk about solutions — or ways forward, if we cannot, most certainly do not lie within the scope of same the logic which has engendered our current global crisis.
What is value? What are my values? I think these are questions we should all be asking ourselves, lest we be complicit in our own demise — the extinction of our own species — and to better understand our existing complicity in the pain and predicaments of others.