It is early July. In my country, we set fire to gunpowder and other explosives wrapped in paper — which are produced almost entirely in extremely hazardous conditions outside of this country — to mimic the actual gunpowder explosions that presumably were the background for the signing of a document that declared this small group of British colonies independent from the Empire — and specifically from King George and his nasty rules regarding Native autonomy and property rights. It is Independence Day. This is the worst holiday ever created. Even if you leave out the explosions.
What are we celebrating? Getting away from the Brits? By all accounts we didn’t. This country was heavily dependent upon the British Empire until the First World War destroyed much of the EuroWestern order. We followed British rules and bowed to British economics and gave preference to British people in every way. We still think and talk in English no matter the mother tongue of our ancestors. We were second class for so long, we hardly realized that the Empire was crumbling away until it was gone. And we still have quite an inferiority complex when it comes to history and culture.
Maybe we are celebrating getting away from kings? Maybe if you define the word very narrowly. After the Revolutionary War (well over a decade after the first 4th of July, it should be noted), we no longer had a single, heritable leader. Instead, we got an oligarchy of those men whose ancestors had appropriated (stolen) the most land and labor, “creating wealth” that they then used to amass influence so they could appropriate (steal) more land and labor. They were not called aristocrats, but they were still lords; and their position was still heritable and closed to outsiders.
So maybe we’re simply celebrating the advent of this country? Perhaps. Except is this one single country? Not particularly. Even when it was just thirteen colonies on the eastern seaboard, there were deep divisions in economic and social structures. There was not and still is not a feeling of nationhood in the United States because there is no nationality. There is no such thing as an ethnic American with a common ancestry and culture, unless you are using that term to name individual groups among the indigenous peoples — who don’t use that term. There was and remains little basis for a national feeling of unity. So what is this country aside from a legal structure? Nothing much. Not much worthy of a birthday bash with explosives and beer and burgers anyway.
Perhaps we’re celebrating the ideas that went into this legal structure? Yeah… probably not. How many people could even name a few of those ideas? And then, of the people who can, how many actually believe in those ideas? Well, let’s just go with that anyway.
Let’s take “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. That’s something we all can spout off about the Declaration of Independence, right? Is that something to believe in? Something to celebrate? Well, first off, note that we don’t get to have happiness, we are given the opportunity to chase after it. Futilely, by definition, or it wouldn’t remain a pursuit. Even Jefferson recognized that economic things would fall apart really fast if that pursuit was realized by a large segment of the population. Happy people don’t buy things.
Well then, happiness is nebulous anyway. But life is a pretty solid concept. Do we believe in that? More specifically, did we get a right to life out of the formation of this country? Not a bit of it. The oligarch class bullies the rest of us into believing that they have the right to live as they see fit. Nobody else did or does even in fantasy. Our lives are owned and dictated by the oligarch class. We do their labor; we pay them for the fruits of our labor. And those of us who don’t closely resemble the members of the oligarch class do not even get a right to bodily autonomy. This doesn’t seem to be a good reason for fireworks and a cookout.
So how about that liberty thing? Well, if we’re owned and we owe then we don’t have liberty no matter our beliefs on the idea. If our lives can be appropriated or controlled or even snuffed out at any moment for any reason, then we are not free. So no, most of us are not free. We don’t get liberty; we don’t get life; we don’t get happiness — though we are free to chase after happiness throughout our lives. Indeed, we are obligated to do so because that endless pursuit is what feeds our economy. Whether we believe in these ideas or not, this is not what was produced by the Declaration of Independence. No freedom. No, we get fireworks.
But what of the oligarchs? Are they free? Are they independent? Are they able to make choices without any recourse to other beings? Well, they like to pretend that’s the case. But it is not. Maybe we need to look at the whole idea of independence. Because, when it comes down to essence, there is no such thing as an independent being, free to do as it chooses without incurring debt to others. There is no independent being that does not incur that debt simply by existing.
Right now, I’m going to focus on economic independence because I’m fairly certain that’s all Jefferson was talking about. Next week, I’ll dive into the nether regions of ecological independence and the self. Yes, next week will nullify this week, but I figure it’s good to start with baby steps when on the path to killing sacred cows. And there are sacred cows on this present path because I truly believe that what the oligarchs (including Jefferson) mean and have meant in history when they say independence is irresponsibility. The freedom to take freely and not pay costs. The freedom to not clean up messes. The freedom to not respond, to not care, to not be part of a reciprocal relationship. The freedom to pursue wealth regardless of harm done. The freedom to be self-absorbed and indeed make a virtue of that. What we are celebrating on the 4th of July is the birth of the Asshole Economy.
This country is based on the idea of the sanctity of property. Property rights come before human rights. When slaves ran from the abuse raining down on their bodies, what justification did plantation owners use to successfully prosecute those that facilitated escape? That those slave helpers were depriving the plantation owners of property. Today, what argument is used to successfully fight regulations that deny economic activities that cause harm to a location or population? That corporations are being denied access to potential property gains. Regulations are restricting their freedom to acquire more wealth, ergo property; and oligarch property freedoms come before any other sort of freedom for any other being. See? Assholes.
They stole their property to begin with — taking land from those who lived here and labor from people they forced into slavery — but nobody is allowed to take it away even to mitigate harm. And there is always harm to mitigate. An economy that is predicated on the sanctity of property over any right is by definition causing harm. But, you say, what if we passed laws to place property rights beneath human and other biosphere rights? Not that the oligarchs will let that happen, but we could do that in theory. Maybe not. Because even if a miraculous conversion of the Asshole class led to that economic possibility, is it physically possible to engage in capitalism — the amassing of wealth through production and trade — that does no harm? This comes back to the notion of independence and individuality. Because there is no independent effort; it’s all reciprocity in an equitable real world.
What does an equitable economic system that preserves rights to life over those of private property look like? Private property is supposedly “earned” through the labor of the individual, correct? (Just humor me for a moment.) There is normally little or no compensation given to those the individual depends upon in this endeavor. (Have you noticed that there is no English word for those we depend upon? This is telling.) If this were an equitable situation, then there ought to be compensation for all those that enabled the labor that led to the earning of private property — which quickly becomes a circular logic nightmare. You simply can’t take more than you give in an equitable, reciprocal relationship. You can’t generate a surplus in an equitable, reciprocal relationship. There is no profit in an equitable world.
Let’s consider a sort of ludicrous example. How does a person in an equitable, reciprocal relationship share his compensation with the tree he cuts down to sell at market? The tree enabled this labor, correct? The man who cuts the tree is not acting in isolation; he does not independently create a log from nothing. His labor to produce a marketable log is predicated upon the existence of this tree. She deserves compensation. Prior to being cut, she had to grow and add sufficient girth — which, given tree lives, means the tree pre-existed the man by many decades or even centuries. How does the man justify taking the life of this tree with no compensation whatsoever? By turning the tree into property and granting no rights to her existence. Is this equitable? Well, it’s only a tree, you say.
Except she is not only a tree. The tree is not an independent individual either. She is an essential part of an interdependent web, all of which rely upon her for their own well-being. She is a part of the soil, which is an enormous system of mutually dependent organisms. She is a part of the water cycle, which again is a whole system of interdependency. She is a part of the atmosphere and the energy cycle and the carbon cycle (among other elemental cycling). She is an integral being in the plant and animal organisms in her ecological niche — a web that can never be un-entangled. What physical and temporal part of this does the man own as his private property? What part of his profit is not owed in compensation to all the rest of this web of inter-being, even if you grant him property rights the tree itself?
It seems to me that the man owes a great deal in this transaction. Every body suffers somewhat when the man claims the life of the tree. He owes a great debt in restitution and reparations. But, you say, these are not human people. They probably have no use for the type of wealth the man acquires in taking the life of this tree out of her web of being. Except his debt does not end with the tree. He is not independent of other humans any more than he is independent of non-human systems. His labor is predicated upon many people. Therefore, he owes shares of whatever profit his labor generates to those humans that enabled his labor.
Who are these creditors? Well, the man presumably was born. His existence is utterly dependent upon his parentage and, in this culture, particularly upon his mother. Any gain of the child should be shared with the parent because the parent supports the child. If a man earns a dollar, is not most of that dollar owed to his parents for enabling him to exist, grow up and eventually earn it?
But it doesn’t stop there. The man likely has an enormous number of care-giving creditors. He may wash his own laundry and cook his own food. Maybe. But he is dependent upon those who made the clothing, who grew the materials and the food, who made the tools to transform the materials into useful food and clothing, who obtained the materials for those tools, and… yes, we could just keep going with this all day long and never get to the end of this very long sentence — for just his food and clothing needs!
He may buy these services and goods, but the price he pays is never the entire cost. Nor is it ever paid to all the people who contributed to those goods and services. Indeed, many of the people who produced his food, for example, are so under-compensated that they can’t buy the food they produce with their own wages. Is this equitable? The man would not live if these people did not produce his food. Does he not owe them his life? A fair trade would at least enable them to eat as he does.
There is no man that is an independent economic actor. Every man is embedded in a web of inter-being and is dependent on nearly everything in order to do whatever it is he does to “earn” private property. Every man owes far more than he earns. He can not act in isolation, producing wealth without any inputs that require compensation in an equitable world. In an equitable world, there is no economic freedom. In an equitable world, private property does not exist. Only in Asshole Economics is a man free to take without giving back. Only an Asshole believes he owns what he has unfairly taken.
Well and good, you say, but this is all rather philosophical, touchy-feely stuff. So they’re assholes, they still get economic freedom, right?
Because in all this discussion of philosophical debt and reciprocity there is an underlying reality. Yes, money is all fakery. But the life of the tree and all the effects that spring from taking that life are real. And there are real debts owed in taking that life. Even the oligarchs are beginning to understand these debts. Or at least resent them.
When we burn carbon and do not make restitution to the carbon cycle and the atmosphere, we create a real debt, a true imbalance in the budget. There is harm in this imbalance as in all imbalances. The harm is varied and cascading just as the web of inter-being is varied and complex. Harm is radiating out in all directions from this one economic activity. Even the oligarchs are suffering harm. Because they are not truly free to act independently. Because there is no act that is independent. Because there is no actor that is independent. Because there is no such thing as independence.
So life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? No. We get fireworks.
And all the web of harm that comes with that.
Worst holiday ever.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021
Teaser photo credit: By Camera Operator: SSGT. LONO KOLLARS – This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 6413316., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41373457