Note Six: The Just Distribution and Ethical Use of Property

10.06.2020 - Santiago, Chile - Redacción Chile

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Note Six: The Just Distribution and Ethical Use of Property

By Howard Richards

From the New York Times, June 2, 2020: ´The anger is different this time. After years of Americans being killed by the police — more than 1,000 per year, for as long as statistics exist — something has changed over the past week.

´The gruesome video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck plays a role. So does a pandemic that’s disproportionately killing African-Americans. And so do the angry, racialized politics that President Trump encourages.

´Here are some of the voices from the protests, which have included many people who say they’ve never protested before:

“In every city, there’s a George Floyd,” said Michael Sampson II, 30, of Jacksonville, Fla.

“It could be my father, my brother, my uncle, my cousin, my friend,” said Victoria Sloan, 27, of Brooklyn. “It makes me angry.”

“I’m speaking for everybody, all my kinfolk, all my brothers and sisters who’ve gotten beaten up by police,” said Cory Thomas, 40, who said the police beat him when he was a teenager in Brooklyn. “I don’t condone the violence,” or the looting, he said, “but at the end of the day, no 14-year-old should be beat up by police.”

The testimonies go on and on. I have quoted just a small sample. A similar –and indeed even more horrifying– list of testimonies of injustice could be compiled talking to my neighbors in Chile.[i] And in almost any country in the world. Historians find that the violent repression of the losers in the economic game –of whatever race; of whatever religion, gender or sexual orientation: on whatever continent—has been the norm ever since capitalism began.[ii]

We all know too that nothing is really going to change police brutality, racism, militarism, hypocritical foreign policies, or any of a host of other evils until there is a more just distribution of wealth, a more ethical use of property, and an economic system powered by a different dynamic. In general, the ´deep structure´ has to change. Some keys to defining modernity´s ´deep structure´ are individuals seeking money, because they need money;[iii] the impossibility of everyone getting it legally; and the consequence that the economy will have illegal sectors, deep-seated racism, and the employment of police and jails to protect commerce. Given such deep structures, although it is not a mathematical certainty that racial stereotyping and violence will mushroom, it is a virtual inevitability. [iv] Martin Luther King Jr. told the truth when in 1966, he told the staff at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that “there must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.[v] In words commonly attributed to Archbishop Amigo of Seville in Spain, ´Peace is a table with four legs, and its four legs are justice, justice, justice and justice.´

It can be argued that before capitalism and in the previous phases of capitalism, it was to the interest of an upper class, or race, or gender, to keep others down so they could be up; in words recently spoken by a famous person it was in the interest of the privileged ´to dominate.´ Today there is ample evidence –and the worldwide protests against the murder of George Floyd are part of the evidence—that it is to the interest of everybody to work together across sectors for the common good.[vi] The present unjust distribution of property and the unethical use of it does not benefit one single person, no not one; and it certainly does not benefit even one single person´s grandchildren. It is sinking all of us deeper and deeper into chaos. It is taking down the plants and animals that share the earth with us as it destroys the physical and biological equilibria that make life possible.

I may be wrong about these italicized assertions, but I have an excuse. My excuse is a standing invitation to all the world to criticize my views and to correct my mistakes.

But where do we start? There are so many wrongs to right.

For example, we might/ could start by enacting legislation taxing away gains from speculation in land, as Henry George proposed in the 19th century.[vii] This would correct one form of the injustice of making fortunes keeping other people from using assets for some life-serving purpose, while holding onto them waiting for their price to go up. It would bring money into the public purse that could be used, as MLK Jr. suggested, to employ the unemployed to care for the sick and elderly; it could be used to employ the unemployed; to reforest denuded mountain; to fight global warming. Bringing down land prices by discouraging speculation would make home ownership more affordable for ordinary people; it would lower rents; it would save many from sleeping on the sidewalk or in their cars.[viii]

We might/ could but we can´t. Why not? No reader of the preceding five notes will be surprised by the idea as the world is now organized, we can´t. Speculation in real estate does little or no good and a great deal of harm. Nevertheless, the diversion of increases in land value (due, for example, to population growth) to employing the unemployed, caring for the sick and old, and reversing global warming, would tank investor confidence. Any government that put into practice the philosophy of Henry George would be classified as ´high political risk, ´ ´populist,´ and ´radical.´ To date no democracy has ever dared to try.

The sorry state of the world we live in was aptly described by Tshepiso Mohaloli, a student at the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town. In a term paper she wrote for a class Gavin Andersson and I teach there, we read the following well-chosen words: “The capitalist economic system is entrenched and even threatens the sovereignty of countries. I work for the government and there is no single day one does not hear warning bells of driving away investment when looking out for the 99%. Workers are paid low wages and in some instances paid with alcohol (dop system). Any introduction of legislation to raise the wages of workers (minimum wages) or improvement of labor laws will drive away investment. This is on the back of executives and shareholders earning supernormal profits. Any transformative efforts to get shared ownership of the resources of the land (mining industry, land appropriation) will drive away investment, so individuals must be taxed instead.”

Our students’ well-chosen words lead to an answer to the question ´But where do we start to work to achieve a more just distribution and a more ethical use of property? ´

In a truly civilized democracy, the citizens choose the right thing to do, as God gives them the light to see the right. They make rational decisions about what to do as science and a free press help them to distinguish facts from fantasies. But in the sorry state of the world we live in, there is what lawyers and judges call a threshold question. It must be asked and answered before questions about justice and feasibility can even be asked. It is: Will it drive away investment? This is a threshold question because most of our employment and most of the satisfaction of our other needs depends on the confidence of investors that their investments will be safe and profitable (and also as Michael Kalecki points out,[ix] and as anyone who lived in Chile in 1973 will remember, on investors refraining from deliberately getting together to paralyze production to achieve political aims even when they could, if they wanted to, make money by producing).

The suggested answer to the question ´Where do we start?´ is: We Start by doing whatever we can to make basic human security independent of the confidence of investors, and especially independent of the global financial system. Argentina’s ABC (Abastacimiento Basico Comunitario) program is on the right track. It aims to make every neighborhood in Argentina as self-reliant as possible in basic necessities. Every Argentine should have basic health care at a neighborhood clinic, housing, water and food assured whatever happens in the global economy and whether or not Argentina defaults on loans from international financial institutions.[x] There are many other movements today conceived along similar lines: eco-villages, transition towns, taking control of local territories, time banks and other community currencies, permaculture, LETS (Local Economy Trading Systems)…this list could go on forever; it could go back to Gandhi in the 1920s (swaraj and swadeshi); it could go back to Plato and Aristotle who both postulated that a good polis would be a self-sufficient polis.

When the citizens are secure enough, when the danger of frightening away investors is not a danger that threatens many of them with unemployment, precarious low paid employment, scarcity of essential public services, austerity, union-busting, inflation, and police brutality, then what Karl Popper called an open society can be for real and not just for pretend. What John Dewey called an experimental society, where every institution is an hypothesis to be judged and revised according to its results, can be for real and not just for pretend.

Creating a truly open and experimental society, able to adjust cultural norms and social structure to changing physical realities like Covid 19, advanced technology simultaneously producing abundance and mass unemployment, and global warming will require a culture shift. Or a series of culture shifts. From bounded to unbounded. From hostile isolation to beloved community. How does one go about facilitating a culture shift? One method is called the growth point method. It consists of four steps.[xi]

  1. Communicable themes. A growth point must be something people understand. If it does not make sense to people, it cannot be the code of the social interaction that constructs new norms (or revives old norms). Growth point themes can be music as well as lyrics; themes can be symbolic acts like dying your hair red, getting a tattoo, or wearing a coat and tie. Paulo Freire often used what he called ´hinge themes´ to connect what people already understood with what they could easily understand. A bounced check was a hinge used by MLK Jr.: ´Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds,’ [xii]
  2. The growth point must attract energy and resources. It can be either a bandwagon already moving to jump on, or an idea whose time has come that moves people to start a new bandwagon. If it is just your personal passion, you will have to look somewhere else to find a growth point. Remember also: building a new win-win world with liberty and justice for all will heal all and wound none. Constructing the four legs of the table of peace is not a fight of them against us. In this light, it is disappointing to see that while in the economic justice area there are multiple reform movements powered by the energy of the privileged (one of them is impact investing –investing to achieve measurable social good); in the criminal justice area, there is comparatively little energy powering voluntary self-reform among the police themselves. Here ´comparatively little´ does not mean ´none. ´ I know there are police officers, men and women, working day and night for social justice, because my own nephew, Tim McGraw, is one of them.
  3. To count as a growth point, a movement must possess potential for structural transformation. For example, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe propose ´democracy´ as a theme with energy with potential for structural transformation. Political democracy morphs to economic democracy, and then onward to democracy in other human relationships.[xiii] Starting from religious beliefs and practices, some make a similar case for the potential for structural transformation of ´faithfulness.´
  4. The growth point must contribute to transforming the deep structures of modern society such as capitalism, racism, sexism, markets, domination over nature instead of harmony with nature, and others. Because anything that might be said about the deep structures of society can be said in many ways, speaking from many perspectives, and because anything that might be said might be wrong; implementing unbounded organization with the growth point method (or any social change method) implies a lifetime of study, of reflection, and of conversations sharing perspectives with others with points of view different from one´s own.[xiv]
  • [i] See the historical novel by Caroline Richards, Sweet Country. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.
  • [ii] Bernard Harcourt, The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011; Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale. London: Zed Books, 2014/1986.
  • [iii] Andre Orlean, L´Empire de la Valeur. Paris: Seuill, 2011. P. 149
  • [iv] Michel Foucault, Survveiler et Punir. Paris: Gallimard, 1976.
  • [v] www.intercept.com , accessed June 2, 2020
  • [vi] Martin Luther King Jr. Where Do We Go from Here? Chaos or Community. Boston: Beacon Press, 1967. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson. The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. London: Allen Lane, 2009.
  • [vii] Henry George, Progress and Poverty. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1881 (first published 1879)
  • [viii] Michael Hudson, Killing the Host. New York: Nation Books, 2015.
  • [ix] Michael Kalecki, Political Aspects of Full Employment. Political Quarterly, 1943, pp 1.-9.
  • [x] Interview with Enrique Martinez, then head of INTI (Instituto Nacional de Tecnologia Industrial) at the home of our mutual friend Sara Horowitz in Buenos Aires on a date I do not remember.
  • [xi] For more detail see Howard Richards and Joanna Swanger, Culture Change: A Practical Method with a Theoretical Basis, in Joe de Rivera (ed.) Handbook on Building Cultures of Peace. New York: Springer, 2008.
  • [xii] Martin Luther King Jr. I have a dream speech, Washington DC, August 28, 1963.
  • [xiii] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. London: Verso, 1985.
  • [xiv] For more detail see Howard Richards and Joanna Swanger, Culture Change: A Practical Method with a Theoretical Basis, in Joe de Rivera (ed.) Handbook on Building Cultures of Peace. New York: Springer, 2008.
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