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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Property and Hate (p. 93)

From chapter "Property"

Property is the central organizing feature of our culture. The protection or sanctity of private property—or at least the private property of those in power—informs nearly every decision made by the rulers, and certainly informs the great moral debates of recent history. The question of property was central, of course, to the slave debates of the 1840s and 1850s. in his classic study, Abolition of Negro Slavery, Professor of Political Law Thomas Roderick Dew ides as his first argument against emancipation, “We take it for granted that the right of the owner to his slave is to be respected, and consequently that he is not required to emancipate him, unless his full value is paid by the state.” In hisdefense of slavery, William Harper begins a description of a hypothetical utopia with the phrase, “Let us suppose a state of society in which all shall have property….” The point is that slaves were property—no more and certainly no less—and a nearly insurmountable philosophical, political, and practical difficulty in even talkingabout their emancipation was the enormous cost of compensating the traffickers in humans for their property. Dew threw out a figure of $100 million in 1832 dollars for the slaves in just Virginia, which compares far too closely with the assessed value of all of the houses and lands in that state at the time: $206 million. In all of the debate, even the most fervent abolitionists objected merely to humansas property: It was as unthinkable then as it is now to discuss the morality of property itself.

Property has alwaysbeen the central consideration of the United States government, but it has become even more so over time. Between the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, to provide just one obvious, and, in some ways, silly, example (silly because all of the terms are seemingly obvious, yet in fact nearly impossible to adequately define) and the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1868, the inalienable rights with which men [sic] are self-evidently endowed by their Creator, and which may not be abridged by the State, changed from “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” to life, liberty, and property. The Fourteenth Amendment, passed during the KKK’s maiden reign of terror, ostensibly to protect the rights of blacks from racist state governments, has been used far more often to protect the rights to property: Of the Fourteenth Amendment cases brought before the Supreme Court between 1890 and 1910, only nineteen dealt with the rights of blacks, while two hundred and eighty-eight dealt with the rights of corporations.

On the other side of the Atlantic, private property even informed something so open-and-shut as the debates about the safety of chimney sweeps in England: Attempts to mandate larger flues to facilitate their cleaning by adults or machines were rejected for decades on the grounds that, in the words of Lord Sydney Smith, one of those opposing the mandate, they “could not be carried into execution without great injury to property.” Smith said this after listing five pages of horrors inflicted upon climber boys, and was explicit that the essential reason for opposing the mandate was that property is worth more than life, stating that “it was quite right to throw out the bill for prohibiting the sweeping of chimneys by boys—because humanity is a modern invention; and there are many chimneys in old houses which cannot possibly be swept in any other manner.” Influential economist David Ricardo consistently and steadfastly refused to speak out in favor of the climbing boys (although he spoke out on nearly every subject related to the economy); the reason can be inferred from the premise constant in his writings, which is that legislature (including that which was charged with protecting child laborers) must not be allowed to infringe on the rights of property owners.

I have two questions. The first has to do with David Ricardo. In graduate school I studied economics. My macroeconomics textbook listed Ricardo as one of the three most important classical economists (his work, along with Adam Smith’s and John Stuart Mills’s, “dominated” the period). Here’s the first question: What sort of a culture would value the thoughts of someone who perceives property rights as more important than the health and safety of children (or of anyone, for that matter), and most especially what sort of a culture would value this person’s thoughts highly enough to continue to teach them (with no mention of their inhumanity) a couple of hundred years later? And what sort of culture would enact policies that produce this sort of inhumanity?

Here’s the other question. Why am I exploring the notion of private property? What is the relationship, if any, between the sanctity of private property and hate, contempt, disregard? For simplicity’s sake, let’s call it hate. I keep asking myself why this discussion of hate seems to lead me toward property. On one hand, it seems absurd. Hate is an emotion. This sanctity of private property is a belief system. End of discussion. No connection. But there is something there. The flayed cat. The chimney sweeps. The Middle Passage. Each of these horrors occurs because people—the owners and their employees—value money, value property, over living beings. But that still doesn’t quite explain the relationship between these atrocities and hate. Doesn’t quite explain the relationship between these atrocities and hate.

Or does it? Is this a case of hatred—hatred of life itself, perhaps?—having been felt long enough that it no longer feels like hate, but tradition—in this case the sanctity of private property?

So far I’ve held a straight face while writing about democracy—and the good things in life—as they are made possible for the owning class through the efforts of the enslaved, and I’ve been quoting without disagreement defenders of this politics of luxury. But maybe now it’s time to begin asking some more fundamental questions. What sort of democracy can be based explicitly on the misery of others? And what sort of people would desire and claim a luxury which has as its cost the hopes and lives of a race of slaves? I include myself in this question, as I sit now in front of my computer made in Thailand, wearing a sweatshirt and a sweater made in sweatshops in Korea (at least the shirt I’m wearing today was made in the United States by a company that odes not overly exploit its workers). I don’t feellike I hate the workers in Thailand and Korea. Truth be told, I feel nothing toward them. I don’t even know who they are. How, then, do I support their suffering, and, in the case of the workers in Thailand, their deaths? It’s too easy for me to simply blame it all on our economic system, or to call that system one current in the cultural river of hate. It’s too sanctimonious to invoke the defense of the good Germans: I did not know, and to the degree that I did, I was merely following orders. Or just getting along.

The problem isn’t property and ownership as such. You don’t have to own people to misuse them. All you have to do is see them as means to ends, to see the world through the lens of utilitarianism, or instrumentality, as John Keeble averred when he said that corporations and hate groups are branches for the same tree, different forms of the same cultural imperative: to rob the world of its subjectivity, to turn everyone and everything into objects.

Here’s one last question in this chapter of many questions. Does someone who objectifies, one who perceives the living planet and its members as objects to be used, hate the world, and hate life? Or is it more true that for these people the world (or children, or blacks, or women, or whatever category they or we wish to objectify) simply doesn’t exist? I have to admit that it seems like a stretch to say that those who objectify the world hate life, but given that our culture clearly objectifies the world, and given that it is rapidly destroying life on the planet, maybe it’s time to stretch.