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Lessons From Coconut Island

Part III: This land was made for you and me

It says nothing on the backside / pxfuel

In part 1 of this series, I touched on the opinion often pushed by advocates of capitalism that the poor are merely trying to take advantage of or ‘steal’ from the wealthy. This sentiment is used as the rationale for various arguments against any sort of public spending, taxation, welfare etc. It’s used to portray any sort of financial or social obligation not voluntarily or willingly fulfilled by an individual as theft. By framing the issue as ‘theft’, the disseminators of this rhetoric are attempting to reinforce the notion that an individual—particularly one that owns private property—is entitled to this claim of ownership, and that this claim allows them to appropriate all of the resources on said property and most importantly, to appropriate the value of workers’ labor.

The very basis of capitalism is predicated on privately-held property—the seizing and holding of which is inherently violent.

We live in a society where since birth, this concept is preached to us as ‘the way things are’, and even ‘natural’. But as part 2 demonstrated, the origin of private property on the island had a very forced beginning. Furthermore, the use of violence and force is integral to maintaining this social order of privately-held property—or ‘law and order’ as it is otherwise called. This is one area in particular where I struggle to make sense of the libertarian argument.

Libertarians and other laissez-faire capitalists take great issue with an entity like ‘the state’ using force or threats of force in order to do things like collect taxes. Yet, the very basis of capitalism is predicated on privately-held property—the seizing and holding of which is inherently violent. At some point in history, all private property was either seized violently, coercively, or unjustly, and then held using the same methods. As part 2 of this series shows, it is not always lazy people trying to steal from the rich. An alternative perspective (and a more correct one in my opinion given the events we’re experiencing right now in our society), is that it is actually the upper strata that have become parasites on the majority, by unjustly accruing wealth on the backs of the labor they appropriate. The justification for this appropriation of labor is the notion of private property, and this is upheld by coercion, force, and even blatant violence. I fail to see how ‘libertarian capitalism’ is morally superior than any other system that is predicated on the use of violence, threats of violence and force.

It is also ironic to me that the one thing libertarian-types vehemently oppose—’the state’—in fact under our current system exists primarily to preserve and administer (and defend) property ‘rights’ and has historically served the interests of the ‘landed’ ruling class, despite the lore of it being ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’. James Madison himself wasn’t a huge of fan of actually giving real equal power to the ‘masses’, out of fear of the ‘tyranny of the majority’. This fear wasn’t unfounded either among the wealthier property owners. Events like Shay’s Rebellion in post-revolutionary America demonstrate the ongoing class struggles at the time. Ultimately, the US Constitution was drafted (behind close doors) in such a way that the interests of the minority ‘wealth’ would have greater weight. This still holds true today in the United States. For example, most power is truly held in the senate, which is the least representative body of government as Noam Chomsky points out. [1]

The merchants and wealthy design policies so that their own interests are protected, no matter how egregious the effect is on others

The US government exists primarily to defend and serve the interests of private-property central to the ideology of capitalism. As Noam Chomsky points out, even Adam Smith - the father of American Capitalism - warned that, “the merchants and wealthy design policies so that their own interests are protected, no matter how egregious the effect is on others“. This certainly has come to pass. Capitalism today has resulted in its inevitable end goal: to redistribute wealth and concentrate it, along with power, among a shrinking ruling class at the expense of everyone else below. This isn’t ‘socialism’—regardless of what welfare programs the capitalist state may or may not implement. This isn’t ‘crony’ capitalism or ‘capitalism run amok’. This is capitalism fulfilling its manifest destiny and doing exactly what it is inherently optimized to do. This is what happens when you opt for an actual tyranny of the minority in an attempt to defend against a supposed ‘tyranny of the masses’.

The Federal Reserve (central banking), the monopolies, the cronyism… These aren’t things that adulterate ‘pure’ capitalism. This is ‘pure’ capitalism devolved in its late stages. Just like the board game Monopoly, only one player ultimately wins. The people pushing the ‘trickle-down’ propaganda know this, but they don’t want the masses to. They want the masses to think the best way to prosperity is to continue working for them, to increase the wealth of the private capital owners, and only then will some of it land in the laps of the workers. Like any good ‘pump and dump’ scheme, they aim to inflate the value of their interests and their holdings in private property by impressing as many people as possible into participating in the scheme, confident that they will be the ones that come out on top, at everyone else’s expense.

The main goal of this series is to highlight that all of this trickery—this swindling of the mass’ collective labor and the enormous wealth it produces—is made possible due to the perpetuation of the belief in and violent enforcement of private property[2]. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s that crazy to suggest that this is an idea worth shelving as a socioeconomic system past its prime. It’s time for ‘private property’ and the capitalist mode of production to take its rightful place alongside the other expired, defective and discontinued merchandise of history—serfdom, feudalism, slavery, autocracy etc.

Questioning and rejecting private property isn’t a new or ‘radical’ idea either. In 1840, French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhorn penned the slogan, “La propriété, c’est le vol!” (Property is Theft!) in his book What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government. In response, Max Stirner—a German philosopher—pointed out:

“Is the concept ‘theft’ at all possible unless one allows validity to the concept ‘property’? How can one steal if property is not already extant? … Accordingly property is not theft, but a theft becomes possible only through property.”[3]

According to Stirner, even the idea of property being ‘theft’ is contingent on accepting property as a valid concept in the first place.

Political performance art by Fay Lewis in Rockford (Illinois), 1914

Political performance art by Fay Lewis in Rockford (Illinois), 1914 / The New York Public Library

American political economist and journalist Henry George, whose writings and ideas were the basis of Georgism, advocated that economic value derived from land (including natural resources) should belong equally to all members of society, and that this could be achieved in practice through a land value tax. While Georgists held that this land value should be held collectively, they emphasized that people should own the value of the labor they produce themselves, and favored this land tax over income tax. This movement and its ideas and ‘rethinking’ of privately-held land gained considerable traction in the early 1900’s.

Woody Guthrie’s song This Land Is Your Land is another example of how the questioning of the concept of private property hasn’t always been as ‘foreign’ to the American psyche as modern capitalism-pushing pundits might suggest. Guthrie’s original words to the song included this verse:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’
But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.

One thing I hear over and over from capitalists is that capitalism and private property are natural ‘laws’ of nature.[4] But, they most certainly are not. ‘Private Property’ is merely a man-made social contract, and a highly questionable one at that. Land is real. The resources on and under it are real. The labor needed to process them into usable forms to meet human needs is real. The requirement for this to all be divvied up and ‘privately’ owned however, is completely made up by people seeking to benefit from this arrangement, even to the detriment of others. I have yet to encounter an argument or experiment that convinces me that proclamations of ownership over natural resources are real, like actual laws of nature such as gravity—easily proven by the fact that a property ‘owner’ does not float off into space while standing on the land they believe they own. This land was there before anyone was born and it will remain after we all pass. The timeless perpetuity of this ground upon the Earth mocks the absurdity of mere mortals attempting to claim it as their own.

Ryli Dunlap

  1. ↩︎ This paragraph expresses some points made in the documentary Psywar that highlights just how much of our society’s belief in the supposed moral superiority of capitalism has been shaped by highly-effective and insidious propaganda, and how this has shaped capitalist countries’ imperialistic foreign policies—especially that of the United States. The part of the documentary that covers the ideas in this paragraph (including the interview with Noam Chomsky) begins at the 51:53 mark.

  2. ↩︎ Again, it’s necessary to point out here the difference between Private vs. Personal Property.

  3. ↩︎ Stirner, Max. The Ego and Its Own. Edited by David Leopold. p. 223

  4. ↩︎ … Or even ‘laws’ of a god. It seems that in typical biblical fashion, for every quote that can be pulled out of it to argue the case for private property, there’s one that says something to the effect of the land and the people on it belonging only to god i.e. Leviticus 25:23 and Psalms 24:1. The bible seems to contradict itself a lot and can be used to rationalize all kinds of silly stuff, like cutting off the arms of a wife who attempts to defend their husband from an assailant by injuring the attacker in the nether regions and then also banning this guy from ever attending a church meeting due to ‘damaged goods’. I wonder if this applies to testicular cancer survivors too? Who knows. I’ve stopped trying to make sense of religious arguments/appeals based on mythological texts at this point in my life, and this has brought me much peace and clarity.