Culleny: Defending the common wealth

June 14, 2012

June 14, 2012

What is the public commons and who controls it? This is a questions that comes with a host of implications — political, religious, social, personal; one we’ve been trying for centuries to answer. Who owns the earth? Who has dominion over it, its lives and its resources?

The will to power is about controlling the commons: defining and enforcing its boundaries, profiting from its resources, reaping its bounty. Such will is inherent in both political and religious movements, two realms often idealized as being distinct that are often indistinguishable.

Our founders expressed the idea of common wealth in the official names of certain state entities — the Commonwealth of Massachusetts among others.

Writer Thom Hartmann notes “ ... the founders understood ... they were acknowledging a ... pool of wealth that was collectively shared ... and the common functions that needed to be taken care of; we need the police, we need fire, we need schools, roads (et cetera) ... all part of the commons: the Us taking care of Us.”

This is bedrock enlightened government, but Hartman warns, “the extent to which the concept of the commons has been lost benefits the large corporations ... when we give up control of the commons ... not only have we lost control of it but we’re at the mercy of those corporations.”

This is bedrock rationality.

When we give our means of sustenance over to profit-making corporations where our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness play fourth fiddle to their business plan. This would be a deal made only by the ignorant or masochists, but we, through elected crooks, are actually the ones making it. By our general muteness we are acquiescing to it.

Not all of us are dumb in the face of corporate assaults on the public commons. The Illinois Coalition to Protect the Public Commons calls for action on its website ( “When public assets ... are privatized citizens relinquish control ... to the corporate state. We lose good jobs, money, access, our sense of community, accountability, and legal recourse. The corporate state grows while democracy shrinks. Whose rights are protected in an ownership society?”

In every issue dealing with the privatization of any part of our public commons — police and fire departments, public education and water systems, health care, elections, highways, infrastructure, transportation, parks — whose rights are protected (or enhanced) in an ownership society should be foremost in our minds.

There’s a weird selective blaming that permeates the right in this country. It’s always been there, but gained traction again with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980.

Reagan, the Affable King of Wealth Re-distribution, sold Americans on the idea that government is the problem. Behind Reagan’s slippery snake-oil salesman glad-handing and charm lurked a spirit mean enough to undermine the well-being of middle-class Americans and the poor. His happy callousness might be summed up in a rule of his USDA that, in the case of federally subsidized public school lunches, ketchup could be considered a vegetable.

Reagan busted unions, undermined the oversight of public agencies by placing at their heads managers who worked to sell them out. Under his administration, school lunch programs were severely cut, pre-natal programs were sliced, federal job-training programs ended, the Legal Aid Corporation eviscerated.

But what’s most startling is the selective memory of those who today have taken Reagan’s ideas to the max. They blame government for every ill that faces us, and progressive government for driving us into debt. Yet, the Daily Kos reminds us, while under Reagan “ ... the U.S. went from being the world’s largest creditor to being the largest debtor nation.”

Government is not the problem. The problem is government corrupted by private money. This is what libertarians and the right, in general, omit from their arguments: the invasion of the commons by the private sector through sell-outs by politicians.

Corporations have no right to what the people should control. If you need an example of why here’s one champion of corporate capitalism in recent news: “Nestle Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe believes that ‘access to water is not a public right.’”

Think about that. But privatization of our water supply is a sure road to ruin as corporations buy water rights in states like Maine leaving depleted aquifers requiring residents to stock up on Nestle’s Poland Spring.

Corporations are not in the business of public well-being. Left to their own devices, corporations are on the record for lying, cheating, stealing, bribing, maiming and poisoning if their bottom lines look shaky. Only the seriously self-destructive would turn over our common wealth to be managed and sold back to us by private entities with just one thing on their minds: profit — and more of it.

So what do we do when even our government is largely in the pockets of corporations?

Last week, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to protest and protect their commonwealth. By the massing of their outrage they unseated a government.

The next time you have a chance to out-flank our cash-twisted politics foisted on us by the Supreme Court’s Citizens-United-money-is-free-speech ruling by attending an anti-corporate demonstration, don’t pooh-pooh it as having sprung from the minds of radicals. Join up; do it! It will not make you a socialist.

Culleny lives in Shelburne Falls, works in construction, is a singer/songwriter, and has done commentary for National Public Radio. His email address is

There are no comments yet. Be the first!
Post a Comment

You must be registered to comment on stories. Click here to register.