Friday, January 21, 2011

"Between equal rights, force decides"

Zalmay Khalilzad, Financial Times:

[A] new freedom agenda for the region [Tunisia, et al.] must be articulated. This should emphasise our shared interest in promoting liberal democracy, meaning elected governments that respect the fundamental rights of their citizens.

Let us recall the long-standing socialist critique of liberal democracy that we discussed earlier in the week. Liberal democracy is the terminology used to describe capitalism with democratic formalities like elections, "individual rights," and so on.

By definition, capitalism implies that significant parts of the economy will be privately owned, as a kind of property. Private property might be a family owning a food truck; it might also be a multinational corporation owning the water supply of a community, as was attempted in Bolivia in 1999. You have to be able to distinguish between the two if you want to have anything meaningful to say about private property. Some forms of private property may be endorsed by the broader community; others will not.

Socialists criticize liberal democracy for deliberately confusing the two kinds of property. For example, you will often hear mainstream politicians using the language of the "small" (small business, etc.) in order to promote the interests of the big and powerful. Political operatives can't come out and say they are in favor of further centralization of power in the economy, because this would be unpopular. So they use a coded language of "individual rights," the implication being that even if you and a multinational corporation enjoy the same rights in principle, you sure as hell won't enjoy the same rights in practice. As far as the powerful are concerned, that is all that matters; moreover, they hardly object to regarding themselves as exemplars of enlightened societies where everyone has rights!

That's the scam of liberal democracy as far as socialists see it. "A new freedom agenda for Tunisia" will mean pushing property rights for the big and powerful within the country (because, you see, they are best positioned to "push" in the first place!). The post-revolutionary difference is that big western firms will be able to monopolize what matters in Tunisia, as opposed to an autocratic domestic government. This is how men of principle, like Mr. Khalilzad, choose to distinguish themselves in the world.


mitch said...

Nice quotation, "new freedom agenda" is a chilling phrase.

Richard said...

It seems to me that it was a great rhetorical victory for capital when personal possessions were elided with "private property", causing much confusion among normal people. Another good post.

Peter Ward said...

Having been employed by both a "small business" as well as a mega-corp, I found the experience of the worker about the same.

Personal experience aside, based on interviews I've done for the Retail Action Project here in the City, it seems some of the wost local labor abusers are "small businesses".

In fact the "small business" is a construct devised to defended the rentier model against, say, self-management or the basic libertarian principle that, "the laborer who attends a garden is perhaps in a truer since its owner than the listless voluptuary who enjoys its fruits."

JRB said...


Yes, personal possessions -- that which you can make productive use of in your own capacity -- is the the classic alternative offered up by various socialists against "private property" as an institutional arrangement.

As you suggest, we won't find much consensus on the terms and their definitions in a US context, so I like to begin where most Americans already are, which is to regard their personal possessions as a form of private property to which they are proudly attached, will defend to the death with firearms, and "all the rest of it," as our friend David Harvey would say.


You make a persuasive case as far as I am concerned!

I think many Americans are emotionally attached to the small business economic model; and when I look at my Italian Market neighborhood here in Philadelphia, which still sports independent proprietors hawking pasta, meats, and cheese; I can appreciate why.

I think it's a discussion many communities are interested in having, and of course I think it would be great if it was supplemented by an examination of first principles like the ones you raise. We have to integrate what makes sense into conversations that people are eager to have.

Ben There said...

One of the greatest triumphs of "American style capitalism" propaganda has been getting people to conflate "individual liberties" with corporate 'liberty'. A challenge I repeatedly find myself in when having discussions with right-leaning acquaintances is trying to draw the distinction between the two. And not just make the distinction but point out how individual liberty is often in direct conflict with corporate liberty.

As you have nicely pointed out, the same deliberate blurring has occured around the discussion of property.

Brian M said...

One interesting blurring has occurred with Prop 13...the property tax freeze passed in California. Sold as a means of protecting the homes of elderly residents priced by ever increasing property values and taxes, the main beneficiaries have been large corporations...who transfer their property far less frequently than single family residences.