Sometimes what I fear most is that the disintegration of public life — indeed, the very idea of the public good — is complete. The vultures and profiteers swarm around the carcass and make a profit and that’s all that matters.
Thirty years on, the Reagan Revolution has done its job, or nearly so. There’s no sustaining integrity left to how our society is organized, no principle that can’t be gamed for private benefit. And even awareness of all this has been successfully marginalized. We still proclaim ourselves, in the prevailing media, the world’s oldest, greatest democracy, and worship the old rituals.
But the common good has been auctioned off.
For instance, “Human rights are increasingly the business of corporations,” Paloma Muñoz Quick of the Danish Institute for Human Rights wrote recently at Common Dreams, discussing the U.N.’s proposed Arms Trade Treaty, which would establish rules — currently nonexistent — for the international weapons trade.
The treaty addresses only the role of states in global arms proliferation, not that of international businesses, for which weapons sales were a $400 billion market in 2010, she notes. Nevertheless, corporate opposition to the treaty has been mounted in the U.S. through the National Rifle Association, which has — surprise! — cited the treaty’s alleged threat to the Second Amendment, which has no bearing on international arms transfers but serves as an all-purpose excuse for derailing any check on the flow of weapons. U.S. companies control about 60 percent of the global arms market, Quick writes.
Another example of for-profit gaming of the “public good” can be found in the spread of private prisons, whose primary interest is market expansion. In 2010, for instance, Arizona passed the most invasive anti-immigrant law in the United States, a provision of which — the “breathing while brown” provision, as it is known — allows police to arrest anyone who can’t, upon demand, produce their immigration documents. Documented or undocumented, anyone stopped by the police under this law has to be carrying his or her papers. This provision is a guarantee to increase jail populations.
Turns out the template for this law was written under the auspices of the notorious American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a national organization that unites state lawmakers — more than 2,000 of whom are members of ALEC — with corporations and special-interest groups. Corporate members include the nation’s two largest private prison operators, the Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group, for whom the law represented sheer market expansion.
While the law appeals to anti-immigrant types — that is to say, it appears to represent the principle of stringent border control — this principle, like the self-defense principle allegedly embodied in the Second Amendment, conveniently serves the profit interests of certain industries.
In a 2010 investigative piece on the legislation for In These Times, Beau Hodai noted that “some backers of S.B. 1070” — the law’s name in the Arizona legislature — “are wrapping themselves in the flag all the way to the bank.”
Four years ago I wrote about what was known as the “kids for cash” scandal in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in which two juvenile court justices were convicted of taking bribes from a local private prison company, which kept its facilities full of teenagers steamrolled through the court system. The judges were notorious for imposing lengthy jail sentences on teens for minor, first-time offenses, often after the defendants unknowingly waived their right to counsel.
“The blurring of the line that separates profit from state,” I wrote, “has had a far more devastating effect on American values — indeed, on the very notion that anything besides a good financial buzz even has value — than the blurring of that more famously wobbly line that separates church from state.”
I fear this isn’t simply about occasional and inevitable corruption, but the righteous, for-profit gaming of a broken social system in the name of a privatized world. The driving force is privatization, and it seizes on divisive, us-vs.-them “ideals” as moral pretexts for intensifying the profitable breakup of the human commons — that which belongs to all of us, such as “human rights” and “justice.”
Knowing this, the logical next step is cynicism, but I remain steadfast in my refusal to be cynical. There is a counterforce to a privatized, divided, us-vs.-them world, though I think it will fail if it attempts to rally around old, limited principles. Nothing less than a reach for global peace and universal equality will do — which is why I celebrate U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee’s (D-Calif.) recent reintroduction of H.R. 808, legislation to create a Cabinet-level Department of Peacebuilding, into the House.
The bill is similar to legislation former Rep. Dennis Kucinich had introduced into every legislative session since 2001. According to The Hill, this department “would be charged with pushing peace-building as a ‘strategic national policy objective’ that would have components both at home and abroad” — from finding ways to reduce gun violence, gang violence and bullying to monitoring world conflicts and proposing ways to end them.
This won’t fit into the old logic of nationhood, which assumes that violence is inevitable and, as Eckhart Tolle wrote about the collective ego in A New Earth, “needs opposition to define its boundary and thus its identity.”
I don’t know if a Department of Peacebuilding has a chance to become reality in my lifetime, but I believe that as long as people are working for it by creating peace in every corner of our world, the public good will survive the assault of privatization.