Ben G. Price, CELDF

Great Expectations; Ignoble Disappointments

The lament of every elected official confronted by a roomful of angry citizens  could be summarized on a bumper sticker that says, “we wish we could help, but our hands are tied.” It’s the mantra that every one of us hears when we show up at a municipal meeting to ask local officials to do something to stop environmentally destructive Project X. You know: the pipeline, the frack wells, the power lines and microwave towers, the industrial wind farms, rampant overdevelopment, the landfill expansion, the big box store, the latest money-maker that nobody wants and everyone fears.

The people we elect locally aren’t universally apathetic about the needs of their communities. They generally do what they can with what they’ve got, which is less and less as states breach their responsibilities to citizens more and more to avoid corporate lawsuits and save money for other priorities, like tax cuts for the rich and subsidies for the biggest of businesses. When they tell us they can’t help us, our elected officials are telling mostly the truth, although they always have a choice to buck the system and do what’s right. The ones who will take that stand are the ones community rights organizers like my colleagues at CELDF love to bump into. They are the salt of the earth, the ones who offer hope that the precedent-driven repetition of errors of the past can be corrected. They are the special ones who know that neither the state nor the federal government can legitimately forbid public servants from standing up for the rights of the neighbors who elected them. They understand that you can’t protect wealth at the expense of everybody and everything else and pretend that’s the way it should be. True environmental protection will become real when they become the norm rather than an anomaly.  

Photo by Ben Price

Somebody (and we know who) Stole the Republic

By now many of us know that the U.S. Supreme Court decided on its own, without direction from elected representatives of the people or precedent from judges of the past, that corporate property has constitutional rights. Not corporate stockholders. Not corporate directors. I mean the property they own in common – the piece of paper that says that property is a corporation. This is an example of what I mean when I say that law – including case law — lodges unalienable rights intended for people within property. 

The Supreme Court didn’t invent the idea of stowing extra constitutional rights within property, although the choice of corporate property was a real innovation. They took their lead from the men who wrote the Constitution. Those Federalist counter-revolutionaries got the ball rolling when they injected rights to extraordinary political representation within the privileged property of slaves. Until the Civil War, the U.S.Constitution declared that slaves counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of proportional representation in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. That doesn’t mean they had three-fifths of the rights of white male Americans. With the Three -Fifths Clause, the Constitution attached political rights of additional representation in the national government onto human chattel and gave slave owners palpable political advantages over all American white males represented in non-slave states, where one propertied white male citizen had one vote and no more.

When the Federalists met in secret to write their corporate constitution, the delegates representing the patrician plantation culture of the South cut a deal with Northern proto-industrialists and, so as not to stir another revolution against them, avoided the most overt trappings of aristocracy in exchange for the over-represented political power of an aristocracy. Possession of privileged property in slaves translated into superior power in the governance of the nation for otherwise out-numbered possessors of human chattel.

With the 13th Amendment, humans could no longer be considered legal property, unless convicted of a crime and incarcerated or conscripted for military service, but soon after that emancipation, corporate property was declared to be a legal person by the high court. A century full of additional court decisions put the Bill of  Rights into the service of corporate  property so that it now constitutes privileged property capable of conveying extra governing power to corporation owners. 

It must be said that neither inert corporate property nor enslaved people are able to enjoy the rights law deposits in them. They are mere vessels for conveying the rights of property to their owners, who capitalize on the extra political power thus conveyed. Corporations and slaves are examples of this power transferring legal talisman, that special form of property I call privileged property. 

It also should not be lost to history that privatizing the power to rule over others by vesting governing rights in land and resources long predates the U.S. Constitution. The British enclosure movement put an end to what’s referred to as “the commons,” a term referring to untitled land shared by tradition among local residents. With the enclosures, monarchs marked boundaries around land, parceled it out and gave title of monopolistic ownership to privileged friends of the sovereign. In so doing, the equal right of access long enjoyed by the resident community members was denied and in fact criminalized. The new owner appropriated the land and resources associated with it, and those privileges were legally enforced against the revoked rights of all others.

~ Continued ~

“Paint Me Pictures” by Michelle Sanborn, CELDF

Written for my daughter who is a talented illustrator artist and continues to inspire me to leave this world a better place for all my children and future generations.

Michelle Sanborn – Paint Me Pictures

I want to see the colors of the sky so blue

before its all gone…I do.

With clouds wisping through 

and birds soaring strong and free;

put it all on canvas so I remember, please.

I want to see the trees grow tall and green;

holding promise through the winter 

and new life in the spring.

Paint me pictures before it all dies away

so I can recall better days.

Don’t hold back, capture as much as you can;

Before its all gone….it’s the legacy of man.

I want to see the water, clear and full of life;

include all the creatures that were sacrificed.

Paint the mountains grand, watching over fields below.

Don’t leave out any features include the flowers gold.

Show the colors of a rainbow – and all those in between – from a recent shower; a sign of hope, supposedly.

Paint those pictures before it all dies away

so we can recall…better days.

Don’t hold back, capture as much as you can;

Before its all gone….it’s the legacy of man.

Paint those pictures before it all dies away

so we can recall…better days.

Don’t hold back, capture as much as you can;

Before its all gone….it’s the legacy of man.

European empires used this same model of commandeering the commons and privatizing land and resources to colonize the Americas. They accomplished this hemispheric theft by the genocide of millions and removal of thousands of indigenous communities from their homes, their symboitic relationship with the Earth. They were stripped of their right to self-govern. The bitterly ironic invention of privileged property gave European landowners in the U.S. a right to participate in colonial government by instituting property qualifications for voting and holding public office. Thus, white men not in possession of the privileged property of land were shut out of governance. These hubristic landlords imported (kidnapped and exiled) Africans who became labeled “property” under new laws that gave ownership of their muscles and brains to bestial tyrants who used them to build for them a nation that the oppressors have long sardonically called a land of law and liberty. As then, today that “liberty” is the liberty to possess what once was free to all, and that law is the coerced defense of governing authority attached to privileged property.  

For commoners of European heritage, violence never rose to the same level, because white commoners willing to kill Indians, hunt escaped slaves and temporarily stake their claims to dispossessed land were useful tools in the expansion of empire. But once a nation was established, governing it was not to be shared with the useful idiots of empire who owned no privileged property.

Upon its ratification in 1789, the unamended federal constitution included methods of privileging only the wealthy with governing rights other than those rights attached to land ownership.  Authority to wield political power was transferred to the best hoarders of capital by establishing the means and processes of production and wealth accumulation as new forms of privileged property. The power to govern, supposedly won by white male revolutionaries, who battled the British Empire for their emancipation, was privatized and made unavailable even to the average unpropertied white man, especially on issues impinging on rights in wealth. This was accomplished by inclusion of constitutional provisions like the Commerce Clause, the Contract Clause, and the Fugitive Labor Clause. These wealth-biased constitutional nuggets impose legal obligations on each citizen, without the consent of each citizen. 

The long-term effect has been to privatize decision-making on many issues that would otherwise reasonably be considered matters of public concern and democratic governance, like protection of air, water and soil from poisoning. Over the past two hundred and thirty-plus years, a succession of politically appointed Supreme Court judges has gone further than the Federalists dared by infusing all sorts of property with new governing powers that are transferable to the owners. Recent outrageous judicial decisions have caused an uptick in the number of people conscious of and alarmed by the ploy.

Citizens United versus Federal Elections Commission is the Court case decided in 2010 in which the judges gave corporations a constitutional right to spend unlimited amounts of money to corruptly influence the outcome of elections. A sleeping public that hadn’t noticed that American law already put the rich in the driver’s seat was suddenly roused. Some thought the worst thing about the decision was that corporations had been declared legal “persons.”

They hadn’t been taught in school that the courts made that decision a hundred and twenty-four years earlier. Few realized that the decision wasn’t about corporations at all. It was about clearing the way for the wealthy to decide who will govern in the United States. A scattering of voices could be heard calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision.

If they succeed, it won’t be nearly enough. The totalitarian reach of privileged property transcends the corporate form. It is at the heart of a totalitarian materialism that threatens to kill most life on Earth, all for the continuing accumulation of wealth, the totem of privilege. 

Photo by Ben Price

Half-Fast Measures

The Supreme Court betrays every American with rulings like Citizens United, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the courts have found ways to include corporate property in the Constitution, although corporations are never mentioned there. Over time, devotion to the “founders” became a more powerful meme than fealty to the ideals of the Revolution. Our awareness of betrayal has been sublimated beneath the surface of American nationalism. This explains the general reluctance to demand systemic change.

The most drastic proposals from constitutional reformers go no further than calling for constitutional amendments to overturn the damage done by Citizens United. The short of it is this: it’s a losing strategy. Because the legal mechanisms for conveying extra power and authority to the wealthy are deeply ingrained in U.S. law. Even if those amendments were adopted, they would do little to free us from the dictatorship of privileged property. There’s no delicate way to say it. We have much bigger problems.

Judges have regularly attached legal privileges to property, particularly corporate property. Case law (the accumulated collection of court decisions) is a veritable La Brea tar pit filled with the preserved remnants of an extinct democracy, all covered in the black goo of legal double-talk. Judges have solemnly doled out legal opinions, insisting their job is to serve the law and not administer justice, all without making it clear that precedent and the laws they serve favor a propertied class of aristocrats. 

We are at a moment in history when a movement is afoot to amplify and strengthen legal rights attached to wealth. Occasional “rogue” court decisions, like Citizens United, are taken as the exception even though the U.S. Supreme Court has never failed to preserve the law’s protection of rights in property over the rights of people and nature. And that’s at the heart of our inability to protect our communities and our local environments from toxic corporate invasions. 

Planetary Emancipation

 There is a movement afoot that could undermine our current dystopian reality. An international movement for the legally enforceable Rights of Nature is underway. It began humbly, in a little borough in Pennsylvania, U.S.A. Then it spread to Ecuador, to Bolivia, to New Zealand and India and elsewhere. It has a life of its own and that is why it is unstoppable.

 How can recognizing unalienable rights for nature challenge and defeat the juggernaut of rights attached to property and transferred to serial owners?  The answer is in the question. When nature is no longer categorized in its every aspect as property; when owning land and resources no longer gives owners of such privileged property authority to set policy, define commerce, lord it over workers and, in-short, govern; and when forests, mountaintops, aquifers, coal seams, ore deposits, genetic material, natural medicines, and every subset of the natural world is emancipated from the legal status of property; then the threat to our rights and our common inheritance posed by the hegemony of private ownership of Earth can be ended.

Photo by Ben Price

The Land Must be Liberated: Emancipating the Planet

The Community Rights Movement of which the Rights of Nature Movement is a part, has in mind a much more inclusive definition of “community” than the framers of the U.S. Constitution had in mind. For them, white men who own property were the legitimate rulers of the nation. Women, Native Americans, African Americans, paupers of all sorts, non-Christians and unpropertied white men, not to mention people who identify as other than cis-gendered, or neurodiverse, had no place in the governance of the community or the nation. Nor did the rivers and mountains, the forests and landscape or any creature living within them. It’s time to open the gated fortress where people and their possessions separate themselves from nature, fellow human beings and responsibility to them, smug in their presumed superiority. We can reconstitute community as it should exist: people living in symbiotic harmony with nature,

rather than as parasites. Nature is the greater community and we, all of us, are a part of it. We are nature.

We aren’t helpless to begin the task of correcting and making amends for the cultural, genocidal and ecocidal errors of the past. Or if we are, then the visceral longing for freedom and real justice and preservation of the planet are lost causes. But that is an intolerable outcome. Emancipating Earth from those who claim to own her must coincide with liberating We the People and all life from the dictatorship of privileged property. These inextricably interwoven causes have the same goal: right relationship and true freedom.

By now the Rights of Nature movement has become something of a cause celebre. Beneath the legal fight to protect the planet and its living systems is a battle to the death – or to life — over legal and governing rights attached to property and the status of nature in the eyes of the law.

In the U.S., more than forty cities, municipalities and counties have enacted laws recognizing nature as a rights-bearing entity. No longer mere property in which special privileges are stored for their owners to harvest, nature is recognized in those communities as fully qualified to enjoy its own rights and to have them defended in court. 

The reason that nature needs recognition for her legal rights is not that nature should be considered a legal person. Nature is not a human being. And it’s not a mere “juristic person,” or corporation. It has its own priorities and deserves and needs these protections because  Western law and the rule of property treat nature as the slave of its many owners. It is the privilege to destroy that makes the owners of land and “resources” dangerous to life on Earth. The rest of us, who do not claim to own the world, have unalienable rights including the right to withdraw presumed privileges of property ownership when they threaten others’ rights and do harm to the world. The privilege to destroy is among the cache of governing powers conveyed to land and resource owners by the rights of property. It has brought to the world the climate crisis, a mass species die-off, and the ecocide of the oceans, not to mention the proliferation of disease, dislocation, misery and suffering for people and life in general. To argue that the community has no authority to bring this carnage to an end is a blithe absurdity.

There is no doubt that making the needed changes to privileges associated with property will be one of our culture’s greatest challenges. Emancipating nature from bondage to its owners will alter the meaning of the word property in ways that will defy centuries of institutionalized privilege for those who possess the lion’s share of everything. The elite minority propertied class will resist any change that diminishes their dominion over us and the entire living world. They will employ uninformed friends, family and strangers as their paid workforce to subdue our efforts. They will engage in propaganda and misinformation, name-calling, villainization, and criminalization of our efforts, our gatherings, even our thoughts, to stop us from wresting total control from them. The stakes could not be higher. To lose is to lose everything. Earth Day is not enough. Earth Emancipation Now!

This text is excerpted and updated from the author’s book “How Wealth Rules the World: Saving Our Communities and Freedoms from the Dictatorship of Property.”

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