Honey Begins Her Talk On John Dewey
(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste.)
Every culture has a way of looking at the world. The people who live in a culture don’t know that there are other ways to look at the world but their own. People are like fish in the sea. We don’t know there are alternatives to the way we see things.
The American world-view – ideology — grew out of English history, and our legal system developed as a result of that history. The English people began with tribalism and primitive communism.
All of our ancestors were hunter gatherers. Argon-argon dating shows that about 280,000 years ago, human beings made tools showing integrated cognitive abilities, in the Ethiopian Rift Valley. Human beings discovered agriculture about 10,000 years ago. That means that at best we farmed for 4% of our history. Before the invention of agriculture, no one had any idea resembling our idea of private property.
The Roman occupiers in England imported class hierarchy, and that class system developed into feudalism, which was significantly affected by a religion that supported the divine right of kings. State and religion blurred. One of the consequences of the Crusades was a shift in power away from the king and his right to do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. The first time I know of that human beings reflected an idea that the king had to give you a hearing before he snatched your property from you was in the Magna Carta (1215).
The ancient collectivist idea of the Commons – of rights in land even when “owned” by a lord – slowly eroded after Parliament passed laws allowing a landowner to sell his land, to will his land to someone other than to his first born son, and to enclose his land. The Enclosure Acts transformed agricultural England and brought, eventually, an end to village cultures where economic life had mixed together trades and farming. The peasants became “free” from the land, which meant they starved. Hungry former peasants became the labor force that created the Industrial Revolution.
Beginning about 250 years ago, people transformed England’s economic and social landscape, predicated on the immense change in perspective caused by the evolution of the idea of private property. The ideology that transformed England is our Constitution’s scaffolding. The Fifth and the Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution protect – among other rights these amendments protect – the right to own property, and the prohibition against government taking your property without due process or just compensation.
Canadian political philosopher Crawford Brough Macpherson believed that “possessive individualism,” which depends on interpretations of Lockean and Hobbesian ideas that economies are naturally market-based and that ownership of private property is key to individualism, prevented individuals from developing their powers of rationality, moral judgment, contemplation and even friendship and love.
The American world view is possessive individualism, although this view is occasionally mediated by less greed-bag approaches like the federal and state parks systems, both of which sort of show some collectivist impulse, and we do imprison some of the people who violate laws meant to protect the collective.
One of the gaudiest showcases for the conflict between possessive individualism and rational land use planning exploded in 1953 in Chavez Ravine, which is surrounded by Elysian Park (1886), the oldest park in Los Angeles not including the two plazas we inherited from Mexico.
Pursuant to Congress’s Housing Act of 1949, the Los Angeles Housing Authority condemned housing in Chavez Ravine as blighted in order to provide well-constructed and well-designed housing for low income people. Because House member Helen Gahagan Douglas supported public housing, Richard Nixon smeared her as a Communist and said she was “pink right down to her panties.” (Douglas called Nixon “Tricky Dick,” and the name stuck.) She lost the Senate seat to Nixon. Walter O’Malley got Chavez Ravine for the Dodgers.
As one result of our ideology, we cobble our land use planning. We do not have affordable housing for many working people. In California, we limit property taxes. In some states, nuthatch maniac interests (I’m holding back here.) have passed private property protection acts that require local governments to pay market value for any property whose price may be decreased by, say, environmental protection regulations or even zoning. City Councilmembers and County Supervisors receive campaign funds from real estate developers, who decide what our cities will be like. Highways, paid for by taxpayers although Libertarians do not seem to mind that role for government, subsidize private ownership. Mortgage interest subsidies benefit the wealthy more than they do low income people, so that, unless low income people are willing to engage in very iffy financing, government subsidy to wealthy pushes those who do not receive subsidies into greater poverty.
Possessive individualism does not lead to sustainable planning. Bazillion automobiles on public highways invading agricultural land, and hamburger manufacturers hacking down forests for grazing land, may kill us. Our toxins fill rivers. Mud from construction destroys coral reefs. We have dead areas in the ocean from all of our debris.
In some following essay or essays, I’ll talk about some adventures in city planning under the New Deal in this country and under Mao-Tse Tung in China during the 1930s and early 1940s that were strikingly similar, and I’ll also talk about how one of America’s foremost philosophers — John Dewey — had a hand in shaping both of those efforts.
Some of the ideas of those valiant experiments in planning (although much diluted) have returned, and we can see them in mixed use zoning, transient oriented development, school gardens, and community gardens.
Our present day return to diluted revolutionary ideas is tepid and not all that interesting but, given the crushing weight of possessive individualism on our backs and its iron fence imprisoning our thinking, using those tools may be the best we can do. For now.
Mike Davis, City of Quartz: excavating the future in Los Angeles. (New York and London, Verso 2006). Mike admittedly does not let facts stand in the way of his political theories. His sketch of what happened in Chavez Ravine focuses on the property rights lost by the people who had lived there and doesn’t sound exactly true. When we were undergraduates, and I believed incorrectly that Mike was a precocious teenager, he explained Marxism to me, and one of the things he explained was that Marx wrote in abstractions so that we could better understand his version of the labor theory of value, and so Marx did not always premise his arguments on real facts.
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