Book Review – Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth by David Bollier


December 31, 2002
Yes! Magazine


Browse in Commons

Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth
by David Bollier
$26.00, Routledge,
260 pages, 2002

When our times finally come to rest in the history texts, I think they will be called the Age of Enclosure—the age of privatization. It is a time when everything has become a commodity, and everything is for sale.

The opinion establishment was in raptures over the resulting money gush. Now that the party’s over, they pine for a return. Yet as the concept of the market comes to define all human experience, so too does the market’s central paradox: the way it creates scarcity even as it produces abundance.

A market requires scarcity. You can’t sell what people already have, or feel they can do without. Thus, for example, health becomes scarce—or at least dear—as it becomes attached to a commoditized system of expert interventions and pills. More broadly, we feel a scarcity of that which the market displaces and degrades—of restfulness and peace, of unspoiled open places, of neighborliness and human interaction, of clean air to breathe and honest food to eat.

Most of us are aware of this at some level, I suspect. We experience it as a vague, chronic gnawing, a sense of being under siege, a nemesis without a name. We see our civic spaces turn into ads for corporations, childhood turn into a marketing free-fire zone. We see the basic elements of life—water, seeds, the genetic code—turn into commodities like pop-tarts and beer, subject to the same corporate contrivance and hype.

We can see the aggressor. But what exactly is the thing aggressed upon? How can we defend it, if it is a hundred different things, and not one thing we can name?

In Silent Theft, David Bollier provides that name, and with it a narrative from which a defense might grow. What appear to be a multitude of separate issues, he says—global warming here, the patenting of seeds over there, the looming destruction of the public library a bit further off—are really part of one big issue. It is the destruction of the commons, the pillaging and commandeering of that which belongs to all of us—if belong is the word—for private and usually corporate gain. This is not the government or public sector. It is the diminishing space that lies outside the government and the market both.

The commons has been under attack for centuries, ever since the British parliament enclosed the common lands and forced peasant farmers into cities where they became an impoverished labor force. (China is doing the same thing now on behalf of industrialized agriculture.) Today, thanks largely to technology, the process is exceeding all previous bounds. The ability to manipulate genetic material makes it possible to own it, for example. The internet, which was supposed to liberate information, instead has provided a chilling means of owning and charging for it.

At the same time, the rise of market fundamentalism as the established state religion has greased the way for such developments and turned the media into an approving choir. The result has been an orgy of enclosure, and Bollier documents the major ones. There are chapters on the giveaway of public assets, such as broadcast airwaves and mineral deposits on public lands; the enclosure of computer code and the internet; the privatization of culture and public spaces; and the corporate takeover of academia and the quest for knowledge, among numerous others.

It’s a broad swath, but with a simple theme. As the title suggests, this is a book about takings, a kind perpetrated by the very interests that complain about takings when done against themselves. In fact, Bollier shows that the government these interests complain about has been their loyal accomplice. It is the government that gives away the public airwaves and mineral rights to public lands; the government that has expanded the copyright and patent laws far beyond Jefferson’s intent, thus setting the stage for the emerging oligopolies of the mind—and the ownership of life itself.

And of course, it is the government that created the legal fiction called the corporation that perpetrates most of these takings in the first place. There’s a lesson here in what used to be called “political economy.” Those who complain about government the most, use it the most for their own ends.

For many readers, the mere mention of the commons will call to mind the notion of tragedy. That’s because of an essay called “The Tragedy of the Commons,” written in the 1960s by the biologist Garret Hardin. The so-called “tragedy thesis” has hung like a pall over the concept ever since. It is a rote recital in the economics texts. Basically it says that commons are prone inevitably to over-use, and that the only answer is a regime of private property rights. Turn the common lands into real estate and everyone is better off.

Bollier shows that the tragedy thesis is a myth, embraced by economists because it suits their preconceptions. In practice it has become a “Procrustean rack,” he observes. “Circumstances that do not fit its premises must be stretched or slashed to fit, or ignored.” What’s ignored is that commons work often and wonderfully—the piazzas (public squares) of Italy, for example, and the community gardens of Manhattan. “The New York City community gardens thrive precisely because they are not governed either by the market or the government.”

All that’s needed, in most cases, is a structure of law or custom that enables the commons to flourish. The market can’t work without rules, and a commons can’t either.

In fact, often it’s enclosure that invites the tragedy. Academic research flourished when it operated as a commons, for example. Academics published their work openly in professional journals. Reward came from the respect of one’s peers, not patent claims and money. Pioneers like Jonas Salk, who discovered the original polio vaccine, did not seek patents for their work. They thought science should serve human kind, not gouge it.

Today, by contrast, academia is in a patent frenzy, prompted by corporate research dollars and a new cash-grabbing ethos. The result has been an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia. Researchers practically need a patent lawyer by their side as they negotiate a growing minefield of competing patent claims. Scientific research is “ratcheting itself towards paralysis,” Bollier observes, from the very thing—property rights—that is supposed to serve as “incentive” for discovery and innovation.

The point here is not that the commons somehow could replace the market. It is, rather, that the commons is a parallel realm of freedom, resource, and endeavor—one that the market itself depends upon and that is equally in need of government protection and support. Bollier offers numerous examples of a new commons movement, from Linux—the computer operating system developed through a commons on the World Wide Web—to service barter networks and land trusts.

The concept of the commons has large political potential. It is the missing link between the ecosystem and the social system, between the destruction of species and the destruction of languages and cultures, between cyber space and open space, between the depletion of the ozone layer and the depletion of our peace and quiet. If this does indeed become known as the Age of Enclosure, then Silent Theft will go down as one of the crucial texts that helped the age to see itself and thus pointed the way out.

Jonathan Rowe is a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute, a regular contributor to YES! and contributing editor for Washington Monthly.