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

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.


The Promise of the Commons

Words are a form of magic. They conjure thought out of the confusion of experience, and they form the lens through which we see the world. Politics is largely a contest over words – over a version of reality. Those whose words prevail, rule; and those who rule choose the words.

Nowhere is this more evident than in economics. Though couched in the trappings of science, economics is basically a word game. Define anything produced as a “good,” and the debate is over before it starts. Who wouldn’t want more “goods?” Define “growth” to mean simply an increase in monetary expenditure, and you can claim economic “progress” even if much of that expenditure results from “goods” that are not so good – the obesity and medical bills arising from junk food, for example.


Tollbooths of the Mind

If one thing is central to the idea of America, it is the ability to breathe freely in the atmosphere of the mind. Thomas Jefferson was the champion of this ideal, and he saw that government was not the only threat to it. Taken too far, private property could shackle freedom, too, as the slaves from Africa knew only too well.

“If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property,” Jefferson wrote, “it is the action of the thinking power called an idea.”


Our Neglected Wealth

For a preview of the next big turn of the political wheel, we might consider a drama that is unfolding in the realm of computers and the World Wide Web.

For years, tech gurus touted the Web as a new frontier of freedom. Yet something very different has occurred. Fences and toll booths are going up all over. Marketers collect dossiers on us without our knowledge. Ads assault us at every click. The push increasingly is not to liberate information, but rather to contrive new ways to make us pay for it.



My friend John Francis maintains that we must be the change we want to see. When he witnessed an oil spill in San Francisco Bay in the early 1970s, he swore off motorized transit for almost 20 years. When he saw people spouting opinions but not listening, he stopped talking, too, so that he could learn to listen better.

John walked and listened all the way across the United States, and down most of South America as well. He observed how changes in himself rippled out into his surroundings. Since he wasn’t talking, family and friends had to communicate by letter – a small step, as it were, for literacy. Since he walked everywhere, others had to adjust their pace to his. Life slowed down where John went. So, when we first spoke about recent events, it was not surprising that John didn’t dwell on feckless jingoism and the rest. Instead, the talk turned to clotheslines.


The Hidden Commons

My wife grew up in what western experts call, not without condescension, a “developing” country. The social life of her village revolved largely around a tree. People gathered there in the evening to visit, tell stories, just pass the time. Some of my wife’s warmest childhood memories are of playing hide and seek late into the evening while the parents chatted under the tree — or on a neighbor’s porch, which was another version of the same thing.

The tree was more than a quaint meeting place. It was a productive asset — an economic asset in the root sense of that word. It produced a bonding of neighbors, an information network, an activity center for kids who ran and played and invented their own games. It provided a bridge between generations. Older people could be part of the flow of daily life, and children got to experience something scarce in the US today — an unstructured and noncompetitive setting in which their parents are close at hand. In the US we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on everything from community centers to kiddie videos to try to achieve those results, with great inefficiency and often much less positive effect.


Reach out and Annoy Someone

In the latter 1990s, in the midst of the high tech boom, I spent alot of time in a coffee shop in the theater district in San Francisco. It was near Union Square, the tourist and I observed a scene play out there time and time again. Mom is nursing her mocha. The kids are picking at their muffins, feet dangling from their chairs. And there’s Dad, pulled back slightly from the table, talking into his cell phone.

I would watch the kids’ faces, vacant and a little forlorn, and wonder what happens to kids whose parents aren’t there even when they are. How can we expect kids to pay attention if we are too busy to payattention to them? Peter Breggin, the psychiatrist, says much “attention deficit disorder” is really “dad deficit disorder.” Maybe he’s right.