The Politics of “Dispossession”

Several published reports in recent days point to the processes by which our politics is privatizing public goods and increasingly is serving as a venue for attacks on our governing jurisdictions and their roles in representing the commons. That is, as a people we are electing and supporting leaders bent on rapidly commodifying the lion’s share of our social and political interaction on the basis of a market model. Further and as a result, we appear to be collectively adopting the view as we take these steps that we share nothing in common and owe nothing to one another that cannot be captured in consumer transactions. These processes receive little attention, but their cumulative result for how individuals view their governments and their role as citizens is large. One outcome of this orientation is that self-governance, and especially the public services rendered in its name, is persistently portrayed as a replaceable commodity. I want here to highlight this deepening trend with three current examples that illustrate the ways in which its advocates rationalize it. In brief, this overarching movement is legitimated by straightforward ideological attacks on governance as inefficient and unnecessary, by arguments that the nation (or state or locality) cannot “afford” any longer to consider specific services as public goods as a consequence of fiscal conditions or competing priorities, and by the contention that collective action on behalf of the commons contradicts other values. Proponents use these arguments alone or together to justify privatizing services previously widely regarded as public goods.

            The Chronicle of Philanthropy[1] recently ran a story reporting that the national parks system now has a deferred maintenance backlog of more than $11 billion and that figure continues to grow, as Congress has repeatedly cut the agency’s budget during the last decade. The bulk of the Chronicle’s article described the character and sweep of public-private partnerships that now are increasingly (and substantially) funding the nation’s parks system at the federal, state and local levels, and the piece raised important questions concerning whether these efforts are appropriate, since these spaces are quintessentially held in common and serve all citizens in indivisible ways, and therefore meet the classic definition of public goods. Nonetheless, Congress, state legislatures and municipalities have reduced funding for these services and demanded that they instead be supported, in whole or in (growing) part, privately. In general, legislators have not justified these reductions on the basis of arguments that the parks are no longer public goods, but have said instead that sufficient funds are not available to maintain them. What goes unstated is that lawmakers are de facto forcing privatization of this good with every new round of appropriation reductions predicated on a public “inability” to sustain these spaces.

Importantly, that repeated contention of fiscal incapacity represents not so much recognition of a harsh reality, as it does a decision that other priorities rank higher, including the ideological ideal of shrinking government and enlarging the role of the market in society. In any case, continuous cuts in public support for services require either their partial or complete privatization or elimination or, as with parks, a continued deterioration in service levels. The reductions, undertaken on the basis of a claimed lack of capacity obscuring an underlying political strategy to privatize public services, have created a self-fulfilling prophecy and America’s parks at all levels are rapidly becoming quasi-public and private spaces.

The New York Times described a second example of this form of politics on several occasions as the nation’s annual April 15 income tax form filing deadline neared.[2] One article noted that several GOP presidential candidates, all conservatives, are calling for the abolition of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) without explaining how the government could survive without it.[3] These candidates inveigh against the IRS as some nefarious agent of onerous intervention in a domain of undue complexity. What this sort of anti-government rhetoric does not address is that the legislators (and their predecessors), declaring outrage in their speeches, wrote the tax code and passed the wide-ranging and mind-numbing array of detailed legal provisions the IRS must enforce. Additionally, these same elected officials have repeatedly reduced the Service’s budget in recent years and then later decried the fact that the institution was poorly positioned to respond to taxpayer calls and questions. If their aim was to elicit public dissatisfaction with the government, these actions appear tailor-made to encourage that outcome.

A final and admittedly outrageous example of lawmaker tactics to attack the legitimacy of governance and to encourage privatization of previously public functions is unfolding in Iowa currently and was recently highlighted in the Chronicle of Higher Education.[4] In this case, a state representative has authored a bill that “… would require the state’s public universities to rate professors’ performance based solely on students’ evaluations of their teaching effectiveness.”[5] Those who did not reach a minimum ratings threshold would automatically be fired. Thereafter, the names of the five professors with the lowest ratings would be published in an on-line poll and the individual receiving the fewest votes would be fired, irrespective of rank or tenure.

The legislator offering this proposal has justified it by arguing that students are paying for their university education and like any other consumers purchasing a private good, they should be permitted to decide whether they like the good on offer. That is, they should be able to say when, “This professor isn’t worth the money.”[6] Without engaging in a critique of the assumptions underlying this contention, this example is interesting and illustrative because its author simply assumes that public higher education is a private good for which individual students should hold faculty accountable in popularity polls. As with the parks, this is the result of consistent legislative actions taken during the last several decades that have reduced support for state higher education institutions. As a result, public college and university students now pay a much higher percentage of the cost of their educations, and the true cost of their overall experience has been shifted away from the community to them as individuals. This lawmaker took the appropriateness of this course for granted and justified his proposal in major part, and without apparent irony on the levels of debt students now bear.

More than 30 years of legislative action have created a scenario in which lawmakers such as this individual in Iowa may suggest that they are doing nothing more than proposing that higher education be treated like any private good. To the extent these sorts of arguments prevail, the commons will be weakened and access to public colleges and universities will increasingly be allocated according to individual ability to pay. Indeed, as with many parks at all levels, one cannot argue any longer that these services remain public in character. Together these examples raise the vexing issue of whether the neoliberal frame that animates this impulse has any limits in principle. That is, these ongoing efforts cause one to ponder whether these advocates regard any goods as simply public in character.

Some years ago, the eminent geographer David Harvey published a thoughtful book that examined the tenets and workings of neoliberalism.[7] He argued that this ideology empties the public space and democratic politics of shared meaning in ways that receive little public attention until citizens realize too late that a sea change has occurred in the character of their social relationships and interactions, and that much of what once joined them has been depleted and commodified. Ironically, all along that path, many of those same individuals likely had supported that direction while animated by the sorts of claims I have sketched here. Harvey labeled this subtle process of “the transfer of assets from the public and popular realm to the private and class-privileged domains” “dispossession.”[8] By now, our nation is far along a path forged by the politics of dispossession, in which what once was public becomes private and what once joined Americans slowly evanesces until one day individuals awake to find themselves alone and bereft of the wherewithal to govern themselves jointly and, perversely, to realize they have come to that position by dint of their own choices. This strikes me as an increasingly accurate assessment of our country’s political situation. Its continuation and intensification bodes ill for the vitality of our democratic politics.

[1] Lindsay, Drew. “Philanthropy’s Green Thumb,” Chronicle of Philanthropy, March 2015, 14-16, 18-19.

[2] Internal Revenue Service, New York Times, topics webpage. Available at http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/i/internal_revenue_service/index.html Accessed April 24, 2015.

[3] Rappeport, Allen. “Republican Abolishment Threats? ‘Just Politics,’ I.R.S. Chief Says,” New York Times, March 31, 2015 Available at http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/03/31/republican-abolishment-threats-just-politics-i-r-s-chief-says/ , Accessed April 22, 2015.

[4] Will, Madeline. “Iowa Legislator Wants to Give Students the Chance to Fire Underwhelming Faculty,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 23, 2015 Available at http://chronicle.com/article/Iowa-Legislator-Wants-to-Give/229589/, Accessed April 23, 2015.

[5] Will, “Iowa Legislator Wants to Give.”

[6] Will, “Iowa Legislator Wants to Give.”

[7] Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

[8] Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 161.