Not For Sale: In Defense of Public Goods

Anatole Anton, Milton Fisk and Nancy Holmstrom, eds.Not For Sale: In Defense of Public Goods reviewed by Cliff DuRand

Over the last quarter century neoliberalism has emerged as the dominant ideology in what has now become a unipolar world. Privatization, free trade, welfare reform, intellectual property rights, capital mobility have become the watchwords of public policy as more and more areas of our lives have been marketized and brought under the dominion of capital. Public goods have been removed from the commons with the promise that they will be made more efficient and thereby better contribute to higher standards of living for all. In fact, the reality has fallen far short of this promise.

There have been pockets of localized resistance to these trends and, since Seattle 1999, even growing mass protests, but no comprehensive strategy putting forth an alternative program. There have been critiques of neoliberal ideology, but no philosophically grounded alternative with mass appeal. The socialist vision is widely seen as having failed and the liberal ideology has succumbed to a neoliberalism with which it shares its major premises.

It is into this situation that a group of radical philosophers has intervened. Milton Fisk, Anatole Anton and Nancy Holmstrom have assembled a group (largely from the Radical Philosophy Association) to produce this provocative work. With contributions from twenty different authors, Not for Sale: In Defense of Public Goods, is a surprising- ly coherent and comprehensive volume. While each essay focuses on different public goods, they share a common perspective and there emerge the outlines of a common political strategy. The philosophical foundations for these are laid in the three opening essays by the editors.

The neoliberal marketizing measures we have witnessed in recent decades are viewed as a present-day form of enclosure, as public goods that were once part of the commons have been taken from us and made into private property. It was this taking of land from the commonstock that led Proudhon to say that “property is theft.” From its beginnings, the development of capitalism has required the ever- expanding commodification of use values, transforming goods that had previously been individually or publicly produced and owned into commodities privately owned by capital and for sale at a profit. The enclosure of the commons in England, the industrialization of textile production removing it from the household to the mill, the appropriation of that vast commons of North America by English settlers (legitimated by Locke’s theory of property) all contributed to the original accumulation of capital.

And capital marches on into the present, bringing more and more of the common wealth into its orbit as corporate capital commodifies water, health care, education, scientific knowledge, even the genome. As Anatole Anton points out, this “amounts to the surrender of democratic control of social resources to private individuals” (14). The corporation is the engine of these contemporary enclosures. It is in the name of democratic legitimacy that Anton calls on us to resist capital’s drive to commodify everything and absorb it into a universal market.

In pursuit of this democratic project, Nancy Holmstrom offers a powerful critique of the prevailing neoliberal idea of economic ration- ality as individual utility maximization. Against this she argues that “only social cooperation will give us the control over our lives which is the evolutionary function of rationality” (83). With shades of Rawls, she urges us to move from a short-term focus on “I” to a larger long- term focus on “we” in order to maximize a greater collective utility.

Milton Fisk most explicitly situates the discussion within a politcal offensive against neoliberalism based on promoting public goods as a matter of social justice. Further developing his materialist theory of justice from his 1989 book The State and Justice, Fisk argues here that norms of justice “advance a set of goals a people pursues in order to give their group certain features” (42). These goals, chosen together in discussion and struggle, bind a group together and define “who we are”; they give the group certain features, an identity. These identifying features, when “desired by each for all” (43), are called common goods. For example, through their social practice a group may set a healthy society as a goal. This will require “a health care system capacitating the society to deliver health care to individuals.” Such capacitating systems are public goods that reflect the solidarity of the group. Fisk concludes that “justice in a society is, then, about removing conflicts in a way that facilitates common goods, and hence the public goods needed for them” (43).

In divided societies (i.e. societies divided by class or race, for example) there is insufficient solidarity between groups and partisan justice results. Neoliberalism pretends to speak for all when it calls for capital mobility, privatization and removing labor protections, but in fact these are to facilitate the profit maximizing goals of capital. Against that another partisan justice arises that seeks to promote the common goals of the unemployed, working people and the retired. Such partisan justice of solidaristic popular classes is far more universalistic than that of the top few in society.

Fisk’s political offensive against neoliberalism is based on promoting social goals such as “full employment, democratic participation, universal comprehensive health care, socialized intellectual property, a sustainable environment, accessible education, and popularly controlled media” (50). The public goods these goals would require, already widely approved in many countries, would destabilize neoliberalism. But a political will to realize these goals can only come from “public discussion of shared grievances and public agitation against shared foes” (51). While there is widespread popular support for the public goods these goals require, people are not yet willing to reject capitalism. They are willing however, to restrict capital in order to advance common goals. It is here that the radicalizing potential in Fisk’s strategy comes into view. “If capital responds to a buildup of public goods with a tax strike, an investment strike, or massive capital flight,” he predicts, “this will be taken by the public as a display of ill will and lack of civic virtue so serious that it calls for further restrictions” (54). Thus we can see that the demand for public goods is a class demand and at the same time a universal demand that can lead towards class struggle against capitalism itself in the name of social justice (60).

This then is the political strategy that undergirds Not for Sale. In successive chapters by various authors, it explores issues of environment, welfare, urban life, education, health and more, articulating them as public goods to be pressed against neoliberalism. It is a coherent and focused strategy not only to resist corporate capitalism, but also to advance a positive vision of a more solidaristic society based on democratic empowerment for the benefit of all. Without calling this socialism (a word that is highly stigmatized today in the American mind), this strategy taps into deeply held American values of democracy, equality, and fraternity in the search for social justice. This can be a politically powerful mix. It has great potential for mobilizing the populace against present state policies and the interests of corporate capital, which they represent. What emerges from the pages of this volume is not only a radical philosophical tour de force, but a handbook for activists as well (plus a stimulating text for students) that links the progressive social movements of our time. Thus, it helps us not only to understand the world, but also to change it. This unity of theory and practice will serve as a model of how to do radical philosophy.

Reviewed by Cliff DuRand
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy
Morgan State University

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