Paul Cienfuegos’ August 25th, 2015 Commentary on KBOO Evening News
(His weekly commentaries are broadcast every Tuesday evening. You can view or listen to them all at PaulCienfuegos.com, CommunityRightsPDX.org/podcast, or subscribe via ITunes.)
Greetings! You are listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos.
After the American Revolution, our so-called “founding fathers” drafted a constitution that was intended to last for a very long time. They titled it “The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union”. In many ways it was a truly revolutionary document. Primary decision-making authority was held individually by thirteen sovereign states, in a confederated structure with some similarities to the current European Union. At the federal level, there was no executive branch; there was no judicial branch. For many of the wealthy elite, our first constitution was an unacceptable document, as it prioritized decentralized decision-making at the state and local level, which was, by definition, more participatory. The elite were more interested in creating an empire in the new world. And this required a fundamental shift towards a federal system of governance, with states playing second fiddle. It took only one decade for this elite to orchestrate what some refer to as a political coup.
Representatives from all thirteen states were supposed to meet in a Grand Convention in Philadelphia to amend the existing constitution, but instead they tossed it out entirely and wrote a second constitution from scratch. When it was time to ask the states to ratify this new constitution, the general response was outrage, as it said virtually nothing about the rights of people. In fact, the new constitution was primarily about property and commerce. The ruling elite now had what they wanted – a strong federal system of governance, and a weak state and local system of governance. Now, the elite could start mobilizing to build what became the greatest empire in the history of the world.
Yes, there was ultimately a set of rights established for The People, but only as a side agreement. Rights for The People were added later, as amendments to our second constitution, to quiet the rabble with nice sounding phrases that supposedly protected their rights – but only around the edges. The elite had won. The country was now constitutionally defined as one in which those with property had the rights that really mattered. And where commerce and trade trumped all other societal activities.
Today in 2015, we inhabit a nation where property rights, commerce and trade are still considered the holy grail. But most of us have forgotten, or never knew, how we arrived at this situation. Since the ratification of our second US constitution, property rights have trumped the rights of The People. It’s really that simple. It’s really that stark. Property rights are now embedded in how we think about our country. Like fish in water, we assume the way we live is background normal. I could offer you a very long list of examples. Here are just three…
* If we live in a house or apartment as renters, we have very few rights, whereas our landlord, be they human or corporate, have all the rights that matter, which means we can be evicted for no reason at all. Can we evict our landlord? Of course not. What a silly idea!
* If we work for wages, we have very few rights, whereas our employer, be they human or corporate, have all the rights that matter. Most of us are “at will” employees, which means we can be fired for no reason at all. Can we fire our boss? Of course not. What a silly idea!
* If we stand at a major business intersection in most cities and towns, what we are witnessing with our own eyes and ears is a breathtaking example of the propertied class making virtually all of the land use decisions that matter. Will the scale of buildings be in relationship to the size of our human bodies, or will they make us look like ants? … Will the businesses be locally owned? Will they be cooperatively managed by their employees? Will they have the same corporate logos and product offerings as most of the other business intersections across the landscape? … Will the roads favor pedestrians and bicyclists, or will they favor cars and trucks? … Will the original landscape of forest, meadow, creek, and cliff be visible, or will it have been erased entirely many decades ago? … All of these are absolutely critical decisions that can make or break a sense of community and equity and sustainability. Yet most of these decisions were made by those who once owned the properties that surround you. You are literally surrounded by property rights. Your community is drowning in property rights.
If you own property, there are three things that you are legally entitled to do with that property. First, you have the constitutional right to use that property however you wish. Second, you have the right to exclude others from using that property. And third, you have the right to destroy whatever is alive on that property. You can fill in your wetland. You can clearcut your forest. You can re-contour your landscape. You can poison your wildlife. You can pave your meadow. Yes, there are some legal limits, but you have the constitutional right to sue for a taking of your property if the rules are not to your liking, and to be reimbursed – at taxpayer expense – for your loss of future profits.
Now, let’s extend this extraordinary reality to a much larger scale. The most valuable private property that exists today in the US is the business corporation itself. Our largest corporations have economies larger than major nation states. Business corporations are themselves private property. And those who run these corporations have the legal and constitutional authority to exercise their corporate property “rights”. These corporate property “rights” exist because the Supreme Court says they exist. End of story! A corporation that is itself private property has been granted constitutional “rights”. Oh my!
If your community is filled with chain stores, it’s because the owners of those stores were exercising their corporate property “rights”, which trump the rights of the citizens of that place. If your rural community was once surrounded by healthy forests and streams, which are now gone, it’s because the owners or leasers of those forests were exercising their corporate property “rights”, which trump the rights of the residents of your community. I could give example after example. As you look around you, where you live, how many of the land use decisions that have occurred in that place were made publicly and transparently by those who live there? And how many were made by those who own the property? How much longer can we survive on this planetary orb floating in deep space, when virtually every decision that matters to us was made without our involvement? What is it going to take for We the People to say “Enough already!” and to institute truly democratic decision-making processes in our communities?
You’ve been listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos. You can hear future commentaries every Tuesday on the KBOO Evening News in Portland, Oregon, and on a growing number of other radio stations. I welcome your feedback.
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