Capitalism and the Art of the Steal by J. Richard Marra

I grew up in a well-manicured, middle class suburb in upstate New York. The real estate developer of this “Stone Gate Manor” neighborhood profited from the need for family housing after World War 2. Nevertheless, he left a parcel of the development property, a historically wooded land known as the “James Estate,” untouched. It was large enough to accommodate a few additional houses, but the presence of a small creek, “James Run,” added an unacceptable development cost. Thus, my neighborhood enjoyed a verdant “Woods” at its center.

Perhaps to his credit, the developer allowed adjacent property owners free access to a small strip of land at the edge of The Woods for personal use, leaving the remainder in its natural state. While parents cleared the land, planted grass, set up vegetable gardens, dug horseshoe pits; children ran amok (and often in muck), enjoying secret hiding places in summer, and suicidal sled runs in Adirondack snow. Thus, a storied Woods hugging an ancient “Creek” became the benefactor of two generations.

This good fortune ended with the housing boom of the 1970s, and the sudden arrival of bulldozers and dump trucks. To the horror of neighborhood homeowners, they reduced The Woods to a dusty artifact of capital’s drive for profit. As The Creek trickled through its underground pipeline, a neighbor, suffering from World-War-2-induced PTSD, shook his head and uttered the word “catastrophe.” Soon, there arose new houses and new fences; as secret places and sled runs became memories.

Over time, homeowners had established a rich and active harmony with their environment, what Karl Marx called a metabolic relationship with the land. They used it to grow food, to provide their children with happy places to play, to build neighborly relations over horseshoes, and to enjoy some privacy and peacefulness. In these ways, the land satisfied human needs, what Marx calls use values.

The new construction abruptly broke that metabolic relationship. Neighbors faced the uncomfortable reality that the developer’s private property rights overruled the neighborhood’s fortunate access to the land. The developer’s generosity morphed into greed as the exchange value of his private property increased within the capitalist real estate market. Ultimately, the drive for profit, what Marx called capitalism’s “Moses and the Prophets,” ultimately determined the fate of The Woods.

Homeowners unhappily accepted the bulldozing of The Woods because the capitalist institution of private property legally sanctioned it. Nevertheless, the removal of homeowner access to the land demonstrated capitalism’s systematic and often vicious process of productive expansion. As Virginia Fontes explains, capitalism

“…tends to eliminate any externality by subordinating and mutilating the previous social relationships as well as such capitalist expansion imposing its domination. Expropriation is the social condition of capital’s full expansion and they have been carried out in diverse manners, rhythms, and degrees, coupling diversified forms of production under the control of capital, albeit at the cost of enormous social, political, cultural, and economic brutality.”

Marx argues that the emergence of capitalism from its feudal predecessor began with a primitive accumulation, an expropriation that broke the metabolic relationship among peasants and the land. 

“Communal property — always distinct from the State property…was an old Teutonic institution which lived on under cover of feudalism. We have seen how the forcible usurpation of this, generally accompanied by the turning of arable into pasture land, begins at the end of the 15th and extends into the 16th century. But, at that time, the process was carried on by means of individual acts of violence against which legislation, for a hundred and fifty years, fought in vain. The advance made by the 18th century shows itself in this, that the law itself becomes now the instrument of the theft of the people’s land, although the large farmers make use of their little independent methods as well. The parliamentary form of the robbery is that of Acts for enclosures of Commons, in other words, decrees by which the landlords grant themselves the people’s land as private property, decrees of expropriation of the people.”

Marx’s account of expropriation in the historical development of capitalism is updated and further elaborated in the work David Harvey, within his explanation of the capitalist tactic of “accumulation by dispossession,” and Virginia Fontes in her account of the loss of socially available natural property to capitalist interests through “expropriation.” Expropriation is a type of dispossession that involves the government-authorized confiscation of something having value, usually property rights. Consider, for example, the seizure of property by governments through eminent domain laws and other legal devices. Around the world, a continuing Western capitalist colonialism exercises a brutal regime of expropriation of indigenous communal property. Nation states deliver resources to capital through legal edicts, typically ransacking indigenous lands through unjust treaties, denying of land and water rights, and enforcing cultural assimilation. Private security companies, law enforcement, the military, and complicit judges viciously enforce such laws, as during the2016 Dakota Pipeline protests.

However, such theft extends beyond the property of indigenous populations. During the early 2000s, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer and private developers conspired with compliant civil authorities to expropriate property from homeowners and small businesses in New London, Connecticut as part of a major “economic revitalization” project. That effort included constructing a new research complex, a hotel, and an “urban village,” complete with stylish condominiums and trendy shops that would appeal to the gentrified preferences of Pfizer’s world class technical workforce. Despite the fawning behavior of public officials, which included authorizing a massive corporate tax break, the project fell through allegedly due to Pfizer’s changing “strategic” business needs. Scott G. Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, responding to Pfizer’s announcement to pull out of the project, pointed to “the folly of these plans that use massive corporate welfare and abuse eminent domain for private development.”

In addition to capitalism’s theft of individual and community private property, Fontes also points out that capitalist “investment in areas or sectors so far poorly controlled by capital — such as the seas and oceans — can only be understood by remembering that it corresponds to a brutal expropriation from humanity of a socially available natural property.” For capitalism, such brutality routinely comes in the form of warfare. For example, before World War 2, outer space represented a potentially valuable resource that was “external” to American capitalism. It remained so because the US had not yet developed the required technology and expertise to access the resource. However, during World War 2, the risks inherent in losing any international “race” to space became apparent to American military planners, especially as German “Vengeance” weapons (the V-1 and V-2) pummeled Great Britain. With the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, and the Soviets in firm control of Eastern Europe, an emerging Cold War provided impetus for an all-out American space exploration effort. 

Adopting the German approach, the government placed the project into the hands of a government-industrial consortium, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Using public capital, the American government contracted with private corporations to develop the required technology. Additionally, the American military, as part of its Operation Paperclip, delivered Werner von Braun and his team of German rocket scientists to the US to become the technical core of NASA’s space program. Thus, with the defeat of fascist Germany, the valuable technology created by Braun and his team along with the German capitalists at BMW, Siemens, and Volkswagen was confiscated as war booty. Through Operation Paperclip, that booty was returned to Braun and his team, and passed as well to the American capitalists at Northrup Grumman, McDonnell Aircraft, and Lockheed Martin.

Provided with these technological spoils, NASA, a publicly funded US government agency, began developing outer space for public use. However, over time the development and exploitation of space was gradually transferred, free of charge, from the public to the private sector by legal means, most notably through the Commercial Space Act of 1998. In this way, a second expropriation occurred: the transformation outer space as socially available natural property into the privatized business domain of US capitalists. Today, a significant and profitable expansion of the military-industrial complex is expected from Donald Trump’s proposed “Space Force;” which is intended in part to protect US commercial space interests and assets.

Some capitalist theft is remarkably artful. Consider the rise of the legal marijuana industry in the United States. Marijuana’s disrepute was firmly established as Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs” unleashed the power of an advanced technological state to criminalize otherwise dutiful citizens. Thus, marijuana morphed from a socially available natural flowering plant into a stigmatized “drug” that demanded new laws and aggressive enforcement to deliver thousands of undesirables to prison. Among the results were the rise of powerful international drug cartels, racist and militarized law enforcement, and a hugely profitable drug testing market. With this, increasingly privatized prisons filled to bursting and incarceration costs skyrocketed. In poor communities across America, where drugs were taking their greatest toll, families lived with misery, fear, and death.

While Nixon’s war took prisoners, subsequent neo-liberal administrations increasingly cut social services budgets, in part to pay for the increasing law enforcement, judicial, and carceral costs of a war on disliked people. As the global capitalist business cycle began to tip toward the 2008 crash and the “Great Stagnation,” capitalists and budget-strapped civic leaders began lusting after potentially vast marijuana profits. Over time, with changing social attitudes toward marijuana, tighter public budgets, and a popular commodity ripe for capital investment, legalization in some form became feasible and profitable. Capitalists and their opportunistic public servants worked jointly to snatch an illegal market from well-organized criminal organizations, using their previous experience in marketizing gambling in Las Vegas and loan-sharking as a blossoming “Payday” lending industry. State governments soon began converting marijuana from a socially (albeit illegally) available natural resource external to capitalism, into marketized pharmaceutical and recreational commodities. Thus, capital again enjoyed the profits that theft provides, while reaping free of charge the practical knowledge and specialized technology acquired during decades of illegal marijuana production. And who won? Capitalists, like the Republican anti-pot crusader turned marijuana entrepreneur, John Boehner.

These few examples offer a glimpse into how capitalism uses expropriation to satisfy its inherent need for accumulating profits. In the case of The Woods, the legal prerogative of private property severed the homeowners’ metabolic relationship with their natural environment. The Stone Gate Manor neighborhood was dispossessed forever of a socially available natural property in service of developing an “underutilized” resource. In the other cases, outright theft and chicanery, as well the legislated creation of new markets, provided the means for the acquisition and control of previously unexploited resources.

This history reminds us that capitalism’s thirst for profit is as creative and adaptive, as it is predatory and unquenchable.

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