This article originally appeared on Truthout.
October 29, 2011
“Property is theft,” French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon famously declared in 1840 – a judgment clearly shared by many of those involved in the occupations in the name of the 99 percent around the country, and especially when applied to Wall Street bankers and traders. Elizabeth Warren also angrily points out that there “is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.” Meaning: if the rich don’t pay their fair share of the taxes which educate their workers and provide roads, security and many other things, they are essentially stealing from everyone else.
But this is the least of it: Proudhon may have exaggerated when, for instance, we think of a small farmer working his own land with his own hands. But we now know that he was far closer to the truth than even he might have imagined when it comes to how the top 1 percent really got so rich, and why the 99 percent lost out. The biggest “theft” by the 1 percent has been of the primary source of wealth – knowledge – for its own benefit.
Knowledge? Yes, of course, and increasingly so. The fact is, most of what we call wealth is now known to be overwhelmingly the product of technical, scientific and other knowledge – and most of this innovation derives from socially inherited knowledge, at that. Which means that, except for trivial amounts, it was simply not created by the 1 percent who enjoy the lion’s share of its benefits. Most of it was created, historically, by society – which is to say, minimally, the other 99 percent.
Take a simple example: In our own time, over many decades, the development of the steel plow and the tractor increased one man’s capacity to farm, from a small plot (with a mule and wooden plow) to many hundred acres. What changed over the years to make this possible was a great deal of engineering, steelmaking, chemistry and other knowledge developed by society as a whole. Read the rest of this entry →