Public lands: Commodity or use-value?

July 26, 1982

At no time is the bourgeois state under more severe pressure and strain than during an ever-deepening economic crisis.

All the contending classes and groups in society focus their attention on the capitalist state and demand of it quick and urgent solutions.

The ruling class invariably seeks to throw the burden of the crisis on the shoulders of the oppressed and exploited masses. This has been its historical tendency since the beginning of the capitalist mode of production.

The function of the capitalist state is to accomplish for the ruling class as a whole, that is, collectively, what each individual capitalist and entrepreneur is unable to accomplish on his own. The industrialists and bankers constantly besiege the harassed administrators of the capitalist state to halt the deterioration and accelerate the recovery.

The solutions offered by each of the ruling dynasties and groups differ to the extent that their material interests differ. But all have the common objective of dumping their intractable problems on the capitalist state.

The capitalist state thus becomes the repository of the economic contradictions which wrench the capitalist economic system as a whole.

Try to solve crisis through state intervention

In its desperate attempt to solve the problems of the ruling class, the capitalist state resorts to such classical measures as raising the taxes visited on the mass of the population to extortionate levels while reducing those of the industrial barons and banking magnates.

Inevitably, it reverts to the time-honored method of coin-clipping in its monetary form by issuing billions and billions of dollars, these are really loans, for which it pays extortionate interest to the bankers.

Overall, this inflationary measure, a result mostly of the huge military budget and the reduction of revenues coming from taxes on the capitalist class, operates as an indirect method of wholesale expropriation of the purchasing power of the masses.

Whenever direct measures against the working class and the oppressed prove inadequate, or the capitalist state is in fear of the inevitable mass upsurge of opposition, it seeks to disguise its method of expropriation against the mass of the population.

Fear of the resistance of the working class and the oppressed is what urges the capitalist administrators of the government to seek refuge in these measures, particularly at a time when the movement of the working class and its political class consciousness during this crisis is still at an early and incipient stage.

Giant land steal

During the latter half of this month, the powerful gas and oil monopolies, along with lumber companies and many multi-national petrochemical corporations, opened a giant offensive to obtain, either through sale or lease, at least one billion acres of U.S. coastal lands.

This constitutes the entire coastal lands around the U.S. It includes the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic, and the Pacific. These giant oil companies, mostly the so-called Seven Sisters, have a most willing and pliant tool in the Reagan administration's ultra-rightist Secretary of the Interior, James Watt.

It is not, however, the offshore lands alone that are now ready to be put on the auction block. According to the Wall Street Journal of July 26, 1982, there is now in the works a so-called "miracle program" by which the Reagan administration hopes to carry out the divestiture of 744 million acres of property -- more than one-third of the land mass of the country -- and sell it off as surplus or unused lands and buildings.

Billions in revenue for the capitalist government would thereby be garnered, supposedly without arousing the ire of the mass of the workers and the oppressed. It is hoped that this kind of unprecedented steal would get more or less quick approval in Congress, because presumably it is not a direct attack on the mass of the people.

There is, and of course always has been, a great deal of political controversy regarding the public lands in the U.S. With the coming of the Reagan administration, this issue has reached a new phase in which the aggressiveness and avariciousness of the big oil and gas companies along with the lumber industries has taken on a wholly new dimension.

The issue is particularly significant in light of the deepening capitalist crisis. At the present time there are three contending forces in the struggle.

On one side is the Reagan administration, represented by Watt, who is carrying the ball for the oil, gas, and lumber interests. On another side are capitalist politicians like Gov. Jerry Brown of California on the West Coast, and Sen. Edward Kennedy from the East.

The third group is composed of environmentalists, a loose coalition of many different groups, some of them very dedicated and self-sacrificing indeed, if not heroic. But theirs has been mainly a rear-guard battle.

They have done whatever was possible to restrain the barbarous vandalism of the corporations during earlier administrations, but it has now reached a truly unprecedented dimension with the coming of the Reagan administration.

The issue is very important for the working class and oppressed. It has, however, been neglected by the working class movement. This is in part due to objective considerations, as well as the overwhelming weight of the more immediate and urgent issues which affect the mass of the workers and oppressed, such as growing unemployment, cutbacks in social services, rampant racism, and social disintegration visited by the destructive forces of monopoly capitalism.

Huge areas of virgin land

Even though the ruling class has barbarously ravaged the natural resources of the country for centuries, it is nevertheless still true that there are millions upon millions of acres of land untouched by the ruling monopolies that can still be considered virgin territory. This is notwithstanding all the pollution and deterioration, and the criminal neglect of the government.

The long offshore continental shelf of the U.S., which itself is a tremendous natural resource should still be considered within the framework of a virgin area, notwithstanding that it has been despoiled by monopoly capital to a considerable extent.

The U.S. is still one of the biggest countries in the world, almost a continent unto itself.

While the operations of monopoly capital for superprofits continue unabated it has been restrained from ravaging all of the public lands of the country by the struggle of progressive forces over many decades as well as by the distraction of imperialist adventures abroad.

It should be taken into account at the outset that all of the public lands, which the Wall Street Journal estimates at 744 million acres exclusive of the coastal lands, are legally owned by the federal government or the states, but only in a nominal sense.

State ownership for capitalist production

It is very important to differentiate government ownership in such matters as public utilities, railroads, public buildings, and so on, from ownership of the virgin lands or the coastal shelf.

The difference is of considerable significance. When the federal government, or a city or state, owns a public utility, a railroad, or public building (like, for instance, the World Trade Center which is jointly owned by the states of New York and New Jersey) this is nothing more than state capitalist ownership of the means of production, distribution, or service.

It operates strictly within the system of the capitalist mode of production in its monopoly stage. The process of exploitation and accumulation of capital goes on unmitigated.

When a capitalist enterprise becomes nationalized, so to speak, it is transferred from an individual capitalist, entrepreneur, or corporation and becomes the collective property of the ruling class as a whole. This is concealed under the cover of so-called public ownership.

Of course, it is much more desirable to have public ownership of the means of production if it is operated under workers' control. But when the capitalist state nationalizes, it generally means taking over corporations on the verge of bankruptcy and sustaining them as a result of the infusion of federal funds.

These so-called public properties are often denationalized at a later date, as has happened so frequently in Europe and occasionally in the U.S., bringing them back to the individual or corporate private sector in the interest of more intensive exploitation for superprofits.

Virgin lands outside commodity relations

It is otherwise with the virgin lands, including the coastal shelf. These are not really within the orbit of the capitalist mode of production as yet.

No appreciable capital in any sense has been expended on these virgin lands to bring them into the orbit of the process of capitalist production. These lands have not been integrated into the capitalist mode of production except on the fringes and only in a peripheral sense.

At this stage in history, the capitalist government is merely the legal and nominal owner of them.

Is this important? Indeed it is.

Let us first examine the character of the current struggle over the projected sale or leasing of the lands.

On the one hand, as we said, are the interests of big oil, gas and lumber, as represented by the Reagan administration. On the other hand are the grouping of capitalist liberals such as Brown on the West Coast, Kennedy in the East, and a sprinkling of senators and representatives who put up occasionally loud, but in reality token, opposition.

The issue between the Reaganites and the liberal opposition is how much of the virgin and coastal lands should be sold, and at what price. The liberals, in their traditional posture, are attacking the ultra-Reaganite Secretary of the Interior, Watt, as an oil and gas tool intent on selling the public lands for a song.

What they propose is a more balanced manner of selling the land, and a fair return of revenue to the government, instead of an out-and-out giveaway.

In reality, both are viewing the public lands as commodities to be exchanged for revenues to the capitalist government. What concerns them is the price. And indeed, this is how all matters are conducted in the framework of the capitalist system, which is based on commodity production.

Here it is necessary to somewhat digress in order to bring out what is the quintessential matter in the struggle.

The nature of a commodity

A commodity, according to Marxist economics, has both a use value and an exchange value. It has this two-fold character.

"In bourgeois society the commodity-form of the product of labor -- or the value-form of the commodity -- is the economic cell-form," Marx wrote in his preface to the first edition of Capital. "To the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn on minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but they're on the same order as those dealt with in microscopic anatomy." (Capital, page 12, Modern Library Edition.)

It is for this reason that it is necessary to view the struggle over the public lands from the viewpoint of a commodity form and its twofold character of both use value and exchange value.

In the eyes of the Brown-Kennedy coalition as well as the ultra-Reaganite Watt, the land is merely a commodity, like any other, subject to purchase and sale. It is one more deal within the process of capitalist production and exchange.

Both view it from the same perspective. The land is just another form of exchange value in the processes of capitalist production and exchange.

It should be otherwise with the environmentalists, and it is for the overwhelming majority of them, so far as their conduct over the years is concerned.

To them this public land is not a commodity. They view it in the perspective of a use value not really subject to exchange for government revenues.

All commodities have a use value and an exchange value. Some things may have a use value but no exchange value because no labor has yet been expended on them. In other words, it has not been subjected to capitalist exploitation of labor. Examples of this are air, virgin territories, as well as the coastal lands.

Virgin lands still use-values only

While the virgin lands and coastal areas may have been partially polluted by the process of capitalist development, they have not become commodities precisely because they exist as use values only and have remained outside the processes of capitalist production.

The Brown-Kennedy liberal wing of the capitalist establishment, as we said, seeks to bargain with the capitalist government on the sale of the lands. That is, they are concerned with the magnitude of the sale or lease and are trying to restrict the extortionate price.

The environmentalists, however, are consciously or unconsciously trying to exclude the virgin lands from the operations of the capitalist system, to retain them merely as a use value, for use in the so-called natural form for both people and all living things.

The interaction of the Brown-Kennedy coalition with the Reaganites, from the viewpoint of Marxist economics, of political economy, is a dialogue concerning the magnitude of exchange values. The debate between the environmentalists and the capitalist government is a dialogue between people speaking different languages.

Why? Because the environmentalists are talking about the use value of the land, its utility to humanity and all living things. The liberals and the ultra-rightists are arguing about exchange values. The environmentalists are in a totally different world than the others.

Nevertheless, this by no means inhibits Secretary Watt from trying to confuse exchange value with use value, as he did on ABC's Nightline on July 22, 1982, and the MacNeil-Lehrer Report on July 21. Again and again he raved on that "America needs gas and oil."

The need for oil is universally recognized by virtually all humanity. This is not what is afflicting society.

"We need to explore the coastal lands in order to see how much oil and gas there is," Watt said. "We need the oil and gas for the use of America."

But it is not use value that Watt is talking about. It is the exchange value by which the carnivorous gas and oil monopolies glean their profits.

How they got the land originally

It is worthwhile to go over how the U.S. government obtained this vast continent in the first place.

We are all familiar with the classic example of the purchase of Manhattan Island from the Native people for $24.

It is not uncommon for historical accounts to call this extortion. There is a wide body of literature on the murderous advances of the European settlers into this hemisphere and the use of force, rape, burning, and destruction as part and parcel of the settling and so-called discovery of the continent.

Force, murder, rape, arson -- these have been the usual conduct for exploiting classes in all societies. However, force alone rarely decides the destiny of any civilization, as Frederick Engels pointed out in his great classic answering Dühring. And this is highly pertinent to our discussion.

It is instructive to go over more carefully the example of the sale of Manhattan to the Dutch commercial pirates for $24.

Extortion and force do not alone explain the historical development which followed. What happened when the Dutch intruded on the island and it was sold by the Native people goes beyond the use of force, extortion, chicanery, cunning, and so forth.

The Dutch brought to this hemisphere a new mode of production and exchange. They came with a form of property relations which for its time was more developed than the form of property relations existing among the Native people.

When the island was sold to the Dutch, it signified a change in the form of property relations. The Native people had been living under conditions where land was common property. It was ownership in common -- primitive communism, if you will.

The Dutch were able to conquer in the first place because they came with a more developed form, that is, an exploiting form of property based on bourgeois relations during a period of primitive capitalist accumulation.

Conquest changed property relations

This whole hemisphere was at that time inhabited by peoples at varying degrees of development who held and often cultivated the land as the common property of the people. The coming of the so-called settlers, in addition to virtually exterminating the Native population, replaced ownership of the land in common with ownership of the land as private property.

Private property came in the form of commercial capital, the new bourgeois mode of production. As Engels says, they introduced a pure form of bourgeois society, unencumbered by feudalism as existed in Europe.

What the new exploiters found was not the existence of feudal relations but relations akin to the early forms of primitive communism. Except for personal effects, which were meager at the time, the means for food gathering and cultivation of the land were generally held as the common heritage, the common property of the people.

The plundering European commercial settlers brought about a radical, fundamental change in the form of property relations in land. The land from then on was no longer owned in common but became the private property of either individual settlers or of foreign governments, who staked out huge territories.

But even as they staked out these territories, much of it came merely under their nominal legal control. They were unable to enforce their will or reach out geographically as far as they wished.

The whole history of capitalist development in the U.S. is saturated with corruption in the sale and purchase of land. The U.S. had jurisdiction and control of the land only as far as its military forces could reach.

This last century, too, is replete with corruption in the sale and purchase of government land. But even with all the ravages of monopoly capitalism, there remain millions upon millions of acres on land and at sea which may still be considered "unspoiled."

The U.S. government and all the various states remain only the nominal legal owners of the land. As long as they have not leased them out to the giant corporations and so on, these lands, precious in themselves, should still be considered as vestiges of common ownership.

Much of it, of course, should legally belong to the Native people, and that struggle is still being waged today. But this subject we reserve for a later time.

For the purposes of this discussion, we are raising the question of the public lands in order to develop certain political and theoretical points that will clarify the class interests of the workers and the oppressed in the struggle against the monopolies.

Schlesinger confirms extent of oil glut

On July 18, 1982, former Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger (who had also been Secretary of Defense in the Nixon administration) reviewed the situation with oil and gas in its relation to OPEC on the ABC program This Week with David Brinkley. He disclosed that as far as domestic oil production goes, the number of drill rigs in operation has declined from 4,500 to 2,800 in this country and is still going down.

He also disclosed that OPEC production is about 60% of what it had been before the Iranian Revolution, and that the glut of oil continues, along with a glut in wheat and all other agricultural products as well as manufactured goods.

Oil, no less than other commodities, is subject to the capitalist crisis. It is no exception. In fact, the glut of oil is particularly preponderant.

Shouldn't it follow from this that the oil monopolies would not be eager to become purchasers of oil land at a time when there is stagnation in oil production?

But the very same crisis which has produced stagnation in capitalist production has also produced the biggest government budget deficits in history during the Reagan administration.

The eagerness of the capitalist government to increase its revenue knows no bounds, especially when it is under severe pressure to chase the will-o'-the-wisp of a balanced budget. Indeed, of all the desperate sellers in the oil market who can scarcely find customers, the U.S. government is the most desperate of all.

It is this more than anything else which accounts for the readiness of the most ultra-right reactionaries in the Reagan government to look for "miracle schemes" to rob the people of the last vestiges of the truly common property that they own.

The magnitude of the projected sales staggers the imagination, while the weak opposition put up by the so-called liberal wing makes the virgin lands a prey to the avariciousness of the oil and gas companies as never before.

It should be noted, however, that the lease and purchase of these lands, aside from vandalizing the environment, is not likely to result in appreciable production of oil at this time. What the oil companies are doing is attempting to take legal title to the public lands.

There is no promise of production starting at any time soon. Why would they, when, as Schlesinger pointed out, 1,700 rigs are idle?

What is involved, then, is a mere change of the nominal legal ownership from the U.S. government, as trustee of common property, to the private monopoly corporations, who will be able to maraud, pillage, and plunder it at will whenever and wherever it suits their purposes of obtaining superprofits.

A more immediate purpose of the oil and gas monopolies is to record the purchase of these lands as an asset on the books of the corporation. This enables them to obtain financing and funding for all kinds of ventures, particularly abroad, and also to speculate in the huge pool of Eurodollars in Europe and money-market funds in the U.S.

And this, rather than helping to stabilize the capitalist economy, further aggravates and destabilizes it. It is spaceage parasitism of a truly unparalleled dimension.

World character of the crisis

This crisis, by the very nature of its severity and extent, is more universal in character than any other previous crisis since the Second World War. It has dealt heavy blows at virtually all the political and social institutions of the capitalist system and has undermined any confidence of the bourgeoisie itself in a more or less rapid recovery.

This crisis is bound to affect, in a fundamental way, the relationship of the balance of forces on a global scale.

As against earlier cyclical crises, the present crisis has deeply affected Eastern Europe and has in the final analysis caused all the socialist countries to in part reshape their plans -- to the extent that international trade and commerce affect these plans, which they almost always do.

The capitalist mode of production is still the predominant form as far as the rest of the world is concerned, and is capable, during periods of crisis, of engulfing the socialist countries like a tidal wave. This is because the socialist countries are necessarily a part of world trade and commerce.

The current capitalist crisis has affected the USSR, China, Cuba, and the other socialist countries as an external force with which these countries have had to reckon.

As the U.S. gears itself for further measures of economic warfare against the USSR, it will once again test the viability of the Soviet social system almost as much as did the Second World War.

But the USSR has in the past manifested an extraordinary capability to withstand the economic and diplomatic assaults of the imperialists calculated to undermine the foundations of the socialist system. And it has done so notwithstanding the fact that the imperialists have forced the USSR to divert much of the fruits of socialist construction into the military sector.

The heavy burden that the capitalist crisis is forcing upon all the underdeveloped countries is more severe than ever. This even includes all the oil-producing countries; it has proved that they are just as vulnerable to capitalist crises as all the other states with a bourgeois system of production.

'If we ever have a recovery'

The bourgeoisie here is beginning to doubt it can get out of the crisis.

In his interview with ABC, former Secretary of Defense and Energy Schlesinger ended up with this remark: "OPEC production will go over 20 million barrels and if we ever have a recovery from the recession that (sic) we will see gasoline prices rising again."

The news editor of the Wall Street Journal (July 26, 1982) ends up a "reappraisal of the business cycle" with this concluding remark. "For all its new vagaries, however, the business cycle lives on like death and taxes. Expansions and recessions will surely continue to be with us."

This is calculated by the author, not to assure the bourgeoisie that the business cycle will continue, which entails devastating ups and downs, but that at least they have not reached the catastrophic situation of permanent capitalist crisis.

In earlier periods the bourgeois economists were full of assurances on how soon the inevitable recovery would arise. But now they are fearful that the stagnation is of a permanent character, and they take solace that, after all, the business cycle will live on.

How different it was during the 1950s and 1960s, when the talk was of the possibility of altogether eliminating the business cycle!

They are now ready to settle for a so-called normal capitalist cycle because that would be a relief from what appears to be permanent stagnation and further deterioration.

This alone should be grounds for revolutionary optimism and the struggle for the socialist revolution, which will not only end capitalist crises once and for all, but will make it possible to liberate the land from the grip of monopoly and appreciate the land once again for its use value rather than its exchange value.

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