Public Private Partnerships: Newsletter #34

There's that famous quote about those who forget the lessons of the past are bound to repeat it. As it goes for history, so does it for philosophy, which makes its way into law and commerce without us knowing how or why. The ultimate Trojan horse. Wearing my street metaphysics hat, I have been thinking about the terms "public" and "private." What do they mean? What power do they have? The recent debate in India on the proposed land acquisition act has revived some of these questions in my mind. Who has rights over land? Is it private property? Is it public?

The debate over private and public resources is both a political and a semantic debate. We need to pay close attention to the language games we play in private and public for the origins of the political problem lie in the several meanings of the words "private" and "public." Take the term private: does it mean individual ownership or does it mean ownership by a corporation? A further twist in the tale: if corporations are considered to be people by the courts, then individual ownership and corporate ownership are the same under the law. Are corporations individuals? It's a metaphysical question with legal ramifications. When courts and governments agree that corporations agree that corporations are indeed individuals, metaphysics becomes politics with immense consequences for our lives.

The politics of privatization shows how we use language to disguise the naked logic of power. Private and public come to have much narrower or much broader meanings than they normally have depending on the calculations of those in power. Let's start with the term "public." In everyday discourse, public means the people, especially a community of people. However, in the language of power, public means the state, with its monopoly over violence. When the state appropriates land, it does so in the name of the public - that's the moral legitimacy backing appropriation - and does so with the backing of the police and the military. The state reaps all the benefits of the moral force of the term "public" while continuing to enforce its dictates using violence when necessary.

When combined with new meanings of the term "private," we see acts that are the exact opposite of what one might desire. I am not a fan of revolutionary China - what's also called Maoist China - but the revolutionary government did make progress on several counts: education, gender equality and universal healthcare being three prominent examples. However, land reform, or what's known as collectivization was possibly the biggest achievement of the Maoist state. In revolutionary China, land couldn't be bought or sold. It was a public resource. Which meant, by a semantic sleight of hand, that it was a state resource in the hands of the party elite.

When Mao died and Deng came to power, he abolished the injunction against the buying and the selling of land. The party elite turned around and became capitalists overnight, buying up land for factories and other manufacturing entities. That's what we mean by privatization. All the achievements of the revolutionary period - a well educated populace, complete state control etc became instruments of this new regime. While literacy is a wonderful treasure, it's also a means through which knowledge that's tied to the land is rejected in favor of knowledge that's abstract and mechanical. Both blue collar and white collar labor are one step removed from direct knowledge of the earth. Literacy becomes an instrument of alienation.

Privatization doesn't mean public resources becoming individual resources. Instead, it means a three stage process:

  1. In the first phase individual resources are appropriated by the state as it seeks to monopolize the meaning of the term "public."

  2. In the second phase state functionaries and their business cronies gain control of state resources while still claiming to do so in the name of the public.

  3. In the third phase, as privatization begins, insiders lay claim on state resources for their own personal gain.

It's a carefully constructed feedback loop. You dispossess people of their land. That enables mass migration to the factories that in turn get cheap labor with no other avenues for productive employment. Wages are kept low by imported ever more people from the countryside or from abroad. That model is extractive at it's core. When I traveled through England, I enjoyed the picturesque countryside, but also realized that there's no wilderness at all. It's a gigantic lawn, a demonstration of complete human domination over nature.

That's what we call development, lifting millions out of poverty, modernizing the economy and eventually becoming a superpower. It's the path taken by Victorian England, the United States, and the rest of the western world. It's the path taken by the Soviet Union and then by China. Prime minister Modi is a keen student of China.