January 2013
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Run Over

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

I have quoted the following words from Walden in the Spectacle over and over, because they appear to me to be the operative metaphor for capitalism, for politics, for this crazy, fucked up human species:

Men have an indistinct notion that if they keep up this activity of joint stocks and spades long enough all will at length ride somewhere, in next to no time, and for nothing; but though a crowd rushes to the depot, and the conductor shouts "All aboard!" when the smoke is blown away and the vapor condensed, it will be perceived that a few are riding, but the rest are run over--and it will be called, and will be, "A melancholy accident".

A few are riding, but the rest are run over. The quote captures the idea that humans run their cars using other humans as fuel, that when they build their buildings, they mix human blood in the mortar, that the species operates on a fundamental theory that there are two kinds of people, those who have a right to exist and to do in and of themselves, and others who exist primarily or solely to serve them as the raw material of their aspirations. To be crushed, sucked dry, when needed.

A personal history

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I wrote a series of reports on the minority communities in New York City, and my father got interested in the work (something which didn't always happen). He drove me through Chinatown and Harlem, helped me pick the books to read about other ethnicities. I had no friends I could ask; the black children in our school, who had started being bussed in from Brownsville a few years before, didn't like or trust us, and we were afraid of them. I had seen a teacher fighting with a black twelve year old, and slapping him, a shocking sight because the teachers never laid hands on us in public school in the 1960's. I could hardly imagine who this community was, their antecedents, what their daily lives were like.

Of the books I read and the research I did, one thing stands out today: I learned about furniture. Black people in certain poor neighborhoods couldn't simply go to the store and buy a dining room table or couch for cash, as my parents could (they were both doctors, and we lived in the largest house on our block),but instead leased furniture from predatory white businessmen. The stuff was cheap crap, the interest rates were grossly excessive, the total they paid over the years for a table or sofa was many times what it was worth. If they missed a payment or two men would arrive and "repo" the furniture items from their homes, leaving them noplace to eat or sit. Their lives seemed very provisional, endangered, insecure next to mine: but I was mainly struck by the counterintuitive proposition that someone poor would pay a much higher price to have a table to eat at with her family, than I would. Why would the rich pay less than the poor?

Fast forward almost fifty years and I am sitting in the summons court on Broadway watching a succession of ten minute trials. I am there as a lawyer, representing a (white) guy who got arrested for demanding a police lieutenant's shield number at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration.

The trials I am watching are all of black and Latino people, mostly men. And one story repeats itself.

A thirty-something Latino male is at the defendant's table. He is angry. He was sitting on his stoop with some friends. Some of them were drinking alcohol. He wasn't. Two cops came along and wrote every man on the stoop a summons, regardless of whether he had a cup in his hand or not.

The cop testifies. He is also a young Latino. He says the defendant was holding a cup in his hand and he, the cop, sniffed it, and it smelled like Hennesy. The elderly public defender, with a weary air--he has seen it all--asks on cross what Hennesy smells like. The cop is taken aback, as if he wasn't expecting the question. "Sweet", he finally offers. Hennessy is brandy: brandy doesn't smell sweet.

The judge (white, not quite as old, also weary) finds, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant was holding a cup in his hand and it contained alcohol. And fines him $25.

Another defendant is an elderly black man. He was in a park, watching his grandson play baseball. He has a kidney problem and has been advised to drink lots of cranberry juice. He had a bottle of Ocean Spray and a cop came along, told him it contained alcohol and wrote a ticket. The weary white judge finds that beyond a reasonable doubt, he was drinking alcohol in the park while watching his grandkid, and fines him $25. The old man leaves enraged.

I have half decent radar for detecting when people are truthful. Both these men seemed to me to be telling the truth. They wouldn't have been honestly angry, so eager to testify, if they hadn't been played, victimized. Both cops seemed uncomfortable and evasive. We all know that a blue uniform doesn't guarantee veracity.

Cops have quotas, are told they must write a certain number of summons per month, make a certain number of arrests. The city makes money on the endless succession of $25 summons. The cops, black, white or Latino, under pressure to write them, single out the people most unlikely to be able to fight back, the poor and ethnic, the ones least likely to have a fancy private lawyer or a cousin who is a city councilman.

The cops are not required to seize the alcohol, voucher it, or send it to the lab for testing. They are allowed to testify instead that it "smelled" like beer or brandy, and are officially believed every time.

What we have here is a poor people's stoop sitting tax. A tax on black men for being outdoors in nice weather. Want to enjoy spring in New York City? Pay $25.

The narratives connect to each other, the furniture and the open container tax, both situations in which poor dark skinned people are forced to pay fines, penalties, interest that white people don't.


Google the words "indigenous massacre" and you will find the Venezuelan denial of a reported massacre of Indians by illegal Brazilian gold miners, hundreds of accounts, on Australian government web sites and in Wikipedia, of the mass murder of Aborginal people over the centuries, and reports of the Peruvian police attack on peaceful indigenous demonsntrators in May 2009. Here is an account from Amy Goodman of Democracy Now:

On Friday morning, some 600 Peruvian riot police and helicopters attacked a peaceful indigenous blockade outside of Bagua, killing twenty-five and injuring more than 150. Eyewitness accounts indicate the police fired live ammunition and tear gas into the crowd.....

Since April, indigenous groups have opposed new laws that would allow an unprecedented wave of logging, oil drilling, mining and agriculture in the Amazon rainforest by blocking roads, waterways and oil pipelines. President Garcia’s government passed these laws under “fast track” authority he had received from the Peruvian congress to facilitate implementation of the US-Peru Free Trade Agreement.

The beat goes on: the theme uniting the furniture story to the Bagua massacre, the through-line, is the concept that all humanity is divided into two classes, one which is obligated to suffer and be exploited and may be murdered when it interferes with economic goals or progress, and another which has a fundamental, unquestionable right to exploit and benefit from the suffering of the other.

To anyone who starts up in indignation, that there is too great a leap of imagination from over-charging for furniture to actual murder, I answer that the mind-set is the same, that we are dealing with differences not of kind, but merely of degree.

Legalized subjection

While people have often been forcibly pacified by the threat or use of violence, forced to simmer resentfully but quietly for their own self preservation--or simply eliminated entirely from the scene if they refuse to do so-- the intellectually more disturbing and difficult task has been to try to persuade subject classes that they are morally or religiously obligated to tolerate their own exploitation. If you think about it, its a lot easier to kill people than to persuade them it is their lot to be exploited.

The complex legal relations of barons and serfs in medieval England, along with the "laws" of slavery in the United States before the Emancipation Proclamation, are history's most recent examples of personal unfreedom codified, elucidated and ruled on by courts (as opposed to opportunistic, de facto unfreedom imposed by guns and helicopters in Bagua). A Google book search on "barons serfs" discloses an 1895 book by Pollock and Maitland, "The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I", which nicely elucidates the legal standing of the serf in relation to his lord: "he was merely the chattel of his lord, to give and sell at his pleasure". The serf is bound to the land and to his master, but, as his master's property, has at least provisional rights against all others, so participates slightly and strangely in some of the appurtenances of freedom; for, of course, if you injure the serf, you injure the lord. He "owned" his own land and tools, unless the master chose to take them, and provided his labor, mainly agricultural, the sweat of his brow and the fruits of his fields, to his master. Somewhat further along in this book, as part of a listing of "The Unfree", we arrive at the Jews, and find the amusing proposition that "the Norman barons aspired [to] the privilege of keeping Jews of their own". The Jews were, in effect, serfs at a much higher economic and intellectual level, but nevertheless "the Jews and all that they have are the king's".

[I]f he is to be here at all and do any good, he must be allowed to do things that are forbidden to Christians, notably to take interest on money lent....

The serf gave rise, not to the American slave, but the sharecropper, one of the clever and complex solutions the South concocted to continue the subjugation when slavery was no longer legal. American slavery looked back not to medieval but to Roman times, when the owner had complete dominion, rather than the somewhat limited dominion of serfdom, over the person of the slave. A baron could in theory be prosecuted for killing a serf (though Maitland compares these laws to those protecting horses against cruelty), but the serf could not sue his own lord for damages or even appeal to the authorities for his prosecution (the complaint apparently had to be made by someone else). Roman masters could kill their slaves with impunity (until a late Emperor forbade it).

You can find an 1858 "Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery" by Thomas Cobb on Google Books. (Its so much more interesting to go back to contemporary sources than to read postmodern mash-ups.) Cobb's repellent, fascinating analysis--he was a Southerner-- finds a kind of original sin, placing the roots of American slavery in a purported African slavery, so that no special American legislation was required to create the "rightlessness", the helplessness, of people brought here in that condition. (So much for America as the land of hope and freedom for the "huddled masses" of elsewhere.) Cobb lauds American Christian compassion for protecting the slave against cruelty or the homicide permitted under Roman law but must then reassure his readers that this does not mean any other human rights are protected:

The law, by recognizing the existence of the slave as a person,thereby confers no rights or privileges except such as are necessary to protect that existence. All other rights must be granted specially. Hence,the penalties for rape would not and should not, by such implication, be made to extend to carnal forcible knowledge of a slave, the offence not affecting the existence of the slave....

So its all right to rape your slaves, as long as you don't kill them in the process.

Those words were written by an American, less than two hundred years ago.

Two types of inequality

It occurs to me there are two putative types of inequality. One, you can call the "separate but sort of equal" theory (with all of the nightmarish baggage it carries with it). This whole concept is based on an idea, "I don't want to mingle with you, but as long as you don't try to come into my world, you'll be fine". Don't cross Highway 1 and try to talk to a white woman, but if you stay on your side of town, we won't molest you. The second type of inequality, which is the kind which has always actually prevailed in most places and times, follows from the first kind but is not exactly equivalent. It contains the further postulate that I, as a denizen of the overworld, have a right to your labor, your home, your property, even your body if I wish. This is the theory of furniture, of open container laws, of Bagua, of mortgage backed securities.

Two models of capitalism

On my first day in contracts class, the professor gave us a lovely parable: you stop off in the corner grocery on your way home and take some cans of vegetables you need for your dinner. There is a line of people waiting to pay at the counter so you merely hold up the cans until you catch grocer Frank's eye. He nods, and you leave, just having made a contract under which you promised to pay and he added the cans to your account to charge you for them later.

Frank is the most benign kind of capitalist imaginable. He wants your business not just today, but tomorrow, next year and for as long as you live in the neighborhood. In pursuit of that goal, he will be helpful and kind, remember your children's names and your preferences, and allow you to walk out with his products when you are in a hurry, because he knows you will pay later.

George Bailey in "Its a Wonderful Life" is this kind of capitalist. George wants you to bank with him for life. He wants you to stay in your house, and if you have a bad month and can't pay the mortgage, he will work with you to keep you there--not reject your next attempted payment and file a foreclosure petition like bankers nowadays.

In the 1980's, I remember reading a book called "Liar's Poker", about the training of young brokers. One surprising anecdote related that every trainee was expected to "blow up" a small client sooner or later--put a company out of business by inviting them into a risky bet such as commodities trading. Nobody ever got fired for blowing up one client. If you blew up more, however, you were thought not to have judgment.

When I participated in taking a company public in the 1990's, we trusted the investment bankers not because they seemed like inherently honest people, but because they would suffer a reputational hit if our IPO went bad. If we weren't ready and they said we were, who else would hire them in the future? In reality, we weren't ready, the stock cracked and the public company closed its doors a few years later. In the meantime, the bankers had made their money, flipping the stock the day of the IPO, then merged their 130 year old firm with a commercial bank. They were never planning to hang around to do business with us the rest of our lives.

Those seem like innocent days, compared to now. We have just had the spectacle of bankers cynically and deliberately putting people into mortgages they didn't understand and couldn't afford, mortgages they would only be able to refinance if the market stayed up (hadn't run out of Ponzi suckers) and which would crush them otherwise when the rate adjusted or a balloon payment came due in a down market (collapse of the Ponzi). The bankers made commissions on these mortgages, then bundled them into worthless securities they sold clients, and then placed other bets their own securities would collapse.

Inherent in all these transactions, the back drop to them, was the bill that everyone in the game knew would come due one day, because Ponzis and bubbles always collapse, markets never stay up forever: the foreclosure of millions of American homes. In july, Reuters reported 1,045,801 foreclosure filings in the U.S. the first half of the year alone. That's a lot of people suffering, being crushed, losing their dreams so that a few bankers could make a buck.

So the other, malevolent model of capitalism is the medieval scheme: some of us are putative barons, and the rest are serfs. The barons believe they have the right, if that is what is necessary to achieve their goals, to require us to yield up our houses.


Given the circumstances, why would millions of people meekly yield their homes up to the banks, gather their possessions and depart, some of them actually to live on the streets as a result? Why aren't more of them barricading themselves in the property, assisted by their neighbors surrounding them, and chaining themselves to the doorframe? Why go gentle into the night?

It is likely that most American homeowners are not primarily afraid of the helicopters and guns which slew the people at Bagua; it hasn't even been disclosed to them as a possibility. Therefore, they must believe in their inferiority: They go out meekly because they buy the official narrative, that they owe their homes to the bank, that their status in society is that of the victim, the sacrificed, required to lose, for reasons barely understood.

I believe there are people who think they are a higher life form; but no-one truly has a a right, based on God, natural law or anything else, to require your life or your house for personal benefit. It seems like a most basic tenet of human nature that we each take action to resist depradation, to protect what is ours. It is shameful enough that government, acquiescing in the diminution of its own powers to protect us against the depradations of capital, permitted the housing bubble and has since held no-one criminally responsible. But the bullshit, the rhetoric, trying to persuade us that we are obligated somehow to give in, is doubly shameful.

I only recently became aware of the words Mario Savio uttered on the steps of Sproul Hall in 1964, among the most stirring ever spoken:

There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part! You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!