In a blog post on the now-unraveling standoff in Oregon, Charles Mudede pointed out that centuries before Ammon Bundy and his cohorts decided to occupy the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, the land had originally been expropriated from the Paiute Indians by white ranchers and settlers. “They were not doing all of this cheating and killing out of a noble pioneer spirit,” Mudede comments, “but because without access to land, these white farmers would be forced to make a living from wage labor.” Since working for a wage sucks and is only chosen when other alternatives have been eliminated, it was more difficult for early American industries to find people to work for cheap wages—unlike in Europe, where lands had already gone through the private enclosure, forcing the peasants of the country to sell their labor, as Ben Franklin is quoted explaining:
Great Establishments of Manufacture require great Numbers of Poor to do the Work for Small Wages; these Poor are to be found in Europe, but will not be found in America, till all the Lands are taken up and cultivated, and the Excess of People, who cannot get Land, want Employment.
This is largely why, in the US, slavery was more difficult to eliminate than on the other side of the Atlantic where there was nowhere for people to go to escape the demands of the capitalist system. The productive capacity of industrialization required people who lacked the freedom to seek the Jeffersonian ideal of self-reliance and personal sovereignty—an ideal that, paradoxically, is usually invoked as the final cause of the capitalist system. Yet the problem with this ideal is betrayed by the hypocrisies of the ideal’s author, Jefferson himself, who—much like the classical thinkers that inspired the Western enlightenment, the Greco-Romans—depended on a brutal system of forced labor and exploitation in order to live up to his noble ideas.
The contradictions packed into our nation’s cherished ideals of freedom and property extend both into time (coerced labor) as well as space (expropriation of “uninhabited” lands). The negative freedom—freedom from coercion (free time)—and the positive freedom of ownership (property or free space) are, it would seem, not “inalienable” or “natural” rights,” as had been hastily argued in the late 18th century; they are not “rights” but are the conditions of freedom. In the latter case of property, as economist John Quiggin had pointed out,
the credibility of any Lockean theory defending established property rights from the state that established them depends on the existence of a frontier, beyond which lies boundless usable land. This in turn requires the erasure (mentally and usually in brutal reality) of the people already living beyond the frontier and drawing their sustenance from the land in question.
The underlying motivation of both the paleoconservatives who occupied the refuge, and the right-wing populists that support Donald Trump’s candidacy, seems to embrace precisely that which is problematic about the foundational premises of the Capitalist system: that one can be free from exploitation only at the expense of others. For Bundy and company, those “others” are the federal government, and the members of the Northern Paiute Nation who, if anyone, have a claim on the land and the resources in question. For Trump supporters, the “others” are the non-Christian, non-whites from both the upper and lower strata of our society, who represent the barriers to the success and security of “real” Americans. In both cases, the notions are deeply quixotic. But unlike the Trump supporters, one can find things to admire about the armed occupiers in Oregon; a heroism of sorts, a willingness to put their ideals to practice, regardless of the plausibility, or coherency of their goals.