Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Feeling Confined Lately?

Some processes eat away our rights, yet we can't see them in action. We feel the pinch, but accounting for our diminished rights and happiness is elusive to most.

I was reading today about the system of Enclosure, which existed in England and Wales between the 12th to the 19th centuries. Lands, whether in common hands or private lords' hands were held in common for the use of anyone who cared to farm them. During the Tudor period especially, lords discovered they could make more from the lands by grazing sheep there. Arable lands were now pasture lands.

The Inclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries took common lands out of public hands by escheat whether they were solely from common trust or were already privately owned and used by commoners. This system reached its zenith between 1760 and 1832. Middlemarch deals with land enclosures in service of another animal, the "iron pig" of the railroad.

Marxist scholars assert the act of enclosing space extended private yeomanship and created a landless laboring class who were forced to seek work in the new industries. Those were sheparding and shearing, and, from 1780 to the 1820's, factory work.

I see a new form of enclosure happening in industrial nations. It is the kind that sneaks up on us and is so insidious that we may not see it. It is a kind of virtual enclosure for the virtual age.

There is, to start, a physical delimiting of actual space. There are fewer public places where we can speak our minds. The ancient Greeks had the agora. We really have few spaces for citizens where we can speak our minds freely at any time. You need permits for protest marches. There are few Speaker Corners (London's Hyde Park). Colleges, libraries, and meeting halls are about all we have.

If we speak our minds and displease the owners of private property, they claim the power of private property. Owners can "trespass" you (notice how trespass became a verb about 2002). You can be trespassed lately for being rude to the desk staff or for complaining about policies. This is a way of shrinking individual rights and tightening the gag on freedom of speech.

You can even be trespassed for sleeping in the public library. And have you noticed that public libraries are letting the private sector creep in? There are cafes and restaurants in libraries now. The fees on copying have risen. I was also told I would have to buy a copy card for $1, which I could keep. The librarian said, "you get three free copies. Copies are 15 cents." That begs the question: what happens to the other 55 cents? The manager told me it goes for upkeep. Shouldn't we just pay for the copies? This is a public institution bilking the public for revenue just as a private company would.

A man I know suggested the city of Boston keep out the "troublemakers" by closing off the pedestrian thoroughfare section of Washington Street and covering it with a glazed arcade, such as the Galeria Emmanuelle in Milan. Maybe we should turn Boston Common into a private park, Sir, and have Verizon sponsor it.

Have you noticed that stadiums are now sponsored by companies? There's the Verizon Wireless Arena, the Tweeter Center, Gilette Stadium. This nomenclature tells the public that companies own more and more of our world.

All those security cameras create another enclosure of space and restriction of our freedoms. Surveillance keeps us in line. We don't have the same sense of freedom of expression or mobility.

Most of us have to work harder and longer to keep up with bills. We are getting shut out of our money, property, and leisure time while the billionaires and hudreds-millionaires, the new lords, are expanding their "estates."

It is not all virtual reductions. Lords are now finding ways to reduce the property and spaces of the common people. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are the lords of real estate. Instead of common land enclosure, we have mortgage forclosure.

What scares me even more than those developments is the true virtuality of land-grabbing. Information, which should be free and accessible to all is now restricted in ways. For about four years after the terror of 9/11 American news networks broadcast very few stories criticizing the Bush Administration, especially over the Iraq War.

Consider that the Web was, before 2000, the equivalent of the card catalog at the library, wherein most of it was text and images related to subjects. Starting in 2000 the advertisers caught on and, since then, it is a forum for ads. No matter what subject you tap in, you are bound to get an ad that may have nothing to do with the subject. In this way the Net is eroding free thought (as long as we comply). We have to use it as the expansive tool it is.

Let's be wary of how space, whether real or virtual, is shrinking at the hands of the lords of industry. We have more to lose than vegetables.

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