Yes, the past always repeats itself. In our first installment, we saw how, in the 18th century, the English aristocracy went about clearing the peasants off of valuable land. To be sure, everything that the aristocrats did was legal — of course it was, because the gentry wrote the laws.
We also saw how today, in the 21st century, the American aristocracy — not noble, merely rich — is once again using the power of the law to clear the peasants, a.k.a. American citizens, off of valuable land.
Indeed, in the wake of that piece, many Breitbart commenters added valuable information. Virgil had not known, for example, that Harney County, Oregon, where the ranchers-vs.-FBI confrontation occurred last month, is the intended site of a massive wind-power project. But before this “Green energy” money-guzzler can be built, those ornery local ranchers need to be removed; only then can the wind-power plant and the all-important sage grouse enjoy an untroubled coexistence.
Moreover, Harney County sits atop valuable reserves of energy, as well as other resources. The local Oregonians would love to tap into this wealth, of course, but the national Greens would love for them not to. Guess who’s winning.
In fact, this author noted, back in 2014, that America is sitting on enormous reserves of oil and natural gas — not including coal, the reserves are even more — buried in federal lands; their value, at that time, was $128 trillion. That’s trillion, with a “t.” Since then, energy prices have fallen substantially, so those same hydrocarbons today might be worth “only” $40 trillion. Still, $40 trillion could pay off the entire U.S. national debt — while allowing as well for a bonus of about $60,000 for every American man, woman, and child.
Yet with only the rarest of exceptions — we’ll get to that in a bit — the issue of utilizing the underground wealth of America is a non-issue; it is simply outside the realm of acceptable discourse.
And why is this? The answer is depressingly bipartisan. Speaking for the Democrats, the Greens, of course, are against everything — it’s their religion. And as for the Republicans, well, more than a few GOP donors are fully on board with the Greens, especially if it involves any sort of NIMBY issue. And given that leading organs of conservatism, such as National Review, drip with contempt for the white working class, it’s no surprise that “drill, baby, drill” has been relegated to the same back-burner status as Sarah Palin herself.
So that’s the condition of the United State in 2016: Uncle Sam controls a huge empire of land, answering only to enviro-elitists. Meanwhile, the increasingly hard-pressed rural population is left to scratch out a living on the land it has left — even as the Greens ratchet up their determination to rid the land completely of any remaining rabble.
However, a look back at history tells us that this sort of status quo is not stable; in times of economic stress, all the king’s horses and men can’t keep Humpty-Dumpty together, at least not without a fight.
In the historical past, the top dogs — typically, the royalty, joined by the occasional church hierarch and private-sector plutocrat — have ended up owning huge tracts of land. Indeed, there’s a pronounced tendency toward the concentration of ownership in the hands of a few. This tendency is not something that free-marketeers like to talk about, but the historical record is clear: The rich get richer at least in part because they can make the poor poorer.
You see, over time, even the smartest and hardest-working farmer will find himself hitting a rough patch, such as a failed harvest or a natural disaster. And when that happens, the farmer can easily lose his property to the banker holding his mortgage. As a result, in the long run, ownership migrates to financial capitals, and those who actually work the land are reduced to peonage — that is, to becoming tenant farmers or sharecroppers.
The inevitable consequence of that impoverishment, of course, is populist politics — violent or peaceful, depending on the country.
Indeed, we can identify three broad categories of response: revolution, emigration, and political action. We can look at each in turn:
Push the peasants hard enough, and they will push back — violently. History is replete with peasant rebellions, yet the reason they are referred to as “rebellions,” as opposed to “revolutions,” is because they almost always lose. That is, the power structure in the cities can usually manage to put down rural rebels; the military term for this process is defeat in detail. (And a friendly bit of advice to the molon labe crowd: Upholding one’s rights, including the Second Amendment, is always the correct strategy; yet around the time that the federales send in the helicopter gunships and the cruise missiles — that’s the time to think of a tactical Plan B.)
If the idea of rural uprising is unpromising, then the best course of action might be simply to leave. In the 18th and 19th century, the elites of England, Germany, Scandinavia, and elsewhere in Europe were only too happy to see hungry peasants go away; many of them, of course, went to America. Those of us, here in the New World, who are the children of this forced exodus might find some grim satisfaction in the fate of Old Europe today. Yes, the underpopulated mother countries are repopulating — with Muslim immigrants. It would seem that the Euro elites outsmarted themselves; we, and the United States as a whole, got the better of the deal.
This, to be sure, is the preferred solution for American patriots: Use the Constitution to make needed change.
Of course, it’s a given that the deck is stacked in favor of the rich and powerful; thus the powerless have to try harder, and smarter — more on that later.
To illustrate the enduring nature of the political challenge, we observed, in the previous installment, that the Black Act, legislated by the British Parliament 1723, eerily anticipated the FBI’s mission to subdue Ammon Bundy, the late LaVoy Finicum, and the other ill-fated Oregon ranchers.
And speaking of legal ways to do dastardly things, we might mention, too, the Enclosure Acts. These were the hundreds of laws, enacted by the London government over a three-century period, from the early 17th to the early 20th century, all aimed at replacing herding with farming, thus driving the English shepherds off the land.
To be sure, some would define this brutal process as necessary progress. And yes, perhaps that’s a point: The rural populace became the urban proletariat, tending the mass-production machines of the Industrial Revolution that made England — and America — both prosperous and powerful.
But even so, let’s not forget that it was a nasty business, in part because the elite, even more fearful of urban power than rural power, were determined to squelch the new masses. For example, on St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, England, on a summer day in 1819, mounted British militiamen, acting on orders, hacked their way through a peaceful assemblage of petitioners. In what came to be known as the Peterloo Massacre, at least a dozen died, and hundreds more were injured.
The incident moved Percy Shelley to compose one of his most famous poems, The Mask of Anarchy. Imagining himself at the scene of the crime, he wrote, in language that still startles, even two centuries later: “I met Murder on the way/ He had a mask like Castlereagh” — Viscount Castlereagh being, at the time, the reactionary Leader of the House of Commons.
Continuing, Shelley imagined meeting Death, too:
He wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a scepter shone;
On his brow this mark I saw—
‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’
That is, in the poet’s mind, the mighty had hypocritically wrapped themselves in the raiments of the Almighty.
Yet through all the blood and the pain, good came out of Peterloo: An aroused British public finally forced Parliament, after Castlereagh was out of power — he committed suicide, perhaps tortured by guilt, in 1822 — to pass the Reform Act of 1832.
Thus the future course of British history was set: Thanks to small “d” democratic politics, Britain was able to enact enough reform to stave off both violent revolution and even more extensive emigration. The Peterloo Martyrs were not in vain.
Here in the U.S., the same positive political dynamic came into play: The government responded, if sometimes slowly, to the legitimate needs of the people. The Homestead Act of 1862, in particular, stands out as a genius piece of protest pre-emption.
More recently, the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which enshrined the principle of local control of finance — that is, local banks with local lending areas and a local sense of responsibility — thereby assuring many decades of widely shared prosperity. (Needless to say, the Monopoly Men of Wall Street hated Glass-Steagall, and, in 1999, at their behest, President Bill Clinton signed its repeal.)
So another lesson of history: There are no final victories. The forces of economic concentration can be thwarted, and even reversed, but the tendency to concentrate will always be there. And so, in our time, as taxes on the rich continue to drift downward, even as taxes on the rest of us go up, income inequality continues its society-skewing rise. Yes, the class war, as the astute Joel Kotkin defines it, is well under way once more.
Another lesson from history: The elite will always want to be alone on their leafy estates, free from any prole except for the servants.
A few years ago, a British newspaper offered this history-rich headline from rural Gloucestershire: “Sheep owners fight to retain ancient right of grazing.” The immediate issue was that the newly arrived rich — mostly Londoners, their incomes upped by Britain’s engorged financial sector — were enraged by the ancient tradition of the commons, guaranteeing the rights of locals to graze their animals. Yes, that’s the way things had been in Gloucestershire for a thousand years. The arrangement was a time-tested part of the compromise that enabled the high- and low-born to live together in harmony. But for the nouveaux riche, such history was bunk and nothing more — all they knew was that they didn’t want working rustics spoiling their vistas.
In the angry words of one local, “The Forest of Dean is no longer a poor man’s paradise, it’s a rich man’s fantasy area.”
Continuing, he added:
We accept people coming in to the Forest of Dean, we are not prejudiced. If you want to sell your house in London for £500,000 and buy next door for £150,000, you can come and be our neighbour and we will treat you as a neighbour, but you must treat us the same way.
In other words, if you want to come to bucolic Gloucestershire, you must respect the ancestral ways of the Gloucesterians, including their ingrained right to run their sheep on common land.
Thus we see the continuing similarity between the situation in England and the situation in Oregon: In both places, wealthy Greens love nature, but the nature they love is de-humanized — literally.
Yes, the Greens, if they could, would bring back the Black Act — Green is the new Black. And then, of course, there were the Enclosure Acts, even more effective. As we have seen, today’s American Greens are busily writing their own versions of those savage laws.
Yet all is not lost: The people have won before, and they can win again.
Indeed, Virgil was intrigued to see a healthy populist spirit bubble up from a man not normally seen as a rabble-rouser — that is, the sober-minded constitutionalist Ted Cruz.
The news of Cruz going up against the Greens — and against the Republican frontrunner Donald Trump — didn’t get much attention, but it should have.
Under the headline, “Cruz ad hits Trump on federal lands,” Politico noted that Trump had curiously come out in favor of the continuation of the federal real estate empire, specifically rejecting the idea of local control over the land. John Kasich, too, hit the same issue in a TV spot.
Thus we see a paradox: On the one hand, as we know, Trump has declared himself to be a staunch champion of eminent domain — that is, mandatory economic development. Yet on the other hand, he is against economic development on federal lands.
In his spot, Cruz pledged to fix that:
Eighty-five percent of Nevada is owned and regulated by the federal government, and Donald Trump wants to keep big government in charge. That’s ridiculous. Nevada, not Washington bureaucrats, should be in charge of your land. If you trust me with your vote, I will fight day and night to return full control of Nevada’s lands to its rightful owners, its citizens. Count on it.
American land for the American people, not the spotted owl, nor the sage grouse, nor some other critter held sacred by the Greens — what a concept!
Of course, Trump ignored the criticism as he went on to a smashing victory over all his Republican rivals in Tuesday’s Nevada caucuses.
So one is left to wonder why the Cruz-Kasich effort had so little effect: Perhaps it’s the case that the Trump juggernaut was just too strong. Or perhaps it’s because so few voters believe in the pledges of politicians. Or perhaps Nevadans have given up on trying to retake their land — at least for now.
Yet eventually, the lure of all that wealth underground will prove to be too tempting to resist; it will eventually be dug out.
Then we will realize that the hoary old couplet is actually true: “The people united will never be defeated.” It’s our land, dammit, and the bluebloods — oops, make that Greenbloods — can steal it only if we let them.
Or, as the poet Shelley wrote to his fellow Britons:
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!
Yes, we are many, and they are few. And with our eyes wide open, we will win.