Wednesday, August 29, 2018

What Privatization Really Means

We're living through an unprecedented age of privatization, filled with ongoing attempts to turn public spaces and public institutions into privately owned and operated businesses.

The first impulse is to ascribe this to corruption and greed-- surely the goal of privatization is to grab more money, to profit from institutions and endeavors that used to be for the shared public good.

But that doesn't entirely scan. The accusations are common, but I don't believe that Betsy DeVos is in the secretary of education's chair because she sensed a money-making opportunity-- certainly nothing that would make a perceptible difference to her family fortune. I don't think Bill Gates is one of the point men on the privatization of education for the benjamins; the man already has more money than he will ever spend.

Are people pursuing privatization simply out of a desire to rake in mountains of money?

I don't think so.

It's mine. All mine. 
You can look at Donald Trump, who, I would argue, has privatized the office of the President. Sure, this lifelong grifter is finding plenty of ways to make a buck from the office, but not everything he's doing is about money. He'd like to arrest Omarosa for running her mouth. He likes to hire and fire based on loyalty. He threatens Google because he doesn't like his self-googling results. He doesn't want to keep the flag lowered for John McCain because he never liked John McCain. None of this is about money; it's about exercising his personal will, making what should be public Presidential decisions based on his private personal preferences.

We've heard it over and over in the modern ed reform movement-- schools should be run more like businesses. Yes, that means watching the money side of things, but it also consistently means, "I want to be able to run this school like my own personal private business. I don't want the government to tell me there are rules I have to follow. I don't want unions telling me what I can or can't do. I just want to exert my will, unfettered and unrestrained, like I would over any personal, private operation I owned."

Throughout the Trump administration, in fact, we've seen a rush to do away with government regulations and "protections." But Betsy DeVos won't get richer because she canceled oversight of the predatory for-profit college industry. She's just making the world work more like she thinks it should, with business owners able to exercise their personal, private will over the things they own.

Privatization is not (just) about profiteering. It's about the exercise of will. It's about being able to treat public goods like private property, and about being able to exercise more unrestrained will over private property.

It's important to understand this, because if we simply look for profit motive, we'll miss much of the privatization that's taking place. Modern venture philanthropy doesn't have nearly as much to do with profiteering as it does with buying influence and compliance. Bill Gates appointed himself the Chief of Education in the United States, and he never had to stand for election. This is the Reed Hastings (Netflix) approach-- there shouldn't be elected school boards; those of us who know better should just be in charge.

Charter schools do not have to be operated as a private business. We've been hoodwinked into thinking that private ownership and operation is somehow a defining feature of charter schooling. There's no reason it has to be. But for the privatizers, that's really the only detail that matters-- the public school should be operated as a private possession.

Yes, money matters. It matters as a means of keeping and exercising power, and it's also a means of keeping score-- if I'm filthy rich, that proves that I'm wiser, smarter, better than. "Follow the money" doesn't just mean to follow the flow to the beneficiary, but also to follow the strings and see who is pulling them.

At its root, privatization is about taking possession of spaces and institutions that used to be shared public good. Your hospital is no longer a shared community service-- it now belongs to somebody. Your schools are not a shared community good-- they are now someone's possessions. The privatization dream is without boundaries. Let us own the roads. Let us own the water supplies and services. When we want to, let us take possession of the land. In a privatized world, everything belongs to somebody (certified worthy by his wealth), and that somebody is free to exercise his will over his possessions as he wishes. That somebody doesn't have to stand for elections, though elections themselves have been privatized, just as your tax dollars have been privatized, earmarked for the people who now possess the services and institutions that used to be operated by government on behalf of the public who once owned them. The 1% don't simply want more money-- they want to be in charge, and they don't want to have to listen to the 99% backseat driving.

Privatization is not (just) about profiteering. It's about the rich taking possession of a country and all its assets. It's about dividing society into people who get to exercise their own personal will and those who will have to decide whether to comply or resist, because they no longer have a voice.

Resistance to privatization can't just be about asking, "So who will make money on this deal." We also need to be asking, "So, once this has happened, who will be the decider? Who will decide who gets treated at the hospital? Who will decide who and what get taught at the school? Who will decide when the roads are plowed and paved? And what can I do if I don't like their decision?" The pitch will always be, "Well, the government decides that stuff now and they do a lousy job, amiright?" That may be true, but it doesn't answer the question. Get an answer to the question, because we're seeing the answer demonstrated right now in the White House-- "I'll decide. I'm the only one that matters. I'll decide, and if you don't like it, tough, and if you complain, I'll find some way to use my personal power to punish you."

Privatization isn't always about money, but it is always about power. This country was set up so that power would be hard to get and hard to keep and hard to exercise without restraint. Privatization is about getting past all of that, and back to modern version of feudalism. We should keep resisting.

1 comment:

  1. If I can't use something because it is restricted by a private entity or "the government", what difference does it make? The same people who make such a huge deal about governmental overreach seem to have no problem with private citizens or groups doing the same thing. The REAL issue, though, is that private government doesn't answer to anybody. So who is it really that is more a threat to my rights?