Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

The Civil War continues . . . in Washington DC

Posted Jul 27, 2011 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, 1 Comment

Although there are different interpretations of the conflict that finally caused the American Civil War, I think a compelling case can be made that it was about property and property rights.  The confederacy succeeded to protect their right to own slaves.  Although the slave states lost the war, many people continued to believe that the purpose of government is to protect the ownership of property, and not to take it away.  The fight over the control of property continues . . . in Washington, DC.

The United States has two foundations.  One is the notion of a covenant among a people and with their God to live together in a new land.  The other is a contract to exploit the new land for personal gain.  The second foundation, first embedded in the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, has become the dominant ideology of the nation.  It used the Anglo-American ideology of property to justify its taking of land from native Americans, and later used Adam Smith’s conjectural history of the four stages of history (hunters, shepherds, farmers, and traders) to assure itself that a commercial nation based on property rights was the highest form of civilization.

Since the founding of our nation, we have also witnessed the emergence of a civic realm, grounded in human dignity rather than property ownership.  In this tradition, freedom is not based on ownership, but on membership.  We are all members of this time, of this generation.  As members of the same world, we have obligations to each other—civic obligations.

In a sense, the civil war was really a commercial war.  It was about ownership.  Many southerners, in fact, called it a war between the states rather than a civil war. They at least acknowledged that it was about whether states could protect the property of slave owners. Calling it a “civil war” by Lincoln and others actually supported their idea of the union; that we were all members of the same civic life.  Today we have a similar choice.  We could see the conflict in Washington as a commercial conflict—a conflict about the rights of ownership and the role of government—or a civic conflict—a conflict among citizens about how to design the systems we need to provide for one another.

One Response to “The Civil War continues . . . in Washington DC”

  1. Paul Fernhout says:

    August 7, 2011 at 4:13 am

    Important typo fix: you probably meant "seceded" not "succeeded"? Although I can find a reason to agree with the typo if you were implying anything about "wage slavery", which continued after the Civil War and increased, compared to people owning their own farms or businesses they worked themselves, or alternatively finding other ways to build a society without that many bosses staring at people's backs and forcing them to work by threat of deprivation or punishment. Noam Chomsky has talked about wage slavery. I also liken the "CLAWS" site (Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery), especially Bob Black's essay there on the abolition of work and wage slavery: I especially liked your point about "ownership" vs. "membership" which really gets at the heart of the matter.

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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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