The Oregon occupation is capitalist to its core. Ranching is a globalized industry that has had dramatic effects on the climate and physical landscape of North America. It is enabled by and entwined with the state to at least as great a degree as the state acts as a hindrance upon it. Cattle ranching's early 20th century boom occurred precisely because of (rather than in spite of) the federal government's control of so much of the West, which allowed ranchers access to wide expanses of grazing lands. In Oregon, as elsewhere, the expansion of ranching as a business required both cheap access to federal land and the parceling of land formerly allotted to reservations under the Dawes Act of 1886.
Southeastern Oregon was Northern Paiute Indigenous territory. In the 1870s, "Malheur" - French for "misfortune" or "tragedy" - was the name of a reservation created for the Northern Paiute people by the federal government. That reservation was dissolved, and hundreds of people were removed to Washington, following the Bannock War of 1878. Still, many Northern Paiutes remained in Harney County, Oregon. As Indian Country Today notes, both the Burns Paiute Tribal Office and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge today sit where the Malheur Reservation once did, on land where Northern Paiutes have lived for centuries. In his 1999 book Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks, historian Mark David Spence argues that the historical concurrence between "Indian removal" and the creation of the first national parks (and wildlife refuges) between the 1870s and the end of the 1910s was no coincidence. Making the West a wilderness required removing, restricting and confining the Indigenous people who had populated the landscape that European-Americans viewed as a "scenic playground, national symbol, and sacred remnant of God's original handiwork." Americans, Spence writes, "are able to cherish their national parks today largely because native peoples either abandoned them involuntarily or were forcefully restricted to reservations." Spence adds that "uninhabited wilderness had to be created before it could be preserved," and thus preserving the "wilderness" and excluding or removing Indigenous people went hand in hand. The creation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, among the oldest such refuges in the western United States, was animated by similar logics of preserving nature for Euro-American appreciation and consumption.
Federal lands are at the center of a growing political struggle over the concept of property rights. Making up one-third of the nation, the public domain is by federal agencies, such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, and encompasses what remains of the nation’s valuable minerals, old growth forests, native grasslands and the extremely valuable oil and gas reserves—from the Rocky Mountain Front to the outer continental shelf. Much of this territory has been grotesquely transformed over the last half century by big companies into kind of industrial wasteland, consisting of atomic and other bombing ranges, ammo dumps, military and energy facilities, strip mines, clearcuts, dammed, dredged and scoured rivers, and leaching mounds of cyanide. Still, though victim to decades of abuse and neglect, the public lands also hold the last remnants of wild America, its salmon and trout, elk, grizzlies, spotted owls and wolves, its ancient forests, deserts and mountains.
The Wise Use Movement consists of more than a thousand local organizations across the country, representing roughly three million people—people who fear the infringement of their property rights, mostly by what they see as oppressive federal government regulations. Even though the Wise Use movement may attract people form diverse political and ideological heritages, it was also lustily embraced (and some might say co-opted) by Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey’s anti-government revolution of the 1990s. Today the Wise Use movement nestles among the rightwing organizations and tendencies of the post-Bush Republican Party. Some of these groups are simply out for money: they want the federal government to pay them considerable sums in exchange for changing traditional uses of their property that have run afoul of federal laws or even in exchange for cutbacks in the commercial use of public lands or resources. Custom and culture, they call it. Other Wise Use groups have congealed as a political force to demand unrestricted access to federal lands, whether it be to log, run cattle, or for less than environmentally friendly recreational pursuits, such as off-road motorcycling or snowmobiling. Corporate America has also invested heavily in certain factions of the Wise Use movement, using them as a grassroots stalking horse in their efforts to the preserve the archaic system of laws and regulations that allow them heavily subsidized entry to the natural wealth of the public domain. The big transnationals are intensifying their efforts to exploit the land, notably through the revival of gold mining and wide-spread oil and gas drilling.
The Wise Use movement see themselves as being engaged in a high-stakes chess game with the elite legions of the environmental movement, who are covertly carrying out a sinister master plan, a vast socialist experiment to depopulate the rural West. As evidence they point to the Wildlands Project and to quotes from various greens calling for a 50 percent reduction in North America’s population by the year 2100. The Wise Use movement often suggests that the real goal of the environmental movement is to clear rural Westerners off the land, so the West can be turned into an “eco-theme park” for the pleasures of vacationing suburbanites. In order to advance their socialist agenda, the Wise Users argue, environmental infiltrated the federal government. Under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the thinking goes, embedded key leaders into powerful positions inside the EPA, Interior and Agriculture Departments, and then, acting through their positions on government regulatory bodies, the environmentalists have set out to first reduce and then eliminate all grazing and logging on public lands and sharly curtail mining by driving up the cost of doing business. Environmentalists are viewed as having covertly turned fights over such seemingly innocent creatures as the coho salmon, northern spotted owl and gray wolf into national symbols of a broad land use planning instrument, a kind of bureaucratic club wielded against rural landowners. On the Wise Use movement’s enemies list is the National Biological Survey in 1993—known in the ominous parlance of the Wise Use movement as the NBS. “The NBS is fascist, man, it’s socialist,” proclaimed Chuck Cushman, head of the American Land Rights Association, based in Battle Ground, Washington. “These guys map your property with infrared satellite photos, looking for plants, you know, then they can actually come on your property without your permission. If they find one of those plants, you know you’re screwed worse than if they found dope.”
In the minds of sagebrush populists, the real menace lies not with the environmentalists, but with the political and financial powers that prop them up. It is the big East Coast foundations who now provide the principle financing of the big green organizations that are pulling the strings. And who is behind these foundations? The Rockefellers, the Pews, the Mellons and other titanic American families made rich through the Standard Oil trust and the like. Through their securities portfolios, naturally, these foundations are interlocked with the multinational corporations that run the world, and who eye the public estate as a source of cheap wealth when times get hard. And thus it is, according to Hage and his followers, that the small rancher in the Interior West is driven off the land by Forest Service and BLM rangers who are nothing more or less than federal agents of the Rockefellers.
Wayne Hage in his manifesto titled ‘Storm Over Rangelands’, points to Carl Schurz, Interior Secretary under President Rutherford B. Hayes and wrote that “Schurz’s efforts to prevent the establishment of private property rights on the public lands may have sprung from his socialist background. Schurz was a controversial German immigrant who had fought along with Karl Marx in the Revolution of 1848, came to America, was elected senator from Missouri and supported the radical Republican’s reconstruction plans.” Hage, argues with the nation deeply in debt after the Civil War, the European banking houses, led by the Rothschilds, conspired with the federal government to use the western lands as collateral against repayment of the war debt. The government reneged on the Spanish land grants and sent the cavalry out to kill off the Indians, who had real and justifiable land claims, to clear away any obstacles to this loan repayment scheme. The European financial interests joined forces with the big East Coast families to build the railroads, control the new towns and farms and, through the American Cattle Trust, turn the livestock business into a huge monopoly. According to Hage’s history, western lands were set aside through the conservation movement, starting with Yellowstone National Park, then Yosemite. These shrines to conservation were, according to Hageian theory, part of a vast project of “nationalization,” the equivalent, Hage wrote, of the “crown lands” in England.
The preservation of nature thus functioned as an enclosure of the commons, a process that lies at the heart of the historical and ongoing process that Karl Marx termed "so-called primitive accumulation." In 17th century and 18th century Europe, enclosures expropriated the peasants from the land and violently transformed them into wage laborers possessing nothing but their labor power, which they were forced to sell in order to survive. The "extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population" of the Americas, was, alongside slavery, one the "chief momenta" of this process. In the western United States, enclosure meant fencing what had been held in common, transforming it into (public) property, and thus dispossessing and immiserating Indigenous people and producing nature as a collective patrimony of white settlers. The Bundys and other ranchers have benefitted from these enclosures for well over a century, but now they want to further enclose what is already enclosed, to privatize what the Northern Paiutes had to be dispossessed of before the land could be made public. Nature preservation has often itself been a form of enclosure.
Bundy and his followers do not want to end the enclosures, but instead to carve out their own enclosures within the shell of the state's. On January 6, leaders of the Burns Paiute Tribe demanded that the occupiers leave. Tribal chair Charlotte Rodrique accused the Bundy militia of "desecrating" a sacred site. Tribal council member Jarvis Kennedy recounted the violent history of the Northern Paiutes' dispossession, arguing, "We weren't removed; we were killed," and demanded that the armed men "get the hell out." Rodrique and Kennedy's accounts challenge simplistic explanations of the occupation as a populist uprising against government overreach, insisting instead that it be viewed through the lens of the United States' long history of racist violence and expropriation. The Bundys and their ilk want free land to do with as they please without any consequences for damage to the environment, water, or neighbors. In that sense they are "takers." Capitalism is piracy. Oregon is a shining example of that piracy. Buccaneers acting with impunity. Above and outside the law. The media is complicit. You don't give an arsonist terrorist or insurrectionist a microphone.
Our goal as socialists is to maximize universal well-being. This is the goal of the people, when we are best able to think for ourselves and take care of ourselves.