Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanks for Nothing

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.” - Marx

The official story of Thanksgiving Day has the Pilgrims boarding the Mayflower, coming to America, and establishing the Plymouth colony in the winter of 1620–21. This first winter is hard, and half the colonists die. But the survivors are hard-working and they learn new farming techniques from the Indians. The harvest of 1621 is bountiful. The pilgrims hold a celebration and give thanks to God. The Pilgrims live happily ever after. 

Another storyline goes like this: The early settlers at Plymouth at first experimented with a system of collective ownership of farmland, which, as with their compatriots at Jamestown, led to widespread famine. When they eventually abandoned this system in favor of private ownership, farmers were more productive, the harvest was bountiful, and a feast was held in celebration.

It is true that the Plymouth settlers abandoned a system of common ownership in favor of private property, and found it much more to their liking. In his memoirs, William Bradford, the colony’s first governor, writes that the communal lifestyle was “found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment … for the Young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense.” After every family was assigned its own parcel of land to farm, “this had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.”

The system of collective ownership known as the “common course” was abandoned in 1623. And it was abandoned not because of a famine but because the settlers wanted to make more money.

Nick Bunker writes in 2010’s Making Haste From Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World,  “All the land in the Plymouth Colony, its houses, its tools, and its trading profits (if they appeared) were to belong to a joint-stock company owned by the shareholders as a whole.” He continues, “Under the terms of the contract … for the first seven years no individual settler could own a plot of land. To ensure that each farmer received his fair share of good or bad land, the slices were rotated each year, but this was counterproductive. Nobody had any reason to put in extra hours and effort to improve a plot if next season another family received the benefit.”

While Bradford assigned plots of land for the use of individual families in 1623, actual private ownership of land in Plymouth had to wait until several years later when the colonists paid off the mortgage held by their financial backers in London. Thus no private, free-hold property was owned by the colonists in Plymouth before 1627. Plymouth’s private property began not in 1623 but in 1627-28. The rearrangement of land distribution in 1623 did not grant property; it assigned non-rotating usage rights for an unspecified period that ended four years later (when the grants were continued as private property). The Pilgrims’ trip to the New World was financed by the Merchant Adventurers, an English company that sought to profit off the colony.

The settlers in Plymouth and their supporters in England did indeed agree to hold their property in common — William Bradford, the governor, referred to it in his writings as the “common course.” But the plan was in the interest of realizing a profit sooner, and was only intended for the short term; historians say the Pilgrims were more like shareholders in an early corporation than subjects of socialism. “It was directed ultimately to private profit,” said Richard Pickering, a historian of early America and the deputy director of Plymouth Plantation, a museum devoted to keeping the Pilgrims’ story alive.

 It was the powerful English capitalists that the Pilgrims were indebted to. Later settlements were funded by the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth. The Pilgrims, regardless of their deep-seated religious beliefs, would never have been able to travel across the ocean if it were not for the blessing of business elites. The discovery of gold and silver in America,” as Marx pointed out, was the real reason for the colonization of the Americas — which began well over a century before the Pilgrims even arrived — not religious freedom.

The settlers at Plymouth were rebelling against the rules set by a corporation, not against the strictures of some collective farm or a religious commune. Historian Richard Pickering, a leading expert on the Pilgrims, explains that, when the common course was abolished, it was not abolished because it did not work — it actually worked just fine — but rather because the colonists simply did not like it. Pickering said “there was griping and groaning,” and, as Zernike explained, “this grumbling had more to do with the fact that the Plymouth colony was bringing together settlers from all over England, at a time when most people never moved more than 10 miles from home. They spoke different dialects and had different methods of farming, and looked upon each other with great wariness.”

Moreover, the reason the Pilgrims later became more prosperous was not because they became capitalists, but rather because they had learned how to better farm the new crops in the new soil on the new lands they had only just moved to a few years before. When it came to agriculture, many of the Pilgrims had been incompetent. They were not used to growing food in a different climate, with distinct soil and crops. If it were not for the help of indigenous many Pilgrims would have starved to death. 

The real victims of capitalism were the indigenous peoples. They were the obstacle to the Virginia Company’s business plan. Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Winthrop had a solution: steal the land of the indigenous peoples. Naturally, the people living on this land did not like that idea and resisted. In order to remove the indigenous people from their lands, Winthrop proposed a simple policy: mass murder. English colonist John Mason oversaw the slaughter of entire villages of indigenous peoples. The private property-valuing colonists repaid the socialist natives who helped them survive by slaughtering them and stealing their property.

The real history overlooks that the colonists systematically stole the property of the Natives through murderous barbarism. And the victims were the ones who were actually practicing socialism, owning property collectively, working for the common good and not profit.

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