A view of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where self-styled militia men are declaring a takeover of refuge headquarters.
A view of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where self-styled "militia men" are declaring a takeover of refuge headquarters. CLAUDIO DEL LUONGO/SHUTTERSTOCK

As pointed out by a blogger quoted in Dan Savage's post "About Those Armed Militia Members/Terrorists Who Seized a Federal Building in Rural Oregon," the situation in Oregon really boils down to "white privilege performance art." Even the Taiwanese Animators see this as clearly the case. And this is why it's both a laughing matter (everyone knows no one is going to die in this "standoff") and a serious one (our society has yet to standardize the way it enforces its laws). Only white men can do this sort of thing (raiding a government building and threatening to kill government officials) and hope to see another day. Indeed, these law-breakers, some of whom are ranchers, have the breathing room to request snacks from their supporters.

So, what do these white outlaws want? The freedom of two criminals, and some government land. Because we can be certain that these demands will not be met, and because we can also be certain that the FBI is not going to do anything about the occupation, we can conclude that the situation in Oregon is here to stay. But the grievances of this gang, which sees itself as a patriotic militia, actually tells us a lot about US history in two significant ways. One, which was described by Sydney Brownstone in her post "Required Reading: The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Was Taken Over Once Before, Back in the 19th Century," concerns the brutal process by which ranchers in the 19th century "dispossessed" natives of their land and ways of life.

The second part concerns the reason why white ranchers and farmers in the 18th and 19th century were so desperate for land in the first place. They were not doing all of this cheating and killing out of a noble pioneer spirit, but because without access to land, these white farmers would be forced to make a living from wage labor.

The thing that is never taught or talked about is exactly how capitalism come into existence. The reason for this is because most people believe that it happened naturally. That capitalism was always there but never fully expressed until certain social obstacles were removed by a revolution in thinking and class arrangements. In this picture of things, the urban merchant of the medieval European trading cities (Venice, Florence, Antwerp) is seen as the predecessor (indeed, the seed) of capitalism, an economic system that places the market at the center of the most vital human needs (food, shelter, clothing).

But in fact, the urban merchant was not the seed of this system. It did not begin in the city but in the countryside. What opened the door for capitalism in the 18th century was the transformation of the relationship English peasants had with the land. It began by dispossessing them of property and then systematically crippling their domestic forms of production. It is this brutal process that forced English peasants to sell their labor on the market for a wage.

The thing that is, again, never taught or said is that most English peasants wanted land and not a wage, which was too low to adequately sustain them. The wage system also deprived them of free time (the war on Christian holidays was not started by atheistic liberals but by the big bosses of farms and factories). Subsistence farming, foraging, and hunting provided rural peasants with more than they needed. Wage labor did not, and as a consequence, the state, which supported the interest of capitalists, had to impose laws that banned hunting (game laws) and made domestic production nearly impossible (enclosures).

The English transition to capitalism did not need slave labor because wages for landless peasants were very low. But in the New World, the United States, the situation was different. There was lots of land to be had, and so wages were very high, and it was almost impossible to keep white workers in factories, fields, or other market-related enterprises. As soon as they made enough money, they left and bought land and become independent. And it is here that we find the roots of American individualism; it's not in entrepreneurship but in revolt: White American individuals were fleeing the market-centered system. They wanted out. And the best way out was land, which provided the things that the market provided but for much less work and demands on personal space and time.

To make my case as quickly and clearly as possible, I quote one of the Founding Fathers of the American-style freedoms beloved and championed by modern militia men, Benjamin Franklin:

Great Establishments of Manufacture require great Numbers of Poor to do the Work for Small Wages; these Poor are to be found in Europe, but will not be found in America, till all the Lands are taken up and cultivated, and the Excess of People, who cannot get Land, want Employment.

If you grasp the essence of this statement, which was written in 1782, you will grasp the essence of American slavery, and why it is not a system that's external to free enterprise.

The situation in Oregon is something like a cry from the depths of an old and crumbling tomb. The demand for federal land by the lawbreakers is surely dead and cannot be exhumed and revived. There is no more land left that's cheap and offers a way out of the dehumanizing wage system. There is no outside left. You can not hunt for deer on public land. American game laws must be obeyed.

If we have this historical background, we can see that the activities and demands of these "patriots" are not against the government but capitalism itself, which can only function in the context of a strong state. To make matters worse, the head of this government is black.

This post owes a great deal to these three books:
1) The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation by Michael Perelman
2) The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View by Ellen Meiksins Wood (the key arguments in the book can also be found in this Monthly Review post "The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism"
3) The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time by Karl Polanyi