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No, Stossel. The Pilgrims Were Starved by a Corporation, Not by Communism.

By Kevin Carson

Center for a Stateless Society

Each year at this time somebody in the right-libertarian world, reenacting an obligatory Thanksgiving ritual, drags out the old chestnut about the Pilgrims at Plymouth almost starving from “communism” until private property rights and capitalism saved them. This year John Stossel (“We Should Be Thankful for Private Property,” Reason, Nov. 27) gets the honors.

In the received version the Puritans, motivated by a misguided idealism, initially set out to restore the primitive Christian communism of the Book of Acts, “holding all things in common.” Stossel characterizes the arrangement as sounding “like something out of Karl Marx.” When the obvious incentive problems entailed in this practice led to starvation, the settlers accommodated themselves to reality and divided up the land and worked it individually. Output skyrocketed, starvation was averted, and everybody was happy.

But that’s not the way things actually happened.

Richard Curl’s history of cooperatives in America, For All the People, fills in some missing details that change the meaning of the story entirely. Curl supplements Bradford’s history with material from J. A. Doyle’s English Colonies. According to Doyle, the agreement between the Pilgrim Separatists and the Merchant Adventurers corporation provided that

“[a]ll settlers … were to receive their necessaries out of the common stock. For seven years there was to be no individual property or trade, but the labor of the colony was to be organized according to the different capacities of the settlers. At the end of the seven years the company was to be dissolved and the whole stock divided.

Two reservations were inserted, one entitling the settlers to separate plots of land about their houses, and the other allowing them two days in the week for cultivation of such holdings. The London partners, however, refused to grant these concessions, and the agents of the emigrants withdrew them rather than give up the scheme.”

In the conventional narrative the apostolic zeal of the Pilgrims, who desire to recreate the communism of the early Church, is confronted by hard reality. But according to Curl, relations between the Puritan settlers and the Merchant Adventurers make more sense in light of an entirely different subtext — the English peasantry’s relations with the landed classes in the Old Country: “The colonists, most of them tenant farmers in the open fields of an old manorial hunting park in Nottinghamshire, considered that the investors’ demand essentially reduced them to serfdom. The settlers were asking for no more than was normal under England’s manorial system in effect since the Middle Ages. Peasants worked in the lord’s fields but also had time to work with individual plots for their household needs.” The turning point of the story is a lot less like Stossel’s “capitalist reform” than the Diggers on St. George’s Hill.

The Plymouth story is sometimes compared to that of agriculture in the last days of the Soviet Union, where most of the food consumed came from private family plots — essentially kitchen gardens with some small livestock thrown in. Had the entire Soviet population been forced to subsist on the output of State and collective farms alone, the result would have been mass starvation — exactly like in Plymouth. This parallel is entirely accurate. What the received version of the Plymouth story leaves out, however, is that the role of the “collective farm” in the little drama is played not by the naive Puritan zealots seeking to “hold all things in common” but by a private corporation chartered by the English crown.

And as Curl describes it, the system of private plots adopted after the rebellion against the Merchant Adventurers wasn’t much like modern fee simple ideas of “private property,” either. It sounds more like the furlong strips in the open-fields of Nottinghamshire: The family plots were ad hoc, to be periodically redivided, and not subject to inheritance.

So the proper analog to what almost killed off the Pilgrims is not, as Stossel says, “Karl Marx” or “today’s [presumably left-wing] politicians and opinion-makers.” It’s the lord of an English manor — or a Fortune 500 corporation.

But the story as it actually happened is still a testament to the evils of statism and the benefits of voluntary cooperation. The Merchant Adventurers, like the Fortune 500 companies of today, was a chartered corporation that depended entirely on benefits and legal privileges conferred by the state. The living arrangements it attempted to impose on the Plymouth settlers were the same as the extractive arrangements that prevailed on an English manor, enforced by the legal privileges the state conferred on the landed nobility. And the new system the Pilgrims replaced them with were the age-old open field system that peasant villages had spontaneously created for themselves, in the absence of coercive interference, since neolithic times.

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  1. Okay, so here’s the deal: corporatism has nothing to do with industrial combines organized for commercial operations, except in the loosest sense – that industrial combines operate with certain corporate interests and institutions, typically under the goal of making more money than would be possible by ad hoc contracting.

    Corporatism, in the Catholic, fascist, Germanic medieval sense means about the same thing as non-socialist union solidarism. Communism, before it meant ‘universal imperial state socialism’ meant basically the same thing as corporatism, i.e. the particular community or other ‘solidarity’-oriented groups, typically self-identified and organized on what might be called ‘direct democracy’. Corporatist systems and ideologies are often based on the idea that by internalizing certain relations the overall productive gains can be maximized across the structure.

    And that’s it. It doesn’t have anything to do with monotheism, superstitions about property, or anything but a particular way of multilateral self-government that was normal basically everywhere forever and is in fact typical of most vaguely functional social orders. Only ideological Puritans and their statist bastard children have ever had these nutty universalist creeds that makes ‘corporatism’ seem evil, or even unusual. Corporatism describes a society in which no uniform authority or legality applies to everyone. In the real world, this is because it takes all kinds, and besides, there is no ‘universal code’ to apply if people wanted to; there is no ‘right’ way, though there are plenty of ways that will end up in civil war or starvation, corporatism tends to specifically want to weed these out. Civil war and starvation typically result when someone tries to transcend the semi-permeable societies and force them to operate according to some specific dictat.

    Corporatism isn’t anarchism, or fascism, it’s any social order that has internal distinctions and discriminatory equity.

    I can’t stand most leftists because they’re just Christian universalist fanatics. They’re wrong. Their ideas are nonsensical, and directly contradict reality. And no, it doesn’t matter if the Nazis are evil or whatever, because the leftist picture of reality is emotional nonsense. It has an ascendency today because most people are stupid and conformist. The ‘right’ could be all kinds of crazy, but it is at least conceivably compatible with accepting the existence of an external, differentiated reality. The left always veers into retardation. All those antinomian communist crypto-Protestants in the middle ages are exactly the fucking same as the left.

    I have never given a shit about nations or god or any of these fictional entities people use as a justification for their self-esteem and baseless moral superstitions. But ‘leftism’ and especially ‘humanism/liberalism’ is objectively the more retarded and unscientific of the great mass political tendencies. I tend to think people are invariably useless jackasses who have no justifiable right to an opinion on much of anything. But leftards are the ones who are the most inclined to outright reality denialism on a level that makes Catholics blush. Largely because of this: due to tactical and emotional flaws, the left can not accept or deal with the fact that most people are stupid pieces of shit and don’t want to do anything about it. Any ‘leftist; who approaches mankind objectively invariably becomes some kind of nihilist or fascist, and it is this that means leftism is forever at odds with any kind of individual improvement or de-stultifying of the human race. As long as people use sentiment to make political decisions they will be useless fucks, and as they will always do this, most people will invariably be useless fucks.

    It’s not a matter of ‘politics’ at all for the thinking man, but resignation to unending spiritual warfare as a matter of self-defense. Looking at people like Stirner, or Paul Gottfried, or Nietzsche, this really is the ‘truth’ that transcends the political lies and cults of control: most people want to be controlled, and dislike living outside of narrowly proscribed fantasy worlds. There are many reasons for this, not least the dysgenics of a sentimental capitalism, but whatever the cause it is inveterate to an extent that one can not even think of ‘reforming’ or ‘rescuing’ anyone. This idea itself smacks of the herd stupidity and delusion that breeds this situation. Treating people like a bunch of stupid, helpless animals who probably don’t deserve your attention, much less your help, is pretty much the key that people as disparate as Albert Jay Nock and Benito Mussolini have found. There is a ‘right’ that can deal with this much better than any ‘left’ I know of, as I said, if there is any kind of anarchism that appeals to the anthropic realist it is political nihilism, i.e. that people are not interested in reason and justice, and can not do right because they depend on perpetuations of lies for their sense of self-worth and motivation, and it is unrealistic to treat them as much more than clay dummies.

    The Gnostic Solution is so enduring because it is the right one. It is also always misunderstood when popularized, because it is anti-populai. This, more than anything else, is why Gnostics were so obscurantist and secretive; one does not spread ones doctrine to the masses, one merely has it polluted by them.

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