Private Forest Companies: The New Aristocracy

So, in this neck of the woods, criticizing logging and forestry companies is like badmouthing Jesus so I will refrain from doing that. What I will say, however, may seem like finding fault with the forestry based companies and their government supporters and ‘regulators’ but it isn’t. That doesn’t mean that I’m happy with what the likes of Hancock Forest Management, TimberWest, and Island Timberlands are doing. I think that most of their logging practices are unsustainable, damage the environment, compromise watersheds and unnecessarily restrict access to forested lands. But it’s all perfectly legal. They only do what the government allows them to do. It’s not their fault.

From their websites we learn that together they own in fee simple (the same way in which you own your house and the property it sits on) some 1,500,000 acres of forest lands on Vancouver Island, mostly in the lower half of the Island but with assets all over the place. TimberWest also has harvesting rights for 700,000 cubic metres of timber per year. The Private Forest Landowners Association says that private forest lands account for only 2 percent of BC’s land mass. That’s true, but I’d like to know what percentage of Vancouver Island is private forest land. That would be more relevant to me. Even more relevant would be an indication of what percentage of forest land, not bare mountain tops or urban areas, is held privatively and how that percentage has changed over the decades.

Also according to their websites these companies are fully in compliance with all the government regulations and comply with or exceed national and global harvesting standards, something I have no doubt is entirely true.  They claim that good relations with their neighbouring communities is also a high priority as is sustainability.

That’s all fine and dandy.

I have no doubt that there are many well-intentioned people who work for the companies I note above. I actually know some of them and they’re generally good people. And I don’t really have anything to say about the fact that these companies comply with government regulations and standards. I’m sure they do.

The problem is that government regulations are so lax as to be insignificant to these companies and violations of rules and regulations often go unpunished because the government has gutted enforcement staff and doesn’t really want to prosecute forestry companies anyhow. The company websites argue that they have over 30 Acts and regulations and rules to live by, but they are somehow making the best of it and at all times and in all places operate by commonly described ‘best practices’ to maintain sustainability, environmental, wildlife and community values. If a number of recent media reports have any credence, that’s hardly the case.

I just don’t see how the public good is served by having most of the southern half of Vancouver Island owned by private companies, why governments would allow this and how we are supposed to believe what the companies say about the wonderful and sustainable ways that they cut forests down.

Forest companies are really like a new aristocracy. During the Middle Ages and beyond, aristocrats and monarchs owned and controlled great swaths of land in Europe and elsewhere allowing only limited access to the peasantry and locals. That’s what is happening here with forest companies being the new aristocrats and us being the peasants. Of course, aristocrats and monarchs didn’t want to piss off the peasants too much or they could, and did, get rather revolting. There may be a lesson here for our new aristocratic forest companies and their government cheerleaders.

Governments have given land away to private companies for decades now starting with the big giveaway by the federal government to the CPR and on Vancouver Island to Dunsmuir in the late 19th century. Social Credit, Liberal and NDP governments have all participated in the giveaway over the decades and now we are in a situation where privatization of public lands seems to have gotten to the point where there is precious little Crown Land in the mountains and valleys of southern Vancouver Island.

Governments are increasingly committed to privatization.

They privatize as many services as they can by contracting out legal, technical, medical, health care and other services without drawing too much attention to it. They privatize land too. Most privatization now happens under the public radar, incrementally and often imperceptibly. It goes largely unnoticed. Privatization removes public assets from the public domain and places them in private hands. Even regulatory enforcement is sometimes privatized or put in the hands of the affected industries by making them self-regulating.

The reality is that the public sector is shrinking in BC as are public assets which are increasingly ending up in private hands. The common good is being sacrificed more and more to the gods of profitability. Less and less control stays in the hands of the public. With regards to forest lands, the result of this is watershed damage as recently reported on the Englishman River, environmental degradation and the alienation of wealth into the hands of the few, all sanctioned and abetted by government. The Private Forest Landowners Association supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and opposes any regulation on the exportation of raw logs. It claims that there is no money in domestic value-added production for the companies it represents and log exports are the only way they make money. The TPP is aimed at gutting national sovereignty and would serve to put corporations in greater and greater control over our lives. That’s the reality no matter how much they protest otherwise. I find it extremely difficult to accept the industry argument that they are acting in the public interest and for the common good.

It’s also clear that the provincial government does not govern in the public interest. In terms of forest lands it governs for the corporations and acts to protect and enhance their private interests at every turn.

The class system is alive and well and apparently hasn’t really changed much since the Middle Ages. Oh, the ruling class looks different, but it’s really the same. The only change is that we have been convinced that we live in a democracy and that together we make the rules. Such a sad delusion.



Privatization, Apple and Wealth Beyond Imagination

John’s question: Isn’t it fair to say that “capital” (as in, portable property not necessarily tied to wealth in the form of land) is inherently about privatization? If so, a capitalist society can do little other than drift toward further privatization, no?

My answer: Capital is a complex concept and Marx defines it in many ways including relating to it as crystallized labour.  Marx argues that more and more capital derived from human productive activity is finding its way into the coffers of the ruling class.  As Marx notes, the capitalist mode of production is based on the exploitation of labour-power by which surplus value is produced.  Profit comes from surplus value and becomes capital. This applies to individual capitalists but Marx intends that it should apply principally to the ruling class as a whole.  So, privatization, as much as anything means that the working class is getting less and less of ‘its’ share of the proceeds of social production.  It’s being appropriated by the ruling class which, for Marx, includes capitalists, of course, but also the state.  [The nature of the state and the ruling class is not by any means agreed upon by all Marxists. I may go into this in another post later.]  But that’s not how we’ve come to understand the concept these days, at least not entirely.  

Nowadays, we consider privatization as the simple movement of assets from the government to ‘private enterprise’ or business as in the case of the privatization of prisons.  The transfer of public land, formerly ‘tree farm licenses’ (TFLs) to business corporations is another example.  That kind of activity is proceeding apace.  Harper is smacking his lips, there’s so much potential here and, believe me, we’re nowhere near seeing the end of it.  But that’s not the whole story.

Essentially, capital is capital and it does not have to be concentrated in the ruling class, in the hands of a few, so to speak.  It can and will be collectively controlled according to Marx.  The irony for ruling classes throughout history has been that the more wealth gets concentrated in their hands, the harder it is for them to continue to accumulate capital. The margins get smaller and smaller the greater the concentration becomes.  Where are we now?

Well, the concentration of capital is proceeding apace globally.  Apple, my favourite computer company, has so much capital (in the form of cash) that it has to seriously consider what to do with it.  It’s giving a lot to shareholders.  It could lower its prices or pay its workers more in the sweatshops they work in all over the globe, but that would just be wrong…it would not be keeping the wealth in the right hands.