Libraries Under Capitalism: The Enclosure of the Literary Commons

Public libraries have functioned as a commons for public education, community dialogue and organizing. But over three decades of neoliberal policies have forced public libraries from a service model to a business and profit model that is destroying our public space. An understanding of US public libraries in the context of our economic history could help us protect these important literary commons.

(Photo: HJL; Edited: LW / TO)(Photo: HJL; Edited: LW / TO)

“One of the most subversive institutions in the United States is the public library.” —bell hooks

Our public libraries, our literary commons, are gradually being enclosed — sealed off to the public by a series of acts of our government — local, state and federal — as it bows to the dictates and priorities of corporations. The public library is one of the few settings where people can enter for free, access materials for free and stay without being expected to buy anything. The value of public libraries not only exists in the materials they lend and the non-commercial model they embody, but in the commons that they represent: A public area that offers Americans liberated intellectual spaces, the potential for community dialogues and organizing.

Libraries are shifting from public service organizations to business and profit models that lead to the destruction of a public space.

In fighting this enclosure, The New York Times advocates more money for libraries. It presents a vision of libraries as places for poor children to “learn to read and love literature, where immigrants learn English, where job-seekers hone résumés and cover letters, and where those who lack ready access to the internet can cross the digital divide…. They are havens for thinking, dreaming, studying, striving and — for many children and the elderly — simply for staying safe, and out of the heat.” An article in the Public Library Quarterly titled “Libraries and the Decline of Public Purposes,” adds that libraries “help make possible the democratic public sphere.” The author also warns that libraries are shifting from public service organizations to business and profit models that lead to the destruction of a public space.

It seems that we need more money to help libraries to survive, and we need to stop the turning of our libraries from cultural, educational, community institutions to commercial ventures. To get a clearer insight into these problems, we need to look at how libraries were influenced by capitalism.

Libraries as a System of Social Control

As we look at the rise and decline of public libraries, we will see that the changes are often related to the prime directive of capitalism: profit. If something goes wrong — that is, if something endangers the possibility of profit — it will serve as a convenient scapegoat and be reduced or eliminated in the budget of local, state and federal agencies. Public librariespublic education and public lands are three of the current victims of a shift in capitalism, for they have become “unnecessary expenses” which hinder the need for increased profits.

For our purpose, capitalism is an economic system based on wage labor (working for a wage), private ownership or control of the means of production (things like factories, machinery, farms and offices), and the production of commodities for profit, where a tiny corporate elite uses its wealth and political power to generate the priorities, finances and actions of Congress for their own benefit. The variations of capitalism over the years contain one constant: the struggle between the owners and workers for wealth and power. Since corporate capitalists have the money and power, they usually control the society. But when a depression occurs, the going gets tough for the much larger working class, they react, organize and struggle for more wages, benefits and control. The worker reaction to the Great Depression led to the enactment of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, which ultimately regulated capitalism in order to save it. Part of that workers’ rebellion was due to the excessive wealth inequality of the Gilded Age, where the capitalist class accumulated the wealth at the expense of the workers, similar to today’s wealth inequality in the new Gilded Age.

This conflict between owners and workers can be seen in the history of the public library movement. Libraries are part of a system of social control: they provide resources and education to immigrants. When the owners encourage the creation of public libraries, they see them as a training ground for immigrants for their industries. One example is Butte, Montana, in 1893, in which the new Carnegie library was touted by the mine owners as an “antidote to the miners’ proclivity for drinking, whoring and gambling” as well as creating a community for immigrants, so that job turnover would be reduced.

Andrew Carnegie, an early capitalist philanthropist, typifies the intentions of the capitalist class to maintain the system (profits), and stop workers from revolting. In his 1889 article, “The Gospel of Wealth,” he argued that the wealthy can reduce social protest through philanthropy. It was better to squeeze money from workers’ paychecks, collect it and give some back to the community. Carnegie belittled workers, stating,

If I had raised your wages, you would have spent that money by buying a better cut of meat or more drink for your dinner. But what you needed, though you didn’t know it, was my libraries and concert halls. And that’s what I’m giving to you.

Carnegie’s generosity was double-edged: to diminish the potential for worker uprisings, and to maintain and increase his profits. He was a generous man, but he was not wholly interested in improving or changing society, as demonstrated by his actions around the segregation of African Americans. Under segregation, Black people were generally denied access to public libraries in the Southern United States. Rather than insisting on his libraries being racially integrated, Carnegie founded separate libraries for African Americans. For example, in Houston, Carnegie opened the Colored Carnegie Library in 1909. Still, his generosity allowed him to build half of the American public libraries by 1930. Libraries also multiplied due to the need for public education, which included training the incoming 20-plus million immigrants (1880-1920) necessary to maintain the labor market and uphold the capitalist system.

Wars in our capitalist-controlled world are almost always fought over access to profits, resources and territory between two or more separate sets of ruling classes. In those struggles, propaganda is a useful tool. In WWI, the goal for libraries shifted to the Americanization of the immigrants, which included the suppression of “unpatriotic pro-German” books. In WWII, in contrast to the Nazis’ burning of books, US librarians looked to books as weapons of war. During the Cold War (1947-1991), some public libraries also served as propaganda tools for US government foreign policy by limiting Soviet materials through the Foreign Agents Registration Act. This was a time when the ultra-conservative John Birch Society’s members were urged to visit every public library in the country to make sure the society’s Blue Book was available. The Blue Book contained warnings that the enemy will turn the United States into a communist police state and implied that President Eisenhower was a communist agent. In 1953, during the height of the McCarthy era, a member of the Indiana Textbook Commission tried to ban Robin Hood from schools and libraries for promoting communism because the protagonist stole from the rich to give to the poor. Fortunately, some brave students from Indiana University fought back and organized the Green Feather Movement (representing the green feather Robin Hood wore).

The Economic Attack on Libraries

At the end of the 1970s, training immigrant workers was no longer a concern for capitalist corporations because the labor shortage ended. This was also a time when public library funding began to decline. After 9/11, public fear intensified, as did surveillance by the state. One government reaction was, according to Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, that all libraries were required to give up information about their patrons. Some brave librarians who understood that such a requirement was a danger to our system, rebelled. For example, the Vermont Library Association sent a letter to Congress opposing the library-related features of the PATRIOT Act. Addressing the resulting flare-ups in the Middle East, US propaganda was a concern for some librarians who were alarmed over hyper-patriotic symbolism displayed in libraries right after the 9/11 attack (flags, poster, pamphlets). They endorsed a letter of concern that “such unusual displays may create an intimidating atmosphere for some library users.”

Most of the public libraries of the late 20th and early 21st century provided a welcoming common space that encouraged exploration, creation and collaboration among students, teachers and the community. Libraries innovated and brought together physical and digital media to create learning environments. In 1982, the American Library Association promoted “Banned Books Week” that drew attention to books with unorthodox or unpopular beliefs, and made them available for all who wish to read them.

But at this time, there was an unease in the capitalist class about the dangers posed by the supposed democratizing effects of 1960s activism (civil rights, LGBTQ rights, environmental awareness, student movements and anti-Vietnam War activities). The conservative business interests attacked the regulated capitalism of the New Deal and introduced neoliberalism, a variation of capitalism favoring free trade, privatization, minimal government intervention in business, reduced public expenditure on social services (libraries) and weakening the power of labor. Some followed the Powell Memorandum (1971), a roadmap for the conservative business interests to rise up and defend themselves against the alleged assault on “freedom,” led by activists like Ralph Nader, Herbert Marcuse and others who had supposedly taken over the universities, the media and the government. At the other end of the spectrum, the liberal internationalists of the Trilateral Commission published a document titled “The Crisis of Democracy” (1975), which hinted that ’60s-style activism could turn previously apathetic and ignored citizens into activists who may possibly upset the status quo.

The decline of worker immigration in the ’70s and the stress of austerity due to the rise of neoliberalism led to the decline of social services, including the public library system, and the drift towards the business model for some libraries, with a focus on users as customers. They followed the model of corporations, using public relations, information commodification, efficiency, branding and corporate sponsorships to supplement their funding. The local, state and federal tax revenue previously required to maintain public services shifted to the pockets of corporations, the maintenance of the military-industrial-Congressional complex, or was stashed in tax havens. The middle class was fooled by the promise of tax cuts, because they were told that cutting taxes would boost spending, making the US economy flourish, so they mistakenly went along with big business, but the loss of these public institutions hurts everybody but the wealthy.

All these attacks on public libraries occurred in spite of the fact that libraries are an excellent taxpayer investment. For example, a 2007 study about San Francisco’s library found that for every dollar spent on the library, the citizens received three dollars in materials and services.

The effects of the 2008 recession caused libraries to further suffer financially, even though they were used by more people. California completely eliminated state funding for libraries in 2011. Louisiana followed California’s lead in 2012. Drastic cuts hurt the New York City public libraries, the Dallas Public Library, libraries in the state of Massachusetts and others. In the current federal budget, there is a plan to eliminate the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which has been progressively reduced by prior administrations, both Democratic and Republican.

Increased budget cuts are leading to the end of our literary commons. How can advocates help public libraries survive and promote real democratic values and critical thinking? First, by understanding the fate of public libraries in the context of the history of capitalism. Second, by organizing and acting to protect public libraries as locations of community connection and potential action, the bane of the disempowering, oligopolistic capitalist system.


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