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Walden: A Book Report

In Walden, Thoreau portrays his ideals and view on the social and economic life of the world. He claims that at each stage of societal development, in any period of the history of a society, there arise certain principal conflicts over specific environmental issues. By distinguishing principal political and economic conflicts, one can effectively differentiate stages of societal development and periods of history. Assessments and definitions of capitalist relations refer to private ownership of the principal means of production as the chief cause of conflict in society. Without such private ownership, capitalism is no longer capitalism. It is ownership that determines the character of all other relations in the free-market society. Other conflicts in capitalist relations are secondary, even the universal conflict between the elite and the masses. Conflicts of lesser scope, such as those that occasionally emerge in ethnic and majority-minority relations, are more obviously secondary. Political and social conflicts arise out of struggles to establish democratic institutions, freedom, and human rights, or as a result of divergent ideological orientations and lifestyles, or different attitudes stemming from contrarieties induced by religious affiliations.

Environmental and social conflicts may or may not occur at any stage of development and can be regarded as situational. Any portrayal of capitalist society, then, must include an analysis of the conflicts inherent in the private ownership of the principal means of production. To the extent that contemporary society continues to be capitalist, it retains conflicts typical of capitalist structures. This book aims to demonstrate that contemporary capitalist society is metamorphosing into a society. This claim has merit only if a new set of conflicts significantly different from those attributed to capitalism can be distinguished as characterizing the condition. Thoreau writes: “There Nature has woven a natural selvage, and the eye rises by just gradations from the low shrubs of the shore to the highest trees. There are few traces of man’s hand to be seen. The water laves the shore as it did a thousand years ago” (Thoreau 2003). The rewards to some individuals in control and management are comparable with profits to owners. However, managers are rewarded regardless of whether their operations are profitable, and for some time, whether they are successful. Political office under new conditions involves making decisions that affect large numbers of people, but also involves allocating funds. However, just as stockholders do not fully control the enterprises they own, politicians, government officials, and managers are not complete masters of the administrative and technocratic structures they direct. The bureaucratic apparatus controls a great deal of political activity. Those in control hold extensive powers and enjoy numerous privileges that enlarge their rewards. Exchange, cooperation, compromise, persuasion, and, of course, intercession and conflict, form a part of day-to-day life under such conditions. Each interest group practices whatever pressure tactics it can master in its efforts to manipulate a given situation.

Walden shows that natural environment is the most important life of social and economic activity of a man. Until recently, people derived income from wages, salaries, royalties, professional fees, profits, interests, and dividends. Although these forms of income still constitute most of the income structure in society’s undergoing change, part of income also consists of services, transfer payments, and other government benefits. Not always perceived by the population as actual income, but merely as part of the available condition, such benefits can be considered invisible income. Special privileges associated with particular positions in the bureaucratic structure can also be equated with income. Thus, under environmental change, three components of individual income, and, consequently, the income, can be discerned:

In the past, when government, public-service, and bureaucracies were smaller, the number of officials benefiting from such privileges was also much smaller. Consequently, so was the portion of the total income they appropriated. At present, benefits derived from privileges constitute the spoils of a vast new class of top executives, experts, and the personnel working for them. Although the cash value of such benefits is rarely reckoned and cannot be easily estimated on the basis of bills and receipts, these benefits have substantial real and potential monetary value. Apart from any other discoveries that large corporations can claim recently, there is one which saves them considerable money, about which they do not like to brag too much. They offer their executives a somewhat lower pay, which is also taxed at a lower rate, plus housing, a company car, travels, vacations, etc., which are not taxed, but which the company can claim as business expenses. This reduces the cost of the company’s business as well. Thoreau admits: “When you invert your head, it looks like a thread of finest gossamer stretched across the valley, and gleaming against the distant pine woods, separating one stratum of the atmosphere from another” (2003). Still, environmental issues in a society is not determined only by the structure of ownership, class composition, and gains defined as remunerations. Differences in interests, ideologies, values, norms, and lifestyles determine what side of the conflict individuals and groups will weigh in on. Under capitalist conditions, the principal conflict was over income engendered by private ownership of means of production—surplus value, in Marxian terms. In the new condition, the conflict is over incomes engendered by different forms of control, some related, some not related to ownership.

Thoreau’s Walden is an excellent example of economic relations and environmental concerns. Those advocating maximized entitlements not only believe that the poor deserve relief, but also that all citizens are entitled to a certain minimum of the income, distributed in services and entitlements. The debate is no longer whether every citizen is entitled to such a share, but how large this share should be. This conflict over the size of entitlements addresses the division of only a part of the environmental issues. However, it represents a fundamentally new value orientation and a new conflict structure, significantly different from the traditional perspective that recognizes market norms as the only factor determining income distribution in society. New conflicts over the natural environment do not eliminate the longstanding conflicts engendered by class divisions. The problem of conflicts over the allocation of goods becomes continually more complex. “Nature has no human inhabitant who appreciates her. The birds with their plumage and their notes are in harmony with the flowers, but what youth or maiden conspires with the wild luxuriant beauty of Nature?” (Thoreau 2003). Because the number of new services and entitlements provided by the government increases, and the scarcity of funds persists, the problem has exploded into a number of overlapping conflicts. For example, modem life has significantly extended the average life span; as a result, government pensions and medical assistance to the old must extend over a longer period of time while remaining sufficient to adequately support the elderly. These necessary increases in allocations for pensions and medical care for the elderly inevitably conflict with the needs of other groups. More funding is required for education, to raise teachers’ salaries and to make them proud of the job they do. When money is spent on sewers or environmental protection, less can be spent on developing an infrastructure to attract industries and generate jobs. As more is spent on defense, less is available for social programs, and vice versa. Priorities essential and justified to some are seen as unnecessary by others. The ensuing conflicts constitute a multisided predicament, which decision-makers today can neither avoid nor resolve. In the past, priorities were decided by families and small groups, within their limited budgets. As the New State absorbs the role of the family, it simultaneously inherits concerns over resources and priorities. Moreover, controversies over the allocation of environment concerns intensify as members of society become more dependent on entitlements and privileges from the state. Environmental issues are not issues of public concern and discord a decade or two ago, have become major issues dividing society along new lines.

In sum, for Thoreau, the nature and environment; are in many instances separately accorded under supreme state control, superimposed on market control. Rights to abuse owned property are severely restricted. Rights to use owned property are limited in accordance with numerous codes designed to protect the rights of other users of the same or other property, rules developed to protect the environment, the public, and the interests of different levels of government. The right to the fruits of nature and control is most fully recognized. Contemporary law and the mores of daily practice recognize other forms of control as valid, sometimes equally so or less, but valid, as are those derived from ownership. Many rights to control thus overlap. Other, more and less limited, rights to control objects of property not owned by the controllers are emerging as well: the public’s right to determine, through environmental groups and the media, whether an object is put to safe uses; unions’ rights to participate in the decision-making process affecting certain aspects of production; the rights of the entire hierarchy of public authorities in the territories where the owned object is located. The state has proclaimed its right of ultimate control, through which, as much as through the market, the eventual price-value of the object is determined.

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