Productive property

Prometheus Unbound: Populism, The Property Question, and Social Invention

The good society, vol. 21, no. 2, 2012  Copyright © 2012 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA

How, exactly, does Taylor understand the history of popular movements in America?

In the early 18th century, there were a myriad of government programs created to give public land to American citizens, and this continued into the 19th century. At the same time, corporations were able to obtain massive amounts of this same land and when corporations could be created simply through registration, a reversal of fortune for ordinary people ensued. Because people were so focused on property as being a means to which they could live and thrive, losing property (or the ability to obtain property) due to an ever increasing corporate structure driven with the intent on reducing property ownership for the common people meant they were threatened. Thus was born the Farmers Alliance, the Colored Farmers Alliance, and the Peoples Party. These were movements designed to thwart the growing control of the corporate structure over peoples lives, livelihood and feeling of self-worth.

“At the center of the struggle of the populist movements of the late 1800’s, both Black and white, was an attempt to free themselves from debt peonage, wage slavery, and the domination of the rising industrial constellation made up of manufacturing enterprises and joint stock corporations that organized significant combines of land, capital, and workers” (pg.222)

Property and the labor to produce property one would own, grew America from a colony to a country to an economic powerhouse, and as the people began to realize there were far fewer people owning far more than everyone else, populist movements began to sprout with the same beliefs and goals that drove other people to join them – that owning something and making something, was a self-fulfilling prophecy towards independent and just prosperity.

Evidence to support Taylor’s claim to the history of populist movements can be found in excerpts of the Omaha Platform. For example in the preamble “The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few” is in alignment with Taylor when he writes, “By the late nineteenth century less than a third of white households owned significant free-holding property, a dramatic reversal from earlier decades” (pg.222)

Taylor says in a callout on page 226, “The populist movement demonstrated that both individual and collective ways of achieving property ownership were available”, on this point he loses me a bit. I wouldn’t go so far so say that the American Medical Association, comprising of “intellectual artisans” in Taylors words, was in fact a populist movement. First of all, shouldn’t a populist movement by it’s own apparent definition require more than one person to participate?  The AMA was formed as a collection of individuals who wished to operate as a group for monetary and influential gains (sounds like the Farmers Alliance, yes) but it was not formed as a response to a growing sense of loss of property among the disenfranchised – quite the opposite. Doctors were able to benefit from and rise above the problems created by the widening economic gap, especially with the creation of Medicare. Poorer people derived unhealthy people, and those without the means to take care of themselves would have to turn to hospitals and doctors offices for refuge, especially when you consider the mental anxiety and depression surely caused by a feeling of loss. One could even argue that it was not populist at all when you consider the requirements for membership.

In his eyes, what potential connections exist between earlier movements, current challenges, and a potential future for popular democracy?

In a sense he poses the same questions to the same issues that have plagued our American democracy for centuries. “to what degree in a democratic society should the autonomy for self-organization of business enterprises and the economic sphere be limited?” To this question he does not deliver a solid answer. Instead he insists that rather than try to limit what a corporation can do, we should limit how society and government considers it to have the same rights as citizens. Simply because corporations are not people, they are not citizens. A citizen can be in charge of many corporations, or a single large corporation, but at the end of the day, they are still one person. But when a corporation obtains the same rights and privileges afforded to hard working people, the control of citizens over their own lives is lost.

He argues that because populist movements of the past have focused on enabling people to own “productive property” a contemporary movement should do as much, with the caveat that the idea of property ownership needs to “stabilize citizens and their communities” He doesn’t say specifically how or what this means, and I think this is where the article falls just short. Perhaps I am taking it too literally, but if property ownership is going to evolve into something more than an individual owning property, I’d like to know how this is supposed to happen.  Understandably, this is an idealistic outlook of the future he is presenting and so generalities must exist, but it’s difficult for me to imagine a world where people own things for the betterment of the people and not for the betterment of themselves (or their families) without some kind of specific proposal to start with.