Gerald Taylor on property, populism, and democracy

The entire last issue of The Good Society is devoted to populism. It offers a powerful positive appraisal, building on the important scholarship of the last quarter century. The scope of the special issue is global, but I came away with a reinforced sense that American populism is a distinguished tradition of its own. In 1906, the German sociologist Werner Sombart wrote a book with the title Why is there No Socialism in the United States? This is not a dumb question, but if it is our only question, it presumes that the political spectrum must always run from socialism to laissez-faire. That is the European scheme. Well before Sombart wrote, a different orientation had developed in the US, and the radical end of our spectrum has serious merit.

One of the articles that supports that view is Gerald Taylor’s “Prometheus Unbound: Populism, The Property Question, and Social Invention.” Taylor is┬áSoutheast Regional Director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the great community-organizing network, and this article is a brilliant scholarly contribution by someone who doesn’t happen to make his living as a professor. Instead, he is an intellectual leader of a populist organization.

Taylor offers this account of populism, which makes it incompatible with European socialism:

A property-owning consciousness is centered in an understanding by citizen workers, artisans, and farmers that in order to be free of employers, landlords, creditors, and possibly the organs of state power, one must assemble and own enough productive assets to guarantee liberty and independence. The means by which citizens attempted to accomplish this freedom included both individual and collective acts and instruments. Thus, workers and farmers joined together to negotiate better terms with purchasing agents, and employers that could yield them enough income and resources to allow their individual households to assemble productive assets to become “free.”

Hannah Arendt weaves a similar argument through The Human Condition (1958), claiming that private property is a precondition for participation in a democracy. “What is important to the public realm … is not the more or less enterprising spirit of private businessmen but the fences around the homes and gardens of citizens” (p. 72). To have standing in public, you don’t need the right to accumulate as much wealth as possible, but you do need a private space that you alone control.

At first, the invocation of property as a source of liberty sounds most compatible with markets and neoliberalism. But Taylor shows that Americans have long used collective grassroots power and social reform to spread private property. In the first 50 years of our republic, Congress passed 375 “land laws” that were mainly about distributing real property to citizens. Left out were Black people, 97% of whom were slaves in 1860–and only 11% of the free Blacks then owned land. After Reconstruction, the proportion of Black Americans who owned land fell again because of discriminatory legislation and anti-Black terrorism. But Blacks organized popular movements in response:

Ex-slaves clearly understood that in a predominantly agrarian society, ownership of land (productive property) would be central to their struggle for independence from white domination. There was a deep property owning consciousness among the freed persons of color, who had long nurtured a vision of the “promised land,” predicated on independence. Thus freed slaves sought in a myriad of ways to gain ownership of land. …

The elements of the movement varied over time but eventually coalesced and reached its pinnacle of organizing in the formation of the Colored Farmers Alliance in 1886. At the peak of its organizing, it is estimated that between two hundred fifty thousand and one million African Americans were members of the Alliance. …

Taylor spells out the violence and effectiveness of White opposition and the defeat of some Black strategies, such as a failed general strike of agricultural workers. Yet:

Through new individual and collective strategies and policies, some initiated during the black populist movement itself, black land ownership increased to over 13 million acres in the United States by the mid 1900’s. The new seeds of the next phase in the black freedom struggle were planted.

The next stage was the rise of Black “knowledge artisans,” lawyers, doctors and others, who used their own property and skills to launch the Civil Rights Movement.

After that, the story turns for the worse. Now we live in a time when everyone pays homage to property consciousness, but that means giving people completely individual opportunities that also bring high risk:

Everyone can have their own unmediated relationship with their employer, their stock portfolio, and their credit card. Anyone can start a business if they have the courage to take risk. The individual, in an Ownership Society, is able to independently negotiate contracts with corporate entities and hold them “accountable.”

The subprime loan crisis epitomizes the result: individuals borrow to buy homes in exurban developments that lose their value in the recession, leaving their families bankrupt and isolated and their former property abandoned.

The authentic populist response–which has roots in Colonial times and has informed groups like the Colored Farmers Alliance–is collective action to protect genuine and secure property for all. Because it is a movement for property, it is not socialism; and because it is a collective movement, it is not neoliberalism. See also for some 21st century strategies.

This entry was posted in populism on by .

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.