Kenneth Burke, “Property as an Absolute”

Kenneth Burke, “Property as an Absolute,” review of Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence, ed. Herbert Agar and Allen Tate, New Republic (1 July 1936): 245-46.

YOU TEND your livestock, you grow your crops, you cut your timber with husbandry, you raise your family, you erect appropriate structures for living and working. In all that, there is health, correctness, morality. Unfortunately, your circle of rights and obligations was not confined to these limits. There is a medium of exchange, for instance, a system of currency and credit, and a group arises to specialize in this medium. This financial group may be no wiser in its way than you were in yours. But its specialty gives it a grip upon the market. It may be closer to the "spirituality" of the courts and legislators. It may thereby work its will. And if there are many of you, acting somewhat independently of one another, the things you bring to market, for getting the money that pays your taxes and any goods you import, may impair your bargaining power. The financial group, working in connection with industrialists, may put through tariffs that raise the price on industrial goods, so that- your. unprotected market suffers in comparison. For a while you make up the differential by a mortgage. But as the disproportion persists, you are eventually unable to meet the mortgage, and lose your property. Irony: All your life you have managed conscientiously and well, you have produced in abundance--and as a reward, you are destitute.

The twenty-one writers in the new regionalist anthology of the Southern agrarians have given us this picture with poignancy, brilliance and persuasive bitterness. Their attacks upon the financial manipulators who "own America" converge from many angles, in a collective enterprise that speaks well for writers averse to collective enterprise. But in noting that big business is developed by the growth of corporations, the agrarians would lump fascism and communism together as merely the extension of the corporate idea. Hence, they would draw upon our resistance to big business as a way of exhorting us against all collectives.

There is this to be said in their favor. Although Marxists like to foresee the "withering away of the state" (revealing here the effect of their "united front" with anarchists in the revolutionary struggles of the nineteenth century), it is hard to imagine how this withering away can take place. A complex social order, such as is required by industrial-agrarian collectivism, would necessarily require planning on a large scale. If we mean by the state the "bourgeois state," we can picture its atrophy. But if we mean by the state the legislative, educational and constabulary organization that assists the forces helping a given economic order and discourages the forces obstructing this order, we realize that a collective state is far from the anarchistic ideal. In fact, as others have pointed out, the anarchistic ideal, is but the logical conclusion of the laissez-faire ideal. It is a heretical affirmation of the commercial orthodoxy.

Our agrarians may also be a heretical sect reaffirming orthodox commercial values. For they, like the commercialists, would extol property as an absolute, whereas the colIectivists treat property as a relationship. The system of private ownership glorified by the agrarians was developed gradually with the rise of the commercial ethic. The merchant-landlords, aided by judicial interpretations, fought long and hard for the "right" to make property "alienable" (that is, to withdraw this means of production from communal use and reserve it exclusively for private exploitation.) After 1688, in the English Acts of Enclosure, judicial complicity in the development of these "rights" was reenforced by explicit legislation. Eventually the serf was "freed" and "mobile." The two-way relationship, whereby he was bound to his land and his use of the land was bound to him, had been dissolved. Many of the people thus "freed" died in abject poverty. Many migrated to the cities, where the new industries absorbed them. Many came to America, to dispossess the Indians and set up the same system of private ownership that had victimized them abroad.

It is unfortunate that the earlier feudal-collective usage of the word "property" has been obscured by later bourgeois usage. One used to speak, not of "having property," but of "having a property in" something. The earlier relativistic usage might have a modernized application by suggesting that the citizen of a collective state has a "property in" his citizenship, in the regularity of communicative, or distributive resources, in any security afforded- by the productive order, the political devices or the courts, in the marriage customs of his society, in the opportunities of study and enjoyment, etc. If he has a job and is performing that job with ability, he has a property in it in so far as the usages of his society help to keep him in possession of it and to guarantee him its rewards. Such thinking suggest that property is as present in a communist state as in a commercial state. The question then becomes, not "Is there property?" but "What kind of property is there?" Every state is a property state.

But by treating property as an absolute, rather than as relationship, the agrarians enjoy a one-way conception of property rights. When things are going well, their ideal private farmer, proud and free in the untrammeled possession of his acres, dismisses the government with dignity. He does as he pleases, without "interference": if the market is favorable, he sells; if unfavorable, be retains for his own use. No necessities can dispossess him, since his land is inalienable, The land is "bound to" him, though he presumably is not "bound to" it (which would entail immobilization, hence a feudal impairment of freedom). Perhaps the land is even untaxed, as the logic of the agrarians' position would require, since the farmer must be wholly independent of the market's financial compulsion, otherwise the deterministic genius of the "money crop" may get him. On the other hand, if there are adversities, the government must be called in. Such matters as flood control, drought relief, education, road building and medication are to be handled with governmental assistance. The project suggests a "spoiled child" theory of politics, where the papa-government is dismissed by the proud bearers of "freedom" as intolerable interference, until it must be called on for help.

Once we introduce a two-way conception of rights, noting an ambivalent situation wherein "rights" are interwoven with obligations, and vice versa, the proposal appears less realistic. But though the agrarians neglect the ambivalent feature when advocating their own cause, they remember it when warning against collectivism (since they note that collectivist security requires central planning, and central planning necessarily restricts private arbitrary choice). We may note a strong sense of reciprocity in our earlier revolutionary slogan, "Taxation without representation is tyranny." The slogan implicit in the agrarians' one-way revolutionary theory would seem to be, "Representation without taxation is liberty." One can question whether freedom, as so conceived, meets the needs of the modern economic order. But one must admit that it would be fun. Those who consider social welfare as a human problem, rather than a class problem, may be disturbed that there is not so much as a single paragraph devoted to the Negro question. Particularly when one author suggests that some are endowed by natural quality to rule, and others are endowed to be hired. A property state such as they propose would fix a disproportion between owners and dispossessed. These writers emphatically reject the slovenly way in which finance capitalism has divided the class of those fit to rule from the class of those fit to be ruled, yet they offer no explicit Binet test as an alternative for disclosing the radical difference in quality. Nor do they tell us whether the estates will be held intact by primogeniture, or whether some sons and daughters of the owners must also in time shift to the class of dispossessed, with attendant disadvantages in bargaining power.

As one writer observes, the regionalists refer often to the past, while the "proletarian" school of social criticism has its eyes upon the future. Yet it is the proletarians who talk always with reference to the great laboratory of history. The agrarians are almost vandalistic in their destruction of historic lore by omission. There may be good reason for this. History shows us, again and again, how private ownership of the productive plant operates to turn possession into dispossession. Such training in ambivalence were best by these advocates as "determinism." The distributist" state could be maintained only by periodic redistribution No wonder the master of the agrarians, Jefferson, who pleaded for the private ownership of productive plant, also suggested as a corollary that we should need a revolution every twenty years.

1. Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence, edited by Herbert Agar and Allen Tate. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 352 pages. $3.