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M. O'Neill and T. Williamson (eds), Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond, Wiley-Blackwell 2012

In the penultimate scene of The Village at the End of the World, Sarah Gavron's surprisingly upbeat film about life in the north of Greenland, the fifty-nine residents of the small Greenland village of Niaqornat have a party to celebrate becoming property-owning democrats: they had succeeded in creating a cooperative to take over the settlement's fish factory, a small facility that the Royal Greenland Company had closed, even though Niaqornat's citizens needed it to make their lives viable. Life [End Page 118] in Niaqornat is bleak and mostly dark. But apart from the village's one teenager, the residents want to work and stay. The local and communal ownership of an asset that secures their livelihood has given them a renewed sense of self respect.

As most of the thirteen contributors to Martin O'Neill and Thad Williamson's volume convincingly argue, now is the moment for property-owning democracy. For the second half of the twentieth century, the left focused on the equalisation of incomes. Its allergy to the word property made it nervous about talking about the allocation of assets. Yet strategies which focused exclusively on redistribution allowed, to quote John Rawls, 'very large inequalities in the ownership of real property', so that 'control of the economy and much of political life rests in few hands'.

This is our predicament. We have an economy in which control of the means of production is in the hands of a tiny number of people, while the means of challenge is limited to an equally small political class. To Niaqornat's residents it didn't matter whether Royal Greenland was owned by the state or by private capital. And it's the same in the de-industrialised cities of Britain, or forgotten parts of supposedly prosperous towns. Distant decision-makers act against local people's interests because they value short-term cash accounts above long-term value, and have no way of counting what matters to people in the places they live. It is only through the local ownership of assets, as in Niaqornat, that people have power to secure their livelihood and shape their own lives.

O'Neill and Williamson have edited a rich collection of essays. With only a couple of dissident voices, the volume pulls on a minor strand in John Rawls's work to argue that the widest diffusion of a variety of productive assets should be a central component in a 'fully just' society. The case for property-owning democracy is, as O'Neill shows in the essay that forms the centrepiece of the argument, based on the idea that egalitarian arguments need to be about power and status as well as money. The possession of assets - including 'human capital' - allows someone to feel s/he is 'a free and equal individual with his own valuable plan of life, and of equal standing with his or her fellow citizens'. The receipt of transfer payments does not. Equality is about our capacity to fashion the world we live in, self-respect, dignity and the 'lively sense [people have] of their worth as persons'. Justice needs to be about power and feelings, not just cash.

If there is a dominant theme in these essays, it is about taking a rich view of the institutional context in which subjects act. Contributors consider the way these [End Page 119] contexts serve to either further or limit the practical power people have to mould the forces that shape their lives - taking what Stuart White calls a sociological view of justice. This richer perspective takes a number of forms.

Firstly, a number of contributors argue that participatory democracy needs to form a central part of a just society. White's essay argues that Rawls's liberal egalitarianism needs to be buttressed by institutions in which there is embedded an incentive to active political participation. Otherwise, liberalism's materialism and individualism corrode the kind of reciprocal, inter-dependent relationships that are needed to defend against forms of domination that make it difficult to put justice into practice. Alan Thomas...


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