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The Forbearance of the State
John Stuart Mill and the Promise of Irish Property

Outside of a shared interest in thinking about property relations in Ireland, John Stuart Mill bears at least one other resemblance to Maria Edgeworth. Like Edgeworth he voiced doubts about the extent to which he might be seen as having produced his own writing. In his Autobiography (1873), Mill emphasizes the exceptional nature of his intellectual development, which leaves him unsure of the degree to which he really might take credit for subsequent accomplishments. His father started teaching him Greek at age three, moved his son through the classics normally reserved for an Oxbridge education by his fourteenth birthday, and added to that a rigorous training in classical logic and classical economics. The result left Mill with the feeling that his own education, as his father had told him, could not be ascribed to any effort on his own part but rather to “the very unusual advantage which had fallen to my lot” (22). Mill expressed similar reservations about the extent to which he might take credit for his accomplishments after he met Harriet Taylor, the woman who was to become his wife. He wrote that, given the extent to which the couple held “their thoughts and speculations completely in common,” it would be fruitless to claim anything but that “all my published writings were as much her work as mine” (145).

Despite his unwillingness to claim the entire property of his own work, Mill also stands accused, like Edgeworth, of representing an imperialist sense of entitlement.1 A champion of individual liberty for British subjects, Mill attracts this criticism because of his belief that cultural limits should be placed on such liberty. Arguing for the value of individual development, he famously cautioned that “we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered in its nonage.” He implies that in cases such as these, entire races might be considered mere children, and despotism would be justified on the same grounds that justify parental authority (On Liberty 14). Like Edgeworth, Mill defended colonizing projects in the name of improvement. He argued that outsiders might have the authority to interfere with indigenous populations so long as their intention was to leave the populations better off than before.

Despite their common faith in the improving endeavors of a civilized people, there remains an enormous difference in social position between the two writers. Edgeworth aligned herself with the long tradition of British landholding as stewardship. In her novels she depended on the length of the tradition to depict landlord and tenants as hopelessly enmeshed in a history of ownership and dispossession. Mill, however, made his name jousting at the traditional ascendancy of landed property. The two writers differed entirely as to how property even originates. Edgeworth’s Burkean conception of landownership assumes that land handed down over countless generations is a transmission that ensures the safe transmission of national heritage itself. Even at its most ironic, Edgeworth’s vision of the landlord still holds the landed estates as a basic building block of the nation, and thus a social arrangement that precedes the establishment of any state.

Mill disdained this vision of a national character preserved in the vast estates of the aristocracy, a class whose outdated political and economic privileges he felt blocked England’s much-needed legal and social reform. However, in his 1840 essays on Jeremy Bentham and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mill is careful not to dismiss as useless the national heritage which such traditional property was supposed to preserve. Bentham’s shortcoming, Mill notes, lay in his failure to understand the importance of national character. In seeking to dismantle outdated traditions, Mill suggests, Bentham underestimated the irreducible specificity of the group of people who had held them. Mill praises Coleridge’s grasp on the importance of national character but suggests that Coleridge’s sense that landed property serves as vessel to this national disposition necessarily compromises the idea that an owner of land can be considered autonomous. If national heritage is guarded by the landed estate as Coleridge says it is, Mill argues, then the state always has cause to interfere in landed property. From Coleridge’s writing he draws the conclusion that if the state fails to ensure that the cultivation and distribution of land promotes the happiness of the greatest number, then “the State fails in one of its highest obligations” (158).

Mill’s perverse reading of Coleridge emerges out of his own utilitarian education which implanted in him a strong doubt that property could be considered to exist prior to the formation of government. Bentham, after all, had famously rejected the idea that property existed outside of political systems. “Property and law are born together, and die together,” Bentham maintained. “Before laws there were no property; take away laws, and property ceases” (Theory of Legislation 138). It is because Mill subscribed to a utilitarian notion that political systems legislated the rights of property rather than property legitimating political systems that he was such an outspoken critic of the British government’s dominance by landowners. An animus against a government run by those with landed property glimmers through all of his writing, where he routinely portrays aristocratic owners of land as unmotivated to improve their properties and hostile to commercial and political innovations. On Liberty (1859) and Considerations on Representative Government (1861) both advocate for a government built on the basis of individual merit. A government should be designed, Mill argues, to train its citizenry in thinking of the common good and thus should be composed of those whose “individual intellect and virtue” has already allowed them to achieve such habits of thought (Considerations 228). For Mill, a person’s political qualifications were always grounded not in property but in personal qualities—forethought, industry, rationality, and an ability to keep in mind the varied and often competing interests of a wider public. Mill celebrates local government, service on juries, debating societies, and workers’ cooperatives for their potential to develop an individual’s civic capacities, independently of that person’s prior possession of property. The shape of a government, he argues, should always be oriented toward developing such capacities.

The keynote in Mill’s theories of political personhood is experience. A person can have no capacity for reason if he or she (and Mill stands out in Victorian England for his consideration that such a person might be female) is not placed in an environment where experiences are available that might develop such a capacity. Educational processes, not status, structure Mill’s ideal society. Yet, as this chapter argues, Mill’s emphasis leads him right back to the property whose current arrangement he so disdains. In his long-term commitment to land reform and his celebration of peasant proprietorship—an arrangement in which small plots of land are farmed by owners, who draw the bulk of their subsistence from their modest properties—Mill repeatedly implies that owning property in land is one of the most complete experiences through which one might develop an appropriately rational and individual personality.

While Mill imagines a range of environments into which one might be put in order to be educated, the experience of owning property in land stands out as the one model Mill fully articulates across a range of his writing. From his writings on Ireland in the late 1840s, which assert property to be the key motivating factor in developing an owner’s forethought, self-control, and even affections, to his 1873 articles for the Land Tenure Reform Association that again celebrate small landholders as unparalleled for their “ungrudging and assiduous application of their own labour and care, and … attention to small gains and petty savings,” Mill’s conviction held steady that small agricultural holdings reliably developed their owners’ capabilities (“The Right of Property in Land” 1242). But this valorization of the smallholder does not precisely accord with a narrative of possessive individualism. Instead, Mill’s vision of the self developed by proprietary experience tends to unsettle both the dynamics traditionally associated with property and the dynamics traditionally associated with the self.

In his writing on peasant proprietorship, Mill imagines property in terms not entirely dissimilar from aristocratic terms. Like the aristocratic narrative of land as a property over which one’s control is limited because it was inherited from forefathers with certain expectations and because it is already entailed to descendants to whom one owes a certain stability, Mill tends to see property in land as always owed to future generations. Far from imagining property as that over which one has complete control, Mill sees land as enmeshing an owner in generational commitments. But Mill adds to that an awareness of land’s biological animation. In the place of an aristocratic discourse in which one draws political power from the land, Mill constructs a narrative of property as animated by its agricultural specificity, with soil, topography, and climate dictating the owner’s behavior rather than the owner imposing his will upon the land. In Mill’s writing, the net effect is one in which property might exert more control over the owner than the owner exerts over it.

This chapter offers an extended analysis of how Mill in his writings on Ireland in the 1840s advocates for this form of property—not entirely fungible, not entirely individual, not even entirely under the control of its proprietor. It then demonstrates that these same proprietary dynamics structure the description of the properly cultivated individual Mill esteems in his later political writings. Mill also draws on the model of the proprietor of a small plot of land to imagine a relationship between the state and its citizens that might be properly mediated by a space neither entirely enmeshed within the state nor entirely free from reference to it. In this version of property ownership, despite Mill’s routine insistence that property only comes into being through the power of the state, it is the material of land itself that provides the beneficial experience of property. This means that, in Mill’s writing, property in land retains some of the aura of complete autonomy with which the British political tradition endows it. But like so many of the writers in this book, he finds this autonomy not in British land but in the Irish proprietary landscape. In the final pages of this chapter I briefly consider how Mill’s understanding of land ownership’s relationship to the state changed when historicist ideas came into vogue that saw property arrangements as always culturally determined.

Reworking Locke

In both On Liberty and Considerations on Representative Government, John Stuart Mill explicitly argues that an older model of political consequence founded in ownership of property needed to be replaced by a more modern model of political consequence grounded in reflective and educated individuality. Mill fleshes out the modern conditions that call for this newer model in the opening paragraphs of On Liberty. The age in which propertied individuals were forced to use their domains as protection from an absolutist state is over, Mill asserts. It used to be that liberty meant “protection against the tyranny of the political rulers” (5). But with the rise of “elective and temporary rulers,” the rulers became identified with the people. “Their power was but the nation’s own power, concentrated,” Mill argues. “The nation did not need to be protected against its own will” (7). Obliquely referencing Tocqueville’s description of a “tyranny of the majority” in the young United States, Mill contends that the global spread of democracy has made it clear that even elective governments might be monopolized by a group smaller than the whole nation. After all, he notes, “The will of the people … means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people.” Such a situation might call for the restraint of government, since the government in this situation would be only the expression of a certain segment of society, not its entirety. Mill’s assumption is that a zone of personal property has little relevance to such restraint. And his interest lies more fundamentally with the modern condition in which “society is itself the tyrant” (8). This is the situation he sees as especially pertinent to England, where he claims that “the yoke of opinion is perhaps heavier, and that of law lighter than in most other countries of Europe” (12).

In formulating his thesis for the liberty of the individual under such circumstances, Mill imports into individual bodies the credo of property’s absolute nature. Selves, rather than property lines, mark out the conceptual space he describes as “the part which merely concerns himself [ie, the individual].” Within that part, the rules of absolute property still apply: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” (14). In attributing spatial qualities to this “region” of human liberty, Mill changes little from the theorems about the limits of government that he had formulated in Principles of Political Economy (1848): “Under whatever political institution we live, there is a circle around every individual human being which no government, be it that of one, of a few, or of the many, ought to be permitted to overstep” (On Liberty 16; Principles 5.11.4).

The “reserved territory” and “domain of inward consciousness” that Mill discusses in Principles emerge in On Liberty as the internal holding tank for individual opinion, which, according to Mill, should supersede property in political consequence. Yet in positing this supercession of property by the domain of individual opinion, Mill is haunted by the possibility that his readers will merely equate opinion and property. He reminds his readers that an opinion merits expression not because it is the property of the person who expresses it but because it is so much more than “a personal possession of no value” (21). For Mill, while a personal possession exists with no reference to the larger community, opinion is of intrinsic value to the social whole. But in his emphasis on the exclusivity and unassailability of individual opinion, it is hard for Mill to escape the language of property in describing this inner domain. In explaining that religious views cannot be adequate justification for silencing dissenting opinions, Mill reverts back to proprietary analogies: “There is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it; no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse and the desire of the right owner to keep it” (93).

It is this recourse back to property in order to describe what constitutes the true condition of individual liberty that leads Elaine Hadley to position Mill at the forefront of a general liberal tendency to think about character as possession, and thus to use the category of character to reproduce the very hierarchy that liberalism would seem to challenge. In Mill, in Samuel Smiles’s best-selling Self-Help (1859), and elsewhere in liberal discourse, she finds that “character is asserted to be, in what seems a willed blindness of the greatest magnitude, prior to and independent of property, even if the language one uses and the logic one employs suggest otherwise” (“The Past” 10).2 For Hadley, this tendency serves the bad-faith purpose of making liberal citizenship seem a condition attainable regardless of class or even race or gender, while still tending to couple traits that are male, white, Protestant, and middle class with the qualifying definition of character. It also drains property’s alienating threats from liberal citizenship by declining to name what operates as mental property—professional skills, knowledge, reflective capacities—as subject to sale in the free market.

Hadley is in good company in her suspicion that a liberal rhetoric claiming to shake off a hierarchy of wealth might actually be reproducing that hierarchy all the same. C. B. Macpherson’s thesis of self-possessed individualism argues that such a contradiction persists through a line of liberal philosophers following Hobbes and Locke. Nonetheless, as Lauren Goodlad points out, Hadley’s use of Mill as a leading example risks flattening out some of the complexity Mill brings to his particular version of liberal selfhood. For Mill, Goodlad argues, the self at liberty might very well be experienced as property but also could be experienced as “practice or exercise, to be cultivated within a particular spatial imagining of modern society” (“Character Worth Speaking Of” 11). In this critique, Goodlad’s specific concern is that Mill’s attempt to think of selfhood as always cultivated in reference to a wider social life is not entirely accounted for by the model of the self-possessed individual, who, especially in Macpherson’s formulation, is considered to owe nothing to society for his own capacities and thus is seen as bearing no natural connections to a broader society. Goodlad’s attempt to articulate more precisely the dynamics surrounding Mill’s version of the self involves an appeal to spatialization as a model supplementary to property. “On the one hand, individuals required spaces of development in which to exercise their faculties untrammeled by conformist pressures,” Goodlad comments, echoing both Mill’s explicit beliefs and the traditional republican view of how private property fosters selfhood. But she sees something more in Mill, where “since development was a deeply social and often public endeavor, such spaces had to be porous, embedded, and dialogical” (23).

What Goodlad sets up as opposed—cultivated selfhood as a form of property versus cultivation as a “practice or exercise” within a developmental space that is “porous, embedded and dialogical”—is an opposition Mill repeatedly collapses when he writes on the experience of property for the peasant proprietor. Property for the peasant proprietor is, Mill asserts, first of all a genuinely possessive experience; it simply is not the sort of possessing that involves the owner’s total control. Secondly, Mill sees the experience of owning for the peasant proprietor as the habitation of a highly particular space of development that opens out into a wider social world. This connective potential is especially important since Mill develops most of his thinking on peasant property in a larger argument about how the British state can securely attach Ireland to itself. It is this model of property that shapes the conceptual space he envisions as fostering both individual development and community connection in On Liberty.

This connection becomes apparent when we consider Mill’s strong, if intermittent, interest in the economics of Ireland as a major part of his intellectual development.3 In the rhetoric Mill employs in his writings on Ireland concerning the individuality of the peasant proprietor, the setting of the small agricultural property allows Mill to develop the idea of an energetic and civically engaged individual more completely than he is able to do in equivalent writing on workers’ cooperative companies or on local government—the two non-land-based options he presents as available to the British for cultivating their selves and expanding their sense of identification with a broader public. For Mill, property in land allows the development of forethought, industry, prudence, and individuality while encouraging civic-mindedness. This is because he sees the exceptional status of property in the land automatically enmeshing every landowner—and even potential landowners—into a relationship with the state whose task it is to act as trustee, and possibly as landlord, for the soil, that one form of property that Mill insists can never be absolute and must always be considered “the inheritance of the human race” (Principles 5.1.5).

For Mill, the landowner’s relation to the state is always one of enjoying the state’s forbearance. In both his economic writing and his writing on Ireland, Mill argues that the state has the right to reassign property rights in land, should expedience call for such reassignment. In Mill’s writing, the legitimate state might at any moment invade landed property. It allows owners of land to exist only by its own restraint. In outlining this dynamic, he imagines the relationship between the state and the citizen that is neither coercive nor paternalist in a classical sense. Instead, a citizen’s relationship to the state might be catalyzed by a state’s refusing to exercise some of the power it legitimately has. In this, Mill’s conception of state power accords well with the Foucauldian model of a modern governmentality, in which to govern at all means to identify those sites from which governing must be restrained.4 At the same time, because Mill conceives of land as a space whose biological and organic irreducibility endow it with a life of its own, the space in which the state leaves the owner entirely alone is never a space fully under the control of the owner.

On Liberty and the Individualizing Rhetoric of the Peasant Proprietor

Mill’s skepticism about a wholly fungible, wholly individualized, universal form of property has its most canonical formulation in his definitive text, Principles of Political Economy, which underwent six revisions from its appearance in 1848 to its last edition in 1865. Before Mill wrote his best-known works on liberal political theory, he had already established himself as the pre-eminent spokesman for classical political economy. But the text he wrote on the subject does not bear out the stereotype of classical economics as sternly universalizing in its proclamation of iron-clad market rules. The first book of the volume, on production, he presents as describing phenomena “partak[ing] of the character of physical truths. There is nothing optional or arbitrary in them” (2.1.1). However, the second book, devoted to distribution, he qualifies as a different matter entirely. The distribution of wealth “depends on the laws and customs of society,” which his work can only describe, not rationalize into a coherent theory (2.1.2).

His distinction between the universals of production and the culturally determined factors that influence distribution led to an innovation that set Principles apart from earlier canonical texts on classical political economy: where previous works had assumed that “property” was a phenomenon so universally recognizable as to need no foundational explanation or elaboration, Mill provides multiple chapters on the nature of all property and on cultural variations in the arrangements of property in the land.5 The result is not only a detailed analysis of the origins and theory of property but also descriptions of several different types of property and the theories of distribution implied by them. Mill dismisses the Lockean idea that government was first formed by property owners to protect their property. “Enough is known of rude ages,” he scoffs, to show that “tribunals (which always precede laws) were originally established, not to determine rights, but to repress violence and terminate quarrel” (2.1.2). He argues that the utility most people attribute to property is actually the utility of not disturbing long-established property rights. The only universal property right, Mill argues, consists in “the right of each to his (or her) own faculties, to what he can produce by them, and to whatever he can get for them in a fair market; together with his right to give this to any other person” (2.2.6).

What cannot be universalized takes up a significant portion of his discussion on the distribution of resources. Following the acknowledged lead of William Thornton and the implicit lead of political economist Richard Jones, Mill surveys various arrangements between landlords and tenants in which rights and responsibilities are defined differently, from the metayer rents of Italy, in which peasants pay for use of the land with a portion of the produce they raise, to the cottier rents of Ireland, where peasants rent directly from a landlord, rather than a capitalist farmer, and often rent properties too small for even subsistence.6 He also writes at length about the peasant proprietors of central and northern Europe. Mill introduces peasant proprietors by noting that they, like slaves, participate in a system of production that assigns “the whole produce … to a single owner.” In slavery, that produce goes to the master. In a peasant proprietorship, it goes entirely to the peasant. Thus, the peasant owner’s “unwearied assiduity” is made the polar opposite of the slave’s ceaseless labor by the peasant’s “affectionate interest in the soil” (2.6.1). Ownership for the peasant proprietor, in Mill’s formulation, is aligned both with slavery and monopolistic control. It is a connection in which legal bond and affectionate feelings merge. It is this relationship to property that Mill has in mind when the status of property owner shapes On Liberty’s notion of the cultivated individual.

After all, Mill’s Autobiography suggests that he saw his work on the Principles to be of a piece with his later endeavors in On Liberty and Considerations of Representative Government and that the problem of ownership was a driving force behind them all. Mill names as an epoch “the third period of my mental progress,” a period he dates as beginning both with his intellectual collaboration with Harriet Taylor and his drafting of the Principles of Political Economy (begun in 1845 and first published in 1848), and culminating in the publication of On Liberty, which he predicts is “likely to survive longer than anything else I have written” (150). Mill describes this period as one in which the central problem he and Taylor worked on together was “how to unite the greatest individual liberty of action with a common ownership in the raw material of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour” (138). Such a description ascribes a prominent place to the problem of property and suggests even the slight predominance of land—“the raw material of the globe”—over other types of property. Principles’ chapters on the promise of socialist cooperatives for workers, and its repeated insistence that property in land required principles of distribution that upheld the widest public good stand as a monument to such thinking. But this thinking was first developed in Mill’s series of 1846 Morning Chronicle articles on Ireland.

That Mill turned to journalism on Ireland in the middle of his composition of Principles makes his interest in Ireland seem somewhat opportunistic, an implication he does not duck in his Autobiography. He explains that he laid aside his work on political economy to write on the condition of Ireland and the work “unexpectedly entered warmly into my purpose,” allowing him to advocate for “the formation of peasant properties on the waste lands of Ireland” (Autobiography 140). Exactly how warmly the articles fit into his larger purpose of composing an authoritative text on political economy can be read in Principles’ multiple chapters on property, on cottier and peasant proprietor economies, on wages and overpopulation, and on the proper sphere of the government, all of which repeat arguments—often verbatim—that Mill first presented in the Morning Chronicle. But the immediate result of Mill’s political economic agenda is a group of articles that can be breathtakingly oblivious to actual conditions in Ireland. Referring to the potato blight in 1846, which would unfold into famine conditions for the next two years, Mill comments that he wrote because “the stern necessities of the time seemed to afford a chance of gaining attention” for his plan of both providing relief and improving the permanent condition of Ireland (140). Yet the articles do not read as if they were written by someone acutely aware of the “stern necessities” involved in a famine whose aftermath would cut Ireland’s population by a quarter within a handful of years.

Instead, each of the forty-three articles Mill wrote for the Morning Chronicle offers a somewhat freestanding argument for the reclamation of wasteland in Ireland that could be sold, rented, or distributed by the government as small plots for peasant proprietors, who would then undertake the land’s improvement. In article after article, he argues that Ireland’s economic and moral regeneration depends on closely following such a plan, and that to undertake the former without the latter would be to accomplish nothing of permanence. He repeatedly attacks possible alternative plans for relieving Ireland’s distress, even when those alternatives differ very little in substance from his own plan. As the mass exodus, deadly epidemics, and starvation attendant on the potato blight of 1846 became more general, Mill quibbled with those who wanted landlords or the state to oversee wasteland property (the peasants, he argued, should do as much as they could themselves), with those who advocated an Irish Poor Law as a stopgap measure until wasteland reclamation could have effect, and with those who advocated any other sort of relief project to address the immediate needs of the starving poor of Ireland.

The zeal with which Mill defended his highly specific program, rigidly fending off all challengers, suggests that when he talks about the simultaneous moral and economic benefits that property can offer the Irish peasant, such benefits inhere in property only under certain circumstances. For Mill those circumstances involve the government buying unused and uncultivated land at a fair market value from Anglo-Irish landlords of large estates. The state would then divide the lots into “portions of the most convenient size” and assign them to appropriately industrious peasants for improvement. Mill hedges about the exact extent of the government’s involvement; it might need to offer a small advance to peasants who need to buy basic tools to begin the work of improvement, and it might continue to charge a fixed rent to the improving peasants. He is nonetheless clear that state involvement should be kept to a minimum, with the peasant proprietors themselves performing all the labor. The very act of granting them title to the land in perpetuity will do all that needs to be done toward making sure the work will be completed. “The whole efficacy depends,” Mill stresses, on “the perpetuity.” He explains, “It is not paying no rent that makes the peasant proprietor industrious; it is that the land is his own” (1004). For Mill, the most salutary rights of property are entirely encompassed by fixity of tenure, the guarantee that one can stay in one spot indefinitely and even ensure that one’s children and grandchildren might do the same.

Mill’s fixation on small properties as the key to changing the character of Ireland is in keeping with his general philosophy—consistent from his writing on Ireland all the way through to the end of his career—that “what shapes the character is … the unintentional teachings of institutions and social relations.” While a strong believer in educating the public through traditional literacy, he argues that this method has its limits: “the real effective education of a people is given them by the circumstances which they are surrounded” (955). Thus, changing the property relations of Ireland will prove a more substantial moral improvement for the proprietor than would mere sermons or lessons because property itself, at least for the peasant proprietor, is always a process and a social relation for its owner.

But if this is the condition of the liberal individual, always implicitly propertied, Mill’s rhetoric infuses the propertied condition with an involuntary quality, one in which the possession of property controls the individual as much as the individual controls the property. The condition of knowing one might remain on a given piece of land and derive profit from its improvement inevitably leads to action that, in the language Mill uses to describe the benefits of peasant proprietorship, often seems independent even of the owner’s conscious will. Mill suggests that assigning property rights will in itself generate an animated relationship between proprietor and soil, a relationship whose origins do not lie properly with either party. His Irish articles power through aphorism after aphorism about property’s inspiriting power: “Property in the soil has a sort of magic power of engendering industry, perseverance, forethought, in an agricultural people” (898). “Here is the secret for converting an indolent and reckless into a laborious, provident and careful people. It is a secret which never fails” (897). Mill quotes and requotes Arthur Young on the surprisingly lifelike powers of property: “Give a man the secure possession of a bleak rock, and he will turn it into a garden; give him a nine years’ lease on a garden, and he will convert it into a desert.” All that Mill wants his readers to believe about property can be summed up in Young’s own slogan, which Mill repeats several times, that “[t]he magic of property turns sand into gold” (957).7

In all these epigrams, the qualities that plant life derives from the soil are shifted to the imagined proprietor, who is cultivated by the relationship with property much in the same way he is supposed to be cultivating his plot of land. Just as the assiduous small farmer will coax sprouts and blooms from the most inhospitable ground, so too will proprietary rights coax hard work from even the least likely of laborers. So effectively does this equation work that in the end it may be property itself that cultivates both owner and thing owned, turning “sand into gold.” Mill quotes Arthur Young in a typical passage in which property bypasses all agents to become the prime mover of the sentence: “I know no way so sure of carrying tillage to a mountain top … as by permitting the adjoining villagers to acquire it in property” (958). The magic of property that turns sand into gold also, apparently, makes manure climb mountains.

The owner never seems entirely in charge of this property’s cultivation. Instead, the condition of owning always seems to be a cultivation of the owner-cultivator. The slippage in this proprietary rhetoric, in which the power of animation is located uncertainly in the type of property (a garden springing to life), the actual relationship of property (perpetuity rather than a nine-years’ lease), and only lastly in the proprietor himself, is a slippage that also takes hold in Mill’s conceit, in On Liberty, of the individual self as both owner and thing owned. Mill makes it clear that mere possession of qualities does not make for an individualized self; nor does complete self-policing of all one’s actions. Instead, it is the combination of the two that make a true individual. It might be part of common wisdom, Mill concedes, “that our understanding should be our own,” but it is less commonly asserted that “to possess impulses of our own, and of any strength, is anything but a peril and a snare. Yet desires and impulses are as much a part of a perfect human being, as beliefs and restraints” (66). His model of selfhood in this particular passage is one of self-division: a person with desires can only be truly individual when he develops the self-control to counter—but not to kill—those same desires. To be fully free from the oppression of society is fundamentally to wage a low-grade and unending war with oneself. And both sides in this self-war must remain perpetually opposed, perpetually undefeated, according to Mill: “The same strong susceptibilities which make the personal impulses vivid and powerful, are also the source from whence are generated the most passionate love of virtue, and the sternest self-control” (67).

In this dynamic, that which Mill advocates the possession of—impulses—is also that which creates the force that limits, directs, and subordinates the possession—“the sternest self-control.” The condition of having one brings the other into being in a way that, much like his descriptions of peasant property, seems to bypass the actual agent experiencing them. Mill convicts his contemporaries of being too focused on self-control when the real danger is not one of failing to command oneself; the real danger is having no self at all. What threatens modern society, Mill insists, is “the deficiency of personal impulses and preferences.” The result is the production of modern subjects who “become incapable of any strong wishes or native pleasures, and are generally without either opinions or feelings of home growth, or properly their own” (68).

Mill’s disappointment about the lack of “home growth” opens onto a series of images in which he describes the self-division he sees as necessary for true individuality in almost agricultural terms: “It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation; and as the works partake the character of those who do them, by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating, furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie which binds every individual to the race, by making the race infinitely better worth belonging to” (70).

This imagery—of the “cultivation” and “calling forth” of individuality “within limits” that yields beauty, diversity, and, finally, community—can already be found in the physical descriptions and the proprietary dynamics that Mill relied on so heavily in his repeated arguments for the virtue of a peasant proprietary system, arguments where “home growth” and “native pleasures” are central. In his series of Morning Chronicle articles on the condition of Ireland—and again in repeated editions of Principles of Political Economy, in sections that echo his articles almost verbatim—Mill provides a concrete illustration of what it means to have property that in resisting control elicits controlling impulses from its owner, much as he will later claim that individuality is an experience of having both strong impulses and the self-control elicited by those strong impulses. Over the course of his series of Morning Chronicle articles, Mill offers up a picture of the peasant proprietor as fulfilling all the qualities necessary for individuality—motion rather than rest, rich diversity rather than sameness, a property perpetually resisting the owner, and an owner perpetually studying the property in order to craft the proper response to its irreducible specificity.

In his Morning Chronicle series, Mill selects passages from other agricultural writers and travelers to create a rhetoric of the peasant proprietor that contains the nascent outline of the individual he celebrates in On Liberty. This rhetoric is characterized by the small, the diverse, and the continual staging of an ownerly dynamic in which the unruliness of property elicits a strong controlling response from the proprietor. Quoting from Henry Inglis’s travels in central Europe, Mill focuses on peasant property whose very smallness stages both the liveliness of what grows in the ground and the exertions an owner takes to contain such impulses: “If, for example, a path leads through, or by the side of a field of grain, the corn is not, as in England, permitted to hang over the path, exposed to, pulled or trodden down by every passer by; it is everywhere bounded by a fence, stakes are placed at intervals of about a yard and, about two and four feet from the ground, boughs of trees are passed longitudinally along. … The vegetables are planted with seemingly mathematical accuracy; not a single weed is to be seen, nor a single stone. … every shrub, every flower is tied to a stake, and where there is a wall-fruit a trellice is erected against the wall, to which the boughs are fastened and there is not a single twig that has not its appropriate resting place” (985).

Inglis’s picture of the intensively pruned, trimmed, staked, and fenced agricultural property provides the visual emblem of property-inspired control that has its parallel in Mill’s belief that the combined pride, comfort, and forethought generated by ownership of property would inevitably result in the owner’s sexual self-control, a quality he obliquely refers to as “providence” and “prudence.” Drawn from William Thornton’s work on overpopulation, one element of Mill’s argument for small peasant-cultivated holdings is the idea that those who have property to lose will be unwilling to compromise their material stability with too many children. The explicit discussion of practices in controlling agricultural fecundity stands in for the other implied practice of controlling human fecundity.

In Mill’s rhetoric, the hypercontrol of potentially unruly growth, both human and agricultural, inevitably yields both plenitude and diversity—two qualities Mill highlights as characteristics of peasant properties. Despite the limited space of the newspaper article, Mill goes out of his way to quote long lists from other sources that emphasize the range both of the peasant proprietor’s labor and of that labor’s products. Mill copies a passage from William Howitt’s Rural and Domestic Life of Germany (1842) exemplary in this tendency:

Here they are everywhere and for ever, hoeing and mowing, planting and cutting, weeding and gathering. They have a succession of crops. … They have their carrots, poppies, hemp, flax, saintfoin, Lucerne, rape, colewort, cabbage, rutabaga, black turnips, Swedish and white turnips, teazles, Jerusalem artichokes, mangel-wurzel, parsnips, kidney beans, field beans and peas, vetches, India corn, buckwheat, madder for the manufacturer, potatoes, their great crop of tobacco, millet. … They have had these things first to sow, many of them to transplant; to hoe, to weed, to clear off insects, to top; many of them to mow and gather in successive crops. They have their water meadows … to flood, to mow, and reflood; … their early fruits to gather, to bring to market with their green crops of vegetables; their cattle, sheep, calves, foals and poultry to look after; their vines, as they shoot rampantly in the summer heat, to prune and thin out the leaves where they are too thick; and any one may imagine what a scene of incessant labour it is. (970)

Quotes of this nature and length from Arthur Young, German professor Karl Rau, French economist Simonde de Sismondi, and traveler Samuel Laing punctuate Mill’s articles on Ireland, and almost all appear again in Mill’s discussion of landed property in Principles of Political Economy. Their recitations of diversity in occupation and harvests were an oblique response to the argument made by advocates of large-scale farming that farmers of small estates were dull, with limited experience and even more limited imagination. Mill’s selection of testimony emphasizes instead that the very smallness of the holdings render them so diverse and the peasant proprietor such a jack of all trades. In a quotation from Inglis, Mill presents a picture of a property whose idiomatic arrangements maximize the scarce space: “Wherever grass will grow, there it is; wherever a rock will bear a blade, verdure is seen upon it; wherever rye will succeed, there it is cultivated” (986).

Contrasted with the monoculture of large English farms and the alienated labor of the English wage worker, the smallholdings Mill presents as the solution to Irish poverty offer a rich training ground in a diversity of experience and an individuality in habitual practice that he also advocates in On Liberty. In Inglis’s and Young’s and Howitt’s renderings of the peasant proprietor there is surely enough variety to meet the criteria Mill quotes from Wilhelm Von Humboldt on the requisites for the development of originality—“individual vigour and manifold diversity” (64). Conversely, in writing on the potential of peasant property in Ireland, Mill suggests that it is the man who works for a wage who can never cultivate individuality. While the wage worker can only “become a good artificer in his particular manual operation,” the peasant proprietor is able to thrive “in sagacity, in thoughtfulness, in power to judge of consequences and connect means with ends” (975).

This type of peasant education is based on rationality and forethought, but it is a training that involves the heart as much as the mind. Where the small proprietor is concerned, Mill asserts, “Their labour must not be for wages only, it must be a labour of love—the love which the peasant feels for the spot of land from which no man’s pleasure can expel him, … and in which every improvement which his labour can effect belongs to his family as their permanent inheritance” (916). It is the sense of connection with future generations inherent in dynastic owning that fuels the peasant’s feeling. The peasant loves his land because in part it is not his—it is already owed to heirs that he also loves. But at other times Mill classifies the peasant proprietor’s industry as a literal love of the land itself, “what may almost be called affectionate interest in the land” (985). By the time this argument makes its way into Principles of Political Economy, this affectionate interest takes on a strikingly literal quality. Mill quotes Jules Michelet’s Le Peuple (1846) as an authority on the thought processes of the French peasant proprietor who can be found visiting “his mistress” on a Sunday: “What mistress? His land.” In the quote, Michelet details a scene of industry—the peasant finds himself lapsing into weeding and clearing stones despite being dressed in his Sunday best—but it is more fundamentally a scene of intimate emotion: “If he sees a passer-by, he moves slowly away. Thirty paces off he stops, turns round, and casts on his land a last look; somber and profound, but to those who can see it, the look is full of passion, of heart, of devotion” (n 2.7.19).

Such an affectionate relationship hints that Mill’s repetitive celebration of the “magic of property” applies to only a very narrowly defined type of property, one small enough to be known and even loved in all of its intimate details by one cultivator. Mill’s treatment of the smallholding as naturally calling forth the industry, and sexual continence, of its owner—and having the power to morally and economically transform an entire nation—contrasts sharply with the striking lack of power Mill sees in aristocratic estates to command any attachment from their owners at all. He attacks one critical letter writer to the Morning Chronicle for suggesting that the land has, for the landlord, a “pretium affectionis,” the legal term for the value put on a thing by the fancy of its owner. “Who ever heard of pretium affectionis in an Irish bog?” Mill scoffs. “If any man has a satisfaction in calling himself lord of so many thousand barren acres, he has a sufficient equivalent if he receives their money value” (1002). For Mill, only an intimate knowledge of the minutiae and diversity of a smallholding can make a proprietary attachment secure. The fact that no such cultivation can be found in the aristocratically held wasteland Mill is so eager for Irish peasants to reclaim is proof that no ownership has ever really taken place there. Improved wasteland can not be offered back to its “original proprietor,” he insists, if by that label is meant the landlord. “The ‘original proprietor’ is the person whose ancestor had the land granted to him in the days of Tyrone or of Cromwell” and whose family since that time could not be said to have “exercised any one of the attributes of ownership over the land, but that of preventing other people from making use of it” (961).

And the “attribute” of exclusion is for Mill the most pernicious aspect of ownership. In his later political writing, Mill treats the privacy enabled by private property as always at odds with the development of a healthy civic-mindedness. Mill worries, in Considerations on Representative Government, that “private persons, in no eminent social situation” have no sense of broader duty that would help them develop an “unselfish sentiment of identification with the public. Every thought or feeling either of interest or of duty, is absorbed in the individual and in the family. The man never thinks of any collective interest” (255). Property’s status as “private” also leads Mill to devalue it in On Liberty. He concludes that an opinion must always be valued higher than “a personal possession” because while theft of the possession might be “a private injury,” the suppression of an opinion “is robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation” (21). In this passage, Mill values opinions more than personal property because opinion for him is always public; in fact, he groups “absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects” as inseparable from “the liberty of expressing and publishing opinion” (16). But the possession of a peasant proprietorship turns out to be a lot like the expression of an opinion in that it also might be considered to be already owed to someone else. And prohibiting the sort of relationship to property that constitutes the peasant proprietorship may itself be akin to “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion” because both might very well be “robbing the human race” (21). While an environment that encourages varied opinions might shape the public as a whole, an environment that fosters the diversity of cultivation found on small properties is one in which public-mindedness also thrives. In Principles of Political Economy, Mill quotes Laing’s descriptions of small owner-occupied farms in Scotland as exemplary in their public-mindedness, arguing that “[t]he excellent state of the roads and bridges is another proof that the country is inhabited by people who have a common interest to keep them under repair” (2.6.14). He adds that peasant proprietors in Flanders and Switzerland have often led the way in cooperative movements, banding together for economies of scale and mutual insurance of property against natural disasters (2.6.16). In fact, peasant proprietorship might be the very condition of even imagining such possible bonds. The German peasant, Mill quotes Howitt as asserting, “has a stake in the country, as good as that of the bulk of his neighbors” (969). Such a boon for the Irish peasant, Mill predicts, would yield similarly assimilative results, “It would make him an orderly citizen. It would make him a supporter of the law” (974).

Landed Property and the Forbearance of the State

In arguing for the advantages of peasant proprietorship, Mill also described land’s surprising autonomy in developing its owner. Land becomes a sort of agent in Mill’s writing, putting things into action that the state itself cannot. Mill’s emphasis on the autonomy of land in the experience of land ownership far outstrips his precision in explaining exactly how the state might be involved in creating such conditions of proprietorship.

Mill’s imprecision as to how the state should help to start an Irish class of peasant proprietors carries with it one surprisingly consistent message: that the state has the power to create and destroy property rights, but forbears from doing so in order to create a relationship with property owners. Mill sees the state’s quarantine of its powers from the spaces of property as creating a more durable relationship with the Irish than could any positive interference with their lives. Only by drawing away can Mill’s state draw the Irish to itself.

Mill remains adamant throughout all his Morning Chronicle pieces that the state should obtain the unimproved land from the landlords who now hold it and that beyond granting it to the peasants who will improve it, the state should have little active role in the management of the land. But his insistence that he advocates no spoliation of landlords’ property and would have nothing removed from them without proper compensation is constantly undermined by his expositions of the perfect right a state has to take such property from landlords without offering them compensation. And his disdain for state intervention in the lives of the Irish poor—he is eloquent in his disapproval of the way the Irish Poor Law has left peasants too used to the idea that they can depend on the state for wages—seems somewhat compromised by his admission that a class of peasant proprietors might pay rent to the state for their holdings and still be considered proprietors.

What comes off as carelessness and occasional contradiction in the details nonetheless resolves into a remarkably consistent concept of the role the state plays in maintaining property in the land. No fan of any Lockean theory of a right to property in land that precedes the state, Mill challenges what he calls the “superstition” and “religion” of property by reiterating “the moral and social basis of the right of property”: “the right of the labourer to the fruits of his labor. All other proprietary rights exist for this one” (908). But Mill points out that land is the exception to this rule since “[l]and is not the product of labor. No landlord’s ancestor made the land” (908). For that reason, he insists that the state has the mandate to interfere when proprietary rights to land become deranged. With their repeated references to this mandate, his articles on Ireland create a picture of a state that has unassailable title to the land so long as it uses that title for the public good. Mill also presents the effective state as one that excuses itself from interfering in property for the sake of the public good. Rather than being the space that preserves independent subjectivity by keeping the government out, property in land is the publicly allotted space the government reserves for the development of individual subjectivities.

Mill’s vagueness on precisely whether land is to be taken from landlords under legal compulsion or willingly sold for fair compensation allows him the leeway both to assert the right of the government to appropriate property for the public good and to celebrate its forbearance in not doing so. He responds indignantly to a letter-writer’s accusation that his proposed plan of peasant proprietorship amounts to “the doctrine of general spoliation” by detailing exactly how and for what he would compensate the landlord whose wastelands would be reclaimed for the project. After laying out the plan for compensation, he then adds that a more imperious government takeover of land would still not amount to “plunder, and spoliation, and confiscation” because to give someone money for their land in order to use that land for a public good is the right of the state. “The Legislature of the country can deal with the property of the country as expediency requires, making compensation to the owners,” Mill asserts, citing English railway bills that authorized rail lines on private property as his precedent. But he is quick to add that he is not yet calling for a measure that extreme. “Milder remedies are possible. This is the point we are laboring to prove” (906).

He repeats this pattern of distinguishing his plan from a government confiscation of land and then asserting that such a move is nonetheless well within the right of the state in imagining Dublin Castle’s objections to his plan. The Irish administration, he anticipates, “will sound the alarm in defense of an imaginary idol called rights of property” when they hear of his suggestion to make “the six millions of acres [of wasteland] useful, for the benefit of any persons other than those who have so fully exercised the right of not using them” (920). He once again goes through the reasoning of distinguishing his plan from full confiscation, only this time, rather than defending his plan against charges that it amounts to confiscation, he rushes at the accusation, threatening to do exactly that. He is fully able to concede, he says, that cultivated land might exist as property “so that gentlemen in superfine coats who inhabit large houses in Ireland … may be supported in elegant leisure” (921). However, landlords can claim no such property in land they have not improved for cultivation, and so, Mill concludes quite menacingly, in direct address to such hypothetical landlords, “the time is now come when a public necessity requires that what you have omitted to do should be done for the general good by the representative and organ of the general good—the State. We are going to take the land from you; to enter it and do as we please with it, for the purpose of rendering it productive, whether with your leave or without” (921).

In this series of articles, then, Mill fluidly categorizes his plan as falling far short of the state’s rightful powers, as conforming with the accepted practices of the state’s rightful powers, and as constituting an unprecedented practice that nonetheless is entirely in keeping with already-existing state powers. But he makes it quite clear that the state has to be careful to avoid catalyzing the wrong sort of relationship with its subjects. His condemnation of the Irish poor law suggests that land reform might be the necessary prophylactic to avoid creating an inappropriately enmeshed relationship between the Irish people and the British state. Mill repeatedly takes on George Poulett Scrope, a member of parliament whose utilitarian sympathies were quite closely aligned with his own. Scrope’s error, for Mill, was in advocating for an Irish poor law that would guarantee impoverished Irish a right to relief. Repeating rumors that Irishmen were declining to farm at all, preferring to live off the wages they made laboring on government-sponsored relief projects, Mill presented the nominal wages of a government relief program as instilling a permanent sense of title in those who receive it, creating in them a sense of property in the state itself, rather than in the separate material of the land. “The wages bestowed [on the Irish] in charity they already look upon as a right, and what the Irish peasant considers his right, he enforces by a penal code of his own; already the officers of the Board of Works are assaulted and fired at for withholding employment” (992). Mill blames the government for creating a system in which the Irish might grow to feel about wages how he believes it will be most salutary for them to feel about land.

This particular attribution of blame is one of the most unstable moments in Mill’s extended argument that the Irish are what the misgovernment of the British have made them and not by nature an inferior race. Earlier, Mill had argued that the Irish peasant’s defects were due almost entirely to the moral and economic evils of the cottier system, which gives holders of land no hope for permanence even in an economy where possession of land is the means to survival. He defends them against charges of intrinsic lawlessness, explaining “Rockism and Whiteboyism” not as “qualities of his nature, but hard consequences of his desperate situation” (956). To then suggest, less than a month later, that “the Whiteboy and the Rock system” are now concerned with shaking the poor relief system down for wages that are becoming felt as an Irish right would seem to overturn Mill’s earlier plea for Irish lawlessness as a mere consequence of hard circumstance. It is instabilities like these that lead Janice Carlisle to conclude that Mill’s early ambition to create a science of how characters—both national and individual—are formed never amounted to more than “a chance to parade one’s own prejudices and presuppositions” (156).8 But his distinction between a peasant guerilla insurgency he can excuse—the Rockites and Whiteboys engaged in attempts to keep peasants on land—and one he cannot—the alleged Rockite and Whiteboy violence to defend a right to poor relief—shows that his narrative of the interdependence of government and property has a clear line of demarcation. His version of bad Rockite rebellion is rebellion for a right to property that is in essence a part of the state rather than for property from which the state has excused itself.

The Role of the State in “The Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes”

So far I have been arguing that Mill’s most sustained example of the fully individualized self such as he celebrates in On Liberty emerges in his recommendations that a disaffected Ireland be reconciled to the British state through the creation of a class of Irish peasant proprietors. In imagining the land to mediate a relationship between the Irish subject and the state, Mill also imagines Irish peasants as able to inhabit a space and an experience that reforms them while keeping them at a remove from a state power that might otherwise be crippling or coercive. In this section I solidify this claim by contrasting the owning self Mill imagines in his writing on the peasant proprietorship with the owning self he tends not to articulate in his next most sustained example of a subject reformed by a reformed distribution of property: his discussion of the possibility of British workers’ cooperatives. What this comparison yields is the sharp contrast between the fully fleshed-out experience of the connective, even affective, ownership Mill provides in his examination of an Irish peasant proprietorship and his depopulated and emotionally flat descriptions of the collectives that might make up British workers’ cooperatives. Composed without the backdrop of a physical plot of land, his narrative of the rise of workers’ cooperatives lacks the substantiating details that make his writing on peasant proprietorship so forceful. When faced with what he classifies as the exceptional development of the British working classes, Mill fails to sustain a concrete model of self-cultivation. He also has difficulty imagining a cultivated self safely removed from the influence of the state.

In Principles of Political Economy Mill devotes a chapter to imagining the process by which class divisions in Britain might gradually be eroded into non-existence by the formation of workers’ cooperatives, which would erase the difference between owners of capital and performers of labor. Mill predicts that this future will emerge from a spontaneous process, one in which the state will not have to take into its own hands a socialist redistribution of property. He also imagines it as an arrangement uniquely suited for the British working classes. Because of the length of the discussions he has devoted to peasant proprietorship, he allows that he has given his reader reason to anticipate that his recommendation for the improvement of the British working classes will involve the allotment of small agricultural properties as well. But he outlines what he imagines instead in a chapter—“On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes”—that is more prophetic in its conviction of what will happen than it is prescriptive of what ought to happen. For Britain, he predicts, there will be a gradual transformation of all production away from capitalist-owned companies staffed with wage laborers and toward cooperatives in which workers are both laborers and owners. Mill presents almost the inverse of his plan for bringing the Irish into civilization. Rather than requiring a rearrangement of property so that the institution might serve as a civilizing influence on them, the English working class, he suggests, has already attained such a high level of civilization that a corresponding rearrangement in property is inevitable. Because he believes that in Britain property will merely follow a civilization already in place rather than create it, he never offers a description of the experience of being attached to property. Such an experience, in the British case, will simply be a manifestation of who the British workers already are.

In an argument that contradicts some of his earlier claims about peasant proprietaries, Mill belatedly crafts a hierarchy in which holders of small agricultural properties must always trail in civilization behind participants in more complex economies. Only in his discussion of workers’ cooperatives does Mill expose problems with peasant proprietorship, even problems that up until this time he has argued are not inherent in a system of small properties held by individual cultivators. Such a system first and foremost is unsuitable for the British working classes because once large-scale production has been adopted as a mode of production, Mill argues, the people who have adopted it cannot go back to a smaller scale. He lays aside all of the arguments he has made up until this point about the super-human efficiency of the hypermotivated peasant proprietor, as well as the arguments he has made about peasant proprietors who, exiled from economies of scale, must strike up their own alliances to get done what large-scale farmers accomplish with no spirit of cooperation. Instead, he argues that peasant proprietorship is never the best that human society can achieve. Mill concedes that “as a step out of the merely animal state into the human, out of reckless abandonment to brute instincts into prudential foresight and self-government,” peasant proprietorship serves a valuable purpose. But in order to make this argument, he frames peasant proprietorship as the state of profound absorption in an isolating property, a result he repeatedly refuted in both his articles in the Morning Chronicle and in the second book of Principles. Peasant proprietorship simply will not work for the British working class because “something better should be aimed at … than to disperse mankind over the earth in single families … having scarcely any community of interest, or necessary mental communion with other human beings” (4.7.14).

This is an abrupt about-face from his articles on Ireland, in which he argued that the peasant proprietor is better off than the wage-laborer for a social education. “A day-labourer who earns his wages by mere obedience to orders, may become a good artificer in his particular manual operation,” Mill concedes, but “in sagacity, in thoughtfulness, in power to judge of consequences … in every intellectual faculty which it ought to be the object of popular education to cherish and improve,” the truly educated man is the peasant proprietor. After all, his is the “agreeable” task “of finding every way of improving and making valuable a small farm, of which the whole produce is his own, and which is the permanent inheritance of his children” (975). But Mill now announces that the sort of property that joins the peasant proprietor to future generations is superseded in sociability by the sort of relationships available in workers’ cooperative associations. He argues that cooperative ownership offers the most perfect form of social institution in which “each human being’s daily occupation” enrolls him or her in “a school of the social sympathies and the practical intelligence” (4.7.59).

In Mill’s eyes, the British working classes do not need the more elementary instruction available in the possession of property because their civic education has already been under way, informed by newspapers, pamphlets, working-class institutes, and the education of the collective bargaining of labor unions and the collective politics of chartist agitation. For such people, Mill insists, “if public spirit, generous sentiments, or true justice and equality are desired, association, not isolation, of interests, is the school in which these excellences are nurtured. The aim of improvement should be not solely to place human beings in a condition in which they will be able to do without one another, but to enable them to work with or for one another in relations not involving dependence” (4.7.14). Mill sees this ideal relationship best embodied in associations of operatives, who, combining their scant resources, start a business from which all workers can profit and to whose steering all workers might contribute.

Such associations will contribute to an overall increase in the productivity of the economy, Mill argues, because in vertically integrating both manufacturing and distribution, they eliminate the drain on profits that separate distribution can cause. Even more importantly, the associations will increase productivity because a worker will always work more efficiently where he perceives his own interests are served. But such economic benefits are nothing compared to the “moral revolution” that workers’ cooperative associations would effect. The spontaneous growth of workers’ cooperatives, Mill anticipates, will amount to no less than the complete erasure of class rivalry, “the transformation of human life from a conflict of classes struggling for opposite interests, to a friendly rivalry in the pursuit of a good common to all” (4.7.59). With class warfare ended, all workers will be able to claim a part in the planning and deliberations involved in their daily labor, having had a civic education that has bypassed private property entirely.

But in contrast to his writing on peasant proprietorship in Principles of Political Economy, Mill’s positing of worker’s cooperatives as “the most beneficial ordering of industrial affairs for the universal good which it is possible at present to foresee” feels hasty. Most strikingly, the narrative strategies he undertakes to sketch out the operations of a workers’ association offers no picture of individuality that might be seen as a prototype of the political individual he celebrates in On Liberty, one whose individuality is protected from the tyranny of the majority but still safely engaged with the common good. Instead, his description of cooperatives offers almost no glimpse of individuals at all, presenting the organizations themselves as the basic unit of narration.

Nevertheless, Mill maintains that the transformation of the economic landscape into cooperatives is inevitable because cooperatives offer the most compelling advantage—“the common interest of all the workers in the work” (4.7.60). Mill’s chapter on workers’ cooperatives is free of any maxims about the improving power of this common interest. All that his readers know of the instructive power of working in one’s own interest, in fact, has already come from the chapters he has written on property. And because Mill asserts that the working class in Britain has already had an education in their common interest, there is less room in his narrative for discussing the educational value that workers’ cooperatives might additionally bring. To write on the inevitable attractions and transforming powers of cooperative movements would be to undermine his emphasis on the civic education that the British workers have already had. “There is a spontaneous education going on in the minds of the multitude,” he asserts, in arguing that the British will never return to a golden age of a deferential working class and a paternal upper class. But it is a spontaneity in tension with the conscious deliberation he claims it produces: “The institutions for lectures and discussion, the collective deliberations on questions of common interest, the trade unions, the political agitation, all serve to awaken public spirit, to diffuse variety of ideas among the mass, and to excite thought and reflection in the more intelligent” (4.7.9).

As detailed as it is, this narration of a civic education lapses into tautology. In contrast to his clear-cut claims for the improving force of peasant proprietorship, Mill offers a far more fluid picture of British working-class education. The gradual freedoms attained by the lowest social classes—taught to read, allowed to choose their religion, granted mobility in occupations—will generate an ability to handle such freedoms and a desire for more, he predicts. His explanation of working-class progress encompasses more interrelated influences than do any of his discussions of peasant proprietorship. But it also has a circular logic: the development of the intelligence of the working classes is the key to developing the intelligence of the working classes. Without the pithy explanatory power of the magic of property, even the inevitable rise of workers’ associations comes from a tautology. Such associations, Mill asserts, might “by the very process of their success” be “a course of education in those moral and active qualities by which alone success can be either deserved or attained” (4.7.62). Because they succeed, cooperatives will teach workers how to be successful, although the associations’ success depends on the workers knowing that very thing.

Mill’s tautologies underline the fact that spontaneity is a key characteristic of the workers’ cooperative movement, a characteristic he makes central when he distinguishes his vision of a class utopia from those of earlier theorists of communal property, like Robert Owen. It might have seemed before the workers’ cooperative movement, Mill argues, that such experiments weren’t likely to be carried out unless the capital for them was “seiz[ed]” and “confiscate[ed]” “for the benefit of the labourers” (4.7.21). But in Mill’s vision of the future, workers will pool their own meager savings, motivated by the example other cooperatives and the potential rewards of working for their own interests. In one of the most laissez-faire accounts of business in a volume far from consistently laissez-faire, Mill presents the inevitable cooperatives of the future as the spontaneous movement of society toward equality, independent of government interference.

But a careful reading of Mill’s plan shows that spontaneity to have begun somewhere, and much as with his discussion of the peasant proprietor, that origin ultimately lies with the state. “There is a capacity of self-exertion and denial in the masses of mankind, which is never known but on the rare occasion when it is appealed to in the name of some great idea,” Mill states. The explanation resembles his claims that the promise of property in perpetuity called forth extraordinary efforts from the peasant proprietor. Only, instead of property, it is the influence of “some great idea.” For Mill, the French Revolution of 1848 presented such an idea because it convinced the working classes of France that they had obtained “a government who sincerely desired the freedom and dignity of the many” and who did not look upon the natural role of the working classes as “instruments of production.” Convinced of the government’s care, Mill explains that French workers “came to the resolution” that they would work for no master but themselves and do so “not by robbing the capitalists … but by honestly acquiring capital for themselves” (4.7.21). Mill sees the example of these self-helping French cooperatives as spreading contagiously across the English channel. While he emphasizes the material independence of these workers, scraping together their initial capital through much self-sacrifice, Mill quite literally does not see them as individuals owing nothing to society for their capacities. To the contrary, they owe their own virtues to the catalyzing example of the state.

While for the Francophile Mill this British indebtedness to the French state is relatively unproblematic, to his readers it might have suggested something other than “a government who sincerely desired the freedom and dignity of the many.” After all, the reach of French influence across the channel carried with it in the nineteenth century the threat of invasion by a state the British disdained as too absolutist in both its republican and imperial incarnations. The French state’s invasion of Britain with its cooperative-inspiring sincerity points up one more way that Mill’s vision of a peasant proprietorship for Ireland more fully allows its beneficiaries an involved but noncoercive relationship with the British state. The peasant attached to his land might transfer his loyalty from one state to another, but such transferences never require him to transfer his affections away from the “home” that his property also is.

“England and Ireland” and Mill’s Historicism

Mill’s interest in Ireland informed his political philosophy in the 1860s, even as his concrete attention to Irish politics ebbed during those same years. In Considerations on Representative Government (1861) he cavalierly referred to Irish problems as in the past. While conceding that British misgovernment had once barred Irishmen from considering themselves members of a British nationality, Mill claims that the most recent Irish generation has been able to develop “the consciousness of being at last treated not only with equal justice, but with equal consideration” by the British (433). Yet even Mill could not sustain such sunny views of British-Irish amity in the face of the Fenian violence later in the decade, in which Irish separatists carried out raids in Canada and on British soil in the name of ending Union. The most notable of these, the explosion at Clerkenwell Prison, was carried out by Fenians to free Fenian prisoners but had the unintended consequence of killing several people living near the jail and injuring scores more. The event set Mill back to writing on Ireland. His pamphlet “England and Ireland,” written in the last months of 1867, renewed his project of demanding a program of land reform for Ireland, but with a sense of urgency even more palpable than the famine generated in his earlier writing.

Mill does not mention by name any Fenian undertakings as prompting him to write. Instead, he paints the moment as one of crisis because almost all chance of conciliating Ireland with measures that the state might generate has passed. At this delicate moment, Irish rebellion no longer looks like “one of grievance or suffering; it is rebellion for an idea,” Mill warns, offering this maxim: “Rebellions are never really unconquerable until they have become rebellions for an idea” (7). The real danger of the moment is that “this desperate form of disaffection … does not demand to be better governed, … asks us for no benefit, no redress of grievances, not even any reparation for injuries,” because its entire motive and aim is “mere nationality” (8). His recommendation for action, now that the British find themselves on such a precipice in Irish relations, is the strategy of making the government a benefactor to the Irish nation once again, of giving it something material and concrete: “The rule of Ireland now rightfully belongs to those who by means consistent with justice, will make the cultivators of the soil of Ireland the owners of it; and the English nation has got to decide whether it will be that just ruler or not” (23).

In the remainder of his pamphlet, Mill argues from familiar premises that a permanent attachment to the soil will prove most salutary for small cultivators and that the state can legitimately reassign property rights in land where it is expedient. However, “England and Ireland” is free of Mill’s earlier waffling about the role of the state in remedying the situation. No longer just suggesting that the state has a right to reassign property, Mill instead prescribes for it a central role in the upheaval of an entire system of landed property. In his plan the state must establish a commission for valuing all the land in Ireland and for fixing it as a perpetual rent price for the tenant. The state should collect this rent, he argues, and transmit it to the landlords. The landlords might choose to sever their connection with the soil altogether, taking their rent as a government pension without any involvement with the actual land of Ireland.

The extent to which this plan marked an entirely new line of thinking on Ireland for Mill is subject to debate. The historian E. D. Steele, in two successive Historical Journal articles, argues that “England and Ireland” was an abrupt and radical departure for Mill from a line of thinking that otherwise insisted on the absolute security of private property. Bruce Kinzer argues that “England and Ireland” was a culmination of thought Mill had already worked out in the Morning Chronicle articles, noting his many arguments against the immutability of landed property and his routine championing of the morally improving qualities of small freehold properties.9 Like Kinzer, I see much continuity between the earlier articles and the later pamphlet; they advocate similar plans and even draw on the same vocabulary to do so. But without question, Mill shakes off the indeterminacy that riddled his Morning Chronicle articles about the precise role of the state in arbitrating property relations. This very concrete departure from his earlier writings is underwritten by a second departure apparent in his pamphlet: an embrace of a proprietary historicism, newly available to those thinking about questions of property in the land.

In “England and Ireland” a new type of historicism informs the assertiveness with which Mill argued for the power of the state to rearrange property rights. This historicism originated with Henry Sumner Maine’s publication of Ancient Law in 1861. The Lockean view that property allocated individuals a space of sovereignty remained basic to Victorian conceptions of property, but by the 1860s writers also routinely drew upon Maine’s historicist view of property law’s evolution. Maine expressed his theory with the maxim that all property evolved from “status”—in which identity, kinship, and occupation all merged with proprietary powers—to “contract”—in which an individual, through his powers alone, could acquire and alienate property. Property thus became a power separate from the domains of family authority or political power. In this thesis, Maine revived the scientific stature of stadial theories of historical development, arguing that it was relationships to property—and not to production, as Adam Smith’s hunters and gatherers, farmers, and merchants suggested—that dictated a society’s place in the long evolution toward advanced civilization. His idea proved a weighty alternative to a more abstract and universalized understanding of property.

In this historical view of property that starts out as communal and gradually evolves toward the individual, Mill found a sympathetic framework through which to imagine private property that might function to unite a common public. More importantly, Maine’s ideas allowed Mill to argue for the involvement of the state from a stance that was essentially conservative, a call for the restoration of old conditions rather than an insistence on new ones. Maine provided Mill with a convenient backstory to property that Maine argued had once been owned in common by primitive societies who joined together in village communities. The village community provided a model of trusteeship that the state could emulate in taking back control of the land for the sake of the common good. In fact, the notion of the primeval village community suggested that communal control of the land was the norm from which modernity had deviated. It provided a conservative veneer for what were otherwise labeled radical ideas about property. In reviewing Maine’s subsequent work, Village Communities (1871), Mill shows himself emboldened by this conservative logic to imagine a more active role for the whole community in determining the rights of property. One of the inferences that can be drawn from Maine’s work, Mill argues in his review, is that “[i]f the nation were to decide, after deliberation, that this transmutation of collective landed ownership into individual shall proceed no further, … the nation, in so deciding, would not overpass the limits of its moral right” (549).

With the influence of Maine, Mill’s thinking on Ireland takes a longer historical view. In his Morning Chronicle pieces and the multiple editions of Principles of Political Economy, Mill had used only recent history to explain the character of the Irish people, arguing that “Rockism and Whiteboyism are not qualities of [Irish] nature, but hard consequences of his desperate situation,” a situation created by recent acts of British misrule (955). In “England and Ireland” Mill looks to a different—and much older—historical context: the native memory of Irish tradition. The notion of a landlord with absolute rights to the soil, he asserts, is entirely contrary to Irish ideas “and has never to this day been recognized by the moral sentiments of the people.” This is because “before the Conquest, the Irish people knew nothing of absolute property in land. The land virtually belonged to the entire sept; the chief was little more than the managing member of the association” (11). Drawing on a vision of ancient Irish society, Mill changed his understanding of the environment that contributed to Irish character from one in which the British figured prominently to a native memory in which the British barely figured at all.10

Mill’s adoption of this sort of historicism in his pamphlet at first seems largely cosmetic. After gesturing toward this native memory in the first couple of pages, Mill says little more of it, proceeding to outline his recommendation for a state valuation of all the land in Ireland, followed by the legal assignment of permanent tenurial rights to all tenants willing to pay the assessed rent. The plan was radical in assigning to the state, and not the free market, the determination of the economic value of land. It was equally radical in dictating that the state, not the owner, should determine who might stay on the land. In reactions to Mill’s pamphlet, what struck the press as most shocking was the plan’s disregard for the landlord, who would continue to receive rent but would no longer be able to choose his tenants. Such an approach was seen as antithetical to the entire social order in Britain. Following up its review of Mill’s pamphlet, the Times editorialized that, in considering the case of Ireland, “Every man should make up his mind whether the received laws of property are to be upheld in the United Kingdom; or whether, beginning first with Ireland, we are to establish principles which would unsettle our whole social fabric” (qtd in Steele, “Reform” 439).

The Times’s panic registers what was radically new about Mill’s position. There remained no trace of his Morning Chronicle vision of a state that might justifiably invade the rights of landed property and simply chooses not to. But those early articles’ implicit theme of forbearance persists even in this later and more radical piece. In place of a state drawing its citizens to it by refusing to interfere with landed property rights, Mill offers a vision of a state first of all forbearing to use violence to keep Ireland in the union. Should the British decline to address the Irish land issue and instead “attempt to hold Ireland by force,” Mill predicts, “it will be at the expense of all the character we possess as lovers and maintainers of free government, or respecters of any rights except our own” (45). His equation implicitly acknowledges that the state might hold Ireland by force; such a thing is possible. The reason to refuse such a course has to do with taking the higher moral ground.

More significantly, “England and Ireland” imagines a new sort of state forbearance where national culture is concerned. Mill imagines the state as withholding its power of imposing one cultural norm of ownership onto an inappropriate cultural situation. The British erroneously have thought “that there could be no boon to any country equal to that of imparting [British] institutions” on it, and since the benefit of British institutions had been generously showered on Ireland, “Ireland, it seemed, could have nothing more to desire” (8). Mill sees such a mindset as being at the heart of Britain’s Irish failures. Outside of Britain, “there is no other civilized nation which is so conceited of its own institutions.” At the same time, where Britain is concerned, “there is no other civilized nation which is so far apart from Ireland in the character of its history, or so unlike it in the whole constitution of its social economy” (9). The reform most necessary for the British state to undertake, Mill concludes, is one in which the British refrain from imposing their norms on Ireland.

In this vision of cultural forbearance, Mill is joined by many of the major players involved in passing the Irish Land Acts, which assigned responsibility to the British government for assessing the value of land, for enforcing fair rents, and ultimately for keeping Irish tenants on the land they tilled. William Gladstone, in proposing the first Irish Land Act in 1870, argued for it on the premise that “[a]ll the circumstances, all the associations, and all the accretions that have grown around the native ideas are different in the one country from what they are in the other. We cannot name a point in which the relation of landlord and tenant in Ireland and Great Britain are the same” (Healy 115). Even J. A. Froude, a vociferously pro-Union, anti-Catholic, pro-coercion historian blamed the troubles of Ireland on a failure of the state to withhold its own cultural institutions: “Of all the fatal gifts which we bestowed on our unhappy possession [the worst] was the English system of owning land” (qtd in Solow 9).

This idea that the English relation to property was a culturally specific institution that could be imposed—and imposed inappropriately—marked a change from Mill’s ahistorical and a-cultural imagination of the “magic of property.” While, in Principles of Political Economy, Mill had consistently acknowledged that the distribution of property was a product of cultural custom, he had never treated any of those customs as in danger of invasion or compromise. His presentation of Ireland as a fragile proprietary ecosystem, one threatened by nonnative British ideas of ownership, marks a new way of thinking, one underwritten by nothing less than a sea-change in the theoretical underpinnings of property’s origins.

But his was not the only source that claimed for Ireland not just native rights to the land but an indigenous way of owning not equivalent to English modes of owning. Irish nationalists in the 1840s and 1850s also claimed that the Irish experienced ownership in ways the British did not. And as I argue in the next chapter, the model of indigenous owning they offered, and the British accepted, reconciled some of the worst contradictions that riddled modern British property.

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