- Prometheus Unbound:Populism, The Property Question, and Social Invention
Human spontaneity and the power generated by cooperation should be exercised within the bounds of what Melville called "lasting institutions," within a public space guarded by constitutional arrangements upheld by the public commitments of citizens.1 This is the foundational premise of a new populism.
This article begins with the history and culture that emerged by a radical redistribution of productive real estate to millions of citizens, initiated and carried out by the newly emerging republican governments at all levels. This redistribution imprinted what I call a property-owning consciousness into the body politic which, in turn, helped to shape civic understandings of liberty, opportunity, freedom, and independence. It also explores the rupturing of this relationship to productive property brought about by the constellations of a new economic revolution. New inventions such as corporations and financial markets in the economic life of nineteenth century United States disrupted long term institutions, existing cultural patterns, power relationships, legal frameworks, and existing patterns of land holdings. Over time, these new organizational experiments congealed and dominated the economic and political landscape of the republic. This had the effect of separating a significant number of households from an ownership stake in productive property, which, in turn, changed the trajectory of the republic's economic, cultural and political future. [End Page 219]
This article then looks at the response of populist movements to this rupturing and the resulting dependency. These movements sought to free their members from the economic dependency engendered by this new reality, using multiple forms of collective agency to achieve this. I describe the struggles of white and African American farmers, share croppers, laborers, and artisans who sought to overcome, gain control of, reorganize, and create new social inventions to counter and influence growing entrenched power and economic structures at a particular moment in United States history. In particular I highlight the struggle of the post Reconstruction, independently-initiated black populist movements' historic effort to free African Americans from the neo-slave regimes in the south and southwest.
Finally, this article explores the implications of these historical struggles for the present, in the midst of another revolutionizing of the economy. We are witnesses to and potential agents in the transformation of a new disruption of institutions: the penetration of market culture and patterns of its organization into all aspects of everyday life, the proletarianization of professions, the reintroduction of speculative boom and bust cycles in the economies of the Western world, and the loss of work, equity, and property by households. It is a time when many millions fear falling into crippling indebtedness and dependency.
"Power always follows property. Property widely distributed among the people holds the line against pernicious concentration of power."2 Citizens in the new American republic developed primarily what I would describe as property-owning consciousness, contrasted to class-consciousness.
A property-owning consciousness is centered in an understanding by citizen workers, artisans, and farmers that in order to be free of employers, landlords, creditors, and possibly the organs of state power, one must assemble and own enough productive assets to guarantee liberty and independence. The means by which citizens attempted to accomplish this freedom included both individual and collective acts and instruments. Thus, workers and farmers joined together to negotiate better terms with purchasing agents, and employers that could yield them enough income and resources to allow their individual households to assemble productive assets to become "free."
A significant number of the founding fathers believed that the republic would suffer if land and property were not widely distributed.3 A central focus of the emerging governmental infrastructure was to divest significant [End Page 220] amounts of publicly held land through Homesteading Acts to citizens and enterprises alike. The scale of this redistribution was so large that by the early 1800's it has been estimated that between 60 percent and 80 percent of free citizen households were landholding property owners.4 The period from the 1600's to the middle of the nineteenth century thus constitutes the first imprinting of a property consciousness in free citizens, well before the introduction of significant land-poor...