A great many people seem to have an instinctive conviction, which no statistics can dispel, that the domination of our economy by large corporations is not a good thing. Yet we are hard put to explain exactly what harm is done. The idea that the corporations are reducing us all to poverty doesn’t hold much water, considering our affluence, so we fall back on complaints about anonymity and sameness.
The same goes for our complaints about big government. Despite some ominous signs that the federal government is passing out of citizen control, few of us can claim to be seriously oppressed by our government and are in fact financial benficiaries of it in ways that make our complaints about taxes a touch hypocrital.
In short, our basic contentment with McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and Uncle Sam is proved by our continued patronization of the first two and our continued refusal to elect politicians who have serious intentions of shrinking the third.
And yet the disquiet remains. Who would have thought to look to a seventy-year-old collection of genteel and somewhat literary essays, mostly by Southern academics of traditionalist bent, for illumination of these obscure misgivings? In the midst of the Great Depression, some of our finest Southern thinkers and writers, including John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, put forth a question which is perhaps more challenging now than then: Who Owns America?
I’ll give you a hint: the answer is not “the people”. This book, both revolutionary and deeply conservative, is in fact a proposal for the introduction of something we already think we have plenty of, but which is in reality rather scarce: private property. Let me explain.
For quite some time now—decades, at least—our political life has been a struggle between the two positions we call “liberal” and “conservative”. Setting aside the so-called “social issues”, which have to do with our public approach to personal morality, and looking at these positions in political and economic terms, it is more accurate to say that the debate is between socialism and capitalism. For liberalism as it is practicedtends toward the position that economic (and therefore political) authority should reside in the government; while conservatism as it is practiced tends toward the position that economic and political power—not authority in any official sense, but practical power—should reside in the large corporations which have been most adept at accumulating capital. This is not, of course, an explicit aim of conservative thought—indeed, the present volume comes to us from a conservative publishing house, and with a preface treating it as a conservative document— but it is a feature of conservative politics, if only as a consequence of conservatism’s reluctance to restrain such accumulation.
So let us speak here not of liberal and conservative, but of socialist and capitalist, and observe that in practice both encourage the dominance of society by large centralized institutions. Both propose a society in which real productive property is in the hands of a small number of people, and all the rest are in a state of dependency on great institutions and the managers who run them. And our political debate is in great part only a tug of war between those who would increase the power of the state and those who would increase the power of the so-called “private sector”, which means, disproportionately, big business.
The essayists in Who Owns America? consider this a false dichotomy and offer a different way of looking at the situation. The book is a sort of sequel to the famous Southern Agrarian manifesto of 1930, I’ll Take My Stand. It includes essays by most of those who contributed to I’ll Take My Stand: John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and others. But where I’ll Take My Stand was explicitly regional and agrarian, Who Owns America? is an attempt to apply the principles underlying Southern agrarianism—not the idea of agrarianism itself—to the country as a whole, and to the industrial economy. It considers industrial society as it was in the late 1930s, sees something fundamentally wrong with it, and proposes reforms.
The fundamental wrong, as these essays present it, is the concentration of productive property in too few hands, the impoverishment of too many, and the reduction of a free people to irresponsible wage slavery—or worse, unemployed destitution. The proposed reform is the wide distribution of property, with a consequent decentralization of power and increase in the economic self-reliance of individual families and of entire regions.
But is there really any fundamental wrong? Are the questions raised here even relevant? This book was written in the 1930s, when industrial society seemed in immediate danger of collapse or revolution. Since then, it might be argued, the grossest injustices and instabilities of capitalism have been ameliorated, and, after all, we are prosperous, and most of us seem to have no fundamental objections to our current economic system. Yet there are signs that there is something rotten beneath the glittering surface.
It is a curious and interesting phenomenon that industrial civilization seems to breed people who hate it. No sooner did we begin to industrialize in the early 19th century than the alienated artists of the Romantic era appeared, and the party of estrangement continued to grow throughout that century and into the 20th, reaching some sort of peak in (and since) the 1960s when a significant number of the most privileged middle class which had ever lived declared their desire to pull down the society that had created them. Since then a fundamental cynicism has been more or less institutionalized and dominates popular cultural expression. Millions of people live and work in a society which they give every appearance of regarding with something approaching contempt.
This, as I say, is curious. It is unnatural for a healthy society to harbor so many people—a large and influential minority, at least—who sneer at its fundamental principles though they are not mistreated and in fact are rather more privileged than the vast majority of the human race has ever been.
Neither I nor the authors of the essays in Who Owns America? would presume to advance a single all-encompassing explanation for this cynicism, but the title of the book refers to what might be called a pyscho-economic fact which is surely involved in our problem: ordinary Americans do not, for the most part, truly own anything much. Do you own your home? Really? Free and clear of mortgage? If so, you are in a fortunate minority. What we call home ownership does not, for most of us, become actual ownership until quite late in life, if at all; we are, rather, continually paying toward ownership, and most of us could be thrown out of our “own” homes after a few months’ unemployment.
What is most significant, of course, is that we do not own the means of our livelihood. Most of us are wage earners. We do not possess the property or, to use Marx’s famous phrase, the means of production, to support ourselves. Rather, we perform—even if we are in the fairly high ranks of a wealthy company—paid labor which we are in continual anxiety about losing. Getting fired means a distinct and immediate possibility of losing most of what we appear to own, most especially the roof over our heads. It is for us what famine or plague once were for people who lived much more at the mercy of nature than we do.
One effect of this is that we see ourselves less and less as free citizens, and more and more as helpless dependents. The authors of these essays are concerned with the unemployment, poverty, and deprivation of the Depression. More fundamentally, though, they are concerned with citizenship in a democracy, which is in at least as much danger now as it was then. And they believe that the ownership of property—not appliances or automobiles, not stocks which are bought and sold for their speculative value, but real livelihood-producing property—is the means by which people become both independent and responsible. The household that owns the means of its livelihood knows a liberty which those who live from paycheck to paycheck do not, and at the same time it knows its liberty to be dependent on a healthy commonwealth and thus has an incentive for participation in government, which is another way of saying an interest in preserving democracy, and in limiting the concentration of power. Whereas the propertyless household is always conscious of its precarious position, and always in a position to be talked out of its liberty with promises of security.
What we see happening now is not so much a direct trading of liberty for security, though we can see that tendency in regard to medical care: how much independence will the American people give up in order to be free of the threat of being brought to financial ruin by medical expenses? There are more subtle ways than welfare of becoming dependent. If the popularity of certain movies and television shows is any sort of proof, we have adopted a national worship of a very shallow sort of adolescence, the essence of which is a claim to unlimited pleasure without responsibility. And it carries a presumption that somewhere there is a grown-up who is paying for everything and will intervene in an emergency. (I have in fact heard a Congressman say that we should “think of government as a loving parent.”) This is not the condition of citizens capable of maintaining a democracy.
Well, one might reply, what of it? If the people are comfortable and content, does it matter whether they vote or not? Does it matter whether they choose their rulers or not? Might they not just as well leave all that hard and boring stuff to the people who have a knack for and interest in it?
To such a challenge the agrarians might answer something like this: “Set aside the excellent possibility that such a society would soon be dominated by tyrants, and that your comfort and contentment might be of somewhat less importance to them than to you, and that if they decided to take it away you would be in no position to argue. Set that aside, and suppose that you could remain as happy as a pig in sunshine: you have discarded and forgotten the old idea of liberty, and if you have to ask why that matters there isn’t much to discuss.”
But let us look more closely at the essays. The titles of some reveal that fundamental concern for the preservation of democracy: “The Small Farm Secures the State” (Andrew Lytle); “Notes on Liberty and Property” (Allen Tate); “That This Nation May Endure—The Need for Political Regionalism” (Donald Davidson); “Big Business and the Property State” (Lyle H. Lanier); “The Foundations of Democracy” (Frank Lawrence Owsley). Not everything here is of equal interest, of course. Some of the essays are more dated, because more concerned with the specifics of contemporary conditions, than others. A few are more technical in their treatment of economics than I myself have the patience for (in particular, “America and Foreign Trade”, by James Muir Waller, is likely to be soporific for any who do not have a great interest in the subject). But overall the range is wide, encompassing everything from rather abstract economic treatises to Willis Fisher's eloquent defense of the much-maligned small town, “Small Town Mid-Westerner”. There is more than one defense of the family farm, and an essay on the situation of “The Emancipated Woman” by Mary Shattuck Fisher (she regards emancipation from the farmhouse to the factory or office as a cruel trick). The literary quality in general is high; Tate, Ransom, and the other Agrarians do not disappoint.
I’ll Take My Stand was widely mocked and condemned for its supposed backwardness, but it was read and remembered. Who Owns America? suffered a worse fate: it was mostly ignored, and then it was mostly forgotten. But it strikes me as being at least as important. It is worth reading not because it is the document of a forgotten social movement, but because it sheds light on what is happening today.
And, speaking of forgotten social movements, there is a fascinating connection between this book and an English movement called distributism which held ideas very similar to those of the Agrarians. Distributism, at least by that name, was a predominantly Catholic movement whose major figures were G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, two colorful and vigorously opinionated writers. Chesterton and Belloc tied distributism quite explicitly to Catholicism. Distributism was little known in this country, but it had a few disciples. One of them was Herbet Agar. Agar, it seems, was a friend of Allen Tate, who was a Catholic convert, and Agar and Tate edited this volume. And the last essay in it, which takes the discussion to the frontiers of theology, is by Hilaire Belloc. Thus the English and the American streams, as well as the religious and secular streams, of agrarian-distributist thought are brought together here.
And, perhaps, do not end here. Distributism is not entirely dead in Catholic circles; in recent years it has experienced a small and quiet revival, especially among the younger Catholic intellectuals dissatisfied with the false dichotomy of Roosevelt liberalism vs. Reagan conservatism which dominates the Catholic conversation. If Southern intellectuals were to stop trying to be hip and look to their roots; if the Catholic distributist revival were to take hold and spread...well, who knows but what something might come of it?