Against Our Proletarianization
For too long, wealth has been concentrated in the hands of a plutocratic class more interested in dreaming than virtue and common sense.
Plutocratic Socialism: The Future of Private Property and the Fate of the Middle Class, Mark T. Mitchell, Front Porch Republic Books, 180 pages.
For most of our lifetimes, the foes of Big Government and Big Business duked it out within an ideological dream-word while the decay of American society carried on apace. Occasionally, the more insightful would complain that Big Business was aiding and abetting Big Government or vice versa, but few observed that something more sinister was going on that regulatory capture: both parties had conspired, wittingly or unwittingly, in the proletarianization of American life.
A century ago, English essayists Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton first drew attention to the phenomenon, describing capitalism as a mere way station on the path to socialism. Their work has rarely received the attention it deserves, due to its romantic flavor, but the Distributists put their finger on the central political challenge of modernity. By extending “freedom” to every member of society, modern politics profoundly changed the nature of that freedom, announcing a liberation that looked a lot like what earlier generations had called slavery.
In Plutocratic Socialism, political theorist Mark T. Mitchell updates and deepens this analysis in light of our current crises and the rise of “woke socialism.” Left and right together have destroyed the old ideal of the property-owning citizen, whose little piece of the world gave him a place to stand, a place to belong, and the opportunity to cultivate the virtues essential to participation in popular government. “There is a world of difference,” Mitchell writes, “between a society consisting of a majority of citizens who are middle class and who exercise a controlling influence over the political landscape and a society consisting of a shrinking middle class and growing wealth disparities.”
In our present condition, wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a plutocracy long on dreams for social transformation but short on virtue and common sense. Such a plutocratic class, “if it is to survive in a democratic age, must placate insecure, propertyless citizens with state-sponsored benefits that provide the illusion of security.” The Left’s solutions—cash handouts and access to government programs with no real transformation in the property structure—simply further entrench this dismal state of affairs.
The way forward must involve a return to the once universal understanding, consistently articulated by the American Founders, that “private property and political freedom stand or fall together.” Of course, this freedom is very different from the “freedom” most in the modern West have come to expect: “the freedom of pornographic expression, gender preference, or sexual identity … the freedom claimed by lonely citizens demanding faster internet, more government services, and the satiation of an endless parade of desires.”
It is the difference, in short, between the freedom sought by young children and the freedom of adulthood. For the child, freedom is liable to be seen only as the steady opening of new possibilities and removal of constraints on his appetites: more time to watch TV, more channels he is allowed to watch, more junk food he can consume while watching. In our infantilized age, adults seek the same thing in only slightly more sophisticated form: more leisure time to surf more social media feeds while slurping down more exotic vegan smoothies. True adulthood means freedom as responsibility, and the best way to learn responsibility is to have something you are responsible for: something to own.
Mitchell’s book describes the pincer movement of infantilization coming from both state and market. As a conservative, he focuses more on the state’s role than the market’s. He makes many references to the infantilizing trends of the welfare nanny state but relatively few to those of Big Tech, and none at all to the role of omnipresent advertisers, whose entire business model depends on keeping consumers in as impressionable and infantile a condition as possible. He does, to his credit, focus attention on the demoralizing character of modern work, drawing heavily on the great German economist Wilhelm Röpke.
One of Mitchell’s key contributions in this volume is to connect proletarianization to the phenomenon of wokeism, which turns out to be both response to and intensifier of this rootless modern condition. The younger generations, increasingly alienated not merely from their work, their history, and their place in the world but also, thanks to technology, from their bodies, have understandably sought to take out their frustration on the seemingly arbitrary power structures that continue to constrain them. The result is a woke socialism that sees privilege and oppression everywhere. “In this age of Woke Socialism we are witnessing the rise of a new kind of citizen: the liberated Gnostic nomad. He is liberated, for he insists that the only limits on free choice are those that he has explicitly chosen. He is Gnostic, for he sees the body as nothing more than an object, a means for the gratification of desire. He is a nomad, for he sees the entire world as the venue in which he can exercise this new and intoxicating freedom.”
Mitchell’s answer to our current predicament involves a return to the ideal of widespread private property ownership, opposing the current craze for a “sharing economy” in which everything from RVs to power tools will be pooled via Uber-style apps. He recognizes that there is a certain way of conceiving private property that has actually contributed to our current crisis, one of “absolute ownership.” On this individualist framing, “What I possess is mine without qualification. I can do with my property whatever I choose. The horizon of my concerns extends no further than the horizon of my own life or the duration of my desires.” Certainly, we will not reclaim our culture by doubling down on such a libertarian vision.
Rather, we must learn to think again of property as stewardship. Traditionally, what one owned was most likely to be something passed down from one’s ancestors and was seen also as a gift from God. On this understanding, the property owner’s role was to care for the inheritance, use it to bless those around him, and ensure that it was still there to be enjoyed by his children after him. This is true not just of property in the narrow sense but “the natural world, our institutions, our bodies,” Mitchell writes, “cultural gifts such as stories, songs, and celebrations… institutions and practices that have been developed over time and passed from one generation to the next.”
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To be sure, Mitchell’s argument is still hamstrung by certain libertarian holdovers. For instance, when introducing the idea of property, he fails to anticipate his own later polemic against “absolute ownership” and defines it as “that to which I have an exclusive right” and later critiques various government regulations as having “confiscated” or “stolen” private property. In such Lockean slips, he betrays a failure to fully recover the older idea of property as a socially embedded institution, one in which public claims must always be balanced against private rights.
Perhaps as a result of this, he finds himself left with a relatively narrow and unimaginative set of policy options. Unwilling to stomach the idea of the government violating property rights by requiring companies to improve worker participation, he falls back on the idea of using “incentives rooted in the tax policy” and on “break[ing] up monopolies.” But why shouldn’t these count as violations of property rights? Why isn’t such a use of tax policy a form of theft, as libertarians have charged?
Ultimately, for a book with “private property” in its subtitle, Mitchell’s volume is thin on analysis of the philosophical and legal structure of property and hence fails to fully provide us with the conceptual tools to enact creative but principled policy solutions that would reverse the current proletarianization of American life. Nonetheless, Mitchell’s penetrating insight into the ideological and political synergy of “woke socialism” and “woke capital” makes this volume a must-read for “new right” conservatives eager to retrieve an older vision of freedom and human flourishing.