A pile of American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer, mid 1870s
from the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library (via Wikicommons)
“If we take a closer view of these two classes, we shall find that a very great proportion even of the proprietors are only nominally so; they possess so little that in strict regard to truth they ought to be classed among the non-proprietors. They may be compared, in fact, to the small prizes in a lottery, which, when they are paid, leave the holder a loser.”
After a mid-life attack of conscience and change of direction, occasioned by changes in the structure of the industry in which I worked, I struggle to support myself, and will probably continue so to struggle for the remainder of my life. Although this change of direction was not the matter of choice others perceive it to have been, I deserve little sympathy for this; but the resulting poverty does at least give me more in common with a larger share of the world’s population than I previously had. One of the means by which I have tried and failed to support myself over the last four years involves door-to-door delivery and survey work. In the course of this timespan, the visits I have made to various abodes in this line of work number around 100,000.
An empty house with a readily distinguishable mailbox is to be desired. Dogs, though I am fond of them, being protective of territory, are an occupational hazard, and I have nearly been bitten on several occasions. I try even harder to avoid encounters with residents—owners of large homes in particular tend to have the worst attitudes to visitors—although it is far from the case that all such encounters are unpleasant. I remember one delivery, on a baking August day, when in a brief conversation with a householder of a fairly modest home, I explained the work that I was doing and the rate of pay at which I was doing it. He felt that my working conditions were so ridiculous that he immediately gave me £10 (about $15). When I thanked him for his kindness and offered to pass the money on to a charity, he responded with indignant strictures that I should instead keep it for myself (strictures that I am sorry to say I ignored).
My aversion to initiating such encounters in the course of this work arises from rather different experiences. In one experience in particular, a homeowner responded to my visit with a verbal admonition, as I left his property, that I “want bloody shooting.” Subsequently he got me into trouble by complaining to my employers. His indignation was in part occasioned by the hour at which I visited his home, which was later than ideal; as I am obliged to assume other and often lengthy work commitments, delivery work often gets crammed into small spaces early in the morning before, or late at night after, those times of the day which are referred to (especially by those in comfortable circumstances) as “office hours.” Days of sixteen hours or more of continuous work are common, and I have been admonished that the rate and nature of the work I feel obliged to take on is injurious to health by several parties, including employers. The aggression which I have received in other similar encounters with householders strongly suggests that a still more prevalent influence is the assumption that by setting foot over a threshold of what people regard as “theirs,” particularly outside of “acceptable” “business” hours, I have to some householders committed an act of violation. This assumption has deeply political and troubling historical contexts.
The sense that individuals are entitled to defend “their property” is deeply impregnated in Western culture, alongside, in some locations, a related if more contested sense that people have a right to own and use firearms in the course of this defense. The legal position is in fact more ambiguous, and limitations on such rights will be more readily apparent in the United Kingdom than in the U.S. Affirmative perspectives on U.S. cultureare likely to associate such differences with the process by which the two countries were settled, and through which their existing structures of land ownership and political control were produced. According to these perspectives, the U.S. is the result of a contract between a group of “free” people who have carved out a living for themselves, in sharp contrast to the unequal systems of land ownership in Europe, as historically embodied by the United Kingdom to an unusually unequal degree. “In nineteenth-century Europe an individual’s position was determined at birth; in America, at least in the popular mind, by ‘luck and pluck’ … The nineteenth century American concept of democracy was as much about social opportunity, and a chance for everyone to make good, as about legal rights.” Cognate analysis endeavors to draw connections to other contrasts between the U.S. and Europe, including the relative instability of European political institutions; the influence of ideas of socialism on Europe and related addictions to expensive and self-defeating state welfare programs; and the failure in Europe to understand the powerful commitment to and practice of liberty in the U.S.  (this failure nurturing a jealous and irrational anti-Americanism). But in fact, connections and contrasts between different national and continental contexts are far more complex than this schematic analysis suggests. In asserting self-evident truths, the founding fathers of the U.S. constitution derived their observations regarding the “unalienable” rights of “men” from a European philosopher, John Locke. However, they famously revised Locke’s assertion that the chief end of civil society was “the preservation of property,” being defined as “life, liberty and estate,” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet while the preservation of life, the facilitation of liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have a distinctly checkered record, both in and beyond U.S. experience, pursuit of the institution of property has been characterized with an unmatched and exclusive single-mindedness.
Historians would rarely adopt the view that modern American society was founded upon actions that were intentionally genocidal. Given however that the resulting displacement of first nations was undoubtedly characterized by little practical regard for the sanctity of life, the very mundane nature of the intentions underpinning this calamity are the more instructive. While one view ascribes to native Americans the status of conservationists, it is not true that they did not cultivate, invest in, or significantly alter the landscape of the continent. What was critical to the incompatibility between aboriginal and white settlers’ notions of how to work the land was the distinctive pattern of the latter, according to which control of confined portions of lands is restricted to individuals. A clear characteristic (if not necessarily, as some have suggested,the cause) of the displacement of native Americans, this notion of ownership is so fundamental to our view of the world that it is easy to underestimate how distinctive and geographically and historically specific what is sometimes referred to as “property-owning democracy” is. In the centuries of European settlement of the Americas, the Caribbean, Australasia, parts of Africa, and other areas, confined notions of ownership, with the accompanying pattern of fencing in of land subjected to individual claims to property, expanded in their application not only in new colonies but also within Europe itself, especially with the decline of feudalism and the decline in England of the common field system. This historical process, especially in the United States, privileged property at the expense not just of native American life, but of all human life, as is evident through the operation of institutions such as capital punishment and the second amendment to the American constitution, as well as its ecological consequences. The distribution of property that resulted is at least as important as the distinctively confined nature of the modern institution. Justifications of the beneficence of the modern U.S. have long treated questioning of the morality of its foundation and expansion with some impatience. It may indeed be a forlorn exercise to puzzle about what might have happened in place of American expansion across the continent. Reviewing humanist efforts to justify the conquest of the continent does however help to isolate the most fundamental of Western (especially American) values. It is commonly assumed that the emergence of the U.S. facilitated more comfortable lives for many more people (Emma Lazarus’s “homeless” “huddled masses”) than a native American lifestyle profligate with resources could have. Even apart from the point that the effects of the Columbian exchange on the demographics of the continent long made the variety of native American lifestyles appear not at all profligate, native Americans’ reported bemusement at European settlers’ fecundity has a curious modern echo; the tone of this bemusement is very close to that of ill-informed first-world observers who see population growth in less developed countries as nonsensical and a form of suicide. Whether it is the monopolization of resources by a minority whose lifestyle favors smaller units—a propensity typified by modern Western preferences for smaller families as much as by hunter-gathering societies’ structuring around small tribes—or population expansion that is “wasteful” or “selfish” is, in other words, a matter of perspective.
But in any case, the image of impoverished exiles from a Europe characterized by “storied pomp” finding livelihoods through landownership is less characteristic of the settlement of the American continent than the process, through laws such as the Homestead Act of 1862 and Dawes Act of 1887, by which disproportionate wealth was concentrated in very few hands. Sonorous claims about how all men were created to the contrary, it was not just in institutions such as slavery that the settlement of U.S. society did not break free of the inegalitarian pattern of its European counterparts. A longer perspective thus demonstrates the similarities between European and American contexts. The settlement of the ownership of land in England, for instance, differed from its later U.S. equivalent only in respects that it is easy to exaggerate. The eleventh-century Norman conquest of England, sequestration of the land, and displacement and annihilation of existing inhabitants (specifically through the “harrying of the North”) also changed the conception of territory and its possession.
Acts of expropriation, justified with a veneer of legality, have been ongoing in a range of contexts. The cases of parliamentary enclosure in England, and land clearance in Scotland, produced a typically inequitable distribution of resources: yet protests were often met with severity. Anyone who possesses land in Britain has been the victor in these and many other complex and sometimes dubious processes. Resettlement and displacement, occurring on both sides in World War II, may still affect the distribution of property, and as the world becomes more unequal, the displacement of indigenous peoples in places such as the Amazon and parts of Africa continues under forces such as capitalism, consumerism, and the perpetual indebtedness of underdeveloped nations. In all such cases indeed the distribution of political power has been radically affected by the sequestration and unequal distribution of property. Arguably, from at least the seventeenth century, imbalances in the “chance for everyone” not just for wealth but for life arose as today from exactly the same minority—the transoceanic elite produced by capitalism—“selfishly trying to keep [resources] for themselves.”
An article in the National Post, responding to criticism of U.S. foreign policy in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, impatiently defined the American way of life as “a serum of prosperity and freedom.” With the demise of the Soviet Union, such voices are confident that it has been proved that capitalism, especially as practiced in the United States, excels in wealth-creation. Cognate arguments that individuals and groups who agglomerate great holdings of wealth and property are in some way altruistic are familiar. It is argued that to accumulate wealth is not only the best way to fight poverty but the only way. Attempts to redistribute wealth, especially through state action, provide a disincentive to such accumulation; equality may be achieved but only at the price of mutual ruin. Instead, “free” market economics suggests that successful capitalists should be free to maximize personal wealth, since elements of the accumulated wealth trickling down the social scale through the working of markets offers the best means of combating poverty.
Yet the logic of this defense of “free” market capitalism poses a challenge not only to Marxists, but to a far wider set of practices common to American capitalism, such as corporate social responsibility, or any practice through which an organization may sponsor a “good cause” or show a caring side. The response to the existence of poverty, if the argument is taken on its own terms, should not be to progressively redistribute resources, but to accumulate more wealth, which markets distribute efficiently. Bill Gates, whatever else may be said of him, is no paragon of enlightened capitalist virtue. Even if one accepts the desirability of largesse being dispensed by a private foundation, an organization such as the Gates Foundation either represents beneficent formations that have nothing to do with capitalist corporations (i.e., the outcome of pressure emanating from the popular good sense that great aggregations of wealth could be much better used), or it is misguided.
Further, “prosperity” unequally accumulated as it is, is certainly not simply the product of “freedom,” but of a range of processes, many of them dependent on the state, its expenditure, and practiced claim to the legitimate monopoly of violence. That the land of the free notoriously acted more reluctantly in the suppression of slavery than its colonial oppressors does not negate the prevalence of the view put forward by influential and prolific historian Eric Foner, that “no idea is more fundamental to Americans’ sense of themselves as individuals and as a nation than freedom.” “The central term in our political vocabulary”, Foner continues, “‘freedom’ – or ‘liberty,’ with which it is almost always used interchangeably—is deeply embedded in the documentary record of our history and the language of everyday life.” Foner observes that this vocabulary of freedom does not just relate to political and economic freedom, but a range of other freedoms, including consumer freedom, sexual freedom, and freedom from discrimination. Foner thus ridicules European observer Theodor Adorno’s suggestion that “the concept of freedom…finally boils down to the right of the stronger and richer to take from the weaker and poorer whatever they have left,” volunteering that “not long after these words were written, the greatest mass movement of this century reinvigorated the language of freedom with its freedom rides, freedom schools, and the insistent cry, ‘Freedom Now’.”
That proponents of a system can expropriate the efforts of critics, in spite of the admission of even the most courageous such critics of the ineffectuality of their opposition,in supposed demonstration of the system’s tolerance, bears close comparison to a case of the richer robbing the poorer even of their spirit; and it is an act of expropriation characteristic of arch exponents of capitalism. The Declaration of Independence stated of the “unalienable” rights including liberty: “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” From the outset liberty is thus dependent on government action; the notion that the maintenance of liberty depends upon the state, and thus the threat of force, is a paradox that the U.S. and other western societies that have loudly boasted of their achievements in the name of “freedom” have never escaped. The doctrine that property, rather than being a product of a free market, is theft, may be simplistic, but the historical events which followed (although were not caused by) its enunciation by the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the June days of 1848 and suppression of the Paris Commune, demonstrate that the “legal” defense of property can be far more violent, unfree, and inhumane than its critics.
The modern United States similarly has the highest known rate of incarceration in the world, and many cases of such incarceration arise from crimes against property, or crimes conditioned at least partly by the existing distribution of property. In addition to an expensive penal system, this “freedom” depends on a policing and legal system protecting the distribution of property at enormous government expense. If the entire experience of a nation is punctuated by a pattern typified by the displacement and internment on reservations of its first peoples, slavery and Jim Crow, persistent denials of rights to immigrants, the internment of Japanese Americans, the modern detention of asylum seekers and terror suspects, and the iniquities of a racially coded, decades-old war against drugs—and if its present is characterized by a prison population which exceeds the entire population of about half of the countries of the world, and a population in prison or under parole and probation clearly exceeding that of more than half—self-congratulatory mainstream political discourse notwithstanding, there is a pressing case for viewing confinement, the fencing in of people as well as property, as that nation’s fundamental characteristic.
The pursuit of happiness
Defenders of the United States’ “serum of freedom and prosperity” may imagine themselves on the surest grounds on the dimension of happiness. How often they feel confident in browbeating critics into silence by suggesting that their alternatives would endanger the inestimable value of “material abundance” and “consumer freedom” wrought by a familiar way of life. Yet serious academic research into the global distribution of contentment fails to support the unspoken assumptions; globally there is in fact a poor statistical association between material abundance and happiness.
Because the pressure to try (and usually fail) to make enough to live off obliges me to take a range of casual employments, I am at once in the position in different contexts of being the humblest, most ill-remunerated foot-slogging manual laborer, and a retail manager, working in a context which values entrepreneurial skills. This may provide an unusual combination of insights into why capitalism is in fact so bad at making the swelling populations it tends to germinate happy, and, cognately, how the cliquey managerial elite created by capitalism really feel towards the very majority who are so often patronizingly assured that the system acts for their benefit.
In a session on visual merchandizing for which retail trainers charge a large fee, part of my training as a retailer involved being told to “assume people are stupid”, and by implication to act to try to accentuate this alleged stupidity. A successful entrepreneur is seen as an individual able to con ordinary people—who being stupid are assumed to have a tiny attention span—into believing, for the crucial second, the acknowledged lie that the acquisition of a new item of property they do not really need will bring them happiness. Their later disabusing is none of the successful entrepreneur’s concern. A successful retail manager will value income and thus the earning power of property. A customer who has more money to spend, or is willing spend money that they do (or even do not) have is of more value, and has a right to better treatment. The way in which retailers are encouraged to use emulation and jealousy to inspire conspicuous consumption and impulse purchase is also significant in affecting and limiting the distribution of happiness.
On neoliberal understandings, if capitalist expansion produces inequalities of wealth, inequality is said anyway to be a good thing if it promotes jealousy and imitation, and thus compels people to work harder. Hence capitalist apologists’ bemusement that their “serum of freedom and prosperity” does not actually make people happy: neoliberal understandings cannot engage with the human, psychological, or social costs of inequality where the drive to emulate is thwarted, nor with how the satisfaction of existing owners is reduced as their conspicuous consumption is emulated. “Consumer freedom” is a strange kind of freedom to celebrate for other reasons; insistently promoted patterns of consumption and fashions, like Nixon’s discourse in the famous “kitchen debate,” often entrench rigid gender roles. But the dismissal of objections to the notion that people outside of an elite exercising a magisterial system of control “are stupid” as “politically correct,” and thus, by implication trendy and novel, is also indicative of flaws in neoliberal thinking. Objections to Burkean expositions of control of a “swinish multitude” by men of the “landed interest”  date back even within the limited British-American frame of reference to the Levellers of the seventeenth century. It was in 1647 that Thoms Rainsborough articulated: “I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he.” It is depiction of momentary consumer fashions and fads by advertisers and other leeches of capitalism as “must-have,” which is not only preposterously trendy, but also brazen about its reliance on persuading consumers to follow trends. The exposure of the association between the consumer mindset created by the advertising industry and happiness is in contrast at least half a century old.
“Property-owning democracy” is not only limited in its historical specificity and its ability to make people happy, but cognately in its ability in any fundamental sense to make people owners. One of capitalism’s key tricks for assuming people are stupid, and thus tying them into a spiral of property acquisition, comprises systems for deceiving people into assuming they actually own property with a degree of stability that they do not, through systems for extending credit such as mortgages, hire purchase, loans, and credit cards. In reality these tie people into the system, and into roles and commitments which are not conducive to happiness; the perceived imperative to get on the property ladder can be no more satisfying to the holder than to those excluded. The pursued state of “ownership” is in any case often fragile, as is demonstrated by the case of individuals with mortgages who might lose their job through no fault of their own and quickly be unable to maintain repayments.
It is essential to confidence in capitalism that debts are paid, and a significant stigma attaches to the indebted. Debts must be repaid, even at immense human cost, as financial institutions’ enforcement of drastic “reforms” to support the repayment of third-world debt demonstrates. But credit is in fact essential to the system, and those sufficiently wealthy, powerful and necessary to the stability of the system can always escape the consequences of their bad choices. It is unthinkable that financial institutions or powerful businesses, even given their incompetence in causing a financial crash, will not be bailed out, and a sufficiently mainstream or powerful country, such as Argentina, may default on debts.
Sleep is for wimps
Almost as widespread as the assumption that people—and especially poor people—are stupid, is the notion that they are lazy. A wide genre of “self-improvement” books penned in the name of rich individuals avow the message that the “ordinary man“ must work harder in order to emulate the rich and powerful. A recent obsequious article about Timothy Donald Cook, the CEO of Apple, Inc., further enunciated the fairy tale that there is a strict relationship between hard work and wealth: “A day in the life of a chief executive sometimes seems to be a race to see who can get up the earliest in the morning … But the world’s corporate elite needn’t bother competing: not only does Tim Cook run the most valuable company in the world, he is clearly also the earliest bird of them all.” The logic that hard work, like the acquisition of property, will make you happy is perhaps typified by the claim, associated with neoliberal paragon Margaret Thatcher, that sleep is “for wimps.” Acquiring such publications, like many transactions in a “property-owning democracy,” is much more likely to further inflate the author’s bank balance than improve society or any “self” involved in the transaction. While academic researchers flatly regard their claims as outlandish, more telling criticisms could be offered. While the implications that the rich and powerful hardly sleep is not without its sinister side, the claims themselves, taken on their own terms, are not that impressive. While Cook has easy access to a gym and worries about missing late-night TV shows, I doubt he has to worry about days without food and water, how weather conditions will directly impede his work, problems in legally urinating created by the lack of public conveniences and a measure deliberately targeting the poor, and other problems which require tact, stamina, determination, and resourcefulness.
From the most powerful perspectives, however, poor people are not only lazy and stupid but also dirty. There is a long record of propertied observers claiming that the growing population of poor people in Britain exacerbates its own problems through unhealthy food preferences (oddly syncopated against bombastic national pride from the same sources regarding similar “traditional” fare). When Conservative peer Baroness Jenkin of Kennington recently asserted that “poor people don’t know how to cook,” it was her retraction which the well-fed conservative media found hard to stomach, one newspaper suggesting Jenkin “got pelted with KFC boxes and had to apologize,” shifting the agenda with the assertion “it’s hard to argue with [the] conclusion” “that poor people throw more litter”: “You never see opera tickets” among litter. In fact this is a conclusion that is easy to contest. By definition, people who can afford to consume more create more garbage. The difference is that wealthier communities also have the political influence to ensure systems are in place to hide their garbage. Mounds of garbage in places such as southern Africa and South American favelas are equally not indications of the poor being litterbugs, but of communities which lack the means properly to deal with waste. Conversely, the frequency of refuse collections has been pushed as a political issue in the British media; the potency of the issue partly owes to the symbolic nature of uncollected garbage as a symbol of the seismic political shift to the right in the 1978-9 “winter of discontent,” but also owes to property owners’ disliking being confronted with the volume of waste for which they are responsible. Our assumptions linking wealth, cleanliness, virtue, and beauty are sharply stamped upon our consciousness from an early age. A householder who observed me delivering a few days after being told I deserved “bloody shooting,” offered the observation, albeit in a friendly tone: “You ain’t got a very good job.” After cycling 5 miles, and perhaps running and walking another ten, in all weather conditions, carrying one or more bags bulging with mail, compared with the expensively manicured ideals of beauty with which we are all socialized, I confess I must cut an even less prepossessing figure than usual. I must look poor and powerless and thus look like an easy target for the frustrations of anyone so minded; and the social, psychological and human costs of the drive for emulation mean that even the propertied have more frustrations than the neoliberal economist can understand.
Assertions that the rich and powerful merit their position through hard work also demonstrate how unhealthily out of touch the authors are. This is suggested not only by the highly discriminatory way in which the logic of the “free” market is applied, but also by the evidence from such perspectives themselves about how lightly this dogma has penetrated the popular consciousness. Free-market capitalist economists’ assumption that human beings are narrowly profit-focused often seems to be applied to give more fortunate individuals the freedom to obtain more wealth. As frequently, however, the application to the poor is sought in a coercive mode. Since a profit-focused individual is intrinsically lazy and would not work for nothing, a “dependency culture” among the underemployed is attacked, and it is argued a real threat of poverty is required to compel disciplined habits of work. With ingenious devices such as mandatory work agreements, zero-hours contracts, and use of recruitment agencies being adopted in the name of labor-market flexibility to produce a reserve army of labor, it is no surprise to find observers wondering if in some respects Marx was as wrong as is commonly suggested. Hence no matter how wealthy countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom become, poverty therein persists. The problem remains as it was stated in the day of Henry George, and after a further century and a third of assurance that its power of wealth creation represented the best way of protecting and sustaining life, “free” market capitalism’s pattern of maldistribution still represents its only significant contribution to the problem of poverty.
Yet in spite of such devices, and generations of dominating political and social power, supporters of the “free” market themselves still bemoan, even with a growing breadth and persistence, the existence of “dependency culture.” Logically, a work ethic would not be lacking if the population at large accepted that hard work alone was all that was necessary to attain wealth, happiness and privilege. Orwell’s description of capitalism as “a free-for-all in which the worst man wins” may be simplistic: but according to the evidence of proponents of the “free” market themselves, popular good sense rightly perceives that corporate privilege rather than hard work underpins large conglomerations of wealth. Yet the appearance of working long hours in the relaxed environment of the high-powered CEO is supposed to induce admiration; in the case of some of us, the actual experience of working long hours inspires irritation and obloquy, on the part of property holders whose sleep is definitively not seen as that of “wimps.” Property ownership is crucial to society’s perspective; if one has enough property, there will be no shortage of admirers for one’s patterns of behavior, work, relaxation, gym-going, sleep, appearance, cooking, garbage production, or anything done in defense of that property.
“Who we are and where we have come from”
There is an assumption across the political spectrum that Britain has over the last few years become a less deferential society. According to Burkean critics, this poses a threat to a relationship between a landed elite and political power; owing to their animosity towards the poor, the well-to-do assume such hierarchies are necessary to society. Yet the judgment that Britain is a less deferential society could be questioned. As Tom Nairn exposed in 1990, and as is still the case, the knock-about style of the tabloid media in uncovering various royal faux-pas only accentuates the status of the monarchy as ultimately untouchable. Britain is still a society in which ingenious efforts are made to contrive new reasons for lavish celebrations of monarchy, in which the mundane family events associated with the ruling dynasty are exploited , in which a powerful government minister can suggest, at a time of government cuts (not least in his own department) and recession, spending £60 million on a yacht for the Queen, “‘because of these austere times,’” and in which a political party can be openly and seriously endorsed by a national newspaper because the wife of its leader curtseys to the Queen. In contrast, a well-funded populist newspaper advocating a republic is unthinkable.
High-profile publicists such as David Starkey, Andrew Roberts, and Roy Strong claim that personal identification with monarchy and the chain of continuity in English history represents an essential part of English/British identity, instancing the personal impact of participation in and observation of royal rituals, anniversaries, and events. After the death of Elizabeth, the former wife of George VI, aged 101 in 2002, Roberts wrote:
“We can be absolutely certain that neither we nor our children or grandchildren will ever again see the catafalque of a British Empress. Others will wear the fabulous Consort’s crown, but none will also be head of state to one-fifth of all humanity.
Any child of seven or over can reasonably be expected to recall into old age the powerful image that is on view at Westminster Hall. A friend of mine who was 10 when his parents took him to see Churchill’s Lying-in-State can recall it vividly. My four-year-old son talks chirpily of the soldiers who were present when he met the Queen Mother, and of their brief conversation. He will never forget this occasion either.”
The amount of royalist publicity in the British media indeed makes it hard to avoid being sucked into such events. But monarchy tends to get credited with its successes and not blamed for its failures. It is easy to overlook the amount of circumstances in which people identify with monarchy and its rituals to differing degrees, and thus the extent to which it divides people rather than bringing them together. Aged about nine, I went on a two-legged school trip that involved visits to the nearest royal residence to my town of birth, Sandringham House, and to Hunstanton, a seaside resort. In sponsoring the trip, the school, like much of the heritage industry in this country, had clearly felt it fit to endorse royalism. Three years ago, my door-to-door delivery work took me to a town near the village of Sandringham. An arduous day involved working outside in heavy rain and bus journeys on a route which took me past Sandringham House. Peering under lush trees at the relevant stop, I recognized absolutely nothing. While I can recall being on the beach at Hunstanton, even a recent review of a tourist guide brought back nothing from the trip to Sandringham House. It made absolutely no impression on me whatsoever.
Sandringham House, 2003 photo: Alexander P. Kapp
Publicists argue that in Britain there is a necessary “identification of conservatism with patriotism” because “the high point of the United Kingdom” strengthened the throne and the class system: “the link between radical or liberal views and anti-nationalist, anti-military sentiment has always been strong.” Roberts asserts that youthful contact with the great and the good and its memorialization “ … is important for our sense of who we are and where we have come from. It roots us, consoles us and places us in the great historical continuum that helps us to understand our past.” Yet while people may thus be brow-beaten into silence about equivalent moments for fear of seeming unpatriotic, my youthful contact with the monarchy tells me absolutely nothing about who I am, and I share no place with the wealthy ruling dynasty in any “great historical continuum” whatsoever. This merely means that I cannot identify with a “high point” defined by acquisitions of territory and wealth at the expense of others, including domestic others, through some dubious means; there are other ways of identifying with a community, and other experiences by which one may find out who one really is.
The real reason I “want bloody shooting”
A homeowner in the United Kingdom is likely to have been touched by monarchist propaganda. If such a homeowner feels able to act on an assumption that a visitor warrants “bloody shooting” he or she (it is usually he) is also highly likely to have been influenced by another aggressively promoted political campaign, a campaign with monarchist connections, which has also distorted the facts, and which also has endorsement at the highest political level. In 1999 Tony Martin shot dead a 16-year-old burglar as he ran away from Martin’s farm. Martin was initially convicted of murder and given a life sentence, although the conviction was reduced to manslaughter on appeal and the sentence cut to five years. Martin’s case became “an obsession” for elements in the British conservative press, and a massively embellished and politicized version of his story was published as a novel by journalist Richard Littlejohn, a version which, notwithstanding its inaccuracies, even relatively sober conservative judges applauded and described as “a parable of our times.” Such political momentum built up behind this case that on his release from prison, Martin, “a non-voting Tory” flirted with a political career, and was feted at the 2003 conference of the anti-immigration, anti-European United Kingdom Independence Party. Successive conservative political leaders have also sought to cash in on support (emanating by definition from propertied sources) for proposals to allow householders the right to take unlimited action in defense of their homes. In 2004 Conservative leader Michael Howard thus claimed he sided (in terms which echo Richard Nixon) with the “silent, law abiding majority,” aiming to put the fear of imprisonment and physical injury with intruders, not householders, and overtly blamed the then Labour Government for a claimed state of affairs where “If a burglar breaks in, attacks you and you defend yourself, you can find yourself in the dock”: “Most people think that’s typical of the ‘topsy turvy,’ politically correct world in which we live.”
Tellingly, Howard invoked a folk “memory” of “the days when your home was your castle.” “An Englishman’s home is his castle” is a popular expression in Britain, utilized commonly to suggest the right to do what one wants in one’s home is as substantial as in the case of those who own the likes of Sandringham House. Ostensibly, it is a statement of a quintessentially English desire to be at peace undisturbed in one’s own home. The gendering and racialization of the phrase is however significant; Martin’s flirtation with UKIP and many cognate ideological formations indicate that the ideology of beleaguered homeownership has sexist and racist dimensions, overtly scapegoating recent immigrants. Further, the salience of the phrase represents how the historical evolution of property in Britain is very far from being defined by peace, and renders the expropriation of the phrase by critics of immigration ironic at many levels.
A castle is a military bastion, a fortress representing an assertion of control backed by implicit violence. Castles, being distinctively feudal, are a pronounced example of how Normans changed the landscape of England in order to enforce a rule which was the result of a foreign conquest. According to feudal theory, all residual rights of property were ultimately held by the Norman ruler, and all who held property owed that ruler fealty and dues. While the common law evolved, the links between political power and the holding of territory nonetheless retained an undemocratic salience in the British political system. Representation in parliament ever since the thirteenth century has been grounded in territorial constituencies. As the most recent case demonstrates, the first-past-the-post electoral system functions (unlike systems of proportional representation) to the effect that governments of Britain almost never represent the majority of votes cast in a general election; in no respect is Britain thus truly a property-owning democracy. Further, thanks to an audacious detour in the line of succession adopted by parliament as a political and religious expedient in the 1701 Act of Settlement, the current royal family (and its distant relative, David Cameron) are even less English than the heirs of the Norman conquest, being descended from further non-English-speaking immigrants, the Hanoverian Germans. The claim that this royal dynasty represents a long line of continuity is fraudulent; usurpations of legitimate heirs, coup d’états, military conquest by force of foreign arms and acts of expropriation by the monarchy and other establishment institutions are fundamental to British history. To be threatened with violence by a property holder is typical of how the institution has historically evolved, not just in Britain, and the systemic violence without which “property” as commonly understood cannot exist.
In the very week in which I was thus told that I “wanted bloody shooting,” conservative Prime Minister David Cameron was lauded in the conservative press as he branded burglary a “crime of violence” and backed plans to give householders more powers against intruders. “We’re saying ‘you can do anything as long as it’s not grossly disproportionate’,” he said. “You couldn’t, for instance, stab a burglar if they were already unconscious, but really we should be putting the law firmly on the side of the homeowner, the householder, the family, and saying ‘when that burglar crosses your threshold, invades your home, threatens your family, they give up their rights’ … I’m more interested in the rights of the people who want to defend their homes and their properties.” 
Striving to strike a populist note, Cameron instanced being on the receiving end of burglary. The question readily occurs how I would feel if I had been burgled, if my home and belongings had been invaded by an intruder? The question is actually irrelevant since the set of relevant experiences involve nothing to do with burglary; they relate to the fact that crossing homeowners’ threshold in legal and gainful if modestly remunerated employment, thanks to senses of grievance that Cameron amongst others have nurtured, appears to justify homeowners’ suspicion and aggression. In any case, however, I can answer the question about how I would feel in the set of circumstances described very precisely, since it has happened on several occasions (although I share with many others far greater familiarity with the the experience of being ripped off by employers, landlords, businesses, and others in economically more privileged positions). The most notable such occasion took place occurred when, after the change of direction alluded to above, I worked as a volunteer international development worker in Angola. Irrespective of how vulnerable a homeowner in the west has been assured “topsy-turvy” political correctness has made them and their possessions, as the only white person for miles around in a developing country, I was a good deal more vulnerable, and security arrangements more dependent on individual resourcefulness. When the intruder entered my room in the early hours of morning, he had undoubtedly inferred that as a white person I would be in possession of considerably more wealth than locals were accustomed to in an area where people just ate and drank whatever they could to stop feeling hungry and thirsty, whether it was unhealthy or not. In fact I possessed little of value by Western standards, with the exception of my British passport, which I was careful, after I scared the intruder away, to locate more securely.
Although the circumstances appear unusual, I was at least as morally entitled as any home-owner in a leafy western suburb to feel violated and to defend what was mine. Yet I do not feel that the intruder had “given up his rights”, or perpetrated an act of “violence” against me, and certainly no act of violence to compare with the “white terror” of the June days, the suppression of the Paris Commune, many other annihilations and expropriations, and even other quieter ongoing acts of systemic violence, all perpetrated in defense of the existing distribution of property. Instead, I feel the intruder had been shrewd enough to ask himself, and act on, the same question an indigenous New Guinean asked Jared Diamond: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” As Diamond tries to analyze, this cargo arose from a long historical process stretching back many generations. When such disparities arise, this long historical process, and not individual hard work, is the fundamental factor. It is obvious, although far too rarely pointed out, that the richest individuals throughout the Western world depend entirely for their wealth on economic structures created by massive white immigration into areas such as north America, southern Africa, and Australia, and the consonant displacement and annihilation of indigenous peoples, which in turn depended on state and military action, not any “free” market.
The problems with pursuing property
Perhaps I can identify with the intruder in Angola more easily than with my own country’s monarchy, a global rich and powerful elite, or even more modestly if comfortably endowed property owners, because, in another sense, both the intruder and I have been robbed. But no matter how much property we personally have, perhaps none of us ever should feel comfortable with a distribution of resources conditioned by acts such as foreign conquest, race annihilation, expropriation by legal trickery, imperialism, slavery, arbitrarily enforced debt collection, and the economic vandalism of recent decades of neoliberal economics. Limited surveys of political bias in the media suggest evidence of liberal bias. In addition to a state of royalist satisfaction ignited by the birth of a second child to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Cameron’s recent electoral victory was however more tangibly assisted by a print media heavily biased towards the Conservatives and fearful of the implementation of the findings of the Leveson inquiry into phone-hacking. The myth of the liberal media endlessly reiterated by conservative commentators cannot explain why electorates’ effective choices in so-called “property-owning democracies” are limited to preferences between right-wing parties flirting with the corporate media for its endorsement. A much better explanation is that the well-to-do—including the corporate media and large property owners—with more invested in the existing political dispensation being more engaged with the established political process, there is no profit, political or otherwise, in pointing out the flaws in the politically powerful notions of a free people’s right to take up arms to protect their property, and of wealth carved out of nothing by hard work. If you have property worth defending—as I have some small items—and which you think institutions should be rather better at helping you defend, you may have worked hard. If you have substantial property worth defending, you may think you have worked hard, and the more property one has it appears the more likely one is to join Tim Cook in enjoying asserting how hard one has worked. But if you have property worth defending, including in rural areas, don’t deceive yourself that this is not—at least additionally—the result of some morally dubious recent and historic economic processes which have impoverished others, some of whom have undoubtedly also worked hard, and probably as hard, if not harder. It is difficult to measure the implications of those economic processes and all that is involved in the acquisition of property against whatever pleasure is obtained from it.
My direct personal experience suggests that the strength with which the “rights” of “homeowners” have recently been taken up, and the lies used in the name of that cause from politically powerful conservative and propertied quarters, has in no way helped to clarify the legal or moral position. It has instead given a group of (largely male) householders the assumption that they have the right to use aggression and threat rather freely, including against people who are not criminals or burglars at all, but working people, whose offense is to possess less property than themselves, especially if they are of a different ethnicity. This confusion is not good for those who hold small prizes in the property lottery either; if any of them get into trouble in such a situation, I doubt the likes of David Cameron or Richard Littlejohn will bail them out. More importantly, the recent generation of an ideology of beleaguered homeownership has also distracted attention from a more fundamental debate which could take place regarding the nature of property, its history, ownership and distribution, and its unhealthy salience within our economic, social, and cultural system
In the most meaningful sense of the word “good,” the householder who observed that I “ain’t got a very good job” would not have been aware of to which of my several jobs his words best applied. In any case in poverty, struggle, and expropriated unhappiness, I have more in common with the truly “silent majority” than the “success,” property, and wealth a sycophantic mainstream political discourse celebrates and which a law enforced with systemic violence defends. And thanks to the system under which we live, for which we are repeatedly told we should all be so grateful, I have one thing in common with an even vaster majority; for fewer of us have in any profound sense “good” jobs than will be readily apparent.