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This book is an intellectual and political history of private property from the seventeenth century onwards in the Anglophone Atlantic world. It studies what people imagine it means to live in a world where private property is dominant and their fears (and sometimes hopes) about living in a future world where private property has disappeared. In the propertied imagination, private property is a fragile thing, a socially positive institution beset by terrifying enemies. That threatened social chaos is the central unifying story of this book. The narrative of private property as a source of harmony and social stability had to be told and retold precisely because of a simultaneously parallel narrative about the imminent disappearance of private property. The book provides a genealogy of ideas of private property within capitalist modernity and shows how modern conceptions of private property always have racial and gendered logics and a fear of the mob operating within them.

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Aidan Beatty

In this book, I aim to bring the new history of capitalism into a productive conversation with gender studies and critical race theory and to show how the intellectual and cultural history of private property (and of capitalism more broadly) cannot be understood outside the obsessions with race and gender that are inherent to capitalism. The acts of imagination which this book studies – and in which race and gender were so central – were acts of legitimation, as capitalist theorists constructed an image of the ideal world capitalism promises; often constructing that image in conscious opposition to images of dismal, chaotic or violent non-capitalist worlds. A vision of harmonious private property required a vision of a savage order where private property did not receive its due respect. And as I argue in this book, over the last 400 years there has never been a conception of private property, and of the class-structured society it underpinned, that has been free of race and gender.

in Private property and the fear of social chaos
Aidan Beatty

This chapter studies John Locke’s conception of private property, mainly drawing from his two Treatises of Government. It is difficult to over-emphasize the importance of Locke’s thinking about private property; his influence can be seen in perhaps all subsequent Anglophone writings on the topic. Locke understood private property as a source of stability in society and as the sole preserve of men. But he also saw it as something artificial; God created nature but man privatised it over the course of human history. Thus, Locke imagined America as a massive cornucopia, a natural space – before private property and civilisation – in which English men could all own private property and create an ideal social order; this would act as a safety valve for an England perceived as overcrowded and overrun with dangerous ‘masterless men’. Moreover, Locke thought Native Americans did not use the land productively and therefore had no real right to it. How he perceived the unprivatised New World would have a huge influence on American political culture, and a determining impact on the later intellectual history of private property, with its emphasis on individualistic male authority and exclusion of non-white races from the rights and privileges of property-ownership.

in Private property and the fear of social chaos
Aidan Beatty

The second chapter investigates Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), perhaps the founding text of modern conservatism. The Reflections were written in response to a popular pro-Jacobin speech at the Old Jewry, London, in November 1789 by the Welsh preacher and republican pamphleteer Richard Price; and Burke made much of the ‘Jewish’ location of Price’s radical oratory. Burke argued that the Jacobins were ‘Jews’, that is to say men who made their money through usury and lacked the requisite respect for private property. He likewise labelled them ‘Maroons’ – escaped African slaves – and lamented the fact that women played so central and active a role in the French Revolution. And, as this chapter discusses, Burke contrasted this French chaos with Britain; his Reflections on the Revolution were at the same time a reflection on a harmonious image of British social peace, where private property supposedly remained sacrosanct and the ‘natural’ racial and gendered order of his late-eighteenth-century world had not been inverted. Burke recognised that radicalism was rife in Britain and his political imagination was a mixture of anti-Jewish rhetoric, a conservative paranoia about the masses, patriarchal fear of women and a valorisation of landed property.

in Private property and the fear of social chaos
Aidan Beatty

The third chapter examines the romance of Marx and Engels for Ireland, their belief that in Ireland private property was not yet dominant and their related view that the Irish remained a feudal race outside the coercion of capitalism; Engels, and more subtly Marx, saw the Irish as freer, more human and more masculine than the industrial proletariat of England. The chapter situates this stereotyping in the context of Victorian British attitudes towards the Irish, specifically seeing them as a lovable and warm, if primitive, people; like their writings on Jews, Indians and Chinese, Marx and Engels accepted stereotypes while reworking them into their critique of private property. Yet in their writings on Ireland there was a romance and a respect that remained absent from their analyses of non-‘white’ races. Ireland was a laboratory in which Marx and Engels could construct their ideas of primitive accumulation, the alienation and unhappiness caused by private property and the transition from feudal to capitalist property-relations. I focus on two seminal thinkers, to show how communism has often imagined the world in terms similar to propertied ideology, seeing empty spaces waiting for modernity, change and guidance, and likewise dependent on race and gender vocabulary.

in Private property and the fear of social chaos
Aidan Beatty

In Chapter Four, I cross back over the Atlantic, to investigate the most extreme example of Lockean conceptions of private property; the notion that certain human beings were themselves a natural resource awaiting privatisation. George Fitzhugh was one of the most prominent ideologues of slavery in 1850s America; in just a few years he produced a slew of newspaper articles and two books – Sociology of the south and Cannibals all! – in which he not only defended the ‘peculiar institution’ of American chattel slavery but also went on the offensive, constructing an image of the ‘free’ north as the true home of oppression and economic violence in antebellum America. And in opposition to an imaginary depiction of a chaotic and violent capitalist north, Fitzhugh constructed an even more fantastical image of a harmonious, peaceful and well-ordered south in which private property was dominant (including chattel property), slaves were happy and obedient, and male heads-of-household were never challenged or questioned.

in Private property and the fear of social chaos
Abstract only
Aidan Beatty

Chapter Five stays in the United States, studying housing in the Truman era and how, after the horrors of the Second World War, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) actively promoted suburbanisation and an idealised vision of the white nuclear family. The combined effects of the Great Depression and the war effort meant there was a serious housing shortage in the USA after 1945. Within the Truman Administration, there was often an open anger against a real estate industry that was perceived to be uncooperative in solving this crisis. Yet the eventual programme privileged privately built and privately owned single-family homes (conventionally holding three or four bedrooms, thus subtly insinuating how many children a couple should have), with mortgages generally only made available to white applicants. I place all this in the broader context of American welfare provision – which has tended to favour the inviolability of private property – and its sustained racial and gendered underpinnings. This chapter draws extensively on archival material from the Truman Presidential Library.

in Private property and the fear of social chaos
Aidan Beatty

The policies of the Truman era were emblematic of the Keynesian consensus that dominated the post-war years. Chapter Six examines the breakdown of that consensus and also explores late-twentieth-century, Anglophone conservatives’ particular obsession with their own childhoods. In their autobiographies, Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater both waxed nostalgic about their supposedly idyllic youth in rural Illinois and the Arizona Territory, respectively. Likewise Margaret Thatcher, who used her two volumes of autobiography and countless speeches and interviews to construct a rosy image of her pre-war childhood as a grocer’s daughter in provincial Lincolnshire. This imaginary world of a pre-welfare state and implicitly white, pre-Windrush Britain served to throw into sharp contrast her dystopian view of 1970s and 1980s Britain, a land of oppressive socialism, race riots and family breakdown. A key goal of contemporary British conservatism was the creation of a ‘property-owning democracy’ and in the Thatcherite imaginary, England could only be a green and pleasant land if private property were fully dominant. Thus, as with Reagan and Goldwater, constructed images of an arcadian childhood in the past helped to legitimise privatisation in the present.

in Private property and the fear of social chaos