This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the historical relationship between property and democracy. This series will focus on many of Our Democratic Heritage’s themes and concerns; however, none of the pieces are intended to establish a fixed account of this diverse and controversial subject area. In this article, James Hawthorne teases out some of the underlying meanings of the term ‘property’, and suggests some of the themes that will linger throughout the series.
Do your possessions determine the nature of your constitutional rights? The question seems offensive in its anachronism. The mark of a civilized person is living in a civilized country, and to consider the possibility that one’s rights might not be as equitable and enlightened as one would hope seems like an act of self-criticism. Do we not despise the conspiracy theorist in the same mode that he or she despises the supposed conspirators? The relationship between the individual and the state is not only an issue for the state, but the individual. Politics is emotional, prejudicial, and, in many ways, irrational.
For this reason, we tend to place questions of property and democracy very much in the past tense. We think of the reform acts, the enclosures, the American Revolution. Make no mistake: such a narrative of progress is a useful to a degree, and this series of articles will draw on all these events. There is a danger here, however. Any teleological understanding of history runs the risk of complacency, and democratic heritage is no exception. The more we examine the story of property and democracy, the more we discover present-day prejudices and assumptions that seem entirely un-modern.
Let us confine our definition of democracy, for the moment, to the issue of the franchise. In Britain, the electorate has grown dramatically over the past two hundred years, largely—until the enfranchisement of women—by raising or removing property bars. In 1780, a survey numbered the English and Welsh electorate at 214,000: a mere 3% of the total population. In 2011, by contrast, the eligible electorate stood at over 46 million: around 70%. A remarkable increase, to be sure. But as the latter figure makes clear, we should not be tempted to think that nowadays ‘everyone can vote’: 30% of Britain’s population are denied such a right. To deploy a politically explosive word, discrimination is still central to the British constitution. How very archaic!
Of course, there is absolutely a case to be made that this 30% should not have the right to vote: many, perhaps most people are entirely comfortable with the idea that children younger than eighteen, foreign nationals, Lords, prisoners, electoral fraudsters (if convicted in the previous five years), and the mentally detained should be debarred from the franchise. Many, however, are not. If evidence were needed that Britain’s constitution were still a live issue, then the issue of voting rights for the mentally ill would be a fine place to start; indeed, we will return to this issue later in this series. What is clear is this: our political system is apt to make discriminations between different categories of personhood. Decision-making is treated not as a right, but as a faculty, and only those who are deemed to hold a certain proficiency in this faculty are allowed the privilege of voting.
Here is a different way of looking at the gradual increase in the franchise over the last two hundred years. From a country that emphasised a continuum of citizenship—decision-making structures based around systems of manorial patronage, through into bourgeois and aristocratic central government—we now largely view citizenship as a binary. If you pass a certain bar, you are a full citizen; if not, you are a non-citizen. We must all agree that widening the electorate is a Good Thing; however, the non-voter—either through disqualification or ‘apathy’—has become an abjected category within British society. If you can’t vote, or don’t vote, then you are, so speak, beyond the pale. At the root of this change, I believe, lies property.
The word ‘property’ originally had only one meaning: the nature or quality of a thing (only later did the idea of possession become attached). Originally a Latin word, this in turn was loan-translation from the Greek word idio—self, own, personal, private. Just as ‘own’ retains its double meaning, so too does the idea of subjective integrity lie at the core of ‘property’, and this is absolutely key to any understanding of property’s relevance in our modern democracy. The key requirement of our democracy is that its citizens possess themselves: the voter must have control over the entirety of their personage, be a self-contained entity. They must be entirely themselves.
In the last two hundred years, then, property has become no less important to the British constitution. Rather, the idea of land ownership has become less relevant to ideas of property. In this wider sense, the ‘propertied’ citizen is the one who has control of their faculties, and is able to make decisions based on what they own—themselves. Children are not seen by the state as ‘possessing’ themselves, nor prisoners, nor, most controversially, the mentally ill. All of these groups are deemed to have compromised ownership, and therefore are denied the right to vote.
Is this stretching the term ‘property’ to its limits? Perhaps. But it is surely no coincidence that one will quite frequently hear talk of ‘stakeholders’ and the like: the argument being that those with the most ‘tied up’ in a political issue should have the most say. Nor is it a coincidence that those with the least physical property are often deemed by state to lack the basic properties requisite of a democratic citizen. The links between childhood trauma, homelessness, mental illness, and incarceration are so well-known as to be clichéd. But they are also real.
This series of articles is above all concerned with these forms of dispossession: the ghostly links between democratic destitution and economic and social lack. As well as the themes already hinted at, these articles will examine how issues of tenancy, gender, nationality, and taxation, among others, have related to Britain’s democratic processes. These subjects will be historicised, but as I have shown, we must not shrink from turning the mirror back on our own, modern, rational, civilized, discriminatory society.