Property vs. Life: A Contest for the Ages

February 15, 2009

Santa Fe, NM

One of the themes that runs through the course of western European history is the choice between life and property. It seems at first an unexpected opposition because property might be intended to secure life. But down through the ages very often property has been deemed more important than life or the forces that save life, or enhance life, and the advocates for the survival of life have done badly when their intentions ran counter to the interests of those with property.

In 1220 BCE the king of Sparta, one Menelaus, sent a runner from Sparta over the mountains to Mycenae where his brother Agamemnon was also a king. It was at the beginning of the patriarchal period in Greek history, about the time Eve was running into trouble with Jehovah over in Canaan. The message from Menelaus to his brother was: “The wily Trojans have come and seduced my wife, Helen, and she is gone to Troy! Without the bitch I have no claim to Sparta. Quick! Help me get Helen back!” He meant to say “bitch” literally because the trouble with Spartan women was that they might have more than one mate and had a reputation for sleeping around but if they did that, patriarchy could really get messed up.

So Agamemnon gathered a thousand ships and sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to get the gods to give him a fair wind and they all sailed off to get Menelaus’ wife back. The Greeks stayed at war to retrieve Helen for ten years, and the entire Greek mainland and much of the Turkish mainland was tied up in that contest. If a woman could pick her own mate a man could lose track of his line and someone else might get the property. After ten years, Helen was brought back to Sparta a contrite and diminished queen, and Cassandra the prophetess was killed, and Clytemnestra the independent woman was killed and the daughters of the king of Athens were sacrificed, and Herakles’ daughter died mysteriously and Antigone was scorned and Ariadne was abandoned and altogether women who had been accustomed to control property became known as Sirens and Harpies and Sphinxes and Amazons, Gorgons and Circe, Calypso, Scylla and Charybdis. They will suck you down, said the patriarchs, unless you get them under control and they will have children who will not be your children. The first woman was Pandora, a bitch for sure, wrote Hesiod in the eighth century BC, but with all these wars we are going to tame them. Patriarchy definitely needs to tame them; he wrote, and he used the same verb to signify marrying a woman as to tame a horse.

Misogyny, that is, in western history, arises directly out of men’s desire to control the property. Think of Eve being told that she was born of a man’s rib and would thereafter suffer the humiliation of a disobedient woman for all time. That was a double dose of bad news. Procreation was taken away as an attribute of the feminine and transferred to Jehovah (even though nobody ever saw a man give birth) and the second part was that women were shackled. For three thousand years we in the West have adapted to this miracle of male procreation and sentenced women to the back room so that the descendants of Agamemnon were able to keep control of the goods.

(You know all this because it is in my book, In Search of the Lost Feminine, and if you don’t, you can get the book on the table after we are through here.)

But when property is valued above life not only women die. Josef Stalin killed at least 20 million women and men, in cities and on farms, everyone from shopkeepers to wheat growers, in the name of communism and in order to destroy ancient property titles, to erase them, and in so doing made property more important than the lives of these millions. All of this killing was in the name of the future but at the cost of the present and that is the same rationale that Agamemnon used. We have to sacrifice Iphenigia in order to save our patriarchal future. Stalin said we have to sacrifice the kulots and the bourgeoisie in order to save the proletariat.

This last Friday, one hundred seventy seven�out of a total of one hundred seventy seven�Republicans voted in the Congress against programs that would have enhanced health care or built schools, created energy savings or planted grass seed and they did this because for them the taxes that would have to be paid for these programs would have challenged their property and they think that property is more at the root of survival than health care, or schools, or forests or water.

The 177 would not say it this way, of course. They would say that they protect property in order to promote the goods and security of life and there is a partial truth in that. Of course property is good and it helps to have enough to eat and build a business. But the test of values is when the two are in contest. Then, as this last week in Congress, it was easy to say that one is for life but the test was whether, when lives were on the line, someone voted to help people stay healthy or to get an education or to be able to support their families, or whether, when it came down to the vote, they voted for the protection of capital, against capital gains taxes, against a revision toward more progressive income taxation, whether they voted for the free movement of labor off shore, and tax cuts for business which is code for tax cuts for the wealthy.

The slogan is that tax cuts stimulate business. The reality is that tax cuts are code for continued dominance of property values in our culture, above all other values, for collateralized security obligations and credit default swaps that never took a single child to school, or even built a school building, never closed the gap between men’s and women’s wages, never protected a single national forest or saved Chaco Canyon, or protected the petroglyphs of the Southwest. Tax cuts don’t do that because there is no reward for property in those public programs and the reward for the life and values of the community as a whole are subordinate in their minds to the values of property ownership.

So when 177 Republican Congressmen and women voted as a block to oppose stimulus and hold out for greater tax cuts, they acted in the tradition of patriarchs of old, as if property were the source of life. They did not sacrifice Iphigenia directly but they did it indirectly.

This battle between the values that sustain life and those that protect property has run through the course of American history, too. It divided Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. This is the battle that allowed slave owners to treat people as property. This is how Justice Taney and the Supreme Court in 1857 could declare that blacks were property and could not ever be citizens. This is the ultimate meaning of the Civil War, which Abraham Lincoln used to prove to the world and to the nation that people are not property, cannot be property and can be citizens. This is the sentiment of Lincoln when his black house servant and long time friend and companion died, (I think his name was Mr. Johnson). Lincoln provided for that man a gravestone in Arlington Cemetery upon which would be found only the man’s name and the one revolutionary description �citizen.� �Citizen� is what Justice Taney had said a black could never be. �Citizen� is what Lincoln carved into that marble stone for all time, in outright and brazen defiance of Taney and the Supreme Court. A citizen like me, Lincoln said, not property, not ever property; not ever property again.

I have this week received a barrage of emails from conservative friends, replete with articles from the Wall Street Journal and other such sources promising to me that with tax cuts and faith in business, faith in investors and faith in American ingenuity, they are ready to lead America back to the promised land where markets rule and regulators starve and greed grows to such abundance that it trickles off castle walls down into the narrow streets of the unwashed below.

Conservatives opined all week on talk shows and news interviews that if we turn property free it will serve the whole world. They are today’s descendants of Agamemnon and Adam and Achilles and Caesar, of Alexander Hamilton and J.P. Morgan and Ronald Reagan, but they are blind guides for the homeless and jobless and people for whom school is too expensive, or the bus ride to work too long. They are blind guides for the 47 million who cannot afford health insurance and cannot get to work because they are not well, but they are not blind guides for the pharmaceuticals and corporations that claim that property must be secure before people are secure and while they say they are for the people too, they have acted as if they were just the opposite.

One hundred seventy seven�out of a total of one hundred seventy seven�Republicans voted like patriarchs of old, as if property were the source of life.

But property is not the source of life and there were framers of the Constitution, men and women mightily engaged in the creation of the American republic, who knew that.

Far more important, they said, is the survival of community as a whole. The common good is more important than your boat or my car, even your house or Mr. Rupert Murdoch’s penthouse. The preamble to the constitution therefore speaks of the general welfare, not just the welfare of the propertied and the elite. Roger Williams, who in the 17th century founded the state of Rhode Island wrote that the sole end and purpose for which government existed was for the furtherance of the communal well being, the well being of all, not just merchants or lords. It was Williams who laid the ground for Jefferson and Madison a century later.

In 18th century writings that poured back and forth between English radicals like Catharine Macaulay and Joseph Priestly we hear men and women intensely concerned not only with free government, or government by the people but, even as important, with virtue. Virtue is critically important to free government, they said, or even the idea of government by the people. If the people are to govern themselves and kings are not to govern then the people must be more than slovenly and slothful, somewhere beyond cheating and violence in the streets. The English radicals therefore sought to encourage moral conduct, which would mean, as they defined it, not just political action for their own family gain or to advance their estates but action for the good of the whole. Catharine Macaulay came from a wealthy family, her brother was in parliament and well known, but she railed powerfully against kings and dukes and even members of parliament who feathered their own nests on the theory that something good would trickle down from castle walls. Within this conversation that prepared the mind for the American revolution, moral purpose was apt to be taken for granted as a requirement for public service. This was the conversation in which John Adams and Mercy Oatis Warren and Mary Wallstonecraft and James Madison all participated and from which eventually came the declaration against privilege, the call that rings through the centuries that all men (and women, we know today) are created equal.

(More on this is to come in my new book Democracy At The Crossroads that is to be published by Fulcrum this fall.)

And here is the rub: virtue is destroyed by luxury. �� without liberty we can not be either be a great or a flourishing people,� wrote Richard Sheridan in England before the American Revolution, and �� liberty cannot subsist without virtue, [� but] virtue is necessarily destroyed by luxury.� Necessarily destroyed, he wrote.

�Roman Virtue and Roman Liberty expired together,� English radicals repeated the warning of the Roman ethicist Cato. You cannot have liberty without also having virtue and virtue cannot be claimed at all, if it only means virtuous self interest. Virtue means regard for the whole community and is not, nor will ever consist solely in the regard for property. These were radicals who prepared the ground for our revolution and they identified a �Civic tradition� which they traced as parallel to the evolution of the rule of law. Within that civic tradition had always been a state of mind beyond loyalties of the Scots to their clans or the Marlboroughs to their coats of arms, or the Buckinghams to their relation to the king, beyond all that, beyond self interest, was a mind that identified with the welfare of the whole of England and all its dominions, including the colonies. Further, and here was the caution, the great destroyer of such virtue was luxury.

�Opulence confessedly, with luxury and selfishness its concomitants, are the most obvious causes of the decay of patriotism in Britain,� wrote Henry Home. By �patriotism� Home meant the willingness to work for the welfare of the whole of England, the whole of its people, not only for grand houses and great dukes. The American Constitution was therefore not framed in an intellectual wasteland of self-interest, but rather in the midst of an intense debate on both sides of the Atlantic over the mind and heart requisite for a free people, and among the greatest dangers to that mind and heart would be luxury.

The loss of civic conscience seemed the inevitable result of extreme wealth. It was the loss of civic conscience that they might have predicted in such now-notorious firms as Enron and Tyco, the triumph of greed over responsibility at Moody’s and Standard and Poors which gave AAA ratings to debt obligations that they did not understand, or even, perhaps most blindly, the statement by a New Orleans banker who, after receiving a promise of $300 million in bailout funds from the federal government, rejected the concept that such funds would infected with a public interest.

Make more loans? We’re not going to change our business model or our credit policies to accommodate the needs of the public sector as they see it to have us make more loans.


The Medicis in 15th century Florence, instructed by Machiavelli, might have said the same thing about loans from their bank. The New Orleans banker could have well been lending basically to the Pope, as did Lorenzo di Medici, and said to the rest, be damned. Opulence, (Henry Home had written two hundred years ago when the ability of a free people to govern themselves was being debated), causes the decay of patriotism. He was right about the Medicis, he was right about England in the 18th century, and he was obviously right about the New Orleans banker.

Only three years ago a mere one percent of American households owned more than a third of all America’s wealth. That is more than one third of all our stocks, bonds, real estate, high rises and ranches, theaters and newspapers. All that is owned by a mere one percent. If there were a hundred people in this room, that would be as if just one of them owned 33 of the chairs, the pictures, the cups; one alone would have title to one third of the value of the building. But not only that. That one would also own one third of your houses, your cash reserves, your cars and your net worth. If that were known to be true here in the Commons of Santa Fe someone might object. With such great disparities it could not be called a commons. In the American nation as a whole, we ought to object for the same reason because we have lost the commons. When George W. Bush retook power in 2001, 20% of the propertied class owned 85% of the nation’s wealth. That is as if 20 of the 100 people in this room owned 85% of every bit of clothing, books, your credit cards, all your wealth. And that was just at the beginning of the Bush regime that promoted even further consolidation of wealth by granting tax cuts to those at the top. That was in 2001.


There is about Rupert Murdoch, asleep in the middle of the night, who is awakened by a flash of light. He sits up, rubs his eyes and sees Satan standing at the foot of his bed.


� �What are you doing here?� the mogul demands.


� �I have come to offer you any deal you can imagine,� the devil responds.


� �What do you want in return?� says Murdoch, clearly intrigued.


� �You can have any deal in the world you can imagine,� replies Satan, �and, in return, all I ask is your immortal soul.�


� �Any deal?� asks Murdoch.


� �Any deal,� purrs the devil, �but in return, I take your soul.�


� �Hmmm,� muses Murdoch, �what�s the catch?� �


Jefferson and Catharine Macaulay, Richard Sheridan and Henry Home, would be most alarmed, not at the disproportion in the holding of America’s wealth, alone, not even at the amount of the wealth, but at the loss of public conscience that must necessarily follow.


�I will not make loans to aid the public just because the public has given me $300 million,� says the New Orleans banker. We will not vote for stimulus say the Republican 177 in the Congress, because the accumulation of capital makes us more secure than health care or schools, forests, or rivers, ice caps and bridges. Those who follow the values of Agamemnon and Caesar, Lorenzo di Medici and Rupert Murdoch are not yet ready to step into the other world of civic virtue.


It’s February now and things look bleak in Washington. Obama is human and Afghanistan is a pit and Republicans are single-minded in opposition to democrats and the snow melts only half way and the ruts in my road grow sloppy and deep. I will have to take a pick and shovel, a rake and strong shoulders to level those ruts, and it feels as if the ruts in Washington will not yield to my labors�or the labors of anyone with just a pick and shovel�at all.

When we were kids we had a lot of questions about February. I suggested that we should just wipe it off the calendar, do away with it, but my brother said, no, we could not do that because too many people had birthdays in it.

And then one year, in the coldest of all times when my breath hung like an ice sheet before my eyes and I drew all my fingers back up into my gloves, I opened the sheep pen and there were shivering new born twin lambs. It was February then too, and early for lambs, and I was such a new sheep man that I did not even know my ewes had been pregnant, but I went running back from the barn to the house, �We have lambs! We have lambs!�

It was twenty below zero that February morning and I carried the two lambs, their ears already turning black, into the kitchen, and my sainted mother wrapped them in some old red pajamas and my aunt from New York woke up and poured bourbon down their throats and the lambs began to bleat and shout and the mama ewe bounced around off the stove and into the cupboards and my mother made fried eggs for her boys, and all the world was OK, even though it was February.

Now in Washington it’s February again and one side wants stimulus and the other tax cuts, Democrats want to pour money into the economy and Republicans want to drain money out, and they are stompin� and fussin� like the world would turn and Armageddon was coming and I am watching the evening news and the noon news and the Friday night analysis of the news and the late Friday night analysis of the analysis and I am beginning to feel again as if we should abolish February, get on with March, look around for the green shoots of winter wheat coming up through the black soil of spring.

On Wednesday last week all the pundits said that Obama’s days were unskillful, his plans awry, his allies temporary, his temperament too soft, his oratory too grand, his experience too little. On Friday, they were saying that he has character, anyway, and character is a good thing. They didn’t use the words but they could have said he has virtue, civic virtue, because the man does clearly have the good of the whole in mind.

Then the following Wednesday the combined tax cut/stimulus bill was agreed upon and the pundits were saying Obama has a plan and that he would of course have won this victory; they knew it all along, and I began wondering if it was just this February or were all Februaries always like this. My mind ranged again over the centuries since Agamemnon.

One morning, long ago, a woman named Eve woke up and the fellow named Adam woke up beside her and gave some orders because Jehovah had recently named him the source of all orders and she said, dream on, Adam, I have the goat to milk and the chickens to feed, and the sun is rising a couple of minutes earlier and it is always cold this time of year and there is a new baby coming to this house, so you just get up and go out and see if you can do anybody any good today, and Adam left and did as he was told, went to the square and sat with the men and talked about the news and the analysis of the news, and Eve went on counting sheep and looking for new lambs.

And sometime after that a young woman named Mary woke up and decided she was pregnant and Joseph said to her it is God’s doing and Mary said, �Is that who it was?� and went on churning milk into butter and watching the dogs dig their noses into the snow, and she said to Joseph, you just go out and get title for the property, and fight off the Hittites and Sodomites, while I scramble some eggs.

And sometime after that a nineteen year old woman in a French village said to her king; �You got trouble with the English? I’m tired tending ducks.� and she got on her horse and drove the English north almost all the way to the coast and gave the French king back his kingdom. Well, said the king, you must be a witch so then they burned her alive and for her it was a very bad day, indeed. Sometimes that happens when we act out of conviction. But she had civic virtue, that woman, and the French king did not, and today not a person in this town will remember that king’s name, but they do remember Joan. Joan of Arc we will always remember. Here at last was a human being not spoiled by luxury.

Today, in this world of Rolodexes and credit default swaps, we are not sure where civic virtue comes from but it is clear that property is not the source of all this life that has come surging on through the centuries, something else is the source of this life and it is not land titles or the evening news, or the Hittites or the Sodomites.

What then?

For my part, I could start with the smell of coffee grounds in the early morning.

Or the dogs racing off through the pinons to discover traces of coyote or rabbit from the night before, their enthusiasm for a nose full of cold snow, their search in the winter for a place to sit in the sun. Or in the summer they will lie down in the shade of a thick juniper and say to me, you go, man child, you go on out there and get the paper, we’ll wait right here in the shade. They lie there in the dust, and later I find that not all the tax incentives in the world could be warmer than a dog’s soft eyes when, alone and uncertain, I sit on the cold stone to ponder the day.

Most of what I have in this world, I got for free. Our black and white dog at the pound. My wonderful, caring, singing wife. Not quite free. The marriage license cost me $15. And now we get an occasional phone call from a son, or child, and when the stars are in alignment, even a call from a grandchild. In the ages-long battle between those who think that property is life-saving and those who think that coffee and dogs and wives and husbands and companions and trees and the wind over the mountains are life-saving, I throw my lot in with Eve and Mary and Joan and Catharine Macaulay and that new person of remarkable grace we now have in the White House.

He gave a speech this week encouraging us to honor Lincoln’s preservation of the federal union with another union, the union of us all in a common cause to once again rise out of the valleys of despair and ascend the mountain tops of possibility. This fellow is clearly not one of Agamemnon’s men. He is not Hercules the hero nor Achilles the warrior and has not ridden to power on the backs of women or the poor. He does not confuse himself with Napoleon as some others might have done but carries, as he said, a sense of gratitude to the Great Emancipator, Lincoln, whose courageous actions created the conditions for him now to be president. In some way, further, our new man has now set about the work of emancipating the rest of us. That is not a bad thing to do with February.