Land and gold (Arendt, Horkheimer)

by Sebastian Benthall

I am thirty, still in graduate school, and not thrilled about the prospects of home ownership since all any of the professionals around me talk about is the sky-rocketing price of real estate around the critical American urban centers.

It is with a leisure afforded by graduate school that I am able to take the long view on this predicament. It is very cheap to spend ones idle time reading Arendt, who has this to say about the relationship between wealth and property:

The profound connection between private and public, manifest on its most elementary level in the question of private property, is likely to be misunderstood today because of the modern equation of property and wealth on one side and propertylessness and poverty on the other. This misunderstanding is all the more annoying as both, property as well as wealth, are historically of greater relevance to the public realm than any other private matter or concern and have played, at least formally, more or less the same role as the chief condition for admission to the public realm and full-fledged citizenship. It is therefore easy to forget that wealth and property, far from being the same, are of an entirely different nature. The present emergence everywhere of actually or potentially very wealthy societies which at the same time are essentially propertyless, because the wealth of any single individual consists of his share in the annual income of society as a whole, clearly shows how little these two things are connected.

For Arendt, beginning with her analysis of ancient Greek society, property (landholding) is the condition of ones participation in democracy. It is a place of residence and source of ones material fulfilment, which is a prerequisite to ones free (because it is unnecessitated) participation in public life. This is contrasted with wealth, which is a feature of private life and is unpolitical. In ancient society, slaves could own wealth, but not property.

If we look at the history of Western civilization as a progression away from this rather extreme moment, we see the rise of social classes whose power is based on in landholding but in wealth. Industrialism and the economy based on private ownership of capital is a critical transition in history. That capital is not bound to a particular location but rather is mobile across international boundaries is one of the things that characterizes global capitalism and brings it in tension with a geographically bounded democratic state. It is interesting that a Jeffersonian democracy, designed with the assumption of landholding citizens, should predate industrial capitalism and be consitutionally unprepared for the result, but nevertheless be one of the models for other democratic governance structures throughout the world.

If private ownership of capital, not land, defines political power under capitalism, then wealth, not property, becomes the measure of ones status and security. For a time, when wealth was as a matter of international standard exchangeable for gold, private ownership of gold could replace private ownership of land as the guarantee of ones material security and thereby grounds for ones independent existence. This independent, free rationality has since Aristotle been the purpose (telos) of man.

In the United States, Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 Executive Order 6102 forbade the private ownership of gold. The purpose of this was to free the Federal Reserve of the gold market’s constraint on increasing the money supply during the Great Depression.

A perhaps unexpected complaint against this political move comes from Horkheimer (Eclipse of Reason, 1947), who sees this as a further affront to individualism by capitalism.

The age of vast industrial power, by eliminating the perspectives of a stable past and future that grew out of ostensibly permanent property relations, is the process of liquidating the individual. The deterioration of his situation is perhaps best measured in terms of his utter insecurity as regards to his personal savings. As long as currencies were rigidly tied to gold, and gold could flow freely over frontiers, its value could shift only within narrow limits. Under present-day conditions the dangers of inflation, of a substantial reduction or complete loss of the purchasing power of his savings, lurks around the next corner. Private possession of gold was the symbol of bourgeois rule. Gold made the burgher somehow the successor of the aristocrat. With it he could establish security for himself and be reasonable sure that even after his death his dependents would not be completely sucked up by the economic system. His more or less independent position, based on his right to exchange goods and money for gold, and therefore on the relatively stable property values, expressed itself in the interest he took in the cultivation of his own personality–not, as today, in order to achieve a better career or for any professional reason, but for the sake of his own individual existence. The effort was meaningful because the material basis of the individual was not wholly unstable. Although the masses could not aspire to the position of the burgher, the presence of a relatively numerous class of individuals who were governed by interest in humanistic values formed the background for a kind of theoretical thought as well as for the type of manifestions in the arts that by virtue of their inherent truth express the needs of society as a whole.

Horkheimer’s historical arc, like many Marxists, appears to ignore its parallels in antiquity. Monetary policy in the Roman Empire, which used something like a gold standard, was not always straightforward. Inflation was sometimes a severe problem when generals would print money to pay the soldiers hat supported their political coups. So it’s not clear that the modern economy is more unstable than gold or land based economies. However, the criticism that economic security is largely a matter of ones continued participation in a larger system, and that there is little in the way of financial security besides this, holds. He continues:

The state’s restriction on the right to possess gold is the symbol of a complete change. Even the members of the middle class must resign themselves to insecurity. The individual consoles himself with the thought that his government, corporation, association, union, or insurance company will take care of him when he becomes ill or reaches the retiring age. The various laws prohibiting private possession of gold symbolize the verdict against the independent economic individual. Under liberalism, the beggar was always an eyesore to the rentier. In the age of big business both beggar and rentier are vanishing. There are no safety zones on society’s thoroughfares. Everyone must keep moving. The entrepreneur has become a functionary, the scholar a professional expert. The philosopher’s maxim, Bene qui latuit, bene vixit, is incompatible with the modern business cycles. Everyone is under the whip of a superior agency. Those who occupy the commanding positions have little more autonomy than their subordinates; they are bound by the power they wield.

In an academic context, it is easy to make a connection between Horkheimer’s concerns about gold ownership and tenure. Academic tenure is or was the refuge of the individual who could in theory develop themselves as individuals in obscurity. The price of this autonomy, which according the philosophical tradition represents the highest possible achievement of man, is that one teaches. So, the developed individual passes on the values developed through contemplation and reflection to the young. The privatization of the university and the emphasis on teaching marketable skills that allow graduates to participate more fully in the economic system is arguably an extension of Horkheimer’s cultural apocalypse.

The counter to this is the claim that the economy as a whole achieves a kind of homeostasis that provides greater security than one whose value is bound to something stable and exogenous like gold and land. Ones savings are secure as long as the system doesn’t fail. Meanwhile, the price of access to cultural materials through which one might expand ones individuality (i.e. videos of academic lectures, the arts, or music) decrease as a consequence of the pervasiveness of the economy. At this point one feels one has reached the limits of Horkheimer’s critique, which perhaps only sees one side of the story despite its sublime passion. We see echoes of it in contemporary feminist critique, which emphasizes how the demands of necessity are disproportionately burdened by women and how this affects their role in the economy. That women have only relatively recently, in historical terms, been released from the private household into the public world (c.f. Arendt again) situates them more precariously within the economic system.

What remains unclear (to me) is how one should conceive of society and values when there is an available continuum of work, opportunity, leisure, individuality, art, and labor under conditions of contemporary technological control. Specifically, the notion of inequality becomes more complicated when one considers that society has never been equal in the sense that is often aspired to in contemporary American society. This is largely because the notion of equality we use today draws from two distinct sources. The first is the equality of self-sufficient landholding men as they encounter each other freely in the polis. Or, equivalently, as self-sufficient goldholding men in something like the Habermasian bourgeois public sphere. The second is equality within society, which is economically organized and therefore requires specialization and managerial stratification. We can try to assure equality to members of society insofar as they are members of society, but not as to their function within society.