Mark T. Mitchell. Plutocratic Socialism: The Future of Private Property and the Fate of the Middle Class. Front Porch Republic Books, 2022.
In his aptly entitled Plutocratic Socialism, Mark T. Mitchell offers a timely analysis of the union between plutocratic elites and woke socialists in America. This new book will provoke meaningful discussions in political theory courses because it so clearly shows the tension between our Founding Era proclivity for private property (and the implicit cultivation of virtue through it) and the contemporary proclivity for governmental assurances of the commodities that individuals need to get through today’s mass-produced consumer-driven life (and the implicit diminishment of virtue through this change). Mitchell convincingly and succinctly argues that “democracy without private property is fundamentally unstable and will not survive” and that “broadly disseminated private property is an indispensable ingredient for a society of free citizens.” The alliance between elite plutocrats and socialists in America in recent years represents, therefore, a dangerous blow to the character of American democracy. Mitchell envisions the idea of stewardship as a potentially effective redress against this dangerous diminishment of the propriety of private property in America today.
The problem addressed by Mitchell is familiar to students of the fifth book of Aristotle’s Politics. The competition between oligarchs and democrats in America has taken a dark turn in recent years, creating a waning of the American middle class that threatens the existence of the American regime. Mitchell identifies three factions in America today: plutocrats, woke socialists, and “those who still believe in the in the ideals that underlie the American constitutional order.” Sensing the frustration of individuals struggling to make ends meet in an increasingly uncertain liberal order, and fearing a full-bore communist revolution that would unseat them of their power, political and social leaders (the plutocrats) (or oligarchs, in Aristotelian language) have chosen to appease the woke socialists (or democrats) over against the constitutionalists (the middle class – or those necessary to form a polity). The motivation for this union is lucidly explained by Mitchell: in today’s factional distribution of power, the plutocrats can retain social control and personal wealth by appeasing the numerous woke socialists and by adding to their numbers. Governmental plutocrats dole out benefits. Media-type plutocrats celebrate them for doing so, and corporate-type plutocrats threaten the jobs of those who criticize any of them. Indeed, the plutocrats not only appease the woke socialist group with economic and social benefits, but by intentionally adding to their numbers with this strategy they deplete the middle class and constitutional faction. Mitchell argues that today’s plutocrats are “creat[ing] propertyless and insecure citizens, which provides for the rise of socialism.”
Mitchell is wise to the fact that this problem engages more than factional tensions. When our Founders assumed that private property fomented responsibility, they were dealing with a world in which private property meant the ownership of land from which future goods could be sustainably produced through responsible stewardship. The setting for this was agrarian. Today, in the wake of industrial and technological revolutions, private property has lost much of this traditional value. Many do not wish to own land; if they did, they would not wish to farm it for their livelihood. Today’s “abstract wealth” — from cash and stocks to boats and toys — can be used to alleviate individuals of the burden of productively and responsibly husbanding their resources for sustained productivity. What would that even look like with a commodity like a pair of shoes anyway? Moreover, when so many of these commodities that are designed for consumption but cannot be used to produce are doled out by government, that government is transformed from a balancer of factions into a “caring state.” The rub is that “the ‘care’ has strings attached.” The caring state does not balance factions, as Madison had suggested would be achieved by extending and compounding a state within a republican form. The essential belief in liberty and the responsible individual and society created by free individuals, prescribed by the founding generation and devoted to by the third and smallest of today’s factions, is now instead compromised: “Property, responsibility, limits, restraint, and planning for the future are replaced by an incessant demand for services with little concern for financial limits, personal restraint, or any thought for the future.” Thus, Mitchell shows how dangerous our contemporary political fight is. Hanging in the balance is not just the welfare of any one of our factions, but the continued existence of them within our Republic and indeed the Republic itself. As Mitchell argues, the plutocrats’ strategy of allying with the socialists “is risky, for it could simply energize the revolutionaries unless they can be diverted with bread and circuses and frightened into submission with the threat of global pandemics, social instability, and climate conflagrations.” This is an existential threat precisely because so many of us are looking at the pandemics and the climate, and so few of us are looking instead at the perennial need to balance factions — something required to sustain any society at any time, but perhaps especially one perturbed by pandemics and climate conflagrations.
Can there be salvation for America from this current threat? Mitchell believes so, and he relies on the corpus of western political thought to formulate a prospective therapy by reinvigorating the personal responsibility associated with the traditional productivity of private property. Though his book is not designed to provide a comprehensive review of the history of private property in political thought, Mitchell does an exceptional job of touching on some important thinkers who have made the connection between private property, individual responsibility, and a society’s ability to thrive. After developing some interesting common-sense arguments for the inherency of private property (do you wish to use someone else’s toothbrush?), Mitchell briefly touches on property as an important accoutrement of virtue in Aristotle, or as the mechanism through which virtue can be enacted in relation to one’s society (through the development of public spaces, for instance). Failing to detect the irony in Plato’s Republic, however, Mitchell improperly points to that Platonic dialogue as an early proponent of communal property. Mitchell leans on Plato’s Laws, however, to attempt to rebut this proposition. Though it is unnecessary to use the Laws to redeem the Republic, this presentation of Plato invites discussion from curious students, and this dynamic of Mitchell’s work exemplifies why it would be of great use in the classroom.
The Old Testament view of property is fundamentally like the Platonic and Aristotelian: humans are endowed through God with dominion over the earth, but this dominion is limited, provided to humans for the sake of responsibly managing that over which they have dominion. Thus theft is prohibited, as a wayward means of attaining property, and farmers are prohibited from harvesting from the very edge of their fields. Though acknowledging the turning away from all possessions at certain junctures of the New Testament, Mitchell relies on Aquinas to square the New Testament with the Old, arguing that Aquinas saw that “human affairs tend to be conducted in a more orderly and peaceful fashion when individuals manage and dispose of external goods that belong to them.”
Especially interesting was Mitchell’s handling of the American Revolutionary Era. First, he shows how private property became an important component in the American democratic experiment through trial and error. The Pilgrims had attempted to hold property in common but eventually found this impracticable. By 1688, land ownership was added to the religious qualifications required to participate in democratic forums, and consistent with English tradition dating to the Magna Carta, taxation without consent was prohibited. As early as 1682, William Penn had developed arguments for private property as inherent to Englishmen (not as a natural right). Colonial thinkers during the revolutionary era further developed this idea. By working from the Frohnen, Lutz and Hyneman, and Sandoz readers on colonial primary sources, Mitchell shows a connection between English law, property, and virtue that might have been lacking in a chapter dedicated to John Locke. However, I found Mitchell’s analysis incomplete regarding the colonial position. In the years of the Great Squeeze, colonial proponents for property rights consistently framed their protestations over British policy along two lines simultaneous: that of English law and that of natural rights. Mitchell focuses on how thinkers such as Stephen Hopkins (writing in 1764), Silas Downer (writing in 1768) and Moses Mather (writing in 1775) employed English law arguments.
In Downer’s analysis, for example, a dual track of English and natural rights is argued for, not merely an argument for English rights. This is done with much greater clarity than was done in the propogandist for the Glorious Revolution, John Locke. For Locke, the right to property is purely natural and stretches back to an imaginary state of nature. For Downer, an English right to property is also a natural right to property. Mitchell only cites arguments from Downer’s Discourse at the Dedication of the Tree of Liberty that align with English law, emphasizing that, lacking representation in Parliament, the English could not impose taxes on the colonists. But Downer did more than this. He also argues that the colonists were in something like a state of nature in relation to the English. As such, he remarks that “our forefathers have emigrated from England,” became “free from impositions,” and “sat every man under his own vine” in a “promised land, a good land … of milk and honey … wherein we may eat bread to the full.” He points out that they existed in a primitive, undeveloped land, but one with much potential: “A land whose stones are iron, the most useful material in all nature.” Hence, when lamenting the English violations of the colonial‘s English right to consent to taxation (calling the colonists “the subjects of subjects“), he points out the inherent absurdity of certain manufacturing restrictions: “This country abounds in iron, yet there is an act of parliament, passed in the late King‘s reign to restrain us from manufacturing it into plates and rods by mill work, the last of which forms are absolutely necessary for the making of nails, the most useful article in a new country that can be conceived.“ As any Boy Scout worth his salt will tell you, the ability to produce shelter for oneself — especially in the primitive state in which the colonials found themselves — is the epitome of the property needed if one is to survive in a New England winter. And indeed, Downer argues that “such prohibitions are infractions on the natural rights of men and are utterly void.” In this way, Downer shows that a state of nature is not merely an imaginary concept, but was an accurate description of the colonial experience, and that the grievances regarding taxation were more than traditional or legal squabbles but stretched right down to their very ability to survive. They were not natural rights theoretically, but practically. This deepening of Locke by the American colonists is important, and I will return to it when considering Mitchell’s idea of stewardship near the end of this essay.
Mitchell recommends a return to private property as therapy for woke socialism, crafting an argument for stewardship. He argues that a revitalization of private property can be wrought through soul-crafting, through developing in individuals an understanding of their debts to their ancestors and obligations to posterity. He suggests that this society of stewards can be practically developed by statecraft, through things like breaking up monopolies and advocating for a balance between freedom and equality, for instance through education programs targeting the disadvantaged. The deepest and an ironic component of this argument, however, is what he calls proprietas obliges, “the obligation of property ownership.” Mitchell concludes by arguing: “Those with capital have the obligation to work toward a broader distribution of capital rather than, as is so often the case, the expansion of government services.” Though a reasonable suggestion, he leaves the deeper issue of soul-crafting these plutocrats untouched. Yes, this would remediate the dependence on government that animates the woke socialists and indeed create stewards; but this is also, as Mitchell acknowledges, not the chosen tactic of the plutocrats. Those disposed to sustain our constitutional order are not presently empowered to force such a change of heart upon the plutocrats. Thus, Mitchell’s practical policy suggestions (breaking up monopolies) could only be achieved by first persuading the plutocrats that such is in their interest, and they have already demonstrated to us through their recent policy choices a wholesale devotion to their union with woke socialism. Mitchell’s strong work falls flat in the concluding pages, if only for a frightening reason. The cycle of decline described by Plato is not happily resolved. In The Republic only a myth resolves it, and it implies a changing of generations, and the good fortune of a heroic soul’s appearance onto the stage. The warring of factions, once they have come to that, is remediated by a soul-crafting that is simply difficult to cultivate in a deeply delipidated society; we might go easy on Professor Mitchell for being able to lean on the great works of western civilization to identify the shape of a better society through stewardship, even if it struggles to help him conceive of how to facilitate the peria goge in our plutocrats today.
Only one other tangential criticism is warranted of this important work, given the Voegelinian angle of this venue and Voegelin’s own deep distaste for John Locke’s propagandistic theory. This concerns Mitchell’s use of Locke’s thought to argue for stewardship. Mitchell cites Locke’s workmanship argument as an exemplar of this attitude of stewardship. Other scholars, however, have argued that Locke’s work helps to create many of the problems plaguing our society today because it is deficient at cultivating this idea of soul-craft upon which stewardship depends. Mitchell dismisses the absolute right to individual property in Locke because of the workmanship line. Locke’s defenders often point to a line here or there, while ignoring the overall tenor of Locke’s work. However, as Locke’s text progresses, as Mitchell notes, this connection to God (and through it to tradition and to the cultivation of virtue) dissipates quickly. The dissipation of this connection to God and tradition in Locke is important and consequential. Voegelinian scholarship has painted Locke’s work as employing a form of historiogenesis to develop the ideology of liberalism. The movement out of the state of nature through spontaneous economic action in Locke, not the workmanship line, is the impetus in Locke for natural rights. Importantly, this speculative history is, in Locke, disconnected from the English political tradition. Locke does not argue (as Downer does) that English tradition and natural rights claims evolve along compatible lines; Locke rather argues that English traditions must be transfigured, through rebellion, to square English tradition with natural rights. The similarities of the traditional and natural rights arguments are important, and when natural rights claims are combined with careful analyses of traditions which support them, they are authentically progressive for our species. But, as in the case of Locke, when natural rights claims divert from tradition, this may occur because the fundamentals of the thinker’s argument would indeed alter fundamentally the tenets of a society’s paideia. For example, devotion to one’s ancestors (or parents) — which is precisely the type of attitude Mitchell argues is necessary for stewardship to flourish –— is written out of Locke and replaced therein with a right for children to divorce from their parents. This is not the type of machination that leads to stewardship through individuals who “understand themselves as owing multiple debts of gratitude to past generations…” Thus, the many half-steps taken in Locke away from tradition, of which parental-child relations provide a telling example, do lead indelibly towards the idea of absolute individual ownership of property and away from stewardship.
Perhaps a better passage to stewardship can be found through the American Founders themselves, whose use of Locke was quite limited and couched by traditional influences, as Mitchell’s review of them makes clear. Although the same basic structure of developing rights in a state of nature is used by Downer, his presentation differs in two ways. First, the rights depicted as natural in Downer are, again, the most fundamental rights to food, clothing, and shelter. We have a natural liberty or right to sustain ourselves when 1) we are in a natural setting where food, clothing and shelter can be procured from natural sources and 2) there is no competition for these commodities due to population scarcity. In other words, natural rights are quite more limited than as presented in Locke and categorized as fundamental representations of freedom and equality. Second, these rights are not defended through language of equality and freedom but through language of tradition. For instance, Downer couches these rights by using the Naboth’s Vineyard example. The confiscation of others’ sources of productive wealth is not censured as violating equality or freedom, but for lusting after goods which are necessary to the productive sustenance of Naboth and his family, but not to the greedy king whose duplicitous use of law occasioned the vineyard’s confiscation. Moreover, much as common law has evolved over time, these basic natural rights are affirmed as rights through their fundamental consistency as rights throughout English history, as Mitchell’s review makes clear. Downer only laments the political inequality of English colonists living in America because the inequality created is an existential threat to them and thereby to English society, and not, as Locke would have put it, the unnatural inequality created by English tax laws. For Locke, the evolution into government out of a state of nature is natural; for Downer, this evolution is conventional and allows a society to progress (or to continue existing) when this convention mimics nature.
The difference between the two arguments is subtle. Locke insists that society is created voluntarily through the spontaneity of individuals, yet he simply cannot prove this because historical records do not reach that far back. Downer does not speculate about the origins of society and does not base his political theory from such speculation. Rather, he suggests that those rights which were in his day viewed as natural were viewed as such because they were steeped in tradition and, therefore, that they can be viewed as natural. Locke moves deductively from beyond ancient history up to today; Downer moves inductively from his time backwards through tradition. In this way, his methodology offers evidence that supports his arguments, whereas Locke cannot do this. Hence, although their conclusions are similar, it is the process of building the theory through empirical evidence that ties Downer to tradition, and the building of theory through speculation that ties Locke to the shadow of tradition. On such subtle distinctions turn the difference between an absolute right to property and a right to stewardship.
Overall, Plutocratic Socialism is a timely, thought-provoking, and important read. Mitchell does an excellent job of clearly demonstrating the nature of our current factional fight, of conveying the deeply serious nature of it, and of stimulating the discussion of how to remedy it. Though I found a few small quibbles regarding the best way to achieve stewardship moving forward, this is precisely what should occur after this read. Mitchell’s new book is excellent for stimulating thoughtful and timely discussion. For this we owe Mitchell a debt of gratitude, and perhaps we owe it to each other to assign this book to our students next semester, for the sake of stewarding the future of our Republic.
 Mark T. Mitchell. Plutocratic Socialism: The Future of Private Property and the Fate of the Middle Class. Eugene, OR: Front Porch Republic Books, 2022: 14.
 Ibid. 134
 Ibid. 133
 Ibid. 134-5
 Ibid. 19-20
 Ibid. 22
 Ibid. 20-22
 Ibid. 24
 Ibid. 37-8
 Ibid. 42-3
 Lutz and Hyneman, 98-99
 Ibid. 102
 Ibid. 105
 Ibid. 105
 Ibid. 142
 Ibid. 121
 Scott Robinson. John Locke and the Uncivilized Society: Individualism and Resistance in America Today. Indianapolis, IN: Lexington Books, 2021. See also Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed.
 Mitchell, Plutocratic Socialism, 121.
 Robinson, John Locke and the Uncivilized Society,
 Locke, Second Treatise of Government, §67, 74. For a more thorough discussion see Robinson, John Locke and the Uncivilized Society, 102.
 Mitchell, Plutocratic Socialism, 136
 Hyneman and Lutz, American Political Writings During the Founding Era volume 1, 98.
 For Locke: Locke, Second Treatise, see §4, 22, 77; for Downer: see Hyneman and Lutz, 100.
 Locke, Second Treatise, §101
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