Countermovements to the Marketization of Everyday Life: Private Property Politics in the Contemporary US

Friday, June 24, 2016: 4:15 PM-5:45 PM
205 South Hall (South Hall)
Debbie Becher, Barnard College, Columbia University, New York, NY
Karl Polanyi argued that “countermovements” to markets were especially likely when market commodities also have inherent human, sentimental, or social value.  Consider demands for health and safety labor standards or for social-welfare programs. He considered labor and land in particular to be “fictitious commodities,” and he argued that the fiction of their market valuation provoked political mobilization against commodification. 

But the character of political movements to control goods treated as commodities, and land in particular, depends on context. Polanyi investigated the context of industrialization and the massive initiation of monetary markets for land and labor. By contrast, citizens in many parts of the world today live, work on, and own land that has been treated as private property, and a market commodity, for well over a century. Moreover, economic change and disruption are common and expected.

This paper examines private ownership in land, and collective organization concerning it, in the contemporary United States, where private property in land has long been commonplace.  I strategically focused my research on two sites that provoked interested parties to think explicitly about this otherwise taken-for-granted institution. One research project investigated the recent oil-and-gas boom in the Interior West’s prairielands. The second project researched Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s confiscation of properties for redevelopment in the 1990s and 2000s. Each multi-year project captured everyday activity, which only sometimes provoked political conflict. For each project, I collected over a hundred interviews and hundreds of pages of observation notes, and supplemented these data with archives and others’ quantitative sources.

I argue that because citizens accept that land will be governed as private property and that macro-economic conditions change, they demand justice in particular ways. Citizens often expect government to help protect land’s value (financial and otherwise) against what otherwise might be dramatic and adverse fluctuations. Whether owners and renters stay invested or not, they want government to provide some stability in their properties’ value.  Although open to change – for instance from agricultural production to resource extraction – citizens interested in staying often want opportunities for living-wage, reliable, and safe jobs, or their own small businesses -- in the same cities and counties where they raised their children. Those open to leaving or divesting expect protection for their properties’ value so they can take their wealth with them; they chide governments for allowing or even hastening urban neighborhood decline, shrinking cities, or the globalization of agriculture, or otherwise hurting potential industry and devaluing their land.

These demands, often for some kind of economic growth or stability, usually include clear distributional concerns based on past property relations. American political efforts and personal narratives decry redistribution that threatens to push wealth up the scale, to large corporations for instance. By appealing to property rights, citizens make it clear that these policies should benefit the regular citizen or family, not the wealthy capitalist or speculator.  Consider conservative rural property-rights movements against regulation, in defense of agriculture and resource extraction - from the Sagebrush Rebellion to the recent wildlife office takeover in Oregon. Consider also the liberal-conservative consensus against urban eminent domain by eastern urban governments’ swallowing up houses for corporate redevelopment, represented by the backlash against US Supreme Court’s ruling in Kelo v. City of New London Connecticut (2005). Importantly, distributional demands significantly refer to past relationships with private property. While legal ownership is important, the more significant and complicated justification for government protection is that someone nurtured the land that he or she owned or rented. Stories of successful agricultural production in the face of economic and environmental challenges, of building maintenance and community contributions during urban decline, for instance, are contrasted with those of greedy land speculators and energy corporations told to justify benefits to the former.  

Before this research, sociologists had produced two compelling but incomplete theories useful for predicting land politics in everyday advanced capitalism. Polanyi’s theories of countermovements and fictitious commodities suggest that citizens will mobilize against commodification to protect the sentimental and social values not captured by market prices. Indeed, citizens claim that public health and the environment and rural/agricultural lifestyles require that government stop or slow down fracking for oil and gas, no matter what the financial burden. And protestors of eminent domain argue that homes where children were raised and memories were built are “not for sale” for economic development projects. Another set of predictions from observations of more recent politics suggests that Polanyi’s countermovements are hard to find because citizens have become so powerless over commodification that they only demand more money. Theories about “growth machines” and “developmental states” note how citizens are so overwhelmed by marketization and financial insecurity that they actually mobilize for growth, and help capitalists profit.

These theories capture only a small slice of property politics and narratives in the contemporary US. From the findings I summarized above, I argue that Polanyian anti-commodification claims framed for political mobilization happen rarely, after public conflict has erupted over private negotiations. Americans’ much more common approach is to consider policy implications for financial and social and sentimental values pragmatically, displaying a willingness to make reasonable tradeoffs, when distributional concerns are addressed. I argue further that demands for economic growth are much more attentive to sentimental and social values and to distribution of wealth to the poor than current political-economic theories would predict.

The paper concludes by exploring the implications of political demands being so deeply attached to long histories of private property in land, rather than to markets. One implication is that citizens lament perverse consequences of private property, but not because of commodification. Problems arise when legal property rights do not motivate property stewardship, as with abandoned properties in devastated urban neighborhoods or extremely fractured mineral rights in oil-rich areas. But without redistribution of legal property rights, few can offer a just solution. I conclude also by exploring how the findings from the peculiar sites explored in this paper can be extended to broader issues: government responses to the foreclosure crisis, family inheritance law and practice, and international landgrabbing through market sales.