Putney Debates and The Trump Adminstration
from Peter Radford
Here’s a well known quote:
“For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government … and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.”
Thus spoke Colonel Rainsborough at Putney in 1647.
This is an early instance of the rise of the modern liberal view of government. Rainsborough lost the argument with Cromwell and Ireton because the issue of property ownership intruded into the debate. That issue revolved around the question of the likelihood that those who owned no property would infringe on the rights of those who did, were the former allowed to participate in their own governance. So even at this formative moment in modern constitutional development the possibility that a liberal stance could evolve down two parallel tracks was clear.
Liberalism was subject to division at its inception.
One track, the one that dominated early on and which echoes strongly to this day, argues that for a person to have a voice in their own government they ought to have an overt stake in society. And the most obvious and material such stake is the ownership of property.
Prior to the modern liberal age it was the norm for landowners to dominate society. Land was, after all, the primary source of wealth and hence power. So the early self-assertion of the modern bourgeois class naturally gravitated towards being able to protect their recently won or earned property from arbitrary sequester by the monarchic state. Wars were fought to establish this protection and property rights became central to any thoughts of liberal self-governance.
So when Ireton and Cromwell replied to Rainsborough that the soldiers who fought against the Crown had fought to limit the prerogative of the Crown to infringe on their personal rights, but had not fought to be involved directly in their own self government, property was very much in their minds.
This view is reinforced by another of the reasons Ireton and Cromwell gave: they argued that the rebellion’s soldiers had also fought to establish for themselves the freedom to trade, earn money, and thus buy the estates that would earn them political rights.
Our modern predicament is presaged in that exchange at Putney three hundred and seventy years ago.
As modern liberalism split inexorably into a view of freedom based upon property — our modern version is called capitalism — and the alternative view that freedom hinged on self-governance independent of property ownership — our modern version is called democracy — the tension we experience today was made a permanent feature of liberty.
Of course both have evolved mightily since 1647. Capitalism has run through many variations since then, and has appeared to be on the brink of self-destruction almost permanently. Democracy was a much slower starter and only reached its contemporary form in recent decades after the extension of voting rights to entire populations including those who had previously been legally excluded from liberation of any form.
And it was only when democracy began to emerge as a strong alternative to its capitalist liberal sibling that societies were able, at last, to fulfill the promise of what people like Rainsborough envisaged.
That is to say: true freedom finally became a real rather than hypothetical promise for everyone.
For, prior to such freedom, it was only natural for property owners to govern in the interests of property. They saw the interests of property as the interests of state and of the nation. They saw the privileges accorded property as a rightful reward for the risks that property owners take. They asserted that because property owners put their livelihoods at risk when they establish business and employ others, they ought — justifiably and morally — be given deference.
After all, as Ireton and Cromwell argued successfully, the liberal uprising against monarchic tyranny was partly driven by the desire to allow anyone, not just traditional aristocratic or religious authorities, to have the right to earn and own property.
The essence of bourgeois liberty is thus both a freedom from arbitrary invasion of property and a freedom to the right to own property.
It wasn’t until much later, after the arrival of industrialization and urbanization, and the squalor that both produced, that the non-property version of freedom began to be more forcefully argued. By then the newly free property-owning class had taken on some of the more aggressive and hated characteristics of the old monarchic, aristocratic, and religious landowning class that the liberal rebellion had sought to toss out. Instead of feudal landowners exploiting their workers, now factory owners did. The rebellion had produced a lopsided and narrow victory that needed to be made more broad.
So thus it was that the fight for worker’s rights, for trade unions, for higher wages, workplace regulation, and eventually for full emancipation became the primary characteristic of late 1800’s and early 1900’s politics.
So as we enter a regressive administration populated entirely of plutocrats we must all recall that the fight for democratic freedom was a very recent one indeed. Our grandparents were born before democracy became what we know it as today. It is a fragile and novel experiment. It can be taken away from us with ease if we fall for the toxic arguments of those with excessive wealth or property. They are only seeking to protect themselves. They brook us no equality since they believe they “earned” what they have, and therefore for us to stake a claim to what we see as our joint prosperity is necessarily, in their eyes, an arbitrary seizure of what they justifiably own.
We are back to 1647.
Only this time Rainsborough’s argument must win. Otherwise our democracy is gone.