[from herald of freedom: essays of nathaniel peabody rogers, radical abolitionist and american transcendentalist. posted in response to twitter query: 'where's the anti-capitalism?']
[From the Herald of Freedom of March 15, 1844; Writings, 285]
This is similar in some ways to Proudhon's What is Property?, published four years before, but unassimilated by any American, as far as I know, in 1844. Probably the first American deeply influenced by Proudhon was William Batchelder Greene (1819-1882), a wildly eccentric Transcendentalist who published the remarkably sensible Mutual Banking in 1870. It is also strikingly similar to Josiah Warren's arguments in the same period, though Warren does not get rid of property entirely (neither did Proudhon, I think). There is no evidence that Rogers and Warren were aware of each other, though both often connected the state to slavery and advocated "self-sovereignty."
I hazard the opinion here, that mankind have got to abandon it, in practice and in idea, or they can never live peaceably or honestly. And what is more, they cannot have a living. There cannot be enough raised on the earth, under any conceivable degree of cultivation, to feed the race, and keep off starvation, on the property system. If the whole earth's surface were a garden, there couldn't be. Vast multitudes would have to starve to death, and nearly all the rest would live in fear of it. And the few who didn't feel apprehensive enough of coming to want to lead them to occupy their minds and cares almost constantly, through life, in getting a living, would run for relief from their lonely, rare, and strange condition, to suicide, in some of its forms. Property can't give mankind a living any way you can fix it. I throw out the idea.
Every human creature is entitled to the means of living - ex officio - from the fact that he is here on earth. It won't do to starve an infant - or an idiot - or an old man past his labor - or any body else, who from deficiency or incapacity of any kind, can't get a living. If he is put here, or found here - if he is here, he is ipso facto entitled to comfortable means. He is entitled to it consequently, whether he earns it or not, for he is so when he cannot possibly earn it. It is not charity (unless of that kind they call good will, the kind friend Paul speaks of, where he puts it ahead of hope and faith.) It isn't supplies furnished to a pauper. He is entitled to it - no thanks to any body. He is as much entitled to it - free and above-board - as a trout is to a brook, or a lark to the blue sky.
He can eat and drink, as independently, as he can inhale the air, or see the light. Why not? If he can't, he better not be introduced here. Is it well to put a human young one here, to die of hunger, to die of hunger, or thirst, or even of nakedness, or else be preserved as a pauper? Is this fair earth but a poor house, by creation and intent? Was it made for that, and were those other round things we see dancing in the firmament to the music of the spheres - are they all great shiny Poor Houses, with chance of escape to the few upon their respective surfaces, who can manage to monopolize the wherewithal, and become the overseers of the poor, for their spheres? I don't believe pauperism is the natural condition of humanity. It is the inevitable, as well as actual condition, wherever the means of living are transmuted into "property," and held as such.
The very fact of propertyizing the means of livin will turn mankind - or whatever kind - into paupers, and overseers of the poor. It cannot be avoided. One fair glance at human affairs, shows it has done it for the race, now. One retrospect, through the tube of history, discovers it so in all the past. And no expedient, no varied effort, no shifting of machinery can make it otherwise. Make air the subject of ownership - of exclusive property - and there isn't enough of it, in our forty-five mile stratum round the earth, for the lungs of ever so scanty a population - much less for the hundreds of millions now panting upon it. Make property of the sunshine, and nine tenths of the human race would have to grope in unintermitted darkness, and the other tenth have their eye-sight dazzled out by excess of light. Nobody could see by it. And there isn't water enough on the earth, fresh or salt, to give the population drink, if it were made property. And they would have made it so, if they could have guarded it from common use. And so of the air and sunshine. This hateful, wolfish principle of appropriation wouldn't have left a breath of air, or a ray of light free to the use of any soul on God's earth, if it could have possibly prevented it.
But air and sunshine won't stay owned. They can't be appropriated. Ownership has laid hold of humanity itself and appropriated it, directly and confessedly, body and soul, but it can't grasp the subtle sunshine and the nimble air, and hold them to self, "heirs, executors, and administrators." If it could, it would, and we should see air sold out by the breath, and sunshine by the ray for what they could be made to bring. And the mass of mankind wouldn't have a comfortable supply of either, and myriads would die for want of both. There would be as abundant a supply of all the other means of living - necessaries, comforts, elegancies - - luxuries if you will - as there is now of air and sunshine and water, were they not made property. That is, if there were good nature enough and good sense enough in exercise to leave them free.
To appropriate them, is to appropriate human life. To make them property is to make life property. To make them subject of ownership, of accumulation, of loss, of theft, &c., is to make human life subject to all these. He takes my life, says Shakespeare, who takes the means by which I live. I mention the authority, for people think something of him. To appropriate the land and its products, spontaneous or produced, is inevitably to debar mankind a living. I say, inevitably. Make these things property and there isn't, and can't be enough of them on earth, to keep people alive, be they many or few.
Henry Clay says "that is property, which the Law makes property." The brilliant creature was driven to say it, to maintain slavery, Law is the author of property, and it can legitimately make one common thing, or creature so, as another. A creature, as legitimately as a thing, and one creature legitimately as another. A biped, as a quadruped - a man, as an ox. Accordingly Custom Law has made man property. It has chosen the Negro. He is docile, and pliant, and will bear being appropriated - alias enslaved. It would enslave, alias appropriate. any other class of mankind, that could be kept and used in that state. The Law is no respecter of person or thing, in this behalf.
May-be I am impracticably fine here. May-be not. I am sick as death at heart, at this mortal, miserable struggle among mankind for a living. "Poor Devils" - they better never have been born, a million fold, than to run this gauntlet of life after a living - or the bare means of running it! Look about you, and see your squirming neighbors, writhing and twisting like so many angle worms in fisher's bait-box, or the wriggling animalculae, seen through a magnifying glass, in a vinegar drop held up to the burning sun. How base it makes them all - all but a few, rare, eccentric spirits, who, while others have monopolized all the soul that ought to belong to the human race. I know some it couldn't spoil.
But coming from house to printing office this morning, even in our small city, I felt dismayed at the aspect of the struggling and panting people, pushed to death for a living! Nobody is safe on the earth amid such a system. Laws as severe as fate can't protect any body. Let it be abandoned or let this be the the winding up of the generations, I say.