Monday, March 1, 2010

Property Theory and HBO's Deadwood (part 4)

In my last post, I discussed what the television series Deadwood suggests about the tensions that arise when naturalist expectations about property meet the reality of government and positive legislation.  As formal law slowly makes its way to the mining camp of Deadwood, the labor-based view of its early settlers meets head on the more positivist attitudes of the Dakota territorial leaders.  In the process, the balance of power inside the camp begins to shift away from the pioneers and toward the newcomers, who are directed primarily by gold tycoon George Hearst.  At the end of Season Two, Hearst himself arrives in Deadwood, providing a compelling illustration of the link between property and power.

Hearst's property interests, both in Deadwood and elsewhere, provide him with considerable influence.  His wealth gives him political sway over Dakota’s territorial leaders, who help him destabilize the existing gold claims.  His wealth supplies the boldness for his actions inside the camp, which consist of ransacking the local newspaper office, ordering the murder of a union organizer, and threatening the owner of the one gold claim that has alluded his grasp.  Hearst personifies the notion that property creates a sphere of sovereignty, what Charles Reich described as a "circle of freedom," around the activities of its holder.  To quote Reich: "Within that circle, the owner has a greater degree of freedom than without.  Outside, he must justify or explain his actions, and show his authority.  Within, he is the master . . . ."  See Reich, The New Property, 73 Yale L. J. 733, 771 (1964).  By exercising the sovereignty that property creates, its holder has the ability to influence resource allocation, economic production, the actions of other persons, and even the mechanisms of governance.   As Hearst's example vividly demonstrates, abuse of this ability can easily lead to a myopic view that ignores, or in some cases destroys, the rights and interests of other persons or groups.  In Hearst, the worst potential of property as a tool for tyranny is on full display.

But this sphere of sovereignty has a positive aspect, as well, which Deadwood also reveals.  As noted above, until the very end of the series, one substantial gold claim remains outside of Hearst's control -- that belonging to a widow named Alma Garrett.  And it is Garrett's claim that ultimately provides whatever freedom the town continues to enjoy.  As the only landowner in Deadwood whose holdings can in any way compete with Hearst’s, Garrett's claim acts as a counterbalance to the Hearst machine.  It provides her with a sphere of sovereignty also, one that gives her (and, by extension, the other members of the community) the ability to resist Hearst.  Here, we see property as a source of liberty.  Even as Hearst uses his property to threaten and coerce, Garrett's property serves as the town's protection against those threats.  Garrett's gold claim, a vestige of the labor-based view of the town's pioneers, acts as the community's last, best hope for independence.  And as the town coalesces around the strength and freedom her claim provides, the identities of the town's residents (and the town itself) are changing.

Mike Kent

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