Category Archives: Gift Economy of Property

Occupancy-and-Use: Neo-Proudhonian Remarks

[This post originally appeared at the Center for a Stateless Society, as part of an exchange on occupancy-and-use property.]

There is a great deal that could be said in response to Kevin Carson’s opening statement, from the “neo-Proudhonian” mutualist perspective, but I’ll try to keep things at least relatively short. Like Kevin, my introduction to the notion of occupancy-and-use land tenure was through the works of Benjamin R. Tucker and the Liberty circle and, like him, I think that Proudhon’s famous phrase regarding property has been used in unfortunate ways by many anarchists to avoid the question of property. Beyond that, however, our positions seem to diverge, beginning with the very basic question of the indispensability of property rules. As a result, my response will tackle two different tasks: to briefly defend the viability of the Tucker- and Ingalls-inspired occupancy-and-use system, and then to suggest that Proudhon’s work, whether it is a question of the early theory of “possession” or the later “New Theory” of property, indicates different approaches to the question of land tenure.

It is hard to talk about the viability of land tenure systems in a vacuum, particularly in a modern context where “land,” even in the broadest sense of natural resources, is arguably less dominant among the factors of production than it has been in other eras. If we were to survey the various reforms championed by Tucker over his career, we might pick something like Josiah Warren’s cost principle as one more amenable to consideration alone, while occupancy-and-use, mutual banking and some others are both more interdependent and more dependent on particular conditions for their efficacy. It is also hard to judge the various proposals without situating them either as transitional reforms or systems for “after the revolution” (however we might conceptualize revolutionary change.) All of this means that the most ardent, but serious advocate of occupancy-and-use ought to be able to imagine scenarios in which it was not a solution to the most pressing problems, where it was not particularly compatible with other solutions, or where the demand for other institutions would specifically shape the way that it was implemented. For example, as a transitional mechanism, some combination of occupancy-and-use and mutual banking on the William B. Greene model might produce a particularly robust system, within which the members of a particular mutual credit organization would have a strong interest in protecting the occupation rights on other members and trading partners. And we would expect this particular combination of institutions to produce something much more like stable conventional ownership, complete with property registries and whatever property insurance was necessary to protect the mutual associations against unforeseen accidents. On the other hand, where the cost principle held sway — or even the more general notion that individuals should carry their own costs — we might at least find fewer incentives to shape the community through land-tenure rules. This dependency on local factors will, of course, also apply to all of the potential alternatives. It’s not hard to imagine communities within which competition for particular locations would have a strong influence on the potential success or failure of large portions of the population, and some form of land-value taxation would be a logical reform, as well as others where the specific distribution of locations and occupations would make land rent a negligible factor.

What we can probably say safely, however, is that where Tucker-style occupancy-and-use is an appropriate solution, in harmony both with local needs and with other institutions, the usual objections seem like quibbles. As Kevin has repeatedly emphasized, all land tenure schemes will be what Proudhon called “approximations,” attempted solutions to particular problems, which will undoubtedly combine success and failure among their effects. What that means is that hopefully the form of the solutions will be driven by the real nature of the problems — the very thing that critics of occupancy-and-use always seem to imagine won’t be done. So, for example, a solution to the problem of “absentee ownership” should be driven by the problem that the phrase designates, not, as is so often the case in our debates, by what we imagine the phrase itself must commit us to. “Occupancy-and-use” is shorthand, not a magic formula, so if too great fidelity to some interpretation of the phrase seems to deprive us of practices that seem harmless or beneficial, we should naturally reexamine what principle we are following or what concrete consequences we are pursuing. To respond to one common quibble, there’s nothing about solving the problem of homelessness that naturally commits us to abolishing hotels, or even equitable rental agreements. New property conventions ought to appear as an opportunity to explore new social relations and new living arrangements. If our general principle is that individuals ought to have some ownership in the real property where they are most individually invested, there is no reason that we should assume that will be a domicile, rather than a workplace or a recreational site. There is also no reason to assume that, given other opportunities, individuals will invest in the ways that a regime of “private property” has encouraged. A more mobile culture could be a less secure one, or it could simply involve additional freedoms.

I am, in the end, considerably less certain than Kevin that the various principled positions on property are likely to converge — at least as a result of their principles. Even if I was willing to grant the indispensability of “property rules” of some sort, it seems to me that the notion of “property” does not amount to a shared concept among the various currents. Among “Lockeans,” for example, the question of the provisos separates what seem to me almost diametrically opposed notions of the nature of “property,” and there are similar differences among the various types of Georgism and geoism. Many, perhaps most communists, do indeed seem to have a theory of property, but the distinction so frequently made between “personal” and “private property” is not, as is so often claimed, the same as Proudhon’s distinction between “simple property” and “simple possession.” I think that, in practice, it is likely that anarchists and other sorts of less thoroughgoing anti-authoritarians might well come to terms, but I expect that the cause would be material interests and a commitment to libertarian values of one sort or another, as opposed to commitment to principles of property. And that might be good enough in some instances, or it might be as much as we could hope for. It is, after all, the play of interests that various early anarchists appealed to most directly as the mechanism of a free society.

As an aside, I think those who are interested in establishing occupancy-and-use property on something like a natural rights basis are likely to find useful and provocative developments in the works of Joshua King Ingalls. Tucker’s use of the work of his influences was always partial and not always particularly faithful, so returning to the sources is often the source of pleasant surprises. Ingalls, for instance, responded to the idea that capitalists should be reimbursed for damage done to the land by suggesting, in a proto-ecological manner, that perhaps it was the land itself that should logically be reimbursed, rather than its owner. In turn, Ingalls’s work might be usefully read or reread alongside Thomas Skidmore’s The Rights of Man to Property. I suspect few modern readers will have much use for his agrarian communist solution to the problem of property, but the analysis that led him there remains interesting, and anticipates Proudhon in some ways.

But it is necessary, finally, to return to Proudhon. It seems clear, as Kevin has suggested, that a cursory treatment of Proudhon’s declarations about property has allowed some anarchists to sidestep the question of property. It would be unfortunate, however, if, having invoked Proudhon, a somewhat cursory treatment of the “indispensability” of “property rules” ended up sidestepping the substance of his critique.

There are, of course, conceptions of property which allow very little outside, but they are not, I think, legal conceptions (or conceptions based on rules), nor are they dependent on property being individual and exclusive. If property is, for example, simply what is proper to a given individual, then some talk of property is inescapable. But property almost always means more to us. Proudhon’s argument was that property involved an “accounting error,” through which a major contribution to production, that of the “collective force” generate by associated laborers, was simply left out of the capitalist account of production. Its share of the wealth generated was then individually appropriated by capitalists. Labor then found its the fruits of its own exertions working against it in the marketplace in virtually all subsequent transactions. Proudhon left open the possibility of a property that would not be “theft” or “impossible,” but in the end he left us without any very clear account of it. Neither “possession” nor the property discussed in The Theory of Property quite seem to fill the bill. Meanwhile, to say that we reject property as Proudhon understood it really remains a mouthful, given the multiple and wide-ranging critiques in his work.

Let us, as a thought experiment, ignore some of the rhetorical complexity of Proudhon’s critical work and assume for the moment that the critique of “property” was really just a critique of the droit d’aubaine. To say that that we embrace property as indispensable, but also reject what Proudhon rejected, we would have to subject every proposed property theory to the multiple critiques he raised. Proudhon argues, for example, against all the usual means of understanding homesteading. Will any of those mechanisms seems less objectionable if no droit d’aubaine is assumed to attach? Can any of them pertain if we acknowledge that the collective force must received its due? The problem seems fairly complex.

But isn’t the answer found in the notion of “possession”? If we take Proudhon’s word for it, then possession is explicitly not a matter of rights or law. Instead, it is simply a matter of fact. Where Ingalls suggested reducing the legal order so that possession, with the recognition of natural rights, was the entirety of the law, Proudhon seems intent on going farther. That shouldn’t startle us, since his writing on “moral sanction” suggest that society could have no power to enforce any of the pacts that might govern a more formal sort of occupancy-and-use system. In “Justice,” he declares that any anarchistic social system that exceeded “an equation and a power of collectivity” (recognition of equality-of-standing among individuals and attention to the manifestations of collective force) would immediately run aground on its own contradictions. Reading What is Property? in this light, some familiar passages may seem strangely naive, but I think there is a lot of evidence that Proudhon really did imagine a world in which the only laws were those of nature and where “rights,” as he explained in War and Peace, referred to nothing more than the future needs of developing individuals. This anarchistic vision of Proudhon’s is so stark that we often seem simply not to recognize it as such, but it seems to be the foundation for virtually all of his thought. We can talk about a “system of justice” in Proudhon’s work, but only if we limit ourselves to that previously mentioned social system. Justice for Proudhon was simply balance, unmediated by any hierarchy or authority.

If we need more indications that perhaps property rules weren’t indispensable for Proudhon, we might recall that his first published remarks on property appeared in The Celebration of Sunday, in 1839, a year before What is Property? And what we find there is a first exploration of the connections between property and theft that flips the ordinary understanding of the terms. Instead of defining theft as the violation of property, we find an exercise in biblical interpretation, an account of property being established by a “putting aside,” which Proudhon links etymologically to theft. The account is, of course, merely suggestive, but what it suggests is a view of the world in which individual property is not a given. When, in the following year, Proudhon appears to reject both exclusive individual property and communism, it is one more indication that we should perhaps take the time to look for alternatives.

That, of course, leaves the third of Proudhon’s famous statements on property, “property is liberty,” to address. From almost the beginning, Proudhon acknowledged that property was treated as indispensable because liberty was widely accepted as primary among its aims. His examination of the positive aims and possible positive effects of property was parallel to, and ultimately inseparable from, his criticism of its absolutist justifications and potentially despotic effects. When he finally truly abandoned the theory of possession for that of property in 1861 (in the work published posthumously as The Theory of Property, which was originally part of a much longer study of Poland), it was not because he believed that property was not theft, but because he believed that there were benefits to equalizing and universalizing that sort of theft (a proposition he had entertained as early as 1842.) In order to really understand the “New Theory” we should probably examine it in the context of War and Peace, which was written at roughly the same time as the bulk of The Theory of Property. Proudhon’s economic manuscripts, written in the early 1850s, reveal to us that while Proudhon was finding evidence of collective force in all sorts of spheres, he did not consider the market an example of the sort of association that generated it. If a workshop or a commune could manifest itself as what he called a unity-collectivity, market interactions were, in his mind, more like war. The “New Theory” is thus more like a model of “armed peace” than it is of, say, emergent order.

Unfortunately, between the invocations of Proudhon to avoid property and the invocations of property that neglect Proudhon, a really proudhonian theory of occupancy-and-use remains a bit elusive. While there is, no doubt, a principled approach at work in both of Proudhon’s treatment of the property question, the principle is ultimately anarchy, and we are left largely on our own to determine just how to conceptualize property. I am inclined to think that Proudhon’s critiques of existing property theories still stand up pretty well, and that the traditional approaches most likely to skirt the problem of exploitation and the aubaines, such as proviso-Lockean theory, are not of a lot of practical use under present conditions. I don’t see any very promising contenders for a theory of just appropriation, which leaves me in roughly the same position I was eight years ago, when I proposed the possibility of a “gift economy of property.” As a conclusion, let me just return briefly and expand on that notion.

There are places where Proudhon described property as a “free gift” of society. Strictly speaking, of course, Proudhon would have to have acknowledged that it was a gift that society had no right to give. According to his critique, even society cannot be a proprietor. (This is probably the simplest objection to LVT schemes.) In a truly anarchic space, outside the legal order and beyond the realm of permissions and prohibitions, there seems to be no principle that can legitimate individual appropriation directly. And in a world filled with unity-collectivities, what is proper to each of us is mixed up with the potential property of everyone else. Conflict seems inevitable. We are told that the present system cannot even sustain a living wage for all workers, so just imagine if everyone simply demanded their own subjective valuation of their labor, let alone their share of the fruits of collective force. Simple anarchy could very well be a matter of everyone being up in everyone else’s business, with no authorization either to intrude or to withdraw. I suspect most of us would prefer some other arrangement.

If we are to find a social order that more closely resembles emergent harmony them armed peace or open war, what are we to do? If we cannot take, then perhaps we can give. We know the value and the virtues of individual property, as did Proudhon. If we are unable to secure it for ourselves as a matter of individual appropriation, then perhaps we can grant it to one another as a matter of gift or cession, not of a property that we individually own, but of claims that we might otherwise make on one another? Imagine the basis of this new property not as appropriation but as mutual extrication. Some of the steps would resemble familiar propertarian notions. First, perhaps, mutual release would yield a variety of “self-ownership.” Then, the familiar “personal property” in items of more intimate attachment or use. Beyond that, real property on the basis of occupancy-and-use. Then, perhaps, a sphere of alienable goods and a recognition of exchange — based, like the other steps on a mutual willingness not to interfere with one another’s activities. Etc. Etc. Limiting conditions and local desires would determine the limits of the emerging system.

Perhaps this approach will seem either naïve or backward, but it has the virtue of being an approach to some form of exclusive, individual property that I suspect can pass muster according to the Proudhonian standards so often invoked — even in the demanding form I have attributed to them. What I am describing seem to me to be steps on the road from market exchange as a form of warfare to the possibility of reinventing markets in a form much more closely resembling Proudhon’s unity-collectivities, with their dividends of collective force. But I suspect we are already well into a somewhat different conversation.

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To “property” via “mutual extrication”

I’ve been taking part in a C4SS-sponsored discussion of occupancy-and-use property norms, “Occupancy and Use: Potential Applications and Possible Shortcomings,” which is now appearing on the Center’s website. The exchange opened with a piece by Kevin Carson, “Are We All Mutualists?,” which suggests that perhaps the answer is “yes.” A series of responses will be posted every other day, with my “Neo-Proudhonian Remarks” already posted under the title “Limiting Conditions and Local Desires.”

For me, this first response was an opportunity to talk again about the development of Proudhon’s thoughts on property, but also to return to the question of how we might construct property norms that would not be, in Proudhon’s sense, “theft.” So you will find some new thoughts on the “gift economy of property” at the end of the piece, and some clarifications in my later contributions to the exchange. Part of what is new is an approach to establishing property through a sort of “mutual extrication,” a necessity perhaps for individuals “not contained between [their] hat and boots.”

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The larger antinomy — II

[Concluded from part I]

I think we can safely posit two very general categories of responses to Proudhon: those which assume that his work, and particularly his work on property, was more complete than consistent, and those which insist that it was more consistent than complete. According to the first approach, the phrase “property is theft,” certain proposals in The General Idea of the Revolution, and the general trajectory of The Political Capacity of the Working Classes (or some roughly similar collection) constitute Proudhon’s major work—laying the foundation for social anarchism—and the critical task is to clear away all the distracting deviations and contradictions that might lead down other roads. The second approach focuses on the central role of “contradictions” in Proudhon’s work, and tends to pay close attention to the recurrence of certain challenging elements of his thought across his entire career, accumulating loose ends and suggestive repetitions, while constantly digging through the works for more data. Both approaches have their associated risks, but I don’t think anyone is under any illusions about which one I consider more useful, particularly at this stage of our rediscovery of Proudhon.

In some ways, of course, I think that the first approach is at a severe disadvantage. There are simply too many indications in Proudhon’s work that he considered himself engaged in a constant work-in-progress, and, at least in the English-speaking world, most of us are still exploring, trying to determine the extent of his projects—and it’s a dangerous business to start trimming limbs when you don’t really quite know what sort of tree you’re looking at.

If you’re not simply starting out with the assumption that the important things in Proudhon’s work were the ones that were useful to Bakunin and Kropotkin, some general characteristics of that work become obvious fairly quickly—mostly because they pose such constant and difficult problems for the reader. Proudhon was engaged in a range of types of analysis, with pretty much all of them dependent on some sort of dialectical play between antagonistic, contradictory, or antinomic elements. In the discussions of property, we encounter a couple of different versions of the quasi-historical/developmental narrative, in which Proudhon posits “community” and “property” (1840)—or “property” and “communism” (1846), or “fief” and “allodium” (1861/5)—as “stages” in the development of resource-management norms. We find him opposing “possession” and “property” as principles, respectively, of “fact” and “right,” while, in the midst of the same work, also describing them as, respectively, consistent with and against “right.” We find him opposing individual and collective forms of property (broadly speaking), while treating any form of organized collectivity worthy of the name as also an individual, describing individuals as always already “groups” or “series,” and ultimately making it clear that the property that is “theft” for the human individual would also be theft for the most inclusive collectivity. Property takes its place amidst the play of centralizing and decentralizing institutions. It is “theft,” “impossible,” and “liberty.” And, of course, it is one of the elements of that “synthesis of community and property” that Proudhon believed would produce liberty. There is, for the most part, a complex and gradually developing consistency in all this, but there’s nothing easy about following all the threads, particularly as they tend to lead in various directions from any given point in Proudhon’s study.

The difficulties of mapping Proudhon’s overall project have necessitated a lot of real or apparent repetition in my own writings on the subject, and a lot of isolated articulations of selected elements, with, I hope, some general progress in showing how the various parts of the analysis fit together. But a lot of the headway that I have made has been achieved by bringing Proudhon’s work into dialogue with the works of a variety of other figures—Max Stirner, John Locke, Pierre Leroux, and all those other figures I summoned down to the river’s edge in the thought-experiment in mock-dramatic form that I hope will be useful as a starting place for gathering various the various partial analyses together. The result was arguably a useful increase in localized clarity, where particular aspects of the various analyses were concerned, but probably also a fairly daunting increase in the complexity of the project as a whole. I certainly haven’t been immune to a certain drowning feeling, as the quest for clarity has multiplied questions just as fast as answers.

The light at the end of the long tunnel, for me, has been a strong sense that, behind the daunting and fascinating complexities of Proudhon’s various analyses, there were some basic principles or at least a basic dynamic which, if once identified, might substantially simplify the rest of the work, allowing us to more easily connect the various sorts of analysis in Proudhon’s writings with one another, and with the work of those other theorists that have entered into the game. (Or it is the proverbial oncoming train.)

For some time, I have been focused on that formula for liberty, “the synthesis of community and property,” and the developmental account—in the “third form of society” section of What is Property?—where Proudhon introduced it. Following Proudhon, I’ve been able to say a lot about “property,” and comparatively little about “community,” and have been trying to clarify the various sorts of “property” enough to determine just what this elusive other pole of the dialectic of liberty really is. There are influences in Proudhon that make it easy to believe that, in the most abstract sense, the more general antinomy lurking behind oppositions like centralizing/decentralizing, property/community, law/fact, etc., might be related to the “circulus” of Pierre Leroux or the focus on the free flow of the passions in Charles Fourier. But the question of influence is complicated in Proudhon’s work. In the memoirs on property, alongside his partisan attacks on Leroux and the followers of Fourier, we find these two rather surprising endorsements.

The disciples of Fourier have long seemed to me the most advanced of all modern socialists, and almost the only ones worthy of the name. If they had understood the nature of their task, spoken to the people, awakened their sympathies, and kept silence when they did not understand; if they had made less extravagant pretensions, and had shown more respect for public intelligence, — perhaps the reform would now, thanks to them, be in progress.—What is Property?

I must here declare freely — in order that I may not be suspected of secret connivance, which is foreign to my nature — that M. Leroux has my full sympathy. Not that I am a believer in his quasi-Pythagorean philosophy (upon this subject I should have more than one observation to submit to him, provided a veteran covered with stripes would not despise the remarks of a conscript); not that I feel bound to this author by any special consideration for his opposition to property. In my opinion, M. Leroux could, and even ought to, state his position more explicitly and logically. But I like, I admire, in M. Leroux, the antagonist of our philosophical demigods, the demolisher of usurped reputations, the pitiless critic of every thing that is respected because of its antiquity. Such is the reason for my high esteem of M. Leroux; such would be the principle of the only literary association which, in this century of coteries, I should care to form. We need men who, like M. Leroux, call in question social principles, — not to diffuse doubt concerning them, but to make them doubly sure; men who excite the mind by bold negations, and make the conscience tremble by doctrines of annihilation.—Letter to M. Blanqui on Property

And Proudhon undoubtedly did, despite some denials, incorporate a good deal of the basic thought of Fourier and Leroux into his own work. The Creation of Order in Humanity is a fascinating reworking of material from The Theory of the Four Movements, but there’s no question where the reworked elements originated, as there is not much question where the emphasis on serial analysis, the opposition to simplism, etc., come from. The borrowings from Pierre Leroux are more likely to escape many readers, but mostly because Leroux’s work is now almost unknown. We know that Proudhon sincerely rejected the more “utopian” elements of both thinkers, but the question is whether he absorbed any of their shared fascination with natural circulation and passional flows.

The difficulty is that, in most of his writing on property, Proudhon critiqued laws and speculated about historical development. When he was talking about property—and its opposite pole—he avoided the sort of abstract, general discussion that would help us connect to the sort of theory we find in Fourier and Leroux. But if we look at his writings on liberty, on progress, and on the Revolution, we begin to see some fairly persistent patterns, in which the transient and the stable are opposed. And then we run across the discussion of property and theft in The Celebration of Sunday, and perhaps we have our connection to the examination of property.

What I intend to do is to make rather a big deal about that definition of theft that Proudhon proposed in the Celebration: “to divert, to put or turn aside.” And perhaps I will make a bit too big a deal of it, from a strictly proudhonological perspective. One way or another, I can’t really make the defense here. I’m drawing on lots of material which is unavailable to most of my readers, and to some extent simply drawing on my developing intuitions about the “big picture” in Proudhon’s thought. What I can do, however, is to remind skeptics that, for Proudhon, “the problem of property [was], after that of human destiny, the greatest that reason can propose, and the last that it will be able to resolve.” So if we find, as it seems we do, that it was precisely in the realm of property that Proudhon’s ideas seem to have been tardiest to come together, if it was in that investigation that he left threads dangling for the entire length of his career, perhaps we should not be surprised—at which point I don’t think we can be faulted for applying the fairly consistent products of his other investigations to that thorny question.


What if the larger antinomy in Proudhon’s work, the dynamic that linked his various more focused analyses, was essentially a dialectical play between “turning or putting aside” and “not turning and putting aside,” with the first identified with “property” and the other with an alternative, or series of alternatives, which remains elusive, but which, as “community,” Proudhon early on associated with the “spontaneous movement” of “sociability”? And what if we drag that antinomy out onto the largest sort of stage, treating its opposed terms as abstract tendencies to, on the one hand, circulation and dissemination, and, on the other, concentration and persistence? This opposition of the fluid and the firm immediately calls to mind any number of familiar cultural binaries, many of them quite clearly gendered—and we would be kidding ourselves if we thought we were going to avoid some demanding work on the question of gender and property before we’re done with Proudhon. It might also call to mind the two “gifts” on which I have proposed as a basis for a mutualist notion of self-ownership, in the context of the “gift economy of property.” For those who have tangled with Proudhon’s treatment of individualities and collectivities as two faces of serial organization, other bells might ring. Does the notion of the Revolution as both conservative and progressive perhaps answer to much the same guiding dynamic? And the idea that mutualism is necessarily an “anarchism of approximations”?

This is ultimately the intuition on the basis of which I have developed the neo-Proudhonian analysis of property that I’ve been advancing, in the course of which I have tended to deploy the most uncompromisingly asocial interpretation of Stirner’s egoism—understood as a philosophy for the unique as “the only one”—alongside and against the sense of a Pierre Leroux or Joseph Dejacque that we are all in this together, inseparably connected in a universal circulus. I’ve been content to resort to that qualifier, neo-, while I’ve explored Proudhon’s thought more thoroughly, but perhaps I have really been rather orthodox in my own inventions.

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The larger antinomy — I

“When Jesus Christ, explaining to the people the different articles of the Decalogue, taught them that polygamy had been permitted to the ancients because of the rudeness of their intelligence, but that it had not been thus in the beginning; that a bad desire is equal to a fornication consummated; that insult and affront are as reprehensible as murder and blows; that he is a parricide who says to his poor father: “This morning I have prayed to God for you; that will benefit you;” he said nothing of the 8th commandment, which concerned theft, judging the hardness of heart of his audience still too great for the truth that he had to speak. After eighteen centuries, are we worthy to hear it?”—P.-J. Proudhon, The Celebration of Sunday 
While I’m picking up dropped threads and revisiting basic arguments in the property discussion, it’s important to incorporate the elements that came out of my work on Proudhon’s The Celebration of Sunday. That early work introduced a number of potential twists into the story of Proudhon and “property.” Three stand out:
  1. Anticipating a number of other instances where he would describe “property” as perhaps the greatest question that faced humanity, Proudhon described Jesus skipping over a discussion of theft, the notion that would come to define property for Proudhon, because it was, in essence, a topic whose time had not yet come. While this is not a “twist,” so much as it is evidence of a consistent emphasis on the difficulties and importance of the question, that is extremely useful, given all the attempts to portray “property is theft” as the one really important element of Proudhon’s property theory. The consistent insistence on the difficulties involved has to weigh heavily against any attempt to take Proudhon’s bon mot as all that really matters in his analysis.

    (For those unfamiliar with the other statements of this sort, here’s another example:

    “The problem of property is, after that of human destiny, the greatest that reason can propose, and the last that it will be able to resolve. Indeed, the theological problem, the enigma of religion, has been explicated; the philosophical problem, which treats the value and legitimacy of knowledge, is resolved: there remains the social problem, which simply joins these two, and the solution of which, as everyone believes, comes essentially from property.”—P.-J. Proudhon, The System of Economic Contradictions.)

  2. In a discussion of the value of the solitude and reflection imposed by the celebration of Sunday for society, Proudhon made it clear that he believed that the development and health of society was dependent on the periodic intervention of a kind of anti-social isolation. Moses imposed a sort of weekly hermitage on the Israelites in order to make them human, to allow them to grow, develop and seek truth.

    If Moses had had the power, he would never have had the thought to transform his farmers into effective hermits; he only wanted to make them men, to accustom them, by reflection, to seek the just and the true in everything. Thus he strove to create around them a solitude which would not destroy the great affluence, and which preserved all the prestige of a true isolation: the solitude of the Sabbath and the feasts.

    One of the objections to much of Proudhon’s property theory comes from a resistance to the notion that the road to an anarchist society could pass through an institution, like simple property, which Proudhon characterized as not simply unsocial, but in some sense despotic, even anthropophagous. But there is a thread that runs through Proudhon’s work, from The Celebration of Sunday to The Theory of Property, which suggests that a belief in just that sort of route to liberty was one of his fairly constant beliefs. The comments from 1839 are followed  by these remarks:

    “The consequences of Adam’s transgression are inherited by the race; the first is ignorance.” Truly, the race, like the individual, is born ignorant; but, in regard to a multitude of questions, even in the moral and political spheres, this ignorance of the race has been dispelled: who says that it will not depart altogether? Mankind makes continual progress toward truth, and light ever triumphs over darkness. Our disease is not, then, absolutely incurable, and the theory of the theologians is worse than inadequate; it is ridiculous, since it is reducible to this tautology: “Man errs, because he errs.” While the true statement is this: “Man errs, because he learns.” Now, if man arrives at a knowledge of all that he needs to know, it is reasonable to believe that, ceasing to err, he will cease to suffer.

    The notion that human beings might eventually cease to err became gradually less tenable for Proudhon, as he elaborated his philosophy of progress—and it was, arguably, not all that consistent with some of what he wrote in What is Property? in the first place—so we might be inclined to see it as entirely consistent with Proudhon’s mature thought that erring is always part of the road to learning, and learning is an endless journey. And when—in between proposing the “universalizing of robbery” in 1842 and suggesting that the unforeseen outcome of a free market might be something like communism—he claimed, in The System of Economic Contradictions, that:

    “By abuse, the legislator has meant that the proprietor has the right to be mistaken in the use of his goods, without ever being subject to investigation for that poor use, without being responsible to anyone for his error.

    it’s as if we should have been expecting it right along, and the case is made for a certain sort of property, for as long as human beings continue to err.

  3. The third reference to property is the the discussion of the true meaning of that injunction against “theft” in the Decalogue:

    Equality of conditions is in conformity to reason and an irrefutable right. It is in the spirit of Christianity, and it is the aim of society; the legislation of Moses demonstrates that it can be attained. That sublime dogma, so frightening in our time, has its roots in the most intimate depths of the conscience, where it is mixed up with the very notion of justice and right. Thou shalt not steal, says the Decalogue, which is to say, with the vigor of the original term, lo thignob, you will divert nothing, you will put nothing aside for yourself. The expression is generic like the idea itself: it forbids not only theft committed with violence and by ruse, fraud and brigandage, but also every sort of gain acquired from others without their full agreement. It implies, in short, that every violation of equality of division, every premium arbitrarily demanded, and tyrannically collected, either in exchange, or from the labor of others, is a violation of communicative justice, it is a misappropriation

    Read according to what I have been calling the “energetic” interpretation of the terms, this threatens not just a twist, but an overturning of much of what we have thought we knew about Proudhon and property. If theft is actually prior to property, there are a variety of consequences. Certain facile objections to the phrase “property is theft” lose a great deal of their force, and perhaps we see another instance of the sort of logic I discussed in #2 above. But the possibility which has been most exciting to me is that, in teasing out the specific “varieties of theft and property,” we may begin to glimpse an element of Proudhon’s theory which has previously been hard to isolate: a general contradiction or antinomy which informs Proudhon’s entire project.

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    Filed under Gift Economy of Property, property

    Picking up dropped threads

    Lots of things have intervened in the discussion of mutualist property theory over the last two years, not the least of which has been a whole lot of additional research and translation. It has, for one reason or another, been a little more than I could manage to pick up where I left the fairly straightforward exploration of the question which was interrupted in the midst of the “property is impossible” series, way back in June 2010. But there’s no getting on to the next phase of things without wrapping up this particular discussion, so I’m working on finally pulling together a summary of the analysis I’ve generated in fits and starts since the 2008 Proudhon Seminar. Fortunately, I had started that summarizing process, before I so rudely interrupted myself, so let me draw attention back to that beginning, in the post “Take me to the river…,” which begins:
    Let’s say we gather the usual suspects, down by the river, in the State of Nature, or thereabouts, for a bit of property theory and a few “good draughts.” John Locke says everybody can appropriate some river-water, as long as what they make their own “property” leaves “a whole river of the same water.” Now, Locke has a reputation for saying things like “my labor” when maybe he means the labor of someone else, so there’s some hesitation, but it seems like a pretty good deal, assuming it’s possible. Now, in literal terms, it seems impossible: a quantity of water, X, minus some non-zero “good draught,” G, is unlikely to = X.  But, out in the State of Nature, talking about individual-scale “draughts” and a naturally resilient river-system, perhaps it is at least as good as possible. 
     I’ll be continuing, in a similar vein, to let the various “usual suspects” have a little more uninterrupted say, and then moving on to spelling out just how the various pieces of the “gift economy of property” fit together. Because I’ve had a chance to do so much work on the question over the last couple of years, I think even those who followed along pretty closely the first time will find new reasons to smile, shake their heads or gnash their teeth.

    Comments Off on Picking up dropped threads

    Filed under Gift Economy of Property, property

    Property and the Essence of Mutualism — I

    “My principle, which will appear astonishing to you, citizens, my principle is yours; it is property itself.”—P.-J. Proudhon
    In my writings on mutualist property theory, I have been attempting to supplement a somewhat strange lacuna in Proudhon’s theory, his failure—in at least one important sense—to ever really directly answer the question posed in his first major work, What is Property? In order to do that, I’ve been drawing on the work of Max Stirner, which, despite Stirner’s sense that he was opposing Proudhon’s position, seems to primarily address “property” in precisely the senses that Proudhon didn’t even make much attempt to do justice to. And I’ve been drawing on Locke, and conventional propertarian theories, however much I have been reading them “against the grain.” The “gift economy of property” project has been explicitly an attempt to move beyond Proudhon’s “new theory” in The Theory of Property, and to take up directly his challenge that “property must justify itself of disappear,” with a justification of “property” that does not simply treat it as a weapon that everyone should be allowed to wield, which is essentially where Proudhon left things. 
    Proudhon started by defining “property” as “the sum of the abuses of property”—a point he made explicit in his introduction to the second edition of What is Property?—and really not defining “possession,” which appeared to be his chosen alternative, at all. That makes Proudhon’s famous phrase translate to something more like “the abuse of property is theft,” which certainly casts things in a different light than we usually assume—and takes the wind out of some of the cruder critics’ sails. The “property” that would not be theft—towards which Proudhon gestures in his discussions of of equal possession—remains a desideratum for him. What I have been suggesting is that it need not remain one for us, and that, however much that might seem a wild deviation from the majority of anarchist or even mutualist thought, it is really just a step forward in the development that began with “property is theft!”
    Now, one of the problems that has faced students of Proudhon’s thought has been the widespread contention that either: 1) he substantially altered his project when he began to explore property in its relation to liberty; or, 2) he meant something different by “property” in those contexts—the ill-defined “possession,” perhaps—when he was speaking in those terms than he did when he referred to property as “theft” or as “impossible.” Frankly, the first claim seems hard to sustain. After all, Proudhon didn’t even get through What is Property? without reintroducing “property” into his project, defining “liberty” as a “synthesis of community and property.” As I’ve argued elsewhere, there’s very little in the posthumously published work that differs from what he suggested in 1840-1842, except to the extent that it reflects changes in his understanding of “synthesis” and its alternatives. The development of his understanding of property is fairly simple. The somewhat unpromising start, defining “property” as “the abuse of property,” is consistent with his critique of property’s existing justifications, all of which seem to come apart, to reveal themselves as abuses of the principle they are supposed to uphold. But then, as he begins to develop his own philosophy—for “progress” and against “the absolute”—he raises possibilities which he may never have fully explored himself, having already identified property with absolutism. We know that the “new theory” posits evenly distributed property as one means of balancing the absolutist tendencies of individuals—but also of opening a space in which those tendencies might be to some extent overcome. We know that in The Theory of Property, property is able to contribute to liberty precisely because Proudhon has not changed his terms, precisely because property is absolutist and potentially abusive. And the more we explore the relationship between absolutism, property and liberty, the less likely it seems that there was really any change in meaning across the various writings—even if it seems likely that some of Proudhon’s consistency was more intuitive than explicitly thought through.

    What is property? If we step back from Proudhon, who was increasingly aware that the term covered a variety of dissimilar concepts, we find quite a number of connected kinds of uses, which then lead to an even greater proliferation of particular applications and definitions. Proudhon’s work is actually remarkable for the care that he showed in separating out the varieties of “property.” About a year ago, I made an attempt to inventory the kinds of uses either explicitly recognized by Proudhon or suggested by his analyses, and came up with these: 

    1. “Property” is its broadest sense, as a “social problem,” involving by the issue of the “mine and thine” and that of the “you and me;”
    2. “Property” as “ownness,” relating to “the circle of self-enjoyment,” that defines the unique individual, and which refers both the the material resources involved in specific instances of self-enjoyment (the facts of “possession”) and the principle of organization by which they are thus involved;
    3. “Property” or “properties,” referring to those material resources;
    4. “Properties,” referring to the component characteristics of the individual (which both Stirner and Proudhon may encourage us to treat as “uniques” in their own right and at their own scale, and which some theories of property have treated as “property,” in the sense of #3, in order to argue that everyone is a “proprietor” or “capitalist”);
    5. “Property rights,” as social and/or legal attempts to formalize standards for answering some one or more of the question posed by the other senses of “property;”
    6. “Propriety,” in the general sense that each should have and respect its own in a well-managed society;
    and a bunch of subordinate distinctions (real property, chattel property, products, allod, usufruct, etc., etc., etc.), referring to specific property norms and forms proposed in the course of our long engagement with the general problem of “property.”  

     And I suggested that:

    a coherent property theory needs to be able to carry the same terms across the terrain of appropriation, maintenance, abandonment or expropriation, exchange, exclusive and shared domain, the possibilities of “intellectual property,” the relation between theories of property and their abuses, the relation between property and gift, etc. 

    The lacuna in Proudhon seems to be in the treatment of “ownness,” which is also arguably the place to look for an equivalent of “self-ownership,” and it’s been in my attempt to fill that conceptual gap that I’ve turned to Stirner, who is almost exclusively concerned with the “self-enjoyment” of unique selves. 
    Now, there is nothing simple about bringing the thought of Stirner and Proudhon into play in a single scheme. There are good reasons for not making the attempt, and equally compelling reasons to think that perhaps there are other aspects of Proudhon’s thought which can be used to supply what seems to be missing in his property theory. As I’ve suggested before, Proudhon’s “positive” theory of liberty is enormously suggestive in this regard, since it is, in essence, a theory of how individuals—and not just human individuals, but all sorts of individualities—are constituted: as collectivities, organized according to an individual law. And this description of the nature of individuality really takes us most of the way towards a theory of what is proper to individuals, at least in that sense of “ownness” or “self-enjoyment”—except for the fact that the account looks a lot more like physics than any of the more social sciences. Proudhon provides us with the means to introduce agency into our model, since the playing out of the individual law is always, in his view, a play of antinomies. The fact that each individuality is at the same time an organized group, composed of other individualities, each driven by their own imperative law of organization and development, means that “life” and “health” for the individual depend on the strength and balance of the ensemble of constituent individualities—something which may even take the form, particularly at “higher” scales of organization, of an increasing conflict. As the clash of ideas casts the light, so the balanced intensification of the function of the various faculties of the individual produces life, health, and an increase in the play of deterministic systems, experienced by the individual as freedom. But in all this description of mechanisms, it remains more than a little bit difficult to identify wills and persons. For that, however, we can certainly count on Stirner—but not quite yet.
    I will admit that I came to see Stirner as a means to supplement Proudhon reluctantly, and by a rather peculiar route. As much as I appreciate a certain relentlessness in egoist thought, and as much pleasure as I have had in reading and rereading Stirner, James L. Walker, John Badcock and others—as good to think with as I have found them—like Proudhon, I find that there is something in egoistic thinking which does not ultimately speak to me. The same is true, of course, of most forms of collectivism, or, on another register, of altruistic philosophy. What I have dubbed the “two-gun” approach, by which I’ve sought what really does speak to me in the play of various “individualisms” and “socialisms,” has nonetheless committed me to an immersion in a number of approaches, which I can only really take on as useful disciplines and occasions for experiment. But it has also committed me to an engagement with the thinker arguably responsible for the terms “individualism” and “socialism”—Pierre Leroux, Proudhon’s antagonist and influence, and possibly William B. Greene’s most important philosophical source, philosopher of “humanity,” and defender of property (but a non-exclusive property which included a sort of natural right in other people.) 
    With “Two-Gun Mutualism” I have elevated this decidedly challenging character to a sort of central place, both in my reading of mutualism’s past and in my attempt to advance it into the future. The metaphor of the two guns is drawn from his essay on “Individualism and Socialism” (and if readers of this essay have not yet read that and my essay on “Two-Gun Mutualism and the Golden Rule,” perhaps that would be in order before I try to produce too much more light from clashing ideas.)
    [to be continued…]


    Filed under Gift Economy of Property, The Essence of Mutualism, Two-Gun Mutualism

    Responses on mutualist property theory: Self-ownership

    Given the amount that I’ve already written about mutualist property theory, both historically and in the context of “the gift economy of property,” and the specific context of the C4SS symposium, there wasn’t much chance that my post on mutualist land theory was going to be a summary of my own theory. Instead, it was really a series of reasons why I couldn’t just engage the question in terms of abandonment, with some gestures back at the theory I’ve been building. That sort of thing never quite cuts it in the blogosphere, as the comments make clear. I sympathize with Derek for thinking that things are left in a potentially paradoxical state. And I guess the “quibbles” in the other comments are just the sort of thing that have to be clarified on a regular basis. I’ll try to do that here:

    The commenter (Iain McKay) has “two quibbles:”

    First, is the acceptance of “self-ownership”—that is problematic because it mixes up something which is inalienable (liberty) with something which is (property). This allows social relations of authority, domination and exploitation to occur.

    This can be seen from Locke, who uses “property in labour” to justify the exploitation of workers’ labour by their employee [employer, I assume]—as intended. It is used this way by propertarians to this day.

    As the Iain has suggested, folks like Carole Pateman and David Ellerman have approached these questions differently, with Pateman rejecting the notion of “self-ownership,” by distinguishing it from “property in the person.” There’s a lot to like about Pateman’s essay but there’s no question that it is an intervention in a particular libertarian debate about “property rights” that I’ve been trying to shake for a long time now.

    In case it hasn’t been clear, even in my most schematic posts, I consider the conflation of various forms of “property” and “property rights” a fairly serious problem with much of the property theory I encounter. Libertarians who essentially reduce property rights to a right of reprisal against invasion seem to me to be begging a rather stunning number of questions along the way. And I’m attempting to follow a strategy of Proudhon’s—the occasion for a lot of his best, funniest, sometimes snarkiest writing—of not attributing the problems of property to the bad faith of Locke, or “the propertarians” at all times, but to more-or-less well-intentioned systems that simply don’t live up to the claims made for them—and then of either showing how the systems might be fixed or revealing what the systems actually do when functioning correctly. Did Locke set out to build a system for defrauding the workers? Maybe. Is the whole “alienability of labor” of labor thing simply unthinkable? That seems to depend on some clarifications of what is really involved. The second question depends on making sure we know what is at stake in the system. The first deals with intent, and may just be beside the point, if the system that Locke built did not serve those intentions particularly well.

    As I have been reading Locke, whatever his intentions, it appears that appropriation of external resources depends on a prior and inalienable property in person, and is limited to essentially non-rivalrous possession. As a start for a system to rob the workers, this seems unpromising, since, among other things, it severely limits the incentive for the sorts of labor-alienation responsible for so much capital accumulation. Indeed, it seems to militate very strongly against the possibility of a capitalist class emerging. Whatever Locke set out to do, the “homesteading” theory doesn’t seem to give much shelter to capitalism—unless, of course, you remove the proviso that demands a rough equality of property, the thing that gives it its social character, as well as whatever claims it may have to universality and self-evidence. But the arguments against the proviso, as I argued in the earlier post, just don’t seem all that convincing to me.

    Now, as we know, Locke moved beyond this treatment of homesteading in the state of nature to a justification of property in an exchange economy. But his justification was that division of labor and exchange created virtually the same effects as the initial labor-mixing scenario. That claim has to rise and fall on its own merits: either exchange can, in fact, live up to the high standards of equality that Locke seems to have posited for property acquired by labor-mixing, or it can’t. If it can’t, and we believe the whole thing was a set-up in the first place, there’s still every reason to emphasize the difference—and the alleged similarity—between the two standards.

    Anyway, on the question of whether “self-ownership” necessarily mixes up the inalienable and the alienable: 1) the case can certainly be made, as Pateman makes it, but there seem to be problems with the construction of “property in the person” in that case as well; 2) that mixed-up “self-ownership” is not—and, by this point, pretty explicitly not—the concept that I have “accepted;” and 3) to the extent that “self-ownership” is supposed to refer to Locke’s “property in person,” it isn’t at all clear that the problem raised exists in the portion of Locke’s theory that I have been addressing.

    We know that “self-ownership” is often used in ways that are less than careful and coherent. The cart and the horse change positions with a disturbing frequency. In laying out the various senses of “property” and the various elements of appropriation, and in my ongoing examination of the points of contact between Proudhon and Stirner, virtually everything I’ve said has been in the service of straightening out these cart-and-horse, cause-and-effect confusions.

    It’s seems straightforward to claim that “I own myself” in a somewhat different way than “I own my abilities,” or “I own the product of my abilities,” or “I own a field or forest,” or “I own that toaster that I bought at K-Mart.” Call the first “self-ownership” or “property in the person,” consider the second possible or impossible on the grounds of alienability, but if you believe that I can own that toaster because it is like owning the direct products of my labor, and I can own those products because they are an expression of my abilities and exertions, and I own the abilities and exertions because they are the expressions of a self that I own pretty much as an a priori premise, don’t end up by claiming that the self is really just like a toaster that you can’t give away. This seems to be about as far as Pateman’s quibble takes us, and while, in some senses, it’s better than deriving all forms of property from self-ownership, and then describing the self as a toaster that you can give away, that’s not much of a theoretical payoff.

    The property theories that appeal to some sort of “natural right” want to move from a fact about the nature of human being, to a generalizable rule about the “mine and thine.” All too often, they seem to move from a derivative right, back up the chain of justification to try to make the facts fit. The result is again, all too often, weird divisions of the person into owning and owned elements—the sort of thing that has a tendency to keep dividing and retreating before our attempts at justification.

    Now, the suggestion that we might choose “liberty” over “property” as the fact that we focus on, doesn’t seem to get us very far. After all, liberty is already a keyword for all the contenders in the struggle over just property rights, and the vision of “free people working as equals” is shared by anarchists of schools who have little else in common. And if we take Proudhon for our guide, then we there is no disentangling liberty from property. After all, in 1840, the goal was a “third form of society,” a “synthesis of community and property,” which he identified as “liberty.” And as his thought matured, Proudhon’s idea of “synthesis” became more and more one of irreducible dialectics, antinomies, within which antagonistic elements acted as counter-forces to one another. It is true that Proudhon identified property with despotism, and that he never renounced that view, but it is also true that it was the very despotic tendencies that he had identified that soon led him to embrace property within the context of the property-community dialectic.

    This issue of the “third form of society,” and the relation of Proudhon’s federalism to collectivism, is something I need to tackle in a separate post. For the moment, I want to review and clarify what I do indeed accept with regard to “self-ownership.”

    It’s always important to remember how rough-and-tumble and sharp-edged things tend to be within Proudhon’s systems. And it’s necessary to recall just how far he went beyond the few phrases we tend to focus on:

    “They called me ‘demolisher,’” he himself said; “this name will remain after I am gone: it’s the limit of inadmissibility that is opposed to all my work, that I am a man of demolition, unable to produce! … I have already given quite thorough demonstrations of such entirely positive things as:

    “A theory of force: the metaphysics of the group (this, as well as the theory of nationalities, will be especially demonstrated in a book to be published);

    “A dialectical theory: formation of genera and species by the serial method; expansion of the syllogism, which is good only when the premises are allowed;

    “A theory of law and morality (doctrine of immanence);
    “A theory of freedom;
    “A theory of the Fall, i.e. the origin of moral evil: idealism;
    “A theory of the right of force: the right of war and the rights of peoples;
    “A theory of contract: federation, public or constitutional law;
    “A theory of nationalities, derived from the collective force: citizenship, autonomy;
    “A theory of the division of powers, correlate with the collective force;
    “A theory of property;
    “A theory of credit: mutuality, correlate with federation;
    “A theory of literary property;
    “A theory of taxation;
    “A theory of the balance of trade;
    “A theory of population;
    “A theory of the family and marriage;
    “As well as a host of incidental truths.” 

    Out of all of this, anarchists tend to know something about his theories of credit and of federation—if only that he was in favor of free credit and federation—and enough about his property theory—generally the three famous slogans—to be dangerous. And they know he had some dodgy ideas about women and Jews—and later had some appeal for certain fascists. But the basic dynamic of Proudhon’s thought—the role of those antinomic, irreducible dialectics; the serial analysis he inherited from Fourier; his treatment of justice as balance, and his progressive commitment to “leveling up;” the ways in which his theories of the group and of collective force didn’t allow him to simply choose between property and community, the individual or the group, centralization or decentralization, etc.—all the stuff that makes the slogans and aphorisms make sense, never seems to get in the mix somehow. In 1840, he showed us that the old systems of “force and fraud” had been, in their way, evolutionary stages in the development of justice. “Community and property,” objectionable separately, were the elements of liberty. In 1846, when his working model was the “economic contradictions,” he damned both property and community as “theft,” because they were “non-reciprocity.” Community, he said, was “the negation of opposing terms,” which would be sort of a curious objection, if we did not know that, a few years later, Proudhon would defined reciprocity as “the mutual penetration of antagonistic elements.” Property is the “religion of force,” while community is “the religion of destitution”—and yet it is “between” them that Proudhon insists he “will make a world.” By the 1850s, Proudhon delved deeper and deeper into these dynamics, developing his progressive philosophy—affirming only progress, denying only the absolute—and then his theories of collective and countervailing forces, until he finally came to define the liberty of the individual in terms of the complex play of individually absolute, despotic forces: the more complex the play, the more individually despotic the forces, the greater the quantity of freedom for the individual defined and composed by that play. Peace is the perfection of freedom, and liberty is the product of that perfection, the outcome of complex antagonism transformed into association. As early as 1849, he claimed that the individualization of interests, “complete insolidarity,” was the first step by which:

    … the mutualist organization of exchange, of circulation, of credit, of buying and selling, the abolition of taxes and tolls of every nature which place burdens on production and bans on goods, irresistibly push the producers, each following his specialty, towards a centralization analogous with that of the State, but in which no one obeys, no one is dependent, and everyone is free and sovereign …

    Liberty, then, depends on property—at least if we understand property as first and foremost being associated with the individual self and the development of its organizing law. Federation gains its force as much from the separation, even “antagonism” of the federated elements, as it does from their organization under a common rule. And, of course, the increased force and freedom of the federation is not a matter of indifference to its constituents.

    I’ve described Proudhon’s system as an individualism on multiple scales. It is, in an important sense, also a collectivism at all those scales, but there are advantages, I think, in tackling this difficult dialectical relation from the side with the most phenomenological immediacy for us as human ethical and political actors. Life is, as Pierre Leroux put it, inescapably both objective and subjective, but our understanding of the dynamic is inescapably mediated by subjectivity.

    We know that our body—the most immediate physical site of the self—is made up of elements organized according to particular laws, and that those elements are, in turn, composed of other organized elements, and so on, down as far as we’ve been able to explore. We know that our health depends on the free functioning of these constituent elements—just as we know that our health, and that free functioning, are not independent of the organization and function of higher-order systems (ecosystems, societies, social classes, etc.) Individuals are always already groups, and there are various sorts of influence and feedback between the various orders of individuality/collectivity. Joseph Déjacque’s “universal circulus” is the sum of all that influence and feedback, which simultaneously and irresistibly separates the wheat from the chaff at every level, according to a logic that is the product and the law of all the constituent individuals and their interactions. Seen from this side—the side of the most inclusive sort of “community”—the claims to “property” of any individual might seems pretty thin, except that this circulation of everything is hardly the lazy sloshing of some undifferentiated mass. If there is an overall guiding law that says, this is wheat and this is chaff, it does not appear apart from all the various levels of organization and legislation beneath it. There is no collective without the elements.

    More importantly, there is no collectivity—no “life,” in some very basic sense—without the individuality of the elements. The theory of collective force, Proudhon’s theory of liberty and ecological science agree in associating the fullest and most robust conditions for life with diversity and multiplicity. A recent article in Machete on Stirner and the “contr’un” associated with de la Boetie suggests that perhaps Stirner also holds a key to part of the mystery we’re wrestling with:

    In reality, Multiplicity finds its best expression precisely in what apparently contradicts it: the uniqueness of the individual. Anchored as we are in false dichotomies, who would ever think to look at Stirner as a philosopher of Multiplicity? And yet, it really is the singularity of each human being, her unrepeatability that constitutes and guarantees Multiplicity. The more human beings are different from each other, the more they refuse the collective identities offered by social and political conventions…and turn to the discovery and creation of themselves, and the more they create new desires, new sensibilities, new ideas, new worlds, which is a reason why it would be necessary to stimulate and defend individual differences rather than blurring them in ‘common agreement’. [translation by Apio Ludicrus, who spotted the article]

     From the egoist side, of course, self-ownership can be very simple (although I’m seeing very interesting, complex stuff from some serious students of Stirner these days): self-ownership is simply self-enjoyment, the enjoyment of that which falls within the power of the unique one, without concerns about that enjoyment being exclusive, or conforming to any external standards of justice, and certainly without concern about conformity to “private property” conventions. But that sort of egoist is really playing a different game than those of us embroiled in this debate over property. Arguably, an awful lot of familiar concerns race back into the picture the moment that the egoist acknowledges another unique, and begins to forge some “union of egoists,” but that’s a set of problems to address another day…

    We know that for mutualists, things are simple in their own way: we start with mutual recognition, and we, if we are pursuing the neo-Proudhonian, “two-gun” approach, we know that we have to take into account both the universal circulus (which threatens to simply sweep away the individual in its proliferation of connections) and the unique (which threatens to sweep away all standards whatsoever, leaving us with a world of uniques, both linked and distinguished by their incommensurability to one another.) What’s “simple” is that we know we’ve shooting for mutual association—not necessarily “associations,” in an institutional sense, since mutualist social approximations are likely to run the gamut from the most ephemeral union of egoists to the sort of durable institutions that Proudhon was unafraid to describe as an (anarchistic) state—and we know that we want those associations to give free play to a very pronounced sort of individuality—the sort that responds to names like “the unique” or “free absolute.” The details aren’t simple, but at least we know what sorts of difficult things we need to keep in play.

    Is “self-ownership” compatible with that play of difficult things? The egoist’s “self-enjoyment” certainly looks like a “fact” about human being, which is not dependent on the imposition of some property model presumably derived from it. It begs few questions, and seems to smuggle in few of the assumptions of any particular system of property. As a “matter of fact,” it resembles what Proudhon initially called simple “possession”—and like simple possession, it guarantees nothing in the way of justice. And it leaves any system of property that might be derived from it open to some things not generally accepted in “private property” schemes: the possibility that all sorts of interconnections and overlaps, all sorts of non-exclusive possessions, are proper to human being—and thus the most “natural” norms for property. But I’m ultimately a whole lot less interested in natural rights than in human approximations of justice. I’m not sure collectivist César de Paepe was wrong when, in debate with the mutualists, he claimed that “Society has only one right, which is to conform to its own laws, to the laws of its historic development…,” but I know that there’s really no stopping at any individual right once you’ve started down that particular road—perhaps not even at the sort of “recognitions of human dignity” that Proudhon embraced.

    So where and how does the mutualist attempt to swim against the stream of natural and historical development, in order to posit a potentially-mutual something-or-other that might intervene in that development in the name of greater liberty? For over two years now, my suggestion has been that we embrace the notion of a “gift economy of property,” that we acknowledge, on the one hand, what is profoundly unnatural about individual rights, and explore the real interconnections that notions of individual property tend to obscure, while, on the other hand, we give to one another the one sort of property that robs no one, the recognition of the other as a unique being, subject to their own law of development, and in many ways incommensurable with all other unique beings.

    Over two years ago, I introduced the notion of the “gift economy of property,” my intervention in the debate over “self-ownership,” as a sort of “foundation” on which a full mutualist property theory might be built:

    My intuition, based in part on some language various places in Proudhon’s work and in part on the connections I’ve been making to other continental thought, is that a “gift economy,” in the sense of a system in which something, which can be rightfully given, is given, with no specific expectations of return, could only arise in fairly limited circumstances, and perhaps can only have one application within Proudhon’s thought–but that one application may be a bit of a doozy. We know that there is, for Proudhon, some opening for society to emerge as a “pact of liberty” leading towards approximations of equality and finally of justice. We know that freedom rises from the interplay of necessity and liberty, and that property too has its internal contradictions. Proudhon’s moi has very little that he can rightfully give, if even his own “property” is theft. But he can, perhaps, give property to the other, through recognition, which steals nothing, robs no one, and is perfectly gratuitous, even if, and this is the character of the gift economy, he cannot be sure of reciprocation. To the extent, however, that commerce is based in equal recognition, if not necessarily any other sort of equality, then this particular gift economy might be strangely (given all we have said, and some of the names we have invoked) foundational.

    As much as my connections and key-words have changed in that time, that initial argument still remains foundational for the various interventions in property theory that I’ve made since. That’s one “doozy” of an application—a mutually-gifted self-ownership, still haunted in important ways by one version of the “impossibility” of property—if all that I have “accepted”—and, whatever its own difficulties, I don’t think it suffers from the sorts of problems Pateman raises.

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    Filed under Gift Economy of Property, John Locke, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, property, self-ownership

    What is property? — Some thoughts about how to proceed

    I’ve had a couple of useful discussions of property over the last few weeks—over coffee and ale with Apio Ludicrus and online with Derek Wittorff—where the question of the points of contact between Proudhon and Stirner have come up again. There is work being translated that will eventually help to clarify similarities and differences, but there’s also a bit of analytic preparing of the terrain that needs to be done, and could easily be done right now. What I want to try to do right now is to differentiate some of the things that “property” means in these two bodies of work, and suggest some of the relationships between them. Proudhon initially organized his distinctions around the opposition between fact (“possession”) and right (“naked property”), and Stirner’s distinction between “property” (as ownness) and (state supported) “private property” follows similar lines. That convergence gives us a general trajectory. Let’s work from “fact” to “right.”

    We have to begin with the difficult, conceptually slippery stuff. Start with the “unique one” (Stirner) or “absolute” individuality (Proudhon). We have a class of entities defined by the fact that they (as “unique ones”) express only themselves, their own law. Every such individuality may—indeed must—be crossed by other expressions of other principles (manifested in other individualities), which could then be accounted for as unique in their own stead and at their own scale. Proudhon was convinced that every absolute individuality was always already a group, organized by a law, and that the existence of the individuality as such depended on that group and that principle of organization. (Likewise, the collective interactions that produce individualities depend on the unique and absolute characteristics of their individual component elements.) I’m not convinced that there is anything in Stirner which necessarily contradicts that assumption. In any event, Proudhon and Stirner seem to share an interest in identifying a class of individualities defined by the ways that they escape any more general classification. “Property” at this level of analysis describes a dynamic ownness, self-enjoyment, more-or-less in the realm of “fact” (whatever fits wrestling with the facticity of this subject may throw us into.) There is obviously another sort of factual analysis that can be done—and has to be done at some point in our analysis of “property”—showing the radical contingency of every unique, and the natural interrelations of all of them. (Joseph Dejacques’ “The Circulus in Universality” is part of that analysis.) The phenomenological experience of the radically separate nature of each unique human individual needs to be tempered by our knowledge that the subject’s “raw” experience of subjectivity is far from the whole story. But there’s no point in getting drawn too far in that direction at this point, when we’re just trying to figure out what kind of thing it is which could be an owner—or a possessor.

    So we start with a unique individuality whose “property” is just what that individuality is, what involves it, what falls within the circle of its self-enjoyment. That individuality need not be an individual human being—though obviously some formulations of the question are of more immediate interest to us—and the objects of its enjoyment need not be enjoyed exclusively. This sort of property ultimately has very little to say about things-as-things. But that’s what is missing in so much property theory: a principle of property that doesn’t have to change shape drastically when we move from talking about the owner to the owned; an account of the unique one and the sphere within which its own uniqueness is manifest, as opposed to an inventory of objects which particularly pertain to it (or over which it has some right to rule), within which we may haphazardly place its physical form and its various “properties.” There are obviously practical reasons for getting around to talking about “the owner and his stuff,” but that’s probably not the place to start.

    I want to renew my pitch for thinking long and hard about “property,” before we even dream about laying out “property rights,” confronting the sort of dynamic self-enjoyment that defines individualities before we start any more loose talk about “self-ownership.” Whatever you think of Stirner’s style, or the various forms of “egoism,” the concept of “the unique” has some real advantages as a starting place for any property theory that doesn’t simply want to read some particular set of rights and conventions back onto the relations that theoretically form its foundations—and it has the added strength, from an anarchistic point of view, of being a concept specifically designed to resist capture and organization by existing archies of various sorts. At his best, Stirner thinks anarchistically—and when he falls short in this regard, his individualism is still mighty suggestive. Proudhon was a more accomplished sociologist, but his work on property always hovered around questions of law. Pierre Leroux and Joseph Dejacque made much clearer the sort of dialectical play that exists between the “unique one” and the “circulus in universality” as “contr’un,” but the assumption behind the “two-gun mutualist” project is that we need to develop the various tendencies and bring them into even higher relief if we are to really come to terms with the ensemble. In many ways, Proudhon’s lengthy engagement with “property” seems like the most promising body of work to focus on, assuming we can remedy some of his errors, omissions and inconsistencies. Obviously, I think that we can do just that.

    Proudhon’s The Theory of Property began with his own attempt to clarify that lengthy project, in a section on “the various acceptations of the word property.” “Acceptation” is a good word in this context, since there’s a good deal of uncertainty whether the difficulties relate more to the specific meanings given to the concept, or to the concept’s ability to circulate in a variety of contexts without quite meaning anything very specific at all. If we were to attempt a broader clarification, what sorts of “acceptations” would be have to account for? At least these, it seems to me:

    1. “Property” is its broadest sense, as a “social problem,” involving both the issue of the “mine and thine” and that of the “you and me;”
    2. “Property” as “ownness,” relating to “the circle of self-enjoyment,” that defines the unique individual, and which refers both the the material resources involved in specific instances of self-enjoyment (the facts of “possession”) and the principle of organization by which they are thus involved;
    3. “Property” or “properties,” referring to those material resources;
    4. “Properties,” referring to the component characteristics of the individual (which both Stirner and Proudhon may encourage us to treat as “uniques” in their own right and at their own scale, and which some theories of property have treated as “property,” in the sense of #3, in order to argue that everyone is a “proprietor” or “capitalist”);
    5. “Property rights,” as social and/or legal attempts to formalize standards for answering some one or more of the question posed by the other senses of “property;”
    6. “Propriety,” in the general sense that each should have and respect its own in a well-managed society;

    and a bunch of subordinate distinctions (real property, chattel property, products, allod, usufruct, etc., etc., etc.), referring to specific property norms and forms proposed in the course of our long engagement with the general problem of “property.” 

    Having untangled all of that, a coherent property theory needs to be able to carry the same terms across the terrain of appropriation, maintenance, abandonment or expropriation, exchange, exclusive and shared domain, the possibilities of “intellectual property,” the relation between theories of property and their abuses, the relation between property and gift, etc.

    It’s a pretty tall order. But it seems to me that we’ve actually made the basic problem (how to get along together with some decent helping of freedom and justice) harder by insisting that the problem of property was simple, or no problem at all.


    Filed under Gift Economy of Property, Max Stirner, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, property

    “property must justify itself or disappear”

    Once more into the breach. Proudhon’s The Theory of Property is one of those books I have been wrestling with for several years now. It’s a complicated, frustrating work, being both an attempt to summarize, clarify and rectify errors in Proudhon’s many previous writings on property and an 11th-hour departure into new territory, inspired by the major works of history and sociology which occupied much of his later career. As a posthumous work, it lacks the careful revision and finishing that Proudhon habitually gave his published writings. That, and the apparently radical departures in theory that it contains, have allowed critics, from the time of its publication to the present, to treat it as a potentially apocryphal text, a product of the editors’, rather than the nominal author’s, intentions. I think I’ve made a pretty good start at showing the basic continuity between the earliest and latest of Proudhon’s property writings, and given some decent indications of how the theoretical epiphanies of the 1850s led to the shift in approach. But it’s past time to present Proudhon’s own account.

    I’ve wrestled with The Theory of Property, and, in the process I’ve had to gradually come to terms with the rest of Proudhon’s property-canon—no small task. To understand the ensemble of the work, the late work has to be the guide, but it is a potentially unreliable guide, so it has to be checked against the sources. Ultimately, we’re talking about a lot of reading, a lot of translation, and a lot of wait-and-see on some details, as the context develops. And since the questions of property and justice are hardly academic, it’s necessary to maintain a critical engagement, to identify the places where Proudhon’s various approximations of property-theory might have developed in other, potentially more useful directions. And it is in this context that The Theory of Property demands serious and resistant reading.

    I don’t think Proudhon himself would have seen the issue facing us much differently. In laying out his “New Theory,” he made it clear that his original theory was not off the table, and that there was some urgency in making what was ultimately a hard choice about how to proceed with regard to “property.”

    The moment has come when property must justify itself or disappear: if I have obtained, these last ten years, some success for the critique that I have made of it, I hope that the reader will not show themselves less favorable today to this exegesis.

    I will first observe that if we want to be successful in our research, it is completely necessary that we abandon the road where our predecessors became lost. In order to make sense of property, they returned to the origins; they scrutinized and analyzed the principle; they invoked the needs of personality and the rights of labor, and appealed to the sovereignty of the legislator. That was to place oneself on the terrain of possession. We have seen in Chapter IV, in the summary critique that we have made of all the controversies, into what paralogisms the authors were thrown. Only skepticism could be the fruit of their efforts; and skepticism is today the only serious opinion which exists on the subject of property. It is necessary to change methods. It is neither in its principle and its origins, nor in its materials that we must seek the reason of property; in all those regards, property, I repeat, has nothing more to offer us than possession; it is in its AIMS.

    But how to discover the purpose of an institution of which one has declared it useless to examine the principle, the origin and the material? Is it not, to lightheartedly pose an insoluble problem? Property, indeed, is absolute, unconditional, jus utendi et abutendi, or it is nothing. Now, who says absolute, says indefinable, says a thing which one can recognize neither by its limits nor its conditions, neither by its material, nor by the date of its appearance. To seek the aims of property in what we can know of it beginnings, of the animating principle on which it rests, of the circumstances under which it manifests itself, that would be always to go in circles, and to disappear into contradiction. We cannot even bring to testimony the services that it is supposed to render, since those services are none other than those of possession itself; because we only know them imperfectly; because nothing proves besides that we cannot obtain for ourselves the same guarantees, and still better ones, by other means.

    Here again, and for the second time, I say that it is necessary to change methods and to start ourselves on an unknown road. The only thing that we can know clearly about property, and by which we can distinguish it from possession, is that it is absolute abusive; Very well! It is in its absolutism, in its abuses that we must seek the aim. 

    This is pretty strong stuff, and, to me at least, fairly contemporary.  Proudhon complains that property theory has been confused, that without a clear sense of what they were dealing, where it came from or what it’s aims might be, the critics and defenders of property ended up lost in the fog. Lots of the pieces of the critiques and the defenses were, in fact, pretty much on target, but since the big picture seemed contradictory, there was plenty of incentive not to grasp the whole thing. Proudhon himself quite obviously resisted his own final program. One of the most remarkable things about The Theory of Property is the extent to which it reads like the Proudhon of 1840 having one last argument with the Proudhon of the 1850s and after. After all, Proudhon testified that he, personally, had no need of property.

    I have developed the considerations which make property intelligible, rational, legitimate, and without which it remains usurping and odious.

    And yet, even in these conditions, it presents something egoist which is always unpleasant to me. My reason being egalitarian, anti-governmental, and the enemy of ferocity and the abuse of force, can accept, the dependence on property as a shield, a place of safety for the weak: my heart will never be in it. For myself, I do not need that concession, either to earn my bread, or to fulfill my civic duties, or for my happiness. I do not need to encounter it in others to aid them in their weakness and respect their rights. I feel enough of the energy of conscience, enough intellectual force, to sustain with dignity all of my relations; and if the majority of my fellow citizens resembled me, what would we have to do with that institution? Where would be the risk of tyranny, or the risk of ruin from competition and free exchange? Where would be the peril to the small, the orphan and the worker? Where would be the need for pride, ambition, and avarice, which can satisfy itself only by immense appropriation? 

    The reference to “something egoist” here should be handled with care, since the translation is a bit of a provocation on my part. Clearly, what Proudhon objects to is selfishness, not the “selfiness” of Tak Kak, or the egoism of Stirner’s “unique one.” What Proudhon is proposing is, in fact, the use of “private property,” in the sense Stirner used the term, as a hedge against those whose commitment to “property” does not extend to properly managing their relations. Having observed that “absolutism” is the key to property (because it is the key to identity, understood as a matter of unique individuals developing according to their own “law”), and having decided very early on (1842 or earlier) that the solution to the problem of individual absolutism was a balancing of forces and a leveling of the playing field (universalization of property, destruction of privilege), — and, finally, having discovered in his historical researches that the absence of private property was no guarantee against the “usurping and odious” — the main question left for Proudhon was whether all those unique individuals would simply be left to fight it out (in the sort of “tough love,” property-primitivist scenario) on a leveled-down battlefield, or whether it was possible to level-up through the universalization of a strong form of individual property.

    The “New Theory” can be seen, without much of a stretch, as an attempt to kickstart the Union of Egoists (explicitly understood as the union of unique ones through their individual pursuit of their unique and individual relations), using “private property” (in Stirner’s sense) to protect the development of “property” (ditto). As later Proudhonians suggested, the transition was through a sort of de facto “union of capitalists,” who couldn’t constitute a dominant class because they lacked a class to dominate, being all dependent on one another. (See Tucker’s “Should Labor be Paid or Not?”) Proudhon never explicitly clarified the relation between “ownness” and private property, either as Locke did nor as Stirner did, but he spent a lot of time developing the theory of how “absolutes,” and particularly human “free absolutes,” developed, starting, back in 1840, with his observation that “Man errs, because he learns.” Knowledge is the perfection of error, as peace is the perfection of war, and as perfection is the endpoint of series of approximations. The individual develops according to a unique, internal law of organization — is, in fact, defined as an individual on the basis of that law — and its present state always points to some future development, with the implied line marking its prospective “right” (droit, as in a straight line). Because the self is development, present possession can’t encompass what it is in its fullness. That which is possessed may fall on the line of the self’s development, and falls within the circle of “self-enjoyment” (Stirner’s “property”), but that can’t be the end of the story for a self that exists to progress, whose absolutism is dynamic, and for which the capture by any other absolutism would be a kind of interruption or death. For the early Proudhon, the concern is that private property, as a “right of use and abuse,” was just the sort of tool which could be used to subordinate one individual’s development to the absolutism of another. He was ready to tackle the general acceptance of property because he knew that we erred on the way to learning, and some big mistakes were going to be expected along the way. (That’s one reason he so frequently stated that he wasn’t picking fights against people, but against principles.) As he matured, he quickly came to see that the erring and the learning were all pretty well mixed up together, and his understanding of the “abuse” allowed by property shifted. He came to associate this licit “abuse” with error, rather than domination, and having already identified error as a necessary part of individual development, his advocacy of universal simple property is ultimately nothing more than a proposal to protect for each individual a space in which to learn and grow.

    Call it the union of egoists, with sturdy fenders and protective gear, because anarchism is the sort of vehicle that we’re bound to run off the road our share of times.

    I’ve been calling it “the gift-economy of property” [scroll down for the argument], because I think Proudhon overstated the gap between principles and aims, and Stirner perhaps underestimated the degree to which his union might need to rely on convention, and that most thinking people in anarchist circles deny neither the significance of the unique individual or of the collectivities in which s/he is entangled in all sorts of ways — so that there doesn’t seem to be anything to do but to tackle both the restricted economies of “property” and the general economy that defies and defines them, to grasp “gift” and “property” where they give rise to one another. My sense is that this sort of thing, getting up to your elbows in concepts that twist and turn into each other at regular intervals, is a sport with limited appeal — and certainly one that cuts against the grain of an increasingly fundamentalist intellectual culture. But I also don’t see any easy way around it, if anarchism is to be something other than that smug feeling we carry around, that “at least I’m not a statist,” while actual freedom — societies that can respond to unique individuals with something other than a muzzle and a jackboot, systems of “property” (in the broadest sense) that can respect the free development of those individuals by respecting their access to resources — remains elusive.

    Proudhon gave the struggle with “property” a good chunk of his adult life, 25 years or so. I’ve got to that feeling that “property must justify itself or disappear” in much shorter order. Having invested so much already in presenting Proudhon’s theory, I’m committed to getting the rest of the requisite translation done, and spelling out, as best I can, the ways in which that crowd we left arguing on the riverbank awhile back provide us with all the clues to make the problems associated with “property” at least a lot more manageable. But I really do feel like — having satisfied myself that the “property” of Stirner’s unique and the “property” of Proudhon’s final proposal are compatible, and not incompatible with the initial spirit of Lockean appropriation or Proudhon’s famous critiques — there isn’t much to do but “own up,” and learn to take property a whole lot more seriously than we have, or else let the question drop, and find other languages to guide us as we try to live as unique and free absolutes.

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    Filed under Gift Economy of Property, Max Stirner, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, property, Theory of Property

    Trajectories: Proudhon and Property

    I’ve been working on bookbinding and papermaking as much as property theory lately, trying to put together the first two issues of “The Wing: A Journal of Attractive Industry” (a very nuts-and-bolts, often how-to zine on environmentally responsible, craft-based micro-enterprise.) But I’ve also been working on the revision of Tucker’s What is Property? translation, and grappling with some issues raised by that and the research for the “Property is Impossible” posts, and that’s sent me back through the last two years’ worth of work on the property question, which really all grew out of the first Proudhon seminar.  I compiled this list of key posts for my own purposes, but others may find it useful as well.

    From the “What is Property?” Seminar:

    Other posts:

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      Filed under Gift Economy of Property, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, possession, property, property is impossible, The Anarchism of Approximations, Two-Gun Mutualism