Category Archives: property

Property? It’s just a phase…

[This response by Proudhon to the Academy of Besançon fills in a bit of the story told in the introduction to What is Property? I’ve been tracking down some of these bits and pieces in order to establish more of the context for that work, as we get ready to do a group reading of the text. This letter has at least one unintentionally funny bit, when Proudhon explains that this property stuff is just a passing interest.]
Besançon, August 3, 1840
Gentlemen, I have learned through the confidences of some of my friends that the publication of my Memoir on Propriété, and especially the preface addressed to the Academy of Besançon, which appears at the beginning of that Memoir, have roused your displeasure, not to mention you indignation, against me. That is the motive that enlists me to explain to you here, in few words and in all their simplicity, my conduct and my intentions.
First of all, what has been taken for a dedication is only a simple report, which my condition as the Suard pensionnaireand the obligation imposed on me to make known each year the progress of my studies seemed to me to explain sufficiently. I knew that a dedication is a certification of patronage of the person or the body to which one has dedicated it, so that it must be agreed to or even planned between the parties involved; I did not wish to free myself from that rule of decorum. On the other hand, a report is necessarily determined in form and content by the work on which one reports; that, Gentlemen, is what explains the silence that I have kept with regard to you, concerning the work, and concerning the address that precedes it.
As for the book itself, I would not argue here the cause that I have embraced; I had no desire to place myself before you as an adversary, no than as an accused; my conviction, what I am saying? my certainty concerning the truths that I have elaborated is invincible, and I respect your opinion to much, Gentlemen, to ever combat it directly. But, if I advance some unheard of paradoxes concerning Property, that basis of our present political state, does it follow that I am an implacable revolutionary, a secret conspirator, an enemy of society? No, Gentlemen; in admitting my doctrines without reservation, all that you could conclude from it, and all that I conclude myself, is that there exists a natural, inalienable right of possession and labor, for the enjoyment of which the proletarian must be prepared, just like the black of the colonies, before receiving the liberty of which no one today contests the right, must be prepared for liberty. That education of the proletarian is the mission confided today to all the men powerful in intelligence and fortune, under pain of being sooner or later crushed under an deluge of those barbarians to whom we are accustomed to give the name of proletarians.
Should I respond to another sort of accusation? Some have seen in my conduct toward my academic tutor, to whom I have never made any communication, a sort of ingratitude.
My conduct with regard to Mr. Droz has been dictate to me by a sentiment of decorum; could I enter with that venerable writer into some conferences on moral science and political economy, when those conferences must have, in my opinion, the result of calling into doubt the value of the moral and economic writings of Mr. Droz? Should I put myself in a state of argumentativeness and, so to speak, permanent disobedience with him? No one loves and admires the talent of Mr. Droz more than me; no one can ever demonstrate a more profound veneration for his character. Now, these sentiments were precisely so many reasons that that forbade a polemic that would have been awkward and too perilous for me.
Gentlemen, the publication of that work was commanded of me by the order of my philosophical studies. This is what the future will demonstrate to you. One last Memoir remains for me to compose on the question of Property; that work accomplished, I would pursue, without turning aside from my path, my studies in philology, metaphysics and moral science.
Gentlemen, I belong to no party, to no coterie; I am without advocates, without partners, without associates. I make no sect, and I would reject the role of tribune, were it ever offered to me, for the simple reason that I do not wish to enslave myself! I have only you, Gentlemen. I only have hope in you. I await favor and a solid reputation only from you. I know that you propose to condemn what you call my opinions, and to reject all solidarity with my ideas. I will nonetheless persist in believing that the time will come when you will give me as much praise as I have caused you irritation. Your first emotion will pass, the distress born among you by the bold expression of a still unperceived physical and economic truth will ease, and with time and reflection, I am sure, you will arrive at the enlightened consciousness of your own sentiments, which you do not known, which you combat and I defend.
I am, Gentlemen, with the most perfect confidence in your understanding and in your justice, your very humble and devoted pensionnaire.
P.-J. Proudhon
[Working Translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

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The Fundamental Laws of the Universe(!) and the Anarchism of Approximation

What would it take to flesh out the federative theory of property hinted at in the last post? What exactly does it mean to say that “property can be understood as an instance of federation”? We’re starting from a provocative reading of bits and pieces from Proudhon’s later works, and leaning hard, for the moment, on a portion of the title of The Theory of Property that didn’t make it out of the manuscript, and we’re going to have to go beyond anything explicitly laid out in Proudhon’s work. Still, I don’t think the extrapolation I’m about to make should strike anyone who has been following the work here as particularly extreme—particularly given the extremities to which we’ll see Proudhon go along the way.

So let’s start with the idea of federation. Proudhon’s The Federative Principle may have been, as he claimed, a rapid sketch, but it was obviously an important one. In it, we find one of those professions of principle of which Proudhon was so fond:

All my economic ideas, developed over the last twenty-five years, can be defined in three words: agro-industrial federation; all my political views may be reduced to a parallel formula: political federation or decentralization; and since I do not make my ideas the instruments of a party or of personal ambition, all my hopes for the present and future are contained in a third term, a corollary of the first two: progressive federation.

There’s not a lot of room left for ambiguity there. The central place of federation in his thought is clear, and if we recall his other claim:

“…transported into the political sphere, what we have previously called mutualism or guarantism takes the name of federalism. In a simple synonymy the revolution, political and economic, is given to us whole…”

we know that mutualism and guarantism essentially occupy the same place.

As a concept, this mutualism-guarantism-federation is perhaps a little tough to grasp. The synonymy doesn’t really seem all that simple. But that not-so-simple synonymy turns out to be a problem with several layers, as we start to look again at the individual synonyms. If we look at the explanation of “the mutualist system” in The Political Capacity of the Working Classes we find a fairly representative example of Proudhon’s treatment of mutuality:

The French word mutuel, mutualité, mutuation, which has for synonyms réciproque, réciprocité, comes from the Latin mutuum, which means [a consumer] loan, and in a broader sense, exchange. We know that in the consumer loan the object loaned is consumed by the borrower, who gives the equivalent, either of the same nature or in any other form. Suppose that the lender becomes a borrower on his side, you would have a mutual service, and consequently an exchange: such is the logical link has given the same name to two different operations. Nothing is more elementary than this notion

Mutualism is thus a system of credit, in some sense, but as we look around a bit more it appears that we can’t just leap from this family of mutual ideas to, say, the Bank of the People or some understanding of credit that we’ve brought along with us. In fact, when we go back to the 1848 article on the “Organization of Credit and Circulation,” where it quite literally is a question of introducing the first version of the Bank of the People, we find Proudhon grounding his practical proposal in an exploration of the “fundamental laws of the universe,” one of which is reciprocity, mutuality’s synonym:

We need, however, no great effort of reflection in order to understand that justice, union, accord, harmony, and even fraternity, necessarily suppose two terms and that unless we are to fall in to the absurd system of absolute identity, which is to say absolute nothingness, contradiction is the fundamental law, not only of society, but of the universe!

Such is also the first law that I proclaim, in agreement with religion and philosophy: it is Contradiction. Universal Antagonism.

But, just as life supposes contradiction, contradiction in its turn calls for justice: from this the second law of creation and humanity, the mutual penetration of antagonistic elements, RECIPROCITY.

RECIPROCITY, in all creation, is the principle of existence. In the social order, Reciprocity is the principle of social reality, the formula of justice. Its basis is the eternal antagonism of ideas, opinions, passions, capacities, temperaments, and interests. It is even the condition of love.

RECIPROCITY is expressed in the precept: Do unto others what you would have others do unto you; a precept that political economy has translated in its famous formula: Products exchange for products.

Now the evil that devours us comes from the fact that the law of reciprocity is unknown, or violated. The remedy is entirely in the promulgation of that law. The organization of our mutual and reciprocal relations is the entirety of social science.

This is really pure Proudhon, writing like the best socialist philosophers of his era, swooping from one scale of concerns to another, and back again, so quickly and nimbly that you might miss it if you’re not expecting the maneuver. And these are the moments that, from my perspective at least, give us our clearest glimpses of just how much is going on in Proudhon’s thought. So, on the way to a practical proposal about credit, we get the first two “fundamental laws of the universe:” universal antagonism and mutual penetration of the antagonistic elements.

We’ve tended to see and remember that Proudhon thought reciprocity resembled the Golden Rule, and I’ve spent some time working out the most robust version of that principle that I can, but it’s been harder to incorporate all the other things that Proudhon said about reciprocity into our account of mutualism. What we have generally treated as an ethical principle is also, and perhaps primarily, an observation about how the world works, an observation about ontology. I think some reluctance to tackle the fundamental laws of the universe may be considered simply prudent. But those who have been reading along can perhaps see that I’ve been trying to pull these various threads together for quite some time, and that for roughly a year now I’ve had a sort of “Note to self” stuck up at the top of the page here.

The first law of the universe is Contradiction, Universal Antagonism, and we know it because everything important to us about being in the world seems to rely on something other than, and opposed to, “the absurd system of absolute identity.” So now we need to talk about identity (which will, necessarily, carry us back into the vicinity of property.) And, again, we have to recognize that we are not just, and perhaps not even primarily, talking about ethical precepts now. Identity leads us to antagonism because all of the ways that we identify identity seems to depend on something other than simple internal uniformity. Absolute identity is an illusion of authority, and the alternative is a sort of contr’un, which is always to some degree at war with itself (as a simple unity.) We can recall some of the ways that we have marked this non-simple character, in relation to human selves:

  • Proudhon: “Every individual is a group.”
  • Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
The second law is Reciprocity, Mutuality, which we understand is related to credit and exchange, and answers somehow to the provocative formula of “the mutual penetration of antagonistic elements,” all without ceasing to also resemble or invoke the Golden Rule. Identity exists between Universal Antagonism and Imminent Justice. (We might say: between War and Peace and Justice in the Revolution and in the Church.) If things are, on the one hand, always coming apart more than our sense of them as unique things easily accounts for, it appears that they are, on the other hand, always more mixed up together than we tend to think. There are comments in The Philosophy of Progress about the impossibility of separating the self and the non-self that undoubtedly speak to this general insight, but there is also the the whole theory of the collective force and collective beings.

The more you chase the references around in Proudhon’s work, the more the metaphors of love and war, science and commerce seem to all get mixed up together. But that’s often a good sign in his work, suggesting you’re closing in on something central. A full explication of all the textual concerns would be demanding, but the general idea isn’t terribly difficult. As Whitman said, we are “not contain’d between [our] hat and boots.” The business of possessing an individual identity involves us in a sort of constant borrowing and lending, which involves some overlapping, some interpenetrating which is at least antagonistic to the simpler ideas of identity. That naturally means it will have some consequences for any simple notions of property as well.

And this is really a point in the elaboration of Proudhon’s thought that we’ve reached quite a number of times. When we bring in Proudhon theory of collective individuals, with his judgment that we must always encounter other individuals as at least potentially our equals, and then add in his theory of rights:

RIGHT, in general, is the recognition of human dignity in all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives. There are thus as many special rights as humans can raise different claims, owing to the diversity of their faculties and of their exercise. As a consequence, the genealogy of human rights will follow that of the human faculties and their manifestations.

we end up with a cast of political characters that would be complicated under any circumstances, but which we must account for in ways that acknowledge all sorts of overlap and interpenetration—but without, in the process, retaining or introducing any sort of hierarchy.

In the next post, I want to retrace some of the same ground, while talking about the disposition of the products of labor, and we’ll be able to explore some specific applications of Proudhon’s theory, but for now I want to make sure we spend enough time with this notion of mutualism-guarantism-federation to be sure we’re really applying the right principle.

The two laws respecting identity give us a subject always in the midst of an antinomic play between various sorts of contradiction and various sorts of justice. And we should probably understand justice as a temporary reconciliation, taking the form of a balancing between interests between which we have no more defensible criterion of choice. With anarchy generalized, external constitution rejected, we have to work things out without recourse to any outside referee, whether that’s a state or a notion of what is “natural.” We naturally bring lots of experience—and we each bring unique portions of experience—to the encounter, and we equally naturally will not disregard the lessons of that experience, but there is always at least some degree of sheer incommensurability when we’re dealing with experience. That means, of course, that our balances will have no externally constituted scales, no predetermined standards of weights and measures. It is, after all, anarchy that we’re talking about. Presumably we knew what we might be getting into when we started down this road. But let’s let it all sink in. No external criteria means that it is all on us to work things out when there is conflict, and, if Proudhon is to be believed, conflict is the first of the fundamental laws of the universe. So there isn’t much room for passivity, at the same time there isn’t much chance of absolute certainty.

Being a subject already seems hard, and rising to the occasion of being an anarchist actor, worthy of the under such uncertain circumstances, that much harder. There is a reason that I started all of this exploration with the notion that a Proudhonian anarchism would necessarily be an “anarchism of approximation.” Things get harder when we add in the fact that we apparently have to negotiate approximations of justice with all sorts of actors that are radically different from us: other species, states, ecosystems, etc., etc., etc. And it isn’t going to be lost on us that many of those other actors are not what Proudhon called “free absolutes,” beings capable of reflection, or that, whatever their capabilities, most of them do not seem to be capable of negotiation.

From the perspective of the individual human actor, it might begin to look like there was an imbalance developing between rights and responsibilities—an emerging injustice. In federation, human individuals will have to find balance with collectivities of various scales, some of which they will also be “part of” (in the sense of contributing to their collective force) and some of which they will not. Guarantism will involve the development, not just of institutions, but of balances between individuals and institutions, again at a variety of scales. Identity and property theory will always have to deal with an open balance of debits and credits in all the places where we overlap, and the multiplication of individualities means a multiplication of potentially overlapping property claims, always at a variety of scales. I have yet to find anywhere in Proudhon’s work where he elaborates how his sense that something like “contract” and “negotiation” applies to our interactions will all sorts of things that can’t seem to negotiate and enter into contracts gets put into action. Given the puzzle we’re working through at the moment, however, I think we might suspect that had he explicitly expanded his analysis into, say, ecological matters, we probably would have found yet another “synonym” or analogous set of metaphors. But maybe the strongest argument for not simply balking at the difficulties is that the bulk of Proudhon’s work—the critiques of absolutism and governmentalism, and then the elaboration of the theories of justice and conflict—don’t leave us an awful lot of obvious alternatives to at least exploring a bit farther. Having complicated the question of identity, and thus pushing us towards notions of property that may be individual, but will have a hard time being anything but approximately exclusive, there isn’t any very stable ground left to retreat to, without simply chucking an awful lot of what makes up our rationale for anarchism.

There are, I think, lots of ways to expand the scope of human liberty beyond the status quo which do not involve quite so great a leap into the unknown.

The question (which we will no doubt return to again and again) is whether any of them are really worth calling anarchism

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More on Proudhon’s “Theory of Property”

I needed a change of pace for a couple of days, and went back to work on the still-daunting task of taking Proudhon’s The Theory of Property from the current draft translation to something well-contextualized and publishable. There’s a lot of work to do, including revisiting Proudhon’s earlier works on property, finishing work on the Appendix, translating more contextual material and consulting Proudhon’s manuscripts. Fortunately, more of the relevant manuscript material has become available, and I’ve been able to take some time away from other tasks to finish translating the “Disagreement Regarding the Posthumous Publication of Unpublished Works by P.-J. Proudhon.” The “Disagreement” is interesting in a variety of ways, not the least of which is that it doesn’t seem to challenge The Theory of Property in any of the now-conventional ways, down-playing its significance to Proudhon, but really seems to show that the main controversy among Proudhon’s friends and followers was over how best to present his thought—and how to honor his own relationships with those various friends, divided as they were politically. I also got a chance to spend a little more time with Proudhon’s two letters to Grandclément, who sent Proudhon a manuscript on property just at the moment when he was wrapping up the work that would become The Theory of Property, and confirmed for Proudhon the importance of the distinction between allodium and fief. What is interesting about the second letter is that in it Proudhon pretty well inverts our received sense of the relative importance of some of his later works. Here is the opening of that letter:


Passy, February 28, 1863.
To Mr. Grandclément
Sir, I just read all at one go your last, excellent letter of the 25 of this month, and since I have a free moment, I am hurrying to respond to you right away. If I postpone even by two days, the difficulties accumulating, I could no longer do it.
Here is where my book on Poland is, that is to say my new work on Property. I do not have to tell you that property is a veritable ocean (?) to me—an ocean to drink—that its history alone would demand the sacrifice of a lifetime, and that I do not feel sufficiently Benedictine to bury myself thus under one single question. I am in a hurry to know, to comprehend a certain quantity of certain ideas, and, when the erudition does not advance as quickly as I would like, I hardly trouble myself for appealing to a divinatory faculty. — That is what happened to me, for example, with The Federative Principle, of which I just abruptly sketched the theory, or, if you will permit me this ambitious word, the philosophy, in 100 or 200 pages, leaving to others the chore of elaborating the whole system in minute details. That federalism, which boiled for thirty years in my veins, has finally exploded at the combined attacks of the Belgian and French press; the public judges now. What I would permit myself to say to you about it, to you, my master in matters of property, is that I regard that sketch as a fragment detached from the theory of Property itself, a theory that would have already seen the day, if for six months I had not been halted by the tribulations caused me by the Franco-Belgian and Italian Jacobinism, and by the necessity of responding to it. But nothing is lost; I regard even that improvised publication, like the Majorats littéraires, of which I will publish a second and better edition, as a fortunate prelude to my work on Property….

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Practicing the Encounter: Appropriation and Ecology – III

“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

The difficulties facing our theory of just appropriation seem enormous. Hopefully, they also seem familiar. We’re still just trying to find a property that would not be theft, while still remaining property in some fairly strong sense. Theories of possession, to the extent that they remain concerned with matters of fact, don’t get us where we need to go. In order to provide a principle for action they require some additional element, such as respect. But those additional elements always seem to throw us back into the realm of property. There does not seem to be any possibility of talking about just relations in a material sense without some material distinction between selves and others, which inevitably involves a distinction—though not always an exclusive distinction—between mine and thine.

This is not an equivocation or compromise. Nor does it even need to be an attack. The capitalists have had their say about what is proper to human being for long enough, but it’s a rotten story, which has become worse over time, and a good, Stirnerian shrug of the shoulders is about all it takes to move us along. Whether or not capitalism itself is moving towards some final crisis, capitalist philosophy seems to be an increasingly slapdash affair, and we don’t have to look much farther than its own philosophical touchstones to demonstrate the fact. Proudhon’s critiques of the contradictions and impossibilities of capitalist property theories still stand up pretty well today.

So let’s shrug those shoulders and move along. We’re working with a model of anarchist relations that depends on equality (in the absence of any clear means of applying any specific hierarchy or authority) and a recognition of the otherness of the other, the incommensurability or opacity of individuals with regard to one another (which is ultimately just part of the same argument for equality.) We will move towards harmony and accord, but have to start without any a priori criteria for exactly how we’ll get there. What we have is what is imposed on us by the conditions we recognize at the start: there will always be a first step, into the encounter, which we will have to make in a sort of principled isolation, and what I’ve been suggesting is that the principle is property itself, manifested in three “gifts.” There are plenty of ways of looking at the world which might lead us to think of it as fundamentally undivided, and might then lead us to associate that undivided world with our selves—with our own. We see versions of this in Stirner and in Whitman, and we might derive something similar from Déjacque or Pierre Leroux, or simply from the natural sciences. But, despite the truths captured by those various visions of the world, they couldn’t function for us as principles in any social setting, since the first appearance of a really other being would force us to at least supplement them with some theory of property (in the broad sense we have been using.) Similarly, we might, as some individualisms do, break down the larger collectivities into their component parts and simply refuse to deal with the social as such, but that leaves us without the means to account for any sort of collective force. And, in practice, though some individualisms attempt to dispense with the notion of society, the defenders of capitalism and capitalist property seem prone to positing some other, emergent collectivity in its place, whether explicitly identified as the market or simply gestured at as a realm of emergent good consequences. Among the hierarchies for which we seem to have no sanction is the hierarchy of scales of analysis.

Still, while we have no principled grounds on which to privilege any particular class of interests, we have the practical problem posed by the fact that, despite the wide range of possible subjects of appropriation, those free absolutes who can be expected to act according to principle and who can be held responsible for their actions seem to cluster pretty much entirely among individual human actors. Some collectivities can provide feedback in the form of consequences, but generally after the fact. What the complexities of our involvements and the opacity of the others demands is a principle of individual action which allows us to enter into various encounters well-prepared to do justice, in the sense of balancing all of the various interests involved at every stage of the struggle towards accord and harmony.

In that sense, then, the anarchism we are exploring is, as I have put it elsewhere, an individualism, but an individualism at a variety of scales. And the mechanism by which we enter the encounter with an anarchistic posture is the practice of the three gifts of property: the acknowledgment of the other as other, and the gift of those parts of ourselves most integral to that other; the gift of a space within which to explore, and err, in the practice of being a material self, without the inevitable errors fatally disrupting our gift economy of property; and the gift of anarchy, the relinquishing of all existing hierarchies and the advantages they might afford us, whether directly in the material realm or on more ideological terrain, which is the step by which we move beyond mere voluntaryism. It is an individualism always already married to an aspiration that is social, that movement towards accord, harmony and justice, but we can’t skip the individualizing step, nor the principle that attaches to it, without simply scrapping the whole analysis we’ve made here and starting anew.

We’re circling an inevitable conclusion: if we want just appropriation, no matter the range of subjects we suppose, it’s up to us—up to individual human actors, working through the tangled layers of our varied and potentially conflicting interests—to make it happen. We have to enter the encounter in all of our Whitmanesque largeness, representing not just our own interests—including, presumably, the interest in anarchism—but also that of the multitudes which we contain, by which we are contained, and with which we are inextricably involved. And those are big shoes to fill.

There’s not really that much more to say, at least at the level of principles. It has been clear since I entered the discussions of mutualism a decade or so ago that for Proudhon property is a problem. What has been dawning over time is the extent of the problem, and the extent to which it is possibly the problem, which must be solved if we hope to make headway with a range of others. The choices, it seems to me, are to find some means to avoid this particular problem, to tackle the questions of appropriation and ecology in some other terms, or to take on the problem, and to take on in process all of that Whitmanesque largeness, those multitudes, and, of course, those contradictions that Proudhon also considered so integral to our existence. The second approach seems to have a variety of advantages, not the least of which is that it is indeed direct. and as we have posed the question it is not just an approach to the question of property, but at the same time it is a direct approach to the question of ecology—and of anarchy as well.

So, if we move forward and begin to spell out a theory of anarchistic property, how do we proceed? With our explorations of the possible subjects of appropriation, we have the beginnings of a descriptive account of possession, an account of what has been appropriated by individuals in a strictly de facto sense. We have no account of property rights—and to the extent that rights are understood as realization or justification external to our very basic encounter, we know that we won’t be going there. We know that the droit d’aubaine or right of increase is almost certainly off the table. In Proudhon’s terms, we can expect the fruits of social labor to become social property; whether they are ultimately managed and consumed in common, or dispersed to individuals, the role generally assigned to the capitalist—essentially that of external realization of the association—is unlikely to be rewarded as it is at present. We know that exclusive, individual property is unlikely to be the default form, given all the ways in which even apparently solitary production is amplified by accumulated technological power, and, of course, given all of the overlaps in our descriptive account of present appropriation. We know that the liberty to appropriate unowned resources will be fundamentally meaningless, as we will be hard put to find resources which are not already involved in collectivities which are themselves already involved with us human individuals. Given all of that, however, I’m still not certain we will find any more elegant place to begin looking for our principle of just appropriation than in the “enough and as good” proviso of Locke.

It was over three years ago that I spent quite a bit of time talking about that proviso and its consequences, culminating in a series of posts examining under what circumstances the individual might feel themselves free to take “a good draught” of water from a river. My argument was that Locke’s appropriation proviso demanded that unilaterally just appropriation was limited to circumstances where the resource was essentially non-rivalrous, a condition very different from most modern interpretations of the very conditions for appropriation. Our good draught has to still leave a “whole river,” which seems like a problem since, as I put it at the time, “a quantity of water, X, minus some non-zero “good draught,” G, is unlikely to = X.” But we know that our appropriation of resources is not really, or at least not necessarily, any sort of simple subtraction from quantity X, but an intervention in systems—and ultimately in something like the universal circulus of Leroux and Déjacque—with some capacity for replenishing some of their elements. We really can pull the trick with the good draught and the whole river. We just have to wait, assuming that we have not also crippled the ability of the hydrosystem to do its ordinary work. So if we want to leave enough and as good just for humans, we have to manage our resource use in such a way that we do not diminish the virtually non-rivalrous character of the resource for ourselves and those others. If we are consuming resources in a way which diminishes the resilience of ecosystems, then we need to make sure that we are doing our level best to repair the damage we are doing. And because the mechanics of this stuff is enormously complex, there are going to be lots of instances where we simply can’t know the consequences of our actions, and if we want to claim anything approaching just appropriation, then we’re damn well going to have to walk softly.

Of course, if we were to incorporate ecological norms into our common sense about just appropriation, I suspect that we would pretty quickly learn quite a bit more about ecological science, and would find that at least some of the conceptual work necessary to at least begin to represent the interests of various non-human actors in our schemes of just property was perhaps not so difficult as it seems at the moment, when our common sense about such things is of an almost entirely opposing character. It terms of the mechanisms of representing those interests, I think there are any number of ways of approaching the problem of appointing surrogates or caretakers, once the work of analysis is well under way. I think if we were honest with ourselves, we might feel that we had a good deal of restorative work to do, before we could really feel that any further appropriation was justified. I suspect a lot of folks don’t want to confront that sort of dilemma, but it may be precisely what is needed to break down barriers to more efficient resource use, reduction and reuse of waste materials, etc.

Let’s stop there, with the understanding that there is a great deal that can and eventually should be said about anarchistic property, but also that the models and mechanisms so briefly sketched out here should at least suggest ways in which a number of other social problems might be addressed with our simply system of the encounter. Rather than belabor this particular line of thought any longer at the moment, I would like to turn my attention to other concerns, with the understanding that we will come back to the threads that remain hanging here.

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Practicing the Encounter: Appropriation and Ecology – II

The search for an anarchist theory of appropriation has led us into an interesting position. It is common to ask the proponents of property: What happens when all the resources have been appropriated? But we’re faced with a more challenging question: What if, in some very important senses, they always already are? We have to be clear, because we are not yet really talking about property rights, or rightful appropriation, but describing circumstances under which little or nothing of what we might consider available for anything like “homesteading” is not already mixed up with individualities and collectivities that our Proudhonian sociology suggests we should treat as having at least some weight in the scales of justice. So far, we haven’t found much ground on which to treat the weights of the various claims of the various individualities as other than equal, but we also haven’t begun to wrestle with some fairly obvious questions which arise from our expanded roster of potential subjects of appropriation.

We know that there are important differences between free absolutes, which are capable of reflection, responsibility, self-conscious action, etc., and the other absolutes which inform and/or are informed by their actions. Back in 2010, when I began to explore these aspects of Proudhon’s thinking in the context of the Deepwater Horizon spill, the conversation took the predictable turn of focusing on the fact that non-human animals and ecosystems can’t vote, represent themselves in court, purchase their freedom, etc. Proponents of “market environmentalism” rightly suggested that it was necessary for human actors to be convinced of the values represented by those non-human actors’ stakes, but the question of whether those values could actually be represented in a market which considered those other actors as, or as composed of, “resources” which are legitimately appropriable, apart from humans setting limits on themselves, doesn’t seem to have really registered. Our thinking on matters of economics and governments is, on the one hand, mostly anthropocentric and is, on the other, married to a notion of the human person which confines the subject of appropriation largely “between hat and boots.” Capitalist property then arguably splits that person against itself, but that’s not a sort of complexification that is likely to lead in any of the directions Proudhon indicated. Instead, the body becomes just another sort of resource.

Some of the differences between the “common sense” we have inherited and Proudhon’s approach are ideological, and some are no doubt matters of dominant philosophical or scientific trends. I suspect we see warring 19th century tendencies in Proudhon, who often seems ready to reduce his sociology to a sort of social physics, reminiscent of Comte’s positivism, but also seems to flirt with some kind of panpsychism. As Proudhonian antinomies go, that would be neither particularly surprising nor particularly extreme, but I suspect that both aspects are at least a bit alien to most of us. We don’t, I think, necessarily need to go the places that Proudhon’s specific interests and influences took him, but we are undoubtedly better off attempting to be clear about what they might have been.

A more challenging question is just how literally we have to take all this business of individualities and collectivities. And once we’ve settled that, we finally do need to figure out how these other claims to property are to be dealt with in practical terms. For Proudhon, the first important question is whether or not there is something there in the places that we gesture towards with words like society, family, association, market, etc., or whether we have misidentified collections of elements with no real organization for organize wholes. Such an error is always possible, and we should cultivate the egoist’s disdain for spooks when we encounter them. But it has been an important aspect of radical thought to recognize that sometimes our misidentifications are of a different sort than that, as when we have mistaken our own social self-organization for the work of a State, or our collective force for divine power. Almost all anarchist factions seem to acknowledge, and even depend on the fact that there are emergent, agent-like structures in society with at least something very like interests of their own. So the broad question of collectivities doesn’t seem to me to pose particular problems, however much particular structures of association may be denied by the individual factions. I think that Proudhon’s treatment of the State as something which persists suggests one of the criteria we might look at for identifying potential subjects of appropriation, and the fact that what seems to persist in this particular sort of collectivity is human projects is another. When it is a question of acknowledging that our associations might deserve a place in our considerations of what it means to live together in just relations, I don’t think there is a much of a stretch, theoretically speaking, though I think most of us are ideologically predisposed to resist acknowledging certain collectivities. The notion that these collectivities might have interests which are in some ways at odds with the interests of those implicated in them is also probably not a great stretch for most of us, although, again, we may have ideological reasons to resist the notion in particular cases. Communists may be loathe to acknowledge the market, and slow to acknowledge the potential space between the interests of the commune as such and the individuals who are a part of it. Capitalists can be expected to embrace and resist in a roughly opposite manner. But for those who are resistant, the escape route is probably a familiar one. We are dealing here, after all, with just another version of the “synthesis (or irreducible dialectic) of community and property.” While Proudhon leads us to tackle the resulting tensions pretty much head-on, I think most of us are familiar with the ways in which individualist or collectivist theories adapt to accommodate the key questions posed by the opposing theories, without erasing either human individuals or all persistent forms of association.

In previous posts, I’ve tried to lay out the reasons that Proudhon felt he had no anarchistic grounds on which to exclude these social collectivities from consideration, but those who are unconvinced still have to deal with the fact of these human projects and the individual human interests which presumably lie behind them. Existing positions being somewhat flexible, as I’ve suggested, regarding their individual and collective aspects, perhaps there are other means to deal with the problems raised by Proudhon’s analysis, although the question of the specific, possibly antagonistic interests and reasons of the collectivities strikes me as something that it at least not easily incorporated into most existing theories.

Incorporating ecological science, however, seems to pose a much greater challenge, even before its incorporation poses its own challenge to the conventional homesteading model of appropriation. With persistent social collectivities, we are presumably always dealing with human will, even if it is sometimes the effects of wills belonging to humans that are dead. Sometimes we are able to extend our concern to future generations, but generally without leaving the resource-management paradigm, within which most of nature remains fair game, except insofar as we impose anthropocentric consumption limits on ourselves. What ecological science teaches us is that we are dependent for the conditions of our existence on complex systems which, within limits that are not precisely known to us, do much  of the heavy lifting in the process of purifying air and water, transforming waste into the ground for new life, etc. While the political conversation about “the environment” focuses on fairly simple, abstract notions, like average global temperature, debates over the specific health effects of genetically modified species, or individual endangered species, the science ought to lead us into the much more complex study of all the various ways in which anthropogenic changes in the nature and complexity of various natural systems are really undeniable, while the effect remain unpredictable.

In relation to property theory, ecological science teaches us that our interventions in natural systems, our appropriations of resources, involve a “mixing” that goes beyond anything we usually account for in our Robinson Crusoe scenarios. Since very little of our appropriation now involves anything even remotely like the desert island or wilderness homesteading scenarios, and since contemporary appropriation is almost always technologically amplified far beyond the sort of human scale of the classical theories, we can’t ignore the possibility that virtually all of our appropriation will have significant downstream effects. Most of our talk about non-invasive appropriation is probably rooted in science that is a couple of centuries out of date, even if we don’t take into account any claim but those of human beings. We need to confront the fact that the rights generally granted to first-comers now clearly amount to something like a right to determine, in significant but often indeterminable ways, the sort of world in which later arrivals will live. There may be visions of liberty within which that sort of right appears justifiable, but I’m not sure we should call them anarchism, and I’m fairly certain that they do not fall within the scope of the anarchic justice advanced by Proudhon.

So we have a series of reasons to think that we may have trouble identifying “resources” which can be appropriated in a way that only influences the property of a single individual—the very sort of exclusive, individual property that we tend to think of when we used the word—and then we have Proudhon’s individualities, multiplied by our advances in scientific knowledge. We not only have to account for social labor, collective force attributable to specific association, but we have the amplifying force of social labor, in the form of technology, being exerted as a part of what we still call individual appropriation. And we have collectivities that result in part from our actions and exertions, but not entirely or in any way which necessarily corresponds with our own interests and wills. How, given all this, do we define the limits of what is “our own”? An awful lot of traditional individualisms seem to fall short, leaving us, not unexpectedly, with a range of approaches which attempt to maintain individualism and some form of socialism or collectivism in some sort of interconnection or antinomic balance, such as those found in Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” or Pierre Leroux’s work. (Whitman constantly connected oneself, “from top to toe,” with the “en masse,” which is not contained between hat and boots.For Leroux, see in particular the section on Humanity in the Aphorisms.) The visions of self, and of the self’s relations to its others, quickly become rather dizzyingly complex. There is the self, already a group, and then the collectivites in which the self has some interest, as well as those which perhaps have an interest of their own in the self. All of these are potential subjects of appropriation, though their various appropriations in some sense all come down to either individual human appropriations or the sort of things we tend to treat as simply “nature.” And only the individual humans seem to be the sort of free absolute which can shoulder any responsibility in any of this.

What remains to us is to attempt a practical solution of the problem of defining just appropriation in a situation where nothing seems to be free to appropriate, and where the various agents of appropriation come with significantly different capacities for achieving anything like justice. It probably won’t come as any surprise to say at this point that I still see some of our most promising indications in the system of Locke, and particular in the various provisos. But the exposition will have to wait for another day.

(to be concluded…)

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Practicing the Encounter: Appropriation (and Ecology) – I

Let’s get a little practice with all the tools we’ve been assembling. And, to do so, let’s stick, for the moment, with the question of property. It’s been one of my more or less explicit beliefs for a long time now that property theory may be transformed from a tool of capitalism into a tool useful to anarchists, simply by reexamining it very closely with a set of presuppositions informed by the insights of anarchism and ecological science. I’ve also been fairly emphatic that one of the reasons that this has not happened to any great extent, despite the emergence and/or reemergence of anarchistic schools with a fairly significant interest in questions of property, is that we have tended to focus on questions of abandonment, rather than on the question of initial appropriation. It’s probably also the case that in at least some of the “libertarian” capitalist circles where anarchists were once likely to be challenged most seriously on questions of principle, there has been a recent to retreat from well-developed, principled arguments, for vague position such as voluntaryism, uncertain predictions about most “efficient” practices, and bald assertions about natural “liberties.” I think, however, that a different, and potentially more interesting, set of challenges have emerged as a result of the examination of genuinely anarchist theory, and there is no particular need in this instance to bounce ideas off those of our adversaries in order to refine our understanding.

For the moment, I am just going to take it as a still-controversial given that some sort of theory of “property,” in the general sense I have been giving it, is not just useful, but probably unavoidable for anarchists. While we want to avoid the (mis)conceptions by which property becomes capitalist from the outset, and we are, as anarchists, committed to opposing the sorts of hierarchical, “propertarian” structures that we see all around us, we probably still have a need to distinguish between the mine and thine, to make specific judgments about the just distribution of both “natural resources” and the fruits of labor, and to make judgments about responsibility in various senses which never stray very far from the question of “one’s own.” There are a lot of reasons why it would be nice if anarchist theory could bypass the question of “property,” but my experience is that failing to confront the problem doesn’t make it go away, while acknowledging that it is indeed a problem, and settling down into problem-solving mode, has in many way caused the problem to diminish in importance. And now, with the model of the encounter established as a key element of our anarchistic toolkit, it seems possible to position the problem of property as one part of the larger problem of the encounter, the problem we can expect to be solving, and re-solving, as long as we seek to practice anarchistic social relations.

There is a very thorny analysis of property in the context of this encounter of equal uniques, with more or less incommensurable values, which still has to be on our agenda, and which will involve a more head-on encounter with some of the varieties of egoism, but I suspect it may be easier to work towards that question through a somewhat less abstract, speculative look at appropriation. In the past, engaging in a sort of variant reading of Locke, I’ve identified the elements that would probably be necessary for a complete, coherent theory of just appropriation:

  1. An understanding of the subject of appropriation (“individual,” “collective,” irreducibly individual-collective, etc.;
  2. A theory of the nature of that subject’s relation to itself as “self-ownership,” “self-enjoyment,” etc.;
  3. A theory of nature (active or passive? productive? capable of “projects” worthy of acknowledgment?) and of the relation between nature and the subject of appropriation;
  4. Some answer to the question “is there a right of appropriation”?—and some reasonable account for any such right, grounded in the previous elements;
  5. A theory of justice in the exercise of appropriation (provisos, etc.);
  6. A mechanism for appropriation;

That still looks like a fairly useful list, but a number of the elements look rather different to me than they did in early 2011.

Some of the questions look considerably simpler than they once did, and others look enormously more complicated. Having rather thoroughly embraced Proudhon’s sociology in this examination, the answer to the first question seems to be “irreducibly individual-collective,” at least in the sense that we have been looking at all potential subjects as at once individualities and collectivities.

Let’s take a moment and define those two terms a bit more precisely. They both refer to the range of individuals recognized within Proudhon’s sociology, but designate different aspects of those individuals. Since every individual is also a group, since the unity of the individual is itself a matter of the organization of elements according to a specific, developing law of organization, there are occasions where the different designations will be useful, and since we are not just talking about individual humans, let’s let these other terms designate the full range of possibilities.

Now, despite my recourse to borrowing from Stirner’s vocabulary, we’re starting from a place rather different than at least some egoists would probably choose. Someone like John Beverley Robinson, for example, suggested that egoism involved the realization by the individual “that, as far as they are concerned, they are the only individual.” We are isolated by what we might call the opacity of the other:

For each one of us stands alone in the midst of a universe. We are surrounded by sights and sounds which we interpret as exterior to ourselves, although all we know of them are the impressions on our retina and ear drums and other organs of sense. The universe for the individual is measured by these sensations; they are, for him/her, the universe. Some of them they interpret as denoting other individuals, whom they conceive as more or less like themselves. But none of these is his/herself. He/she stands apart. His/her consciousness, and the desires and gratifications that enter into it, is a thing unique; no other can enter into it.

However near and dear to you may be your spouse, children, friends, they are not you; they are outside of you. You are forever alone. Your thoughts and emotions are yours alone. There is no other who experiences your thoughts or your feelings.

This is probably not the only way to interpret Stirner’s position, and Robinson is not terribly consistent, if this understanding of the unique as “the only one” is supposed to be taken at all literally. In any event, it seems to involve an almost entirely opposite response to this problem of opacity from that made by Proudhon, for whom the world seems to be filled with an unknown, but unquestionably large number of at least potential others, which must, by his sole criterion of justice, be encountered as equals.

Does it make sense to extend our range of possible subjects of appropriation to include everything that fits Proudhon’s criterion for an individuality? He talked about approaching rocks as equals in some contexts. Must we stretch our theory of appropriation to accommodate sedimentation?

We can probably dodge some of the worst elements of this particular dilemma, since there are theoretical conundrums that are unlikely to come up in any practical context. So let’s turn to those which are indeed likely to come up. They are probably bad enough, when it comes to shaking up our view of what property theory is all about. We’re familiar with a range of arguments which claim that non-human animals may have as good a “right” to resources as human beings, despite their inability to, say, claim those “rights” in the conventional institutions. It isn’t clear that the counterarguments have much behind them that isn’t ultimately derived from some version of divine command or simply anthropocentric assertion. We may reject the panpsychist intuition that seems to lurk behind Proudhon’s hesitation at drawing a firm line between animal, vegetable and mineral (or we may not), but that still leaves a lot of candidates for some sort of reasonable claim to be subjects of appropriation, even if we’re just now thinking of individuals of species within the animal kingdom. And we have no reason to believe that we can stop there. After all, we have introduced the notion of individualities that are also collectivities precisely because we know that the claimants who must be accounted for in the balance of justice come in a variety of scales.

Some of the collectivities for which we probably have to account are easy enough to recognize. In a given workshop, for example, whether or not we decide that individual laborers have separate claims to some portion of the fruits of the collective labor equal to their individual input, Proudhon’s theory of collective force leads us to believe that some portion of the products is the result of the association itself, and so we might say that the association was among the subjects of appropriation. Most of the practical disagreements among anarchists probably come down to differences of opinion about at what scale we should identify the subject of the property relation, with individualists looking towards the human individual and communists looking towards some relevant collectivity. Where the Proudhonian approach differs from these is in not choosing a particular scale, because there doesn’t seem to be a clear criterion for doing so, and attempting to produce a relation of justice among individualities of various scales. We might, then, find instances where a family, or a city, or a federation, or perhaps in some case, even humanity, seemed to be the appropriate subject of property relations (weeding out, of course, all the instances where those terms refer to spooks, usurpations, etc.) And if we accept the theory of collective force it becomes fairly hard to find a reason to exclude these collectivities from our account, since they are expressions, at least in large part, of the associated actions of agents that we would be hard put to exclude from the realm of equal uniques.

What we have accepted on the basis of social science has its equivalents in the realm of ecological science. When Proudhon moved from the critique of property to that of the State, he simply shifted his attention from one form of exploitation of human beings by human beings to another. With a greater appreciation of our material interconnectedness within ecosystems, and the interconnectedness of ecosystems, perhaps there is another, analogous critique that needs to be made. There are probably a variety of ways in which the collective force and the fact of association involved in our de facto ecological associations are harnessed and turned against us, both by denying them and by affirming them in fundamentally political ways. The “debates” about anthropogenic climate change seem full of political arguments posing as ecological ones. But the thing that we can no longer entirely deny, despite all of our political ducking and weaving, is that we are connected, and connected with nonhuman nature, in ways which are not reducible to the best of our sociological or economic models. What we are understandably slow to conclude from that is that those models, which tend to treat “nature” simply as a store of “resources,” “unowned” prior to human appropriation, may not really be up to the tasks to which we attempt to apply them.

Alongside a range of social collectivities, ranging from individual couples to whole societies, we have to consider the possibility that our potential subjects of appropriation may include a range of natural communities, perhaps culminating in that universal circulus that Pierre Leroux, Joseph Déjacque and others spoke about. As in the case of social collectivities, we find ourselves confronted with associations in which some of the associated force with which we are confronted is our own, but, in contrast with them, much of it comes from individualities that we are much less likely to include in our present discussions of property. I don’t think the Proudhonian philosophy or sociology leaves us any easy way to leave out these previously excluded elements, but even if we were just to focus on the traditional concern for the protection of the property of individual human beings from invasion or destruction there seem to be enough potential “downstream effects” to call for at least some reconsideration.

So, assuming we accept that something like the full range of potential subjects of appropriation have to figure in our account, what implications does that have?

It looks like the consequences are fairly significant, beginning with the fact that there is likely to be very little that looks like unowned resources, which we could simply homestead, with or without the consideration of provisos.

It appears that every act of appropriation will involve an encounter.

[to be continued…]

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How does property become capitalist?

In the debates over “property,” things often bog down pretty quickly around various assumptions about the relationship between “property” and “capitalism.” Arguably, nearly all the most contentious elements in the debates tend to be bundled up in the competing definitions of those two terms, so a good deal of unpacking is necessary to come to grips with the most important concerns. There is, for example, a fair amount of technical stuff about “alienation” and the “commodity form” that needs to be brought into some kind of communication with narratives about “self-ownership” and “free markets,” if we are to bring the more polar positions into a real debate. Folks like Kevin Carson have certainly started that work, but in general the debates don’t seem to have altered much.

Without any pretense that the sort of interventions I’ve been making here are likely to shift the debate in any great way, I think it may be worthwhile to pursue a small, but perhaps important, clarification of what I’ve been saying about “self-ownership.” From a perspective rooted in Proudhon, the core of “capitalism” is the implicit right of the holders of capital to accumulate more capital, whether by appropriating the products of social labor or collective force, or by using their advantages in the market to appropriate the products of individual labor. That’s the droit d’aubaine or “right of increase,” which treats the products of collective force and those appropriable products of individual labor as “windfalls” which the capitalist may legitimately claim. That “right” seems to be fairly completely naturalized as a part of the bundle of “property rights,” but is it necessarily so?

The familiar divisions of “property” into “simple property” and “simple possession,” or “personal property” and “private property,” seem to suggest that there is nothing inherent in the broader category of “property” which necessarily links it to “capitalism” (in the specific sense I’m giving the word here, but probably also in any of the other, competing senses.) “Anti-propertarians” tend to focus on the potential uses of “property” at least as much, and often much more, than on anything essential to it, and “propertarians” have often rightly objected that this is not a very useful way of distinguishing between types of “property.”

So let’s take a step back, and look at that broadest sort of “property,” with an eye to then examining once again the notion of “self-ownership” or “property in one’s person,” which seems to be at least one critical point at which the various schools of thought tend to part company.

What is “property”? What is it, that is, when taken in its most general sense, before we attempt to establish its attendant “rights” and such?

“Property” appears to be little more than one of the characteristics of the self or personhood, which comes into play when it is examined from the perspective of conflicts over material resources. On this reading, property is a concept similar to identity, which is a characteristic of the self or person when examined in the context of social interactions, where some distinction between actors is required. In both cases, we’re dealing with useful approximations. We know, on reflection, that any stark distinction between the self and the other is likely to involve some degree of philosophical violence, some substitution (in Bataille’s terms) of a limited economy for a general economy, with some necessary accursed share. The argument in favor of anarchist property would do well to address a series of potential alienations and approximations in the formation of even the most basic property, in order to determine if this is the sort of norm that is truly useful to us, particular given its practical history. But, remember, nobody seems to really be attacking property at this level. And perhaps we can point out a little more clearly just where some of those practical problems have had their source.

If we accept that there is a broad sort of property, which simply designates what is “one’s own,” what is “proper to the self,” without any assertion of specific rights and norms, we immediately encounter a complication, since “the self” is not a static thing. To too clearly delimit its boundaries is essentially to condemn it to death. The dynamic nature of the self is the problem that makes more concrete conceptions of property necessary, and it is that dynamic nature that introduces the first complications to the notion of “self-ownership” or “property in one’s person.” While critics object to the the way that those ideas seem to split the self, perhaps we have to acknowledge the extent to which the self is always splitting from itself, always redrawing the boundaries of the proper in ways that our property theories will have to account for. But different ways of accounting for this problem will have different consequences. I want to sketch out two possibilities, one roughly mutualist and the other arguably capitalist, which diverge based on their understanding of what is involved in “property in one’s person.”

The mutualist approach (and I take this to be roughly the model for any sort of anti-capitalist anarchist approach) is likely to emerge from some prior theory about selves and their relations, like the beefed-up version of the Golden Rule I’ve proposed in the past. If we are to “do unto others,” then we need a means of identifying them, which seems to presuppose a theory of identity, and since we want to apply our ethic in the material realm, we’re going to need to make at least some engagement with the “mine” and “thine.” But that engagement can be fairly simple. If the self is something that perpetually “mixes” with the environment, with other selves, and with itself, then property emerges simply as a secondary question, when we are trying to determine how to specify those “others,” and the question of rights can be largely folded back into the question of how we should treat them. Proudhon’s mature model of property rights basically accounts for equal regard for individuals as they are, with its “rights of use,” which amount to equal protection of “possessions,” and a recognition that we are all evolving and need room to evolve, experiment, and even err, with its “rights of abuse.” From that basis, all of the specific questions about real property, capital accumulation, and the disposition of labor-products are likely to find their answers in norms regarding just how much of the “mix” that individuals are a part of can be attributed to them. The introduction of elements from Proudhon’s sociology, such as the theory of collective individuals and his account of the nature of liberty, will shape those norms, restricting individual property in some regards and possibly expanding it in others, while reshaping the why system in significant ways. But there doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe that any right of increase is likely to be implied. There is, perhaps, a right to live and evolve which needs to be made more explicit, but that is probably something rather different.

The alternative reading of “self-ownership,” which seems to be fairly common among capitalists, presents the “splitting” within the self in what seems a significantly different way. It’s surprisingly common to see the argument that the self “owns” the body, perhaps because of some original labor-mixing, although it is a little unclear how the disembodied self mixes with anything. Self-ownership is then a bit more paradoxical, or maybe just malformed, and amounts to body-ownership, or the ownership of a first capital. Now, if we imagine that the self is always already an assemblage of the capitalist+capital variety, then it’s not hard to imagine that life itself is all about increase, and from there many things about our current predicament are probably a lot clearer. This sort of naturalization, which deals with alternatives by presenting a world in which there is no alternative, is familiar, of course. We can go back to 19th century arguments that the workers were proprietors because they possessed arms and legs, and therefore did not constitute a separate, antagonistic class.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to be said about these competing understandings of self-ownership and how they relate to our debates about property, but I think there is at least the beginning of a suggestive, and potentially important insight here. I think it has been very useful to shift the debate about “increase” from the practice of the various forms of “usury” to the principle of the droit d’aubaine, but that “right” is one which we have not, it seems to me, managed to situate very specifically in the larger discourse on property. I think this is a start, and that placed alongside the observations on the consequences of Locke’s provisos, it gives us both some idea of the range of potential property norms which might be derived from fairly traditional sources and the potentially significant consequences of apparently small differences in the way we understand our basic premises.


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Are Hotels Immoral?

I’ve been trying to collect my contributions to various discussion threads, where the off-the-cuff stuff seems to advance the conversation, and I’m presenting them in the form of one-sided conversations, with just enough of the contributions of others to give context. Here’s a bit from Reddit, on the question of occupancy and use property norms:
Q. Are Hotels Immoral?
A. No. If someone is actively maintaining a hotel, then they are obviously occupying and using it. A large hotel is likely to be a collectively owned affair, like most large enterprises under usufructory ownership.
A. Can that somebody hire people to help him or her occupy it and maintain it?
Q. Well, not without leaving the regime of occupancy and use property. It is possible that there might be reasons to respect such an arrangement in the midst of an occupancy-and-use-based community, but at the point where it looks like there is rent-seeking and exploitation of labor going on in a mutualist community, I suspect both the labor force and the customers are likely to start looking elsewhere. Mutualists markets are most likely to manifest profits in the form of a general reduction in costs, and capitalist profits will probably stick out like a sore thumb in that context.
Contracts can solve many underlying problems, and there are plenty of other ways to establish rules for human interaction. Mutualist markets would have their particular character, and forms of profit, precisely because the rules for interaction within them are governed by norms of reciprocity, “cost the limit of price,” etc., rather than the norms dominant within capitalist markets.
Most uses of natural resources or real property have a basic cycle to them. For example, it is expected that we will be out of our homes as much as we are in them. A home is, in part, a fixed place where we keep the stuff we don’t want or need to carry around all day — just as it is, in part, a place where we sleep, a potentially private space, etc. If we’re talking about agriculture, then it is expected that the land we are using will lie fallow sometimes, because of seasonal cycles or crop rotation. The folks running a hotel will be there, day in and day out, while guests will come and go, and staff will maintain the hotel for themselves and the guests alike.
Q. Doesn’t that seem somewhat arbitrary, especially for things that have multiple uses?
A. Not particularly, since all we need to establish is that something is being used according the natural patterns of someform of use.
These use cycles are determined by the usual demands and conditions of particular kinds of resource use.
The argument against mutualist hotels depends on an understanding of “occupancy and use” which I’ve never seen a mutualist advance, and which also appears very different from the ways we customarily think about these issues now.
Presumably, though, any new process will also have its logical cycles. And, of course, experimentation is something we’ve done before, and should have no trouble recognizing as a use.
Actually, I’ve already given a number of examples. Cycles for agricultural use are determined by a mix of seasonal factors and developing conventions regarding “best practices” for crop rotation, fallow periods, etc. Our mutualist hotel will have guests who come and go, primarily for short stays, and hosts who are relatively stable. Etc. If I’m experimenting with a different agricultural method, then the nature of the experiment will determine how long I put resources to that use, and how much of the time during the experiment some or all of the resources might be idle. If I’m brewing small-batch beer, each experimental cycle will tend to be considerably shorter than an agricultural cycle — unless perhaps I’m aging a batch.
It’s a simple standard, easily adaptable to a range of resources and uses.
This all started because somebody thought mutualists thought hotels were “immoral.” That’s just a version of the “mutualists will take your house when you nip out for a quart of milk” claim, and both seem to fall rather decisively before the fact that occupancy and use always seems to involve some pattern of absence and presence, fairly predictably tied to the particular resources and the particular uses. Now, in some cases, that means that knowing whether or not a resource is currently in use might take a little research, but we expect that with all property regimes, so that can’t really be a very serious objection.
Now, the “why” of occupancy and use comes from the proudhonian critique of property theories. Nothing stronger seems to hold up to scrutiny.

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Varieties of Proprietors: Lovers, Husbands, and Mother Hens

Le propriétaire qui épargne empêche les autres de jouir sans jouir lui-même ; pour lui, ni possession ni propriété. Comme l’avare, il couve son trésor il n’en use pas. Qu’il en repaisse ses yeux, qu’il le couche avec lui, qu’il s’endorme en l’embrassant : il aura beau faire, les écus n’engendrent pas les écus. Point de propriété entière sans jouissance, point de jouissance sans consommation, point de consommation sans perte de la propriété : telle est l’inflexible nécessité dans laquelle le jugement de Dieu a placé le propriétaire. Malédiction sur la propriété! 

Back in April 2010, in a post called “Amant ou mari,” I made some initial comments on Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s comparison of possessors and proprietors with lovers and husbands. In What is Property? he said: “If I may venture the comparison: a lover is a possessor, a husband is a proprietor.”At the time, I was primarily concerned with gathering clues to what Proudhon really meant by “possession” in his various works—but I was also just beginning to explore the sexually charged language that he sometimes used to discuss property (language which Tucker’s translations sometimes obscured.) I have finally had a chance, in the context of my current work on Proudhon and feminism, to take another, closer look at this potential subtext and, while it is a commonplace that dirty minds can always find a dirty joke, it’s hard to deny that there is a good deal in the works on property that begs to be read as double entendre. And the fact that, in several instances, the more libidinal reading actually makes more sense than Tucker’s rather staid, economic interpretations suggests that perhaps I am not simply indulging my own bad passions.

Now, once you have set out on a search for double meanings, there is always plenty of potential material to be sifted through. Not every reference to “possession” need be taken “in the biblical sense,” and many of a philosopher’s references to “penetration” will be perfectly innocent. But there are moments when Proudhon doesn’t leave much open to question:

The rent has become for the proprietor the token of his lechery, the instrument of his solitary pleasures. [The System of Economic Contradictions]

And, of course, there is the passage from What is Property? (quoted at the top of this post) where Proudhon literally depicts the proprietor (of a particular sort) sleeping with his money in his arms. Here is the full section.

The proprietor who consumes annihilates the products: it is far worse when he decides to save. The things that he has put aside pass into another world; they are never seen again, not even the caput mortuum [worthless remains], the manure. If there were means to journey to the moon, and the proprietors took a fancy to carry their savings there, after a while our whole terraqueous globe would be transported to its satellite.

The proprietor who saves prevents others from enjoying without enjoying himself; for him, neither possession, nor property. Like the miser he broods [literally, like a hen] over his treasure, but does not use it [use it up, or exploit it]. Let him feast his eyes on it, let him lie down with it, let him fall asleep embracing it: no matter, the coins will not beget coins. No complete property without enjoyment [jouissance, which has a range of meanings including “use,” “pleasure” and “orgasm”], no enjoyment without consumption [or consummation], no consumption without loss of property: such is the inflexible necessity [in the sense of inevitability] in which the judgment of God has placed the proprietor. A curse on property! 

[The translations are my own. Benjamin R. Tucker chose less provocative renderings, which generally capture the basic arguments, but tend to mute and muddle things a bit, consistently rendering “enjoyment” in terms of “coming into possession.” This certainly hasn’t helped clarify what Proudhon really meant by “possession,” the keyword that English-speaking anarchists have tended to attach themselves to, a keyword that Proudhon admitted he had not really defined very well. Anyway…]
There are some interesting details here, at least one of which seems to have been obscured by a real translation error. Tucker apparently mistook fumier (manure, dung) for fumée (smoke), which would not have been as good a match for caput mortuum, and the mistake obscures a possible echo of Pierre Leroux’s theory of the circulus, an anti-Malthusian theory of natural circulation which led Leroux (like others in those early days of experimentation with fertilizer) to sometimes be rather preoccupied with manure. I wouldn’t have much doubt that this was indeed an indication of Leroux’s influence, except that it is so early that it may well have been an anticipation of some of the same ideas. In any event, we have an interesting similarity between the works of the two authors, and a confirmation that Proudhon was concerned with the circulating side of what I’ve been calling “the larger antinomy” in terms that allow us to draw fairly straightforward connections to figures like Leroux and Joseph Déjacque. But the much more interesting detail, relatively unobscured in Tucker’s translation but outside our “common sense” about the terms of Proudhon’s work, is that there are at least three sorts of property-relations described in the second paragraph: alongside the lover/possessor and the husband/proprietor, we have another figure, a sort of mother hen (though also almost certainly a “he”) who takes his property to bed, but without consummation, jouissance or issue.

Had it been Charles Fourier, instead of Proudhon, who had written this passage, we might expect to find a regular Series of Proprietors—perhaps twelve in all, plus a focal figure—like Fourier’s Series of Cuckolds. As it is, the range of possible proprietary types threatens to multiply. We start with the Possessor, characterized by a simple relation of “fact” with his property, and the Proprietor, who has the right to his property. Then our Proprietors split into Enjoyers and Savers. But there are more possibilities. Let’s look again at the other passage from What is Property?

In property we distinguish: 1) property pure and simple, the right of domain or seigniorial right over the thing, or, as they say, naked property; 2) possession. “Possession,” said Duranton, “is a matter of fact, and not of right.” Toullier: “Property is a right, a legal power; possession is a fact.” The tenant, the farmer, the general partner, the usufructuary, are possessors; the owner who rents or lends for use; the heir who only awaits the death of a usufructuary to enjoy, are proprietors. If I dare make this comparison, a lover is a possessor, and a husband is a proprietor.

Proudhon introduces some potential confusions in this particular passage, as at this point in his career he wanted to draw a fairly distinct line between Possessors and Proprietors, so while we have a mere Proprietor who waits impatiently to become an Enjoyer lined up among the Possessors, we do not have any instance of a simple Enjoyer, who consummates the joining of possession and legal ownership. This is, however, essentially the type of “true proprietor,” which he invoked in his Theory of Property, and which seems to be implied by the formula for “complete property” in the other passage. There is, of course, another good reason why Proudhon resisted presenting any example of “complete property,” since his argument was that consummated property was essentially property lost. But let’s throw one more related quote, this time from Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, into the mix:

Every lover is idolatrous, and has lost possession of himself. 

Here we see that possession enjoyed may defeat the Possessor as completely as “complete property” undoes the Enjoyer as a Proprietor. But the problem seems to be essentially one we’ve long since identified: Proudhon, unlike Stirner, really does not have a way of talking about the form of property—ownness, the quality of the unique—which persists in its self-enjoyment, which never equals itself but still circulates through all the crises of self-possession, all les petites morts. Aside from rare moments, he doesn’t seem to have understood that what destroys the despotic property of the Enjoyers-by-Proxy and sterile Savers, and shakes the self-possession of the Possessor was itself a form of property—or at least a character of the individual as proper to him—or her—as it flows across the persistent self, opening that self to evolution and progress, that it is the little deaths that prevent the stasis of real and final death.

But he seems to have been very close…

There is more that will eventually have to be said about these libidinous undercurrents in Proudhon’s writings, and what they reveal about his negotiation and performance of masculinity. But for now perhaps it’s most useful to focus on this new figure of the Saver, the “mother hen” whose embraces of his beloved are doomed to bring forth now new issue, and a clear contrast to the “true proprietor” of the later works. The property of the Saver is quite clearly the “putting aside” of Proudhon’s “Celebration of Sunday,” and an interruption of the universal circulus. But it is also apparently “another world” even for the would-be proprietor, held apart not only from the general mixing of the natural world, but from any sort of “labor-mixing,” which all this sexy imagery might lead us to think about “in the biblical sense.” Our Saver is pretty clearly a miser, like “The Cheapskate” of Han Ryner’s tale, a figure of “avarice without an impulse toward gain, all wrapped up in the fear of loss.” And perhaps we have found our way back onto familiar ground, where the fear of material loss drives our Saver-Miser to a deadly, sterile avoidance of mixing, and perhaps we are approaching a familiar solution, the “two-gun” “gift economy of property,” by a new road and in the context of an expanded understanding of our basic antinomy. Although the circulating side of property remains somewhat elusive, the hints we have dug up in this particular examination suggest that we will find it, if we do, by engaging more closely with mixing, with consummation, and with the openings and crises of self-ownership and self-possession that seem to go along with the “complete property,” while not neglecting the more stable, concentrating side of things.

We have [once again] understood that the opposition of two absolutes—either one of which, alone, would be unpardonably reprehensible, and both of which, together, would be rejected, if they worked separately—is the very cornerstone of social economy and public right: but it falls to us to govern it and to make it act according to the laws of logic.—PIERRE-JOSEPH PROUDHON, THE THEORY OF PROPERTY. (1864)

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As it turns out, property was already theft in 1838

In volume 4 of the Encyclopédie nouvelle, which appeared in 1838, Jules Leroux contributed a lengthy entry on Political Economy. There is a lot there that is of interest, but perhaps nothing that touches this passage for topical interest here in the mutualist blogosphere:

Et la propriété se trouve être nécessairement définie en ces termes: La possession et l’usage d’un objet propre à satisfaire un besoin.
Supprimez le mot possession, et la propriété disparaît.
Supprimez le mot usage, et la propriété devient une chose immorale, anti-humaine : c’est l’accaparement, c’est le vol.
“And property necessarily finds itself defined in these terms: The possession and use of an object to satisfy a need.
Suppress the word possession, and property disappears.
Suppress the word use, and property becomes an immoral, anti-human thing: it is monopoly; it is theft.”

1838. Two years before What is Property? Ain’t that some fun?

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