Category Archives: property

Occupancy-and-use: Response to Kevin Carson’s Rejoinder

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

At base, Kevin and I disagree about the possibility of, as I put it, “a truly anarchic space, outside the legal order and beyond the realm of permissions and prohibitions.” That’s a serious disagreement, since it amounts, for me, to a disagreement about the possibility of anarchy. If I was, as Kevin suggests, implicitly acknowledging any “set of rules” governing property, it would amount to a complete failure of my project. The point of giving familiar, more-or-less legal names to the steps in the extrication I described was simply to mark the rationales for a series of “gifts.” My working assumptions are that Proudhon’s objections to existing property conventions have really not been answered, and that perhaps they are actually unanswerable in legal terms. My project has not been to describe potential property rights, but merely to describe property as a quality of individual being in such a way that its individuality and its exclusivity might be dealt with separately and the potential conflict between them acknowledged. The point is not to reconstruct some “right of self-ownership,” but to suggest that if one wishes to enjoy the freedoms we have come to associate with that so-called right, we could achieve that end by considering our own property and the property of the other in a particular way — a manner involving a certain sort of extrication, or, to bring things back into the familiar language of property, a cession or gift. These are not proposed rules, but simply “transactions,” to use the vocabulary of Proudhon’s work in the 1850s.

Turning to the specific responses, I’m a little surprised to find myself presented at once as proposing a presumably unrealistic world without rules and as defending principles to be somehow enforced. To be clear, the paragraph that Carson treats first has two simple points: 1) use the right tool for the job, and 2) the right tool will almost always be dependent on a variety of local factors. My point about the cost principle was primarily that it, among the various principles regularly discussed by mutualists, is easier to discuss without reference to a wide variety of local factors. I think that is correct, and that it is useful to make the distinction between approaches that are heavily dependent on local factors and those that are not — principally because it is in the need to adapt to local factors that I find my own opening to the sort of property-pluralism Kevin is pursuing. While I have very little faith, for example, in land-value taxation as a general solution to land-tenure problems, because of the difficulties of quantifying land value in a complex economy, I think that it remains a very useful tool in our kit when the conditions are right for its application. And as the representative in this conversation of a certain kind of neo-Proudhonian position, I certainly shouldn’t rule out the possibility that a position which seems uncertain or even unjust in principle might well be, in practice, the right tool to defend liberty and justice under certain conditions. That, after all, is the heart of Proudhon’s “New Theory,” and the means by which he finally found a place for property as a tool for liberty in his mature work.

Anyway, it appears that by introducing the cost principle into the discussion I simply added new confusions, as Warren’s proposal appears to me in very different terms that those Kevin uses to describe it. I certainly don’t see Warren’s approach as working against economic principles, nor do I have any sense that Warren ever intended to “impose” anything. And I am a little baffled that Kevin would quote Engels on “labor-based pricing systems” in this context. After all, one of the most puzzling legacies of Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy is the association that has formed, incorrectly, between Proudhon’s economic proposals and “labor money.” I am not now, nor have I ever been, a proponent of “labor money.” I consider multiple currencies and multiple forms of currency as the most likely solution to most communities’ needs with regard to circulating media, and I suppose any of the various sorts of “labor notes” might sometimes find a place in the mix, but, despite their denomination in “hours,” Warren’s notes were at the very least a very unusual form of “labor money,” and probably should be considered separately (just as Proudhon’s and Greene’s mortgage-money fall outside the category.) The cost principle was not, after all, a labor principle, and certainly did not “eliminat[e] [the] informational function of price.” It involved the combination of subjective valuation and a different pricing strategy than we generally find in the capitalist economy, but one that nevertheless allowed for plenty of fluctuation and for all of the play of supply and demand. Honestly, I picked Warren’s principle as an example because it seemed to me about as far from the intrusions of Parecon, while still being anti-capitalist, as anything I could imagine. In wrestling with the specific account of exploitation in Proudhon’s writings, I have become increasingly interested in the possibility of addressing shared needs with the fruits of that collective force presently appropriated by capitalism and the state. But Parecon is certainly very far from my ideal — and one of my aims in exploring that sort of collective compensation is the possibility it seems to open of freeing the market in other areas of the economy.

In terms of the alternate account of property I have proposed, Proudhon can only be blamed for the inspiration, although I like to think that I have remained fairly faithful to that inspiration in the elaboration. Kevin’s identification of a “functional egoism” in the work is a good call, with precisely the sort of caveats he makes. Some of the more useful additions to my own theoretical toolkit over the last few years have been ideas drawn from the work of Max Stirner and James L. Walker, often in conversation with Wolfi Landstreicher, who is currently finishing up a new translation of Stirner’s The Unique and its Property. Stirner often makes a fine foil for Proudhon, and both of them address some of the most difficult aspects of anarchy.

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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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Filed under Gift Economy of Property, occupancy and use, property, property is impossible, Walt Whitman Theory of Political Economy

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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Filed under correspondence, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, property, translations, What Is Property?

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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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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Filed under occupancy and use, one-sided conversations, property