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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