A Tale of Three Provisos

“Must we say, with some who pretend to metaphysics, that property is the expression of individuality, of the personality, of the self? But possession largely suffices for that expression…” — P.-J. Proudhon, The Theory of Property

“I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed babe …. and am not contained between my hat and boots…” — Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

It’s funny, in some ways at least, how Proudhon has earned a rather scandalous reputation for his work on property, while Locke remains the name to conjure with—even though “lockeans” may be fairly choosy about what elements of his theories they retain. There are some odd twists and turns in the property debates: the guy who said “property is impossible” ultimately proposed a pretty laissez faire approach to dealing with property inequality, while the one beloved by the laissez faire school proposed limitations on property which, according to some critics of the provisos, render property impossible in practice. And both thinkers have frequently had “followers” who have been decidedly reluctant to be led. Those presumably friendly to Proudhon’s have tended to cling to one half of his dialectical treatment. And while it is no doubt provocative to say, following his mature thought, that “property is liberty” because property is essentially despotic, it is no less so when contemporary lockeans tell us that the “enough and as good” proviso is fulfilled precisely by not leaving resources unappropriated (because… the market….)

Proudhon and Locke are both fascinating figures, and their writings on property reward serious and repeated attention, but they present radically different problems. Proudhon’s treatment of the subject sprawls across his complete works, while the heart of Locke’s treatment has an almost poetic compression. As a result, it has been easier to use Locke to talk about Proudhon than vice versa—but there certainly are places where, in properly dialectical fashion, the attempt to bring Proudhon into dialogue with Locke has raised interesting questions about the principles of more conventional property theory.

For example, “self-ownership” was not really a concept for Proudhon. His work contains all the elements for constructing a really interesting theory of the self, and indications of how that theory might manifest itself in the realm of rights, but his treatment of “property” has, in general, focused elsewhere. That’s the reason that I have had recourse to Stirner’s treatment of the unique and its ownness in the elaboration of the “gift economy of property.” For Proudhon, most of the concerns that we might try to address with “self-ownership—matters relating to “the expression of individuality, of the personality, of the self”—were matters of possession, rather than property. Perhaps, had he continued to develop the material he wrote in the 1860s, and pursued the consequences of those later works, he might well have traced parts of the problem of property back into the realm of fact. As it is, however, we’re left to work that part of the theory out for ourselves.

But the division of Proudhon’s property theory along the fact/right divide is a tool that he left to us, and perhaps it is one which may help us elaborate the points of contact between his theory and that of Locke.

Over the last few years, I’ve been sketching out some of the ways in which Locke’s most famous proviso—the requirement to leave “enough and as good” at the moment of appropriation—may be useful to mutualists in thinking about possible property regimes. It has been particularly useful to examine the tendency of that proviso to limit appropriation to non-rivalrous resources, when so many propertarians insist that property can actually only apply to rivalrous ones. And I think it has been useful to treat the proviso on appropriation as a relatively successful attempt at determining how we might formulate guidelines for acts that are “permissible” in some a priori sense. Despite strong reservations about the whole discourse of “permissibility,” and a love/hate relationship with rights-talk in general, I think mutualists have a lot to learn from the attempts to discover natural rights and natural law.

But recently I have been feeling as if perhaps there was more clarification to do with regard to Locke’s provisos, starting with some clarification of just what it is that the provisos condition when they establish whether or not we can claim property. There is, after all, a way of reading Locke’s account which involves a fact/right dichotomy much like Proudhon’s. Labor-mixing could easily be read in terms of proudhonian possession, as a matter of the expression and extension of individuality. If we were to make a fairly literal reading of this whole business of mixing the self with external resources, we could perhaps fairly easily sketch out the terms of a lockean theory of possession, and apply an ethic of mutual recognition and respect—and what we would have would be probably be pretty similar, in terms of consequences, to the systems of “possession” that anarchists have drawn from Proudhon’s early works. While contemporary lockeans generally want to leap straight to the question of enforceable rights, a lot of the important stuff in Locke’s scheme takes place on the factual side of things. If there is not “enough and as good,” it is still the case that “something” of the self is mixed with the resources—which we would still be tempted to say are appropriated, as long as it is understood that we are not talking about legal or moral property. The proviso limits the circumstances under which a de facto “appropriation” (in the sense of an addition to the developing self) can create a socially recognizable or enforceable property right. And, let’s be clear, Locke’s appropriation proviso would set limits on “possession” that are not necessarily there in some of the more conventional anarchist treatments. And then the “gleaning proviso” set limitations on waste, or established a rationale for something like an “occupancy and use” regime, depending on how it is interpreted.

When Proudhon remarked that the champions of property were far more interested in limiting it than he was, he wasn’t just trying to score rhetorical points. In some ways, the “non-proviso” approach to Locke’s theory is just a more aggressive fulfillment of the same sort of un-limited property that Proudhon embraced in the 1860s. And that’s something that mutualists should take seriously as we weigh the various possible paths forward from Proudhon’s work. But there is an important difference between Proudhon’s mature approach and that of the non-proviso lockeans: Proudhon ultimately took a consequentialist approach, embracing simple property despite, and because of, the fact that it was based on a principle which was indefensible by itself, while the lockeans claim that they are presenting natural rights, based on an essential property in person—self-ownership.

Now, we’ve already introduced a form of self-ownership in our “possessory” account of labor-mixing and its consequences. But is it the form of self-ownership which will get us to simple property by means of principles? Perhaps not.

After all, as we have been exploring a range of property theories, we have seen a range of theories of the nature and limits of the self, and a variety of positions regarding self-ownership as an exclusive affair. Stirner, for example, has provided us with an account of ownness to supplement Proudhon’s, but Stirner’s approach does not require that uniques exist without overlap. Instead, we have a situation where uniques feed on one another—engage in “mutual utilization”—but, in important ways, the property of other uniques is simply not of interest to the individual self. And Pierre Leroux has given us an account of the self as “both objective and subjective,” with the consequence that what is inalienably proper to the person has to include “others”—which is certainly unlikely to lead to a property regime based on exclusive, individual selfhood.

For Proudhon, the description of property as “theft” and “impossible” was tied to his analysis of the various means by which the facts of possession were supposed to imply rights of property. He came to the conclusion that none of the arguments from principle adequately established the rights. He described the problem involved in these terms: “Property is a man’s right to dispose at will of social property.” Now, we have no shortage of arguments about why the labor-mixing of individuals is never entirely individual, but perhaps we have a more basic issue to address.

The very notion of appropriation involves a notion of a self which is not contained, as Whitman put it, “between hat and boots.” We “mix” with all sorts of things around us, and with other people—as Stirner reminds us in the long section on “My Relations.” Interpersonal mixing seems as natural a part of what is proper to human being as other sorts. So if we want property rights to regulate an exclusive distinction between “mine” and “thine,” then we have to retreat back between our hats and boots—at least when we’re talking about proprietors. And that means that the proprietor, the subject of self-ownership, will not have “self-ownership” in the entirety of the self. There is, in effect, a third proviso which we apply when we move from all the ways in which we mix with the world to those from which we are willing to recognize the creation of a property right. In that sense, there are no “non-proviso” lockeans, only those who reject the limitations on appropriation, waste or concentration, while maintaining a different proviso which also limits the circumstances under which labor-mixing can result in property rights.

This third proviso is, of course, something very close to one of the “gifts” on which the “gift economy of property” is based. There are obviously reasons why we might desire a property regime based on exclusive, individual domain. But if that’s what we desire, and it requires a proviso which limits the derivation of rights from the results of labor-mixing, we need to be clear about that.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.