How does property become capitalist?

Contrun Revisited: One of the tasks of this phase of work on Contr’un, and one of the purposes of the Contr’un Revisited project, is to find the dangling threads, of which there have been many, that could not be properly finished off at the time and see what can be done to accomplish that work of finishing. This is one of those posts that was really designed in large part as a provocation to myself, with the unspoken question being: How does property become something other than capitalist? I’m finally taking up my own challenge, in a post dealing with some of what Proudhon never seems to have said, but might have said, about property, under the title: “How does property become anarchist?” But it seems appropriate to reintroduce this original post before presenting that new argument.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Great blog post, Shawn. You show the continuing relevance of traditional concepts of (and debates about) property and self-ownership even after the rejection of substantialist metaphysics.

  2. I’ve noticed that a number of anarchists tend to conflate land with the means of production. Is there a difference between the two? It seems that land is property and the means of production comes from land and yet they seem to be two completely different things. A case against the means of production doesn’t seem to follow from a case against the appropriation of land.

  3. Traditionally, “land” has meant “natural resources” more broadly, so virtually all of our paradigmatic examples of appropriation tend, in that sense, to involve “land.” Similarly, arguments about “means of production” have tended to emphasize “real property.” It’s true that we could all be a little more specific, but the main problem that seems to be introduced by loose talk about “means of production” is the quibbling sort of arguments, where we get bogged down around “what happens if I produce something with my toothbrush?” and that sort of thing.

Comments are closed.