Notes on Occupancy & Use (The Infamous Summer House Thread)


The question of occupancy and use is one which seems particularly difficult to address in a way which escapes a constant return to the same questions. There are certainly logical reasons for that: There are arguably two different models for this sort of land tenure in Proudhon, one based on simple possession and the other on simple property. Questions of “use” quickly lead into questions about “rent,” and we are not always particularly careful to distinguish between “economic rent,” “rent” as a form of “increase,” and “rent” as payment for services directly rendered. As long as we stick close to abstract concepts, and the concepts aren’t that well defined, we have all sorts of problems.
I have yet to gather together my thoughts on the various aspects of occupancy-and-use property, though I plan to do so soon in a series of posts at But back in 2008, we did engage in a very interesting debate at the Forums of the Libertarian Left about the thorny question of “summer homes.” In the interest of simply archiving my contributions to that conversation with the rest of my work, here is a first helping of mostly-unedited highlights. (The usual cautions about forum-dumps apply: this is all heat-of-the-moment stuff.)
Mutualism is, at base, an experimental approach, with reciprocity and evolving justice as its criteria. The standards for occupancy and use are going to be local and conventional. The straw-man “mutualists will move in if I go out for groceries” stuff is pretty obviously wrong, since this can hardly emerge as a just and mutual strategy, but treating a summer house as absentee ownership seems to me to suffer from much the same misunderstanding. My retired parents have a house on the west coast and a one-room cabin in the east. Both require considerable upkeep to remain habitable and look lived-in, and they still provide most of that upkeep, including some pretty heavy beating-back-the-forest work at the cabin. They hire a neighbor to mow the lawn in the west for the summer, but lots of folks do that who live there year-round. The neighbors in both locations recognize the properties as domiciles belonging to my parents, and there are neighborly relations established both places. Indeed, the summer place has a 50-year history of ownership by my mother’s family. They are “summer people,” but they are the sole occupants. Use is more complicated in an area where the locals hunt, snowmobile, etc., and multiple use rights are recognized. Contrast this with other properties in the same area: there’s a rich guy down the hill from us who has closed off access to his property, interfered with traditional/conventional right of ways, etc., and generally set himself up apart from locals. Then there are the investment holding companies that own the surround land, which used to be actively managed by the paper/timber companies, but which now is untended, except for occasional logging by jobbers, and which is not even for sale to locals at anything but rather unrealistic priced-for-large-scale-development prices. The investment companies have no local stake at all. The timber companies had some, and were willing to allow multiple uses. The rich guy teeters on some complicated edge: his occupancy is probably legitimate by local standards, but his use, or threat of use, of the legal system and of his wealth to interfere with the use of others properties is hard to fit into a just and reciprocal framework.
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Property systems, of whatever form, wherever they exist, are going to impose some obligations on newcomers. That doesn’t seem to be any objection. Homesteading requires exertion and a mixing of the self with the land in order to be recognized as homesteading. Property in mutualist societies will naturally involve some investment of time, energy and self. In some places, that might be as simple as conducting the equivalent of a title search or asking around fairly thoroughly. In others, it might not be possible to enter into mutual relations without some time spent becoming part of a community. Property systems or conventions will not be mutualist because they take this or that form, but because they answer to a particular stage in an ongoing social evolution, within which property conventions have, and will, occupied a particularly important place. As a standard, immanent justice will deliver different sorts of results than either natural or statute law.

There have, of course, been attempts to lay out more precise mutualist conventions, but I would be inclined to treat such works, like those by Swartz and Tandy, as “approximations” of the sort that Proudhon engaged in, in works like “The General Idea of the Revolution” — good indicators, perhaps, of the lines mutualist societies might follow, but not blueprints.

One reason for downplaying some of these earlier approximations is the relative unsophistication of their property theory. Proudhon himself never really teased out the implications of his mature work with regard to property, though his work is full of enormously suggestive stuff. And his most prominent heirs, people like Greene and Tucker on the one hand, and various schools of social anarchism and syndicalism on the other, were much more concerned with issues of credit and industrial organization than with the development of an adequate theory of property. It’s largely been left to modern generations of mutualists to pick up those dropped threads.

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It isn’t clear to me, based on the definitions given, why a landlord who continued to maintain a second house, while renting it out, would not maintain ownership. I think, too, that a number of contemporary mutualists, including Kevin Carson (and myself), have stated that honoring voluntary contracts is of some importance. Against the absentee landlord whose ownership is purely a legal matter (the holding company in my discussion above, for example) occupation seems an appropriate strategy, precisely because they will not enter into any sort of mutual relations. But where landlord and tenant can agree to divide rights and responsibilities voluntarily, there is absolutely no principle necessary to mutualism that interferes, and it would be, it seems to me, against the principles that are necessary to mutualism to attempt to forbid or void in an a priori manner the voluntary rental contract.
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Lockeanism, with the provisos intact, isn’t obviously absurd, although it probably isn’t practicable without some elaboration. But since mutualism is largely going to be locally elaborated, that’s not necessarily any big deal for us. But the thing that seems to come out of Lockeanism with the removal of the provisos is a concern for reciprocity. I’m sympathetic to the “ongoing projects” approach, because I think it answers to the needs of contemporary societies, but the core concern for the mutualist really is mutual justice.

It is likely, too, that mutualist property theory is still fundamentally incomplete, even in principle. Although Proudhon’s analysis of “economic contradiction” started with his critique of property, and despite all that he wrote about the topic, he never really integrated his property theory with the rest of his social philosophy, as far as I can tell. There is still a good deal of hard, exciting work to be done in order to flesh out his late work on property and incorporate the insights of his work on Justice.

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…failure to honor a genuinely voluntary contract ought to be considered a pretty serious failure in a mutualist society. Mutualism has consistently emphasized practical projects that work to make any such contracts truly voluntary, but how could the breaking of a voluntary contract be construed as anything but a failure of reciprocity?
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 it’s hard for me to see how a failed contract of any sort can be much of a victory for reciprocity. It certainly may involve a gain in power on one side of an uneven balance, and thus a nearer approach to justice. And perhaps, under given circumstances, the ability to render “an eye for an eye,” meeting the robbery of usurious rent with that of breaking a contract, is as reciprocal as things can get for the time being. But that’s a pretty low bar, and seems to relate to circumstances very far removed from the rental of a second home.
 [to be continued…]


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2701 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.