Property and the Essence of Mutualism


“My principle, which will appear astonishing to you, citizens, my principle is yours; it is property itself.”—P.-J. Proudhon
In my writings on mutualist property theory, I have been attempting to supplement a somewhat strange lacuna in Proudhon’s theory, his failure—in at least one important sense—to ever really directly answer the question posed in his first major work, What is Property? In order to do that, I’ve been drawing on the work of Max Stirner, which, despite Stirner’s sense that he was opposing Proudhon’s position, seems to primarily address “property” in precisely the senses that Proudhon didn’t even make much attempt to do justice to. And I’ve been drawing on Locke, and conventional propertarian theories, however much I have been reading them “against the grain.” The “gift economy of property” project has been explicitly an attempt to move beyond Proudhon’s “new theory” in The Theory of Property, and to take up directly his challenge that “property must justify itself of disappear,” with a justification of “property” that does not simply treat it as a weapon that everyone should be allowed to wield, which is essentially where Proudhon left things.
Proudhon started by defining “property” as “the sum of the abuses of property”—a point he made explicit in his introduction to the second edition of What is Property?—and really not defining “possession,” which appeared to be his chosen alternative, at all. That makes Proudhon’s famous phrase translate to something more like “the abuse of property is theft,” which certainly casts things in a different light than we usually assume—and takes the wind out of some of the cruder critics’ sails. The “property” that would not be theft—towards which Proudhon gestures in his discussions of of equal possession—remains a desideratum for him. What I have been suggesting is that it need not remain one for us, and that, however much that might seem a wild deviation from the majority of anarchist or even mutualist thought, it is really just a step forward in the development that began with “property is theft!”

Now, one of the problems that has faced students of Proudhon’s thought has been the widespread contention that either: 1) he substantially altered his project when he began to explore property in its relation to liberty; or, 2) he meant something different by “property” in those contexts—the ill-defined “possession,” perhaps—when he was speaking in those terms than he did when he referred to property as “theft” or as “impossible.” Frankly, the first claim seems hard to sustain. After all, Proudhon didn’t even get through What is Property? without reintroducing “property” into his project, defining “liberty” as a “synthesis of community and property.” As I’ve argued elsewhere, there’s very little in the posthumously published work that differs from what he suggested in 1840-1842, except to the extent that it reflects changes in his understanding of “synthesis” and its alternatives. The development of his understanding of property is fairly simple. The somewhat unpromising start, defining “property” as “the abuse of property,” is consistent with his critique of property’s existing justifications, all of which seem to come apart, to reveal themselves as abuses of the principle they are supposed to uphold. But then, as he begins to develop his own philosophy—for “progress” and against “the absolute”—he raises possibilities which he may never have fully explored himself, having already identified property with absolutism. We know that the “new theory” posits evenly distributed property as one means of balancing the absolutist tendencies of individuals—but also of opening a space in which those tendencies might be to some extent overcome. We know that in The Theory of Property, property is able to contribute to liberty precisely because Proudhon has not changed his terms, precisely because property is absolutist and potentially abusive. And the more we explore the relationship between absolutism, property and liberty, the less likely it seems that there was really any change in meaning across the various writings—even if it seems likely that some of Proudhon’s consistency was more intuitive than explicitly thought through.

What is property? If we step back from Proudhon, who was increasingly aware that the term covered a variety of dissimilar concepts, we find quite a number of connected kinds of uses, which then lead to an even greater proliferation of particular applications and definitions. Proudhon’s work is actually remarkable for the care that he showed in separating out the varieties of “property.” About a year ago, I made an attempt to inventory the kinds of uses either explicitly recognized by Proudhon or suggested by his analyses, and came up with these:

  1. “Property” is its broadest sense, as a “social problem,” involving by the issue of the “mine and thine” and that of the “you and me;”
  2. “Property” as “ownness,” relating to “the circle of self-enjoyment,” that defines the unique individual, and which refers both the the material resources involved in specific instances of self-enjoyment (the facts of “possession”) and the principle of organization by which they are thus involved;
  3. “Property” or “properties,” referring to those material resources;
  4. “Properties,” referring to the component characteristics of the individual (which both Stirner and Proudhon may encourage us to treat as “uniques” in their own right and at their own scale, and which some theories of property have treated as “property,” in the sense of #3, in order to argue that everyone is a “proprietor” or “capitalist”);
  5. “Property rights,” as social and/or legal attempts to formalize standards for answering some one or more of the question posed by the other senses of “property;”
  6. “Propriety,” in the general sense that each should have and respect its own in a well-managed society;
and a bunch of subordinate distinctions (real property, chattel property, products, allod, usufruct, etc., etc., etc.), referring to specific property norms and forms proposed in the course of our long engagement with the general problem of “property.”

And I suggested that:

a coherent property theory needs to be able to carry the same terms across the terrain of appropriation, maintenance, abandonment or expropriation, exchange, exclusive and shared domain, the possibilities of “intellectual property,” the relation between theories of property and their abuses, the relation between property and gift, etc.

The lacuna in Proudhon seems to be in the treatment of “ownness,” which is also arguably the place to look for an equivalent of “self-ownership,” and it’s been in my attempt to fill that conceptual gap that I’ve turned to Stirner, who is almost exclusively concerned with the “self-enjoyment” of unique selves.
Now, there is nothing simple about bringing the thought of Stirner and Proudhon into play in a single scheme. There are good reasons for not making the attempt, and equally compelling reasons to think that perhaps there are other aspects of Proudhon’s thought which can be used to supply what seems to be missing in his property theory. As I’ve suggested before, Proudhon’s “positive” theory of liberty is enormously suggestive in this regard, since it is, in essence, a theory of how individuals—and not just human individuals, but all sorts of individualities—are constituted: as collectivities, organized according to an individual law. And this description of the nature of individuality really takes us most of the way towards a theory of what is proper to individuals, at least in that sense of “ownness” or “self-enjoyment”—except for the fact that the account looks a lot more like physics than any of the more social sciences. Proudhon provides us with the means to introduce agency into our model, since the playing out of the individual law is always, in his view, a play of antinomies. The fact that each individuality is at the same time an organized group, composed of other individualities, each driven by their own imperative law of organization and development, means that “life” and “health” for the individual depend on the strength and balance of the ensemble of constituent individualities—something which may even take the form, particularly at “higher” scales of organization, of an increasing conflict. As the clash of ideas casts the light, so the balanced intensification of the function of the various faculties of the individual produces life, health, and an increase in the play of deterministic systems, experienced by the individual as freedom. But in all this description of mechanisms, it remains more than a little bit difficult to identify wills and persons. For that, however, we can certainly count on Stirner—but not quite yet.
I will admit that I came to see Stirner as a means to supplement Proudhon reluctantly, and by a rather peculiar route. As much as I appreciate a certain relentlessness in egoist thought, and as much pleasure as I have had in reading and rereading Stirner, James L. Walker, John Badcock and others—as good to think with as I have found them—like Proudhon, I find that there is something in egoistic thinking which does not ultimately speak to me. The same is true, of course, of most forms of collectivism, or, on another register, of altruistic philosophy. What I have dubbed the “two-gun” approach, by which I’ve sought what really does speak to me in the play of various “individualisms” and “socialisms,” has nonetheless committed me to an immersion in a number of approaches, which I can only really take on as useful disciplines and occasions for experiment. But it has also committed me to an engagement with the thinker arguably responsible for the terms “individualism” and “socialism”—Pierre Leroux, Proudhon’s antagonist and influence, and possibly William B. Greene’s most important philosophical source, philosopher of “humanity,” and defender of property (but a non-exclusive property which included a sort of natural right in other people.)
With “Two-Gun Mutualism” I have elevated this decidedly challenging character to a sort of central place, both in my reading of mutualism’s past and in my attempt to advance it into the future. The metaphor of the two guns is drawn from his essay on “Individualism and Socialism” (and if readers of this essay have not yet read that and my essay on “Two-Gun Mutualism and the Golden Rule,” perhaps that would be in order before I try to produce too much more light from clashing ideas.)
[to be continued…]

[/ezcol_2third] [ezcol_1third_end]   [/ezcol_1third_end]

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


  1. One of the many puzzling/annoying things about Spencer’s Social Statics is that immediately after the chapter on “The Right to the Use of the Earth,” which whatever one may think of its proposals is at least a nuanced attempt to try to combine the good aspects of private property with the good aspects of communism while avoiding the flaws in each, he follows it up with his chapter on “The Right of Property” in which he attacks Proudhon in a simplistic fashion with no sense that Proudhon is trying to do something similar. (Though Spencer’s remarks on use vs. abuse are at least a move in the direction of an interesting response.)

  2. Given the perils inherent in translation, especially between languages where one culture is seemingly high context and the other low, I’ve always felt that his meaning of “property”, at least in the phrase “property is theft” has been misconstrued. My own personal feeling on this is that he was talking specifically of rent-seeking behavior resulting from artificial scarcity. I think Tucker took it this way to a large extent.

  3. Well, Proudhon defines the property that is theft as “the right to use and abuse,” in language, in both French and Latin, that doesn’t seem to be terribly ambiguous. Obviously, I think there are lots of parts of the argument that have indeed been misconstrued, but mostly in ways that might make us even extend the scope of the “theft” claim.

  4. I’ll have to take a look at that again, Roderick. In the defense of quite a number of simplistic criticisms by clever folks, Proudhon didn’t make things terribly easy, although we’ve made them much harder by speculating along ideological lines rather than studying in a lot of instances.

Comments are closed.