Property, Individuality and Collective Force


The events at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge have occupied my thoughts since the armed occupation began, not least because I have close family connections to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the region—connections so close that I spent the first few years of my life on refuges very similar to the one at Malheur and have had a “front-row seat,” so to speak, throughout my life, where some of the thorniest debates about the federal lands are concerned. I’ve posted some of that material to the blog, and will probably post more. But the situation on the refuge has also driven some new thoughts on the question of anarchist property norms, which seem of more direct interest to those who have followed the development of my thoughts here..

For those who haven’t followed my windings through Proudhon’s property theory or my development of an alternative “gift economy of property,” the most immediately relevant writings are the “Practicing the Encounter” section at the end of Contr’un 3 and “Limiting Conditions and Local Desires,” my initial contribution to the C4SS exchange on occupancy-and-use property norms. In the first essay (which, I am afraid, betrays its exploratory nature in some of the prose), I raised questions about what entities could be considered legitimate “subjects of appropriation,” with interests that should be considered as we attempt to formulate a theory of just appropriation. And I raised the possibility that we might have to account for a lot more than just individual human agents, even if the working-out process was necessarily on our human, all too human shoulders. I think that, ultimately, that is correct, but I also think that we can focus a bit more directly on the human actors without a great deal of risk, provided we acknowledge that minimizing damage to the environment and to other species is in the interest of individual human beings. Some notion of stewardship is ultimately necessary for the representation of non-human interests, just a solidarity is necessary for the representation of social collectivities. Those two caveats make it easier to pick up the thread in the second piece, which proposes “mutual extrication” as a model for human individuals attempting to “gift” one another property rights.

The discussion of a “gift economy of property” has taken its initial cues from the second of Proudhon’s three declarations on property: property is impossible. The question I have been exploring for some time now is whether any regime of individual property rights was justifiable, under present conditions and in the face of anarchist critiques of property.

To review a bit: I think that Locke’s basic model, which begins with the “fact” of property in one’s person (in the sense that it encourages us to base any system of property rights in what is, in the most strictly descriptive sense, “proper” to the individual), notes the ever-changing boundaries of the “person” (presenting human activity as “labor-mixing”) and then tries to imagine the conditions under which that most basic sort of appropriation ought to be a matter of moral or legal indifference to others (with the provisos, and the standard of the “good draught” of consumption that leaves a “whole river” of resources, rendering this sort of appropriation unobjectionable because it is essentially non-rivalrous) is sound. This is not a blanket endorsement of Locke, who, it seems to me, has to leave the most elegant parts of his argument behind in order to make sense of actual property conventions and make “homesteading” productive of alienable property appropriate to market relations.  It is the weak, but almost certainly useful, observation that exclusive individual appropriation is no big deal if it is literally the case that nobody is worse off because of it, which is decidedly not the approach we see from modern propertarians. When we return to the problems posed by Proudhon’s critique and ask whether there is some system of property rights that is not essentially its own contradiction and violation—”theft”—we at least have some standard drawn from traditional property theory to use as a point of comparison.

It seems obvious that, at the level of individual appropriation, unamplified by high levels of technology, the possibility of an appropriation that would not (in some genteral, a priori sense) be theft is largely dependent on the renewability of resources. That observation is important, because it suggests that the question of just appropriation is not just a legal or moral question. It is in some sense, and perhaps in a really fundamental sense, also an ecological question. If our rights have some pretense to universal or natural status, then they are going fluctuate as nature fluctuates. There are probably things in our societies that everyone could appropriate without threatening the continued supply, and perhaps even non-renewable resources of this sort (assuming we define “resource” broadly), but some of the traditional components of “the commons” (clean air and water, for example) may no longer be among them. We’ve amplified our individual impacts through technological advances and large-scale social organization. If there was ever a reason to doubt the reality of collective force as a factor in our societies, it’s hard to miss seeing it almost everywhere now. As a result, we may have lost our connection to that simple, elegant homesteading model, not because anything has change about the legal principles or ethical imperatives connected to exclusive, individual property rights, but simply because we are not ourselves exclusive and individual in the same ways as our ancestors. We were probably never, as Whitman put it, “contained between hat and boots,” but the mixing and sprawling of persons is arguably both real and ongoing.

Let’s linger for a moment and consider the implications of this twist on the notion that property is impossible. For Proudhon, the “impossibility” of property arose primarily from the droit d’aubaine (“right of increase”) attached to capitalist property rights. That did not necessarily preclude some kind of return to strong, exclusive, individual property rights, provided those rights could be constrained either by principles like those found in Locke’s provisos or in a strong egalitarian ethic, such as we find in the “personal property” speculations of even communistic anarchists. After all, between the early works advocating “possession” and the “New Theory” of the 1860s, Proudhon explored both possibilities to at least some degree. But if it is indeed the case that our “individual” interventions and appropriations are no longer in balance with the regenerative capacities of our natural environment, then there are arguably some very interesting, and certainly troubling consequences. First, it raises the possibility that exclusive, individual property rights—even in a radically reimagined form like my “gift economy of property”—may be impossible. But it also raises the possibility that it is not just property rights that are threatened by our current social and technological organization. It may be that property, even in the descriptive sense, is no longer sufficiently individual to support the kind of discussion regarding property that we are accustomed to. That notion may be a bit difficult to come to terms with, but let’s at least attempt to give it a try, particularly as a situation in which we could meaningfully say that individuality is impossible would create problems for our presumably non-propertarian options nearly as great as those confronting any new theory of property rights.

What I’m suggesting about the limits of “mutual extrication” might seem like a radicalization or even repudiation of some of what I’ve said in the past, but I think it makes most sense to take it simply as a clarification—and one that allows us to return to some other familiar themes. Whitman was not the only radical voice we have noted for whom the “contained between hat and boots” model of individuality was not adequate. Pierre Leroux, William Batchelder Greene, Proudhon, Stirner and Bakunin, among others, argued in various ways for the recognition of other people as an essential part of what is proper to the growth and continued being of human individuals. And our various explorations of the work of collective force have suggested that what is proper to individuals as individuals does not exhaust their property (in the general, descriptive sense), since it is still necessary to account for what is proper to individuals as parts of various social collectivities.

We certainly shouldn’t be surprised that what is proper to human beings involves involvement, entangling and combination. After all, the reigning metaphor for appropriation is mixing. But if we are surprised that all that mixing involves more than just consumption by relatively isolated and autonomous human beings, then we should probably explore our surprise carefully.

There isn’t space here to go back through all the various approaches I’ve made over the years to this particular understanding of the problem of property. (If you want, you can get an early glimpse of some of the connections.) Instead, let’s just take a look at the proposal I made in the recent C4SS exchange:

If [in our search for a theory of just appropriation] we cannot take, then perhaps we can give. We know the value and the virtues of individual property, as did Proudhon. If we are unable to secure it for ourselves as a matter of individual appropriation, then perhaps we can grant it to one another as a matter of gift or cession, not of a property that we individually own, but of claims that we might otherwise make on one another? Imagine the basis of this new property not as appropriation but as mutual extrication. Some of the steps would resemble familiar propertarian notions. First, perhaps, mutual release would yield a variety of “self-ownership.” Then, the familiar “personal property” in items of more intimate attachment or use. Beyond that, real property on the basis of occupancy-and-use. Then, perhaps, a sphere of alienable goods and a recognition of exchange — based, like the other steps on a mutual willingness not to interfere with one another’s activities. Etc. Etc. Limiting conditions and local desires would determine the limits of the emerging system.

This was a fairly modest proposal, focused on one very limited, if essential aspect of the property-problem. To relinquish claims on one another of a more or less intimate sort, those relating to our bodies and to items “personal property,” begins to reopen a space for meaningful individuality. The recognition of one relative autonomy and responsibility in one another, the basic recognition of individuality itself, is the easiest gift to give one another. The allowance of some space within which to learn and potentially, despite the potentially intimate nature of the consequences, is harder and the gift of anarchy, the decision to refuse to mediate our relationships through any of the fundamentally archic structures that surround us is harder still, involving us in struggles and forms of vigilance without clear endpoints.

To get even this far in our mutual extrication would demand some fairly substantial changes in attitude and practice. Among other things, the emphasis on identities, including the anarchist identity, would have to be substantially reduced. A Stirneresque refusal to treat individuals as instances of some type or symptoms of some system, combined with a Proudhonian recognition of real collectivities, would almost certainly serve to replace most of what might be lost in the way of critical and analytic tools, but it is probably the case that current anarchist practice is much less dependent on conceptual tools than it is on evolving custom and (explicit or implicit) platforms. An anarchism with considerably less “inside” to it would mean a revolution in relations between anarchists, necessitating a greater tolerance of differences, but also forcing our relations of solidarity onto a more specific sort of footing. And, ultimately, I suspect that even the simplest, most abstract sort of transformation in this direction would probably be resisted by many people who consider themselves anarchists at present.

Giving each other space to learn and to err, without the constant mutual policing so common in anarchist circles, would be a big step, even if we are only talking about attitudes and opinions. We are almost all pretty deeply invested in a sort of social symptomology, on the basis of which we tend to judge each other’s every action. But that step pales beside the extension of the same freedom in activities involving the consumption of real, scarce resources. I think it is fair to say that we are not, for the most part, certain that we can even sustain significant differences of opinion, so wary are we of the power of existing hegemonic systems to recuperate and incorporate even presumably dissenting thought. As a result, we have put ourselves in a strange position, where one of the natural responses to divergence from the norms of the milieu is to amplify the divergent opinions, through “calling out,” public shaming, the transformation of local conflicts into national or international causes célèbres, etc.

When we think about this process of amplification, we should recognize the effects of collective force. Whether the anarchist milieu is the association that we wish it was or believe that it can be, it is still an association and, as such, produces a sort of surplus, similar in many respects to those generated within the economic and governmental spheres—and perhaps subject to the same sorts of accumulation and deployment by minorities. And the institutions and social practices that provide a context for anarchist practice also filter and amplify in various ways.

Let’s focus again, and clarify what is at stake here, so we can move on to questions directly relating to property. In the “general theory of archy” post, I was concerned with generalizing the theory of exploitation, which Proudhon applied to capitalist property and the governmentalist State. In those instances, it is a matter of the collective force of an association being monopolized, either by a minority within the association or by outsiders. My suggestion was that some form of exploitation was present at the heart of most, if not all, social hierarchies. To say that a similar sort of exploitation might take place within the context of organized anarchism is not, I think, particularly outlandish, although the “force” appropriated would be of a more abstract character than we generally consider in these discussions.

But when we are talking about the “impossibility of individuality” as an effect of collective force, the problem takes on a rather different character and we are poised to open a new and potentially very large can of worms. Perhaps only primitivism and some anti-civilization thought has come close to addressing this side of the collective force question. I’m not sure that approach has been particularly fruitful, but we should probably at least consider what these currents might add to our analysis.

If we turn our attention to collective force that is not monopolized within associations, that would still exist (and might be even greater) within entirely egalitarian societies as a kind of “commons,” we probably have to acknowledge that there are differences between an egalitarian society in which everyone is equipped with just their bare hands and one in which everyone has access to earth-moving equipment (and we can easily imagine similar differences if it is a question of access to arms, or to any number of other resources.) When we act like every micro-aggression is something like a nuclear strike, and have such trouble finding space in our associations for individual expression, perhaps we’re not actually overreacting. Perhaps, instead, we’re in the position of property theorists who want to talk about “homesteading” as if it was a question of lone individuals with hand tools, rather than members of highly mechanized societies.

This has gone longer than I intended, so let me wrap this introductory post, perhaps a bit abruptly, with some questions. As a first step into what is almost certainly going to be a very complicated discussion of “property,” perhaps we need to ask to what extent we really know our own strength, either quantitatively or qualitatively. To what extent do the conversations we have about individuality, property, responsibility, solidarity, community, etc. actually take any account of the effects of collective force?

[to be continued…]

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