Property is impossible?


Contr’un Revisited: [commentary coming soon]


We’re getting closer to the river’s edge, but we’re not quite prepared to “take our draught” yet.
It has always seemed to me that libertarian property theory is prone to leaping straight to property’s defense—the occasions for legitimate use of force—without lingering overlong on just what it is defending. The broader the discussion—and terms like “left-libertarian” and “market anarchist” attempt to cover pretty broad swathes of ideological territory—the more pronounced the problem. The left-libertarian theory of a “spectrum” of abandonment theories seems to me pretty sound, and useful, but I have my doubts that you could accomplish the same sort of semi-accord on the acquisition end of things. There’s probably a “spectrum” of positions on property acquisition, but the differences are of a different character than those relating to abandonment. Abandonment, after all, is a matter of individual intention or attention. We may differ over how inattentive or dismissive of one’s property one has to be before abandoning the rights associated with it, but we can pursue the question at great lengths without ever calling into question the very possibility of property.
That possibility of property—and the possibility that, as Proudhon claimed, “property is impossible”—is, however, necessarily a part of any conversation that includes Proudhonian mutualism. Proudhon spent a large portion of What is Property? attempting to demonstrate its impossibility, and to demonstrate that what is called “property” was, in fact, “a power of invasion.” Since, as I mentioned in the last post, this is a somewhat neglected part of his argument, allow me to post the section headings. (I have an extra incentive to do so, as I recently found them in an 1858 English translation I had been unaware of, in William Lucas Sargant’s Social Innovators and Their Schemes!)

Axiom. Property is a droit d’aubaine which the proprietor claims as a thing marked by him with his seal.
” 1st proposition. Property is impossible, because it exacts something out of nothing.
” 2nd proposition. Property is impossible, because wherever it is allowed, production costs more than it is worth.
” 3rd proposition. Property is impossible, because on a given capital, production is in proportion to labour, not in proportion to property.
” 4th proposition. Property is impossible, because it is homicidal.
” 5th proposition. Property is impossible, because where it exists society consumes itself.
” 6th proposition. Property is impossible, because it is the mother of tyranny.
” 7th proposition. Property is impossible, because in consuming what it receives it destroys it, because in saving it, it annuls it, because in capitalizing it, it turns it against production.
” 8th proposition. Property is impossible, because its power of accumulation is infinite, whereas it has to do with finite quantities.
” 9th proposition. Property is impossible, because it is powerless against property.
” 10th proposition. Property is impossible, because it is the negation of equality.”

Obviously, your mileage may vary. But Proudhon wasn’t fooling around when he worked out what he considered the most “mathematical”—and, thus, most compelling—elements of his critique of property. And, arguably, he was just getting started in 1840.
There’s a lot in What is Property? which doesn’t get much attention. There are all the real weaknesses and uncertainties of the work. There is the lack of a positive “theory of possession,” and the attendant uncertainties about when Proudhon is talking about matters of fact, of right (in something like his later sense), or of political rights. There’s also the wonderful treatment of the danger of fixed ideas, early in the book, which is so reminiscent of Stirner’s discussion of “spooks.” I’m inching towards a serious critical encounter between Proudhonian and Stirnerite ideas about “property,” “private property,” and “possession,” but right here it’s simply worth noting that Stirner gives us some distinctions worth considering. (Those resistant to or impatient with Stirner’s work should probably skip ahead to the second part of The Ego and Its Own, and read the material on “Ownness,” which has less of that “Why I Write Such Good Books” vibe, that seems to be an occupational hazard for free absolutes.) Too briefly, “private property” is in the realm of political rights. It is what the state leaves to the individual; and it involves a sort of liberty which consists purely of being rid of certain sorts of invasion. The “property” of the ego is a matter of enjoyment, and the individual defined in terms of this property is as great or small as that which can be drawn into his or her circle of self-enjoyment. The ego extends its own law of organization out into the world, to whatever extent its internal force and external circumstances allow. It possesses and consumes the world, including other people, and treats the world as “my food”—which sounds horrible enough, if we don’t stop to think that a Humanitarian socialist like Leroux thought pretty much the same thing, and that William B. Greene’s mutualism was founded on this more-or-less metaphorical “eating of the other.” Leroux and Greene thought of this mutual subsistance as “communion,” but there’s probably not as much difference between the various tribes of happy cannibals as we generally like to think. (I need to come back to this question more seriously down the road.) In any event, in Stirner, we have a “property” which is largely descriptive, which need not be exclusive (apart from the specific demands and powers of force and circumstance), which may or may not correspond to the legal category of “private property,” but which is essentially active.
Proudhon’s greatest failing, in his property theory, was his inability to draw the distinction that Stirner made—though it was implicit in, and in some ways really critical to, his overall project. In his discussion of the impossibility of property, he sometimes leaves the question of the contradictions of what Stirner calls “private property” to address the extra-legal property-as-enjoyment. A key passage—”No real property without enjoyment; no enjoyment without consumption; no consumption without loss of property…” [This is Tucker’s translation. I think “consumption” should probably be translated as “consummation.”]—makes property itself a matter of self-enjoyment. Property in this sense is something that is happening. When Proudhon advances his own sort of ego-theory, its protagonist is the “free absolute,” with “freedom” in this case being an analogy drawn from the caloric theory of heat. As free caloric was in a sense “hot heat,” rather than the latent potential for heat, the free absolute was in the individual in the throes of being individual—property manifesting itself in the proprietor, in Stirner’s terms, through active self enjoyment.
In Locke’s terms, “property” becomes “labor-mixing,” which becomes a mechanism for establishing rights of “private property.” To the extent that the rights established are not clearly drawn from the nature of the mechanism, we have to be critical of them. But we have to be critical of Proudhon as well, for a pretty serious failure to clarify his terms. He seems to intent “possession” to cover ground similar to Stirner’s “property,” while “property” refers to the Roman form of “private property.” But, as we’ve seen, he actually uses “property” in a way which straddles Stirner’s “property” and “private property,” while his “possession” partakes of some of the character of Stirner’s “property,” some of an idealized “private property,” and, because he ties the notion to that of “fiefdom,” some of the character of Stirner’s “possession,” since the owning subject is potentially subject to rule by the law of another. None of this is insurmountable. Stirner seems to have his own inconsistencies. Proudhon’s points are pretty clear, as long as you know what stumbling-blocks might be in the way. Etc. But those stumbling blocks are there—and they can turn into high-hurdles if you’re not looking out for them. Increasingly, after 1840, Proudhon worked out the various aspects of what Stirner called “property,” “private property” and “possession.” In many ways, his treatment of those questions is superb, perhaps unequaled in many ways in the realm of anarchist theory. In his more philosophical works, particularly in the thread he started with The Philosophy of Progress, he developed his theory of a free, “hot,” individuality, and it was his developing understanding of actual “liberty” that led him to his later “new theory of property.” But he never really brought the various threads together, never reconciled the various threads of 1840. In some senses, he neglected his second characterization of property as much as we have in the intervening years.
Now, the possibility posed by Locke’s proviso—which has naturally caused consternation among propertarians—is precisely that “private property” could be impossible, which is to say fundamentally unjust. The “drink of water” case is potentially pretty useful for teasing out what’s at stake in this messy business of property and rights, so even now that we’re nearly at the river’s edge, it may take a little while to take a “good draught.” But we’re getting there.

[Next up: At the river’s edge (with Georges Bataille)]

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

1 Comment

  1. Wouldn’t uncapturded monopolized law hold an edge over polycentric law in demarcating common property from good draughts?

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