“property must justify itself or disappear”

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Contr’un Revisited: [commentary coming soon]

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Once more into the breach. Proudhon’s The Theory of Property is one of those books I have been wrestling with for several years now. It’s a complicated, frustrating work, being both an attempt to summarize, clarify and rectify errors in Proudhon’s many previous writings on property and an 11th-hour departure into new territory, inspired by the major works of history and sociology which occupied much of his later career. As a posthumous work, it lacks the careful revision and finishing that Proudhon habitually gave his published writings. That, and the apparently radical departures in theory that it contains, have allowed critics, from the time of its publication to the present, to treat it as a potentially apocryphal text, a product of the editors’, rather than the nominal author’s, intentions. I think I’ve made a pretty good start at showing the basic continuity between the earliest and latest of Proudhon’s property writings, and given some decent indications of how the theoretical epiphanies of the 1850s led to the shift in approach. But it’s past time to present Proudhon’s own account.

I’ve wrestled with The Theory of Property, and, in the process I’ve had to gradually come to terms with the rest of Proudhon’s property-canon—no small task. To understand the ensemble of the work, the late work has to be the guide, but it is a potentially unreliable guide, so it has to be checked against the sources. Ultimately, we’re talking about a lot of reading, a lot of translation, and a lot of wait-and-see on some details, as the context develops. And since the questions of property and justice are hardly academic, it’s necessary to maintain a critical engagement, to identify the places where Proudhon’s various approximations of property-theory might have developed in other, potentially more useful directions. And it is in this context that The Theory of Property demands serious and resistant reading.

I don’t think Proudhon himself would have seen the issue facing us much differently. In laying out his “New Theory,” he made it clear that his original theory was not off the table, and that there was some urgency in making what was ultimately a hard choice about how to proceed with regard to “property.”

The moment has come when property must justify itself or disappear: if I have obtained, these last ten years, some success for the critique that I have made of it, I hope that the reader will not show themselves less favorable today to this exegesis.

I will first observe that if we want to be successful in our research, it is completely necessary that we abandon the road where our predecessors became lost. In order to make sense of property, they returned to the origins; they scrutinized and analyzed the principle; they invoked the needs of personality and the rights of labor, and appealed to the sovereignty of the legislator. That was to place oneself on the terrain of possession. We have seen in Chapter IV, in the summary critique that we have made of all the controversies, into what paralogisms the authors were thrown. Only skepticism could be the fruit of their efforts; and skepticism is today the only serious opinion which exists on the subject of property. It is necessary to change methods. It is neither in its principle and its origins, nor in its materials that we must seek the reason of property; in all those regards, property, I repeat, has nothing more to offer us than possession; it is in its AIMS.

But how to discover the purpose of an institution of which one has declared it useless to examine the principle, the origin and the material? Is it not, to lightheartedly pose an insoluble problem? Property, indeed, is absolute, unconditional, jus utendi et abutendi, or it is nothing. Now, who says absolute, says indefinable, says a thing which one can recognize neither by its limits nor its conditions, neither by its material, nor by the date of its appearance. To seek the aims of property in what we can know of it beginnings, of the animating principle on which it rests, of the circumstances under which it manifests itself, that would be always to go in circles, and to disappear into contradiction. We cannot even bring to testimony the services that it is supposed to render, since those services are none other than those of possession itself; because we only know them imperfectly; because nothing proves besides that we cannot obtain for ourselves the same guarantees, and still better ones, by other means.

Here again, and for the second time, I say that it is necessary to change methods and to start ourselves on an unknown road. The only thing that we can know clearly about property, and by which we can distinguish it from possession, is that it is absolute abusive; Very well! It is in its absolutism, in its abuses that we must seek the aim.

This is pretty strong stuff, and, to me at least, fairly contemporary.  Proudhon complains that property theory has been confused, that without a clear sense of what they were dealing, where it came from or what it’s aims might be, the critics and defenders of property ended up lost in the fog. Lots of the pieces of the critiques and the defenses were, in fact, pretty much on target, but since the big picture seemed contradictory, there was plenty of incentive not to grasp the whole thing. Proudhon himself quite obviously resisted his own final program. One of the most remarkable things about The Theory of Property is the extent to which it reads like the Proudhon of 1840 having one last argument with the Proudhon of the 1850s and after. After all, Proudhon testified that he, personally, had no need of property.

I have developed the considerations which make property intelligible, rational, legitimate, and without which it remains usurping and odious.

And yet, even in these conditions, it presents something egoist which is always unpleasant to me. My reason being egalitarian, anti-governmental, and the enemy of ferocity and the abuse of force, can accept, the dependence on property as a shield, a place of safety for the weak: my heart will never be in it. For myself, I do not need that concession, either to earn my bread, or to fulfill my civic duties, or for my happiness. I do not need to encounter it in others to aid them in their weakness and respect their rights. I feel enough of the energy of conscience, enough intellectual force, to sustain with dignity all of my relations; and if the majority of my fellow citizens resembled me, what would we have to do with that institution? Where would be the risk of tyranny, or the risk of ruin from competition and free exchange? Where would be the peril to the small, the orphan and the worker? Where would be the need for pride, ambition, and avarice, which can satisfy itself only by immense appropriation?

The reference to “something egoist” here should be handled with care, since the translation is a bit of a provocation on my part. Clearly, what Proudhon objects to is selfishness, not the “selfiness” of Tak Kak, or the egoism of Stirner’s “unique one.” What Proudhon is proposing is, in fact, the use of “private property,” in the sense Stirner used the term, as a hedge against those whose commitment to “property” does not extend to properly managing their relations. Having observed that “absolutism” is the key to property (because it is the key to identity, understood as a matter of unique individuals developing according to their own “law”), and having decided very early on (1842 or earlier) that the solution to the problem of individual absolutism was a balancing of forces and a leveling of the playing field (universalization of property, destruction of privilege), — and, finally, having discovered in his historical researches that the absence of private property was no guarantee against the “usurping and odious” — the main question left for Proudhon was whether all those unique individuals would simply be left to fight it out (in the sort of “tough love,” property-primitivist scenario) on a leveled-down battlefield, or whether it was possible to level-up through the universalization of a strong form of individual property.

The “New Theory” can be seen, without much of a stretch, as an attempt to kickstart the Union of Egoists (explicitly understood as the union of unique ones through their individual pursuit of their unique and individual relations), using “private property” (in Stirner’s sense) to protect the development of “property” (ditto). As later Proudhonians suggested, the transition was through a sort of de facto “union of capitalists,” who couldn’t constitute a dominant class because they lacked a class to dominate, being all dependent on one another. (See Tucker’s “Should Labor be Paid or Not?”) Proudhon never explicitly clarified the relation between “ownness” and private property, either as Locke did nor as Stirner did, but he spent a lot of time developing the theory of how “absolutes,” and particularly human “free absolutes,” developed, starting, back in 1840, with his observation that “Man errs, because he learns.” Knowledge is the perfection of error, as peace is the perfection of war, and as perfection is the endpoint of series of approximations. The individual develops according to a unique, internal law of organization — is, in fact, defined as an individual on the basis of that law — and its present state always points to some future development, with the implied line marking its prospective “right” (droit, as in a straight line). Because the self is development, present possession can’t encompass what it is in its fullness. That which is possessed may fall on the line of the self’s development, and falls within the circle of “self-enjoyment” (Stirner’s “property”), but that can’t be the end of the story for a self that exists to progress, whose absolutism is dynamic, and for which the capture by any other absolutism would be a kind of interruption or death. For the early Proudhon, the concern is that private property, as a “right of use and abuse,” was just the sort of tool which could be used to subordinate one individual’s development to the absolutism of another. He was ready to tackle the general acceptance of property because he knew that we erred on the way to learning, and some big mistakes were going to be expected along the way. (That’s one reason he so frequently stated that he wasn’t picking fights against people, but against principles.) As he matured, he quickly came to see that the erring and the learning were all pretty well mixed up together, and his understanding of the “abuse” allowed by property shifted. He came to associate this licit “abuse” with error, rather than domination, and having already identified error as a necessary part of individual development, his advocacy of universal simple property is ultimately nothing more than a proposal to protect for each individual a space in which to learn and grow.

Call it the union of egoists, with sturdy fenders and protective gear, because anarchism is the sort of vehicle that we’re bound to run off the road our share of times.

I’ve been calling it “the gift-economy of property” [scroll down for the argument], because I think Proudhon overstated the gap between principles and aims, and Stirner perhaps underestimated the degree to which his union might need to rely on convention, and that most thinking people in anarchist circles deny neither the significance of the unique individual or of the collectivities in which s/he is entangled in all sorts of ways — so that there doesn’t seem to be anything to do but to tackle both the restricted economies of “property” and the general economy that defies and defines them, to grasp “gift” and “property” where they give rise to one another. My sense is that this sort of thing, getting up to your elbows in concepts that twist and turn into each other at regular intervals, is a sport with limited appeal — and certainly one that cuts against the grain of an increasingly fundamentalist intellectual culture. But I also don’t see any easy way around it, if anarchism is to be something other than that smug feeling we carry around, that “at least I’m not a statist,” while actual freedom — societies that can respond to unique individuals with something other than a muzzle and a jackboot, systems of “property” (in the broadest sense) that can respect the free development of those individuals by respecting their access to resources — remains elusive.

Proudhon gave the struggle with “property” a good chunk of his adult life, 25 years or so. I’ve got to that feeling that “property must justify itself or disappear” in much shorter order. Having invested so much already in presenting Proudhon’s theory, I’m committed to getting the rest of the requisite translation done, and spelling out, as best I can, the ways in which that crowd we left arguing on the riverbank awhile back provide us with all the clues to make the problems associated with “property” at least a lot more manageable. But I really do feel like — having satisfied myself that the “property” of Stirner’s unique and the “property” of Proudhon’s final proposal are compatible, and not incompatible with the initial spirit of Lockean appropriation or Proudhon’s famous critiques — there isn’t much to do but “own up,” and learn to take property a whole lot more seriously than we have, or else let the question drop, and find other languages to guide us as we try to live as unique and free absolutes.


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