Proudhon on possession, 1840

I see that Francois Tremblay has again raised the issue of the distinction between property and possession, citing db0 (citing Proudhon, and ultimately intervening in an old debate about Kevin Carson’s work on Roderick Long’s blog), as if somewhere in all the citations there was some clear way to distinguish “possession” from “property.” For Francois, the issue seems to be that propertarians “wish to hide the injustices of property theory under the pretense that we have no choice but to have property rights.” db0 argues that “there is a hard core difference which splits the ownership scale in half [between “property” and “possession”], making each half incompatible with the existence of the other within the same social structure.”The claim at the bottom of all of this controversy is that there is a sort of “continuum” of rights from simple possession to the various forms of “sticky” property, with the differences being largely details about acquisition, term of ownership and conditions of abandonment. From my perspective, these debates have become a strange affair (much like denying the existence of a “missing link,” when the thing that’s truly scarce is either a monkey or a man….) But perhaps the strangest thing about it is that the “hard core difference” is completely unnecessary. If “property” really does amount to something like a (complex) “continuum,” which ranges from the most purely immediate sorts of simple possession (which Proudhon, among others, described as simply a descriptive “matter of fact”) to the most absolute forms of “sticky” domain, then “property theory” runs that gamut as well, and all of the concern about being forced to have “property rights” sort of evaporates—since there are plenty of options. The common usages of “property,” even by its rather hard core opponents, almost always include a broad category of “property” which includes “possession,” usufruct, etc. dbo talks about “possessive property” vs. “sticky property.” Proudhon considered “possession” a form of “property” in this sort of broad sense, while he most often used the term “property” to mean a rather absolute form of “domain”—but, even then, he never ultimately managed to make the sort of distinction that freed individual domain from the necessity of social sanction or individual possession from the possibility of continuing injustice. It seems to me that db0 and Francois want the distinction between “property” (of various degrees of stickiness) and simple possession to be the “solution of the social problem,” making exploitation simply impossible by reducing the ability of any one person to accumulate a socially significant amount of capital. That’s seems laudable enough as a goal. The question is whether the best road towards it involves an abandonment of the discourses of “property” for that of “possession”—based on the assumption or construction of some new “unbridgeable chasm”—or whether it involves something a good deal less black-and-white. If “possession” could somehow be lifted out of those property discourses—made into something other than a special case of some form of “property”—then we would have a good start. I think Francois and Noor Mehta have probably gone about as far in that direction as can be gone, by simply defining “property” in its most despotic and unappealing terms. Unfortunately, that leaves the majority of the ground that we might otherwise have discussed as “property” begging for a new label—and, of course, mingling uncomfortably with “possession.” The most serious problem with “possession” entirely divorced from “property” is that it is really no longer an economic, ethical, or political term, except to the extent that the description of a desired outcome enters into those categories. When you sift through all of the various things that Proudhon said about “possession”—that is was a “matter of fact” (not right) but “within the right” (while simple property was a “matter of right” but also “outside” right); that is was defined by equality (but also inalienability); that is was ultimately less conducive to liberty than simple property—a couple of important things seem to me to stand out about this key term that Proudhon took most of his life to explicitly define, and for which he never formulated a theory or system. The central one is that the talk of possession was much less about the nature of ownership, but was instead about the distribution of essential goods and resources. Possession, justice, and society were, for Proudhon, primarily synonyms for equality, applied in various contexts. The core of Proudhon’s mutualism was a sense that liberty manifested itself where no force or individual was able to overwhelm or suppress the rest, and where all agents had roughly equal opportunities to put themselves into relations with existing natural resources. In What is Property? he never goes much further with his discussion of possession than his citations of Cicero and Reid. From Reid: “The earth is a great theatre, furnished by the Almighty, with perfect wisdom and goodness, for the entertainment and employment of all mankind. Here every man has a right to accommodate himself as a spectator, and to perform his part as an actor; but without hurt to others.” In the “great theatre,” every gets a place and a chance to “accommodate” themselves. As long as that condition is fulfilled, the details aren’t of much importance. Here is a key—in some ways probably the key passage in What is Property?, at least with regard to the question of “possession:”

When two or more individuals have regularly organized a society, — when the contracts have been agreed upon, drafted, and signed, — there is no difficulty about the future. Everybody knows that when two men associate — for instance — in order to fish, if one of them catches no fish, he is none the less entitled to those caught by his associate. If two merchants form a partnership, while the partnership lasts, the profits and losses are divided between them; since each produces, not for himself, but for the society : when the time of distribution arrives, it is not the producer who is considered, but the associate. That is why the slave, to whom the planter gives straw and rice; and the civilized laborer, to whom the capitalist pays a salary which is always too small, — not being associated with their employers, although producing with them, — are disregarded when the product is divided. Thus, the horse who draws our coaches, and the ox who draws our carts produce with us, but are not associated with us ; we take their product, but do not share it with them. The animals and laborers whom we employ hold the same relation to us. Whatever we do for them, we do, not from a sense of justice, but out of pure benevolence.

But is it possible that we are not all associated ? Let us call to mind what was said in the last two chapters, That even though we do not want to be associated, the force of things, the necessity of consumption, the laws of production, and the mathematical principle of exchange combine to associate us. There is but a single exception to this rule, — that of the proprietor, who, producing by his right of increase, is not associated with any one, and consequently is not obliged to share his product with any one ; just as no one else is bound to share with him. With the exception of the proprietor, we labor for each other; we can do nothing by ourselves unaided by others, and we continually exchange products and services with each other. If these are not social acts, what are they?

Now, neither a commercial, nor an industrial, nor an agricultural association can be conceived of in the absence of equality ; equality is its sine qua turn. So that, in all matters which concern this association, to violate society is to violate justice and equality. Apply this principle to humanity at large. After what has been said, I assume that the reader has sufficient insight to enable him to dispense with any aid of mine.

By this principle, the man who takes possession of a field, and says, “This field is mine,” will not be unjust so long as every one else has an equal right of possession; nor will he be unjust, if, wishing to change his location, he exchanges this field for an equivalent. But if, putting another in his place, he says to him, “Work for me while I rest,” he then becomes unjust, unassociated, unequal. He is a proprietor.

Reciprocally, the sluggard, or the rake, who, without performing any social task, enjoys like others — and often more than others — the products of society, should be proceeded against as a thief and a parasite. We owe it to ourselves to give him nothing; but, since he must live, to put him under supervision, and compel him to labor.

Sociability is the attraction felt by sentient beings for each other. Justice is this same attraction, accompanied by thought and knowledge. But under what general concept, in what category of the understanding, is justice placed? In the category of equal quantities. Hence, the ancient definition of justice—Justum aequale est, injustum inaequale.

What is it, then, to practise justice? It is to give equal wealth to each, on condition of equal labor. It is to act socially. Our selfishness may complain ; there is no escape from evidence and necessity.

What is the right of occupancy? It is a natural method of dividing the earth, by reducing each laborer’s share as fast as new laborers present themselves. This right disappears if the public interest requires it; which, being the social interest, is also that of the occupant.

What is the right of labor ? It is the right to obtain one’s share of wealth by fulfilling the required conditions. It is the right of society, the right of equality.

Justice, which is the product of the combination of an idea and an instinct, manifests itself in man as soon as he is capable of feeling, and of forming ideas. Consequently, it has been regarded as an innate and original sentiment; but this opinion is logically and chronologically false. But justice, by its composition hybrid — if I may use the term, — justice, born of emotion and intellect combined, seems to me one of the strongest proofs of the unity and simplicity of the ego ; the organism being no more capable of producing such a mixture by itself, than are the combined senses of hearing and sight of forming a binary sense, half auditory and half visual.

This double nature of justice gives us the definitive basis of all the demonstrations in Chapters II., III., and IV. On the one hand, the idea of justice being identical with that of society, and society necessarily implying equality, equality must underlie all the sophisms invented in defence of property; for, since property can be defended only as a just and social institution, and property being inequality, in order to prove that property is in harmony with society, it must be shown that injustice is justice, and that inequality is equality, — a contradiction in terms. On the other hand, since the idea of equality — the second element of justice — has its source in the mathematical proportions of things; and since property, or the unequal distribution of wealth among laborers, destroys the necessary balance between labor, production, and consumption, — property must be impossible. — What is Property? 233-235.

 In the final paragraph, Proudhon highlighted what was ultimately the weakness of his own early position: he had essentially defined (simple) property as the opposite of all of his positive key terms, while describing just relations that seem to include pretty conventional property relations—limited only by a particularly strong version of the “enough and as good” proviso. By the time of his trial in 1842, his defense would be that he meant to achieve the equality associated with “possession” by submitting (simple) property to the condition of equality: said that “to abolish that species of theft, it is necessary to universalize it.” As his sense of the historical development of conventions developed, he abandoned the strict terminological distinction between the despotic forms of ownership of the past and the revolutionary ones of the future. And as he turned more seriously to the question of liberty, he found positive reasons to affirm (simple) property (in all its despotic vainglory.)

We can do far better than Proudhon ever did at engaging the details of building societies that accomplish the libertarian “aims” of property, extending his strongest analyses, which refusing his clumsy errors of application. But I’m pretty sure we can’t do it by avoiding the question of property rights.

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


  1. I’ve tried to explain exactly where this hard core difference exists in this post.

    In short, it absolutely is not simply about “a sort of “continuum” of rights from simple possession to the various forms of “sticky” property, with the differences being largely details about acquisition, term of ownership and conditions of abandonment”. The hard core difference is on whether a particular ownership system facilitates wage-labour, rent and interest.

    PS: I generally do not care on what Proudhon said nor am I trying to interpret him. These are my own ideas.

  2. Both you and Francois have made the appeal to Proudhon — and your criteria for the distinction between property and possession is essentially the same as Proudhon’s in 1840, with the difference that Proudhon’s rationale for the distinction is a little more complete and coherent. Both you and the Proudhon on 1840 attempt to neatly distinguish property systems by their consequences: Proudhon uses equality as his yardstick; presumably, you use the likelihood of the emergence of “wage-labour, rent and interest,” which, in the end, comes down to equality. You yourself acknowledge that these things might emergence, but on a different “scale.” But “equality” and the various forms of “property” are different things. Proudhon’s development is interesting because, having posited the importance of equality, he had the sense to go on and ask “equality of what?” What he found was that a number of different kinds of property, when distributed equally, seemed to inhibit the emergence of usury and exploitation. You and I probably have no quarrel about the desirability of “equality,” though we might (or might not) understand the term a little differently. Nor do we differ about the undesirability of usury and exploitation. But none of that has much of anything to do with “property.” In order to make your “hard core” distinction, you have to make the case that certain property arrangements necessarily lead to the thinks you don’t want, and other necessarily don’t. If the outcomes ultimately rests on factors like “how friends behave with friends,” and the core of that relationship is recognition of equality, there’s no reason to believe that we can’t recognize quite a few different kinds (or contents) of equality.

  3. I don’t see why you think I’m appealing to proudhon. None of my two articles on this subjects even mention his name. Yes, my arguments are similar but that’s about it.

    But in the end, I agree that it’s about equality in the end, this is why I’ve written posts like this. And since I’m talking about equality of power(economic and social), I consider wage-slavery to be by default an expression of inequality.

  4. Well…let’s see. I was actually responding to Francois, who chose to emphasize a particular part of your argument in the “Perpetual Confusion” post — the part where you appeal to Proudhon with regard to the need to make a property/possession distinction. I recognize that Proudhon is not an important figure for you. He has been, at times, of some importance to Francois. But he is certainly the go-to guy when it comes to anarchist distinctions between “possession” and “property.”

    Anyway, that’s sort of a side issue, since my concern is that neither you nor the Proudhon of 1840 actually demonstrate that there is not a continuum of property schemes. “Property” and “possession” don’t actually seem to mean anything to you other than “unequal” and “equal,” and you still haven’t the case that there is no continuum of “equalities,” in terms of their desirability by other standards.

    I’m sympathetic, btw, to the concern that the question “what maximizes liberty” is badly served by some market anarchists. But there are, it seems to me, plenty of ideological distractions on the communist side as well. But it was precisely the exploration of that question that led Proudhon to decide that not all equalities were created equal, and that perhaps simple property — in part precisely because of its despotic elements — could be a powerful content for anarchist equality. We can, as I’ve said, undoubtedly do better than he did, but probably not if we can’t at least follow him as far as he went.

  5. In my third article, the reason for mentioning Proudhon in passing was to point out how he realized that calling all forms of ownership as “Property” would only create confusion.

    You say that the question instead of a “continuum of ownership” becomes a continuum of equalities but I am not certain of which other equalities you are talking abou, how they exist on a continuum and which standards you are judging them by.

    Please put Proudhon aside for a moment if you will and explain how this continuum of equalities which can roughly translate to a continuum of ownership rights, works.

  6. Laying out the positive argument for a continuum or matrix, with examples, isn’t something I want to tackle in a comments thread — so maybe we can have that dance in its own post this weekend. But the immediate point is that using the language of ownership to talk about equality doesn’t seem to get the job done. If the important question really is “What maximizes liberty?,” you need to address quite a number of things, including ownership conventions, distribution of goods, power, and access to natural resources, norms regarding reciprocity, etc., etc. And, finally, you’re going to have to decide what you mean by “liberty.” The single-factor, “hard core” distinctions don’t seem to get any decent fraction of the work done.

    For example, these questions of “property” and “equality” are bound up with the problem of wage-labor in your discussions. Wage-labor presumably always involves inequality, and is therefore “wage-slavery.” But what do we then do with something like Benjamin Tucker’s suggestion that under anarchy everyone would be equally subject to waged employment? And does it matter if Tucker proposed such a thing on the basic of a natural-rights propertarianism (however modified by occupancy-and-use) or from an egoism perspective? Being equally subject to waged labor and equally exempt from it are both “equalities,” and both might well lead to the sort of mutual recognition that you suggest comes with “possession.”

    It strikes me that if people want anarchy — if maximizing liberty really is their goal — then their systems of ownership and their notions of equality will adapt. Hardened anti-equalitarian, non-proviso Lockeans will learn to trade property and power for symbolic status, or they will give up anarchism and learn to rule. Etc…

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