Proudhon on Property (1846) – Part 3

[continued from Part 2]
§ III. — How property is corrupted.

By means of property, society has realized a thought that is useful, laudable, and even inevitable: I am going to prove that by obeying an invincible necessity, it has cast itself into an impossible hypothesis. I believe that I have not forgotten or diminished any of the motives which have presided over the establishment of property; I even dare say that I have given these motives a unity and an obviousness unknown until this moment. Let the reader fill in, moreover, what I may have accidentally omitted: I accept in advance all his reasons, and propose nothing to contradict him. But let him then tell me, with his hand on his conscience, what he finds to reply to the cross-check that I am going to make.

Doubtless the collective reason, obeying the order of destiny that prescribed it, by a series of providential institutions, to consolidate monopoly, has done its duty: its conduct is irreproachable, and I do not blame it. It is the triumph of humanity to know how to recognize what is inevitable, as the greatest effort of its virtue is to know how to submit to it. If then the collective reason, in instituting property, has followed its orders, it has earned no blame: its responsibility is covered.

But that property, that society, forced and constrained, if I dare put it thus, has unearthed, who guarantees that it will last? Not society, which has conceived it from on high, and has not been able to add to it, subtract from it, or modify it in any way. In conferring property on man, it has left to it its qualities and its defects; it has taken no precaution against its constitutive vices, or against the superior forces which could destroy it. If property in itself is corruptible, society knows nothing of it, and can do nothing about it. If property is exposed to the attacks of a more powerful principle, society can do nothing more. How, indeed, will society cure the vice proper to property, since property the daughter of destiny? And how will it protect it against a higher idea, when it only subsists by means of property, and conceives of nothing above property?

Here then is the proprietary theory.

Property is of necessity providential; the collective reason has received it from God and given it to man. But if not property is corruptible by nature, or assailable by force majeure, society is irresponsible; and whoever, armed with that force, will present themselves to combat property, society owes them submission and obeisance.

Thus it is a question of knowing, first, if property is in itself a corruptible thing, which gives rise to destruction; in second place, if there exists somewhere, in the economic arsenal, an instrument which can defeat it.

I will treat the first question in this section; we will seek later to discover what the enemy is which threatens to devour property.

Property is the right to use and abuse, in a word, DESPOTISM. Not that the despot is presumed ever to have the intention of destroying the thing: that is not what must be understood by the right to use and abuse. Destruction for its own sake is not assumed on the part of the proprietor; one always supposes some use that he will make of his goods, and that there is for him a motive convenience and utility. By abuse, the legislator has meant that the proprietor has the right to be mistaken in the use of his goods, without ever being subject to investigation for that poor use, without being responsible to anyone for his error. The proprietor is always supposed to act in his own best interest; and it is in order to allow him more liberty in the pursuit of that interest, that society has conferred on him the right of use and abuse of his monopoly. Up to this point, then, the domain of property is irreprehensible.

But let us recall that this domain has not been conceded solely in respect for the individual: there exist, in the account of the motives for the concession, some entirely social considerations; the contract is synallagmatic between society and man. That is so true, so admitted even by the proprietors, that every time someone comes to attack their privilege, it is in the name, and only in the name, of society that they defend it.

Now, does the proprietary despotism give satisfaction to society? For if it was otherwise, reciprocity being illusory, the pact would be null, and sooner or later either property or society will perish. I reiterate then my question. Does the proprietary despotism fulfill its obligation toward society? Is the proprietary despotism a prudent administrator? Is it, in its essence, just, social, humane? There is the question.

And this is what I respond without fear of refutation:

If it is indubitable, from the point of view of individual liberty, that the concession of property had been necessary; from the juridical point of view, the concession of property is radically null, because it implies on the part of the concessionaire certain obligations that it is optional for him to fulfill or not fulfill. Now, by virtue of the principle that every convention founded on the accomplishment of a non-obligatory condition does not compel, the tacit contract of property, passed between the privileged and the State, to the ends that we have previously established, is clearly illusory; it is annulled by the non-reciprocity, by the injury of one of the parties. And as, with regard to property, the accomplishment of the obligation cannot be due unless the concession itself is by that alone revoked, it follows that there is a contradiction in the definition and incoherence in the pact. Let the contracting parties, after that, persist in maintaining their treaty, the force of things is charged with proving to them that they do useless work: despite the fact that they have it, the inevitability of their antagonism restores discord between them.

All the economists indicate the disadvantages for agricultural production of the parceling of the territory. In agreement on this with the socialists, they would see with joy a joint exploitation which, operating on a large scale, applying the powerful processes of the art and making important economies on the material, would double, perhaps quadruple product. But the proprietor says, Veto, I do not want it. And as he is within his rights, as no one in the world knows the means of changing these rights other than by expropriation, and since expropriation is nothingness, the legislator, the economist and the proletarian recoil in fright before the unknown, and content themselves to expect nowhere near the harvests promised. The proprietor is, by character, envious of the public good: he could purge himself of this vice only by losing property.

Thus, property becomes an obstacle to labor and wealth, an obstacle to the social economy: these days, there is hardly anyone but the economists and the men of law that this astonishes. I seek a way to make it enter into their minds all at once, without commentary…

Isn’t it true that we are poor, each having only fifty-six and a half centimes to spend each day? — Yes, is the response of M. Chevalier.

Isn’t it true that a better agricultural system will save nine-tenths on the costs of material, and will give quadruple product? — Yes, is the response of M. Arthur Young.

Isn’t it true that there are in France six million proprietors, eleven million land assessments, and one hundred twenty-three millions plots of terrain? — Yes, is the response of M. Dunoyer.

Thus there are close to six millions de proprietors, eleven millions land assessments, and a hundred twenty-three million plots, but order does not reign in agriculture, and yet instead of fifty-six and a half centimes per head and per day, we should have 2 francs 25 centimes, which would make us all wealthy.

And why these hundred and forty millions of oppositions to the public wealth? Because cooperation in labor would destroy the spell of property; because apart from property our eyes have seen nothing, our ears have heard nothing, our heart has understood nothing; because, in the end, we are proprietors.

Let us suppose that the proprietor, by a chivalrous liberality, yields to the invitation of science, allows labor to improve and multiply its products. An immense good will result for the laborers and peasants, whose fatigues, reduced by half, will still find themselves, by the lowering of the price of goods, paid double.

But the proprietor: I would be pretty silly, he says, to abandon a profit so clear! Instead of a hundred days of labor, I would not have to pay more than fifty: it is not the proletarian who would profit, but me. — But then, observe, the proletarian will be still more miserable than before, since he will be idle once more. — That does not matter to me, replies the proprietor. I exercise my right. Let the others buy well, if they can, or let them go to other parts to seek their fortune, in their thousands and millions!

Every proprietor nourishes, in his heart of hearts, this homicidal thought. And as by competition, monopoly and credit, the invasion always grows, the laborers find themselves incessantly eliminated from the soil: property is the depopulation of the earth.

Thus then the rent of the proprietor, combined with the progress of industry, changes into an abyss the pit dug beneath the feet of the laborer by monopoly; the evil is aggravated by privilege. The rent of the proprietor is no longer the patrimony of the poor,—I mean that portion of the agricultural product which remains after the costs of culture have been paid off, and which must always serve as a new material for the use of labor, according to that fine theory which shows us accumulated capital as a land unceasingly offered to production, and which, the more one works it, the more it seems to extend. The rent has become for the proprietor the token of his lechery, the instrument of his solitary pleasures. And note that the proprietor who abuses, guilty before charity and morality, remains blameless before the law, unassailable in political economy. To eat up his income! What could be more beautiful, more noble, more legitimate? In the opinion of the common people as in that of the great, unproductive consumption is the virtue par excellence of the proprietor. Every trouble in society comes from this indelible selfishness.

In order to facilitate the exploitation of the soil, and put the different localities in relation, a route, a canal is necessary. Already the plan is made; one will sacrifice an edge on that side, a strip on the other; some hectares of poor terrain, and the way is open. But the proprietor cries out with his booming voice: I do not want it! And before this formidable veto, the would-be lender dares not go through with it. Still, in the end, the State has dared to reply: I want it! But what hesitations, what frights, what trouble, before taking that heroic resolution! What trade-offs! What trials! The people have paid dearly for this act of authority, by which the promoters were still more stunned than the proprietors. For it came to establish a precedent the consequences of which appeared incalculable!… One promised themselves that after having passed this Rubicon, the bridges were broken, and they would stay that way. To do violence to property, what could this portend! The shadow of Spartacus would have appeared less terrible.

In the depths of a naturally poor soil, chance, and then science, born of chance, discovers some treasure troves of fuel. It is a free gift of nature, deposited under the soil of the common habitation, of which each has a right to claim his share. But the proprietor arrives, the proprietor to whom the concession of the soil has been made solely with a view to cultivation. You shall not pass, he says; you will not violate my property! At this unexpected summons, great debate arises among the learned. Some say that the mine is not the same thing as the arable land, and must belong to the State; others maintain that the proprietor has the property above and below, cujus est soluw, ejus est usque ad inferos. For if the proprietor, a new Cerberus posted as the guard of dark kingdoms, can put a ban on entry, the right of the State is only a fiction. It would be necessary to return to expropriation, and where would that lead? The State gives in: “Let us affirm it boldly,” it says through the mouth of M. Dunoyer, supported by M. Troplong; “it is no more just and reasonable to say that the mines are the property of the nation, than it once was to claim that it was the property of the king. The mines are essentially part of the soil. It is with a perfect good sense that the common law has said that the property in what is above implies property in what is below. Where, indeed, would we make the separation?”

M. Dunoyer is troubled by very little. Who hesitates to separate the mine from the surface, just as we sometimes separate, in a succession, the ground floor from the first floor? That is what is done very well by the proprietors of the coal-mining fields in the department of the Loire, where the property in the depths has been nearly everywhere separated from the surface property, and transformed into a sort of circulating value like the actions of an anonymous society. Who still hesitates to regard the mine as a new earth which requires an access road?… But what! Napoleon, the inventor of the juste-milieu, the prince of the doctrinaires, had wanted it otherwise; the counsel of State, M. Troplong and M. Dunoyer applaud: there is nothing more to consider. A transaction has taken place under who-knows-what insignificant reservations; the proprietors have been rewarded by the imperial munificence: how have they acknowledged that favor?

I have already had more than one occasion to speak of the coalition of the mines of the Loire. I return to it for the last time. In that department, the richest in the kingdom in coal deposits, the exploitation was first conducted in the most expensive and most absurd manner. The interest of the mines, that of the consumers and of the proprietors, demanded that the extraction was made jointly: We do not want it, the proprietors have repeated for who knows how many years, and they have engaged in a horrible competition, of which the devastation of the mines has paid the first costs. Were they within their rights? So much so, that one will see the State find it ill if they are taken away.

Finally the proprietors, at least the majority, managed to get along: they associated. Doubtless they have given in to reason, to motives of conservation, of good order, of general as much as private interest. From then on, the consumers would have fuel at a good price, the miners a regular labor and guaranteed wages. What thunder of acclamations in the public! What praise in the academies! What decorations for that fine devotion! We will not inquire whether the gathering is consistent with the text and to the spirit of the law, which forbids the joining of the concessions; we will only see the advantage of the union, and we will have proven that the legislator has neither wanted, nor been able to want, anything but the well-being of the people: Salus populi suprema lex esta.

Deception! First, it is not reason that the proprietors followed in coming together: they submitted only to force. To the extent that competition ruins them, they range themselves on the side of the victor, and accelerate by their growing mass the rout of the dissidents. Then, the association constitutes itself in a collective monopoly: the price of the merchandise increases, so much for consumption; wages are reduced, so much for labor. Then, the public complains; the legislature thinks of intervening; the heavens threaten with a bolt of lightning; the prosecution invokes article 419 of the Penal Code which forbids the coalitions, but which permits every monopolist to combine, and stipulates no measure for the price of the merchandise; the administration appeals to the law of 1810 which, wishing to encourage exploitation, while dividing the concessions, is rather more favorable than opposed to unity; and the advocates prove by dissertations, writs and arguments, these that the coalition is within its rights, those that it is not. Meanwhile the consumer says: Is it just that I pay the costs of agiotage and of competition? Is it just that what has been given for nothing to the proprietor in my greatest interest comes back to me at such as expense? Let one establish a tariff! We do not want it, respond the proprietors. And I defy the State to defeat their resistance other than by an act of authority, which resolves nothing; or else by an indemnity, which is to abandon all.

Property is unsocial, not only in possession, but also in production. Absolute mistress of the instruments of labor, she renders only imperfect, fraudulent, detestable products. The consumer is no longer served, he is robbed of his money. — Shouldn’t you have known, one said to the rural proprietor, wait some days to gather these fruits, to reap this wheat, dry this hay; do not put water in this milk, rinse your barrels, care more for your harvests, bite off less and do better. You are overloaded: put back a part of your inheritance.—A fool! responds the proprietor with a mocking air. Twenty badly worked acres always render more than ten which take us so much time, and will double the costs. With your system, the earth will feed men once more: but what is it to me if there are more men? It is a question of my profit. As to the quality of my products, they will always be good enough for those who lack. You believe yourself skilled, my dear counselor, and you are only a child. What’s the use of being a proprietor, if one only sells what is worth carrying to market, and at a just price, at that?… I do not want it.

Well, you say, let the police do their duty!… The police! You forget that its action only begins when the evil is finished. The police, instead of watching over production, inspects the product: after having allowed the proprietor to cultivate, harvest, manufacture without conscience, it appears to lay hands on the green fruit, spill the terrines of watered milk, the casks of adulterated beer and wine, to throw the prohibited meats into the road: all to the applause of the economists and the populace, who want property to be respected, but will not put up with trade being free. Heh! Barbarians! It is the poverty of the consumer which provokes the flow of these impurities. Why, if you cannot stop the proprietor from acting badly, do you stop the poor from living badly? Isn’t it better if they have colic than if they die of hunger?

Say to that industrialist that it is a cowardly, immoral thing, to speculate on the distress of the poor, on the inexperience of children and of young girls: he simply will not understand you. Prove to him that by a reckless overproduction, by badly calculated enterprises, he compromises, along with his own fortune, the existence of his workers; that if his interests are not touched, those of so many families, grouped around him, merit consideration; that by the arbitrariness of his favors he creates around him discouragement, servility, hatred. The proprietor takes offense: Am I not the master? says he in parody of the legend; and because I am good to a few, do you claim to make of my kindness a right for all? Must I render account to those who should obey me? That home is mine; what I should do regarding the direction of my affairs, I alone am the judge of it. Are my workers my slaves? If my conditions offend them, and they find better, let them go! I will be the first to compliment them. Very excellent philanthropists, who then prevents you from laboring in the workshops? Act, give the example; instead of that delightful life that you lead by preaching virtue, set up a factory, put yourself to work. Let us see finally through you association on the earth! As for me, I reject with all my strength such a servitude. Associates! Rather the bankrupt, rather the dead!

Thus property separates man from man a hundred times more than monopoly did. The legislator, in an eminently social view, had believed to be able to give to possession some stronger guarantees: and he found that he had taken all hope from the laborer, by guaranteeing to the monopolist, in perpetuity, the daily fruit of his pillages. What great proprietor does not abuse the small with his power to restrain? What scientist, settled in dignity, does not withdrawn some lucre from his influence and his patronage? What philosopher, accredited in his counsels, does not find means, under pretext of translation, revision or commentary, to levy a tax on philosophy? What inspector of schools is not a merchant of primers? Is political economy pure of all commerce in actions, and religion of all simony? I have had the honor to be head of a printing-house, and I sold a dozen catechisms, five sheets in-12, for thirty sous. Since, the bishop of the place has been granted the monopoly on religious books, and the price of the catechism has increased from fifteen centimes to forty: monseigneur realizes each year, on this article alone, a net profit of 30,000 francs. Such a question has been put posed by the academy only in order give the occasion for a triumph to M. So-and-So; such a composition has obtained the prize only because it came from M. Such-and-Such, professing the right doctrines, that is to say practicing the art of toadying alongside MM. Such, Such, and Such. Titled science bars the road to common science; the oak compels the reed to bow to it; religion and morals are used by privilege, like plaster and coal; privilege reaches up to the price of virtue, and the crowns awarded at the Mazarin Theater, for the encouragement of the young and the progress of science, are no longer anything but the badges of academic feudalism.

And all these abuses of authority, these misappropriations, these base acts, come, not from illegal abuse, but from legal, very legal usage of property. Without doubt the functionary whose inspection is required for the free circulation of a merchandise, or the acceptance of provisions, does not have the right to traffic in that control. But isn’t that just what they try? A similar act would repulse the virtue of the agents of authority, would fall under the prosecution of the Penal Code, and I will not occupy myself with it. But we agree that those who approve, cannot approve of anything better than what he can do, since his approval is necessary only because of his ability. Now, it is not forbidden to the inspectors and regulators of authority to do by themselves what they are charged with approving in others, and even more so to take part and interest themselves in what must be submitted for their approval, and as in every sort of service, wages and profits are legitimate, it follows that the mission granted, for example, to the university and to the bishops, to approve or disapprove certain works, constitutes a monopoly for the profit of the bishops and academics. And if the law, contradicting itself, claims to stop it, the force of things, more powerful than the law, restores it constantly, and instead of a government, we no longer have anything but venality and fiction…

A poor worker having his wife in childbirth, the midwife, in despair, must ask assistance of a physician.—I must have 200 francs, says the doctor, I won’t budge.—My God! replies the worker, my household is not worth 200 francs; it will be necessary that my wife die, or else we will all go naked, the child, her and me!

That obstetrician, let God rejoice! was yet a worthy man, benevolent, melancholic and mild, member of several scientific and charitable societies: on his mantle, a bronze of Hippocrates, refusing the presents of Artaxerce. He was incapable of saddening a child, and would have sacrificed himself for his cat. His refusal did not come from hardness; that was tactical. For a physician who understands business, devotion has only a season: the clientele acquired, the reputation once made, he reserves himself for the wealthy, and, save for ceremonial occasions, he rejects the indiscreet. Where would we be, if it was necessary to heal the sick indiscriminately? Talent and reputation are precious properties, that one must make the most of, not squander.

The trait that I have just cited is one of the most benign; what horrors, if I should penetrate to the bottom of this medical matter! Let no one tell me that these are exceptions: I except everyone. I criticize property, not men. Property, in Vincent de Paul as in Harpagon, is always monstrous; and until the service of medicine is organized, it will be for the physician as for the scientist, for the advocate as for the artist: he will be a being degraded by his own title, by the title of proprietor.

This is what this judge did not understand, too good a man for his time, who, yielding to the indignation of his conscience, decided one day to express public criticism of the corporation council. It was something immoral, according to him, scandalous, that the ease with which these gentlemen welcome all sorts of causes. If this blame, starting so high, had been supported and commented on by the press, it was made perhaps for the legal profession. But the honorable company could not perish by the censure, any more than property can die from a diatribe, any more than the press can die of its own venom. Besides, isn’t the judiciary solidary with the corporation counsel? Isn’t the one, like the other, established by and for property? What would Perrin-Dandin become, if he was forbidden to judge? And what would we argue about, without property? The Bar Association has therefore been raised; journalism, the pettifoggery of the pen, came to the rescue of the pettifoggery of speeches: the riot went rumbling and swelling until that imprudent magistrate, involuntary organ of the public conscience, had made an apology to sophistry, and retracted by the truth that had arisen spontaneously through him.

One day, a minister announces that he is going to reform the notary profession (notariat).—We do not want anyone to reform us, cry the lawyers. We are not the pettifoggers; speak to the advocates. The notary is, par excellence, a man upright and without reproach. Stranger to usury, guardian of deposits, faithful interpreter of the will of the dying, impartial arbitrator in all contracts, his study is the sanctuary of property. And it is by him that property will be violated! No, no…—and the government, in the person of its minister, has denied it to them.

You want, another says timidly, to reimburse the creditors to whom I pay 5 percent of interest, and replace them by others to whom I will only pay 4. — What are you thinking? shout the stockholders in dread. The interests of which you speak are RENTS; they have been constituted as RENTS; and when you propose to reduce them, it is as if you proposed an expropriation without indemnity. Expropriate, if you please; but there must be a law, plus the prior indemnity. What then! When it is known that money continually loses value; when 10,000 francs of rent today is worth no more than 8,000 at the time of the registration; when, by an irrefutable consequence, that would be to demand for the rentier, whose property diminishes every day, an increase in income, in order to preserve his rent, since that rent does not represent a metallic capital, but real estate, it is thus that one speaks of conversion! Conversion—that is bankruptcy! And the government, convinced, on the one hand, that it had the right, like every debtor, to liberate itself by repayment, but uncertain, on the other, of the nature of its debt and intimidated by the clamor of the proprietors, could only settle it.

Thus property becomes more antisocial to the extent that it is distributed on a greater number of heads. What seems necessary to soften, and to humanize property, collective privilege, is precisely what shows property in its hideousness: property divided, impersonal property, is the worst of properties. Who does not realize today that France is covered with great companies, more formidable, more eager for booty, than the famous bands with which the brave Duguesclin delivered France!…

Be careful not to take community of property for association. The individual proprietor can still show himself accessible to mercy, justice, and shame; le proprietor-corporation is heartless, without remorse. It is a fantastic, inflexible being, freed from every passion and all love, which moves in the circle of its ideas as the millstone in its revolutions crushes grain. It is not by becoming common that property can become social: one does not relieve rabies by biting everyone. Property will end by the transformation of its principle, not by an indefinite co-participation. And that is why the democracy, or system of universal property, that some men, as hard-nosed as they are blind, insist on preaching to the people, is powerless to create society.

[to be continued…]

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
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