Proudhon on Property (1846) – Part 5

[continued from Part 4]

Thus property, which should consummate the holy union of man and nature, leads only to an odious prostitution. The sultan uses and abuses his slave: the earth is for him an instrument of luxury… I find here more than a metaphor; I discover a profound analogy.

What is it that, in the relations of the sexes, distinguishes marriage from concubinage? Everyone senses the difference between these two things; few people would be in a state to render an account of it, so obscure has the question become by the license of the custom and insolence of the Romans.

Is it the progeny? One sees some illicit affairs produce as much and as well as the most fecund of legitimate unions. — Is it the duration? Quite a number of bachelors keep for eighteen years a mistress, who, first humiliated and shamed, subjugates in her turn and demeans her disgraceful lover. Moreover, the perpetuity of the marriage can very well change from obligatory to optional by means of divorce, without the marriage losing any of its character. Perpetuity is doubtless the wish of love and the hope of the family: but it is not at all essential to the marriage; it can always, without offending the sacrament, be, for certain causes, interrupted. — Is it, finally, the wedding ceremony, four words pronounced in front of a deputy and a priest? What virtue can such a formality have for love, steadfastness, devotion? Marat, like Jean-Jacques, had married his governess in the woods, with the sun as his witness. The holy man had contracted in very good faith, and did not doubt that his alliance was as decent and respectable as if it had been counter-signed by the municipal clerk. Marat, in the most important act of his life, had judged it proper to do without the intervention of the Republic: he put, in accordance with the ideas of M. Louis Blanc, the natural fact above the convention. Who then prevents us from all doing as Marat did? And what is meant by this word marriage?

What constitutes marriage is the fact that society is present there, not only at the instant of the promises, but as long as the cohabitation of the spouses lasts. Society, I say, alone receives for each of the espoused the oath of the other; it alone gives them their rights, since it alone can make these rights authentic; and while seeming only to impose some mutual duties on the contracting parties, actually specifies for itself. “We are united in God,” said Tobias to Sarah, “before we are between ourselves; the children of the saints cannot be joined in the manner of the beasts and barbarians.” In that union consecrated by the magistrate, visible organ of society, and in the presence of witnesses who represent it, the love is supposed free and reciprocal, and the posterity predicted as in the accidental unions; the perpetuity of the love is wished for, evoked, but not guaranteed; even voluptuousness is permitted: the only difference, but that difference is an abyss, is that in concubinage egoism alone presides over the union, while in marriage the intervention of society purifies that egoism.

And see the consequences. Society, which takes revenge on the adulterer and punishes the perjurer, does not receive the plaint of the man against his concubine: it thinks no more of such amours than it does of the couplings of dogs, foris canes et impudici! It turns away in disgust. Society rejects his widow and orphan, and does not allow them the succession; in its eyes the mother is a prostitute; the child is a bastard. It is as if it said to the one: You have given birth without me; you can defend yourself and provide for yourself without me. To the other: Your father has sired you for his pleasure; it does not please me to adopt you. That which does injury to marriage cannot claim the guarantee of marriage: such is the social law, a law that is rigorous, but just, which it is only for the socialist hypocrisy,—to those who want a love that is at once chaste and lewd,—to calumniate.

This feeling for social intervention in the most personal and most self-willed act of man, this indefinable respect for a present God, which increases love by rending it chaste, is for the spouses a source of mysterious affections, unknown apart from it. In marriage, man is the lover of all women, because in marriage alone he feels the true love, which unites him sympathetically to all of the sex; but he knows only his spouse, and by knowing only her, he loves more, because without that carnal exclusion, the marriage would disappear, and love with it. The platonic community, asked for increasingly by contemporary reformers, does not give love, it only shows its caput mortuum; because, in this communism of bodies and souls, love, not determining itself, remains in a state of abstraction and dream.

Marriage is the true community of loves and the type of all individual possession. In all his relations with persons and things, man truly contracts only with society, which is to say, at the end of the day, with himself, with the ideal and holy being which lives in him. Destroy that respect of the self, of society, that fear of God, as the Bible says, which is present in all our actions, in all our thoughts; and man, abusing his soul, his mind, his faculties, abusing nature, man, sullied and polluted, becomes, by an irresistible degradation, libertine, tyrant, scoundrel.

Now, just as by the mystical intervention of society, impure love becomes chaste love, so that wild fornication is transformed into a peaceful and holy marriage; just so, in the economic order and in the forecasts of society, property, the prostitution of capital, is only the first moment of a social and legitimate possession. Until then the proprietor abuses rather than enjoys; his happiness is a lewd dream: he embraces, but does not possess. Property is always that abominable droit du seigneur which in times past stirred up the outraged serf, and which the French Revolution was not able to abolish. Under the empire of that right, all the products of labor are filthy: competition is a mutual incitement to debauchery; the privileges accorded to talent are the wage of prostitution. In vain, by its police, the State would like to oblige fathers to recognize their children, and to sign for the shameful fruits of their works. The stain is indelible: the bastard, conceived in iniquity, heralds the turpitude of his creator. Commerce is no longer anything but a traffic in slaves destined, these to the pleasure of the rich, those to the cult of the Vénus populaire; and society is a vast system of procuring where each, discouraged from love, the honest man because his love is betrayed, the man of good fortunes because the variety of intrigues is for him an appurtenance of love, dashes and rolls in the orgy.

Abuse! Cry the jurists, perversity of man. It is not property that makes us envious and greedy, which makes our passions spring up, and arms with its sophisms our bad faith. It is our passions, our vices, on the contrary, which sully and corrupt property.

I would like it as well if one says to me that it is not concubinage that sullies man, but that it is man who, by his passions and vices, sullies and corrupts concubinage. But, doctors, the facts that I denounce, are they, or are they not, of the essence of property? Are they not, from the legal point of view, irreprehensible, placed in the shelter of every judiciary action? Can I remand to the judge, summon to appear before the tribunals this journalist who prostitutes his pen for money? That advocate, that priest, who sells to iniquity, the one his speech, the other his prayers? This doctor who allows the poor man to perish, if he does not submit in advance the fee demanded? This old satyr who deprives his children for a courtesan? Can I prevent a licitation that will abolish the memory of my forefathers, and render their posterity without ancestors, as if it was of incestuous or adulterine stock? Can I restrain the proprietor, without compensating him beyond what he possesses, that is without wrecking society, for heeding the needs of society?…

Property, you say, is innocent of the crime of the proprietor; property is good and useful in itself: it is our passions and our vices which deprave it.

Thus, in order to save property, you distinguish it from morals! Why not distinguish it right away from society? That was precisely the reasoning of the economists. Political economy, said M. Rossi, is in itself good and useful; but it is not moral: it proceeds, setting aside all morality; it is for us not to abuse its theories, to profit from its teachings, according to the higher laws of morality. As if he said: Political economy, the economy of society is not society; the economy of society proceeds without regard to any society; it is up to us not to abuse its theories, to profit from its teachings, according to the higher laws of society! What chaos!

I not only maintain with the economists that property is neither morals nor society; but more that it is by its principle directly contrary to morals and to society, just as political economy is anti-social, because its theories are diametrically opposed to the social interest.

According to the definition, property is the right of use and abuse, which is to say the absolute, irresponsible domain, of man over his person and his goods. If property ceased to be the right of abuse, it would cease to be property. I have taken my examples from the category of abusive acts permitted to the proprietor: what happens here that is not of an unimpeachable legality and propriety? Hasn’t the proprietor the right to give his goods to whomever seems good to him, to leave his neighbor to burn without crying fire, to oppose himself to the public good, to squander his patrimony, to exploit and fleece the worker, to produce badly and sell badly? Can the proprietor be judicially constrained to use his property well? Can he be disturbed in the abuse? What am I saying? Isn’t property, precisely because it is abusive, that which is most sacred for the legislator? Can one conceive of a property for which police would determine the use, and suppress the abuse? And is it not evident, finally, that if one wanted to introduce justice into property, one would destroy property; as the law, by introducing honesty into concubinage, has destroyed concubinage?

Thus, property, in principle and in essence, is immoral: that proposition is soon reached by critique. Consequently the Code, which, in determining the right of the proprietor, has not reserved those of morals, is a code of immorality; jurisprudence, that alleged science of right, which is nothing other than the collection of the proprietary rubrics, is immoral, and justice, is instituted in order protect the free and peaceful abuse of property; justice, which orders us to come to the aid against those who would oppose themselves to that abuse; which afflicts and marks with infamy whoever is so daring as to claim to mend the outrages of property, justice is infamous. If child, supplanted in the paternal affection by an unworthy mistress, should destroy the document which disinherits and dishonors him, he would respond before justice. Accused, convicted, condemned, he would go to the penal colony to make honorable amends to property, while the prostitute will be sent off in possession. Where then is the immorality here? Where is the infamy? Is it not on the side of justice? Let us continue to unwind this chain, and we will soon know the whole truth that we seek. Not only is justice, instituted to protect property, itself abusive, itself immoral, infamous; but the penal sanction is infamous, the police are infamous, the executioner and the gallows, infamous, and property, which embraces that whole series, property, from which this odious lineage come, property is infamous.

Judges armed to defend it, magistrates whose zeal is a permanent threat to those accused by it, I question you. What have you seen in property which has been able in this way to subjugate your conscience and corrupt your judgment? What principle, superior without doubt to property, more worthy of your respect than property, makes it so precious to you? When its works declare it infamous, how do you proclaim it holy and sacred? What consideration, what prejudice affects you?

Is it the majestic order of human societies, that you do not understand, but of which you suppose that property is the unshakeable foundation?—No, since property, as it is, is for you order itself; since first it is proven that property is by nature abusive, that is to say disorderly and anti-social.

Is it Necessity or Providence, the laws of which we do not understand, but the designs of which we adore? —No, since, according to the analysis, property being contradictory and corruptible, it is for that very reason a negation of Necessity, an injury to Providence.

Is it a superior philosophy considering human miseries from on high, and seeking by evil to obtain the good? — No, since philosophy is the agreement of reason and experience, and in the judgment of reason as in that of experience, property is condemned.

Would this not be religion? — Perhaps!….

[to be continued…]
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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.