Proudhon’s “New Theory” (3 of 3)

§2.—Abstention from all regulatory law in that which concerns the possession, production, circulation and consumption of things. Analogies from love and art. Mobilization of the immovable. Character of the true proprietor.
If the reader has understood what has just been said, from the political point of view, of property, namely: one the one hand, that it can only be a right if it is function; on the other, that it is in the very abuse of property that it is necessary to seek that function, he will have not trouble grasping what remains to be said about the ends of property from the point of view of public economy and morals: which will permit me to be more brief.
When I say that the ends of property, that is its functionality, and thus its right, must be sought in its abuses, each understands that in expressing myself in this way I do not intend in any way to glorify the abuse, bad in itself, and that everyone would like to abolish. I mean that, property being absolute, unconditional, starting off indefinable, one can know its destination, if it has one, the function, if it is true that it is part of the social organism, only by the study of its abuses, if not by research then,—the function of property once understood and the right proven by the aim of the institution,—how one could triumph over this very abuse.
Property is abusive, from the economic point of view, in that not only is it an object of monopolization, as we have seen earlier, which tends to deprive a multitude of citizens of their legitimate share; but in that is can be parceled out and split up: which causes a serious harm to agriculture. I believe I recall that in France the 25 million hectares of workable land, in which is found included consequently neither woods, nor meadows, nor vines, nor garden plots, etc., and which form nearly half of the territory, are divided 290 or 300 million parcels: which makes the average of those division less that one-tenth of a hectare, a square of thirty meters on a side. There are many that are smaller. One conceives the harm done to the nation by this parceling out. Fourier estimated that the normal extent of an agricultural exploitation, together with the essential industries that it entails, and disposing of all the mechanical means, should be around a league square, served by a population of 15 to 1,800 persons of every age, sex, profession and grade. That was what gave him the idea of his phalanstery. One of the causes of the inferiority of agriculture in France is that excessive division, which does not exist in England, country of feudal tenure. We have thought many times of preventing that parceling out by facilitating the exchange of parcels: which would allow divided inheritances to be reconstituted. Nothing has succeeded. The division goes its way, without anyone being able to stop it, short of a law of public utility which would undermine property.
Another abuse, no less prejudicial than the preceding, is that of an anarchic exploitation, without concert between the farmers, without sufficient capital, given to ignorance and chance. It is to that evil that the schools of agriculture, the agricultural associations, the model farms, the crédit foncier, etc, attempt to remedy. Doubtless, we have already succeeded in obtaining some improvements: progress made itself felt little by little, even in the most remote countryside, and science wins everywhere. But it is necessary that the cure be better than the evil; far from that, it most often only aggravates the malady. It would be necessary to reduce the property taxes by half: is that possible? It would be necessary that the mortgage loans could be granted at no more than one and a half percent, half of the net revenue of the land; now, the rate of interest is regularly five. It would be necessary that the small proprietor would be able to profit from all the discoveries of science in order to withstand the competition of the large farms, but that is what can take place only by associating the small properties; which is indeed to return to Slavic possession, and to renounce that which is most attractive in property, the free and absolute disposition. This is the objection that I made, twenty years ago, to the disciples of Fourier, who claimed to preserve property to the phalanstery.
The third abuse, still more serious than those preceding, since it involves at once public economy and morals: property has found means of separating, in agricultural exploitation, the net product from the gross product. That separation has led to the divorce of man from the earth, and makes of the earth an object of speculation [agiotage], I nearly said of prostitution.
It is here that property appears decidedly inferior to feudal tenure, and I have never been able to conceive how the economists, denouncing and combating all the abuses, protesting against division, routine and bad methods, preaching to the proprietor love of the soil, and residency, and labor, riding roughshod over politics, how, I say, they cam consider themselves partisans of property. The rent is doubtless a good thing for the one that consumes it and who takes no part in the agricultural labor: but what it is not easy to accept, is that the country and its customs find it equally good. Christianity had abolished slavery; the Revolution suppressed feudal privileges: but what is it then, I ask you, but tenant farming?…
Here is what I wrote in that regard, in 1858, in my work on Justice in the Révolution and in the Church, 5th study:
“The metaphysics of property has devastated the French soil (by the arbitrariness of the exploitations), decrowned the mountains, dried up the headwaters, changed the rivers into torrents, graveled the valleys: all with the authorization of the government. It has rendered agriculture odious to the peasant (tenant farmer); more odious still homeland; it encourages depopulation… One no longer values the soil, as in the past, because one inhabits it, because one cultivates it, one breathes its emanations, one lives on its substance, one has received it from his fathers with the blood, and one will transmit it from generation to generation in his race, because one taken there his body, his temperament, his instincts, his ideas, his character, and could not separate himself from it without dying. One values the soil as a tool, less than that, at an inscription of rents by means of which one collects each year, on the common mass, a certain revenue. As to that profound feeling for nature, that love of the soil which the rustic life alone gives, it is extinct. A sensibility of convention, particular to the blasé societies to which nature no longer reveals itself except in the novel, the salon and the theater, has taken its place.
“… Man no longer loves the land: as proprietor, he sells it, he rents it, he divides it by shares, he prostitutes it, he trifles with it, he makes it an object of speculations; the cultivator, he torments it, violates it, he exhausts it, he sacrifices it to his impatient cupidity, but he never unites with it…”
The practice of net product, much more clever in our day than it was in antiquity, has carried human egoism to the last degree of refinement. Certainly, the old Roman patrician was miserly, more harsh with his slaves than we are with our domestics; but in the end he worked with them, he inhabited the same holding, breathed the same air, and ate at the same table; from him to the absentee landlord, the difference was enormous. So Italy was beautiful, rich, populous and healthy as long as it was cultivated by its proprietors: it became deserted, pestilential when it was abandoned to slaves, and the master went to Rome to consume its/his immense revenues. And mores will fall with the culture, at the same time that the proprietor, exercising his right, was unaware of his duties.
Such are, from the economic and social point of view, the abuses of property, flagrant abuses, that every conscious reproves, but which do not constitute, in the eyes of the law, either crime or offense, and that official justice could not pursue, since they are an essential part of the right of the proprietor, and one could not suppress them without destroying property by the same blow; abuses, consequently, that we are careful not to conceal or diminish, since they should serve to reveal to us new ends in property, the knowledge of which will serve us to master its excesses.
One of the attributes of property is the power to be divided, parceled out, the division the division pushed as far as the proprietor pleases. It is necessary for the mobilization of the soil: there indeed is the great advantage of allodium over fief. With feudal tenure or the ancient Germanic or Slavic possession, still in use in Russia, society advances all of a piece, like an army ranged in battle. It is in vain that individuals have been declared free, and the State subordinated to the assembly of the people; the freedom of action of the citizen, that faculty of initiative, that we have indicated as the character of constitutional States, remains powerless; the immobilism of the soil, or, to put it better, the incommutability of the possessions always returns to social stasis, and consequently autocracy in government. Property must circulate itself, with man, like a merchandise, like a currency. Without that, the citizen is like Pascal’s man that the universe crushes, who knows it, who senses it, but who cannot prevent it, because the universe does not hear him, and because the law that presides over the movements of the heavens is deaf to his prayers. But change that law, make is to that universe moves at the will of the imperceptible creature who is for it only a thinking monad, and straightaway all will change: it is no longer the man who will be ground between the worlds; it is the worlds which will whirl at his command, like pith balls. That is exactly what occurs by the mobilization of the soil, accomplished by the magic power of that single word, property. It is thus that our species has elevated itself from the inferior regime of patriarchal association and undivided land to the high civilization of property, a civilization to which no one can have been initiated, and wish to turn back. Let on figure what will happen if suddenly, property abolished, the land divided new, all possessors of land were forbidden from selling, exchanging, alienating their share; if, I say, the soil was again, and for good, immobilized! Isn’t it true that the possessor, although working for himself alone and no longer paying any rent, would believe himself tied, as in the past, to the glebe?… I leave it to the reader to explore more deeply that which I can only indicate here.
Another attribute, another abuse of property, is in the faculty recognized in the proprietor to dispose in the most absolute manner. Give for the products of labor and genius; give for what we may call the proper creations of man; but for the land, nothing, it seems, is more contrary to all legal and contractual habits. The sovereign who makes a mining concession, for example, the proprietor who leases his land or who leaves it in an annuity, both never fail to impose certain conditions on the concessionaire, the tenant farmer, the donee. He must preserve the thing, exploiter en bon père de famille, etc. Here the sole condition imposed is that of the Abbey of Thélème, to do as one wills.
It looks like a comedy of Panurge. Never, certainly, were legislators, prince or national assembly, advised of any such idea, and that is for me proof that property is no legislative institution; it has not been declared by an assembly of representatives, pronouncing after careful deliberation and in knowledge of the causes; it is the product of social spontaneity, the expression of a self-confident will, which is affirmed equally in individuals and in the mass.
Let us note the profound reason for this constitution. There are things, expressed the wisdom of nations, for which the human conscience demands full and complete freedom, and rejects any sort of regulation. Of this number are love, art and labor; we must add property to the list.
From the point of view of moral perfection, every affection of the soul, every act of the will, being more or less tinged with selfishness, may be deemed as sin or as inducing sin. There is only the sense of right that is pure; justice is incorruptible by nature, never being able to harm, serving on the contrary as panacea. Thus love, flower of life, sustains the creation, without which all existence is desolated, love is not pure: despite the charms that poetry gives it, it resolves itself finally in immorality and corruption. What then will the moralist legislator do here? Will he, after having established the marriage and the pulled the family from promiscuity, impose a regulation on the husband, to make lois d’alcôve [laws of the bedroom], sometimes to invite action, sometimes to prescribe abstinence, to give amorous recipes and to make an art of conjugal love? No: the law of marriage extends a veil over the nuptial bed. It imposes on the conjoined fidelity and devotion; it forbids the husband from fixing his regard on the wife and child of his neighbor; the wife from looking at a stranger; it reminds them to respect themselves, and then abandons them to their own discretion. Let them go now in the mutuality of their tenderness, conscious of the rights of the other and of their own dignity, and it will be on love transfigured by Justice that the unshakeable edifice of the family will be raised; it will be by this that the wife, immodest and provocative by nature, will become holy and sacred.
What we have just said of love is equally true of art and of labor. That does not mean that the works of genius, the labors of the industrious, know neither rule nor measure, nor rhyme nor reason: in that regard, the romantic school taken a completely false route. That means that the operations of the industrial worker, of the artist, the poet and the thinker, though subject to principles, to technical procedures, exclude on the part of public authority, as of the Academy, every sort of regulation, which is very different. Liberty, such is here the true law: in which I am of the opinion of M. Dunoyer and of the majority of the economists.
I add that it must be with property as with love, labor and art. Not that the proprietor is to imagine that he is above all reason and all measure: as absolute as the law makes him, he will soon perceive, at his cost, that property cannot live with abuse; that it too must bow before common sense and before morals; he will understand that if the absolute aspires to depart from its metaphysical existence and to become something positively, that can only be by reason and justice. As soon as the absolute tends to realize itself, it becomes amenable to science and right. Only, as it is essential to the progress of justice that the conformity of property to truth and morals be voluntary, that to this end the proprietor must be master of his own movements, no obligation will be imposed on him by the State. And this fits perfectly with our principles: the aim of civilization, we have said, he work of the State being that every individual exercise the right of justice, becomes organ of right and minister of the law; which leads to the suppression of written constitutions and codes. The least laws, I mean of regulatory prescriptions and official statutes, possible, such is the principle which rules property, the principle of an obviously superior morality, by which alone the free man is distinguished from the slave.
In the system inaugurated by the revolution of 89, and consecrated by the French Code, the citizen is more than a free man: he is a fraction of the sovereign. It is not only in the electoral associations that his sovereignty is exercised, nor in the assemblies of his representatives; it is also, it is especially in the exercise of his industry, the direction of his mind, the administration of his property. The legislator has desired that the citizen enjoy, at his own risks and perils, the most complete autonomy, responsible only for his acts, when they harmed a third party, society or the State considered itself as a third. In these conditions only, the revolutionary legislator has believed that society could prosper, advance on the paths of wealth and justice. He has rejected all the feudal hindrances and restrictions. That is why the citizen, in so far as he works, produces, and possesses,—function of society,—is not at all a functionary of the State: he depends on no one, does what he wants, disposes of his intelligence, of his arms, of his capital, as it pleases him; and the events proves that indeed, it is in the countries where that industrial autonomy, that proprietary absolutism reigns, that there is the most wealth and virtue.
The legislator, in order to guarantee that independence of initiative, that unlimited freedom of action, has thus wanted property to be sovereign in all the force of the expression: one wonders what would have happened if he had wanted to submit it to regulation? How to separate the use from the abuse? How to predict all the malpractice, repress the insubordination, to remove the laziness, the incapacity, to monitor the clumsiness, etc., etc.—In a few words, exploitation by the State, the governmental community rejected, there was no other choice.
Thus, let the proprietor separate as much as he wants the net product from the gross product; instead of attaching himself closely to the land by a religious culture, let him seek only the rent, responsible only to the conscience and opinion, he will not be pursued for that. It is good, in itself, that the rent be distinguished from the gross product and become an object of speculation; lands being of different qualities, social circumstances favoring unequally these exploitations, the calculation and pursuit of the rent can become an instrument of better division. Experience will tell individuals when the practice of rent becomes detrimental and immoral to all; the abuse will then be restrained by itself, and there will remain only right and liberty.
Let the same proprietor borrow on his title, as on his clothes or his watch: the operation can become very dangerous for his, and full of miseries for the country; but the State will not intervene anymore, if it is not to compete with the usurers, by providing money to the borrowers at a better price. Mortgage credit is the means by which property in land enters into relation with movable wealth; agricultural with industrial laboratories: an excellent thing in itself, which facilitates enterprises, adds to the power of production, and becomes a new means of leveling. Experience alone can determine for each with regard to it, the liberty, to fix the measure and impose a curb.
Let the proprietor, finally, turn and turn again his earth, or leave it to lay, as he intends; let him make plantations, seedbeds or nothing at all; that he raises thorns there, or puts in cattle, he is the master. Naturally, society will have its part of the damage occasioned by an operation that is lazy or badly intended, as it suffers from every vice and every individual aberration. But it is still better for society to support this prejudice, than to ward it off with regulations. Napoleon I said that if he saw a proprietor leave his fields fallow, he would take his property from him. It was a thought of justice that the conqueror said, but it was not a thought of genius. No, not even in the case where it pleases the proprietor to leave his land without cultivation, you must not, you chief of State, intervene. Let the proprietor be the example will not be contagious; but do not commit to a labyrinth without exit. You permit one proprietor to fell a forest that provided heat for an entire district; another to transform five hectares of land in wheat into a park, and to raise foxes there. Why would you not allow him to grow bramble, thistle and thorn? The abuse of property is the price you pay for its inventions and its efforts: with time it will correct itself. Laissez faire.
It is thus that property, founded on egoism, is the flame which will purify egoism. It is by property that the self,—individual, unsocial, greedy, envious, jealous, full of pride and bad faith,—is transfigured, and makes itself like the collective self, its master and model. The institution which seems made to deify concupiscence, as it has been so often reproached by Christianity, is precisely that which will return concupiscence to conscience. If selfishness never becomes in us identical and adequate to Justice; if the moral law is sought with the same zeal as profit and wealth; if, as Hobbes claimed, the rule of utility can one day serve as the rule of right; and one cannot doubt that would be, indeed, the aim of civilization; it is to property that the world would owe this miracle.
Depending on whether we envision property according to its principle or its ends, it will appear to us as the greatest and most cowardly of immoralities, or as the ideal of civil and domestic virtue.
Look at that vulgar face, on which shines no glint of genius, love or honor. The eye is suspicious, the smile false, the front inaccessible to shame, features clash, the formidable jaw, not the jaw of the lion, but of a hippopotamus. The whole physiognomy seems to say: All is nothing, except to have goods, to have enough of them, in whatever manner they have been acquired. The character is not so coarse that he does not understand that property is no merit; but he makes no case for merit, convinced that nobility, bravery, industry, talent, probity, everything that men esteem, without Holdings, is zero, and that he who can say: I have, can very well pass on the rest. He will not argue with you about the origin and legitimacy of property; he is inclined to believe, in petto, that property was in its origin only a usurpation which the legislator has just let slide. But as, according to him, what was good to begin is good to continue, he has only one thought: it is, aside from respect for the sergeants, to increase his Holdings, by all the dubious means which have served to establish them. He exploits the poor, disputes wages with the worker, plunders everywhere and gleans, digs a furrow in the field of his neighbor, and moves the markers when he can do it without being seen. I have seen one who took up in his hand the earth in the ditch and removed it from his side: one would have said that he ate it. To his is rendered of the rent, of the interest on money, all that they can render: so he is the worst usurer as he is the worst master and the very worst paymaster. For the rest, hypocrite and poltroon, fearing the Devil and Justice alike, afraid of effort, not opinion; measuring all men by his own yardstick, which is to say regarding them as rogues; foreign especially to public affairs and not mixing with the government, if it is not in order lighten his share of the tax or pay for his vote, happy that he finds around him citizens to the prejudice of which the incorruptible suffrage permits him to make a good profit of his own. This is the proprietor according to the letter and principle, which amounts to saying, according to egoism and matter.
Cast your eyes now to the other side, and consider that figure on which is painted, with dignity and sincerity, the high thoughts of the heart. What distinguishes this subject first of all, is that never, in the candor of his soul, would he have invented property. He would have protested with all the force of his conscience against that institution of absolutism and abuse; out of respect for the right, in the interest of the masses, he would have maintained the ancient possession; and without being aware of it, against his formal intention, he would have eternalized despotism in the State, servitude in society. Property exists presently; the accident of birth has made him one of its owners. He possesses without being possessed; he believes in good faith in a principle that he has not wanted, and the responsibility of which weighs on everyone. But he said at the same time that property obliges, and if the law demands nothing of him, his conscience imposes all. Prince of labor, the guardian of law and of liberty, the life of the owner is not to be a life of enjoyment and parasitism, but a life of struggle. He was in the old Rome, noble laborer, head of the austere family, reuniting in his person the threefold capacity of priest, justice and master, made immortal, glorious like the kings, the name, today almost ridiculous, of citizen. It was he who, in 1789, armed both against feudal despotism and against the world. Conscription has replaced the battalions of volunteers, but if the armies of the Empire have rivaled in courage those of the Republic, they have remained inferior in virtue. Friend of the working people, never its courtesan, awaiting the progress of equality; it is also he who said in 1848 that democracy was intended not to shorten coats, it is to lengthen jackets; he finally who supports contemporary society against the assaults of an unbridled industrialism, a corrupt literature, a long-winded demagoguery, a Jesuitism without faith and a politics without principle. Such is the proprietor according to the aims, that one could also call the proprietor according to the spirit.
About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.