Responses on mutualist property theory: Self-ownership

Given the amount that I’ve already written about mutualist property theory, both historically and in the context of “the gift economy of property,” and the specific context of the C4SS symposium, there wasn’t much chance that my post on mutualist land theory was going to be a summary of my own theory. Instead, it was really a series of reasons why I couldn’t just engage the question in terms of abandonment, with some gestures back at the theory I’ve been building. That sort of thing never quite cuts it in the blogosphere, as the comments make clear. I sympathize with Derek for thinking that things are left in a potentially paradoxical state. And I guess the “quibbles” in the other comments are just the sort of thing that have to be clarified on a regular basis. I’ll try to do that here:

The commenter (Iain McKay) has “two quibbles:”

First, is the acceptance of “self-ownership”—that is problematic because it mixes up something which is inalienable (liberty) with something which is (property). This allows social relations of authority, domination and exploitation to occur.

This can be seen from Locke, who uses “property in labour” to justify the exploitation of workers’ labour by their employee [employer, I assume]—as intended. It is used this way by propertarians to this day.

As the Iain has suggested, folks like Carole Pateman and David Ellerman have approached these questions differently, with Pateman rejecting the notion of “self-ownership,” by distinguishing it from “property in the person.” There’s a lot to like about Pateman’s essay but there’s no question that it is an intervention in a particular libertarian debate about “property rights” that I’ve been trying to shake for a long time now.

In case it hasn’t been clear, even in my most schematic posts, I consider the conflation of various forms of “property” and “property rights” a fairly serious problem with much of the property theory I encounter. Libertarians who essentially reduce property rights to a right of reprisal against invasion seem to me to be begging a rather stunning number of questions along the way. And I’m attempting to follow a strategy of Proudhon’s—the occasion for a lot of his best, funniest, sometimes snarkiest writing—of not attributing the problems of property to the bad faith of Locke, or “the propertarians” at all times, but to more-or-less well-intentioned systems that simply don’t live up to the claims made for them—and then of either showing how the systems might be fixed or revealing what the systems actually do when functioning correctly. Did Locke set out to build a system for defrauding the workers? Maybe. Is the whole “alienability of labor” of labor thing simply unthinkable? That seems to depend on some clarifications of what is really involved. The second question depends on making sure we know what is at stake in the system. The first deals with intent, and may just be beside the point, if the system that Locke built did not serve those intentions particularly well.

As I have been reading Locke, whatever his intentions, it appears that appropriation of external resources depends on a prior and inalienable property in person, and is limited to essentially non-rivalrous possession. As a start for a system to rob the workers, this seems unpromising, since, among other things, it severely limits the incentive for the sorts of labor-alienation responsible for so much capital accumulation. Indeed, it seems to militate very strongly against the possibility of a capitalist class emerging. Whatever Locke set out to do, the “homesteading” theory doesn’t seem to give much shelter to capitalism—unless, of course, you remove the proviso that demands a rough equality of property, the thing that gives it its social character, as well as whatever claims it may have to universality and self-evidence. But the arguments against the proviso, as I argued in the earlier post, just don’t seem all that convincing to me.

Now, as we know, Locke moved beyond this treatment of homesteading in the state of nature to a justification of property in an exchange economy. But his justification was that division of labor and exchange created virtually the same effects as the initial labor-mixing scenario. That claim has to rise and fall on its own merits: either exchange can, in fact, live up to the high standards of equality that Locke seems to have posited for property acquired by labor-mixing, or it can’t. If it can’t, and we believe the whole thing was a set-up in the first place, there’s still every reason to emphasize the difference—and the alleged similarity—between the two standards.

Anyway, on the question of whether “self-ownership” necessarily mixes up the inalienable and the alienable: 1) the case can certainly be made, as Pateman makes it, but there seem to be problems with the construction of “property in the person” in that case as well; 2) that mixed-up “self-ownership” is not—and, by this point, pretty explicitly not—the concept that I have “accepted;” and 3) to the extent that “self-ownership” is supposed to refer to Locke’s “property in person,” it isn’t at all clear that the problem raised exists in the portion of Locke’s theory that I have been addressing.

We know that “self-ownership” is often used in ways that are less than careful and coherent. The cart and the horse change positions with a disturbing frequency. In laying out the various senses of “property” and the various elements of appropriation, and in my ongoing examination of the points of contact between Proudhon and Stirner, virtually everything I’ve said has been in the service of straightening out these cart-and-horse, cause-and-effect confusions.

It’s seems straightforward to claim that “I own myself” in a somewhat different way than “I own my abilities,” or “I own the product of my abilities,” or “I own a field or forest,” or “I own that toaster that I bought at K-Mart.” Call the first “self-ownership” or “property in the person,” consider the second possible or impossible on the grounds of alienability, but if you believe that I can own that toaster because it is like owning the direct products of my labor, and I can own those products because they are an expression of my abilities and exertions, and I own the abilities and exertions because they are the expressions of a self that I own pretty much as an a priori premise, don’t end up by claiming that the self is really just like a toaster that you can’t give away. This seems to be about as far as Pateman’s quibble takes us, and while, in some senses, it’s better than deriving all forms of property from self-ownership, and then describing the self as a toaster that you can give away, that’s not much of a theoretical payoff.

The property theories that appeal to some sort of “natural right” want to move from a fact about the nature of human being, to a generalizable rule about the “mine and thine.” All too often, they seem to move from a derivative right, back up the chain of justification to try to make the facts fit. The result is again, all too often, weird divisions of the person into owning and owned elements—the sort of thing that has a tendency to keep dividing and retreating before our attempts at justification.

Now, the suggestion that we might choose “liberty” over “property” as the fact that we focus on, doesn’t seem to get us very far. After all, liberty is already a keyword for all the contenders in the struggle over just property rights, and the vision of “free people working as equals” is shared by anarchists of schools who have little else in common. And if we take Proudhon for our guide, then we there is no disentangling liberty from property. After all, in 1840, the goal was a “third form of society,” a “synthesis of community and property,” which he identified as “liberty.” And as his thought matured, Proudhon’s idea of “synthesis” became more and more one of irreducible dialectics, antinomies, within which antagonistic elements acted as counter-forces to one another. It is true that Proudhon identified property with despotism, and that he never renounced that view, but it is also true that it was the very despotic tendencies that he had identified that soon led him to embrace property within the context of the property-community dialectic.

This issue of the “third form of society,” and the relation of Proudhon’s federalism to collectivism, is something I need to tackle in a separate post. For the moment, I want to review and clarify what I do indeed accept with regard to “self-ownership.”

It’s always important to remember how rough-and-tumble and sharp-edged things tend to be within Proudhon’s systems. And it’s necessary to recall just how far he went beyond the few phrases we tend to focus on:

“They called me ‘demolisher,’” he himself said; “this name will remain after I am gone: it’s the limit of inadmissibility that is opposed to all my work, that I am a man of demolition, unable to produce! … I have already given quite thorough demonstrations of such entirely positive things as:

“A theory of force: the metaphysics of the group (this, as well as the theory of nationalities, will be especially demonstrated in a book to be published);

“A dialectical theory: formation of genera and species by the serial method; expansion of the syllogism, which is good only when the premises are allowed;

“A theory of law and morality (doctrine of immanence);
“A theory of freedom;
“A theory of the Fall, i.e. the origin of moral evil: idealism;
“A theory of the right of force: the right of war and the rights of peoples;
“A theory of contract: federation, public or constitutional law;
“A theory of nationalities, derived from the collective force: citizenship, autonomy;
“A theory of the division of powers, correlate with the collective force;
“A theory of property;
“A theory of credit: mutuality, correlate with federation;
“A theory of literary property;
“A theory of taxation;
“A theory of the balance of trade;
“A theory of population;
“A theory of the family and marriage;
“As well as a host of incidental truths.” 

Out of all of this, anarchists tend to know something about his theories of credit and of federation—if only that he was in favor of free credit and federation—and enough about his property theory—generally the three famous slogans—to be dangerous. And they know he had some dodgy ideas about women and Jews—and later had some appeal for certain fascists. But the basic dynamic of Proudhon’s thought—the role of those antinomic, irreducible dialectics; the serial analysis he inherited from Fourier; his treatment of justice as balance, and his progressive commitment to “leveling up;” the ways in which his theories of the group and of collective force didn’t allow him to simply choose between property and community, the individual or the group, centralization or decentralization, etc.—all the stuff that makes the slogans and aphorisms make sense, never seems to get in the mix somehow. In 1840, he showed us that the old systems of “force and fraud” had been, in their way, evolutionary stages in the development of justice. “Community and property,” objectionable separately, were the elements of liberty. In 1846, when his working model was the “economic contradictions,” he damned both property and community as “theft,” because they were “non-reciprocity.” Community, he said, was “the negation of opposing terms,” which would be sort of a curious objection, if we did not know that, a few years later, Proudhon would defined reciprocity as “the mutual penetration of antagonistic elements.” Property is the “religion of force,” while community is “the religion of destitution”—and yet it is “between” them that Proudhon insists he “will make a world.” By the 1850s, Proudhon delved deeper and deeper into these dynamics, developing his progressive philosophy—affirming only progress, denying only the absolute—and then his theories of collective and countervailing forces, until he finally came to define the liberty of the individual in terms of the complex play of individually absolute, despotic forces: the more complex the play, the more individually despotic the forces, the greater the quantity of freedom for the individual defined and composed by that play. Peace is the perfection of freedom, and liberty is the product of that perfection, the outcome of complex antagonism transformed into association. As early as 1849, he claimed that the individualization of interests, “complete insolidarity,” was the first step by which:

… the mutualist organization of exchange, of circulation, of credit, of buying and selling, the abolition of taxes and tolls of every nature which place burdens on production and bans on goods, irresistibly push the producers, each following his specialty, towards a centralization analogous with that of the State, but in which no one obeys, no one is dependent, and everyone is free and sovereign …

Liberty, then, depends on property—at least if we understand property as first and foremost being associated with the individual self and the development of its organizing law. Federation gains its force as much from the separation, even “antagonism” of the federated elements, as it does from their organization under a common rule. And, of course, the increased force and freedom of the federation is not a matter of indifference to its constituents.

I’ve described Proudhon’s system as an individualism on multiple scales. It is, in an important sense, also a collectivism at all those scales, but there are advantages, I think, in tackling this difficult dialectical relation from the side with the most phenomenological immediacy for us as human ethical and political actors. Life is, as Pierre Leroux put it, inescapably both objective and subjective, but our understanding of the dynamic is inescapably mediated by subjectivity.

We know that our body—the most immediate physical site of the self—is made up of elements organized according to particular laws, and that those elements are, in turn, composed of other organized elements, and so on, down as far as we’ve been able to explore. We know that our health depends on the free functioning of these constituent elements—just as we know that our health, and that free functioning, are not independent of the organization and function of higher-order systems (ecosystems, societies, social classes, etc.) Individuals are always already groups, and there are various sorts of influence and feedback between the various orders of individuality/collectivity. Joseph Déjacque’s “universal circulus” is the sum of all that influence and feedback, which simultaneously and irresistibly separates the wheat from the chaff at every level, according to a logic that is the product and the law of all the constituent individuals and their interactions. Seen from this side—the side of the most inclusive sort of “community”—the claims to “property” of any individual might seems pretty thin, except that this circulation of everything is hardly the lazy sloshing of some undifferentiated mass. If there is an overall guiding law that says, this is wheat and this is chaff, it does not appear apart from all the various levels of organization and legislation beneath it. There is no collective without the elements.

More importantly, there is no collectivity—no “life,” in some very basic sense—without the individuality of the elements. The theory of collective force, Proudhon’s theory of liberty and ecological science agree in associating the fullest and most robust conditions for life with diversity and multiplicity. A recent article in Machete on Stirner and the “contr’un” associated with de la Boetie suggests that perhaps Stirner also holds a key to part of the mystery we’re wrestling with:

In reality, Multiplicity finds its best expression precisely in what apparently contradicts it: the uniqueness of the individual. Anchored as we are in false dichotomies, who would ever think to look at Stirner as a philosopher of Multiplicity? And yet, it really is the singularity of each human being, her unrepeatability that constitutes and guarantees Multiplicity. The more human beings are different from each other, the more they refuse the collective identities offered by social and political conventions…and turn to the discovery and creation of themselves, and the more they create new desires, new sensibilities, new ideas, new worlds, which is a reason why it would be necessary to stimulate and defend individual differences rather than blurring them in ‘common agreement’. [translation by Apio Ludicrus, who spotted the article]

 From the egoist side, of course, self-ownership can be very simple (although I’m seeing very interesting, complex stuff from some serious students of Stirner these days): self-ownership is simply self-enjoyment, the enjoyment of that which falls within the power of the unique one, without concerns about that enjoyment being exclusive, or conforming to any external standards of justice, and certainly without concern about conformity to “private property” conventions. But that sort of egoist is really playing a different game than those of us embroiled in this debate over property. Arguably, an awful lot of familiar concerns race back into the picture the moment that the egoist acknowledges another unique, and begins to forge some “union of egoists,” but that’s a set of problems to address another day…

We know that for mutualists, things are simple in their own way: we start with mutual recognition, and we, if we are pursuing the neo-Proudhonian, “two-gun” approach, we know that we have to take into account both the universal circulus (which threatens to simply sweep away the individual in its proliferation of connections) and the unique (which threatens to sweep away all standards whatsoever, leaving us with a world of uniques, both linked and distinguished by their incommensurability to one another.) What’s “simple” is that we know we’ve shooting for mutual association—not necessarily “associations,” in an institutional sense, since mutualist social approximations are likely to run the gamut from the most ephemeral union of egoists to the sort of durable institutions that Proudhon was unafraid to describe as an (anarchistic) state—and we know that we want those associations to give free play to a very pronounced sort of individuality—the sort that responds to names like “the unique” or “free absolute.” The details aren’t simple, but at least we know what sorts of difficult things we need to keep in play.

Is “self-ownership” compatible with that play of difficult things? The egoist’s “self-enjoyment” certainly looks like a “fact” about human being, which is not dependent on the imposition of some property model presumably derived from it. It begs few questions, and seems to smuggle in few of the assumptions of any particular system of property. As a “matter of fact,” it resembles what Proudhon initially called simple “possession”—and like simple possession, it guarantees nothing in the way of justice. And it leaves any system of property that might be derived from it open to some things not generally accepted in “private property” schemes: the possibility that all sorts of interconnections and overlaps, all sorts of non-exclusive possessions, are proper to human being—and thus the most “natural” norms for property. But I’m ultimately a whole lot less interested in natural rights than in human approximations of justice. I’m not sure collectivist César de Paepe was wrong when, in debate with the mutualists, he claimed that “Society has only one right, which is to conform to its own laws, to the laws of its historic development…,” but I know that there’s really no stopping at any individual right once you’ve started down that particular road—perhaps not even at the sort of “recognitions of human dignity” that Proudhon embraced.

So where and how does the mutualist attempt to swim against the stream of natural and historical development, in order to posit a potentially-mutual something-or-other that might intervene in that development in the name of greater liberty? For over two years now, my suggestion has been that we embrace the notion of a “gift economy of property,” that we acknowledge, on the one hand, what is profoundly unnatural about individual rights, and explore the real interconnections that notions of individual property tend to obscure, while, on the other hand, we give to one another the one sort of property that robs no one, the recognition of the other as a unique being, subject to their own law of development, and in many ways incommensurable with all other unique beings.

Over two years ago, I introduced the notion of the “gift economy of property,” my intervention in the debate over “self-ownership,” as a sort of “foundation” on which a full mutualist property theory might be built:

My intuition, based in part on some language various places in Proudhon’s work and in part on the connections I’ve been making to other continental thought, is that a “gift economy,” in the sense of a system in which something, which can be rightfully given, is given, with no specific expectations of return, could only arise in fairly limited circumstances, and perhaps can only have one application within Proudhon’s thought–but that one application may be a bit of a doozy. We know that there is, for Proudhon, some opening for society to emerge as a “pact of liberty” leading towards approximations of equality and finally of justice. We know that freedom rises from the interplay of necessity and liberty, and that property too has its internal contradictions. Proudhon’s moi has very little that he can rightfully give, if even his own “property” is theft. But he can, perhaps, give property to the other, through recognition, which steals nothing, robs no one, and is perfectly gratuitous, even if, and this is the character of the gift economy, he cannot be sure of reciprocation. To the extent, however, that commerce is based in equal recognition, if not necessarily any other sort of equality, then this particular gift economy might be strangely (given all we have said, and some of the names we have invoked) foundational.

As much as my connections and key-words have changed in that time, that initial argument still remains foundational for the various interventions in property theory that I’ve made since. That’s one “doozy” of an application—a mutually-gifted self-ownership, still haunted in important ways by one version of the “impossibility” of property—if all that I have “accepted”—and, whatever its own difficulties, I don’t think it suffers from the sorts of problems Pateman raises.

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