Take me to the river…


Let’s say we gather the usual suspects, down by the river, in the State of Nature, or thereabouts, for a bit of property theory and a few “good draughts.” John Locke says everybody can appropriate some river-water, as long as what they make their own “property” leaves “a whole river of the same water.” Now, Locke has a reputation for saying things like “my labor” when maybe he means the labor of someone else, so there’s some hesitation, but it seems like a pretty good deal, assuming it’s possible. Now, in literal terms, it seems impossible: a quantity of water, X, minus some non-zero “good draught,” G, is unlikely to = X.  But, out in the State of Nature, talking about individual-scale “draughts” and a naturally resilient river-system, perhaps it is at least as good as possible.

Everyone is naturally concerned. There’s a lot at stake, and everyone has a slightly different notion about what a free water-supply institution ought to provide or allow. Walt Whitman shows up in the midst of a debate—late; everyone figures he’s been drinking in most of creation without bothering to ask—and wonders what the fuss is about. Leodile Bera (aka André Léo) tries to summarize:

“Here, fierce interests stir; there, a rather bitter faith. Is it liberty which must prevail, or equality? … In the eyes of the partisans of liberty, equality threatens tyranny. In the eyes of the egalitarians, liberty without equality is nothing but a lie. The first dread communism, and the others oppose exploitation.”

It’s all a bit of a bungle, she suspects.

“The antagonism appears between two principles which, as things now stand, divide [us] and create discord in [our] assemblies, although they make up by the same title its motto, and though their agreement alone could give the world justice.”

“And my proposal would not do that, how…?” As shady a character as Locke may be, he does seem to have a point—assuming the thing is possible.

So they think about it. Talk it out. Joseph Déjacque is ready to point out the circulating nature of the river-system, indeed of the planetary hydrosphere, or even… It’s a surprisingly popular topic, at least among some of the old socialists, who struggle to outdo each other in describing the far-ranging extent of the “circulus in universality.” But, eventually, everyone gets thirsty, and their mouths start to get a little dry from all that talking over each other. They try to get down to brass tacks.

There seems to be some rough agreement that, whether driven by need or desire, the individual can take a “good draught” of individually-appropriate size, and that, as long as the appropriation remains individual, and the river ecosystem retains its natural resiliency, things are probably just fine—and not just for drinking. The individual can bathe in the river, swim or splash around for recreation, wash whatever implements they may possess—”And probably even piss in it,” says Georges Bataille—without causing river-water, as such, to become a rivalrous good. And a tiny bit of attention to issues like sanitation, disposal of waste-water, etc., would lesson that particular danger considerably. Increases in population will cause the same individual impact to be relatively greater, of course, as will practices which lessen the ability of the river—or the planetary hydrosphere in general—to process impurities and essentially renew itself.

Everybody’s really thirsty by now. They need a drink of water. Proudhon reminds everyone that “humanity proceeds by approximations,” and they’ve probably come far enough to give things a little experiment. Everybody goes for a “good draught,” keeping an eye on what Bataille’s up to, of course. Whitman splashes around a bit, bathes and admires himself,—there is a lot of him,—dotes on pretty much everything else, and, significantly, doesn’t seem concerned at all with Bataille. Everything goes pretty smoothly. Locke is quite taken with the results. “See. All mixed.” He’s heard that some folks think he would just get mixed up with the out-of-doors, but he seems to be all there, plus a fill-up on water. He bets he could do this with food, too. Beyond that, he may have to proceed a bit by analogy, but… The Fourierists like analogies, though they’re not sure if they’ll like Locke’s. Stephen Pearl Andrews is about to weigh in with a short sermon on the question, when Max Stirner smiles at Locke and says, “It’s all food.” He looks around. “You’re all food. My food.” Though not, he adds, in any legal sense. He’s still smiling. It’s not a nice smile. Pierre Leroux doesn’t seem to notice. “That’s just what I was thinking. Well, not exactly, or, I mean, literally. You don’t… I mean:

What If humanity did not enter into what one calls the three kingdoms of nature!

If humanity formed a fourth kingdom, where that necessity to smother and devour one another did not exist!

If the mode of nutrition of man by man was purely spiritual!

If man could nourish himself spiritually from his fellows with equal profit for all!

If man and his fellows were at base the same man. If all men formed only one single man, one single humanity!

If man, thus conscious of his nature, restored to his nature, practicing his nature, should become superior to what one calls nature!

If he should trample underfoot that serpent of destruction, that python, that satan, in whose name the Malthusians asphyxiate the new-born of the human species!

If the scientists, who speak in proportions and numbers, and who oppose the geometric progression of the population to the arithmetic progression of its subsistence, had forgotten to consider the geometric progression of capital, which places itself like a wall of brass between the need of humanity to develop itself and the faculty that it has to do so!”

Nobody knows quite what to say to that.

“It’s not property,” says Proudhon. “Wha…?” asked the Chorus. “Property,” says Proudhon, “is the right to enjoy even to the extent of abuse, jus utendi et abutendi; that is, the right to lend at interest,—to lease, to acquire, and then to lease and lend again.” Within socially-defined limits, he adds. Even “devouring and anthropophagous property” is an essentially social institution.

Naturally, that riles everyone up. Everybody figures Proudhon gets off on that—not that anyone in this crowd, except maybe Proudhon and Lewis Masquerier, is very worried about what anyone else gets off on. Anyway, he’s got a point. By his definitions, this sort of ingestive, incorporating appropriation is simply use. When it tries to be property, and stakes a claim by mixing, it can only do so by, well, mixing up the things that would be property and proprietor, so that it still just looks like use. Of course, by Stirner’s definitions, it is property, and social institutions produce something like “private property,” and “Hey, you can piss on that, Bataille…” Joseph Déjacque, a good egoist who doesn’t have much use for social institutions beyond the institution of liberty, still isn’t sure that nature doesn’t mix us a lot more than we mix it.

“…does not death have a place in all the instants of the lives of beings? Can the body of a man preserve for a single moment the same molecules? Does not every contact constantly modify it? Can it not breathe, drink, eat, digest, think, feel? Every modification is at once a new death and a new life…”

Bataille likes the sound of that. “What you call the ‘circulus in universality’ is simply general economy; and all the entities you want to distinguish from it—your ‘property’ above all—are limited economies which can only claim a separate existence at the cost of an accursed share, an abject je ne sais quoi that has to be suppressed or ignored. Property is possible—or as possible as anything—but at a cost.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you can fill in a lot of the dialogue from here. There is something extremely elegant about the theory of appropriation in Locke’s proviso. But the “property” that it leads us to seems to be Stirner’s “property,” which is really just passing through, rather than “private property” or Proudhon’s “true legal fiction” of jus utendi et abutendi. There is a theory of something like “natural rights” pertaining to “properties” in Proudhon, a first cousin to Fourier’s theory of the passions. But those “rights” really pertain to forces, to faculties, to “individualities,” “humanities” and “spheres” at all scales of being. That’s a lot of limited economies, among which the economy of human individuality is one we are bound to privilege. If you polled the crowd on the riverbank, it’s unlikely, in fact, that you would find much resistance to that sort of privileging. But wouldn’t it be surprising if, among this same crowd, there was not a keen interest in “carrying one’s own costs”? The position Proudhon came to initially was that “possession” beat “property” because it involved no fictions, imposed no hidden costs. The position he came to pretty quickly after that was that human liberty seemed to require something more complicated and potentially “costly.”

There’s a point of view, reachable from a number of the traditional socialist approaches to property, and explicit in Proudhon’s mutualism, that could embrace some sort of exclusive, individual “property,” provided its costs can be equalized, eliminating the possibility of it functioning as a privilege reserved for a few. Proudhon saw liberty as inseparable in some basic ways from “taking liberties,” claiming a precisely absolute separateness that it would be necessary to oppose if it was not necessary to progress, if it was not the case that “it is the clash of ideas that casts the light.” But even Proudhon wanted more than that—and he was hardly the only demanding figure in our imaginary crowd of property theorists.

Ultimately, we want to see to what extent we can get these difficult and demanding characters to talk to one another, and to us, and how far we can go with the model of property that depends on the equation, XG=X.

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