The Gift Economy of Property: From Property to Gifts

The Gift Economy of Property
  1. Thesis
  2. From the Self to Property
  3. From Property to Gifts
  4. Gifting Property 

I’m obviously not talking about “property” in any of the very narrow senses that it has been given, including the narrower senses given to it by Proudhon. Or, rather, I am seeking a broad, underlying definition, which will allow us to relate those more limited senses of the term to one another. We’ll probably find ourselves drowning in specific definitions pretty quickly here, but for a moment or two more, let’s stay general and try to clarify just what sort of dynamic is proposed when we talk about basing property on a pair of gifts.
A little background: I came to mutualism from the “social anarchist” side, migrating gradually from anarcho-syndicalism during the years of the debates on Usenet which led to An Anarchist FAQ. As a scholar, I had drifted from lit crit to intellectual history, and on to cultural studies, with a heavy dose of poststructualism in the mix, but I also did my grad work at a university where libertarian property theory was simply unavoidable, particularly in the philosophy department where I did quite a bit of part-time teaching. So, as my personal interest in the question of property increased through my encounter with Proudhon, and I started looking around at the various treatments current in anarchist circles, I found myself in sort of a difficult position. It seemed clear to me that the critiques of property engaged in by early figures like Proudhon and Thomas Skidmore raised real questions about the viability of existing systems of private property. At the same time, the sorts of alternatives posed by social anarchists—relatively flimsy conceptions of “possession” or the increasingly popular notion of a “gift economy”—didn’t seem to really address those questions, nor did they seem to engage with the “libertarian” discourse in which private property rights are often considered the only rights that matter. And the neo-lockean accounts didn’t quite seem to square up with what I was reading in Locke. As an interdisciplinary scholar, this whole business of trying to get different disciplinary discourses to communicate certainly wasn’t new to me, but this arguably central discourse seemed particularly weighed down with incommensurable values and conflicting uses of the same small body of key terms—and, it seems to me, at least its share of fixed ideas and opportunistic arguments.

The “gift economy of property” was the accidental outcome of a kind of thought experiment. I admire libertarian property theory for its ambitious attempts to trace out the various implications of “property,” but sometimes feel that the “all rights are property rights” crowd are a little too certain at the outset what “all rights” must look like. If nothing else, the most careful “one right” system is a precarious enterprise, since misidentifying that right, or misunderstanding its aspects and implications, is a kind of error that will almost inevitably snowball. But, taken generally, the notion that property is the basis of rights and liberties makes pretty good sense: it is little more than a restatement of the principle of “natural rights,” an assumption that human rights and liberties ought to arise from, or at least closely connect to, whatever is proper to the existence of human beings. And all of those criticism from social anarchist and early socialist circles had convinced me of the need to at least begin by taking things generally and working through things deliberately.

I made an early attempt to work out a notion of “self-ownership” which did not seem question-begging to me, looking for a construction in which it seemed useful to say “I am myself” and “I own myself,” without shifting terms, and without simply imposing the notion of ownership as legal control on the self. My concerns, and my more recent conclusions, are probably best expressed in “Responses on mutualist property theory: Self-ownership,” but my initial conclusion was that an awful lot of the accounts I was reading of self-ownership most places were, if not fundamentally self-defeating, at least seriously fraught with difficulties.

As I was simultaneously delving deep into Proudhon’s works and exploring other theories, the thing that seemed clear to me was that “property” remained, to some extent at least, not a liberty or a right, but simply a problem which we lacked clear criteria to deal with. It seemed to me that I was at a place in my elaboration of property theory where I had to say that none of the contenders had much more to offer than more or less convincing arguments from predicted consequences—with prediction being a hazardous business across the divide of whatever other transformations might bring us within reach of any sort of anarchism. So, in order to come up with any sort of anarchistic principle for dealing with those conflicts of “mine” and “thine” which seem inevitable, it seemed necessary either

  1. To discover some more or less “natural” principle, which would reveal to us the nature of our rights and liberties; or
  2. To invent some practice or establish some convention which would be sufficiently unobjectionable that a lot of other details could just be set aside.

In short, we either had to understand our present situation differently, and adjust our behavior accordingly, or find a means to claim property without a priori permission. Locke’s original theory, with the provisos intact, seemed to me—and still seems to me—a relatively elegant attempt to achieve the second sort of solution to our problem, but even the provisos have been subject to plausible interpretations that pull in essentially opposite directions, with regard to key questions like just consumption of appropriation of natural resources. As much as I have drawn from Locke’s work, it has always left me with critical questions unanswered.

And, of course, staking out a theoretical claim on proviso-lockean territory is an almost sure-fire way not to be taken seriously by anyone—whether it’s a question of social anarchists, neo-lockean market anarchists, or the common-sense “possessitarians” who will settle all the details “after the revolution.” The fact that my argument has had certain resonances with Georgism has been a mixed blessing, since I don’t accept the logic of land-value taxation.

In any event, it was after some significant attempts to simply find “property” in some principle of natural law, or take it according to some generalizable principle—without much success—that I noticed all that Proudhon had to say about property and “free gifts,” that I began to explore the notion that perhaps we could give property to one another.

[Continued in Part 2: “Gifting Property“] 
About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.