The Gift Economy of Property: From the Self to Property

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


Having laid out a little more clearly the philosophical moves I’m making with the “gift economy of property,” I probably need to clarify again the rationale for such a idiosyncratic approach to the question of property. Because it is explicitly a mutualist anarchist approach, and specifically a neo-Proudhonian approach, there’s a whole lot of critique of property at the foundations, a strong sense that, as desirable as the aims of property might be, the available means of founding it appear to be a mess. We start with the sense that untangling “property” and “theft” may not be simple, that certain kinds of property may be “impossible.” So we have to address some pretty basic issues.

Having proposed a slightly heretical reading of “self-ownership” as a key-term, let’s look a bit at the self. And let me repeat that our adequate, non-simplist, mutualist theory of property will begin with a theory of what is proper to individual human beings, and it will be non-simplist, or two-sided, to account for two aspects of selfhood. Our natural egoism—the product of the gulf between individual consciousnesses and the experience, within every individual consciousness, of a unique and relatively persistent self, apparently above or at least apart from the unbroken flow of the universal circulus—suggests to us a division between our own and, well…, whatever else there is. Reflection and observation suggest a material reality with few if any real separations at all, a social reality where selves refuse to respect bodily boundaries, and an environment rich in idea-forces, which manage, without any sort of body at all, to have their way with things in all sorts of ways. Is it proper for us to persist or to circulate, to be stable or in constant flux? If we’re taking our cues from Proudhon—particularly as I have been reading him in recent posts—perhaps we should say that we, in that which is proper to us, are a sort of “synthesis of community and property,” that it is as proper to us to circulate and disseminate as it is to persist and accumulate. In their own ways, I suspect both Stirner and Pierre Leroux would have agreed. And Walt Whitman, of course:

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. 

We may not embrace a vision of self-hood as complicated as Whitman’s, but to the extent that we embrace any complexity at with, with regard to the interconnection or overlap of selves, some clarification or convention will be necessary to get us any further down the road to the various forms of “property.” This will be as true for more informal system of “possession” or usufruct as it will be for very formal systems built up from axioms.

As soon as the question of the “mine and thine” is raised—as it seems likely to be raised in almost any society at some point—we’re in the realm where it seems necessary to have some notion of property. The word “property” refers, of course, to a family of concepts, which we confuse at our peril. Whatever local or specialized definitions exist, property as such need not be exclusive, for example, and whether it is always “individual” depends a great deal on how we limit the meaning of that term. We have Stirner, for instance, emphasizing the “mine”—the my own—with precious little attention to the “thine,” beyond assuming that whatever other uniques exists will concern themselves with their own as well, with the possibility wide open for overlap between the mine and thine. And for Proudhon, because individuals are always also organized groups, we have the possibility of “collective” forms of property, but, at least at this stage of the analysis, the “collectives” in question would be better understood as individuals of a different order or on a different scale.

We’re taking very small steps here, from a potentially complex self, considered in as much—or as little—isolation as it is capable of, to the simplest sort of property, the distinction of selves necessary to most, if not all, notions of society. We are not yet talking the conventional language of contemporary property theory, since what we’re concerning ourselves with at this stage is neither a question of liberties or rights. If we were to stop here, and perhaps work out some sort of purely use-based system, then I suspect we might get along without anything like “self-ownership.” We would be ourselves, and we could find conventional means of not “stepping on each other’s toes” too much in the process. But the convention would probably end up involving something that looked quite a bit like Locke’s provisos: some conventional understanding that we could not, in justice, exploit the overlap between selves, or try to make ourselves whole or full at the expense of others. That is probably one of the basic things that “justice” means.

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