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.
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.