The Gift Economy of Property (2.0)

Contr’un Revisited:


  • The Gift Economy of Property
  • Trajectories: Proudhon and Property
  • The Larger Antinomy

The Gift Economy of Property

I. Thesis

An adequate, non-simplist, mutualist theory of what is proper to individual human beings, seeking to do justice to the range of things we denominate by the word “property,” will have to account for the nearly unbridgeable separateness that we experience in consciousness, as well as the inextricable interconnection which is our material reality. It will have to, in essence, respond to Max Stirner and Pierre Leroux (or any number of other advocates of a roughly ecological universal circulus.) The “gift economy of property” proposal seeks to base a form of “self-ownership” on two generalized “gifts:”

  1. A conscious ceding of all that we might claim of our own in others; and
  2. An affirmation of the right to err in the process of learning to manage one’s own.

On this basis, “self-ownership” would actually be an elegantly appropriate phrase, highlighting the ways in which the notion brings together two aspects of property, the “I am…” and the “I own…,” without being able to simply merge them. And it would indeed be “property,” according to the definitions used by Proudhon, combining the elements of “use” and (socially limited) “abuse.”

There might be ethical arguments for denying one another one or both of these “gifts,” but I suspect there are very few that would meet any very rigorous standard of mutuality.

II. From the Self to 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.

III. From Property to Gifts

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.

IV. Gifting Property

or the basic details of the mechanism by which property might be gifted, let me just insert the argument from “What could justify property?

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