Unexpected dangers of the free market?


[Commentary coming soon.]

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We know the standard anti-market concern, that even the truly free relations which mutualists and other market anarchists propose (free-market anti-capitalism, equitable commerce, etc…), will lead inevitably (through a fatal flaw in contract theory, or a fatal flaw in human nature, etc…) to (bad) “capitalism,” rule by the possessors of capital, and the state. Answers to the problem (if it is such) generally involve rejections of “contract” and/or “commerce” tout court, along with, of course, “property” conceived on any model that includes exclusive, individual ownership. There seem to be problems with these answers, whether it is the dependence of a “gift economy” on the notion of individual property (though maybe also vice-versa), objections to broad construals of “commerce” and “markets” that seem to be largely aesthetic in character, or vague proposals for how distribution will actually be accomplished (and what sort of participation will be expected) in a non-market society. And one of the things at stake in the debate is validity of the story by which collectivist and communist anarchisms claim to be not only the more popular forms of anarchism, but the true philosophical standard-bearers of the tradition.

We won’t settle the debate easily, and certainly not today. There’s a lot to clarify before we can move forward much. If you’re reading this you probably have a pretty good sense of the importance I place on bringing figures like Proudhon, Fourier, Bellegarrigue, Dejacque, Warren, Greene, Ingalls, Kimball, Molinari, Bastiat, Colins, Emerson, Whitman (etc…) fully into our shared history, so we agree or disagree with them in an informed and intelligent manner. It should also be obvious that I consider the revolutionary period around 1848 to have a particular importance, if only as fertile ground from which to gather ideas of a sort that no longer seem to flourish among us. But even if you don’t agree with me on these general points, perhaps you can see the advantages of looking at familiar ideas in a setting which makes them strange for us.

Consider the mutualist critique of the free market: It’s one of those well-known, but barely-understood facts of anarchist history that Proudhon, the “property is theft” guy, came around to embrace property, in part because it would serve as a necessary counter-balance to “the State.” In “1848 origins of agro-industrial federation,” I pointed to a couple of apparent oddities in Proudhon’s “Revolutionary Program:” 1) his embrace of property and “laissez faire,” and his proposal of “absolute insolidarity” as a principle of organization; and, 2) his assertion that this absolutely egoistic approach would lead naturally to “a centralization analogous with that of the State, but in which no one obeys, no one is dependent, and everyone is free and sovereign.”

Cool. The free market works. Someone like Bellegarrigue could, at roughly the same time, describe “the Revolution” as “purely and simply a matter of business,” and describe (in the second issue of Anarchy: Journal of Order (translation forthcoming)) the scene after the deposing of Louis-Philippe as if someone had pushed that infamous Libertarian Button that makes government go away in a flash. With the king gone, everyone just had to get on with it, and let the “flux of interests” do its work. But there are some complications, at least from the mutualist point of view, not the least of which is that Proudhon never stopped being the “property is theft” guy. He never stopped thinking of exclusive, individual property as being based in individual “absolutism,” as despotic in tendency, and as involving a “right to abuse” potentially more self-refuting with regard to “property” than anything his critics have poked at in his claims. But he also believed, consistently, that “community [of goods] is theft,” just another form of absolutism. And by “Theory of Property” he had some hard things to say about possession, which is the half-way form that anarchists have frequently claimed was his choice: “It is a fact of universal history that land has been no more unequally divided than in places where the system of possession alone has predominated, or where fief has supplanted allodial property; similarly, the states where the most liberty and equality is found are those where property reigns.” [p. 142]

Hmmm. Proudhon’s antinomies complicate things considerably, if what we’re after is a system, of property or of no-property, which simply works, and reduces or eliminates conflict. In a lot of the discussions I’m in these days, as interest in mutualism increases, the concern seems to be to find what sorts of arrangements mutualists would think are justified. But if Proudhon is our guide, justification is our permanent revolution, William B. Greene’s “blazing star,” which retreats every time we make an advance.

What if we had a “free market,” equitable “commerce” in the broadest sense, and a truly just system for dealing with the “mine and thine”? To my knowledge, Proudhon never posed the question in this way. For him, the absolutist character of every one-sided element or approach only became more and more prominent, and necessary. In the conclusion of Theory of Property, he writes: “The principle of property is ultra-legal, extra-legal, absolutist, and egoist by nature, to the point of iniquity: it must be this way. It has for counter-weight the reason of the State, which is absolutist, ultra-legal, illiberal, and governmental, to the point of oppression: it must be this way.” Add one more wrinkle here: We are not talking about “the State” as we know it, the governmentalist State. Instead, this is an essentially anarchist State, a collective being which does not rule, which has no standing above the individual, but which, if we are to take seriously Proudhon’s descriptions, nevertheless marks a real peril, the loss of all individuality, precisely because it marks the extent to which the “flux of interests” has, through egoistic commerce, resulting in unity of interests, in the elimination of conflict.

It appears, in a strange turn, that the danger inherent in a free market, built on systems which reduce conflict, might well be “communism”–not the communism of goods-in-common, not the systems of Marx or Kropotkin (except to the extent that they fail in non-economic ways), but the “community of interests” that Proudhon and Josiah Warren both warned against. Dejacque suggested anarchist-communism as a logical product of individual egoisms. Indeed, most of the attempts to downplay the individualist element in communist anarchism are ignorant smears. So the suggestion is not so far from ones made by “communists” of one sort or another. But there’s a tough knot to be unraveled here, one that tangles up communism and free markets, pits despotism against anarchism, in the interest, ultimately, of the latter.

If Proudhon could answer back to the criticisms of his successors in the anarchist tradition, I suspect they might have looked a bit like Nietzsche’s attacks on the anarchists and socialists of his own day. In particular, to the tradition of Kropotkin (and to some degree many of us, myself included, get our anarchism in large part from Mutual Aid), I think he might feel the need today to say: Mutual aid, yes, as well as the struggle for life. In Kropotkin’s own ethics, or at least that part drawn from Guyau, there is an understanding that it is neither optimism nor pessimism that drives the anarchist towards better approximations of justice, but elements in play, the pressure of life.

The Proudhonian question to economic communists seems to be: how, in a human society, in human “commerce,” is that absolutist element that appears to be part of our nature, that may indeed be the hungry thing that (however reluctantly at times) pushes on after the blazing star, how is that kept in play? How does it render aid, and express its ethical fecundity, if it has nothing of its own to give? And how does community-of-property avoid being the narrow, then narrower-still, community of interests that seems to be the death or coma-state of society, or at least of its collective intelligence?

For the market anarchist, perhaps the question is still: What is property? What is its relation to a free market? Is the freedom we are seeking only a lack of impediments to the flux of interests, or is there perhaps something else, supplemental to or even opposed in some sense to that first market freedom, which we require for a free society? If we were able to complete our justification of property, would that get us what we ultimately want? We know how counter-economics works within the given context, in part because the anarchist entrepreneur has more than a whiff of brimstone about hir, but what happens if and when we win?


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


  1. Pardon me if this is an oversimplification or if I instead don’t grasp an important aspect of what you’re saying, BUT…

    If the “community of goods is theft” yet individual ownership has troublingly absolutist aspects “per se”, that absolutism can only be evaluated in terms of exclusion — of someone’s will to manifest itself upon matter being obstructed. Yet is exclusion, in and of itself, injustice? This runs headlong into the physical reality of scarcity. The existence of scarcity would seem to argue against evaluating exclusion itself as injustice in lieu of evaluating potential injustice in terms of *why* exclusion happens on a case by case basis. This would seem to lead to a “hierarchy” of p[otentially asserted and potentially unasserted property claims, with some claims being superior to others based on potentially a wide variety of legal criteria. Or maybe I just don’t understand what you’re saying at all.

  2. Hey, Brad. I’m trying myself to work through what is really at stake in all of this. But a few things are clear, and the most important one is, that for Proudhon, “injustice” is some form of imbalance. In “What is Property?” he convinced himself that there was no affirmative right to exclusive, individual property, in part because all production seems to be to some degree collective. But very early on, he said he wanted to neutralize the problem of property by universalizing the “robbery,” so exclusion is not itself the problem, as long as something like the “as much and as good” proviso is in play – that is, as long as we can see some “balance” of powers to exclude.

    The thing that I was trying to get at in the post was the way that Proudhon puts a Big Problem at center stage, in large part because its presence there doesn’t allow us to get too comfortable with any of our arrangements. If that is indeed key to mutualism, then it separates it from those anarchist and libertarian forms that think their (lack of) property systems should minimize conflict.

    I hope by now at least the general sense of the importance of conflict (the “shock of ideas,” etc) is coming through in these Proudhon-related posts, but perhaps not…

  3. Hi Shawn, would you clarify the following?

    If I understand “What is Property” correctly, then Proudhon’s asserts is that we cannot change the substance of the land, but only its qualities.

    Is this his argument for capital being collective?

  4. Raskolnik,

    Are you thinking of the passages where Proudhon argues that properties of things and property in things must not be confused?

    In What is Property?, he talks about “social capital” (p. 143, Tucker translation), which is the result of collective force, exercised across generations. The strongest statement is probably on p. 147, where me states, that “all capital, whether material or mental, being the result
    of collective labor, is, in consequence, collective property.” That is as true for any kind of property as it is for land.

    If I understand his position on land correctly, it is that it cannot be owned collectively any more than it can be individually. And the eventual willingness to acknowledge land-ownership of a term based in occupancy and use is consequentialist in origin. Proudhon has a number of reasons for thinking we should universalize such property, despite its despotic character.

  5. The passage I was referring to is found at pages 107-109 in the Tucker translation.

    The productivity of capital is created by collective labor, and they are (ideally) compensated in a transfer to an individual. The laborers relinquish their ownership upon this transfer. So far so good; I don’t think Proudhon would say that this in and of itself is injustice.

    However, you can trace the origin of this capital back through generations of capital and labor, and you are eventually going to wind up with natural resources. It is here where Proudhon puts up a red flag as evidenced by the fisherman and hunter arguments.

    So it seems to me that the sole source of what troubles Proudhon is his view of ownership of the earth.

  6. Raskolnik,

    Proudhon outlines so many sources of his concerns about property that I doubt there is a sole source. In any event, “ownership of the earth,” whether by individuals or by humanity as a whole, is the thing that Proudhon believes to be “impossible.”

    Note, in the pages you’ve cited, that even property in the product of labor is granted only for the sake of argument. Was it not for the fact that the emergence of property as “true legal fiction” seems to be a natural development of our progress towards justice, despite all of the problems it poses, Proudhon could just set it aside as a badly constructed concept, as many anti-property anarchists have done, many imagining they were following Proudhon’s lead. But remember that it is precisely Proudhon’s ontological concerns about property that lead him to champion it, and its evolution into more just and reciprocal forms.

    The most important aspect of Proudhon’s critique of property is his notion of collective force. If that notion seems primarily to work against individual property in the early works, the clues are there that the picture will become more complex. And, sure enough, as Proudhon determines that individual liberty is itself an expression of collective force, and as his critique or religion leads him to insist that moral progress depends on the freedom of individuals to make radical ethical choices, the importance of property, as a step in human progress (though still not as something justifiable in an a priori sense) emerges or reemerges in his work.

  7. From What is Property?, Chapter 3, section 1 (“The Land cannot be Appropriated”):

    “the land is indispensable to our existence, — consequently a common thing, consequently insusceptible of appropriation; but land is much scarcer than the other elements, therefore its use must be regulated, not for the profit of a few, but in the interest and for the security of all.”

    I’m not aware of him changing his mind on this. To quote from his Selected Writings:

    “What I cannot accept, regarding land, is that the work put in gives a right to ownership of what has been worked on.” [p. 129]

    An Anarchist FAQ

  8. Hey, Iain. Good to hear from you. It seems increasingly clear to me that Proudhon never quite said all he intended to about property, in the two-sided way that he talked about most other things. But Chapter 9 of “Theory of Property,” which you quote from, has a number of passages like the one you quoted, paired with at least as many, if not more, insisting that mere possession is a disaster for liberty, and that simple, allodial property is necessary to the establishment of a free society. (Those things are in the “Selected Writings” too, but never seem to get mentioned.)

    There is no question of Proudhon changing his mind, particularly as the tensions seem to have been there from 1840 until his death. But there is also no question, after 1858 or so, of his solution being a synthesis that includes and suppresses property (or communism, in its various forms). One he realizes that “the antinomy does not resolve itself,” We seem stuck, if we are to follow Proudhon’s analysis, with terms unlikely to please anyone but a full-on Proudhonian. Despotic property and all-consuming community ultimately have to be balanced in mutualism: Bellegarrigue and Dejacques, which is just an anarchist-friendly way of saying Blanc (or even Colins) and Molinari and Bastiat (or even Say). For some reason, it has been easier for mutualists and Proudhon-inspired individualists like Tucker, to reach “right,” largely, I think, because of the reception from the “left.” It would be nice to fix that in our generation, and we have both done our part, in our various ways, to work on just that.

    What Proudhon says, in the passage of “Chapter 9” that seems to address occupancy and use rights most directly is: “the property is not perpetual.” My understanding of Proudhon is that occupancy and use was indeed the condition for property, not because it was in itself just, but because justice and progress required it. In the work on “Justice,” progress is defined as the justification of humanity by itself and, echoing material from “What is Property?” (“Man errs, because he learns”), Proudhon emphasizes the necessity to leave individuals liberty and room to experiment, and err, sheltered to some extent from the collective faith and collective reason that he considers so important. And that shelter, in the economic realm as much as in the realm of ideas and ethics, is simple property.

    I’ll point again to the consistency of Proudhon’s thought: the proposal to “universalize” the “robbery” of property in the early 1840s; the parallel critique of community/communism, and the constant synthetic, then antinomic, attempt to bring those two absolutisms into balance; the sense (made explicit in Greene’s work) that mutualism was an extension of the individualization of ethical responsibility begun by the various phases of Christian, Protestant, and then Republican revolution; etc. He seems to call consistently for an analysis more “two-sided” than anything we have been able to put together in a divided anarchist movement. Maybe it’s time to realize his ambitions.

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