Varieties of Proprietors: Lovers, Husbands, and Mother Hens


Le propriétaire qui épargne empêche les autres de jouir sans jouir lui-même ; pour lui, ni possession ni propriété. Comme l’avare, il couve son trésor il n’en use pas. Qu’il en repaisse ses yeux, qu’il le couche avec lui, qu’il s’endorme en l’embrassant : il aura beau faire, les écus n’engendrent pas les écus. Point de propriété entière sans jouissance, point de jouissance sans consommation, point de consommation sans perte de la propriété : telle est l’inflexible nécessité dans laquelle le jugement de Dieu a placé le propriétaire. Malédiction sur la propriété!

Back in April 2010, in a post called “Amant ou mari,” I made some initial comments on Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s comparison of possessors and proprietors with lovers and husbands. In What is Property? he said: “If I may venture the comparison: a lover is a possessor, a husband is a proprietor.”At the time, I was primarily concerned with gathering clues to what Proudhon really meant by “possession” in his various works—but I was also just beginning to explore the sexually charged language that he sometimes used to discuss property (language which Tucker’s translations sometimes obscured.) I have finally had a chance, in the context of my current work on Proudhon and feminism, to take another, closer look at this potential subtext and, while it is a commonplace that dirty minds can always find a dirty joke, it’s hard to deny that there is a good deal in the works on property that begs to be read as double entendre. And the fact that, in several instances, the more libidinal reading actually makes more sense than Tucker’s rather staid, economic interpretations suggests that perhaps I am not simply indulging my own bad passions.

Now, once you have set out on a search for double meanings, there is always plenty of potential material to be sifted through. Not every reference to “possession” need be taken “in the biblical sense,” and many of a philosopher’s references to “penetration” will be perfectly innocent. But there are moments when Proudhon doesn’t leave much open to question:

The rent has become for the proprietor the token of his lechery, the instrument of his solitary pleasures. [The System of Economic Contradictions]

And, of course, there is the passage from What is Property? (quoted at the top of this post) where Proudhon literally depicts the proprietor (of a particular sort) sleeping with his money in his arms. Here is the full section.

The proprietor who consumes annihilates the products: it is far worse when he decides to save. The things that he has put aside pass into another world; they are never seen again, not even the caput mortuum [worthless remains], the manure. If there were means to journey to the moon, and the proprietors took a fancy to carry their savings there, after a while our whole terraqueous globe would be transported to its satellite.

The proprietor who saves prevents others from enjoying without enjoying himself; for him, neither possession, nor property. Like the miser he broods [literally, like a hen] over his treasure, but does not use it [use it up, or exploit it]. Let him feast his eyes on it, let him lie down with it, let him fall asleep embracing it: no matter, the coins will not beget coins. No complete property without enjoyment [jouissance, which has a range of meanings including “use,” “pleasure” and “orgasm”], no enjoyment without consumption [or consummation], no consumption without loss of property: such is the inflexible necessity [in the sense of inevitability] in which the judgment of God has placed the proprietor. A curse on property!

[The translations are my own. Benjamin R. Tucker chose less provocative renderings, which generally capture the basic arguments, but tend to mute and muddle things a bit, consistently rendering “enjoyment” in terms of “coming into possession.” This certainly hasn’t helped clarify what Proudhon really meant by “possession,” the keyword that English-speaking anarchists have tended to attach themselves to, a keyword that Proudhon admitted he had not really defined very well. Anyway…]

There are some interesting details here, at least one of which seems to have been obscured by a real translation error. Tucker apparently mistook fumier (manure, dung) for fumée (smoke), which would not have been as good a match for caput mortuum, and the mistake obscures a possible echo of Pierre Leroux’s theory of the circulus, an anti-Malthusian theory of natural circulation which led Leroux (like others in those early days of experimentation with fertilizer) to sometimes be rather preoccupied with manure. I wouldn’t have much doubt that this was indeed an indication of Leroux’s influence, except that it is so early that it may well have been an anticipation of some of the same ideas. In any event, we have an interesting similarity between the works of the two authors, and a confirmation that Proudhon was concerned with the circulating side of what I’ve been calling “the larger antinomy” in terms that allow us to draw fairly straightforward connections to figures like Leroux and Joseph Déjacque. But the much more interesting detail, relatively unobscured in Tucker’s translation but outside our “common sense” about the terms of Proudhon’s work, is that there are at least three sorts of property-relations described in the second paragraph: alongside the lover/possessor and the husband/proprietor, we have another figure, a sort of mother hen (though also almost certainly a “he”) who takes his property to bed, but without consummation, jouissance or issue.

Had it been Charles Fourier, instead of Proudhon, who had written this passage, we might expect to find a regular Series of Proprietors—perhaps twelve in all, plus a focal figure—like Fourier’s Series of Cuckolds. As it is, the range of possible proprietary types threatens to multiply. We start with the Possessor, characterized by a simple relation of “fact” with his property, and the Proprietor, who has the right to his property. Then our Proprietors split into Enjoyers and Savers. But there are more possibilities. Let’s look again at the other passage from What is Property?

In property we distinguish: 1) property pure and simple, the right of domain or seigniorial right over the thing, or, as they say, naked property; 2) possession. “Possession,” said Duranton, “is a matter of fact, and not of right.” Toullier: “Property is a right, a legal power; possession is a fact.” The tenant, the farmer, the general partner, the usufructuary, are possessors; the owner who rents or lends for use; the heir who only awaits the death of a usufructuary to enjoy, are proprietors. If I dare make this comparison, a lover is a possessor, and a husband is a proprietor.

Proudhon introduces some potential confusions in this particular passage, as at this point in his career he wanted to draw a fairly distinct line between Possessors and Proprietors, so while we have a mere Proprietor who waits impatiently to become an Enjoyer lined up among the Possessors, we do not have any instance of a simple Enjoyer, who consummates the joining of possession and legal ownership. This is, however, essentially the type of “true proprietor,” which he invoked in his Theory of Property, and which seems to be implied by the formula for “complete property” in the other passage. There is, of course, another good reason why Proudhon resisted presenting any example of “complete property,” since his argument was that consummated property was essentially property lost. But let’s throw one more related quote, this time from Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, into the mix:

Every lover is idolatrous, and has lost possession of himself.

Here we see that possession enjoyed may defeat the Possessor as completely as “complete property” undoes the Enjoyer as a Proprietor. But the problem seems to be essentially one we’ve long since identified: Proudhon, unlike Stirner, really does not have a way of talking about the form of property—ownness, the quality of the unique—which persists in its self-enjoyment, which never equals itself but still circulates through all the crises of self-possession, all les petites morts. Aside from rare moments, he doesn’t seem to have understood that what destroys the despotic property of the Enjoyers-by-Proxy and sterile Savers, and shakes the self-possession of the Possessor was itself a form of property—or at least a character of the individual as proper to him—or her—as it flows across the persistent self, opening that self to evolution and progress, that it is the little deaths that prevent the stasis of real and final death.

But he seems to have been very close…

There is more that will eventually have to be said about these libidinous undercurrents in Proudhon’s writings, and what they reveal about his negotiation and performance of masculinity. But for now perhaps it’s most useful to focus on this new figure of the Saver, the “mother hen” whose embraces of his beloved are doomed to bring forth now new issue, and a clear contrast to the “true proprietor” of the later works. The property of the Saver is quite clearly the “putting aside” of Proudhon’s “Celebration of Sunday,” and an interruption of the universal circulus. But it is also apparently “another world” even for the would-be proprietor, held apart not only from the general mixing of the natural world, but from any sort of “labor-mixing,” which all this sexy imagery might lead us to think about “in the biblical sense.” Our Saver is pretty clearly a miser, like “The Cheapskate” of Han Ryner’s tale, a figure of “avarice without an impulse toward gain, all wrapped up in the fear of loss.” And perhaps we have found our way back onto familiar ground, where the fear of material loss drives our Saver-Miser to a deadly, sterile avoidance of mixing, and perhaps we are approaching a familiar solution, the “two-gun” “gift economy of property,” by a new road and in the context of an expanded understanding of our basic antinomy. Although the circulating side of property remains somewhat elusive, the hints we have dug up in this particular examination suggest that we will find it, if we do, by engaging more closely with mixing, with consummation, and with the openings and crises of self-ownership and self-possession that seem to go along with the “complete property,” while not neglecting the more stable, concentrating side of things.

We have [once again] understood that the opposition of two absolutes—either one of which, alone, would be unpardonably reprehensible, and both of which, together, would be rejected, if they worked separately—is the very cornerstone of social economy and public right: but it falls to us to govern it and to make it act according to the laws of logic.—PIERRE-JOSEPH PROUDHON, THE THEORY OF PROPERTY. (1864)

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