What could justify property?

[Commentary coming soon.]

The shift in Proudhon’s work, from critique of property to arguments in favor of it (despite and based on the critiques), is hard to work through, perhaps because Proudhon was himself a little uncomfortable with the whole affair. We know that, to some extent, the defense of property ran counter to his personal desires. Theory of Property, which seems to turn his earlier work on its head, ends with this passage:

A small, rented house, a garden to use, largely suffices for me: my profession not being the cultivation of the soil, the vine, or the meadow, I have no need to make a park, or a vast inheritance. And when I would be a laborer or vintner, the Slavic possession will suffice for me: the share falling due to each head of household in each commune. I cannot abide the insolence of the man who, his feet on ground he holds only by a free concession, forbids you passage, prevents you from picking a bluet in his field or from passing along the path.

When I see all these fences around Paris, which block the view of the country and the enjoyment of the soil by the poor pedestrian, I feel a violent irritation. I ask myself whether the property which surrounds in this way each house is not instead expropriation, expulsion from the land. Private Property! I sometimes meet that phrase written in large letters at the entrance of an open passage, like a sentinel forbidding me to pass. I swear that my dignity as a man bristles with disgust. Oh! In this I remain of the religion of Christ, which recommends detachment, preaches modesty, simplicity of spirit and poverty of heart. Away with the old patrician, merciless and greedy; away with the insolent baron, the avaricious bourgeois, and the hardened peasant, durus arator. That world is odious to me. I cannot love it nor look at it. If I ever find myself a proprietor, may God and men, the poor especially, forgive me for it!

Notice that property is described as a “free concession,” a concession gratuite. The use of “concession” here may imply something of privilege, but it is a consistent and important aspect of Proudhon’s thoughts about property that its materials come to us as something gratuitous. In his debates with Bastiat, and again in Theory of Property, the relation between land that comes as a “free gift” and rent that is extracted from its possessors by proprietors is an issue. Interestingly, one of the other places where Proudhon talks consistently about “free gifts” is in his discussions of voluntary “taxation,” in part because he links voluntary taxes and economic rent in a number of places.

We are, in some ways at least, not far from the Georgist theory of obligation, or from the “gift economy” proposed by some anarchist opponents of private property. If we understand materials as a sort of gift, then perhaps we should also feel that strange, disseminative obligation associated with the gift-economy as well. To merely appropriate a gift would be, under those circumstance, bad form, and potentially worse business, as gifts (anthropologically speaking) as renowned for the poisons they carry within themselves, the prices they impose on those who fail to respond to their basic “logic.” This is one way to reframe the relationship between Georgist land economics and those of the various anarchist schools, though I don’t expect it is one LVT enthusiasts will rush to embrace. It might also help in rethinking the material on property and the gift economy I posted here awhile back. Just hold that thought. . .

The question I started with today was: What could justify property for Proudhon? One answer is simple: Progress, which Proudhon describes as “the justification of Humanity by itself.” Which makes the next answer easy: Humanity, that is, us, learning, through experimental trial and error, to balance our interests in institutions embodying (hopefully) steadily higher and richer “approximations” of Justice. Remember that Proudhon actually described the origin of property in these terms. In Theory of Property, he describes the general process of property’s justification:

All things considered, it is a question of knowing if the French nation is capable today of supplying true proprietors. What is certain is that property is to be regenerated among us. The element of that regeneration is, along with the moral regeneration of which we have just spoken, equilibration.

Every institution of property supposes either: 1) an equal distribution of land between the holders; or 2) an equivalent in favor of those who possess none of the soil. But this is a pure assumption: the equality of property is not at all an initial fact; it is in the ends of the institution, not in its origins. We have remarked first of all that property, because it is abusive, absolutist, and based in egoism, must inevitably tend to restrict itself, to compete with itself, and, as a consequence, to balance. Its tendency is to equality of conditions and fortunes. Exactly because it is absolute, it dismisses any idea of absorption. Let us weigh this well.

Property is not measured by merit, as it is neither wages, nor reward, nor decoration, nor honorific title; it is not measured by the power of the individual, since labor, production, credit and exchange do not require it at all. It is a free gift, accorded to man, with a view to protecting him against the attacks of poverty and the incursions of his fellows. It is the breastplate of his personality and equality, independent of differences in talent, genius, strength, industry, etc.

Here is property as a “free gift,” “accorded to man,” though it is not clear who could make this gift. And this is, ultimately, the weakness of many of the economic approaches that begin with a natural “gift;” they seem to mix up a pre-economic “free” access (itself perhaps a bit confused, for reasons we’ll have to come back to) with an an- or anti-economic “gift beyond exchange.” Generosity and prodigal indifference get balled up together with magic and protestant guilt about unearned wealth. In Georgism, we seem to have an example of the application of a practical anthropological practice, useful for levelling the economic playing field, to more modern circumstances, but without exercising all the spirits. And the “obligation” requires a kind of conversion, “seeing the cat,” as they say.

Anti-propertarian gift-economy communism probably makes most sense if it is simply stripped of the anthropological trappings. Looked at from the “objective” side, and discounting our “subjective” sense of ourselves as enjoying simple property in our persons and personalities, and as being capable of being proprietors, it’s all a matter of givens, of flows, and it’s hard to justify a basic right to obstruct the flows. But, honestly, I don’t think even the primitivists honestly look at things that way. Instead, sharing resources is posited as post-economic activity and as a social good. Such sharing seems to try to mix the qualities associated with giving something you own into a relation where the initial ownership never happens, or is never allowed to be acknowledged.

I’ve argued elsewhere, and I still believe, that “gifts” presuppose property. We can only give what is ours to give. Anything else is a confusion or a sham. Does that mean that Proudhon, the notorious skeptic about property, is simply wrapped up in a confusion? There are certainly those who have suggested it. To be fair, though, my definitions of “gift” here are not his, and I am imposing them for presentist purposes. At the same time, I think the imposition raises interesting questions.

Who can give the “gift of property,” not a gift of a particular property, but the gift of a right or an institution, a shield granted “with a view to protecting him against the attacks of poverty and the incursions of his fellows”? The obvious Proudhonian answer seems to be: Humanity, his fellows. But how? What is it that “humanity,” or the individual human beings that compose it, possesses and can give? And in what spirit and under what terms to give?

In What is Property?, Proudhon wrote, regarding the participation of each in the “daily social task:

Shall the laborer who is capable of finishing his task in six hours have the right, on the ground of superior strength and activity, to usurp the task of the less skilful laborer, and thus rob him of his labor and bread? Who dares maintain such a proposition? . . . If the strong come to the aid of the weak, their kindness deserves praise and love; but their aid must be accepted as a free gift, — not imposed by force, nor offered at a price.”

If we are going to talk about property, rather than the equal wage of 1840, resulting from such labor, how is “humanity” to come to its own aid, if not by granting, through the mediation of its strongest members, concession, privilege, charity, etc? Is there a way to think of a reciprocal gifting as a matter for relative equals? Then again, we have still not answered the most troubling question: What, prior to the gift of property, do we have to give to one another?

In “The Gift Economy of Property,” I suggested one possibility. Let me suggest it again, in a different context and a slightly different way. It appears that what we have, in a relationship much like, and also troubling to, anything like “self-ownership,” is each other, the collective being Humanity. Despite their other disagreements, Proudhon and Pierre Leroux (and William B. Greene, who attempted to synthesize their views) seem to have agreed on this. Leroux wrote:

The life of man then, and of every man, by the will of his Creator, is dependent upon an incessant communication with his fellow beings, and with the universe. That which we call his life, does not appertain entirely to him, and does not reside in him alone; it is at once within him and out of him; it resides partially, and jointly, so to speak, in his fellows and the surrounding world. In a certain point of view therefore it may be said, that his fellow beings and the world appertain also to him. For, as his life resides in them, that portion of it which he controls, and which he calls Me, has virtually a right to that other portion, which he cannot so sovereignly dispose of, and which he calls Not Me.

This is, among other things, a discussion of property. Individual human beings have at least two “sides,” Proudhon’s particular and collective, Leroux’s objective and subjective. Both sides are incomplete, absolutist. But the particular is where we live, subjectively, though, objectively, we may live in, or on, one another, in a way that makes Leroux suspect that we belong, in some sense, to one another. Those who try to pursue theories of property as the extent of our projects, the reach of our labors, frequently run up against some sense of this, which is why some sort of sovereign self-ownership sometimes has to be simply assumed. It is, at least, in line with one-half of our experience of life. And, perhaps more importantly, it is in line with our sense that individuals are responsible for themselves, for their actions.

Proudhon never talks explicitly about a gift of property in these terms, but what he does say about the gift of a shield, of a space to err and to learn seems to me consistent with the move to found individual property in a generalized “gift” of self-ownership. We may be bound together in various ways, in various collective entities (and I do not want to discount the importance of that element of Proudhon’s thinking, which, odd as it may at first seem, only emphasizes the importance of individual liberty), we may even be “proper one to another” in a descriptive sense; but our sense of our separateness opens up the possibility of a kind of quasi-gift, a relinquishing of our stake in others in the realm (which we thereby create) of property, without thereby denying our connections.

I say we can do this, though, in a sense, it is perhaps what we already do. But it is not, I think, the way we think about “self-ownership” and the basis of property. It’s not necessarily nice for anti-propertarians to think of gifts as dependent on property, or for propertarians to consider an “original gift” as the foundation of self-ownership. But it might be useful, particularly in bringing various schools and discourses into dialogue. I suppose we’ll see…

(For longtime readers and friends, yes, this is the beginnings of the promised “Walt Whitman Theory of Political Economy”…)

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