What is property? — Some thoughts about how to proceed


I’ve had a couple of useful discussions of property over the last few weeks—over coffee and ale with Apio Ludicrus and online with Derek Wittorff—where the question of the points of contact between Proudhon and Stirner have come up again. There is work being translated that will eventually help to clarify similarities and differences, but there’s also a bit of analytic preparing of the terrain that needs to be done, and could easily be done right now. What I want to try to do right now is to differentiate some of the things that “property” means in these two bodies of work, and suggest some of the relationships between them. Proudhon initially organized his distinctions around the opposition between fact (“possession”) and right (“naked property”), and Stirner’s distinction between “property” (as ownness) and (state supported) “private property” follows similar lines. That convergence gives us a general trajectory. Let’s work from “fact” to “right.”

We have to begin with the difficult, conceptually slippery stuff. Start with the “unique one” (Stirner) or “absolute” individuality (Proudhon). We have a class of entities defined by the fact that they (as “unique ones”) express only themselves, their own law. Every such individuality may—indeed must—be crossed by other expressions of other principles (manifested in other individualities), which could then be accounted for as unique in their own stead and at their own scale. Proudhon was convinced that every absolute individuality was always already a group, organized by a law, and that the existence of the individuality as such depended on that group and that principle of organization. (Likewise, the collective interactions that produce individualities depend on the unique and absolute characteristics of their individual component elements.) I’m not convinced that there is anything in Stirner which necessarily contradicts that assumption. In any event, Proudhon and Stirner seem to share an interest in identifying a class of individualities defined by the ways that they escape any more general classification. “Property” at this level of analysis describes a dynamic ownness, self-enjoyment, more-or-less in the realm of “fact” (whatever fits wrestling with the facticity of this subject may throw us into.) There is obviously another sort of factual analysis that can be done—and has to be done at some point in our analysis of “property”—showing the radical contingency of every unique, and the natural interrelations of all of them. (Joseph Dejacques’ “The Circulus in Universality” is part of that analysis.) The phenomenological experience of the radically separate nature of each unique human individual needs to be tempered by our knowledge that the subject’s “raw” experience of subjectivity is far from the whole story. But there’s no point in getting drawn too far in that direction at this point, when we’re just trying to figure out what kind of thing it is which could be an owner—or a possessor.

So we start with a unique individuality whose “property” is just what that individuality is, what involves it, what falls within the circle of its self-enjoyment. That individuality need not be an individual human being—though obviously some formulations of the question are of more immediate interest to us—and the objects of its enjoyment need not be enjoyed exclusively. This sort of property ultimately has very little to say about things-as-things. But that’s what is missing in so much property theory: a principle of property that doesn’t have to change shape drastically when we move from talking about the owner to the owned; an account of the unique one and the sphere within which its own uniqueness is manifest, as opposed to an inventory of objects which particularly pertain to it (or over which it has some right to rule), within which we may haphazardly place its physical form and its various “properties.” There are obviously practical reasons for getting around to talking about “the owner and his stuff,” but that’s probably not the place to start.

I want to renew my pitch for thinking long and hard about “property,” before we even dream about laying out “property rights,” confronting the sort of dynamic self-enjoyment that defines individualities before we start any more loose talk about “self-ownership.” Whatever you think of Stirner’s style, or the various forms of “egoism,” the concept of “the unique” has some real advantages as a starting place for any property theory that doesn’t simply want to read some particular set of rights and conventions back onto the relations that theoretically form its foundations—and it has the added strength, from an anarchistic point of view, of being a concept specifically designed to resist capture and organization by existing archies of various sorts. At his best, Stirner thinks anarchistically—and when he falls short in this regard, his individualism is still mighty suggestive. Proudhon was a more accomplished sociologist, but his work on property always hovered around questions of law. Pierre Leroux and Joseph Dejacque made much clearer the sort of dialectical play that exists between the “unique one” and the “circulus in universality” as “contr’un,” but the assumption behind the “two-gun mutualist” project is that we need to develop the various tendencies and bring them into even higher relief if we are to really come to terms with the ensemble. In many ways, Proudhon’s lengthy engagement with “property” seems like the most promising body of work to focus on, assuming we can remedy some of his errors, omissions and inconsistencies. Obviously, I think that we can do just that.

Proudhon’s The Theory of Property began with his own attempt to clarify that lengthy project, in a section on “the various acceptations of the word property.” “Acceptation” is a good word in this context, since there’s a good deal of uncertainty whether the difficulties relate more to the specific meanings given to the concept, or to the concept’s ability to circulate in a variety of contexts without quite meaning anything very specific at all. If we were to attempt a broader clarification, what sorts of “acceptations” would be have to account for? At least these, it seems to me:

  1. “Property” is its broadest sense, as a “social problem,” involving both the issue of the “mine and thine” and that of the “you and me;”
  2. “Property” as “ownness,” relating to “the circle of self-enjoyment,” that defines the unique individual, and which refers both the the material resources involved in specific instances of self-enjoyment (the facts of “possession”) and the principle of organization by which they are thus involved;
  3. “Property” or “properties,” referring to those material resources;
  4. “Properties,” referring to the component characteristics of the individual (which both Stirner and Proudhon may encourage us to treat as “uniques” in their own right and at their own scale, and which some theories of property have treated as “property,” in the sense of #3, in order to argue that everyone is a “proprietor” or “capitalist”);
  5. “Property rights,” as social and/or legal attempts to formalize standards for answering some one or more of the question posed by the other senses of “property;”
  6. “Propriety,” in the general sense that each should have and respect its own in a well-managed society;

and a bunch of subordinate distinctions (real property, chattel property, products, allod, usufruct, etc., etc., etc.), referring to specific property norms and forms proposed in the course of our long engagement with the general problem of “property.”

Having untangled all of that, a coherent property theory needs to be able to carry the same terms across the terrain of appropriation, maintenance, abandonment or expropriation, exchange, exclusive and shared domain, the possibilities of “intellectual property,” the relation between theories of property and their abuses, the relation between property and gift, etc.

It’s a pretty tall order. But it seems to me that we’ve actually made the basic problem (how to get along together with some decent helping of freedom and justice) harder by insisting that the problem of property was simple, or no problem at all.

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


  1. Agreed, and yes that is a tall order to fill so good luck with your work.

    “4. ‘Properties,’ referring to the component characteristics of the individual”

    Do you think, when relating this to #3 on your list of clarifications has helped form the recent misconception from vulgar libertarians that self-ownership is essentialy an organizing principle based on private property rights? I’m pulling a blank as far as the name of the individual who proposed this idea specifically, but also would you consider this conclusion to be rooted in the philosophical grounds of physicalism?

  2. Derek, the “your properties are your property” argument goes back to at least Destutt de Tracy, which is where Proudhon and William B. Greene dealt with it. Personally, I don’t think the current confusion is of the same sort. I tend to think of it as just a failure to clarify concepts.

  3. I have been wrestling with the concept(s) of property as I wrestled with the concepts of fairness and justice. Just three words, but so many concepts to tease apart.

    In thinking about property as a social relationship, I did some searching and found a recent paper discussing property rights, available here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1656418

    It references Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld’s jurisprudence on rights, which I hadn’t encountered before reading that paper, but which I find useful and powerful.

    The other aspect of property is the animal aspect, which does not have a “property” concept, but which has behavior that one may interpret as acting as if the animal has property, a sort of proto-property. I think Hohfeld’s insights work here too, and they can be linked to behavioral science via work like Herbert Gintis’ Bounds of Reason, that look at the foundations of defending nests, for example.

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