Note on the disposition of products and the role of principles


“[I]f property is a truth, this can only be on one condition: that the principles of Immanent Justice, Individual Sovereignty and Federation are accepted.” (Theory of Property)

I get very little feedback on the theoretical posts here, so it’s hard to know to what extent the implications of Proudhon’s federalist-mutualist-guarantist theory are obvious or, alternately, still pretty uncertain. I know that I frequently get to a point in my own thinking where, having laid out the demands on the application of the theory, I can’t get much past “THAT WOULD BE ANARCHY!” But in my calmer moments, it often strikes me that the difficulty is not so much that we couldn’t figure out ways to construct our approximations of justice, but that there are a whole heck of a lot of different ways to go about it, and it is most difficult to know how to begin to choose, without very specific needs and interests on the table.

Because I would like to stick fairly close to the question of property at the moment, perhaps the easiest place to start to wrestle with these difficulties is in the context of Proudhon’s argument against capitalism and the droit d’aubaine (in What is Property?) If “property is theft,” is it largely because the rights of property have naturalized a right to profit (aubaines or “windfalls”) based in exploitation. “Property is a man’s right to dispose at will of social property.” The key concern here is a slide between individual and social, or, as I have suggested before, between individualities of different scales.

Let’s start with a familiar analysis of exploitation. In 1881, Benjamin R. Tucker attempted to answer a related question, posed in the pages of the newspaper Truth:

“Somebody gets the surplus wealth that labor produces and does not consume. Who is the Somebody?”

Tucker’s answer is “the usurer,” who derives the power to exploit from “monopoly.” While this is a fairly common argument, it is, in some ways, is a fairly substantial step back from Proudhon’s position, which sees the source of exploitation as built into the notion of property, rather than emerging from interference with free exchange. The differing analyses have significantly different consequences, when we turn to what and how we combat capitalist exploitation.

Let me suggest three conclusions that seem integral to Proudhon’s analysis:

  1. There are only individual products, and there is only individual property.
  2. Every individual is a group.
  3. In every well-ordered association, there is a portion of the products most logically attributed to the collective force of the associated individuals, rather than to the labor of the individuals themselves.

The first of the three is probably the most controversial, involving, as it does, a reversal of the explicit claim that “every individual is a group.” But we can find numerous examples of Proudhon claiming the reality of social or collective individuals, and his general sense does indeed seem to be that any well-ordered association can be understood as an individual. That brings the notion of property back to its connections to the proper, one’s own, etc., and it seems consistent with Proudhon’s explicit claims in 1840:

  1. That the laborer acquires at the expense of the idle proprietor;
  2. That all production being necessarily collective, the laborer is entitled to a share of the products and profits commensurate with his labor;
  3. That all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor.

Of course, looking at things this way doesn’t dismiss all our potential questions about the relationships between specific collectivities and either property or products. But it does demonstrate one of the ways in which the individual/collective distinction becomes largely a matter of perspective in Proudhon’s sociology.

Now, there are a lot of complicated questions to address when it comes time to estimate how we recognized  “a share of the products and profits commensurate with his labor,” but, for the moment, let’s continue to address things at a slightly different scale. If we accept that the product of unassociated labor is X, and that there is a collective component that emerges from the division and associated labor, so that the product becomes X + some Y derived from collective force, we can talk a bit about the various “someones” who do and might lay claim to Y under various systems or understandings of the situation. (Proudhon’s later understanding of value is such that we’re really spared calculations of anything like, say, SNLT, so we’re probably safe setting that part of the question to the side for the moment anyway.)

The critique of capitalism, in these terms, runs something like this: Our understanding of property being fundamentally individual at only the human scale, we allow the collective portion of our products to be appropriated by capitalists, who then gain an ever-increasing advantage in terms of bargaining power. The most common rationales for this treatment of the capitalist as claimant of all social products are 1) that the capitalist is actually responsible for the organization and deserves the surplus, or 2) that the market acts to make sure that nobody gets more than they are due. Both look like appeals to some for of external constitution, about which we should naturally be skeptical, but both also simply look sketchy on the logical front. Elevating organizational skills (assuming they actually exist in the capitalist, which is often not the case) above other elements in a divided, associated labor-process, would have to be justified. The notion that a market could maintain equal bargaining power, when one party is siphoning off everything but a subsistence wage, is probably just indefensible. When we look more closely at the way that Proudhon understood collective force, things look even worse. Collective force is increased by the complexity of the association, so as the obvious identifications between a given worker’s labor and their product become more tenuous, the quantify of collective product being struggled over increases. As the stakes are raised, the necessity of a different way of thinking about the struggle seems increasingly necessary.

Presumably, any consistent anarchist society ought to be at odds with exploitative property norms, but it isn’t entirely clear if that is the case. So we have to ask again, with regard to the various anarchist analyses of property, products, production, and such, “Who is the somebody?”

I’m going to use familiar terms (individualism, collectivism, communism, and mutualism) to lay out a range of possibilities, but what I’m really trying to establish is that range of options, not the specific adherence of any of the people claiming those terms to a particular scheme. The way that we are addressing the problem is specifically rooted in Proudhon’s work, and these characterizations are just an attempt to bridge the various analyses.

Let’s start with collectivism, which was historically presented, and no doubt with some justification, as an elaboration of Proudhon’s thinking about property. That historical collectivism was essentially communist with regard to property and production, but individualist with regard to consumption. It is an appealing position in many ways, corresponding in a fairly uncomplicated way to the economic realities of modern societies, which is probably why we see that a lot of anarchists who consider themselves communists still talk about “personal property” with regard to objects of consumption. I think most of the other positions have to get pretty theoretical in one way or another to dismiss the collectivist position as thoroughly as most of them do. We’ll have to see how useful those theoretical differences really are.

Anyway, we see the early Proudhon apparently granting the collectivist positions on property and production (“all production being necessarily collective,” “all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor”) and then opting for a similar position on consumption (“the laborer is entitled to a share of the products and profits commensurate with his labor.”)  At this point, he has a theory of the existence of collective beings, but all we can say about the disposition of the collective products, over and above the commensurate share, is that it doesn’t involve exclusive property. But, at this stage of Proudhon’s development, we know that the rejection of exclusive proprietorship excludes all potential exclusive proprietors, including those we would think of as collective. At this stage, we have collective possession of the land, associated production and presumably some sort of collective disposition of that quantity Y of the products of association, but we don’t have collective or common property, what Proudhon thought of as communism, and dismissed as a just option. As an explicitly collectivist position developed, in the hands of Bakunin and his circle, the collective was emphasized over the individual, despite a lot of attempts at balancing the factors.

So let’s loosely define our collectivist position: Collective possession of real property, arising from associated production, with individual possession of objects of individual consumption, and presumably a rather large Y-share, destined to maintain the public sphere, the shared means of production and all those goods that we consume in common. Remuneration for labor is individual, while everything else is at least not exclusively so.

Individualist positions generally just don’t acknowledge the collective aspect (although there are exceptions, such as James L. Walker’s attempts to shoehorn collectivities into his egoism), so wherever property exists we know it will be individual, and the disposition of the products of collective force has to be fundamentally individual as well, although any number of mechanisms might be developed to divvy things up. Individualist positions might approach some forms of communism by simply refusing to make the distinctions of mine and thine where they are not strongly supported, considering all resources potentially available to all, or they might rely on respect for possession. For the most part, the question of exploitation has to come down to some argument about faulty systems of distribution, as we see in Tucker and in some of the more individualist currents of modern “mutualism.”

Among the potential communist positions, we might distinguish those that rely on a notion of common property and those that refuse to acknowledge property at all. In a consistent communist scheme individuals either do or don’t have rights to a “commons,” but those rights never become exclusively individual. The individual rights exist, if they exist, because of the participation of the individuals in the collectivity. So, we either have a case where we know where the Y goes (to the community), but we have a hard time talking about the X, or we simply have a hard time talking about any of it (and we talk about why we mustn’t, and won’t have to. make these kinds of distinctions instead.) There are good reasons why mutualism has traditionally had difficulties finding common ground with communism, even when the theoretical concerns weren’t so clearly elaborated, but when it is a question of Proudhon’s specific sociological concerns, I think alarm bells quite naturally go off, as the community ends up looking more than a bit like a sort of collective capitalist, and the communities concerns look like a form of external constitution. Proudhon’s insistence that collectivities were real and had their own interests and rights was, let us recall, accompanied by an acknowledgment that those interests would not always be in harmony with those of human individuals, and could not be substituted for those individual interests without violating the relation of justice.

Now, I’m happy to assume that the real anarchists who embrace any of these positions do so in good faith, even if I find the positions insufficient in a variety of ways. I’ve drawn inspiration from all of them, in one sense or another, and continue to do so. And to argue for the superiority of an analysis based in Proudhon’s thought, two steps are probably necessary: 1) an elaboration of the mutualist position, and 2) a return to the analysis of collective force, in order to argue for the practical advantages of adopting it. There is always still the option of rejecting the analysis of collective force, and approaching the choice of systems with another set of criteria, but I think the Proudhonian position is not so easy to just shrug off.

We have to account for both stages of Proudhon’s thought on property, if only because we simply cannot separate them. For Proudhon:

Property can be “liberty” only because it remains “theft”!

We start with the 1840 analysis, in which Proudhon champions possession (as a form of property, if only in the realm of facts), and we’re left with something like the options we’ve associated with communism. Possession as a norm creates a world in which we are something like tenants without a landlord, and that scenario doesn’t seem to have been compelling enough for Proudhon to stick with it very long at all. As a representation of the oppressed tenants, it was powerful, but as a model for land distribution it seems to have been much less so. That’s probably why, later in his career, Proudhon argued against possession on historical grounds, since there always seem to be landlords of one sort or another. I think that there are ways of pursuing that possessory vision from 1840, but most of them involve fundamentally non-propertarian analyses. We can, for example, simply shift the discussion to the character of interpersonal relations, rather than their material basis. But that pesky question of who gets to do what with this particular bit of stuff is ultimately hard to answer very clearly without some sort of property theory. If we stick to the discourse of property, the 1840 vision doesn’t help us much with the question of how to dispose of the Y.

Of course, the “New Theory” of the 1860s doesn’t exactly lay things out for us either. There is a great deal about the practical application of The Theory of Property that is left to our imaginations. But we have some strong hints in Proudhon’s mature work, and maybe none is stronger than that notion of a “citizen-state” that I’ve discussed in the context of his critique of governmentalism. (I’ll be bold enough to recommend my book-chapter on “Self-Government and the Citizen-State,” if you are not familiar with that aspect of Proudhon’s thought.) Positing a “State” that is a collectivity created by human individuals, but only has the same standing within society as those individuals, is a bit mind-bending. Examining the notion, we begin to see just what a complex thing Proudhon’s federations might be, but when we want to propose something similar for property, our first step towards a better understanding is probably fairly simple: we affirm property as individual, while acknowledging that it will only be in rare cases that it is truly exclusive. This non-exclusive, individual property has been one of my concerns for a long time, of course. The running joke about the “Walt Whitman Theory of Political Economy” has always been a way of gesturing at this problem, which has been looming steadily larger. Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is essentially the workbook for thinking through non-exclusive individuality, and I’ve consistently pulled two phrases from the work to illustrate two key problems we face:

  • I am large, I contain multitudes.
  • [I] am not contain’d between my hat and boots

We’re face to face with the “I” as contr’un (counter-one, antinomic one, etc.) and there are some very practical concerns at stake for the mutualist approach to the questions we’re pursuing. So, how do we deal with the disposition of the Y?

Maybe we don’t, at least as a separate quantity.

Maybe we just sidestep that problem, in order to confront a different one.

What our more-or-less Proudhonian analysis suggests is that there are all the various individual acts of production, and their attendant claims to be recognized in the disposition of products and profits (all the component parts of X) and then there is the the full production of the association and its products (X + Y). No matter how we look at the process (from the perspective of labor, products, profits, property, etc.) we seem likely to find non-exclusive, overlapping portions. So where does that leave us? Is there any sort of practically useful theory of property that can be drawn from this approach?

Let’s recall the familiar claim of the propertarians that property rights resolve conflicts. Now, that’s only really true in a couple of senses. Obviously, if people agree to a given set of property conventions, or they are forced to agree by some enforcement agency, or they are presumably implied in the the nature of things as natural rights, then conflicts are “resolved” by some existing authority or they don’t arise. Beyond certain well-defined limits, legitimate conflict is simply abolished. (Anarchists of the Proudhonian tendency might start to ask questions about “external constitution” about now…) The other common approach seems to acknowledge that conflict will indeed occur, but that shared property conventions will serve to channel conflict towards swift resolutions by establishing fairly uniform costs and incentives. Those aren’t really terribly strong arguments for the conflict-reducing power of property rights, but if that’s where the bar is set, the mutualist approach can probably at least compete.

If we’re not talking about exclusive property, then we are opening the door to a lot of potential conflict. The question is whether lack of conflict is something that anarchists are necessarily in search of. If we’re following Proudhon’s lead, of course, a very basic sort of conflict is, in his word, a “fundamental law of the universe,” as is our tendency to attempt to resolve things. If we want a practical theory of property, it probably has to be able to accommodate the action of both these “laws.” Let’s look at the opening quote again, with an eye to how Proudhon is attempting to relate property to his other key concepts:

“[I]f property is a truth, this can only be on one condition: that the principles of Immanent Justice, Individual Sovereignty and Federation are accepted.”

The principles that we have to account for seem to cover the various aspects of the antinomy internal to property: Sovereignty, which tends to put individuals into conflict with others, with whom they are naturally entangled; Justice, which calls for reconciliation through the balancing of sovereignty-claims; Federation, understood as an approximation or contract formalizing a particular balance. In the most truly anarchist society, perhaps all Federation formulates is the principle of balance, the absolute minimum. But the strength and specificity of any given institution or contract will or will not contribute to anarchy in a practical sense only when it assumes its places in the larger picture, balancing its forces and tendencies against institutions and contracts.

There is a play of principles and consequences here that is necessarily a bit more pragmatic than a lot of anarchist positions. It is hard to imagine an anarchism which is not in large part driven by anarchistic principle. Our reasons for commitment to anarchism are, in general, probably some mix of principled ethical concern and a belief that adhering to the principle brings good results. But whatever drives us to a commitment to anarchism, anarchism drives us to find some specifically applicable criteria for what does and does not fit within the worldview we have adopted. We draw our lines in the sand, against governmentalism, against external constitution of human relations, against authority, etc. and we test them out in practice on the basis of whether or not they guide us well in the world of actual institutions and real consequences. If we’re consistent in our application of Proudhon’s philosophical approach, however, these principles never become rules in the sense that they could take precedence over our subsequent experimental experience in applying them. They are useful approximations when they work and tools to be reshaped when the don’t. Anarchism itself isn’t really any of these principles, but is perhaps best understood as the commitment we make to pursue some set of principle generally conducive to anarchy and the good consequences we associate with it.

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