Property and Theft: Proudhon’s Theory of Exploitation


Part of the task here will be to explain the basics of Proudhon’s social science, the body of work that shows how his basic commitment to anti-authoritarianism and non-governmentalism played out (or didn’t, but could have played out) in a variety of contexts. The goal is to show how most of the principles he developed depend on a fairly small number of observations or assumptions, so that readers can not only make better sense of Proudhon’s work, but also acquire a toolkit that can be applied in new contexts. In the process, we’ll hopefully also debunk some familiar misreadings or misrepresentations of Proudhon.

Let’s start with the single most famous, and probably most misunderstood, of Proudhon’s claims: Property is theft.

There seems to be no end of explanations of what Proudhon meant by that phrase—or of why it must be meaningless—but very few of them seem to have much of anything to do with what he actually said in What is Property? The simplest misunderstanding, often resorted to by those who presumably should have known better, involves the assertion that “theft presupposes property,” and so Proudhon is talking contradictory nonsense. The answer is two-fold:

  • First, when we look at the discussion of property in Proudhon’s earlier work, The Celebration of Sunday, we find a conception of property that presupposes theft, rather than the other way around. If nothing else, recognizing it is a useful step outside the propertarian paradigm.
  • More importantly, however, it should be obvious that Proudhon is pointing to contradictions in the very definition of property itself. “I contend that neither labor, nor occupation, nor law, can create property; that it is an effect without a cause…” At this point, I suppose someone could make an argument that every effect has a cause, but they would pretty obviously be objecting to a metaphor, not to the arguments behind it.  And What is Property? contains argument after argument in support of its provocative thesis.

Of course, when we get stuck at this level of debate, we miss even the most obvious facts about Proudhon’s anti-property argument, starting with the fact that the heart of his argument may seem more like an analysis of remuneration than of ownership. Ultimately, the discussion of collective force and the droit d’aubaine is a bit of both, but perhaps most importantly for our purposes that discussion provides us with a description of modern society that potentially revolutionizes the way we think about a wide range of economic and sociological questions.

Consider a passage like this:

A force of one thousand men working twenty days has been paid the same wages that one would be paid for working fifty-five years; but this force of one thousand has done in twenty days what a single man could not have accomplished, though he had labored for a million centuries. Is the exchange an equitable one? Once more, no; when you have paid all the individual forces, the collective force still remains to be paid. Consequently, there remains always a right of collective property which you have not acquired, and which you enjoy unjustly.

The simplest way to understand Proudhon’s theory of capitalist exploitation is to recognize that there are not 1000 workers in this scenario, but at least 1001, with the 1001st (that “force of one thousand men” considered as a “collective being”) doing a tremendous amount of the work. When the share (however we might determine shares) of that last worker is paid out to the capitalist, that is exploitation, and since the contribution of that last worker is the product of the organized association of all the other workers, all of the workers are exploited.

Why is this is a question of “property”? The first and simplest answer is that what is proper to the 1000 workers has two sides, which we might, for now, call individual and social, while the existing property conventions only acknowledge the individual side. But we’ll have a chance to clarify that statement as we explore the theory more thoroughly. For now, however, what is important to remember is that, whatever theory of just remuneration we might come up with and however we might decide that contributions to production and the creation of property are related, there is at least one potential claimant who has not conventionally entered into the conversation—what Proudhon called a “unity-collectivity” of all the workers.

There are, it turns out, lots of these unity-collectivities. Indeed, one of Proudhon’s key principles is that every individual is a group. And once you accept that principle, lots of interesting things happen to your view of society and economy.

Next: Every Actor Is a Collective Actor

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