What Is Property? Ch. 2 notes, part 1

These are notes from the ongoing Proudhon seminar. Page numbers refer to the Benjamin R. Tucker translation of What Is Property?

Chapter II covers “PROPERTY CONSIDERED AS A NATURAL RIGHT.—OCCUPATION AND CIVIL LAW AS EFFICIENT BASES OF PROPERTY. DEFINITIONS.” Proudhon announced in the first chapter that: “The first of these chapters [Ch. 2] will prove that the right of occupation OBSTRUCTS property; the second [Ch. 3] that the right of labor DESTROYS it.” So we know pretty much what to expect.

p. 42: Property is defined as “the right to use and abuse one’s own within the limits of the law — jus utendi et abutendi re suâ, quatenus juris ratio patitur.” This is going to be Proudhon’s definition of simple property throughout his writings. There are those who claim that Proudhon meant something different in the early and late works, but he doesn’t leave us much room for doubt. Here’s the passage from Theory of Property:

“There is only one thing new for us in our thesis: it is that that same property, the contradictory and abusive principle of which has raised our disapproval, we today accept entirely, along with its equally contradictory qualification: Dominium est just utendi et abutendi re suâ, quatenus juris ratio patur. We have understood finally that the opposition of two absolutes—one of which, alone, would be unpardonably reprehensive, and both of which, together, would be rejected, if they worked separately—is the very cornerstone of social econony and public right: but it falls to us to govern it and to make it act according to the laws of logic.” (p. 242-3)

p. 43: Proudhon claims that the limitation of the absolute right by “the limits of the law” is not so much a limitation on the institution as an internal safeguard. What would seem to limit the abolute nature of the right actually, he argues, confirms it and preserves it. This is one of those spots where I’m not entirely certain that I follow Proudhon’s logic, or that I agree with it, to the extent that I do follow it. However, you may have noticed that the formula, quoted above, from Theory of Property, pretty closely mirrors the material from What Is Property? What Proudhon comes to embrace is “absolute domain” (and perhaps we should read this “absolute” in the light of his later philosophical discussions, taking it as meaning “tending to absolutism,” or something of the same sort, but a little stronger, perhaps “of an absolutist character”) limited by the “laws of logic,” under conditions of approximate equality of property. If the law in question is logic, and the immanent organizing principle of more-or-less equally distributed property, then we can see, once again, how Proudhon turns his critique into a formula for a free society.

On the same page, we get the important discussion of the “two kinds of property:” domain and possession. Proudhon confuses the issue a bit by then calling one kind of property, domain, by the name of “property,” but it’s not hard to follow what he means. The division of property and possession along a right/fact divide is a little more complicate, since he will insist later, as we’ve seen that possession is a matter of right. Inverting the character of the terms in this way is, of course, what I’m doing in my own system, largely inspired by Proudhon, but I don’t see Proudhon making the move himself. This is a question I’ll try to keep tabs on.

One things seems clear to me: some sort of transformation of “possession” in/into the realm of right seems necessary. Proudhon’s examples of possessors are in some cases individuals in rather precarious positions: tenants, for example. Later, in “Theory of Property,” Proudhon claimed that: “It is a fact of universal history that land has been no more unequally divided than in places where the system of possession alone has predominated, or where fief has supplanted allodial property; similarly, the states where the most liberty and equality is found are those where property reigns.” (p. 142)

“Possession” has be a kind of (potentially under-theorized) left-anarchist ideal. We know the direction that Proudhon went, but I’m also very interested in the possibility that there was another possible road. Those who know the early collectivist tradition better then I do might be able to help.

p. 44: “Those who do not possess today are proprietors by the same title as those who do possess.” But the answer is not to generalize property, but to “demand, in the name of general security, its entire abolition.” OK. There are a handful of pages where I tend to feel somewhat lost, every time I read through the book. This basic claim, together with the related business about “jus in re” and “jus ad rem,” seem to be oddly put together. I can’t tell if the writing is unclear or unfortunate (since “those who do possess” have no title, or if they do, it does not seem to be of the same sort as those who have title, but do not possess), or whether I’m just not getting something.

p. 44-5: One of these things is not like the others. It seems to me that this particular argument depends a bit on pushing the definition of “property” in a different direction than some of the others. Given that, however, what Proudhon does with the question of the similarity “property” to “liberty,” “equality,” and “security” is quite interesting. His treatment of proportional taxes (p. 47) seems to have been his first attempt to think through the justice of taxation, a subject he returned to several times before writing his “Théorie de l’impôt” (“Theory of Taxation,” 1861.)

p. 48: Government is a company, but not an insurance company. It should come as no real surprise that when Proudhon worked out what he thought anarchistic “government” should be, it was mostly a big insurance company.

p. 49. “No one is obliged to do more than comply with this injunction: In the exercise of your own rights do not encroach upon the rights of another; an injunction which is the exact definition of liberty.”

p. 52: Proudhon sums up his comparison of rights:

“To sum up: liberty is an absolute right, because it is to man what impenetrability is to matter, — a sine qua non of existence; equality is an absolute right, because without equality there is no society; security is an absolute right, because in the eyes of every man his own liberty and life are as precious as another’s. These three rights are absolute; that is, susceptible of neither increase nor diminution; because in society each associate receives as much as he gives, — liberty for liberty, equality for equality, security for security, body for body, soul for soul, in life and in death.”

He is obviously not using “absolute” only in the sense that I have suggested, but we know something has changed in the terms of the argument, since the point is now precisely that property is not an “absolute right.”

“But property, in its derivative sense, and by the definitions of law, is a right outside of society; for it is clear that, if the wealth of each was social wealth, the conditions would be equal for all, and it would be a contradiction to say: Property is a man’s right to dispose at will of social property. Then if we are associated for the sake of liberty, equality, and security, we are not associated for the sake of property; then if property is a natural right, this natural right is not social, but anti-social. Property and society are utterly irreconcilable institutions. It is as impossible to associate two proprietors as to join two magnets by their opposite poles. Either society must perish, or it must destroy property.”

Proudhon seems to be a bit ahead of himself with the argument about “social property.” I think he gets there later, and that the argument is fairly strong, but there are some issues here about the construction of the argument.

The material of pages 52-3 about the elusive origins of property is stronger, I think. It’s still very hard to find consistent theories of property, coherently addressing both origins and applications. Proudhon, of course, will address the arguments from occupation and from labor for the rest of the chapter. And I’ll try to write that stuff up tomorrow.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2702 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.