What Is Property? Chapter 2, part 3 notes

Just a bit more on Destutt-Tracy: on page 61-2, there is one of the clearest expressions of Proudhon’s argument that a significant amount of property theory rests on a semantic slide, and it comes in the context of one of Proudhon’s few direct encounters with the concept of self-ownership. Here’s Proudhon:

“Shameful equivocation, not justified by the necessity for generalization! The word property has two meanings: 1. It designates the quality which makes a thing what it is; the attribute which is peculiar to it, and especially distinguishes it. We use it in this sense when we say the properties of the triangle or of numbers; the property of the magnet, &c. 2. It expresses the right of absolute control over a thing by a free and intelligent being. It is used in this sense by writers on jurisprudence. Thus, in the phrase, iron acquires the property of a magnet, the word property does not convey the same idea that it does in this one: I have acquired this magnet as my property. To tell a poor man that he HAS property because he HAS arms and legs, — that the hunger from which he suffers, and his power to sleep in the open air are his property, — is to play upon words, and to add insult to injury.”

And here is the passage from Destutt-Tracy:

“The sole basis of the idea of property is the idea of personality. As soon as property is born at all, it is born, of necessity, in all its fulness. As soon as an individual knows himself, — his moral personality, his capacities of enjoyment, suffering, and action, — he necessarily sees also that this self is exclusive proprietor of the body in which it dwells, its organs, their powers, faculties, &c. . . . Inasmuch as artificial and conventional property exists, there must be natural property also; for nothing can exist in art without its counterpart in Nature.”

Man has, as Proudhon puts it, “the property of the property of being proprietor.” I’m not convinced that this is the only direction that self-ownership can lead, and I’m not certain that it is a logical outcome of the Lockean references usually cited, but it does strike me that there is plenty of self-ownership-based property theory out there that has pretty much this character. As I have put it before on numerous occasions, if the phrases “I am” and “I own” are going to be brought as close to equivalent as property systems based in self-ownership generally attempt to bring them, there is at least a problem to be solved.

Proudhon follows this rather strong stuff with a particularly weak moment, when he attacks the notion of owning one’s faculties. Ownership would certainly not, as he claims, grant to our faculties abilities that they do not otherwise have, just as absolute domain over the land would not grant one the ability to make it more or less fertile, etc. Elsewhere, Proudhon was much better at portraying the individual human subject as the product, not the master, of the “group” of faculties that it in some sense “possesses.” This is one of those instances where I think his later theory really strengthens the early critiques, even if, ultimately, it also leads to the other analysis of property “by its aims.” (I will try to post some of this material on the sources of human liberty and “free will” soon.)

Page 67 gives us another of Proudhon’s periodic summing-up statements, following that analysis of Victor Cousin, which we’ve already looked at briefly in the last set of notes.

“Man needs to labor in order to live; consequently, he needs tools to work with and materials to work upon. His need to produce constitutes his right to produce. Now, this right is guaranteed him by his fellows, with whom he makes an agreement to that effect. One hundred thousand men settle in a large country like France with no inhabitants: each man has a right to 1/100,000 of the land. If the number of possessors increases, each one’s portion diminishes in consequence; so that, if the number of inhabitants rises to thirty-four millions, each one will have a right only to 1/34,000,000. Now, so regulate the police system and the government, labor, exchange, inheritance, &c., that the means of labor shall be shared by all equally, and that each individual shall be free; and then society will be perfect.”

All of these summaries represent some stage in Proudhon’s analysis, as he sifts through the existing theories. Here, he is emphasizing that an equal right to resources can’t just be equal for one generation, or a few, but has to include, to be practicable, some acknowledgment that the pool of rights-holders is dynamic. The issue of inheritance is particularly important here. We know that some radical property theorists, like Orestes Brownson (early on, when he was a radical) and Thomas Skidmore in the U.S., were led to oppose the rights of inheritance pretty much across the board. Skidmore went so far as to suggest periodic redivision of wealth.

Before we’re done with Cousin, we get to look at Proudhon’s response to a fairly conventional labor-mixing account:

“M. Cousin has sought to base [property] upon the sanctity of the human personality, and the act by which the will assimilates a thing. ‘Once touched by man,’ says one of M. Cousin’s disciples, ‘things receive from him a character which transforms and humanizes them.’ I confess, for my part, that I have no faith in this magic, and that I know of nothing less holy than the will of man. But this theory, fragile as it seems to psychology as well as jurisprudence, is nevertheless more philosophical and profound than those theories which are based upon labor or the authority of the law.”

This looks like Locke, though Proudhon associates it with the eclectics. The “disciple” in question was Jean Lerminier, in “Introduction générale à l’histoire du droit: suivie de la Philosophie du Droit” (1835). The same passage was cited in a number of French texts around the same time as “WIP?” Lammenais, for example, included it in his “Paroles d’un croyant: Le livre du peuple” (which William B. Greene’s father translated into English, as “The People’s Own Book,” while William was still fairly young.)

Proudhon scoffs at the “magic” involved, and considers the psychology “fragile.” One might, invoking his own later thought against this earlier one, suggest that, for an individual whose freedom was essentially the collective force of various faculties and aspects of personality in play one with the others, this issue of the mine and thine, of the boundaries of the proper, might well be of considerable psychological significance. Given also the special place of the human individual, the one that can say “moi,” the free and mutually responsible absolute, we might guess that the issue would also have considerable political and econonic significance. We should probably be open to these rethinkings of Proudhon, but they shouldn’t stop us from seriously considering the extent to which “magic” circulates as theory in our own circles.

Section Three attempts to address the arguments for basing property in civil law. On pages 70-71, Proudhon gives an account of how a civil society arises through a series of mutual agreements on the division of resources and fruits of labor. “Labor gives birth to private possession,” Proudhon claims, as individuals agree:

“either formally or tacitly, — it makes no difference which, — that the laborer should be sole proprietor of the fruit of his labor; that is, they simply declared the fact that thereafter none could live without working. It necessarily followed that, to obtain equality of products, there must be equality of labor; and that, to obtain equality of labor, there must be equality of facilities for labor. Whoever without labor got possession, by force or by strategy, of another’s means of subsistence, destroyed equality, and placed himself above or outside of the law. Whoever monopolized the means of production on the ground of greater industry, also destroyed equality. Equality being then the expression of right, whoever violated it was unjust.”

But, he continues, private possession, sanctioned by society, still cannot become property, which does not respect equality:

“The field which I have cleared, which I cultivate, on which I have built my house, which supports myself, my family, and my livestock, I can possess: 1st. As the original occupant; 2d. As a laborer; 3d. By virtue of the social contract which assigns it to me as my share. But none of these titles confer upon me the right of property. For, if I attempt to base it upon occupancy, society can reply, ‘I am the original occupant.’ If I appeal to my labor, it will say, ‘It is only on that condition that you possess.’ If I speak of agreements, it will respond, ‘These agreements establish only your right of use.’ Such, however, are the only titles which proprietors advance. They never have been able to discover any others.”

On pages 73-74, Proudhon deals with the arguments that changes to the form of things create property when the changes and the raw material “cannot be separated without destroying the thing itself.” His answer: “If the form cannot be separated from the object, nor property from possession, possession must be shared.” Besides, the lawmakers apply the principle of a right to appropriation unevenly, never allowing this mechanism for creating property to interfere with existing, legally recognized property, even if the conditions seem to favor appropriation by a laborer against the legal “owner” of materials. Note this comment, in relation to Proudhon’s later development:

“The law is intended to protect men’s mutual rights, — that is, the rights of each against each, and each against all; and, as if a proportion could exist with less than four terms, the law-makers always disregard the latter. As long as man is opposed to man, property offsets property, and the two forces balance each other; as soon as man is isolated, that is, opposed to the society which he himself represents, jurisprudence is at fault: Themis has lost one scale of her balance.”

The balance, of course, is the model for justice. We have here something close to the later suggestion that property could balance property, as well as balance the society or the state. This is even, Proudhon claims, the aim or intention of the law.

Property and the state are explicitly connected here, in ways that are, I think, consistent with the later writings, which, while they are consistently anarchistic in their opposition to most of the forms of hierarchy and oppression that anarchists generally oppose when we oppose the state, also insist that some form and degree of state or state-like development is inevitable, though it can be fairly consistently neutralized by diligent counterbalancing. There is plenty in this argument for anarchists to worry over. My only caution is to try to avoid simply stumbling over the language, such as Proudhon’s willingness to speak of the role of “government” and even the Capital-E “Etat” in his mature anarchist writings. We have good indications of what he means, as early as the 1849 passages from the “Revolutionary Program” that I have cited so often now.

I recommend a careful reading of the rest of the section on civil law, but there isn’t a lot more I want to comment on. I do want to make certain that everyone takes a look at the concluding paragraphs of Chapter Two:

“To sum up and conclude: —

“Not only does occupation lead to equality, it prevents property. For, since every man, from the fact of his existence, has the right of occupation, and, in order to live, must have material for cultivation on which he may labor; and since, on the other hand, the number of occupants varies continually with the births and deaths, — it follows that the quantity of material which each laborer may claim varies with the number of occupants; consequently, that occupation is always subordinate to population. Finally, that, inasmuch as possession, in right, can never remain fixed, it is impossible, in fact, that it can ever become property.

“Every occupant is, then, necessarily a possessor or usufructuary, — a function which excludes proprietorship. Now, this is the right of the usufructuary: he is responsible for the thing entrusted to him; he must use it in conformity with general utility, with a view to its preservation and development; he has no power to transform it, to diminish it, or to change its nature; he cannot so divide the usufruct that another shall perform the labor while he receives the product. In a word, the usufructuary is under the supervision of society, submitted to the condition of labor and the law of equality.

“Thus is annihilated the Roman definition of property—the right of use and abuse—an immorality born of violence, the most monstrous pretension that the civil laws ever sanctioned. Man receives his usufruct from the hands of society, which alone is the permanent possessor. The individual passes away, society is deathless.

“What a profound disgust fills my soul while discussing such simple truths ! Do we doubt these things to-day? Will it be necessary to again take arms for their triumph? And can force, in default of reason, alone introduce them into our laws?

“All have an equal right of occupancy.

“The amount occupied being measured, not by the will, but by the variable conditions of space and number, property cannot exist.

“This no code has ever expressed; this no constitution can admit! These are axioms which the civil law and the law of nations deny! . . . . .

“But I hear the exclamations of the partisans of another system: “Labor, labor! that is the basis of property!”

“Reader, do not be deceived. This new basis of property is worse than the first, and I shall soon have to ask your pardon for having demonstrated things clearer, and refuted pretensions more unjust, than any which we have yet considered.”

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