Constructing an Anarchism: Aubaine

Suggested readings:
Related readings:
From last week:
Ways to get lost for a while:
A neo-Proudhonian Synthesis:
A Tour of the Lost Continent:
    Constructing Anarchisms:

      Aubaine is not, like anarchy, one of those notions that anarchists could hardly do without. It perhaps not even, like governmentalism, an old term that anarchists might consider reviving. Proudhon settled on the term in his early critique of property, but his usage was, I think, somewhat idiosyncratic and led Benjamin Tucker in some odds directions in his translation. Frédéric Tufferd made good, if perhaps equally idiosyncratic use of the term in “Unity in Socialism,” but the shift in anarchist language he discussed there would continue—and within a few decades it appears that the term was used in the anarchist press primarily in its more general sense of “windfall” or even “godsend.” So, rather than building this concept into the foundation of the anarchism under construction, it probably makes sense to use our encounter with it as an occasion to clarify a few points already on the table—and then let it go.

      Tufferd derived his understanding of the “right” of aubaine from Chapter IV of What is Property? The term appears there fifty-seven times, beginning with the “Axiom:”

      La propriété est le droit d’aubaine que le propriétaire s’attribue sur une chose marquée par lui de son seing.

      which Tucker translated as follows:

      Property is the Right of Increase claimed by the Proprietor over any thing which he has stamped as his own.

      Proudhon used the term aubaine to refer to various sorts of unearned income, including land rent, interest and profit. Tufferd could then draw a simple distinction between those who worked for a living and those who lived on the aubaines. More technically, the droit d’aubaine had been the right of a state or head of state to claim the property of dead foreigners—one of a number of similar rights established to avoid the possibility of property falling into limbo. It was, as we might expect, the source of all sorts of injustices, but was only fully abandoned in France in 1819, just a couple of decades before Proudhon’s analysis. So perhaps it was both a fresh sort of indignity and a somewhat hazy practice by the time he got around to appropriating the term.

      In the short essay on “Escheat and Anarchy,” I’ve made the case for escheat as the most useful translation of the term for modern anarchist purposes. Beyond what I said there, there is some passing pleasure to be taken from the close relation of escheat and cheat—the latter of which seems to have been derived from the former late in the 17th century. Early in that century, a translation of Plutarch’s “Of the Malice of Herodotus” describes a man “who otherwise before-time was but poore and needy, by these windfalles and unexpected cheats became very wealthy,” suggesting that the sense of [es]cheat was not limited to the operations of law and right. And there the windfall was the wrecking of a fleet, so the gain was already not just unearned, but bought at the cost of others’ misfortunes.

      We are certainly left with questions about Proudhon’s rhetoric—if we feel like going down that path. Why didn’t Proudhon use the terms déshérence, the term used for a similar appropriation when citizens die intestate, in a text where he seemed to be appealing to the details of French and Roman law? Why the term alluding to foreigners?

      Ultimately, these are the kinds of questions we can pursue for whatever inspiration they might provide—but without, I think, a lot of hope of answering questions about authorial intent. That will be poor payment for some and a rich source of new questions for others. Personally, I have probably spent too much time trying to decide if it is the laboring people or the collective force that is rendered alien in Proudhon’s scenario—but these are the kinds of questions with which to quite pleasantly while away hours not fit for much else.

      There is, of course, another term that seems necessary if we are going to talk about the Proudhon’s critique of property: exploitation. What is Property? presents an analysis of the mechanisms of systemic exploitation within capitalist economies, with the droit d’aubaine simply being a legal element in that apparatus. In this context, the question about the workers potential foreign status is perhaps a bit more interest—and may help us get past some obstacles that our appeal to Stirnerian elements potentially introduce.

      When we talk about exploitation, we almost inevitably find ourselves balancing a descriptive, economic expression and an ethical one. Within capitalism, workers are used, on a systemic basis, like tools, for purposes that are not their own—and we object to that fundamental fact. Whether or not that combination is a problem—as it might seem to be from a Stirnerian perspective—probably depends on some finer details of interpretation.

      It seems clear to me, for example, that the sort of mutual utilization that Stirnerian egoists talk about—even to the point of treating one another as “food”—is not necessarily exploitative. The harder question is perhaps whether talk of exploitation can escape being moralist. As a start to an answer, let me appeal to the spirit of a poem by E. Armand:

      The True Camarade

      Worthy, you are far too dignified to bear the thought that someone might have given more than you have received —

      or that the one who gives to you might suspect that they have received less than their contribution —

      I know well that you will say, “Fair is fair…”—

      and that you consider yourself “an egoist among the egoists” —

      But egoist, you are much too egoist —

      to admit that, being able to give pleasure to someone in your world —

      you would refuse yourself the delight of doing so —

      I am well aware that you speak constantly of “reciprocity” —

      but you never believe you have paid enough for a smile, reimbursed a kind word, acquitted a sign of sympathy —

      you are much to individual to accept that, in their relations with you, that one of your own should have reason to fear that they have not been paid in return —

      You insist, to all who will listen, that you are only bound by the terms of the contract that you have concluded with one of your own —

      but I have seen you, a thousand times, torment yourself, wrack your brain, asking yourself —

      if you have exactly fulfilled your obligations —

      “exactly” —

      that is, exactly as intended by the one who had contracted with you —

      at the moment when you signed it —

      You are much too “unique,” too proud —

      to not exhaust, to the utmost extreme —

      the capacity to give, to make and to satisfy —

      in order not to leave, hands empty and their desire unfulfilled, the one of your own who reached out to you —

      imagining you rich in possibilities…

      The capitalist relation is seldom—no matter what the advocates of abstract capitalism may claim—particularly mutual. And the capitalist is seldom too proud to enjoy a more one-sided affair. Beyond that, capitalist culture betrays a kind of general contempt for those who are constrained to work merely work for a living. It may use them, but it never really makes them “its own.” There is, perhaps, a very real sense in which both the workers and the collective force they generate remain foreign elements within that culture.

      It is hard to imagine Armand’s egoist making use of materials for which they felt such contempt—making such stuff a part of them. It is hard to imagine that, for an egoist of that sort at least, the form of the utilization would not matter.

      In any event, there seems to be work yet to do with the concept of exploitation. My own inclination, having discovered the connections between the critiques of capitalism and governmentalism in the work of Proudhon, is, in fact, to treat exploitation as an important part of what anarchists oppose, not just in the economic realm, but in all aspects of social relations. So it becomes a question of recognizing the circumstances under which something like the droit d’aubaine can seem to authorize exploitative relations—and particularly of identifying the instances, aside from capitalist relations, where a dominant social element can harness the force of social cooperation in order to maintain its domination over the cooperators.

      Not every social body seems likely to foster exploitative relations. The shape of those bodies—their organ-ization—can’t help but make a difference. The acephalous monsters I alluded to a couple of posts back differ from political polities in their lack of a “head,” which presumes to rule or direct the activity of the whole. But what I’ve come to call the polity-form (no matter in what sphere of human relations it appears) is not always easy to distinguish from more anarchic forms of social relations.

      A lot of our internal disagreements in anarchist circles seem to revolve around different ways of distinguishing the archic form of the political state, the capitalist firm, the patriarchal family, etc. from anarchic forms. Is it enough to “abolish the state”? Are there anarchic forms of “government”? Can we assume that no exploitation can take place in the anarchist communist “commune”? Will the elimination of key economic monopolies create horizontal relations or is it necessary to abolish the firm?

      I suppose that my answers to these questions are no longer much of a mystery. My sense is that even a widely respected abstraction—the people, society, etc.—can still tie would-be anarchists to a fundamentally archic form. The evidence would seem to be in the inability of the democrats among us to ask some question about decision-making that does not involve subordinating actual human interactions to a more-or-less abstract polity. Stirner’s claim that “as soon as something is said about you, you are only recognized as that thing (human, spirit, christian, etc.)” seems far too applicable to the largely pointless debates that continue in anarchist circles, but perhaps those not already convinced of the problem might consider another critique.

      The analysis of collective force prepares us to recognize real associations among individuals as themselves a kind of individuality—and the details of that analysis lead us to think about the source of health and freedom in those social unity-collectivities as a mix of complexity and intensity in the relations among the associates. The unmistakably hierarchical forms we’ve listed would seem to be at a disadvantage in the health-and-freedom department, as the necessity of constantly mediating relations among the members through the dominant, directing organs would seem to inevitably sap the potential from the ensemble. The utility of variety and intensity to a social organism that wishes to remain hierarchical and stable enough to serve the interests of its “head” has to be limited. The question is whether it will be more or less limited in an association that, on the one hand, desires to be anarchistic and not impose the “will of the people” arbitrarily, but, on the other, still clings to the notion that “the people” have a mediatory and regulatory relation (if only in the last instance) to the various individual persons who make up the collectivity.

      We’ve past the halfway point in this part of the workshop and, in many ways, the hard part is over. Most of what remains to discuss is programmatic. Over the next two weeks, I want to sketch out the specific uses to which I am inclined to put individualism, conceived as a practice, followed by some discussion of the kinds of federative associations that might replace the legal and governmental apparatus in some full-blown “after the revolution” scenario.

      I’ll be focused on various sorts of speculations, thought experiments and approximations of a fresh sort, which means there will be fewer reasons to propose readings, either from the tradition or from my own work. It is quite possible that there will be a week or two where there are no suggested readings beyond my two weekly posts. What I would suggest to those who want to continue reading is to supplement the pdf that I have prepared introducing E. Armand and l’en dehors with the collection of “Rambles in the Fields of Anarchist Individualism.” There are a lot of details in the “Rambles” that should help fill in some of the blanks I will inevitably leave in the weekly posts.

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