Friday, December 23, 2011

"Community" and "Property"


There is a lot more that could, and ultimately should, be said about the relationship between Proudhon's The Celebration of Sunday and his later works, but a detailed treatment will have to wait until I can complete and post the ongoing translation. There are lots of interesting issues raised in that early work that seem to resonate with those that came later—and in some cases much later. And the temptation to wander off on one of half a dozen fascinating tangents is something I've been fighting off with only partial success. For the moment, however, there are probably enough questions raised by the "energetic" interpretation of the commandment against theft, which raises the possibility that theft is a precondition for property, rather than the other way around, and puts Proudhon's infamous phrase in a rather different light.

I want to tackle a number of the immediate consequences of this alternate reading is some fairly short posts.

In the fifth chapter of What is Property? Proudhon proposed a "dialectical" reading of the development of "sociability," according to which society developed from "community" (communauté, unfortunately rendered as "communism" in Tucker's translation) to "property" and then, by a sort of "synthesis" of the two previous forms, to "liberty." We know that Proudhon gradually shifted his method from the application of a more-or-less Hegelian, and fairly mechanical dialectic, through an attempt to adapt Fourier's serial method, to a preoccupation with antinomies, which, ultimately, did not resolve themselves. We also know that his concerns remained relatively constant, but we have certainly complicated the project of determining just how consistent by our translation of communauté as "communism," and, at least potentially, by not taking "property" in its most "energetic" sense.

When we look at Proudhon's account of "dialectical" development, with the terms understood as we have generally understood them, the first two terms are obviously opposed approaches, but it isn't at all clear that "community" (or "communism") and "property" have a thesis-antithesis relationship. As critical as the battle between rival schools of property theory has been, it's almost certainly a mistake to proceed as if there is really a dialectic at work. It has, in fact, been commonplace for even anarchists to agree with Marx that Proudhon was a bit of a bungler in his attempt to apply Hegel's approach. But we have to at least consider whether or not it is perhaps Proudhon's critics who have been a little clumsy. If "property is theft," "theft" is a matter of "holding, turning or putting aside," and "community" is, in its primitive form, not much more than the absence of property—a form of society in which there is not "holding, turning or putting aside"—then the thesis-antithesis relationship looks a lot more convincing.

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