I certainly never anticipated spending years wrestling with property theory, let alone the sort of detailed work that I’ve ended up doing on Proudhon’s property writings, but it has ultimately been a lot of fun, as well as a lot of preconception-stretching, difficult work. My hope, however, is that, thanks to a couple of fortuitous turns in the research recently, pretty much all of the pieces of the puzzle—the elements of a neo-Proudhon mutualist property theory—have now at least made their appearance on the blog, and perhaps I can start to wrap up this phase of things. The trick, of course, is to pull together years worth of hints and experiments into something coherent. Let’s see what can be done in that direction....
Property is theft! — No serious social anarchist property theory can really have any other point of departure. Proudhon’s 1840 bombshell, What is Property?, posed a serious challenge to all existing theories of “simple property” in land, challenging all the conventional derivations of exclusive, individual ownership of natural resources, and applying not just one, but a series of critical approaches (including those showing that “property is impossible”) to refute the claims of the propertarians of Proudhon’s day. The in/famous phrase is one that Proudhon never retracted, nor did he reject the analysis upon which it was based, despite almost twenty-five more years active engagement with the question. He had occasion, as he bolstered his original treatment of property law with historical and philosophical analysis, to reevaluate a good deal of what he had perhaps thought he knew about the historical functioning of various property regimes, but his principled rejection of simple property in land—precisely because it was “theft,” a necessarily absolutist, even despotic form of land tenure—formed the stable baseline for virtually his entire adult career.
That baseline is not, however, the only line that we can trace through the whole of Proudhon’s career. From 1840—and likely before, as I’ve suggested in my posts on his 1839 work, The Celebration of Sunday—Proudhon’s property had its antithesis in the domain of land-tenure. In 1840, working with an explicitly, if not rigorously Hegelian model, Proudhon proposed a literal thesis-antithesis relationship between “property” and “community,” with community being something like what we think of as “primitive communism,” and something like the ill-defined “simple possession” which was Proudhon’s alternative to “simple property.” Careful students of Proudhon will have to work out for themselves the precise relationship between:
1. “Community,” the first form of sociality, which predates (historically, or at least developmentally) “property,” which would appear as its dialectical antithesis;
2. “Simple possession,” defined as a “matter of fact” (while “property” was a “matter of right”), but which he also said was “a right” (while “property is against right”); and,
3. The results of “not putting away,” as Proudhon suggests that Moses defines “theft” in the Decalogue—a definition that may have implications in the context of Proudhon’s declaration that “property is theft.”
Proudhon himself said, in The Theory of Property, that he had not properly defined “possession” previously, and the definition he supplied at the end of his life made “possession” sound very much like the primitive “community” which he posited as a pre-propertarian state, but rejected as a regime of freedom. But by that time his ideas about the history of land-tenure were much more developed than they had been at the beginning of his career, and his hopes for successfully organizing land tenure solely in the realm of “fact” had dwindled, so it is possible (I would even say probable) that equating the two terms in 1840 might be bowing a little too much to Proudhon’s desire to seem orderly in his development.
My educated guess at this point is that Proudhon was so focused on the “vanquishing” of simple property that the other terms never assumed the same sort of crystalline clearness for him as “property,” narrowly defined as “the right of use and abuse.” Working with a dialectical model over which he arguably did not have the most perfect control, it was fairly easy for him, focused as he was on the thing that must be defeated, to make “community” little more than that which came (historically or developmentally) before property, to which property poses an antithesis, and “possession” roughly land-tenure without the sanction of the various ill-made justifications for simple property. The fact that possession is not “theft” is not a not a terribly ringing endorsement, but it’s something. When Proudhon let his terms slip and declared that “possession is a right,” he had quite clearly shifted terrain, and he was talking about what was for him the most essential of truths: the basic equality of individuals, and their equal right to enjoy what came to all—if it could be said to come to anyone—as a “free gift.” But, as important as that assertion of a particular kind of equality is, it doesn’t move us much close to an actual Proudhonian property theory.
The much-vaunted vanquishing of property was also somewhat undercut by the fact that the culminating chapters of What is Property?, those dealing with the “third form of society,” which Proudhon identified as “liberty,” treated property as something of a historically necessary evil, which, though vanquished, would provide half the impetus in the “synthesis of community and property” in the era of “liberty.” (Those inclined to separate Proudhon from the “utopian” socialists around him, or to take too seriously Proudhon’s little digs at their division of history into developmental epochs, should probably note that Proudhon engaged in the same sort of epochal division—and more than once. He even applied Fourier’s divisions to his own work, referring to mutualism as “guaranteeism”—the era between Civilization and Harmony in Fourier’s scheme—on several occasions.)
Even with all the vague definitions and open questions about the relationships between terms, What is Property? holds together wonderfully as a critique of property, coupled with a plea for the “society,” based in equality, which property constantly threatens to destroy. But all around the edges of that fairly straightforward narrative, we have elements that threaten to muddy the waters, or even overturn the basic argument. The formulation of liberty as the “synthesis of community and property” points us back toward the vanquished institution, and the institution it vanquished, for the elements of a free society. It demands that we treat both property and community positively, according to their historical and developmental merits, rather than merely dealing with their logical, philosophical and legal shortcomings. They demand as much of Proudhon, as well, and the brief historical treatment in What is Property? is a bit disorienting, coming as it does smack-dab between the multiple onslaughts on all existing theories of simple property and the exuberant declaration of victory. That historical account, and the introduction of the “third form of society” as a kind of anarchist desideratum, open up possibilities that the 1840 text simply cannot deal with. A similar “problem” is created by some rather clumsy back and forth by Proudhon on the existence of forms of “property” besides the “simple property” whose existence as “a matter of right” he so thoroughly assailed. The work begins by dividing the realm of “property” into “simple property” (henceforth known simply as “property”) and “simple possession.” This opens the door to a “property” that would not be theft,” and to a range of “properties” beyond his opposed pair. Eventually, Proudhon was careful to explain that there was indeed a wide range of possible property regimes, although he eventually came to believe that his initial division was very close to the most important logical distinction among them. (He began with “simple property” and “simple possession.” He ended with “allodial property” and “fief.”) But he really hadn’t left himself much choice. When he tried, in the introduction to the second edition of What is Property?, to explain that—contrary to the approaches of others—he considered “property” to amount to “the sum of its abuses,” he threatened to seriously undercut his own analysis (since “abuse of property is theft” doesn’t pack a lot of punch.”)
Those who want the work of 1840 to be the last word on “property” ought at least to be sensitive to the aspects of that work that seem to pull in other directions. Proudhon himself may have been a little disappointed at the fact that he had not actually put property down for the count in the first battle. But he should hardly have been surprised. After all, he was the one who had written, just the year before, that the problem of property was so demanding that even Jesus Christ had avoided speaking about it on at least some occasions, feeling that “hearts were still too hard” in his day.
We know where Proudhon eventually went, in his search for that theory. As early as 1842, he began to experiment with the notion that the equality which was so important to him could be the tool to legitimate property. Testifying in court on his own behalf, during one of the trials sparked by his writings, he declared that he would universalize the theft of property as a means of neutralizing its ill effects. Over the next few years, he developed as a social philosopher, attempting to adapt Charles Fourier’s serial method to his ends, and then developing—on a methodological base owing something to both Hegel and Fourier—his 1846 System of Economic Contradictions, in which he began to abandon the apparatus of “utopian” universal history and construct a more strictly logical and developmental account of the emergence and progress of institutions, including, naturally, those relating to land tenure. The 1846 work is, by turns, both brilliant and cringe-worthy, but his growing awareness that given institutions amounted to pivotal approximations, embodying positive and negative tendencies, elements destined to be abandoned and elements only just appearing in germ, was a significant step forward. His work in the years surrounding the French Revolution of 1848 is fascinating, but also often baffling. It seems clear that Proudhon was experimenting with ideas and rhetoric alike, and we find him rejecting and endorsing the most unlikely things, in the most unlikely combinations (as when, in “The Revolutionary Program,” he embraces property and “complete insolidarity,” and then goes on, a bit later, to suggest how those commitments will lead to something that sounds rather like anarchist-communism by market means.)
The 1850s brought a different sort of notoriety to Proudhon, whose name might still be useful to frighten children—and the more timid among the bourgeoisie—in at least some quarters, but who had also established himself as a thinker to be reckoned with in others. In 1853 he was asked to explain himself, as a thinker, and he did so rather brilliantly in The Philosophy of Progress, the work which arguably opened the era of Proudhon’s mature work. The elements of the 1853 work are all present in the earlier works. Reading back from The Philosophy of Progress one gets a sense of just how much of the work of the 1850s and 1860s was already suggested by the troubling elements in the work of 1840. But there is also a tremendous amount of material on philosophy and method that is simply not hinted at by most of the earlier work. From that point on, he pushed out books at a tremendous rate, while keeping up a voluminous correspondence, and, of course, dealing with all of the complications of life as a marked man with a family to feed, and just his brains and his pen to do it with—when the censors and courts would let him. And while property did not play quite as prominent a role in these later works as it had in the earlier ones, that was largely because Proudhon was now writing about everything. In The Theory of Property, Proudhon, objecting to those who still considered him a destructive force, made a list of the positive contributions he had made to philosophy and social science:
- A theory of force: the metaphysics of the group (this, as well as the theory of nationalities, will be especially demonstrated in a book to be published);
- A dialectical theory: formation of genera and species by the serial method; expansion of the syllogism, which is good only when the premises are allowed;
- A theory of law and morality (doctrine of immanence);
- A theory of freedom;
- A theory of the Fall, i.e. the origin of moral evil: idealism;
- A theory of the right of force: the right of war and the rights of peoples;
- A theory of contract: federation, public or constitutional law;
- A theory of nationalities, derived from the collective force: citizenship, autonomy;
- A theory of the division of powers, correlate with the collective force;
- A theory of property;
- A theory of credit: mutuality, correlate with federation;
- A theory of literary property;
- A theory of taxation;
- A theory of the balance of trade;
- A theory of population;
- A theory of the family and marriage;
- As well as a host of incidental truths.”
It was equally important to him that people understood that all of this was closely connected to that initial critique of property, but obviously some parts were going to be more directly connected than others.
Those later years are marked by an enormous development of his thinking about “collective force” and “collective beings.” Having finally really made Fourier’s analysis of series and groups his own, he began to conduct an analysis that combined historical research and a roughly analytic social science. He had always been bold, but as both his historical knowledge and his critical toolkit grew, his boldness gained a new scope. At the same time, Proudhon seems to have grown into all that was implied by his early embrace of dialectic, contradiction—and scandal. His critics often claimed that he took crazy positions to get attention, even if the attention was largely negative (and involved quite a bit of jail time, exile, poverty, etc.) But there is, I think, plenty of evidence that, while Proudhon was perhaps gaining some basic intellectual flexibility, when it came to ideas, or combinations of ideas, likely to send most into a speedy retreat, he still took the positions that he embraced quite seriously. Even when he’s being pretty thoroughly stupid about women in Justice in the Revolution and the Church, he also seems completely (frustratingly and somewhat inexplicably, in this particular case) earnest. Some of this most uncomfortable writing on current political events, such as his writings on the American Civil War and the institution of slavery, bear the marks of a mind accustomed to finding himself in disagreement with those around him, but also accustomed to careful analysis and to following that analysis wherever it led. (He was, of course, capable of pettiness, and of some really ghastly stuff in the privacy of his journals, but the petty, hateful stuff seems to have been very much the exception, rather than the rule.)
Proudhon must have felt his own tolerance for contradiction and productive tension put to some real tests as he began to move towards the “New Theory” of property, worked out (according to his correspondence) in 1861, but published posthumously in The Theory of Property in 1865. He had, throughout his career, stayed true to the logical and philosophical analysis of 1840, holding simple property to be equivalent to theft and the absence of simple property rights—a vaguely defined regime of usufruct, in which equality and society could exist—a superior alternative. But the theory around his theory of property had developed: specifically the theory that explained how individuals were formed from order groups, and enjoyed a freedom commensurate with a certain degree of internal conflict. Mapped onto the human individual, it was a prescription for whole-body health; but mapped onto the social realm it seemed to connect social freedom with the intensification of the absolute qualities of human individuals, limited only by conditions of equality and reciprocity. It isn’t clear to me if Proudhon ever explicitly worked through those implications, but it does seem clear that the New Theory speaks rather directly to the dynamic implied by them.
In 1861/5, Proudhon retained his two key-terms, “property” and “possession,” now thoroughly historicized as “allodial property” and “fief.” At this point, I think we can safely say that possession/fief pretty closely resembled the “community” of 1840, mixing that quality of not being property with some off-putting qualities subordinating the individual possessor to a ruler or collective. Property is still theft, but the historical work has suggested to Proudhon that this very character—the absolutism inherent in property—gives property a power to fend off the abolutisms of other individuals, and of institutions. What he never quite seems to say is that allodial property will guarantee a certain space in which the individual can grow and exercise its personal absolutism, without being threatened or being a threat to others. All the pieces of the arguments are there: the importance of “erring” in the process of learning; the association of the “right of abuse” of property to a right to err; the early invocation of “a certain distances” as a condition of making ourselves human; etc. Given all that Proudhon had written about the dynamics of individual being, an explicit gathering of those elements might have been the best argument he could have made in favor of the New Theory.