Sunday, April 22, 2012

The larger antinomy — I

"When Jesus Christ, explaining to the people the different articles of the Decalogue, taught them that polygamy had been permitted to the ancients because of the rudeness of their intelligence, but that it had not been thus in the beginning; that a bad desire is equal to a fornication consummated; that insult and affront are as reprehensible as murder and blows; that he is a parricide who says to his poor father: “This morning I have prayed to God for you; that will benefit you;” he said nothing of the 8th commandment, which concerned theft, judging the hardness of heart of his audience still too great for the truth that he had to speak. After eighteen centuries, are we worthy to hear it?"—P.-J. Proudhon, The Celebration of Sunday 
While I'm picking up dropped threads and revisiting basic arguments in the property discussion, it's important to incorporate the elements that came out of my work on Proudhon's The Celebration of Sunday. That early work introduced a number of potential twists into the story of Proudhon and "property." Three stand out:
  1. Anticipating a number of other instances where he would describe "property" as perhaps the greatest question that faced humanity, Proudhon described Jesus skipping over a discussion of theft, the notion that would come to define property for Proudhon, because it was, in essence, a topic whose time had not yet come. While this is not a "twist," so much as it is evidence of a consistent emphasis on the difficulties and importance of the question, that is extremely useful, given all the attempts to portray "property is theft" as the one really important element of Proudhon's property theory. The consistent insistence on the difficulties involved has to weigh heavily against any attempt to take Proudhon's bon mot as all that really matters in his analysis.

    (For those unfamiliar with the other statements of this sort, here's another example:
    “The problem of property is, after that of human destiny, the greatest that reason can propose, and the last that it will be able to resolve. Indeed, the theological problem, the enigma of religion, has been explicated; the philosophical problem, which treats the value and legitimacy of knowledge, is resolved: there remains the social problem, which simply joins these two, and the solution of which, as everyone believes, comes essentially from property.”—P.-J. Proudhon, The System of Economic Contradictions.)
  2. In a discussion of the value of the solitude and reflection imposed by the celebration of Sunday for society, Proudhon made it clear that he believed that the development and health of society was dependent on the periodic intervention of a kind of anti-social isolation. Moses imposed a sort of weekly hermitage on the Israelites in order to make them human, to allow them to grow, develop and seek truth.
    If Moses had had the power, he would never have had the thought to transform his farmers into effective hermits; he only wanted to make them men, to accustom them, by reflection, to seek the just and the true in everything. Thus he strove to create around them a solitude which would not destroy the great affluence, and which preserved all the prestige of a true isolation: the solitude of the Sabbath and the feasts.
    One of the objections to much of Proudhon's property theory comes from a resistance to the notion that the road to an anarchist society could pass through an institution, like simple property, which Proudhon characterized as not simply unsocial, but in some sense despotic, even anthropophagous. But there is a thread that runs through Proudhon's work, from The Celebration of Sunday to The Theory of Property, which suggests that a belief in just that sort of route to liberty was one of his fairly constant beliefs. The comments from 1839 are followed  by these remarks:
    “The consequences of Adam’s transgression are inherited by the race; the first is ignorance.” Truly, the race, like the individual, is born ignorant; but, in regard to a multitude of questions, even in the moral and political spheres, this ignorance of the race has been dispelled: who says that it will not depart altogether? Mankind makes continual progress toward truth, and light ever triumphs over darkness. Our disease is not, then, absolutely incurable, and the theory of the theologians is worse than inadequate; it is ridiculous, since it is reducible to this tautology: “Man errs, because he errs.” While the true statement is this: “Man errs, because he learns.” Now, if man arrives at a knowledge of all that he needs to know, it is reasonable to believe that, ceasing to err, he will cease to suffer.
    The notion that human beings might eventually cease to err became gradually less tenable for Proudhon, as he elaborated his philosophy of progress—and it was, arguably, not all that consistent with some of what he wrote in What is Property? in the first place—so we might be inclined to see it as entirely consistent with Proudhon's mature thought that erring is always part of the road to learning, and learning is an endless journey. And when—in between proposing the "universalizing of robbery" in 1842 and suggesting that the unforeseen outcome of a free market might be something like communism—he claimed, in The System of Economic Contradictions, that:
    "By abuse, the legislator has meant that the proprietor has the right to be mistaken in the use of his goods, without ever being subject to investigation for that poor use, without being responsible to anyone for his error.
    it's as if we should have been expecting it right along, and the case is made for a certain sort of property, for as long as human beings continue to err.
  3. The third reference to property is the the discussion of the true meaning of that injunction against "theft" in the Decalogue:
    Equality of conditions is in conformity to reason and an irrefutable right. It is in the spirit of Christianity, and it is the aim of society; the legislation of Moses demonstrates that it can be attained. That sublime dogma, so frightening in our time, has its roots in the most intimate depths of the conscience, where it is mixed up with the very notion of justice and right. Thou shalt not steal, says the Decalogue, which is to say, with the vigor of the original term, lo thignob, you will divert nothing, you will put nothing aside for yourself. The expression is generic like the idea itself: it forbids not only theft committed with violence and by ruse, fraud and brigandage, but also every sort of gain acquired from others without their full agreement. It implies, in short, that every violation of equality of division, every premium arbitrarily demanded, and tyrannically collected, either in exchange, or from the labor of others, is a violation of communicative justice, it is a misappropriation
    Read according to what I have been calling the "energetic" interpretation of the terms, this threatens not just a twist, but an overturning of much of what we have thought we knew about Proudhon and property. If theft is actually prior to property, there are a variety of consequences. Certain facile objections to the phrase "property is theft" lose a great deal of their force, and perhaps we see another instance of the sort of logic I discussed in #2 above. But the possibility which has been most exciting to me is that, in teasing out the specific "varieties of theft and property," we may begin to glimpse an element of Proudhon's theory which has previously been hard to isolate: a general contradiction or antinomy which informs Proudhon's entire project.

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