The Gift Economy of Property
For the basic details of the mechanism by which property might be gifted, let me just insert the argument from "What could justify property?"
I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
The disciples of Fourier have long seemed to me the most advanced of all modern socialists, and almost the only ones worthy of the name. If they had understood the nature of their task, spoken to the people, awakened their sympathies, and kept silence when they did not understand; if they had made less extravagant pretensions, and had shown more respect for public intelligence, — perhaps the reform would now, thanks to them, be in progress.—What is Property?
I must here declare freely — in order that I may not be suspected of secret connivance, which is foreign to my nature — that M. Leroux has my full sympathy. Not that I am a believer in his quasi-Pythagorean philosophy (upon this subject I should have more than one observation to submit to him, provided a veteran covered with stripes would not despise the remarks of a conscript); not that I feel bound to this author by any special consideration for his opposition to property. In my opinion, M. Leroux could, and even ought to, state his position more explicitly and logically. But I like, I admire, in M. Leroux, the antagonist of our philosophical demigods, the demolisher of usurped reputations, the pitiless critic of every thing that is respected because of its antiquity. Such is the reason for my high esteem of M. Leroux; such would be the principle of the only literary association which, in this century of coteries, I should care to form. We need men who, like M. Leroux, call in question social principles, — not to diffuse doubt concerning them, but to make them doubly sure; men who excite the mind by bold negations, and make the conscience tremble by doctrines of annihilation.—Letter to M. Blanqui on PropertyAnd Proudhon undoubtedly did, despite some denials, incorporate a good deal of the basic thought of Fourier and Leroux into his own work. The Creation of Order in Humanity is a fascinating reworking of material from The Theory of the Four Movements, but there's no question where the reworked elements originated, as there is not much question where the emphasis on serial analysis, the opposition to simplism, etc., come from. The borrowings from Pierre Leroux are more likely to escape many readers, but mostly because Leroux's work is now almost unknown. We know that Proudhon sincerely rejected the more "utopian" elements of both thinkers, but the question is whether he absorbed any of their shared fascination with natural circulation and passional flows.
"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
“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.)
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.
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 misappropriationRead 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.
Let's say we gather the usual suspects, down by the river, in the State of Nature, or thereabouts, for a bit of property theory and a few "good draughts." John Locke says everybody can appropriate some river-water, as long as what they make their own "property" leaves "a whole river of the same water." Now, Locke has a reputation for saying things like "my labor" when maybe he means the labor of someone else, so there's some hesitation, but it seems like a pretty good deal, assuming it's possible. Now, in literal terms, it seems impossible: a quantity of water, X, minus some non-zero "good draught," G, is unlikely to = X. But, out in the State of Nature, talking about individual-scale "draughts" and a naturally resilient river-system, perhaps it is at least as good as possible.