Friday, January 21, 2011

The heart of Proudhon's thought

A slightly belated "Happy 202nd Birthday!" to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. It looks like the AK Press anthology will be out in February, and I have hopes of having the second issue of The Mutualist, "Owning Up," and Proudhon's Third Memoir on Property finished up by the Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair. I wish I thought that all those releases were likely to advance the debate about mutualism much beyond its current state—but I'm seriously concerned that more translations means more material to take out of context, and an intensification of the tug-of-war over Proudhon's place in the anarchist tradition.

I don't think my own understanding of the matter can be much in doubt by now: Proudhon's mutualism was not a precursor, from which any of the later schools evolved—at least if by "evolved" we mean some sort of development that took the early system seriously in its entirety. Instead, it was an ambitious project from which nearly all of the subsequent schools of anarchism have borrowed something, but from which they have also subtracted some elements that Proudhon would have considered essential. But can't we pick and choose? Sure. There's nothing about anarchism that means anything has to be drawn from Proudhon's thought—or anyone else's, for that matter. But if you're going to play the game of trying to link Proudhon's thought to more contemporary schools—whether you're a social anarchist, a market anarchist, or a two-gun mutualist—you have to engage with the texts in a way which does not remove passages cited from necessary contexts.

For Proudhon, was property "theft"? Yes, from as early as 1840 and on until the end of his life. Was property "impossible"? Yes, and for the same period. Was property "liberty"? Yes, at least from 1846 until the end of his life—and arguably from 1840 as well. For Proudhon was property any of these various things in isolation? Possibly—in the sense that the arguments for "theft" and those for "impossibility" are not necessarily dependent on one another—but it's probably most accurate to think of those two analyses as aspects of a single critique of property according to its origins and logics. There's certainly no point in choosing between them, unless you find one of the arguments simply uncompelling. When it's a question of choosing between "theft" and "liberty," things are a little more complicated. Arguably, if you follow the logic of What is Property? all the way through, "theft" and "liberty" are already tied up in a dialectic bundle a handful of pages after Proudhon declared himself an anarchist. (See this old post for the basic argument for continuity from 1840 to 1865.) Certainly, by 1846, the suggestion that liberty is a "synthesis of property and community" has given place to an explicit "contradiction" inherent in property, with "theft" and "liberty" as the horns of the dilemma. "La propriété, c'est le vol; la propriété, c'est la liberté : ces deux propositions sont également démontrées et subsistent l'une à côté de l'autre dans le Système des Contradictions," he said in 1849 in his Confessions of a Revolutionary. "Property is theft; property is liberty: these two propositions are equally demonstrated and subsist beside one another..." And from that point on, nothing changes except that the contradictions become more irreducible, and eventually Proudhon turns his analysis to the aims of property—at which point he does a sort of amazing thing, taking the weakest aspect of his 1840 analysis, the treatment of property as "the sum of its abuses," and finding in it the element that brings his whole analysis together. It is because property is "theft"—because it is absolutist in character—that it can be a force for liberty in the "new theory" of The Theory of Property.

Again, anyone is free to borrow elements from Proudhon's writings for their own project. But to claim derivation or evolution from Proudhon's thought—or to claim that one has surpassed or superceded that thought—the bar is considerably higher. For that, you need to show that you have understood that thought in some basic way. With Proudhon, that means taking into account the various sorts of serial and/or dialectical approaches he used, all through his career. It means not trying to affirm only one element of a antinomic pair, when Proudhon explicitly affirmed both-in-the-antinomy. And it means respecting what he himself said about his methods and commitments.

It's been almost two years since I first posted a translation of Proudhon's Philosophy of Progress, and I've recently returned to it, cleaning up the translation for a New Proudhon Library hardcover edition. Unfortunately, it was one of the items that did not make the cut for the forthcoming anthology, and all I can do is point again to the key passages in it dealing with Proudhon's basic philosophy and method (in a slightly improved translation.) These passages really do indicate the very heart of Proudhon's project, the logic that guided him through all the various projects and analyses that he undertook. And they are challenging passages—which demand a great deal more of us than the common mis/understandings of Proudhon's thought even begin to take in. More importantly, they demand something different from us that just an affirmation or rejection of this or that idea or institution.

If you're interested in Proudhon, and in the early forms of anarchist thought, give these passages a careful read. If you've read them before, another look probably wouldn't hurt. Pay particular attention to the passages where Proudhon talks about what is "true" and "false." And the next time someone makes a claim about Proudhon or his particular form of mutualism, ask yourself if it takes into account these very basic elements of Proudhon's approach.

from Proudhon's "The Philosophy of Progress"

Nothing persists, said the ancient sages: everything changes, everything flows, everything becomes; consequently, everything remains and everything is connected; by further consequence the entire universe is opposition, balance, equilibrium. There is nothing, neither outside nor inside, apart from that eternal dance; and the rhythm that commands it, pure form of existences, the supreme idea to which any reality can respond, is the highest conception that reason can attain.

How then are things connected and engendered? How are beings produced and how do they disappear? How is society and nature transformed? This is the sole object of science.

The notion of Progress, carried into all spheres of consciousness and understanding, become the base of practical and speculative reason, must renew the entire system of human knowledge, purge the mind of its last prejudices, replace the constitutions and catechisms in social relations, teach to man all that he can legitimately know, do, hope and fear: the value of his ideas, the definition of his rights, the rule of his actions, the purpose of his existence...

The theory of Progress is the railway of liberty.


Progress, once more, is the affirmation of universal movement, consequently the negation every immutable form and formula, of every doctrine of eternity, permanence, impeccability, etc., applied to any being whatever; it is the negation of every permanent order, even that of the universe, and of every subject or object, empirical or transcendental, which does not change.

The Absolute, or absolutism, is, on the contrary, the affirmation of all that Progress denies, the negation of all that it affirms. It is the study, in nature, society, religion, politics, morals, etc., of the eternal, the immutable, the perfect, the definitive, the unconvertible, the undivided; it is, to use a phrase made famous in our parliamentary debates, in all and everywhere, the status quo.


From that double and contradictory definition of progress and the absolute is first deduced, as a corollary, a proposition quite strange to our minds, which have been shaped for so long by absolutism: it is that the truth in all things, the real, the positive, the practicable, is what changes, or at least is susceptible to progression, conciliation, transformation; while the false, the fictive, the impossible, the abstract, is everything that presents itself as fixed, entire, complete, unalterable, unfailing, not susceptible to modification, conversion, augmentation or diminution, resistant as a consequence to all superior combination, to all synthesis.


For me, the response is simple. All ideas are false, that is to say contradictory and irrational, if one takes them in an exclusive and absolute sense, or if one allows oneself to be carried away by that sense; all are true, susceptible to realization and use, if one takes them together with others, or in evolution.

Thus, whether you take for the dominant law of the Republic, either property, like the Romans, or communism, like Lycurgus, or centralization, like Richelieu, or universal suffrage, like Rousseau,—whatever principle you choose, since in your thought it takes precedence over all the others,—your system is erroneous. There is a fatal tendency to absorption, to purification, exclusion, stasis, leading to ruin. There is not a revolution in human history that could not be easily explained by this.

On the contrary, if you admit in principle that every realization, in society and in nature, results from the combination of opposed elements and their movement, your course is plotted: every proposition which aims, either to advance an overdue idea, or to procure a more intimate combination, a superior agreement, is advantageous for you, and is true. It is in-progress.


Such is then, in my opinion, the rule of our conduct and our judgments: there are degrees to existence, to truth and to the good, and the utmost is nothing other than the march of being, the agreement between the largest number of terms, while pure unity and stasis is equivalent to nothingness; it is that every idea, every doctrine that secretly aspires to prepotency and immutability, which aims to eternalize itself, which flatters itself that it gives the last formula of liberty and reason, which consequently conceals, in the folds of its dialectic, exclusion and intolerance; which claims to be true in itself, unalloyed, absolute, eternal, in the manner of a religion, and without consideration for any other; that idea, which denies the movement of mind and the classification of things, is false and fatal, and more, it is incapable of being constituted in reality. This is why the Christian church, founded on an allegedly divine and immutable order, has never been able to establish itself in the strictness of its principle; why the monarchic charters, always leaving too much latitude to innovation and liberty, are always insufficient; why, on the contrary, the Constitution of 1848, in spite of the drawbacks with which it abounds, is still the best and truest of all the political constitutions. While the others obstinately posit themselves in the Absolute, only the Constitution of 1848 has proclaimed its own revision, its perpetual reformability.

With this understood, and the notion of Progress or universal movement introduced into the understanding, admitted into the republic of ideas, facing its antagonist the Absolute, everything changes in appearance for the philosopher. The world of mind, like that of nature, seems turned on its head: logic and metaphysics, religion, politics, economics, jurisprudence, morals, and art all appear with a new physiognomy, revolutionized from top to bottom. What the mind had previously believed true becomes false; that which it had rejected as false becomes true. The influence of the new notion making itself felt by all, and more each day, there soon results a confusion that seems inextricable to superficial observers, and like the symptom of a general folly. In the interregnum which separates the new regime of Progress from the old regime of the Absolute, and during the period while intelligences pass from one to the other, consciousness hesitates and stumbles between its traditions and its aspirations; and as few people know how to distinguish the double passion that they obey, to separate what they affirm or deny in accordance with their belief in the Absolute from that which they deny or affirm in accordance with their support for Progress, there results for society, from that effervescence of all the fundamental notions, a pell-mell of opinions and interest, a battle of parties, where civilization would soon be ruined, if light did not manage to make itself seen in the void.

Such is the situation that France finds itself in, not only since the revolution of February, but since that of 1789, a situation for which I blame, up to a certain point, the philosophers, the publicists, all those who, having a mission to instruct the people and form opinion, have not seen, or have not wanted to see, that the idea of Progress being from now on universally accepted,—having acquired rights from the bourgeoisie, not only in the schools, but even in the temples,—and raised finally to the category of reason, the old representations of things, natural as well as social, are corrupted, and that it is necessary to construct anew, by means of that new lamp of the understanding, science and the laws.

Dimsit lucem à tenebris! Separation of positive ideas, constructed on the notion of Progress, from the more or less utopian theories that suggest the Absolute: such is, sir, the general thought which guides me. Such is my principle, my idea itself, that which forms the basis and makes the connections in all my judgments. It will be easy for me to show how, in all my controversies, I have thought to obey it: you will say if I have been faithful.


Movement exists: this is my fundamental axiom. To say how I acquired the notion of movement would be to say how I think, how I am. It is a question to which I have the right not to respond. Movement is the primitive fact that is revealed at once by experience and reason. I see movement and I sense it; I see it outside of me, and I sense it in me. If I see it outside of me, it is because I sense it in me, and vice versa. The idea of movement is thus given at once by the senses and the understanding; by the senses, since in order to have the idea of movement it is necessary to have seen it; by the understanding, since movement itself, though sensible, is nothing real, and since all that the senses reveal in movement is that the same body which just a moment ago was in a certain place is at the next instant in another.

In order that I may have an idea of movement, it is necessary that a special faculty, what I call the senses, and another faculty that I call the understanding, agree in my CONSCIOUSNESS to furnish it to me: this is all that I can say about the mode of that acquisition. In other words, I discover movement outside because I sense it inside; and I sense it because I see it: at base the two faculties are only one; the inside and the outside are two faces of a single activity; it is impossible for me to go further.

The idea of movement obtained, all the others are deduced from it, intuitions as well as conceptions. It is a wrong, in my opinions, that among the philosophers, some, such as Locke and Condillac, have claimed to account for all ideas with the aid of the senses; others, such as Plato and Descartes, deny the intervention of the senses, and explain everything by innateness; the most reasonable finally, with Kant at their head, make a distinction between ideas, and explain some by the relation of the senses, and the others by the activity of the understanding. For me, all our ideas, whether intuitions or conceptions, come from the same source, the simultaneous, conjoint, adequate, and at base identical action of the senses and the understanding.

Thus, every intuition or sensible idea is the apperception of a composition, and is itself a composition: now, every composition, whether it exists in nature or it results from an operation of the mind, is the product of a movement. If we were not ourselves a motive power and, at the same time, a receptivity, we would not see objects, because we would be incapable of examining them, of restoring diversity to their unity, as Kant said.

Every conception, on the contrary, indicates an analysis of movement, which is itself still a movement, which I demonstrate in the following manner:

Every movement supposes a direction, A → B. That proposition is furnished, a priori, by the very notion of movement. The idea of direction, inherent in the idea of movement, being acquired, the imagination takes hold of it and divides it into two terms: A, the side from which movement comes, and B, the side where it goes. These two terms given, the imagination summarizes them in these two others, point of departure and point of arrival, otherwise, principle and aim. Now, the idea of a principle or aim is only a fiction or conception of the imagination, an illusion of the senses. A thorough study shows that there is not, nor could there be, a principle or aim, nor beginning or end, to the perpetual movement which constitutes the universe. These two ideas, purely speculative on our part, indicate in things nothing more than relations. To accord any reality to these notions is to make for oneself a willful illusion.

From that double concept, of commencement or principle, and of aim or end, all the others are deduced. Space and time are two ways of conceiving the interval which separates the two terms assumed from movement, point of departure and point of arrival, principle and aim, beginning and end. Considered in themselves, time and space, notions equally objective or subjective, but essentially analytic, are, because of the analysis which gave rise to them, nothing, less than nothing; they have value only according to the sum of movement or of existence that they are supposed to contain, so that, according to the proportion of movement or existence that it contains, a point can be worth an infinity, and an instant eternity. I treat the idea of cause in the same way: it is still a product of analysis, which, after having made us suppose in movement a principle and a goal, leads us to conclude by supposing further, by a new illusion of empiricism, that the first is the generator of the second, much as in the father we see the author or the cause of his children. But it is always only a relation illegitimately transformed into reality: there is not, in the universe, a first, second, or last cause; there is only one single current of existences. Movement is: that is all. What we call cause or force is only, like that which we call principle, author or motor, a face of movement, the face A; while the effect, the product, the motive, the aim or the end, is face B. In the ensemble of existences, that distinction has no more place: the sum of causes is identical and adequate to the sum of effects, which is the very negation of both. Movement or, as the theologians say, creation, is the natural state of the universe.


From the moment that I conceive of movement as the essence of nature and of mind, it follows first that reasoning, or the art of classifying ideas, is a certain evolution, a history, or, as I have sometimes called it, a series. From this it follows that the syllogism, for example, the king of arguments of the ancient school, has only a hypothetical, conventional and relative value: it is a truncated series, proper only to produce the most innocent babble about the world, by those who do not do not know how to return it to its fullness, by bringing about its full reconstruction.

What I say about the syllogism must be said about the Baconian induction, the dilemma, and all the ancient dialectic.


The condition of all existence, after movement, is unquestionably unity; but what is the nature of that unity? If we should consult the theory of Progress, it responds that the unity of all being is essentially synthetic, that it is a unity of composition. Thus the idea of movement, primordial idea of all intelligence, is synthetic, since, as we have just seen, it resolves itself analytically into two terms, which we have represented by this figure, A → B. Similarly, and for greater reason, all the ideas, intuitions or images that we receive from objects are synthetic in their unity: they are combinations of movements, varied and complicated to infinity, but convergent and single in their collectivity.

That notion of the ONE, at once empirical and intellectual, condition of all reality and existence, has been confused with that of the simple, which results from the series or algebraic expression of movement, and, like cause and effect, principle and aim, beginning and end, is only a conception of the mind, and represents nothing real and true.

It is from this simplism that all of the alleged science of being, ontology, has been deduced.


With the idea of movement or progress, all these systems, founded on the categories of substance, causality, subject, object, spirit, matter, etc., fall, or rather explain themselves away, never to reappear again. The notion of being can no longer be sought in an invisible something, whether spirit, body, atom, monad, or what-have-you. It ceases to be simplistic and become synthetic: it is no longer the conception, the fiction of an indivisible, unmodifiable, intransmutable (etc.) je ne sais quoi: intelligence, which first posits a synthesis, before attacking it by analysis, admits nothing of that sort a priori. It knows what substance and force are, in themselves; it does not take its elements for realities, since, by the law of the constitution of the mind, the reality disappears, while it seeks to resolve it into its elements. All that reason knows and affirms is that the being, as well as the idea, is a GROUP.

Just as in logic the idea of movement or progress translates into that other, the series, so, in ontology, it has as a synonym the group. Everything that exists is grouped; everything that forms a group is one. Consequently, it is perceptible, and, consequently, it is. The more numerous and varied the elements and relations which combine in the formation of the group, the more centralizing power will be found there, and the more reality the being will obtain. Apart from the group there are only abstractions and phantoms. The living man is a group, like the plant or the crystal, but of a higher degree than those others; he is more living, more feeling, and more thinking to the degree that his organs, secondary groups, are in a more perfect agreement with one another, and form a more extensive combination. I no longer consider that self, what I call my soul, as a monad, governing, from the sublimity of its so-called spiritual nature, other monads, injuriously considered material: these school distinctions seem senseless to me. I do not occupy myself with that caput mortuum of beings, solid, liquid, gas or fluid, that the doctors pompously call SUBSTANCE; I do not even know, as much as I am inclined to suppose it, if there is some thing which responds to the word substance. Pure substance, reduced to its simplest expression, absolutely amorphous, and which one could quite happily call the pantogene, since all things come from it, if I cannot exactly say that it is nothing, appears to my reason as if it was not; it is equal to NOTHING. It is the mathematical point, which has no length, no size, no depth, and which nonetheless gives birth to all geometric figures. I consider in each being only its composition, its unity, its properties, its faculties, so that I restore all to a single reason,—variable, susceptible to infinite elevation,—the group.

Monday, January 17, 2011

On occupancy and use

[This piece first appeared at the Forums of the Libertarian Left, in a thread on "Occupancy and Use." It seems to add enough to the current series on mutualist land tenure to repost here. The thread began with some very basic questions about how occupancy and use land tenure would play out, and how to respond to the common silliness about people out shopping losing their homes to mutualists, etc.]

With any of the basic principles of "property," you're going to have to eventually confront a bunch of messy details before you've got the "anarchic common law" that could justly regulate it. There's certainly nothing self-evident about how true lockean and neo-lockean property would actually work. In the homesteading model, "something" of the person is "mixed" with unowned resources, which annexes those resources to the person. Neo-lockeans throw up their hands because they can't make practical heads or tails of the "enough and as good" proviso (and generally ignore the proviso against waste), but, arguably, the provisos are a lot clearer and more clearly practicable than the mechanism of appropriation. Of course, neo-lockeans don't focus on appropriation anyway, skipping ahead from the "state of nature" to the exchange economy, where division of labor and exchange will have effects virtually "as good" as proviso-appropriation. But, yikes! If the original standard was impracticable, then how hard to practice is its virtual equivalent? Rather than basing itself on a principle that's about as close to self-evidently universal as you're going to get—and then confronting the problems of applying the principle—neo-lockean property simply abandons the principle, and asserts that which is far from self-evident: that an exchange economy in which the appropriation rights of others are simply not considered will have virtually the same effect as one in which appropriation is direct and guided by the provisos. Seems like an easy way to go astray. And, sure enough, true lockean property is virtually non-rivalrous (and amenable, at least in principle, to adjustment to account for long-term sustainability and ecological effects, for which "good fences" are hardly a solution), while neo-lockean property is rivalrous by definition, and inflexible (mostly unconcerned, really) with regard to the material, systemic complexities of actual property in the real world.

Compared to all of that, how difficult a principle is "occupancy and use"? Take the lockean provisos seriously, and add the fact that natural processes "unmix" all the while—observe that anything in perpetuity is about as un-natural a principle as you can imagine—and you can derive it from the same roots as neo-lockean theory, with less opportunistic reasoning and jimmying of the basics.

The straw-man depictions from propertarians probably reflect a basic difference in political aims and cultures. Mutualists are not occupancyandusitarians: our theory of real property comes a couple of steps after our account of "self-ownership" or "property in person," and it is certainly not prior to the principle of reciprocity. You could, no doubt, construct a mutualist account in which "all rights are property rights," but the "property" certainly wouldn't have the exclusive, perpetual character of most propertarian systems. From a propertarian perspective, the notion that property isn't forever—or isn't at least dependent on the intentions, however inert, of the proprietor—seems outrageous, so there really isn't that much difference between moving into your house when you nipped out for a carton of milk and opening the land of some distant holding company to occupation by the landless. Having jettisoned the provisos, and no longer being able to fall back on the actual homesteading mechanism (the effects of which market exchange is supposed to approximate), neo-lockean theory doesn't have a lot of guidelines to fall back on, so it makes a virtue of being "tough, but fair." If you question the "universal right of first-come, first-served" stuff, chances are the propertarian isn't even going to see a problem.

Anyway, apart from any mutualist reimagination of property, possessory occupancy and use conventions are going to be based on the principle of reciprocity. When propertarians insist that without their form of property, mutualists will "steal" anything that nailed down, my first question has to be: Dude? Is that the way you imagine the Golden Rule playing out?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Proudhon clears things up

Proudhon was fond of scandal and provocation—and it got him, and his friends, into hot water. In his System of Economic Contradictions, he wrapped his already provocative thesis about the evolution of institutions around a scandalous narrative about "the hypothesis of God." Proudhon was fascinated with Christianity, and wrote about it from a variety of perspectives and in a variety of tones, but he is probably best remembered for writings like his "Hymn to Satan" and the final chapter of the first volumes of the Economic Contradictions, where he worked himself up to a sort of declaration of war against the very idea of God:
"If God did not exist"— it is Voltaire, the enemy of religions, who says so, — "it would be necessary to invent him." Why? "Because," adds the same Voltaire, "if I were dealing with an atheist prince whose interest it might be to have me pounded in a mortar, I am very sure that I should be pounded." Strange aberration of a great mind! And if you were dealing with a pious prince, whose confessor, speaking in the name of God, should command that you be burned alive, would you not be very sure of being burned also? Do you forget, then, anti-Christ, the Inquisition, and the Saint Bartholomew, and the stakes of Vanini and Bruno, and the tortures of Galileo, and the martyrdom of so many free thinkers? Do not try to distinguish here between use and abuse: for I should reply to you that from a mystical and supernatural principle, from a principle which embraces everything, which explains everything, which justifies everything, such as the idea of God, all consequences are legitimate, and that the zeal of the believer is the sole judge of their propriety.

"I once believed," says Rousseau, "that it was possible to be an honest man and dispense with God; but I have recovered from that error." Fundamentally the same argument as that. of Voltaire, the same justification of intolerance: Man does good and abstains from evil only through consideration of a Providence which watches over him; a curse on those who deny its existence! And, to cap the climax of absurdity, the man who thus seeks for our virtue the sanction of a Divinity who rewards and punishes is the same man who teaches the native goodness of man as a religious dogma.

And for my part I say: The first duty of man, on becoming intelligent and free, is to continually hunt the idea of God out of his mind and conscience. For God, if he exists, is essentially hostile to our nature, and we do not depend at all upon his authority. We arrive at knowledge in spite of him, at comfort in spite of him, at society in spite of him; every step we take in advance is a victory in which we crush Divinity.

Let it no longer be said that the ways of God are impenetrable. We have penetrated these ways, and there we have read in letters of blood the proofs of God's impotence, if not of his malevolence. My reason, long humiliated, is gradually rising to a level with the infinite; with time it will discover all that its inexperience hides from it; with time I shall be less and less a worker of misfortune, and by the light that I shall have acquired, by the perfection of my liberty, I shall purify myself, idealize my being, and become the chief of creation, the equal of God. A single moment of disorder which the Omnipotent might have prevented and did not prevent accuses his Providence and shows him lacking in wisdom; the slightest progress which man, ignorant, abandoned, and betrayed, makes towards good honors him immeasurably. By what right should God still say to me: Be holy, for I am holy? Lying spirit, I will answer him, imbecile God, your reign is over; look to the beasts for other victims. I know that I am not holy and never can become so; and how could you be holy, if I resemble you? Eternal father, Jupiter or Jehovah, we have learned to know you; you are, you were, you ever will be, the jealous rival of Adam, the tyrant of Prometheus.

So I do not fall into the sophism refuted by St. Paul, when he forbids the vase to say to the potter: Why hast thou made me thus? I do not blame the author of things for having made me an inharmonious creature, an incoherent assemblage; I could exist only in such a condition. I content myself with crying out to him: Why do you deceive me? Why, by your silence, have you unchained egoism within me? Why have you submitted me to the torture of universal doubt by the bitter illusion of the antagonistic ideas which you have put in my mind? Doubt of truth, doubt of justice, doubt of my conscience and my liberty, doubt of yourself, O God! and, as a result of this doubt, necessity of war with myself and with my neighbor! That, supreme Father, is what you have done for our happiness and your glory; such, from the beginning, have been your will and your government; such the bread, kneaded in blood and tears, upon which you have fed us. The sins which we ask you to forgive, you caused us to commit; the traps from which we implore you to deliver us, you set for us; and the Satan who besets us is yourself.

You triumphed, and no one dared to contradict you, when, after having tormented in his body and in his soul the righteous Job, a type of our humanity, you insulted his candid piety, his prudent and respectful ignorance. We were as naught before your invisible majesty, to whom we gave the sky for a canopy and the earth for a footstool. And now here you are dethroned and broken. Your name, so long the last word of the savant, the sanction of the judge, the force of the prince, the hope of the poor, the refuge of the repentant sinner, — this incommunicable name, I say, henceforth an object of contempt and curses, shall be a hissing among men. For God is stupidity and cowardice; God is hypocrisy and falsehood; God is tyranny and misery; God is evil. As long as humanity shall bend before an altar, humanity, the slave of kings and priests, will be condemned; as long as one man, in the name of God, shall receive the oath of another man, society will be founded on perjury; peace and love will be banished from among mortals. God, take yourself away! for, from this day forth, cured of your fear and become wise, I swear, with hand extended to heaven, that you are only the tormentor of my reason, the spectre of my conscience.
Naturally, this riled folks up. And Proudhon wasn't the only one to feel the heat. The perception was that his friends, and socialism in general, were getting a black eye from his provocative writing. So he was under some pressure to clear things up. But Proudhon wasn't always real good at giving the people what they wanted, so his reply (le Peuple, May 6, 1849) may not have exactly smoothed things over. But it's a lot of fun...


My friends beg me, in the interest of our common ideas, and to remove any pretext for slander, to make my opinion known on the divinity and Providence, and at the same time to explain certain passages from the System of [Economic] Contradictions, that the reactionary tartuffes have for a year constantly exploited against socialism with simple and credulous souls.

I surrender to their solicitations. I will even say that if I have for so long let the Constitutionnel and its consorts make of me a Vanini even more ferocious that the original, attacking at once God and the Devil, — the family and property, — I had my reasons for that. First I wanted to lead certain schools, up to then considered enemies, to confess themselves their perfect resemblance; I wanted, in a word, it to be demonstrated to the eyes of all that doctrinaire and Jesuit, it is all one. Also, as a metaphysician by profession, I was not unhappy to take advantage of the circumstances in order to judge, by a decisive test, where our century really is with regard to religion. It is not given to everyone to engage in such experiments in social psychology, and to examine, as I have for six months, public reason. Few men are in a position for that; and besides, it is too costly. Thus I was curious to know if, among a people such as our own, who, for two centuries, have banished religious disputes from among them; who have posited in principle the absolute liberty of conscience, that is to say the most determined skepticism; who, through the mouthpiece of the present head of the ministry, M. Odilon-Barrot, have put God and religion beyond the law; who salary all the faiths existing in their territory, while waiting for them to fade away; among a people where one no longer swears but by honor and conscience; where education, justice, power, literature and art, everything, finally, is religious indifference, if not atheism, the minds of the citizens were on a level with the institutions.

There is, I said to myself, a man who exactly fulfills his civic duties; who, above all things, respects the family of his fellow man; who keeps himself pure for the good of others; who makes a rule of never disguising his thoughts, even at the risk of his respect; who has sworn himself to the improvement of his fellows; well! What could it matter to the people to know if this man is or is not an ATHEIST? How could that modify their opinion? Especially if one considers that the word atheist is as poorly defined, as obscure, as the word God, of which it is the negation.

For a mind enamored with philosophical and social trifles, the question deserves to be examined deeply.

Now, I have seen that, thank God!--if you'll excuse the expression--the bulk of the people in France have been stirred very little by the transcendent interests of the supreme being, and that there remains hardly anyone but the Constitutionnel and the Jesuits, M. Thiers and M. de Montalembert, to take up the cause of the divinity. Here, in order to conceal nothing, is all that I gathered from my researches.

1° Four petitions have arrived at the National Assembly, holding thirty to forty signatures, and demanding my expulsion from the Assembly for cause of atheism. As if I did not have the right to be atheist!... If the National Assembly ever occupies itself with these petitions, my honorable colleagues will laugh about it like the gods.

2° I have received two anonymous letters in which I have been warned, with plenty of biblical citations in support, that if I continue, as I have, to blaspheme, the heavens will strike me. — OK! I say, If the heavens intervene, I am a goner!

3° Finally, here is the Constitutionnel, number of May 3, which tells me to beware, that if I push Providence too far, she will chastise me, delivering me up to the delirium of my pride. — Indeed, merely to be occupied with her, that is good reason to become mad.

That is all that I have been able to gather of the indignation of the devout; the rest, the immense majority of the French people, jeer at the Providence of Constitutionnel and of the good God of the Jesuits, like an ass with a fistful of nettles.

However, it is time that the comedy finishes; and, since my friends wish it and our colleagues in socialism desire it, I will address to them my profession of faith. God and the people pardon me! What I am going to say is a serious thing; but such is the sacrilegious hypocrisy of my adversaries, that I am almost ashamed of my action, as if I had just taken holy water.

[A working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

Friday, January 14, 2011

A note on Bastiat and "double inequality"

Sheldon Richman recently posted an interesting piece on "The Importance of Subjectivism in Economics: The double inequality of value," over at The Freeman. In it, while praising Bastiat, he wants to supplement Bastiat's account of the benefits of a market economy with "the subjectivist Austrian insight that individuals gain from trade per se."
For an exchange to take place, the two parties must assess the items traded differently, with each party valuing what he is to receive more than what he is to give up. If that condition did not hold, no exchange would occur. There must be what Murray Rothbard called a double inequality of value. It’s in the logic of human action – what Ludwig von Mises called praxeology. Bastiat, like his classical forebears Smith and Ricardo, erroneously believed (at least explicitly) that people trade equal values and that something is wrong when unequal values are exchanged.
Sheldon does a nice job of reading through Bastiat's Economic Harmonies, showing Bastiat's engagement with the "double inequality," as expressed in pre-Austrian form by Condillac, as well as referencing Roderick Long's commentary on the "Gratuity of Credit" debate, concluding that, although the principle had been around for a hundred years, "neither Bastiat nor Proudhon fully and explicitly grasped the Condillac/Austrian point about the double inequality of value."

Now, as Sheldon shows, Bastiat seems to have thought he had "grasped the point," only to reject it.  Indeed, when you look at his discussion of Condillac, he sounds a lot like Proudhon, positing “Exchange” as a more-or-less anarchic “association:”
“…the separation of employments is only another and more permanent manner of uniting our forces—of co-operating, of associating; and it is quite correct to say, as we shall afterwards demonstrate, that the present social organization, provided Exchange is left free and unfettered, is itself a vast and beautiful association—a marvellous association, very different indeed from that dreamt of by the Socialists, since, by an admirable mechanism, it is in perfect accordance with individual independence. Every one can enter and leave it at any moment which suits his convenience. He contributes to it voluntarily, and reaps a satisfaction superior to his contribution, and always increasing—a satisfaction determined by the laws of justice and the nature of things, not by the arbitrary will of a chief.”
And the two propositions about profit and loss ("The profit of one is the loss of another" or "The profit of one is the benefit of another") are alternately true or false, depending on whether individuals are or are not associated. Compare Proudhon, from the “Revolutionary Program” of 1848:
“Who does not see that the mutualist organization of exchange, of circulation, of credit, of buying and selling, the abolition of taxes and tolls of every nature which place burdens on production and bans on goods, irresistibly push the producers, each following his specialty, towards a centralization analogous with that of the State, but in which no one obeys, no one is dependent, and everyone is free and sovereign?”
Indeed, somewhat uncharacteristically, Proudhon insists so strongly (in that same essay) on the individualization of interests that he talks about “complete insolidarity.” So, however incommensurable the subjective values may be, the dual profit seems to arise, for both Bastiat and Proudhon, from the combination of individualization of interests and association, and, in both cases, this seems to occupy some ground between purely emergent phenomena arising from market forces and the more explicit sorts of "utopian," "communist" or state-socialist association from which Bastiat and Proudhon would both have been striving to differentiate themselves.

Now, it seems to me that the notion of the "double inequality" has at least two major components: 1) the assumption that exchange is conventional, because subjective values are incommensurable; and 2) the assumption that individuals will only trade under circumstances where they individually profit. That second assumption seems to depend a great deal on how you understand "profit," and it isn't clear that individual, subjective standards of "profit" are any more commensurable than the values on which they are based. But if we accept the notion that individuals "gain from trade per se,"it doesn't seem to be a notion limited to "freed-market" transactions, and the subjective "profits" don't seem incompatible with a certain amount of material loss. Like the arguments that claim we are all "proprietors" because we have arms and legs, I suspect this sort of "profit" amounts to pretty cold comfort in a lot of cases. More importantly, though, it points to what a strange thing "exchange" is from at least some Austrian perspectives. The "double inequality" is a rather a-mutual notion of exchange, involving no "exchange of values" or even a translation of them. Contrary to at least some of the senses of "catallactics" ("to admit in the community" or "to change from enemy into friend"), this sort of "exchange" seems strangely solitary.

The notion that individual values are subjectively incommensurable was hardly alien to the anarchists generally associated with labor theories of value. Josiah Warren had pretty thoroughly subjectivized “equal exchange” rhetoric as early as the 1820s. His "hour of labor" was, after all, merely a standard—an hour of a particular sort of labor—against which the subjective valuations of individual laborers could be measured. And Proudhon, for whom "equal exchange" was certainly a part of the mutualist program, the incommensurability of values was basic. In The Philosophy of Progress, he wrote:
The idea of value is elementary in economics: everyone knows what is meant by it. Nothing is less arbitrary than this idea; it is the comparative relation of products which, at each moment of social life, make up wealth. Value, in a word, indicates a proportion.
Now, a proportion is something mathematical, exact, ideal, something which, by its high intelligibility, excludes caprice and fortune. There is then, on top of supply and demand, a law for comparison of values, therefore a rule of the evaluation of products.
But that law or rule is a pure idea, of which it is impossible, at any moment, and for any object, to make the precise application, to have the exact and true standard. Products vary constantly in quantity and in quality; the capital in the production and its cost vary equally. The proportion does not remain the same for two instants in a row: a criterion or standard of values is thus impossible. The piece of money, five grams in weight, that we call the franc, is not a fixed unity of values: it is only a product like others, which with its weight of five grams at nine-tenths silver and one-tenth alloy, is worth sometimes more, sometimes less than the franc, without us ever being able to know exactly what is its difference from the standard franc.
On what then does commerce rest, since it is proven that, lacking a standard of value, exchange is never equal, although the law of proportionality is rigorous? It is here that liberty comes to the rescue of reason, and compensates for the failures of certainty. Commerce rests on a convention, the principle of which is that the parties, after having sought fruitlessly the exact relations of the objects exchanged, come to an agreement to give an expression reputed to be exact, provided that it does not exceed the limits of a certain tolerance. That conventional expression is what we call the price.

Thus, in the order of economic ideas, the truth is in the law, and not in the transactions. There is a certainty for the theory, but there is no criterion for practice. There would not even have been practice, and society would be impossible, if, in the absence of a criterion prior and superior to it, human liberty had not found a means to supply it by contract
 This is, of course, the "equality in the long term" argument that is central to the "free market anti-capitalism" of Carsonian mutualism—and there's no downplaying the importance of Kevin Carson's rediscovery of the compatibility of subjective and labor theories of value. But it would be a mistake, I think, not to highlight the essential differences between the approach we find in Proudhon and that of Rothbard. It seems to me that, like the more solipsistic egoists, the Rothbardian economic actor acts in an essentially solitary manner: whether or not the exchange is "equal," in either the long or short run, is not his concern, and the willingness of the other trader to trade is just another aspect of scarcity. Reciprocity is not a goal. Instead, it is assumed to be an outcome of "equal" profit-seeking. And the currency in even nominally mutualist circles of notions like "stigmergy"—"indirect coordination," based on the interactions between actors and the traces of other actors—suggests a body of thought in which there is no clear distinction between the Golden Rule and "devil take the hindmost."

There seems to me to be an enormous difference between exchanges which always work to the profit of all exchangers and exchanges, as we find them in Proudhon's account, that fundamentally don't work at all, until some convention—some mutual approximation—is constructed which bridges the gulf of incommensurability. That approximation is the law of exchange, and, for Proudhon, that law is equality—set up as the standard against which all approximation-by-exchange will be judged. The positing of the law of equality is, at the same time, the creation of the possibility of society ("equal" association), and the condition for that positing and creation is liberty—and liberty is the result of a prior complex interconnection of actors. Implicit association gives rise to liberty, which gives rise to explicit association, which gives rise to the conventions by which exchange and society become really possible.

Regular readers of the blog will probably already see familiar dynamics in this business of a mutual gift bridging the impossible differences between incommensurable regimes of value, but I'll leave more explicit explorations of all that for another day.

Where, ultimately, does Bastiat come down in all of this? Somewhere in between, I would guess, seeing in the laws of exchange something more natural and harmonious than Proudhon, the philosopher of economic contradictions, but still more concerned with explicit association and its empirical effects than Condillac or Rothbard.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Responses on mutualist property theory: Self-ownership

Given the amount that I've already written about mutualist property theory, both historically and in the context of "the gift economy of property," and the specific context of the C4SS symposium, there wasn't much chance that my post on mutualist land theory was going to be a summary of my own theory. Instead, it was really a series of reasons why I couldn't just engage the question in terms of abandonment, with some gestures back at the theory I've been building. That sort of thing never quite cuts it in the blogosphere, as the comments make clear. I sympathize with Derek for thinking that things are left in a potentially paradoxical state. And I guess the "quibbles" in the other comments are just the sort of thing that have to be clarified on a regular basis. I'll try to do that here:

The commenter (Iain McKay) has "two quibbles:"
First, is the acceptance of "self-ownership"—that is problematic because it mixes up something which is inalienable (liberty) with something which is (property). This allows social relations of authority, domination and exploitation to occur.

This can be seen from Locke, who uses "property in labour" to justify the exploitation of workers' labour by their employee [employer, I assume]—as intended. It is used this way by propertarians to this day.
As the Iain has suggested, folks like Carole Pateman and David Ellerman have approached these questions differently, with Pateman rejecting the notion of "self-ownership," by distinguishing it from "property in the person." There's a lot to like about Pateman's essay but there's no question that it is an intervention in a particular libertarian debate about "property rights" that I've been trying to shake for a long time now.

In case it hasn't been clear, even in my most schematic posts, I consider the conflation of various forms of "property" and "property rights" a fairly serious problem with much of the property theory I encounter. Libertarians who essentially reduce property rights to a right of reprisal against invasion seem to me to be begging a rather stunning number of questions along the way. And I'm attempting to follow a strategy of Proudhon's—the occasion for a lot of his best, funniest, sometimes snarkiest writing—of not attributing the problems of property to the bad faith of Locke, or "the propertarians" at all times, but to more-or-less well-intentioned systems that simply don't live up to the claims made for them—and then of either showing how the systems might be fixed or revealing what the systems actually do when functioning correctly. Did Locke set out to build a system for defrauding the workers? Maybe. Is the whole "alienability of labor" of labor thing simply unthinkable? That seems to depend on some clarifications of what is really involved. The second question depends on making sure we know what is at stake in the system. The first deals with intent, and may just be beside the point, if the system that Locke built did not serve those intentions particularly well.

As I have been reading Locke, whatever his intentions, it appears that appropriation of external resources depends on a prior and inalienable property in person, and is limited to essentially non-rivalrous possession. As a start for a system to rob the workers, this seems unpromising, since, among other things, it severely limits the incentive for the sorts of labor-alienation responsible for so much capital accumulation. Indeed, it seems to militate very strongly against the possibility of a capitalist class emerging. Whatever Locke set out to do, the "homesteading" theory doesn't seem to give much shelter to capitalism—unless, of course, you remove the proviso that demands a rough equality of property, the thing that gives it its social character, as well as whatever claims it may have to universality and self-evidence. But the arguments against the proviso, as I argued in the earlier post, just don't seem all that convincing to me.

Now, as we know, Locke moved beyond this treatment of homesteading in the state of nature to a justification of property in an exchange economy. But his justification was that division of labor and exchange created virtually the same effects as the initial labor-mixing scenario. That claim has to rise and fall on its own merits: either exchange can, in fact, live up to the high standards of equality that Locke seems to have posited for property acquired by labor-mixing, or it can't. If it can't, and we believe the whole thing was a set-up in the first place, there's still every reason to emphasize the difference—and the alleged similarity—between the two standards.

Anyway, on the question of whether "self-ownership" necessarily mixes up the inalienable and the alienable: 1) the case can certainly be made, as Pateman makes it, but there seem to be problems with the construction of "property in the person" in that case as well; 2) that mixed-up "self-ownership" is not—and, by this point, pretty explicitly not—the concept that I have "accepted;" and 3) to the extent that "self-ownership" is supposed to refer to Locke's "property in person," it isn't at all clear that the problem raised exists in the portion of Locke's theory that I have been addressing.

We know that "self-ownership" is often used in ways that are less than careful and coherent. The cart and the horse change positions with a disturbing frequency. In laying out the various senses of "property" and the various elements of appropriation, and in my ongoing examination of the points of contact between Proudhon and Stirner, virtually everything I've said has been in the service of straightening out these cart-and-horse, cause-and-effect confusions.

It's seems straightforward to claim that "I own myself" in a somewhat different way than "I own my abilities," or "I own the product of my abilities," or "I own a field or forest," or "I own that toaster that I bought at K-Mart." Call the first "self-ownership" or "property in the person," consider the second possible or impossible on the grounds of alienability, but if you believe that I can own that toaster because it is like owning the direct products of my labor, and I can own those products because they are an expression of my abilities and exertions, and I own the abilities and exertions because they are the expressions of a self that I own pretty much as an a priori premise, don't end up by claiming that the self is really just like a toaster that you can't give away. This seems to be about as far as Pateman's quibble takes us, and while, in some senses, it's better than deriving all forms of property from self-ownership, and then describing the self as a toaster that you can give away, that's not much of a theoretical payoff.

The property theories that appeal to some sort of "natural right" want to move from a fact about the nature of human being, to a generalizable rule about the "mine and thine." All too often, they seem to move from a derivative right, back up the chain of justification to try to make the facts fit. The result is again, all too often, weird divisions of the person into owning and owned elements—the sort of thing that has a tendency to keep dividing and retreating before our attempts at justification.

Now, the suggestion that we might choose "liberty" over "property" as the fact that we focus on, doesn't seem to get us very far. After all, liberty is already a keyword for all the contenders in the struggle over just property rights, and the vision of "free people working as equals" is shared by anarchists of schools who have little else in common. And if we take Proudhon for our guide, then we there is no disentangling liberty from property. After all, in 1840, the goal was a "third form of society," a "synthesis of community and property," which he identified as "liberty." And as his thought matured, Proudhon's idea of "synthesis" became more and more one of irreducible dialectics, antinomies, within which antagonistic elements acted as counter-forces to one another. It is true that Proudhon identified property with despotism, and that he never renounced that view, but it is also true that it was the very despotic tendencies that he had identified that soon led him to embrace property within the context of the property-community dialectic.

This issue of the "third form of society," and the relation of Proudhon's federalism to collectivism, is something I need to tackle in a separate post. For the moment, I want to review and clarify what I do indeed accept with regard to "self-ownership."

It's always important to remember how rough-and-tumble and sharp-edged things tend to be within Proudhon's systems. And it's necessary to recall just how far he went beyond the few phrases we tend to focus on:
“They called me ‘demolisher,’” he himself said; “this name will remain after I am gone: it’s the limit of inadmissibility that is opposed to all my work, that I am a man of demolition, unable to produce! ... I have already given quite thorough demonstrations of such entirely positive things as:
“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.” 
Out of all of this, anarchists tend to know something about his theories of credit and of federation—if only that he was in favor of free credit and federation—and enough about his property theory—generally the three famous slogans—to be dangerous. And they know he had some dodgy ideas about women and Jews—and later had some appeal for certain fascists. But the basic dynamic of Proudhon's thought—the role of those antinomic, irreducible dialectics; the serial analysis he inherited from Fourier; his treatment of justice as balance, and his progressive commitment to "leveling up;" the ways in which his theories of the group and of collective force didn't allow him to simply choose between property and community, the individual or the group, centralization or decentralization, etc.—all the stuff that makes the slogans and aphorisms make sense, never seems to get in the mix somehow. In 1840, he showed us that the old systems of "force and fraud" had been, in their way, evolutionary stages in the development of justice. "Community and property," objectionable separately, were the elements of liberty. In 1846, when his working model was the "economic contradictions," he damned both property and community as "theft," because they were "non-reciprocity." Community, he said, was "the negation of opposing terms," which would be sort of a curious objection, if we did not know that, a few years later, Proudhon would defined reciprocity as "the mutual penetration of antagonistic elements." Property is the "religion of force," while community is "the religion of destitution"—and yet it is "between" them that Proudhon insists he "will make a world." By the 1850s, Proudhon delved deeper and deeper into these dynamics, developing his progressive philosophy—affirming only progress, denying only the absolute—and then his theories of collective and countervailing forces, until he finally came to define the liberty of the individual in terms of the complex play of individually absolute, despotic forces: the more complex the play, the more individually despotic the forces, the greater the quantity of freedom for the individual defined and composed by that play. Peace is the perfection of freedom, and liberty is the product of that perfection, the outcome of complex antagonism transformed into association. As early as 1849, he claimed that the individualization of interests, "complete insolidarity," was the first step by which:
... the mutualist organization of exchange, of circulation, of credit, of buying and selling, the abolition of taxes and tolls of every nature which place burdens on production and bans on goods, irresistibly push the producers, each following his specialty, towards a centralization analogous with that of the State, but in which no one obeys, no one is dependent, and everyone is free and sovereign ...
Liberty, then, depends on property—at least if we understand property as first and foremost being associated with the individual self and the development of its organizing law. Federation gains its force as much from the separation, even "antagonism" of the federated elements, as it does from their organization under a common rule. And, of course, the increased force and freedom of the federation is not a matter of indifference to its constituents.

I've described Proudhon's system as an individualism on multiple scales. It is, in an important sense, also a collectivism at all those scales, but there are advantages, I think, in tackling this difficult dialectical relation from the side with the most phenomenological immediacy for us as human ethical and political actors. Life is, as Pierre Leroux put it, inescapably both objective and subjective, but our understanding of the dynamic is inescapably mediated by subjectivity.

We know that our body—the most immediate physical site of the self—is made up of elements organized according to particular laws, and that those elements are, in turn, composed of other organized elements, and so on, down as far as we've been able to explore. We know that our health depends on the free functioning of these constituent elements—just as we know that our health, and that free functioning, are not independent of the organization and function of higher-order systems (ecosystems, societies, social classes, etc.) Individuals are always already groups, and there are various sorts of influence and feedback between the various orders of individuality/collectivity. Joseph Déjacque's "universal circulus" is the sum of all that influence and feedback, which simultaneously and irresistibly separates the wheat from the chaff at every level, according to a logic that is the product and the law of all the constituent individuals and their interactions. Seen from this side—the side of the most inclusive sort of "community"—the claims to "property" of any individual might seems pretty thin, except that this circulation of everything is hardly the lazy sloshing of some undifferentiated mass. If there is an overall guiding law that says, this is wheat and this is chaff, it does not appear apart from all the various levels of organization and legislation beneath it. There is no collective without the elements.

More importantly, there is no collectivity—no "life," in some very basic sense—without the individuality of the elements. The theory of collective force, Proudhon's theory of liberty and ecological science agree in associating the fullest and most robust conditions for life with diversity and multiplicity. A recent article in Machete on Stirner and the "contr'un" associated with de la Boetie suggests that perhaps Stirner also holds a key to part of the mystery we're wrestling with:
In reality, Multiplicity finds its best expression precisely in what apparently contradicts it: the uniqueness of the individual. Anchored as we are in false dichotomies, who would ever think to look at Stirner as a philosopher of Multiplicity? And yet, it really is the singularity of each human being, her unrepeatability that constitutes and guarantees Multiplicity. The more human beings are different from each other, the more they refuse the collective identities offered by social and political conventions…and turn to the discovery and creation of themselves, and the more they create new desires, new sensibilities, new ideas, new worlds, which is a reason why it would be necessary to stimulate and defend individual differences rather than blurring them in ‘common agreement’. [translation by Apio Ludicrus, who spotted the article]
 From the egoist side, of course, self-ownership can be very simple (although I'm seeing very interesting, complex stuff from some serious students of Stirner these days): self-ownership is simply self-enjoyment, the enjoyment of that which falls within the power of the unique one, without concerns about that enjoyment being exclusive, or conforming to any external standards of justice, and certainly without concern about conformity to "private property" conventions. But that sort of egoist is really playing a different game than those of us embroiled in this debate over property. Arguably, an awful lot of familiar concerns race back into the picture the moment that the egoist acknowledges another unique, and begins to forge some "union of egoists," but that's a set of problems to address another day...

We know that for mutualists, things are simple in their own way: we start with mutual recognition, and we, if we are pursuing the neo-Proudhonian, "two-gun" approach, we know that we have to take into account both the universal circulus (which threatens to simply sweep away the individual in its proliferation of connections) and the unique (which threatens to sweep away all standards whatsoever, leaving us with a world of uniques, both linked and distinguished by their incommensurability to one another.) What's "simple" is that we know we've shooting for mutual association—not necessarily "associations," in an institutional sense, since mutualist social approximations are likely to run the gamut from the most ephemeral union of egoists to the sort of durable institutions that Proudhon was unafraid to describe as an (anarchistic) state—and we know that we want those associations to give free play to a very pronounced sort of individuality—the sort that responds to names like "the unique" or "free absolute." The details aren't simple, but at least we know what sorts of difficult things we need to keep in play.

Is "self-ownership" compatible with that play of difficult things? The egoist's "self-enjoyment" certainly looks like a "fact" about human being, which is not dependent on the imposition of some property model presumably derived from it. It begs few questions, and seems to smuggle in few of the assumptions of any particular system of property. As a "matter of fact," it resembles what Proudhon initially called simple "possession"—and like simple possession, it guarantees nothing in the way of justice. And it leaves any system of property that might be derived from it open to some things not generally accepted in "private property" schemes: the possibility that all sorts of interconnections and overlaps, all sorts of non-exclusive possessions, are proper to human being—and thus the most "natural" norms for property. But I'm ultimately a whole lot less interested in natural rights than in human approximations of justice. I'm not sure collectivist César de Paepe was wrong when, in debate with the mutualists, he claimed that "Society has only one right, which is to conform to its own laws, to the laws of its historic development...," but I know that there's really no stopping at any individual right once you've started down that particular road—perhaps not even at the sort of "recognitions of human dignity" that Proudhon embraced.

So where and how does the mutualist attempt to swim against the stream of natural and historical development, in order to posit a potentially-mutual something-or-other that might intervene in that development in the name of greater liberty? For over two years now, my suggestion has been that we embrace the notion of a "gift economy of property," that we acknowledge, on the one hand, what is profoundly unnatural about individual rights, and explore the real interconnections that notions of individual property tend to obscure, while, on the other hand, we give to one another the one sort of property that robs no one, the recognition of the other as a unique being, subject to their own law of development, and in many ways incommensurable with all other unique beings.

Over two years ago, I introduced the notion of the "gift economy of property," my intervention in the debate over "self-ownership," as a sort of "foundation" on which a full mutualist property theory might be built:
My intuition, based in part on some language various places in Proudhon's work and in part on the connections I've been making to other continental thought, is that a "gift economy," in the sense of a system in which something, which can be rightfully given, is given, with no specific expectations of return, could only arise in fairly limited circumstances, and perhaps can only have one application within Proudhon's thought--but that one application may be a bit of a doozy. We know that there is, for Proudhon, some opening for society to emerge as a "pact of liberty" leading towards approximations of equality and finally of justice. We know that freedom rises from the interplay of necessity and liberty, and that property too has its internal contradictions. Proudhon's moi has very little that he can rightfully give, if even his own "property" is theft. But he can, perhaps, give property to the other, through recognition, which steals nothing, robs no one, and is perfectly gratuitous, even if, and this is the character of the gift economy, he cannot be sure of reciprocation. To the extent, however, that commerce is based in equal recognition, if not necessarily any other sort of equality, then this particular gift economy might be strangely (given all we have said, and some of the names we have invoked) foundational.
As much as my connections and key-words have changed in that time, that initial argument still remains foundational for the various interventions in property theory that I've made since. That's one "doozy" of an application—a mutually-gifted self-ownership, still haunted in important ways by one version of the "impossibility" of property—if all that I have "accepted"—and, whatever its own difficulties, I don't think it suffers from the sorts of problems Pateman raises.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Elements of appropriation

I broke down various meanings and aspects of property awhile back. Since some of what I wrote in the last post depends on an understanding of appropriation that I haven't made explicit in some time, maybe a sort of summary is in order. In order to have an adequate theory of appropriation—in traditional, more-or-less Lockean terms—we need—one way or another—to provide ourselves with at least:
  1. An understanding of the subject of appropriation ("individual," "collective," irreducibly individual-collective, etc.;
  2. A theory of the nature of that subject's relation to itself as "self-ownership," "self-enjoyment," etc.;
  3. A theory of nature (active or passive? productive? capable of "projects" worthy of acknowledgment?) and of the relation between nature and the subject of appropriation;
  4. Some answer to the question "is there a right of appropriation"?—and some reasonable account for any such right, grounded in the previous elements;
  5. A theory of justice in the exercise of appropriation (provisos, etc.);
  6. A mechanism for appropriation;
And if we can pull all of that together, we can begin to talk about rights with regard to actually appropriated property, abandonment, expropriation, etc. 

Neo-Lockean property frequently seems to me to end up with a "universal right to 'devil take the hindmost.'" But I would rather attribute that to incomplete theory than propertarian depravity.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Thoughts on mutualist land theory

There's a call at the Center for a Stateless Society for responses to a document on "Land Tenure and Anarchic Common Law," which "which synthesizes remarks by Kevin Carson, Brad Spangler, and Gary Chartier." The basic argument is that "occupancy and use" and "Lockean" (non-proviso neo-lockean) theories differ primarily over the question of abandonment of "justly acquired" property. The assumption is that the theories are in something like agreement on "just acquisition" because both employ a homesteading mechanism.

It's the sort of thing that first makes me want to say: "Property is theft!" I've been involved in a lot of discussions about abandonment issues, and defended versions of "occupancy and use" very open to summer homes and various other petty bourgeois deviations—provided owners carry their own costs. I would hope that a free society would mean more options—even more luxuries—rather than less.

But there's no getting around the difficulties of that question of "just acquisition."

As I've observed before, the Lockean theory of property—the full theory, that is, with provisos intact—is, whatever you think about Locke's ultimate intentions, a rather elegant system. It shows its age, certainly, reflecting an economic relationship between human beings and natural resources that is certainly not the norm more than three centuries later, as well as a view of the nature of "nature" that's pretty hopelessly out of date. But, in general, it seems to me that it's a pretty darn good start towards a just property theory.
Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.
There's nothing flashy, or too complicated here. There's an individual, with a "property in his own person"—a relation we generally call "self-ownership"—and there is nature—largely a passive element available to the uses active agents, and "inferior." (To the extent that Lockean property theory incorporates assumptions about land use, those assumptions are likely to be more simply "environmentalist" than "ecological" in character. But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit...) The human actor is a coherent and evolving force and/or bundle of projects, and it appropriates nature by incorporating resources into its projects, subjecting them to its forces. "Property," in Locke's scheme, refers in turn to the the relation of the human actor to itself, to its effects, and to the elements it incorporates. There's a clear sense in Locke's prose that there is a chain of connections here, based initially on the property posited in the "person" of the actor (which "no body has any right to but himself"), and extending out by steps. "Every man has a property in his person," so "we may say" that "the labour of his body, and the work of his hands"are "properly his." And then some other resource can be considered appropriated because, by "mixing" those things that "we may say" are his, he has "joined to it something that is his own." "Property" appears to be "something" (vague as that is, it's the word Locke himself used at key points in his account) that radiates out from the property of the person, to property in the products and efforts of the person, and then to property in the resources incorporated in the the products and transformed by the efforts of the person (provided the provisos are met.) While the general model is of an expanding envelope of exclusive personhood, it seems pretty clear that the actual relations, and thus the associated rights, of property are not identical at every remove from that initial "person with property in themselves." There are causes and effects, persons that are proper to themselves by definition and things that become proper to them by extension. 

When modern propertarians talk about "self-ownership" as the basis of "property," a lot of this has a tendency to just go out the window—or at least take some very odd turns. Tibor Machan, for instance, starts his "Self-Ownership & the Lockean Proviso" with the provocative claim that "self-ownership—or in Locke’s terms “property in his own person”—is justified only if we leave “enough and as good” for others of ourselves." By treating "self-ownership" as if it must be derived from the same mechanisms of extension as the appropriation of resources, Machan produces an apparent paradox, but it's one which has to badly backfire on any property theory. If self-ownership has to be derived from homesteading, and homesteading works because of self-ownership, then there are some pretty obvious problems. Machan's little scandal doesn't actually come off very well. Roderick Long's "Land-Locked," written in response to Kevin Carson, is a lot more sensitive to these sorts of problems, but may not entirely escape them. Roderick nicely demonstrates that the notion of nature as a "common patrimony" cannot be derived from some originary homesteading of nature by humanity. Clearly, nature is not in fact the joint property of humanity. As I suggested elsewhere, the notion of an "original mixing" might well also be fatal to individual property. The problem is that, when it comes to principles of just appropriation, it isn't clear that individual self-ownership carries us any farther forward than the premise of a common patrimony. In fact, there has been incorporation of resources, but whether that appropriation is most justly understood as individual or collective probably really is a question that "the principle of self-ownership alone" cannot decide for us. And it's not really these questions of what has actually been homesteaded that are at stake. I don't think anyone believes that Locke, or Kevin Carson, is trying to claim an original homesteading. We don't say that natural resources are not destined for the use of the individual, on the grounds that the individual has not used them yet. On the contrary, another good scholar I happen to disagree with, Gary Chartier, considers the position that "there are no just property rights, because it is wrong for anyone to claim to control any part of the material world" a position "no reasonable person would endorse," which would render "orderly, purposeful action in the world impossible." I'm not certain that "orderly, purposeful action" depends on rights, but it seems to me that most of the Lockean and/or natural rights propertarians are unlikely to contest the notion that something other than an already accomplished homesteading is at stake in whatever rights to appropriate we eventually derive or discover.

One way or another, it seems, we've got to do the trick of moving from the fact of self-ownership to a right of appropriation, and the determination of what constitutes "just appropriation" has to wait on the results.

And there's nothing terribly easy about that. Without recourse to a God who bequeathed nature to humanity in common, we have to look for something in the nature of human being, or in self-ownership, that authorizes us to talk about rights to appropriate anything in particular. Thomas Skidmore, in The Rights of Man to Property, thought he had derived a natural right to property that was individual, inalienable and roughly equal, but ultimately impracticable outside of a fairly extensive social consensus. The "agrarian" result is much like communism. And, of course, plenty of anarchists have opted for communism. Indeed, from the death of Proudhon onward, the vast majority of anarchists have responded to the difficulties associated with the just appropriation of land and other natural resources by embracing the collective management of these things. (For those who want to immediately interject something about "the tragedy of the commons," I can only gesture to the actually existing tragedy of state-capitalist resource management and suggest a little reading in ecological science. For those quick to talk about "marxist" influence... well, Hell, anarchist collectivism was as strongly influenced by the Belgian "rational socialists," guys like Jean-Guillaume-César-Alexandre-Hippolyte (baron de Colins), as it was by Marx in that regard. But they made the influences their own, in any case.) Proudhon learned to stop worrying and love property (a little bit, anyway) precisely because he identified it first with "the sum of its abuses," and then, ultimately, with absolutism and despotism.

My own interest in Locke's theory is that it seems to make something of an end-run around this problem of the right of appropriation—at least when the main proviso remains intact. If property is essentially non-rivalrous—if our "good draught" really leaves "the whole river," or enough of it so that natural processes will replenish it—then here's some real ground for agreement, at least in terms of the basic justice of the appropriation. Of course, the notion of non-rivalrous property runs against the grain of contemporary propertarian theory, but it seems to be right there in Locke—and it seems like a much more promising place to look for substantive agreement with left anarchism than in a debate about abandonment.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Turning a new page...

This blog has gone through two previous phases, under two other names: The first was exploratory, a series of rambles "In the Libertarian Labyrinth," with a primary goal of demonstrating that our tradition is far richer than we are accustomed to think; the second was also exploratory, but, having demonstrated to my own satisfaction the complexity and extent of the "libertarian labyrinth," it seemed to me high time to find a way out—to gather together the best discoveries from my wanderings and start to piece them together into something a little more programmatic. That something—which I've referred to at various times as "the anarchism of approximation," "the spirit of '58," 'the Walt Whitman theory of political economy," and, most recently, "Two-Gun Mutualism"—has been gradually taking shape—on this blog, in forum discussions, in the pages of LeftLiberty and The Mutualist, and over coffee and beer in various states—for a couple of years. And, to tell the truth, it has been met, more often than not, with some variety of silence.

Ah, well. That's how it goes sometimes. I will persist—for awhile at least—in believing that my enthusiasm for a full-featured neo-Proudhonian mutualism is simply still well ahead of the curve. The whole "gift economy of property" thing, and the strategy of enlisting Locke and Stirner to help push Proudhon's thought further than he could take it, undoubtedly requires a little time to sink in. Still, for better of worse, 2011 is going to be a big year for Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, with the release of the AK Press anthology and a number of Proudhon-related projects from Corvus Editions, included at least a couple of new translations. (I'm currently working on the 3rd memoir on property and a revision and annotation of Tucker's translation of "What is Property?") And more Proudhon widely available is going to mean even more debate about just what the limits of his thought actually were—and, I suspect, more of the tug-of-war over mutualism.

There is, after all, a tug-of-war over mutualism. That hasn't changed since the good old days when we were fighting on Usenet, "An Anarchist FAQ" hadn't been started, and Spunk Library was the cutting edge of internet anarchism. I expect we'll continue to see attempts, from both right and left, to expel mutualism (as "pre-anarchist" or "a philosophy for thieves") or to subordinate it to some other school ("proto-communist," "agorist, with the LTV," etc.) We're generally pretty certain that something hatched 170+ years ago can't possibly be as clever as we are now. And, of course, we're probably right about that—in some ways. We're almost certainly wrong in some other ways—potentially really important ways. And it will be hard not to be wrong about Proudhon and mutualism. Property is Theft! will fill in a number of important blanks in our knowledge, but it will leave plenty to be filled as well. Most of Proudhon's mature work remains untranslated, along with virtually all of the other works by French mutualists and a tremendous amount of the material documenting the rise of collectivism.

Plenty of anarchists will say, "So what?" Unfortunately, some of those same anarchists will keep talking about Proudhon and mutualism as if they knew what they were talking about. So what? After all, even most present-day mutualists don't have much time for Proudhon's antinomic method and philosophy of progress, his sense that "peace is the perfection of war," and his theories of collective force and collective reason.

I think they're wrong. (And nobody really expects me to be bashful about it.) And I think that by failing to grapple with all that weird stuff, they risk creating a mutualism that really is an embryonic anarchist-communism or Agorism Lite. YMMV, but that's not going to get me where I want to go.


Two-Gun Mutualism. Picking up threads from Proudhon's early works—"the synthesis of community and property"—and his mature works—"the antinomy does not resolve itself"—and the wonderful image of the two pistols from Pierre Leroux's "Individualism and Socialism," we get a silly name for a fairly heady, potentially risky project: to pick up both individualism and socialism—two ill-kept old old implements indeed—and to try to make them serve the needs of an anarchism that slights neither individualities (at a dizzying range of scales) nor collectivities (ditto), when it's all too obvious that neither one is quite the tool for the job. It's a tactical, transitional project, couched in a repositioning language—as "market anarchism" and "left-libertarianism" served early phases (but, alas, no more...)

And if you've been reading this blog, neither its method nor its general outlines ought to be no surprise. Proudhon pursued property according to its logics and then according to its aims. I'll do a little of both—dealing with property, exchange, the gift, the state, etc.—and more than a little "deconstructive" reading of various more-or-less libertarian traditions, teasing out various possibilities for a neo-Proudhonian, but thoroughly modern mutualism, separate from—and at times opposed to—other contemporary claimants of the name. In some ways, the work won't change much. There's still translation to do, and analysis of the great works of the tradition. But there's also a tremendous amount of updating and extrapolation that has to be done, and that will in center stage. Anyway, the spirit and intent behind all this has been in transition for some time now, and I want to make explicit my own declaration of independence from "big tents" and "agreements" that paper over the most significant sorts of disputes. Enough with that. The stakes are simply too high.