Monday, April 6, 2009

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Advocates Worker Ownership

If you hear someone yelling the phrase "property is theft," you might intuitively label him as a communist or as an economic collectivist. However, many libertarian bloggers and blog commentators challenge this assumption.

First coined by a 19th century mutualist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, contemporary mutualists and Rothbardian market anarchists continue to repeat this motto. Even that this aphorism sounds absurd at first, they generally claim that Proudhon did not meant "property is theft" in the literal sense; they claim that Proudhon referred it to the property stolen by the state. Therefore, they claim that merely "semantics" caused this terminological conflict. A blogger called "Brainpolice," in a post titled Remembering Proudhon at Polycentric Order, postulated this:

There is also a context in which Proudhon was very much in favor of private or individual property, viewing it as an indispensible [sic] counterweight to the state.

A lot of market anarchists therefore asserted that Pierre-Joseph Proudhon favors property, and that he used "property as theft" as a rhetoric to attract readers. Andrew's post and the commentators at this blog post unanimously cited Brainpolice's assertion without even reading the primary sources.

However, if we take a closer look at what Proudhon meant by "property is theft," Brainpolice got it all wrong. In Proudhon's treatise What is Property?, he advocates the "possession" or the "use-and-occupancy" theory of property. Proudhon, therefore, as he said, rejects sticky property (Lockean property), or the perpetual ownership of property:

So that in society the only thing which could bring back the inequality of labor would be the right of occupancy, -- the right of property. (Page 124)

Therefore, Proudhon used "property is theft" to mean that "sticky property is theft."

Brainpolice probably got this idea from Brad Spangler's post on Proudhon, which Spangler in turn got it from this web page. If Brainpolice took that idea from Spangler, then he certainly did popularize Spangler's claim to misrepresent Proudhon. Brainpolice claimed that Proudhon merely opposes state privileges on property, but advocates sticky property just like how the Rothbardian market anarchists do.

Also, in contrast to the popular opinion, Proudhon actually rejected "the fruits of our labor" as a justification for property. He repeats this position in Chapter 3 of What is Property. Proudhon only justified property by "possession" or use-and-occupancy.

Furthermore, Proudhon used "property is impossible" to mean his theory of primitive accumulation. Proudhon argued that in a society ruled by sticky property, over time, a few hands will eventually concentrate nearly all property. He argued that these proprietors will then rent out their property to serfs. Therefore Proudhon actually used "property is impossible" to mean that "sticky property will lead to feudalism, with the poor propertyless (i.e. impossible for the poor to own property)." Proudhon demonstrated this in Chapter 4 in What is Property:

Every possessor of lands, houses, furniture, machinery, tools, money, &c., who lends a thing for a price exceeding the cost of repairs (the repairs being charged to the lender, and representing products which he exchanges for other products), is guilty of swindling and extortion. In short, all rent received (nominally as damages, but really as payment for a loan) is an act of property, -- a robbery. (Page 167)

Many market anarchists blindly follow Brainpolice's authority for his claims. In the past, Brainpolice, in a comment on his website, dogmatically claimed that Mikhail Bakunin actually uses the phrase "collectivist anarchism"; and that Lysander Spooner and Benjamin R. Tucker actually use the phrase "individualist anarchism" to describe themselves. We have also refuted this. We have dispelled these misconceptions.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

For the record, I was completely aware of the fact that Proudhon was opposed to "sticky" property titles, but I guess I never outright said it in my post. Personally, I'm currently agnostic on the idea of property-stickiness.