This piece explores some historical thoughts on the origin and nature of private property. By examining the texts of John Locke, PJ Proudhon, and Peter Kropotkin, we encounter questions of where private property came from, how it became an accepted standard, and what its philosophical justifications are. All of these historical thoughts echo loudly into the world of today.
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Hello this is Audio Anarchy Radio, continuing with our series that introduces various concepts from anarchist perspectives. Today we are going to be talking about property. When speaking of property a good place to begin is with John Locke the 17th century English philosopher.
Locke was one of the first political philosophers to think about the nature of property. He struggled with the concept of private property, given that he believed God gave the earth to mankind, not certain individuals. In his words quote
“God gave the world to man in common but since he gave it to them for their benefit, and the greatest conveniences of life they were capable to draw from it. It cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational and labour was to be his title to it, not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious he that had his good left for his improvement as was already taken up needed not complain, ought not to meddle with what was already improved by another’s labour. If he did, it is plain he desired the benefit of another’s pains which he had no right to. And not the ground which God had given him in common with others to labour on and whereof there was as good left as that already possessed and more than he know what to do with or his industry could reach to”
, end quote.
So it is not the land that God has given us than an individual as laying claim to, but rather the product of an individual’s labour. By claiming property we are claiming individual entitlement to the product of the work that we do, not the common gift of God. By his logic a ploughed field has value because of the labour that one invested in ploughing it and that is why one would claim it as his or her own.
Locke makes it clear that this is based on the assumption that there is always quote “good left” in his words quote
“nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land by improving it any prejudice to any other man since there was still enough and as good left and more than the yet unprovided could use, so that in effect there was nevertheless left for others because of his enclosure for himself. For he that leaves as much as another can make use of does as good as take nothing at all. Nobody could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draw, who had a whole river of the same water left to quench his thirst. And the case of land and water where there is enough is perfectly the same.”
He continues to add that the process of enclosure actually helps to preserve the state of abundance. He claims that a man can live on ten acres of cultivated land where he most likely require a hundred acres of uncultivated land in order to maintain the same level of sustenance. Hence when one encloses ten acres of common land, one is not taking ten acres but giving ninety. Of course at this point we’re only talking about the means that one uses to sustain oneself. In his words quote,
“Before the appropriation of land he gathered as much of the wild fruit, killed, caught or tamed as many of the beasts as he could. He that so employed his pains about any of a spontaneous products of nature as any way to alter them from the state which nature put them in by placing any of his labour on them did they thereby acquire a propriety in them. But if they perished in his possession without their new use, if the fruits rotted, or the venison putrefied before he could spend it, he offended against the common law of nature. And was liable to be punished. He invaded his neighbours share for he had no right farther than his use called for any of them. And they might serve to afford him convivences of life. The same measures covered the possession of land too. Whatsoever he tilde and reaped, laid up and made use of before it spoiled, that was his peculiar right. Whatsoever he enclosed and could feed and make use of; the cattle and product was also his. But if either the grass of his enclosure rotted on the ground or the fruit of his planting perished without gathering and laying up; this part of the earth not standing his enclosure was still to be looked on as waste, and might be the possession of any other.”
So did you hear that? This bourgeois thinker who influenced the very foundations of the United States and all subsequent property law, asserts that all those companies who are filling their dumpsters with unsold produce every night, as well as the United States government itself which subsidizes agriculture by buying up surplus grain and letting it rot away in silo’s is stealing from us. Even from Locke’s bourgeois perspective he’s calling us to the barricades right now.
Locke admits that the introduction of money into society changed the shape of property. Using money it becomes possible for one to freeze one’s labour into a durable form represented by precious metals or in the case of today currency. Once this possibility was introduced the potential size of an individual’s enclosure is no longer limited by fruits, vegetables or livestock will rot away in time. Whereas before if I used a thousand acres to grow fruit that would rot away before I could eat it all, I was stealing from the common gift of God. If on the other hand I trade all my surplus fruit for precious metals which are durable and will not rot away I have wasted nothing. Locke imagines a large island where there is an incredible abundance of resources, but nothing that is so scarce or durable that it could be used as a form of money. On this island Locke realises; there would never be any incentive for an individual to use more land than one would require for one’s personal needs. Because there would be no way to crystalize any extra labour preformed into a more durable format. So here Locke is admitting that the emergence of money and trade threw a crimp into his logic on property. But he continues to rationalise his justifications by claiming that since gold and silver have no inherent value beyond what we’ve bestowed on them; all of us have voluntarily consented to this expansion of property by agreeing to accept the value of currency.
In his words quote
“but since gold and silver being little useful to the life of men in proportion to food, raiment, and carriage has its value only from the consent of men. Where labour yet makes the great part the measure it is plain that men have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth, they having by a tacit and voluntary consent found out a way how a man may fairly possess more land than he himself can use the product of; by receiving in exchange for the over plus gold and silver which may be hoarded up without injury to anyone. These metals not spoiling or decaying in the hands of the possessor.”
So, this is about as far as Locke can take us.
Pierre Joseph- Proudhon
Pierre Joseph Proudhon, was a nineteenth century thinker who questioned the bourgeois foundations of property. He was the first person to call himself an Anarchist, claiming that anarchy is order. He was referring to what he called the natural order of true unity from below, rather than a false unity brought about by constraint. The phrase Anarchy is order is thought to be the origin of the circle A. He is well know for exclaiming that “property is theft!” and starts his book What is Property? By saying
“If I were asked to answer the following question `what is slavery?` and I should answer it in one word `it is murder` my meaning would be understood at once. No extended argument would be required to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality is a power of life and death. And that to enslave a man is to kill him. Why then to this other question `what is property?` may I not likewise answer it is robbery, without the certainty of being misunderstood? The second proposition being no more than a transformation of the first.”
Proudhon’s thoughts on property depend on a distinction between property and possession. For him property is ownership by a landowner or a capitalist that is derived from conquest or exploitation and is maintained through the state property laws and an army. On the other hand possession, is ownership of a home, land to cultivate, our tools of a trade that excludes control over the lands and lives of others. In his words quote
“There are different kinds of property, first property pure and simple; the dominant and senioral power over a thing, or as they term it naked property. Second, possession, the tenant, the farmer, the usufructuary, or possessors. The owner who lets and lends for use, the heir who is to come into possession on the death of an usufructuary or proprietors. If I may venture a comparison, a lover is a possessor, a husband a proprietor. This double definition of property domain and possession is of the highest importance and it must be clearly understood in order to comprehend what is to follow.”
Proudhon wonders how property became an accepted natural right when categorised along with natural rights like life and liberty; property doesn’t seem to fit in. Or he sees things like life and liberty as inherent immutable components of humanity, he sees something like property as a specific creation of proprietors. He investigates the basis for property as a natural right, starting with Locke’s justification on the basis of labour. To this he asks, quote
“why is not this principal universal? Why is the benefit of this pretended law confined to a few and denied to the mass of labourers? Why does the tenant no longer acquire through his labour the land which was formerly acquired by the labour of the proprietor? I prove that those that do not possess today are proprietors by the same title as those that do possess. But instead of inferring their form that property should be shared by all, I demand its entire abolition.”
In response to a justification of property such as quote
“some labourers are employed in draining marshes and cutting down trees and brushwood in a word and cleaning up the soil they increase the value, they make the amount of property larger, they are paid for the value which they add in the form of food and daily wages. It then becomes the property of the capitalist.”
Proudhon responds, quote
“the price is not sufficient, the labour of the workers has created a value, now this value is their property. But they have neither sold nor exchanged it, and you capitalists, you have not earned it. That you should have a partial right to the whole in return for the materials that you have furnished and the provisions that you have supplied is perfectly just. You contribute to the production, you ought to share in the enjoyment; but your right does not annihilate that of the labourers, who in spite of you have been your colleagues in the work of production. Why do you talk of wages? The money with which you pay the wages of the labourers remunerates them for only a few years of the perpetual possession which they have abandoned to you. Wages is the cost of the daily maintenance and refreshment of the labourer, you are wrong in calling it the price of a sale. The working man has sold nothing, he knows neither his right nor the extent of the concession which he has made to you. Nor the meaning of the contract which you pretend to have made with him. On his side utter ignorance, on yours error and surprise, not to say deceit and fraud. In this century of bourgeois morality, in which I have had the honour to be born; the moral sense is so debased that I should not be surprised if I were asked by many a worthy proprietor what I see in this that is unjust and illegitimate. Debased creature, galvanised corpse, how can I expect to convince you if you cannot tell robbery when I show it to you? Under the pretext that he has paid his labourers that he owes them nothing more, that he has nothing to gain by putting himself at the service of others while his own occupations claim his attention he refuses to acknowledge his own justification for property. And when in the impotence of their isolation, these poor labourers are compelled to sell their birth right, he this ungrateful proprietor, this knavish upstart stands ready to put the finishing touch to their deprivation and their ruin. And you think that just? Take care.”
Finally in response to Locke’s justifications Proudhon exclaims
“God gave the earth to the human race, why then have I received none? He has put all thins under my feet and I have not were to lay my head. Multiplied he tells us that is as easy as to do as to say. But you must give moss to the bird for its nest.”
Proudhon goes on to examine the justifications of property, based on the concept of original occupancy. At this he exclaims “Property was the first of rights, just as submission to authority was the most holy of duties”. When a contemporary of Proudhon attempted to justify property through original occupancy, by claiming quote
“my liberty needs for its objective action material to work upon. In other words, property or a thing, this thing or property naturally participates then in volubility of my person. For instance I take possession of an object that has become necessary and useful in the outward manifestation of my liberty. I say this object is mine since it belongs to no one else, consequently I possess it legitimately. So the legitimacy of possession rests on two conditions; first, I possess only as a free being. Supress free activity, you destroy my power to labour. Now it is only by labour that I can use this property or thing and it is only by using it that I possess. Free activity is then the principle of the right of property but that alone does not legitimate possession. All men are free, all men can use property by labour, does that mean that all men have a right to all property? Not at all. To possess legitimately I must not only labour and produce in my capacity of a free being but I must also be the first to occupy the property, in short if labour and production are the principle of the right of property the fact of first occupancy is its indispensable condition.”
To this Proudhon responds
“Well is it not true from this point of view that if the liberty of man is sacred, it is equally sacred in all individuals that if it needs property for its objective action, that is for its life, the appropriation of materials is equally necessary for all. That if I wish to be respected in my right of appropriation I must respect others and theirs, and consequently that though in the sphere of the infinite a person’s power of appropriation is limited only by himself, in the sphere of the finite the same power is limited by the mathematical relation between the numbers of persons and a space which the occupy. Does it not follow that if one individual cannot prevent another, his fellow man from appropriating an amount of material equal to his own no more can he prevent individuals yet to come. Because while individuality passes away universality persists and the eternal laws cannot be determined by a partial view of their manifestations. Must we not conclude therefore that whenever a person is born the others must crowd closer together and by reciprocity of their obligation that if the newcomer is afterwards to become an heir the right of succession does not give him the right of accumulation but only the right of choice. If the right of life is equal the right of labour is equal and so is the right of occupancy. Would it not be criminal were some islanders to repulse in the name of property the unfortunate victims of shipwreck struggling to reach the shore. The very idea of such cruelty sickens the imagination, the proprietor like Robinson Crusoe on his island wards off with pike and musket the proletariat washed overboard by the waves of civilisation and seeking to gain a foothold on the rocks of property. `Give me work!` cries he with all his might to proprietor, `don’t drive me away, I will work for you at any price.` `I do not need your services` replies the proprietor showing the end of his pike or the barrel of his gun. `Lower my rent at least, I need my income to live upon. How can I pay you when I can get no work?` `That is your business` then the unfortunate proletariat abandons himself to the waves or if he attempts to land upon the shore of property the proprietor takes aim and kills him. The right of property provided it can have a cause can have but one. I can possess by several titles, I can become proprietor only by one, the field which I have cleared, which I cultivate, on which I built my house, which supports myself, my family and my livestock, I can possess. First as the original occupant, second as a labourer, third by virtue of the social contract which assigns it to me as my share. But none of these titles confer upon me the right of property, for if I attempt to base it upon occupancy society can reply `I am the original occupant.` If I appeal to my labour it will say `it is only on that condition that you possess.` If I speak of agreements it will respond `these agreements establish only your right of use.` Such however are the only titles which proprietors advance, they never have been able to discover any others. Indeed every supposes a producing cause and the person who enjoys it. But in man who lives and dies in the sun of earth who passes away like a shadow there exists with respect to external things only titles of possession, not one title of property. Why then has society recognised a right injurious to itself? Where there is no producing cause. Why in according possession it has also conceded property? Why has the law sanctioned this abuse of power?”
There is of course a major distinction between what Proudhon was advocating and the likes of the state socialists, as he said
“instead of inferring therefrom that property should be shared by all I demand its entire abolition.” Proudhon considered the state socialists of the time to be the worst proprietors, seeing state ownership is the most degenerative case of capitalist exploitation. In his words quote “ I see in it a barrier to liberty, the free disposition of the soil taken away from him who cultivates it and this precious sovereignty forbidden to the citizen and reserved for that fictious being without intelligence, without passion, without morality that we call the state. By this arrangement the occupant has less to do with the soil than before. The clod of earth seems to stand up and say to him `you are only a slave of the taxes, I do not know you`.
Proudhon was also opposed to libertarian notions of collectivism, he only favoured association where association was necessary, as the organic combination of forces. Operations that required specialisation and many different workers preforming their individual tasks to complete a unified product required association. This is because the workers would inherently be dependent on each other and without association the workers are related as subordinate and superior, master and wage slave. Proudhon considered this to be free association and did not favour what he called the cult of association which would require everyone to collectivise for the sake of collectivisation. He felt that operations which could be preformed by an individual such as the artisan or peasant without the help of specialised workers did not require association. This is the origin of his saying that “property is freedom” where here he is referring to property as possession.
Peter Kropotkin was one of the first proponents of anarchist communism. He looked at the world of individual autonomy and personal possession that Proudhon had imagined and further questioned its basis. He noted that all of society’s labour was intimately tied together in a myriad of ways and that even apparently isolated groups were not functioning as autonomously as they seemed. He pointed out that even the peasant farmer or isolated artisan was dependent on roads and the bridges made in common. The swamps drained in common toil and the communal pastures enclosed by hedges which were kept and repaired by each and all. If the looms for weaving or the dyes for colouring fabrics were improved all profited. So even in those days a peasant family could not live alone, but was dependent in a thousand ways on the village or the commune.
He continued that in the industrialising world these connections are even more complicated and tightknit. Kropotkin felt that this demonstrated the instruments of labour to be a common inheritance. And that this was in direct contradiction to wages or even collectivist remuneration. He felt that the common instruments of labour must necessarily bring with it the enjoyment in common of the fruits of common labour. He saw enough for everyone and proposed that those currently in control of property were resting on a centuries old foundation of appropriated common labour. He thought that the amount of work necessary to track people’s ongoing labour was less efficient than just having a fully communitarian society where everything was freely available to everyone.
So contrary to Proudhon, Kropotkin did not feel that one was entitled to the product of one’s labour, but rather to whatever one’s needs may be. Kropotkin advocated a gift economy where everything would be available to anyone. He often pointed out that in situations of crisis people regularly banded together to help each other and lend services without thought of remuneration. Often with amazing and beautiful results. He imagined a world where everyone was always united by such a common cause.
In conclusion, there’s a long history of anarchist thought on the nature of property and possession. Proudhon has interesting ideas about property existing both as an act of theft and a liberating force. Kropotkin has interesting ideas about the interconnectedness of it all and of the potentials for a beautiful communitarian world. To me even the writings of Locke are interesting, because at least this bourgeois philosopher was even thinking about the origins and rights of private property. This is a far cry from today’s world where large social questions are no longer discussed. There are no more promises, no more ideas, people are not continuing to work because they have been promised the hope of an eventual better life by and large those living in America today have accepted the conditions and parameters of their lives, and are operating within that framework. The politicians don’t even have to lie about promises of alternatives, the questions they do ask are meaningless because the method is false. If asked for a justification of private property those of the established order would not speak of a basis in equality, liberty or justice, they would simply reply that private property is necessary for capitalism, and that would be sufficient.
Because nobody is imagining anything else.