Anarchists have generally embraced Proudhon’s claim that “property is theft,” but they often have very little idea about the argument behind it, let alone its potential consequences for anarchist economics. This is partially a result of the widespread substitution of marxian economic ideas for those of Proudhon and of the relative hegemony of communist ideas in the movement, but anarchist economics have also suffered from the fact that Proudhon’s economic manuscripts remain among the least accessible of his writings. It is certainly possible to extrapolate a more complete analysis from the indications given in sources like What is Property? But that is a lot easier if you have been exposed to the manuscripts on “Economie.” My own experience has been that the attempt to adapt Proudhon’s thought to modern contexts has required a good deal of that extrapolation, much of which I attempted before the digitization of Proudhon’s manuscripts, and as a result the neo-Proudhonian position that I’ve ended up adopting is a mixture of ideas inspired by the published writings and others drawn from the manuscripts. I can’t claim any particular orthodoxy for the result, but hopefully orthodoxy is not high on the list of priorities for most of my readers.
Having just recovered and reposted the “Thoughts on a Mutualist Minimum,” it strikes me that perhaps it would be useful to return to some of the issues touched on there, in the context of a broader discussion of anarchist economics. My intention is certainly not to sketch out any sort of blueprint, but instead to suggest some of the elements and concerns that might inform any number of anarchistic arrangements. Beyond that, I am happy to embrace the tactics of the Spanish “sin adjetivos” school:
We are anarchists; we preach Anarchy without adjectives. Anarchy is an axiom; the economic question is a secondary matter. It will be said that it is through the economic question that Anarchy is a truth; but we believe that to be anarchist means to be the enemy of all authority, of every imposition, and consequently, whatever system we recommend, it is because we believe it is the best defense for Anarchy, and we have no desire at all to impose it on those who do not accept it.
This does not mean that we set aside discussion on economic questions. On the contrary, we love to discuss them, but only in order to bring new data for the definitive solution or solutions. Some very good things have been said by Cabet, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Robert Owen and the others; but all their systems have disappears, because they wanted to lock away society with the conceptions of their brains; they have, however, done a great deal of good clarifying the question.—Fernando Tarrida del Mármol, “Questions of Tactics” (1890)
So I want to examine, in very general terms, how we might approach the organization of anarchistic economies, following cues from the writings of Proudhon.
Proudhon’s rejection of capitalist property norms depends on the concept of “collective force.” His argument is that modern production, involving the division and organization of labor, results in outputs greater than those that the same workers would be capable of if they were working individually. The individual laborers are compensated, but only as individuals, while the fruits of the purely collective effort are appropriated by the capitalists. This provides a basis for further capital accumulation and provides an advantage in various markets that facilitates additional exploitation. Wages can be driven down. Profits are taken when the workers consume the fruits of their collective labor. Etc. Etc.
I doubt that very many capitalists contest the basic assumption that there is a portion of the products attributable to something like “collective force.” The quarrel between capitalists and critics of capitalist exploitation is not about the reality of the contribution, but about their value. If the capitalists claim the lion’s share of the fruits of the combined labor, it is because they believe that the firm is not an association of laborers, in which each of the elements has a relatively equal role to play, but that instead some elements are more vital—and thus more valuable—than others. In his economic manuscripts, Proudhon drew attention to the similarities between this sort of argument and the argument made by defenders of the State that society is only “realized” by placing a government at its head. The analogy seems obvious, once we apply Proudhon’s criterion of “external constitution” (which I’ve discussed at some length in “Self-Government and the Citizen-State.”)
The more interesting consequences of the theory of collective force come when we move beyond the critique of capitalism to a consideration of how products and profits might be distributed in a post-capitalist society. Proudhon suggests that the problem with capitalism is that it has raised an “accounting error” into a fundamental property right. The droit d’aubaine or “right of increase,” by which the capitalist appears as the natural recipient of purely social labor, is a convention that would have no place if we had correctly identified all the human factors in production. If, alongside individual laborers and capitalists, we also included the “collective person” of the workgroup or firm, then a just resolution of the old question “Who is the Somebody?” is fairly easily discovered. But we are not terribly well prepared to deal with questions of what Proudhon called “unity-collectivity,” even though the notion has been lurking in the background of one of anarchism’s most famous phrases: “property is theft!”
The analysis is not terribly complicated: every individual (or unity) is a group (or collectivity.) We can only point to individuality or unity because of the organization of constituent elements. As a result, questions of individualism or collectivism stop being of much use, and we are left with questions about relevant scales of analysis. Some questions—such as questions of ethical responsibility—probably only make sense at the scale of the human individual, but others demand that we take into account a truly dizzying range of scales. Charles Fourier had his gamut of scales, essentially from the infinitesimal to the universal, and we can see elements of that approach in the work of anarchists like Joseph Déjacque, but we lack very extensive applications of the theoretical approach to modern questions. Proudhon’s economic manuscripts make a start, and I’ve begun to translate some of the relevant writings, but, fortunately, we don’t have to go very deep to make a useful start.
Let us say that we have an anarchist “society,” of whatever size and internal organization. In its most rudimentary form, it will present us with at least two kinds of human elements: the collectivity itself and the individual humans who contribute to its existence. If we have a collectivity worth considering, then it will have, according to the Proudhonian analysis, a general law of organization and development all its own, some interests of its own, which may or may not be in full harmony with the interests of the constituent individuals, and some “rights” that should be accounted for in the establishment of an anarchic justice. And for Proudhon justice is simply balance, so our simplest Robinson Crusoe-style model of a just society involves a balance of interests between the unity-collectivity, the society itself, and the various individual who contribute to it—and this balance is of a very special sort, depending not just on equality, established on the basis of some shared scale and unit of value, but on a fundamental incommensurability of interests and demands, which means that any given balancing must be the product of an active harmonizing of interests and that no form of “external constitution” can substitute for that process. If we call our collectivity “the market” or “the justice system,” the problem for anarchists remains the same. Not even the abstract demands of justice itself can step in as an outside arbitrator.
Moving forward, let’s start by eliminating some “mud pie” scenarios. There are certainly going to be instances where the product of a collective labor does not exceed the individual capacities of the laborers, or even meet the subsistence needs of the group. Under capitalism, this can be addressed by paying less than a living wage, or by relying on the subsidy of exploitation elsewhere in the system. A good deal of what goes on in the global north depends on conditions in the global south, and the most effective price signals can generally only guide us locally in an “all other things being equal” sort of way. One of the challenges we’ll face in a post-capitalist society is adapting to the elimination of various really foundational sorts of exploitation. We will undoubtedly find that a good deal of what we have been doing just doesn’t really pay for itself, either because it is badly organized, because it is situated in some environment where the costs of operation would be too great if there were not some other part of the system to sustain them, etc. So let’s assume that part of the transition to anything like an “anarchist society” will involve the abandonment of many of our current practices, on a fairly ruthless cost-benefit principle—regardless of how we end up doing to accounting. And let’s also assume that any sustainable transition will involve some sort of adaptation of property norms to the realities of our ecological situation. So if we want to locate our population centers in places with drastically insufficient water supplies or pave over (or not depave) our most productive farmland, we’ll have to find a just balance of interests between local costs and benefits and the costs and benefits to some larger anarchistic unity-collectivity, if we are to remain at all true to our principles.
Given the unsustainability of the present system and the exploitation on which it rests, the simplest, most peaceful sort of transition is likely to be worthy of the name of revolution.
But let’s assume now that we’ve made it through at least some stages of that transition and have rooted out a lot of the hierarchical badness that the old society depended on. We have our “society,” a unity-collectivity, and it produces… something, and does so efficiently enough that the unity seems to be genuine and the participants feel like their association is a positive thing. We’ve got rid of the mechanisms that make capitalism possible, simply by recognizing that the unity-collectivity has been left out of our accounting when it came time to talk about distribution of the fruits of our labors. We’ve got a complete list of those who presumably have some compensation coming (and for now let’s assume everyone is capable of contributing): the collectivity and the various human individuals who contribute in their various ways. So now we have to figure out how to divvy things up. Let’s say that we begin by exploring contributed labor as a standard. We’ll almost immediately run up against an old problem: the difficulty of determining any unit by which quantities of labor can be measured. Something like Marx’s “socially necessary labor time” might solve the problem in the abstract, but it’s hard to go from that to a specific share of the pie. And once we have included the collectivity among the claimants, we run up against another old problem: the increasing difficulty of declaring any labor genuinely individual. Between the actual cooperation of laborers, the amplification of human labor by the machines onsite and the general infrastructure and technological level of the society, the truly individual share of labor contributed by each person might be quite small. By a labor theory of property, then, we might say that property naturally vests in the collectivity. But that’s just not really a solution for anarchists, at least if we are taking into account Proudhon’s opposition to “external constitution” and his understanding of justice. Proudhon was as skeptical of granting property to the largest possible collectivity as he was to granting it to a human individual, in part because he recognized that the interests of the collectivity need no align with those of any or all of its participants, and to mediate the access of human individuals by the interests of the collectivity would just be to fall back into hierarchy and exploitation. (The concerns about “self-managed exploitation” are not misplaced, and perhaps need to be applied to more than just “market anarchism.”)
Really, if we are following Proudhon, any attempt to solve the problem by appealing to a set of property conventions is probably a matter of putting the cart before the horse. We know the terms of the problem we face: each active human laborer can almost certainly claim recognition and possible remuneration both as an individual and in their capacity are part of the collectivity. But we can review works like What is Property? in search of some clear basis on which to make the necessary practical divisions, and we are likely to come up empty-handed, while later works, like The Theory of Property, suggest that some division must be made, in the interests of protecting individual liberty, but don’t give us much more guidance as to how to accomplish the feat. There are some suggestions in the economic manuscripts, but none of them quite strike me as entirely convincing either.
This, of course, is not a new dilemma for me, or for longtime readers of the blog, but it is one to which I have not dedicated much attention in the last couple of years. And those years have been really crucial for me, in terms of my own clarity regarding Proudhon’s full project. So perhaps it is time to return to what I have been calling “the gift economy of property,” in the hopes of both extricating us from our current dilemma and also finally clarifying just how this alternate theory of property might work.
We can’t work from property to justice (What is Property?), and we can’t seem to do without property (The Theory of Property), so perhaps we can find the means to work from justice to property. In a certain sense, perhaps even in an important variety of senses, property is, as Proudhon said, impossible. There is too much overlap among the unity-collectivities at various scales and every attempt to divvy up what is proper to them would result in a scheme of “property” so thoroughly non-exclusive that it would hardly do the work generally expected of a property scheme. But if come down from the realm of a priori schemes for “universal rights” and consider the extent to which we might approximate individual property as a sort of concrete manifestation of the process of active justification, then at least we might come up with the sort of useful kludge that might help avoid some kinds of conflict.
As an approach to what might be proper, let’s begin with what might be just. Again, it is a question of the claims of the unity-collectivity and of those who participate in it, but this time we’re going to see if perhaps what we have been vainly searching for in some property scheme is actually to be found by wrestling with Proudhon’s complex notion of justice. That probably means going beyond the abstract balancing of interests to the concrete establishment of balanced institutions, what Fourier called guarantism (a term Proudhon adopted as a synonym for mutualism.) Following Proudhon’s cues, we each want our individual interests represented as well as our collective interests, and we want a certain amount of separation and protection for all those interests embodied in our shared institutions. And because we want to dispense with the apparatus of “law and order,” we want some initiative granted to, and some emphasis laid upon, individual human responsibility, as the first step towards self-government. But we can hardly even be responsible to one another until we establish some conventions for making our mix of separateness and unity felt in social practice.
We can think back on all the various strongly promoted rationales for property and let them give us a sense of the range of things our conventions should make more or less tangible in practice. Private property, communism, Proudhon’s “possession,” Pierre Leroux’s “right to property in other people”—each of these approaches capture something significant about our proper place in the world, and they probably don’t exhaust what we might want to take into account. And let’s drag all this out onto the big, real-world stage and try to take some account of all the kinds of global connections of which those early theories could at best take very limited notice. Let’s remind ourselves that the various non-human unities can’t plead their own cases, so that the justification for everything of everything from the infinitesimal to the universal is ultimately our mission, should we choose to really be anarchists in the fullest sense of the term.
The following propositions seem to be true:
- A society that can provide for a wide range of individual needs and desires, while still maintaining a stable basis in the context of which the diversity of interests
It appears that in most cases the larger collectivities within our societies are doing a large share of the work—which is just to say that our individual labors find a significant amplification in those combinations—so we might start be trying to account for the claims of those collectivities. There is going to be a scale—the community, society, etc.—at which there will be a very basic convergence between the survival needs of the collectivity (its ability to sustain itself, and to adapt without catastrophe) and the similar fundamental survival needs of the individuals involved in that collectivity. There are also going to be a range of individual needs and desires that are either unconnected with, or perhaps at least potentially odds with, the larger-scale necessities. It seems reasonable that we might seek resource- and labor-distribution schemes that identify the sort of basic foundation we feel is required for maintaining freedom, diversity, etc. and then attempt to provide for those most basic needs—where the distinction between individual and collective is barely useful—first, and as efficiently as possible. Even the most primitive anarchistic society will need to find means to bend some degree of consciousness and effort towards its own maintenance, and all the rest will have to tend regularly to what we might think of as the infrastructure of shared freedom. Whether that tending-to is accomplished by divvying up specifically social labor, by directing some portion of the profits of individual enterprises into a common fund, or by other means hardly matters, provided that the foundation can be provided in a manner that fulfills the local community’s specific needs for liberty and equity.
The principle here is that we need to be collectivist enough—communist even—in order to create a social stage on which our individualism is at least substantially less likely to devolve into some new form of mutual exploitation. But since the “collective” needs that we are talking about are really indistinguishable from individual needs in this narrow sphere, the principle is really that we need to be intelligent and realistic about our actual individual needs not to undermine them by getting worried if our interests seem to converge with those of the neighbors. If we can start down the road of refusing a certain kind of individual/collective dichotomy, by embracing the social theory of unity-collectivities and by engaging in ecological thought, then the terms in which we discuss these very basic necessities will probably shift, and perhaps our philosophical anxiety will decrease.