Remembering Proudhon

Many contemporary libertarians may be mystified at Proudhon being considered a libertarian, but Proudhon was undoubtably the first genuinely libertarian socialist. Proudhon's political philosophy represents a synthesis of sorts between classical liberalism and socialism, without yielding any ground to authoritarian strains of socialism, which eventually resulted in his anarchism. Proudhon was critical of both capitalism and communism, and was generally an opponent of absolutism, making heavy use of the mechanisms of synthesis and deconstruction, which obviously is at least partially Hegelian in nature. His political philosophy arguably became more radical as he aged, leading him to take more of a refined view on property.

The initial form of anarchism that Proudhon set the basis for, mutualism, predates anarcho-collectivism and anarcho-communism by a number decades and significantly differs from them in certain ways. Proudhon and Marx had certain fairly significant disagreements, leading Marx to more or less dismiss him as a "petty burgousie individualist". Unlike Marx and the communists, Proudhon did not advocate purely collective ownership or even worker ownership as an absolute norm. His idea was more along the lines of individual worker ownership of the means of production (I.E. I own my own tools, therefore I don't need to rent your tools). He also advocated cooperative management, but always in a context that allows for individual liberty. Proudhon supported the notions free contract and free competition, only placing more emphasis on cooperative forms of organization than many classical liberals.

Proudhon was most certainly an individualist in many ways, with the theme of "individual sovereignty" running strongly throughout his work. While he rejected the vulgar collectivism of the communists, he synthesized individualism with themes of social cooperation, which is to say that he steered clear of atomism. Proudhon envisioned a free society and the process of working towards such a society as a "spontaneous order" that is emergant from the free interactions of individuals. At the same time, he rejected utopianism and romanticism and he appears to have held a fairly pluralistic attitude with regaurd to what such a spontaneous order entails. The vision is always realistic in that it's not some kind of uniform model for the entire society.

It's important to note that mutualism (and its culmination within individualist anarchism) does not normatively or absolutely oppose wage labor, rent and interest per se. These things may contextually be opposed as a consequence of political authority and it may speculate about a trend towards such things starting to diminish in conditions of free competition, but they are not opposed on an absolute normative ethical level as in often the case with communism, syndicalism and collectivism. A mutualist qua mutualist cannot advocate arbitrary violence to oppose such things. Something more along the lines of agorism makes sense as a strategy for mutualists. Proudhon was skeptical towards traditional methods of revolution.

Proudhon's analysis of property is far more subtle and complicated than a first-reading or face-value-reading of his writtings may reveal. A statement such as "Property is theft", followed by seemingly contradicting statements such as "Property is impossible" and "Property is liberty" is likely to confuse the reader. To a degree, Proudhon is probably being rhetorical and is purposefully trying to intimidate the reader or grab their attention. But a more in-depth look reveals that he is quite creatively making use of synthesis and antithesis here, and a more clear meaning is revealed with this understanding. These statements are contextual and part of a process of synthesis and antithesis, not to be interpreted as absolutes.

What Proudhon is most strongly challenging is the arbitrary legal title to property, property as a legal construct that indeed is historically tracable back to theft in many ways. Property as a state legal construct often is the state doling out a privilege to the property that it initially stole. During Proudhon's time, many of the old legal private property titles that used to belong to the noble class and the feudal landlords had not completely been abandoned or abolished, and in the process of transformation into more modern capitalism, this privilege was slowly being transfered to a new industrial managerial class in bed with the state. Proudhon was more keenly aware of this than most of his collegues and associates.

There is also a context in which Proudon was very much in favor of private or individual property, viewing it as an indispensible counterweight to the state. Unlike the communists, Proudhon had no inherent problem with money, exchange and buisiness. The Marxist aesthetic distain for just about anything that has to do with commerence is nowhere to be found in him. Proudhon's vision of socialism was more along the lines of individual proprietorship, small cooperative buisinesses and unions of artisans. When not exploitative and when not an a monstrous scale, Proudhon supported more small-scale examples of what would be considered private property by contemporary free market anarchists.

Proudhon has been indispensibly influential on the history of anarchism, particularly individualist anarchism. The actual continuation of Proudhon's work was done by the early individualist anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker (prior to his transformation into a Stirnerite egoist), while the anarcho-collectivism of Bakunin and the anarcho-communism of Kropotkin significantly differed from this trend in certain ways. Some anarcho-communists were even lead to dismiss Proudhon from the anarchist tradition as just "a liberal disguised as a socialist". The rise of anarcho-collectivism and anarcho-communism has a notaby different cultural context, centered around Russia and somewhat detached from classical liberalism. Proudhon, on the other hand, was much more exposed to the classical liberalism of the French and Americans.

This isn't necessarily to completely dismiss figures such as Bakunin and Kropotkin out of hand, but to be clear about differences between the direction anarchism took from their standpoint vs. the standpoint of Proudhon and the individualists, as it was definitely the American individualist anarchists such as Josiah Warren and Benjamin Tucker who picked up where Proudhon left off. While Kroptkin arguably took anarchism in a direction that made it closer to Marxism, the individualist anarchists took it in a more individualistic direction or generally steered clear of such collectivistic tendencies. Over time, the individualists tended to come to reject the particular revolutionary methods of the collectivists and ventured to produce some fairly scathing criticisms of anarcho-communism.

Factional griping aside, Proudhon's legacy remains as the first formal anarchist and one who presented a political philosophy that can help bridge the gap between free market oriented thought and the anti-authoritarian left. I think that he is definitely important enough on both a historical and philosophical level that all libertarians should familiarize themselves with him to one degree or another.

Published Tue, Jan 27 2009 6:13 PM by Brainpolice

Comments

# liberty student said on 27 January, 2009 08:03 PM

How is socialism compatible with libertarianism?

# Brainpolice said on 27 January, 2009 08:16 PM

Did you even read the article?

# Brainpolice said on 27 January, 2009 08:18 PM

Socialism is compatible with libertarianism as a contractual phenomenon. I've explained why extensively.

# liberty student said on 27 January, 2009 08:21 PM

ok, thanks

# Thedesolateone said on 28 January, 2009 09:28 AM

So long as collective ownership is not imposed, how can you have any problems with it LS?

# Anti- said on 28 January, 2009 03:33 PM

"How is socialism compatible with libertarianism?"

www.youtube.com/watch

"So long as collective ownership is not imposed, how can you have any problems with it...?"

So long as private ownership is not imposed, I have no problems with it.

But of course it must be. Indeed, this is one of the prime directives of the state: to maintain the class system, which is another way of saying, "to defend the elites' private property 'rights' against the interests of the untouchable castes (you and me)."

This is met with the rejoinder, "but so must collective ownership be enforced." Aside from being fallacious (tu quoque), the rejoinder is false.

If we begin from the Jeffersonian position that "the earth belongs in usufruct to the living" (which he meant to illustrate the injustice of perceptual charters or laws, but which carries other salient implications), then anyone claiming exclusive monopoly must justify themselves.

Thus, collective ownership is assumed; its maintenance is defensive.

# Thedesolateone said on 28 January, 2009 05:00 PM

To # Anti-

Are you saying that we should take collective ownership as default?

How can ownership coherently be collective? If I own something, I by definition have complete control over it. If I own my house, I regulate the comings and goings of people in and out etc. If I own everything in the country I can do whatever I want with it. However, other people have similar "ownership" of, for example, the land. I am arguing not from the utilitarian argument that this is unfeasible (although that would be a fair judgement). I am instead arguing that it makes no sense to say that two people own one thing.

Of course this invalidates my initial utterance of "collective ownership". Let me restate that as "multi-lateral contractual obligations" bind people into systems of pseudo-"collective ownership".

# Brainpolice said on 28 January, 2009 07:53 PM

"Of course this invalidates my initial utterance of "collective ownership". Let me restate that as "multi-lateral contractual obligations" bind people into systems of pseudo-"collective ownership"."

That makes a level of sense to me.

Collective ownership as an absolute norm is ridiculous.

# Anti- said on 29 January, 2009 04:55 AM

"Are you saying that we should take collective ownership as default?"

Are you saying that we should take private ownership as default? Because that would be just plain silly.

The primary point was to draw attention to the double standard of saying that you have no problem with collective ownership as long as it's not imposed; as though private ownership were not imposed; as though it need not justify itself; as though it were the default situation; as though man sprang onto the scene complete with the concept of private property fully formed and codified; as though proponents of collective ownership were attempting to subvert some natural law.

The secondary point was that, yes, collective "ownership" (for lack of a better term) is indeed the default situation.

"Collective ownership as an absolute norm is ridiculous."

Your proof by assertion fails.

Before the concept of private ownership, the land was "owned" by everyone. Then along came a guy with a fence, and a burden to justify it.

# Thedesolateone said on 29 January, 2009 11:50 AM

Indeed.

I suppose utilitarianism is rather vulgar and crude, so I will not use the clear utilitarian arguments for private property.

Merely refer to what I actually said except in the first line, and also to the fact that humans do seem to be born with a natural conception of private property.

# Rich333 said on 01 February, 2009 12:11 AM

"The primary point was to draw attention to the double standard of saying that you have no problem with collective ownership as long as it's not imposed; as though private ownership were not imposed; as though it need not justify itself; as though it were the default situation; as though man sprang onto the scene complete with the concept of private property fully formed and codified; as though proponents of collective ownership were attempting to subvert some natural law."

It's not a double standard at all. Matter and space are usable only exclusively. You can't use the matter and space of my body so long as I'm using it to hold the form of my body; I must end my use voluntarily, or you must forcibly deny me my use. Similarly, the matter and space of my computer cannot be used by you so long as I'm using it to hold the form of my computer; either my use must be denied by force, or it must end voluntarily, before you may use the same matter and space. This is simply the nature of our universe.

Exclusive use of matter and space is not only the default, it is unavoidable. Collective ownership is the invention, and it is never truly realizable; you might come to some agreement with others whereby you and they voluntarily cease using some of the things you and they use and permit the use of such things to change hands fairly frequently amongst those within the group, and with a generally agreed upon set of customs for doing so, but you never actually get rid of the exclusive, individual, nature of the use of such things.

"Before the concept of private ownership, the land was 'owned' by everyone. Then along came a guy with a fence, and a burden to justify it."

It was used by no one, and thus owned by no one. Then the first human to show up started using some of the land, and the part actually occupied or transformed was his or hers, exclusively. Eventually, after many new generations of humans, someone came up with the idea of the fence, to help with the maintenance of livestock; all benefited from the increased food production made possible by this advancement. Sometime later, someone thought they could just claim land by fencing it off, without otherwise doing anything with it; someone else probably, and quite rightly, through a rock at their head. Eventually, as production exceeded subsistence levels, roving gangs of bandits began to settle down and claim territory and slaves; the first governments were formed, and with them the absurdity of claiming unused nature became popular, at least among the bandits and their friends.

Many generations later, fools wrongly began to confuse individual claims on unused nature with all individual claims, regardless of their basis, and came up with a new absurdity: that all unused nature is under a collective claim (which the leaders of the fools would of course manage on everyone else's behalf). This led to mass suffering and mass death wherever forcibly implemented, but remains to this day quite popular amongst unthinking fools.

# wombatron said on 01 February, 2009 01:47 PM

@Rich333

I would say that property is not only necessarily bounded by space, but also by time, if that makes sense.  In an explicit contract, for example, one can rent or borrow property for a set amount of time.  Some kinds of common or collective property can be thought of as being implicit contracts of that sort; of course, only one person can use a specific thing at once, but their right to use it can be limited in time.

# Brainpolice said on 01 February, 2009 01:56 PM

I persist in taking the view that both collective and individual ownership are absurd as absolute norms. Everything being collectively owned would render the ownership rights and sovereignty of the individual within the collective virtually obsolete, and everything being individually owned would leave little room for much in the way of a meaningful social life.

Both lead to absurdities when applied as absolute norms. Individual ownership over a city or a country is nonsensical and a blatant recipe for rulership. Some degree of voluntary common ownership is practical and in fact unavoidable. On the other hand, individual ownership is necessary for meaningful independance in decision-making over your own life.

# liberty student said on 01 February, 2009 07:41 PM

<i>everything being individually owned would leave little room for much in the way of a meaningful social life.</i>

Only if you are stuck in the 18th century.

# Thedesolateone said on 02 February, 2009 01:36 AM

@Brainpolice

Individual ownership of something like a city, while unlikely, is perfectly reconcilable (a word?) with libertarian anarchy; a city has no essential difference from a house or a road or a shop or a factory - it is merely a conglomeration thereof.

# Brainpolice said on 03 February, 2009 07:02 PM

"<i>everything being individually owned would leave little room for much in the way of a meaningful social life.</i>

Only if you are stuck in the 18th century."

Um, no. Think about what individual ownership over literally everthing implies. No sharing of anything. No joint ownership of anything. Yes, that leaves no room for meaningful social interaction.

# Brainpolice said on 03 February, 2009 07:04 PM

Thedosolateone: the point is that it is logicistially impossible to homestead or voluntarily exchange for an entire city, particularly given the existance of current inhabitants of the city, who are not all going to unanimously sell or give up their property to a single individual. A single individual claiming ownership over an entire city, by default, is a monarchal city-state.

# Brainpolice said on 03 February, 2009 07:07 PM

Liberty Student: You really should think things through before you post. Even a corporation is generally not purely individually owned. So yes, individual ownership over everything as an absolute norm is absurd, given the fact that some degree of joint ownership over certain things is inevitable.

# Thedesolateone said on 08 February, 2009 12:38 PM

BP:

Untrue. It is near-impossible in the practical world, but theoretically possible. A city is generally a circle of land, a road a strip of land. Houses and land are often bought to clear the space for a road, and so why would this be "logically impossible". Indeed, that we can both conceive of this individually-owned city proves that it is possible for it to exist, however unlikely, does it not?

# liberty student said on 10 October, 2009 11:17 AM

Is there a reason why Proudhon's libertarian [sic] anti-semitism was left out of this blog post?

Do we just overlook that he wanted Jews exiled or murdered as part of his libertarian [sic] agenda?