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WHAT IS PROPERTY? An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government — Proudhon

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Proudhon’s work is a classic for many reasons. Not only did it put a name to a tendency within socialism (“I am an Anarchist”) and raise a battle-cry against inequality (“Property is Theft!”), it also sketched a new, free, society: anarchy. The bulk of the book contains Proudhon’s searing critique of property. This rests on two key concepts. Firstly, property allowed the owner to exploit its user (“property is theft”). Secondly, that property created authoritarian social relationships between the two (“property is despotism”). These are interrelated, as it is the oppression that property creates which ensures exploitation while the appropriation of our common heritage by the few gives the rest little alternative but to agree to such domination and let the owner appropriate the fruits of their labour. The notion that workers are free when capitalism forces them to seek employment was demonstrably false: “We who belong to the proletarian class, property excommunicates us!” Proudhon’s genius and the power of his critique was that he took all the defences of, and apologies for, property and showed that, logically, they could be used to attack that institution. For example, to those who argued that property was required to secure liberty Proudhon rightly objected 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 material is equally necessary for all.” His critiques of the various rationales for property still hold true, showing how the defenders of property had to choose between self-interest and principle, between hypocrisy and logic. He contrasts property with possession, the former being “the right to use [something] by his neighbour’s labour.” Property results in the farmer toiling for a landlord or the worker producing for a capitalist. Possession is when those who use a resource control it: the worker in a co-operative or the self-employed artisan. Only the former creates “the exploitation of man by man” and authoritarian social relationships. This, he argues, is cause of capitalism’s inequality and crises, the contradictions (“property is impossible”) inherent in a system in which workers are exploited by owners. Long before Marx, Proudhon argued for a “scientific socialism” and that workers produced a surplus-value (aubaine, translated, as usual, as “increase”) which is appropriated by their boss: “Whoever labours becomes a proprietor . . . And when I say proprietor, I do not mean simply (as do our hypocritical economists) proprietor of his allowance, his salary, his wages, – I mean proprietor of the value he creates, and by which the master alone profits . . . The labourer retains, even after he has received his wages, a natural right in the thing he has produced.” The capitalist also unjustly appropriates the additional value produced by joint activity so while the boss “paid all the individual forces, the collective force still remains to be paid.” The “free worker produces ten; for me, thinks the proprietor, he will produce twelve” and so to “satisfy property, the labourer must first produce beyond his needs.” Thus exploitation occurs within the workplace thanks to the worker having “sold and surrendered his liberty” to the proprietor. Interestingly, Proudhon argues that as a “result of collective force,” all property becomes “collective” and “undivided.” Thus his analysis of exploitation within production is used to inform his vision of a free society. So if we really seek liberty for all, we need to abolish property (“If the right of life is equal, the right of labour is equal, and so is the right of occupancy.”). Property must be socialised for just “as the traveller does not appropriate the route which he traverses, so the farmer does not appropriate the field which he sows” and “all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor.”

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Proudhon’s work is a classic for many reasons. Not only did it put a name to a tendency within socialism (“I am an Anarchist”) and raise a battle-cry against inequality (“Property is Theft!”), it also sketched a new, free, society: anarchy. The bulk of the book contains Proudhon’s searing critique of property. This rests on two key concepts. Firstly, property allowed the owner to exploit its user (“property is theft”). Secondly, that property created authoritarian social relationships between the two (“property is despotism”). These are interrelated, as it is the oppression that property creates which ensures exploitation while the appropriation of our common heritage by the few gives the rest little alternative but to agree to such domination and let the owner appropriate the fruits of their labour. The notion that workers are free when capitalism forces them to seek employment was demonstrably false: “We who belong to the proletarian class, property excommunicates us!” Proudhon’s genius and the power of his critique was that he took all the defences of, and apologies for, property and showed that, logically, they could be used to attack that institution. For example, to those who argued that property was required to secure liberty Proudhon rightly objected 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 material is equally necessary for all.” His critiques of the various rationales for property still hold true, showing how the defenders of property had to choose between self-interest and principle, between hypocrisy and logic. He contrasts property with possession, the former being “the right to use [something] by his neighbour’s labour.” Property results in the farmer toiling for a landlord or the worker producing for a capitalist. Possession is when those who use a resource control it: the worker in a co-operative or the self-employed artisan. Only the former creates “the exploitation of man by man” and authoritarian social relationships. This, he argues, is cause of capitalism’s inequality and crises, the contradictions (“property is impossible”) inherent in a system in which workers are exploited by owners. Long before Marx, Proudhon argued for a “scientific socialism” and that workers produced a surplus-value (aubaine, translated, as usual, as “increase”) which is appropriated by their boss: “Whoever labours becomes a proprietor . . . And when I say proprietor, I do not mean simply (as do our hypocritical economists) proprietor of his allowance, his salary, his wages, – I mean proprietor of the value he creates, and by which the master alone profits . . . The labourer retains, even after he has received his wages, a natural right in the thing he has produced.” The capitalist also unjustly appropriates the additional value produced by joint activity so while the boss “paid all the individual forces, the collective force still remains to be paid.” The “free worker produces ten; for me, thinks the proprietor, he will produce twelve” and so to “satisfy property, the labourer must first produce beyond his needs.” Thus exploitation occurs within the workplace thanks to the worker having “sold and surrendered his liberty” to the proprietor. Interestingly, Proudhon argues that as a “result of collective force,” all property becomes “collective” and “undivided.” Thus his analysis of exploitation within production is used to inform his vision of a free society. So if we really seek liberty for all, we need to abolish property (“If the right of life is equal, the right of labour is equal, and so is the right of occupancy.”). Property must be socialised for just “as the traveller does not appropriate the route which he traverses, so the farmer does not appropriate the field which he sows” and “all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor.”