What Is Property?
What Is Property?: or, An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government (French: Qu'est-ce que la propriété ? ou Recherche sur le principe du Droit et du Gouvernment) is an influential work of nonfiction on the concept of property and its relation to anarchist philosophy by the French anarchist and mutualist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, first published in 1840. In the book, Proudhon most famously declared that “property is theft”.
Proudhon believed that the common conception of property conflated two distinct components which, once identified, demonstrated the difference between property used to further tyranny and property used to protect liberty. He argued that the result of an individual's labor which is currently occupied or used is a legitimate form of property. Thus, he opposed unused land being regarded as property, believing that land can only be rightfully possessed by use or occupation (which he called "possession"). As an extension of his belief that legitimate property (possession) was the result of labor and occupation, he argued against such institutions as interest on loans and rent.
The proprietor, the robber, the hero, the sovereign — for all these titles are synonymous — imposes his will as law, and suffers neither contradiction nor control; that is, he pretends to be the legislative and the executive power at once . . . [and so] property engenders despotism . . . That is so clearly the essence of property that, to be convinced of it, one need but remember what it is, and observe what happens around him. Property is the right to use and abuse . . . if goods are property, why should not the proprietors be kings, and despotic kings — kings in proportion to their facultes bonitaires? And if each proprietor is sovereign lord within the sphere of his property, absolute king throughout his own domain, how could a government of proprietors be any thing but chaos and confusion?
Proudhon contrasted the supposed right of property with the rights (which he considered valid) of liberty, equality, and security, saying: "The liberty and security of the rich do not suffer from the liberty and security of the poor; far from that, they mutually strengthen and sustain each other. The rich man’s right of property, on the contrary, has to be continually defended against the poor man’s desire for property." He further argued that the right of property contradicted these other rights: "Then if we are associated for the sake of liberty, equality, and security, we are not associated for the sake of property; then if property is a natural right, this natural right is not social, but anti-social. Property and society are utterly irreconcilable institutions."
Though Proudhon rejects the right of property per se, he also argues that the state of possession as it is (or was) could not be justified even by supposing this right. Here he feigns to bring a legal claim against society, in a style mocking legal rhetoric:
In writing this memoir against property, I bring against universal society an action petitoire [a legal claim to title]: I prove that those who do not possess to-day are proprietors by the same title as those who do possess; but, instead of inferring therefrom that property should be shared by all, I demand, in the name of general security, its entire abolition. If I fail to win my case, there is nothing left for us (the proletarian class and myself) but to cut our throats: we can ask nothing more from the justice of nations; for, as the code of procedure (art 26) tells us in its energetic style, the plaintiff who has been non-suited in an action petitoire, is debarred thereby from bringing an action possessoire. If, on the contrary, I gain the case, we must then commence an action possessoire, [a legal repossession] that we may be reinstated in the enjoyment of the wealth of which we are deprived by property. I hope that we shall not be forced to that extremity; but these two actions cannot be prosecuted at once, such a course being prohibited by the same code of procedure.
—Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property? (emphasis added)
Proudhon claims that his treatise "shall prove beyond a doubt that property, to be just and possible, must necessarily have equality for its condition." He used the term mutuellisme (mutualism) to describe his vision of an economy in which individuals and democratic workers associations could trade their produce on the market under the constraint of equality.
Some contemporary anarchists use the terms personal property (or possessive property) and private property to signify the distinctions Proudhon put forth in regard to ownership of the produce of labor and ownership of land. In this sense, private property would refer to claimed ownership of unused land or goods, and personal property would refer to produce of labor currently in use. This differentiation is an important component in anarchist critique of capitalism.
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The text to What Is Property? An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government can be found in various places:
- What is Property? at Project Gutenberg
- What is Property? at Marxists.org
- Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia Library