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News Link • Philosophy: Anarchism

Property is theft and property is freedom

• Pierre Joseph Prouthon

One of the biggest divides between anarchists is whether or not property, or “ownership” is a legitimate concept.  This post seeks to define and disassemble those differences in order to help each side gain a better understanding of the issue, my thoughts on the issue, and the classic anarchist perspective on property.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the founding father of free market socialist theory and the first individual to document use of the word ‘anarchism’ said “property is theft.”  He also said “property is freedom.”  

To get there, I think we first need to talk a little bit about concepts in general.  A concept is nothing more than a structure in someone’s mind, at the very least.  It need not be common with anyone else, it can exist solely for one individual, or it can exist for an entire society.

In modern society, property and “ownership” exist as a concept.  Backed by the authority of the state, a title in the state’s record, and a police force willing and able to use force to defend a state-sanctioned claim to ownership, it is a very real concept.  The structures which make ownership a real, concrete concept are in place.  A third party which has a monopoly, enforced at gunpoint, on the power to determine ownership, will use force to ensure that the concept of ownership which it believes to be correct, just, and valid, will be respected by the masses.  A tremendous majority of people go along with this, and among even those who don’t, most at least fear the power of the state to enforce it anyhow.  Thus, the state’s conception of ownership is a concept common to a very sizeable portion of the population.  When you talk about property or ownership in most of the world, this is what will come to mind for most people.

In modern society, everything is owned, and that ownership is enforced by the state.  Nothing is truly common or public; those things which the state claim are public are in fact property of the state.  Try sleeping in a park, and a cop is likely to show you who’s boss in that park!  If it were truly public or common, not only could you sleep there, you could build a small house there and plant a sustenance garden.

All that said, the fact that ownership and property are defined by the state effectively means that the state can do whatever it wants, and does not have to respect the property which is “owned” by other people.  We see this occur regularly, your property can be seized for not paying taxes on it, or even on a whim via “eminent domain.”  Asset fortfeiture laws which enrich local police departments have come into vogue in the US.  The state may protect your property from a thief, ineffectually, but who is to protect it from the state?  They have a lot of agents, and a lot of guns and bombs. The state can pass laws that disenfranchise people who had relied on their protection and the people can do nothing about it but meekly protest.  The thief can burglarize your home, and the police will come and file a report, but you’ve still been burglarized.  If you shoot the thief, you’ve committed murder, and, in many states, will go to jail for it.  The state must maintain a monopoly on that authority to defend, lest *it* be subject to being defended against by an armed populace.

So under a state system, we see that property and ownership are essentially a rigged game.  Worthwhile to the extent that people fear the state and mostly stay in line, but not always, and deviance from this is common enough that people invest large amounts of effort, time, and money into systems designed to prevent theft, even though the framework of state title, police, and insurance companies still exist.  Some folks have decided that they’ve had enough!  They want property rights that actually means something, that they can defend for themselves, and that they can defend against any aggressor, including the state.  This requires two things on their end: an intellectual framework – a conceptualization of property and “ownership” – and a real framework – the force which can be used to defend their own conceptualization in order to prohibit others from violating it, such as guns and bombs and man-power.  For the former, rather than create a whole new philosophy and a whole new conceptualization, they seek out existing ones.  Anarchism: a stateless society!  Natural law: a concept which allows for essentially subjective “law” to stake a claim to objectivity under the guise of emmanating from a higher power.  Unfortunately for many modern “natural law” advocates who also claim to be anarchists, they are also atheists, and so their arguments in favor of natural law lack the authority by which Aquinas first declared it to be a valid concept, that is, God’s authority.  Natural law as a concept originated, you see, within the Catholic church hierarchy.

The problems with this framework are obvious.  Natural law as a concept, when taken outside the context of Catholic (or at least religious, deistic) doctrine, is as meaningless as any law that I can arbitrarily come up with, or you can arbitrarily come up with, or any would-be despot with a few guns and a few tacos short of a fiesta tray can come up with.  So that’s where this essentially goes.  You have someone with their own independent concept of what the law should be (which they declare to be the one true law) and some guns.  And a willingness to enforce the law by killing people.  At the end of the day, after all, authority either comes down to a willingness to kill someone who violates it, or it is not authority at all, but merely a request from one individual to another.

Anarchists have always had another proposal, however, and one which is largely ignored by those who claim to be anarchists yet advocate in favor of natural law, property “rights”, and various concepts of “ownership”.  That proposal is quite a bit simpler, and while still subjective, it’s admittedly subjective, staking no claims to objectivity or authority.  That proposal is common sense, community moors and norms, and community solidarity.  Such community moors and norms, and common sense, do not come from God or any other proclaimed deity, nor do they originate with a state or with some individual or collective of humans who claim authority over all others.  They exist fluidly, they allow for human imperfection, and human decency.

In an anarchist society, given a lack of natural law, a lack of the state, and of any other authority which could declare who owns what, “ownership” becomes an abstract concept.  A hopelessly abstract one, at that.  There are no defining factors of what allows someone to own something.  Some have tried to qualify and quantify various “objective” criteria for how one can own something.  One prominent example is that some would claim that once you have mixed your labor with land, you own that land.  My response is, of course, that I plan to walk quickly across the continent, re-arranging twigs and leaves on the ground and upturning the soil with my boot, such that I shall own tremendous tracts of land!  Then they may pay rent to me to live or farm upon that land.  Such a society quickly begins to look like feudalism, wherein those who did not upturn dirt and re-arrange twigs and leaves quickly enough shall be the serfs.  Utter silliness ensues.  Not only is it utter silliness, however, it’s also absolutely antithetical to anarchism.

As anarchism is defined loosely as a society without oppressive/coercive hierarchies, clearly landlord/tenant relationships are out.  As a libertarian, I hold the non-aggression principle close to my heart.  I don’t wish to initiate force or coercion against other people, and I don’t like it when other people do so, either.  So much so, that I’d be inclined to step in if warranted and willed.  When you evict a tenant or a serf from “your” land, by force, because they failed to pay you, you are initiating force against someone.  You did not need that land to live (obviously, if you could give use of it to another), however they were reliant upon it as their home.  They resided in it.

In anarchism, that would effectively make it their home.  Not that they “own” it, per se – ownership is an abstract concept that anarchists do not make use of – but that it is still, nonetheless, theirs, in that they occupy and reside there.  They maintain control of it when they are not home by virtue of the respect of their friends, neighbors, and community at large.  You might kill a murderer who kills your neighbor, not only for revenge, but also to prevent them from killing you.  Likewise, you might prohibit in some manner, someone from damaging or destroying your neighbor’s residence, lest you likewise end up a victim of the same.  Thus, in the absence of “ownership” concepts, individuals and collectives still maintain control over the things which they posess or occupy.  Absentee control can occur in a number of ways.  For another example, if I am a part of a worker co-op restaurant, my control in that sphere would exist even when I was not present, because of the mutual respect and kinship among the workers.  Those who are present would respect my wishes, as I would theirs when I am present and they are not.  This may include not allowing certain behaviors in the restaurant.  This may also include things like not messing with the desk that I prefer to use in an office.

Now let’s talk a little bit about self ownership.  On the surface, the concept of self ownership seems like a pretty good idea to most people.  You own your own body, so people can’t do things to you that you don’t want them to, etc.  The problem here again is that ownership is a hopelessly abstract concept for anarchists, and for others, it implies something entirely different than what people mean by self ownership.  The simplest way to put it is thus: you don’t own yourself, you ARE yourself.  To most people, something owned is a commodity.  I can be bought, sold, or traded.  You cannot be bought, sold, or traded.  You have free will, and that free will trumps claims of ownership.  You ARE yourself.  It goes far beyond ownership, and even beyond just posession, occupancy, or control.  You have the highest level of control over yourself, you have free will.  That control cannot be bought, sold, or traded, as control over a commodity could be under a typical conceptualization of “ownership.”  You don’t own yourself, you ARE yourself.

Now, let’s talk a bit about posession and try to define it a bit with some common sense examples.  When you’re wearing a sock, you posess that sock.  If you leave a sock lying on the side of the street unattended, you do not – and it’s most likely you don’t control that sock either, since most people will not even know that you once posessed it, much less stand up to a person who needs a sock to keep a foot warm and hence takes it and puts it on.  That person now posesses the sock, and you no longer have any more valid claim to it than someone else did when you were wearing it.  Thus, it’s safe to say that no one would come up to you and attempt to take from you something that you posess, and that if someone did, you would defend yourself and others would likely come to your defense as well!

One other concept worth mentioning is hoarding and artificial scarcity.  Since we’ve already stated that your ability to maintain control over the things that you consider to be yours relies on community support in lieu of the support of the monopoly-on-force power of the state, it’s worth considering that if you wrong your community, you may find yourself at a loss or worse.  Attempts to hoarde resources to create artificial scarcity as is so common in today’s society would likely be met with hostility from those who suffer due to that scarcity.  Such hostility would be wholly justified, as well, for to use such a method is to create a hierarchy of “have” and “have not” which likewise leads to oppression and tyranny.  

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