Academic journal article Anarchist Studies

Proudhon and the Labour Theory of Property

Academic journal article Anarchist Studies

Proudhon and the Labour Theory of Property

Article excerpt

Abstract: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is known for his critique of 'property' and his advocacy of 'possession'. Viewing property in general as social relations with regard to things, however, opens up the possibility of different types of private property. Proudhon's 'possession' is a type of private property that posits an alternative theory of appropriative justice to capitalist private property. This theory has come to be known as the labour theory of property which states that since only people (i.e., labour) and not things (i. e., capital) are responsible for production then only workers (individually or jointly) should appropriate the products of their labour. This paper examines Proudhon's theory and draws on David Ellerman's modern restatement of the labour theory of property to consider its contemporary resonances.

Keywords: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, David Ellerman, labour theory of property, appropriative justice, labour-managed firms

The French mutualist anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-65) is best known for his treatise What is Property? and his famous answer to that question was: property is theft!1 The main objective of his book was to establish the grounds for the just appro- priation of private property. Proudhon's book is part of an extensive body of work which remains important because it provides a comprehensive and viable alternative to capitalist economics, in both theory and practice. Property, furthermore, occupies a central place in his theory. Other varieties of anarchist economics, namely, libertarian communism, arguably lack such a practical vision, even though they continue to exert a powerful force on anarchist imagining. This paper outlines features of Proudhon's ideas to show that they deserve more serious attention than they have received in recent years. Importantly, the nature and acceptance of private property (and, along with it, markets) is what distinguishes the various strands of anarchist economic thought. This paper will first discuss Proudhon's views on property and then discuss economist David Ellerman's views on property (as a means to reinterpret Proudhon). Next, it will compare and contrast the two primarily with regard to the labour theory of property, the main area of comparison, being sure to highlight areas of divergence. Lastly, it will consider other normative arguments related to the labour theory of property that go beyond the theory's simple jurisprudential nature.

Proudhon advocated a type of private property but he distinguished between 'possession' and 'property'. 'Possession' is justly appropriated private property. 'Property', on the other hand, is unjustly appropriated private property. The differ- ence rests on a labour theory of property which states that since labour is the only responsible agent in the production process only labour should appropriate the goods produced.2 Recognising the principle of responsibility that is central to the labour theory of property, in What is Property? Proudhon argued:

Capital, tools, and machines are likewise unproductive. The hammer and the anvil, without the blacksmith and the iron, do not forge; the mill, without the miller and the grain, does not grind, etc. Put together tools and raw material; place a plough and some seed on fertile soil; enter a smithy, light the fire, and close the shop, and you will produce nothing.3

Only people, and not things, are responsible for production. From this starting point Proudhon distinguished between 'possession' and 'property'. He defined 'property' as simply a de jure 'right of domain over a thing'.4 He defined 'possession', on the other hand, as a de facto phenomenon. Property, then, was theft because those who legally appropriated the products of labour in capitalism were not actually responsible for production. He wrote:

From the distinction between possession and property arise two sorts of rights: the right in a thing (jus in re) is the right by which I may reclaim the property which I have acquired, in whatever hands I find it, and the right to a thing ( jus ad rem ), which gives me a claim to become a proprietor . …

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