I recently read the quote “Property is theft!” in Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s book What is property? (1840, online English translation). After understanding where he was going, I skipped the middle part of the book because it was too legal and technical, although not too difficult and probably interesting. In the final chapters Proudhon points at how a society might look like without the institution of property (not te be confused with private possession or usage). Here, apparantly, he coins the word anarchism. He writes:
“Politics is the science of liberty. The government of man by man (under whatever name it be disguised) is oppression. Society finds its highest perfection in the union of order with anarchy.”
I thought this had quite a ring to it. It brought back memories from secondary school where I read very superficially about Proudhon, Kropotkin and anarchosyndicalism, mostly for the sake of having something provocative to say. But now, after all this time and after developing my political views intensively over the last couple of years, I was a bit amazed to find myself back at the beginning of this circle.
Shortly after bringing Pierre-Joseph back to the Antwerp library, I read an article about the problem of labor time duration and increasing emphasis on work throughout history by Olivier Pintelon in Apache Magazine. Just like Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens (2011) and Rutger Bregman in Humankind (2020) it talks from the perspective on mankind’s development as a degeneration from a free and happy life as a hunter-gatherer to an oppressive, stressful society. Historians, archeologists, and sociologists agree more and more that in prehistoric ages our nomadic ancestors only ‘worked’ for a couple of hours a day and spent the rest on social, cultural, fun activities. The agricultural revolution seduced us with the appeal of stability, safety, and maybe even alcohol, but created inequality by introducing property for the first time. This is where I made the association with Proudhon.
Later on, during the industrial revolution, ownership of grounds, machinery, factories, and capital created even more inequality. In the meantime, man on average spent more and more time on labor. Reaching a boom with the so called feminist emancipation of the sixties. Now the average time of a household spent on labor practically doubled. I’m convinced that labour time is merely the characteristic of a system and not inherent to society or proper to an individual who is hard working or lazy.
These days a third revolution seems on its way. In one respect, it’s similar to the industrial revolution: automatisation and robotisation of labor. Just like the luddites opposed to the steam engines of the 19th century, some people warn against the dissapearing of jobs because of robots and algorithms. A guaranteed basic income still sounds like a good safeguard against poverty, even if you don’t believe, like statisticians say, that jobs will be lost. What’s more important: it gives us freedom.
This third revolution is also different, however, because it’s also a digitalisation. Not only robots are taking over tasks, but also artificial intelligence and algorithms. These are data-driven. How does data relate to ownership? Robots, machines, grounds are tangible property of an owner. Data, which is basically a massive collection of information, is currently in a grey area. Theoretically, data is owned by the individual who hands it over by thoughtlessly clicking agree on a website. That data, however, and the meta-data it produces is mined by algorithms, which is basically the property of nobody and free to be used by the person using the algorithm. Free to be sold without consent from the original individual. Some people want laws and applications to allow individuals to have ownership of their data. As weird as it sounds, I think it makes sense. Data is property in the sence that it says something about someone (a quality) and that it belongs to someone. The same could be said of intellectual property. Proudhon had no clue yet that concepts, images, and information would one day be reduced to property in the hands of a creator, buyer, or company. Even if you think privacy is not the real root of the problem, I don’t see the harm in protecting and taking control of our own data.
Regulations: the realisation of the Mind
In order to take back control and return to our blissful state of happiness people have created regulations through political action: the eight hour workday, sunday rest, payed leave, … aimed at limiting labor time in favor of free time. Some of these regulations are being shaken now that the gig economy is coming up. Certainly, more extensive regulation would create more equality and increase the quality of life for many. Also regulation of competition between individuals should be put to a stop. As Oliver Pintelon tells us in his article, in a certain African tribe there’s the tradition of “mocking the hunter’s meat”. This is a tradition aimed at preventing a succesful hunter from getting any ideas in his head that he’s better than someone else. In the 18th century, already, Immanuel Kant pointed out this innate tension in man between a drive to collaborate and a need be distinguished from the pack. We want to live in a society but also be an individual. We naturally work together, but we also want to compete. I guess either of these two drives can be reinforced by upbringing and by culture. In our individualistic, neoliberal culture, competition (somethings disguised as excellence) is glorified and egalitarianism despised.
I wonder whether competition could be the basis for war. I remember Bregman wrote about it, but I can’t remember much in detail. I do remember how most soldiers in a battle actually don’t fire at the enemy unless they’re drugged up or brainwashed. It goes against the fabric of our being. So why do wars start? Ego’s of rich people? I know the Greeks had a competitive or agonistic culture because it was famously expressed in sports and arts, like the Olympic Games. So why did they wage war? Honour? Or wealth and colonies?
Political regulations are just combatting the symptoms of a derailed system. They seem trivial to me in the light of mankind’s evolution towards a spiritually and politically lifeless society. For what is a society where work, however regulated, is central, and not life itself? It reminded me of Hegel’s theory of Mind. Laws are the objectification of the individual, subjective Mind: people say and write down what the rules of their society are. Beyond that, comes the Absolute Mind which reflects on the Objective Mind and contemplates the Mind in itself. Obviously, Hegel is talking about himself, the philosopher, as the epitome of everything here, but I can see his point, however obscured by the use of unnecessarily weird words. Philosophy contemplates the idea, God, the universe, or – in my humanistic version – mankind itself. There the Mind becomes free.
To put this a bit more concretely: (if I understand correctly,) in organising society, man is not yet free. He’s free when he doesn’t have to think about society anymore.
Property is theft
That brings me back to Proudhon. For him equality or property didn’t matter, but only freedom. That was for him the essence of anarchism. In a little collection of writings, I learned that Noam Chomsky also calls freedom the highest value in a society. He says it unites radical libertarianism and socialism.
Regardless whether we talk about material objects, money, a factory or a company, or intangible objects such as a piece of music or our date of birth, I’m convinced that ownership in general creates a distinction between the haves and the have nots. It creates inequality. And ultimately it creates oppression. No matter how much you regulate, the haves will keep finding ways to get more and exert illegitimate authority over the have nots. Proudhon wants to do away with property and ownership, except the ownership of the fruits of your labor. You can’t own the earth you cultivate, but you can own the fruit you harvest. I guess that also means you can own a house, or two, or a hundred, but not the ground it’s built on. I don’t quite grasp the full extent of where Proudhon wants to take this. I read on Wikipedia for instance that he tested the idea of a popular credit bank, but there it gets a bit too complicated for me.
People in our society are very attached to the concept of ownership. Everybody, rich or poor, wants to own two houses, three cars, and invest their salaries in shares and bonds. Saying ‘property is illegal’ will be hard to sell, although logically and morally it makes total sense. People don’t think logically and morally. The bottom line, however, if we adjust Proudhon’s conclusion slightly, is that it’s not right to make a profit from something you own, merely because you own it. Based on that, maybe we can try to think of regulations that are more acceptible, at least to the more radical parts of society. (Change always comes from the margins of society to the center.) For instance, you’re not allowed to charge more rent than is necessary for the upkeep of a house or appartment. You’re not allowed to charge or receive interest on a loan or investment. You’re not allowed to charge more for a book you print, than the actual cost to print it. I can see how it would make ownership a lot less interesting. Prices for houses might fall, banks would basically become professional vaults. We’ll still use money to exchange goods, because we can’t match all needs between people top down. (I can offer Dutch classes in return for food, clothes, beer, and toys for my kid, but it’s impossible to find the exact right matches ánd arrange a schedule for all these people.) And we’ll steep creating stuff, because people want stuff. Except now, the printer that prints your book will not be owned by a multinational, but by nobody. It’s use will be organised by a democratic cooperative. If you want it to be used for something else, then you join the cooperative and try to change it. Or something like that.
In an online article (also on Apache), Ben Caudron writes that it’s useluss to fuss about privacy as long as we don’t deal with the more fundamental profit driven capitalist system. I see his point. (Although we can also do both at the same time.) What would happen if it becomes illegal to make a profit from data ownership? Facebook, Google, Apple, and all the others would loose almost their complete source of income. They could charge people to pay for the cost of keeping the platforms up. They could even ask to use some data for advertising, as long as they don’t make a profit.
Would people still be motivated to enterprise? I think so, but not with the motive of profit. Would the economy keep growing? Maybe not, but it’s already at it’s highest point in history. I think we’re at a point where we don’t need to be afraid anymore of scarcity, as long as everything is organised (really) democratically. (Amartya Sen famously proved how the lack of democratic insitutions such as free speach is the main cause for famines.) I’d still go for a guaranteed basic income, albeit in the form of a negative income tax (which guarantees a minimal income for people that drop below a certain income).
After these logical propositions will be realised, the only question remaining will be: how do we learn to live (again)? Unlike the primitive nomad, we not only have games, sports and cooking, but we have arts and philosophy. Plenty of stuff to fill a life of free time.
Een gedachte over “Property and Freedom”