W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, which serves as a guiding post of our seminar, attacks revisionist history, racism, structural economic inequality, the fiction of social rise solely through individual effort and the preeminence of capitalist greed over democratic principles. The logic undergirding the pathologies Du Bois sees manifest in American society after the Civil War relies on a zero-sum mindset that pervades politics, social groups, and economic actors. Thus, the core of Black Reconstruction’s argument is a rebellion against thought which posits that efforts to lift people out of conditions of poverty, oppression, and illiteracy will inevitably come at the expense of other people’s social standing. We are called on to question, then, why it is so threatening to (some) people to share their once solitary and elevated social space with others. Du Bois writes in defiance of enshrined and seemingly perpetual inequality and exposes the core problem of accepting unequal conditions as ‘natural’ when he states that
[t]his whole phantasmagoria has been built on the most miserable of human fictions: that in addition to the manifest differences between men there is a deep, awful and ineradicable cleft which condemns most men to eternal degradation. It is a cheap inheritance of the world’s infancy, unworthy of grown folk. My rise does not involve your fall. No superior has interest in inferiority. Humanity is one and its vast variety is its glory and not its condemnation. (BR 630-31, my emphasis)
This indictment of zero-sum thinking alongside the critique of accepting inequality offers a useful lens for reading Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s What Is Property (1840). Proudhon, too, is appalled by justifications of inequality as ‘natural’ and property as ‘just.’ What connects him to Du Bois’s thought is the deep suspicion towards notions of individual action as the unit of analysis in politics and economics. He subsequently argues that “[a]ll human labor being the result of collective force, all property becomes, in consequence, collective and unitary” (271). While there are certainly disagreements regarding the role and capacity of the state in Du Bois’s and Proudhon’s accounts, both Proudhon’s account of the inherent injustice of property and Du Bois’s account of the imminent failure of a Reconstruction without large-scale redistribution and democratization are united by a striving towards liberty. In this blog post, I aim to show the primary reasons based on which Proudhon rejects property and then link these reasons to contemporary struggles and debates over not only property but its implications for the imminent ecological crises, policing, racial injustice, imperialism, and political exclusion(s). I will focus on Proudhon’s points regarding property and accumulation, property’s dependence on violence, on the question of growth and its limits in an economy based on perpetual the exploitation of labor and land, on the clash between establishing political equality while maintaining material inequality, and on the question labor’s undoing of property. While this will not do justice to the complexity of the argument, it hopefully helps connect the threads of a 19th century critique of social organization to problems apparent in the 21st century. Reading Proudhon can serve as a much needed reminder to rethink the foundations of our social order and assess the tensions inherent in the idea of a capitalist, property-owning democracy.
What Is Property serves in many ways as an origin story that disputes the ‘naturality’ of property and not only questions the social need for property but rejects it outright in the name of preserving society. One reason for this rejection is Proudhon’s belief that both accumulating property in the first place and defending it against the claims of others rest on “[a]n extraneous cause – either force or fraud” (217). Thus, the violence needed to establish and maintain a property-based order counters principles of peaceful and equitable relations that should mark the society of liberty he envisions (268). When referring to the history of philosophy – and the history of the world – prior to the moment of rethinking the primacy of property, he exclaims that “[d]uring this lamentable period, how many usurpations have been sanctioned, how many invasions glorified, how many conquests celebrated! The absent dispossessed, the poor banished, the hungry excluded by wealth, which is so ready and bold in action!” (Proudhon 102). Here, property and its importance in (European) political and economic thought are directly connected to colonial violence and warfare. The ties to violence, then, echo our discussions on both slavery and policing where the desire for 1) profiting and 2) property-protection have helped to justify the rendering of human beings as both less than human and less than property. Alex Vitale points out that not only the historical predecessors of policing but also modern policing “is largely a war on the poor that does little to make people safer or communities stronger” (53-54). If property, then, is in need of violence, it cannot be maintained as a founding principle of a society striving towards equality and peaceful relations.
Another aspect raised both in Proudhon and by Du Bois is the unequal protection of property. Looking at the respective societies they are observing, both notice that – while universal rights to property are proclaimed – the political protection of these rights varies wildly based on the political position of the proprietor and their capability to use force against those who make contrary claims (Proudhon 216; Du Bois 535ff.). In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois discusses the fate of the Freedmen’s Bank extensively. The bank was established post-Civil War as an attempt to incorporate the formerly enslaved into American capitalism as investors rather than objects of investment. The symbolic value of this venture was enormous ― Marcus Hunter points out that “the bank is best understood as both a federally supported Black financial institution and as a metaphor for Black economic practices and progress in post-Emancipation America” (Hunter 423). When the bank “[c]losed abruptly in 1874” (Hunter 421) and only “[h]alf of the depositors received partial reimbursement; half lost everything” (Gavins 109), the financial and psychological effects on the patrons were devastating. The fact that the bank was allowed to go bankrupt and that patrons had little to no chances for redress constitutes, for Du Bois, a clear example of the unequal protection of property (Du Bois in Hunter 428). If property cannot be applied as a universal right because it rests both on exclusion and continuous expansion and thus infringement upon other peoples’ possessions, the legal principles declaring its universal protection ring hollow.
For Proudhon, similarly, the logic of equal access to the opportunities of the market do not reflect the workings of the economy and the fact that power tilts towards the propertied. He points out that property’s
power of invasion lies in superior strength. But it is superior strength also which enables the manufacturer to reduce the wages of his employees, and the rich merchant and well-stocked proprietor to sell their products for what they please. The manufacturer says to the laborer, ‘You are as free to go elsewhere with your services as I am to receive them. I offer you so much.’ […] Who will yield? The weaker. (Proudhon 216)
Thus, even when workers are nominally free to choose their workplace, the lack of alternatives as well as the lack of resources on their part often leaves them with a choice that is none. Subsequently, when property owners want to extract more rent or sell their products at a price someone paid a subsistence wage cannot pay, their opportunities for making choices on an equal footing are nowhere in sight.
The inequality of property-ownership seeps into political relations as well. Given the complex relationship of legislation in defense of the propertied and the subsequent writing of legislation to prevent attacks on property, making claims about the temporal order of political and economic power is a dead-end. In many cases, it is difficult to entangle whether people first possessed property and then influenced legislation or whether people were able to amass property because of favorable laws. In many instances, both the legal structure and the accumulation and passing down of wealth have mutually reinforcing effects. Proudhon does know, however, that “[n]ature has given to every man but one mind, one heart, one will. Property, granting to one individual a plurality of votes, supposes him to have a plurality of minds” (Proudhon 217). This sarcastic comment points to the strange relationship between allegedly politically equal relations under conditions of material inequality. The very existence of property, for Proudhon, implies inequality because the point of property is to restrict or prohibit someone else’s access to a piece of land, to material necessary for work, or a place to live and thus infringe on this person’s liberty to an unacceptable degree (214-15). When “[p]roperty, born of the sovereignty of the reason, and the sense of personal merit, wishes above all things independence and proportionality” but “by its despotism and encroachments, soon proves itself oppressive and anti-social” (Proudhon 267), this goes against Proudhon’s vision of a society where people are both equal and free (268-72).
One solution proposed by Proudhon echoes many contemporary concerns about the right of access to resources needed by all. Throughout his work, he emphasizes the distinction between a right of possession and a right of property. Proudhon acknowledges the former as a right while maintaining that “property is against right. Suppress property while maintaining possession, and, by this simple modification of the principle, you will revolutionize law, government, economy, and institutions; you will drive evil from the face of the earth” (271). This distinction also involves the fluid, need- and desire-based nature of possession, “inasmuch as possession, in right, can never remain fixed, it is impossible, in fact, that it can ever become property” (98). When possession and access are rights, exclusion and encroachment have, according to Proudhon, neither an economic nor a legal basis anymore. In their monumental work on the common as a political principle, Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval also introduce claims advocating for use rights rather than and as an explicit challenge to property rights (325-29). While opinions on the possibility of a peaceful abolition of property differ widely, the shared recourse to use rights as a recognition of people’s collective needs rather than individual rights of exclusion and non-productive rent-seeking offers a pathway imagining usage of goods or land beyond private property (Proudhon 170).
The last of Proudhon’s arguments I would like to address here is his conceptualization of all work as a collective effort. For Proudhon, claims to individual achievement resonate little since “[t]he isolated man can supply but a very small portion of his wants; all his power lies in association, and in the intelligent combination of universal effort. The division and co-operation of labor multiply the quantity and the variety of products; the individuality of functions improves their quality” (154). Because all labor is part of this ‘universal effort,’ different wages do not make sense to him even though he acknowledges that people have different capacities and will work in different functions (142). The emphasis on this co- and interdependency, then, offers a way to see why he deems property to be an absurdity fundamentally at odds with the functioning of labor. For him, it is clear that “neither land nor labor nor capital is productive” (165, original emphasis). Production arises only from a combination of those factors which is why attributing primacy to any of them is misleading. This also speaks to Proudhon’s abhorrence of the waste property engenders because money is paid for non-productive things such as a land-lease or rent (171). This combination of work as a collective effort and the economic argument for investment in productive assets or the exchange of goods of equal value illuminate the double strategy Proudhon employs throughout this work. The normative calls for a better society meet economic calls for a more productive society.
While prominent critics of Proudhon – such as Marx – vehemently disagreed with both Proudhon’s philosophical and economic arguments, engaging with his claims on both the immorality and the impracticability of property evoke powerful questions about the general tenor for legitimizing property today. In an economic system based on accumulation and growth, the finitude of natural resources posits only one uncomfortable boundary for possession-based capitalism that has become more apparent recently (see Klein 2015). Rethinking all production as essentially cooperative and interdependent also calls into question why access to the means of work and sustenance should be restricted to private individuals. Lastly, the question of violence emerges yet again as hard to dismiss. Defenders of private property – in a democratic and allegedly egalitarian vein – would point to equality before the law and the state’s task to protect everyone equally. That property itself cannot abide by equal protection laws and expands, subjugates, and infringes upon other people’s possessions and livelihoods asks what is sacrificed for the upholding of property.
Dardot, Christian, and Pierre Laval. Common: On Revolution in the Twenty-First Century. Bloomsbury, 2019.
Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America: Toward a History o f the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. Routledge,  2017. Taylor & Francis, doi:10.4324/9781315147413.
Gavins, Raymond, editor. “Freedmen’s Bank.” The Cambridge Guide to African American History, Cambridge UP, 2016, p. 109. Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781316216453.116.
Hunter, Marcus Anthony. “Seven Billion Reasons for Reparations.” Souls, vol. 20, no. 4, Oct. 2018, pp. 420–32. www-tandfonline-com.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu (Atypon), doi:10.1080/10999949.2018.1607483.
Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Reprint edition. Simon & Schuster, 2015.
Proudhon, P.-J. (Pierre-Joseph), Amédée Jérôme Langlois, and Benjamin Ricketson Tucker. What Is Property: An Inquiry Into the Principle of Right And of Government. William Reeves, 189.
Vitale, Alex S. The End of Policing. Paperback edition, Verso, 2018.