Property is theft?

Perhaps the most basic, and paradoxically the most contentious, tenet of anarchism is its opposition to private property.

In 1840, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government. This is considered one of the most influential works of anarchist philosophy and is the origin of the rallying cry “property is theft!” In it, Proudhon poses this question;

If I were asked to answer the following question: What is slavery? and I should answer in one word, It is murder, my meaning would be understood at once. No extended argument would be required to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality, is a power of life and death; and that to enslave a man is to kill him. Why, then, to this other question: What is property! may I not likewise answer, It is robbery, without the certainty of being misunderstood; the second proposition being no other than a transformation of the first?

With this question in mind, I would like to expand upon the distinction between “private property” and “personal possessions” I made in What I believe in. In doing so, I would like to make particular reference to the “anarcho”-capitalists of the Austrian School of Economics.

Like most anarchists, I consider “anarcho”-capitalism to be an oxymoron, as by its very nature capitalism is not anarchic. An-caps have taken the dictionary definition of anarchy as “no government” and pasted it onto their ideology, utterly forgetting that anarchism is in fact a movement of philosophy and activism, with a long history and tradition, based upon principles of libertarian socialism and opposed to all forms of hierarchy and domination, not just the state. Going further, I would even suggest that an-caps do not want to dismantle the machinery of the state, but merely privatise it.

Murray Rothbard, for an “anarcho”-capitalist, is brilliant at inadvertently demonstrating the genuine end of his movement. The dilemma he posed was this: what if a King, responding to the threat of a strong right-wing “libertarian” movement, “employ[s] a cunning stratagem,” where he “proclaims his government to be dissolved, but just before doing so he arbitrarily parcels out the entire land area of his kingdom to the ‘ownership’ of himself and his relatives.” Rather than taxes, his subjects now pay rent and he can “regulate the lives of all the people who presume to live on” his property as he wishes. A king by another name – landlord. Rothbard’s next remarks highlight precisely how close the parallel is:

Now what should be the reply of the libertarian rebels to this pert challenge? If they are consistent utilitarians, they must bow to this subterfuge, and resign themselves to living under a regime no less despotic than the one they had been battling for so long. Perhaps, indeed, more despotic, for now the king and his relatives can claim for themselves the libertarians’ very principle of the absolute right of private property, an absoluteness which they might not have dared to claim before.

This glaring contradiction is again demonstrated by Rothbard when he correctly identifies the state as illegitimate because it “arrogates to itself a monopoly of force… over a given area territorial area” and yet then defends private property because “[o]bviously, in a free society, Smith has the ultimate decision-making power over his own just property, Jones over his, etc.” In both cases the get out clause, the only difference Rothbard can cite between the State and private property, is that the latter was acquired “justly.”

So, what makes property just? According to “anarcho”-capitalists and right-“libertarians,” the Homestead Principle:

Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a “property” in his own “person.” This nobody has any right to but himself. The “labour” of his body and the “work” of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

Even to me, this sounds utterly reasonable. However, that is because it doesn’t sound like capitalism. In the above paragraph, we have an eloquent justification for worker-ownership of the means of production, for each community holding its land in common, and for the rejection of any claims by a landlord or employer to property on which others toil. From whence, then, does he get the justification for private property in the capitalist sense of the word?

Simply, there is no requirement under the homesteading principle that a resource is in regular use for the proprietor to retain it, only that it has been transformed once through labor. After this, the propertarian may transfer ownership to someone else, discard, or rent the property with no stipulations on any further labour input. But is that not how states came into being? The concept of nationhood arose prior to the state, and it was the rise of feudalism which used the labour of those nations to develop the lord’s or king’s “property” (dominion). The king, lord, or baron, as the propertarian, gained property through accumulation of wealth and power and the use of such to gain dominion over a land. Yet again, Rothbard’s own words speak against “anarcho”-capitalist thought:

If the State may be said to properly own its territory, then it is proper for it to make rules for everyone who presumes to live in that area. It can legitimately seize or control private property because there is no private property in its area, because it really owns the entire land surface. So long as the State permits its subjects to leave its territory, then, it can be said to act as does any other owner who sets down rules for people living on his property.

Of course, he qualified this by saying that of course the state does not “justly” own its property but both the state and the capitalist in fact acquired property by “homesteading,” however he might have used the term to (falsely) differentiate “just” private property from illegitimate state property. Returning to Proudhon in 1840, we find the Homstead Principle already effectively refuted;

If the liberty of man is sacred, it is equally sacred in all individuals; that, if it needs property for its objective action, that is, for its life, the appropriation of material is equally necessary for all . . . Does it not follow that if one individual cannot prevent another . . . from appropriating an amount of material equal to his own, no more can he prevent individuals to come. … The purchaser draws boundaries, fences himself in . . . Here, then, is a piece of land upon which, henceforth, no one has a right to step, save the proprietor and his friends . . . Let [this]. . . multiply, and soon the people . . . will have nowhere to rest, no place to shelter, no ground to till. They will die at the proprietor’s door, on the edge of that property which was their birthright; and the proprietor, watching them die, will exclaim, ‘So perish idlers and vagrants.’

So, although “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” we see that “the rich man’s right of property, on the contrary, has to be continually defended against the poor man’s desire for property.” The very notion of private property renders, for example, travellers’ camps “illegal.” Nor are they the only ones who, in the propertarian system, must contest for the “legality” of their homes or die freezing in the streets / steal from and kill others to survive because they have no home. Private property, by its very definition, needs to be enforced. Whether a state or its private equivalent in protection and security companies, the private propertarian needs someone to act against trespassing – a “crime” which, as it involves no victims, no violence, no loss of safety or liberty, should not even exist.

The anarchist’s argument with private property, then, is that it is exploitative, it is coercive, and it entrenches the class system whereby the few live in privilege whilst the great many face poverty and deprivation. As the writers of An Anarchist FAQ put it, “social relations between capitalists and employees can never be equal, because private ownership of the means of production gives rise to social hierarchy and relations of coercive authority and subordination.”

The an-caps contend this by defining coercion as the purely overt threat or use of physical force, ignoring economic coercion and the restriction of choice through the environment of property domination. To them, then, there is no coercion in the relationship between landlord and tenant or employer and employee. Instead, they see it is a voluntary and mutually beneficial transation.

Whilst it is true that the tenant or employee does benefit from their transaction – they now have a roof over their head or a way to provide for themselves and their family – this does not mean the transaction is non-coercive. There is no equal footing in the relationship, especially when it comes to potential loss. The landlord or employer can afford to reject a potential tenant or employee – he can always find others in such an event. But the tenant or employee has no choice.

Even if it is not that one, he must submit to some landlord or employer. If not, he is left homeless or jobless. The threat is there: work or starve, rent or be without shelter. These are choices, yes, but the choice is akin to the mugger’s “give me money or die,” not to the ice cream vendor’s “raspberry or vanilla.” Likewise, it is also true that the threat is not made by the employer or landlord themselves, but the threat nonetheless remains, created by the very system of private property they operate in. Not all heads of state are despots or tyrants, and some can even have the very best of intentions, but that does not negate the fact that the system itself is one of dominion and servility. Once again, What Is Property sums up this position perfectly;

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?

16 Responses to “Property is theft?”
  1. ephraiyim says:

    So how does one deal with those who, say, refuse to work? For that matter what of those who, trough disability or age can no longer work. How do they live. If the community takes responsibility for them who decides what resources will be made available to them. If they are old or sick their share may be very great indeed compared to a healthy, young worker. Will said worker not come to resent those who do not work but still receive a portion or maybe a greater portion.
    If all that are able are expected to work then how would that be enforced and by whom. If the community has an ethical obligation to care for the poor and sick might the one who will not work be admitted once his lack makes him so ill that the community must then take him in.
    I realize the A-C’s have a lot of problems to work out but I am not sure if the A-S’s have any less. In both cases eliminating government is going to require a lot on the part of those who agree to follow such communities.

    • Phil Dickens says:

      The point is about reaching a democratic consensus, and people are of course free to abstain from that consensus, or to argue differently, and so how any individual anarchist community would act is not something I can give a blueprint of.

      However, in my personal opinion, those who can work and don’t should be a minor issue. I’m not a primitivist, so I see no issue with technology eliminating the more menial tasks and the working week being greatly reduced more generally. And it should be no great shake to share what is left amongst communities. People are more invested in their labour if it is not done simply to keep the boss fat in return for a pittance, and a community or society organised on the basis of mutal aid has a different mentality anyway than one organised to serve those at the top of a class system.

  2. Ghost says:

    Yes, I’m not an anarchist, I’m not for “liberty” or against hierarchy. This is why I don’t call myself an anarchist, I’m a libertarian and am generally disgusted at anarchism.

    • RJ2white says:

      That’s why you are full of crap. “Libertarians” are phonies who believe in oppression of others for their own gain, White Supremacists who think colonialism entitles them to everything colonialism has stolen from others and more. You only believe in police and military to enforce your capitalist oppression of other people, while you sit in your ivory towers and call yourselves defenders of “liberty” – for only yourselves of course. You’ll all be found in piles of dead bodies, you never care to think about what you promote, your greed is all that motivates you.

  3. Libertarians are delusional full stop. Not surprisingly I have found a number of them to be narcissists, including Larkin Rose. The first thing I throw at them is a piece of have written on private property, to disseminate its full implications, and legalized murder it is without doubt. If there is no profits to made you withhold the means of subsistence???. It is one of a number of issues that I have also written to all legal institutions here in Australia, who also cover for war crimes, amnesty etc. Their duty is to resolve the problem, you don’t to choose what activism you employ when it is misleading and ineffective, this is not activism, petty bourgeois cowardice.

  4. slated says:

    The problem with property is not that it’s private, but merely that it’s not equally distributed.

    A world without private property would be devoid of sanctuary, and thus human dignity.

  5. Surendar Advani says:

    But the question is how will we protect ourselves, our family and home in an anarchist society from foreign invaders and criminals? how will we control crime? how will we define crime in an anarchist society? who will take responsibility to control it?

  6. say no to willful ignorance says:

    he “proclaims his government to be dissolved, but just before doing so he arbitrarily parcels out the entire land area of his kingdom to the ‘ownership’ of himself and his relatives.”

    This argument is just retarded, if they don’t acknowledge the king’s legitimacy they don’t have to respect the kings decisions in the first place, in fact, it would be incoherent to respect it as such land area would be stolen property, and they are all for private property enforcement.

  7. Marleen says:

    Hello, “say no to willful ignorance” (21/01/2017 at 10:07). In the world of theory, it might be true as an imaginary device that the people don’t have to respect a king or his decisions. But when theory meets reality, the king with his power and resources makes things happen whether you or I like it or not. Same would be true for his friends if he decided to stop being king (or whoever’s friends if someone or some movement stopped allowing a king) and goods and property were then in the hands of others. Occurrences aren’t actually disallowed (from happening in society or human interaction) because they don’t fit a system of academic logic or wishful thinking. People often go ahead and do horrible things when they can (especially based on rationalization).

    Russia is an example of where some ruthless people took things as private property when the previous (to current) system buckled. The rest of the people wouldn’t know how to throw the oligarchs out. Putin, for one, knew the system before and knows how to play it now that it’s called something else. Nevertheless, this isn’t to say it was better before it became what it is. Neither situation is good or something to aim for. I recommend a couple of books to add to the considerations: BLOODLANDS, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and RED NOTICE… A true story of high finance, murder, and one man’s fight for justice.

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