Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is reckoned to be the first person to claim for himself the label of “anarchist” and yesterday was the 200th anniversary of his birth. His most famous statement was, of course, property is theft, still at the heart of anarchist economics but frequently misunderstood.
“Property” in this sense doesn’t refer to “personal property” – your clothes, your bike – which a person uses frequently. The property is theft type of property is your buy-to-let, landlordist, “location location location” type of property: the type of property, frequently housing, that is held by someone in order to stop someone else from using it (unless they pay you rent or some other condition).
There was a short discussion of him on Radio 3 and you can download it here. It’s interesting and fairly sympathetic (radicals are always more approved of once they’re dead), but the attempts to paint him as some kind of of pre-post-modern figure don’t convince me – seems only possible to hold that view if you ignore the history of non-Marxist socialism. (Which is what academia overwhelmingly does, come to think of it.)
So why “anarchist” and not “Proudhonist” (or “Bakuninist”)? Anarchists recognise that ideas are not the property (that idea again!) of individuals – in fact the notion of intellectual property is particularly abhorrent, as ideas are something that can be endlessly distributed and reproduced at minimal cost. We have principles, not scripture, and from my point of view at least, anarchist theory derives from what logically follows from and is consistent with those principles.
Proudhon is mostly associated with mutualism, which has been somewhat sidelined / superseded by more communist models of anarchism. But this poses us no great problems, as we can take the good from his thought without being forced to reconcile it, in an almost theological way, with his writings. Not the case for Marxists, as you can see if you’ve ever read otherwise-interesting books like Change the World Without Taking Power which get bogged down in contortions to separate them from previous interpretations of Marx.
It also means that, unsavoury and unanarchist elements of Proudhon’s work, like his sexism and antisemitism, don’t have to be covered up or excused. We can say, yes he wasn’t perfect, but this part of his work is still useful and powerful today.
And in the midst of economic collapse brought on by a housing bubble, with individuals facing repossession of their homes by banks who consider it “theirs” what could be more a powerful statement than property is theft?