‘What Is Property?’

February 28, 2023

Proudhon, Property, and the Political Panic over ‘The Great Resignation’ – how this classic text prefigures the contemporary debate over work and well-being.

There’s no way a five minute review can do this complex book justice, so I will extract just one thread from its pages to examine, ‘What Is Property?’; and why that near 200-year-old question has become more important than ever.

Though elevated to iconic status by many (who may not have actually read the whole book in detail), ‘What Is Property?’, published by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in 1840, is a difficult book to engage with. Published just before the political over-tuning of the Revolution of 1848 the book represents a dialogue between figures in French radical politics that is largely lost to us today. What that dialogue produced, however, is a question which is even more relevant today as human society reaches its material limits.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

philosopher, economist… anarchist. 15th Jan. 1809 – 19th Jan. 1865

Let’s dive straight into the beginning of chapter one, and the passage from the book which is most often quoted:

“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?”

The problem is, if we take this one passage out of the context of the whole book, it loses an important dimension of meaning: What is the ‘slavery’ being referred to here?; and that being defined, what is it that is being ‘robbed’ from society?

Right now, the political class are panicking over ‘The Great Resignation’. Faced with a labour shortage, the political commentariat have elevated this to a moral panic – an economic scourge which we must fight. In reality, a generation of people to whom the arc of the modern economy has granted a relative excess of wealth, and who are now willing to live on little, are simply walking off the job to enjoy a quiet life.

To simplify a large part of the book, the three essentials of human life are food, shelter, and (where I specifically use Ivan Illich’s term) ‘conviviality’: For almost all of human history, the first of those, ‘food’, was readily available from the land around us; ‘shelter’, was readily available by harvesting resources from the land; and finally, ‘conviviality’, inevitably arose from the human communities created as the result of those two former quantities.

From this, Proudhon observes how social rules arose to regulate these processes:

“Man, then, is an animal living in society. Society means the sum total of relationships; in short, a system. Now, all systems exist only on certain conditions. What, then, are the conditions, the laws, of human society? Right is the sum total of the principles which govern society. Justice, in man, is the respect and observation of those principles. To practise justice is to obey the social instinct; to do an act of justice is to do a social act. If, then, we watch the conduct of men towards each other under different circumstances, it will be easy for us to distinguish between the presence and absence of society; from the result we may inductively infer the law.”

A much longer video explaining Proudhon’s specific theory of ‘What is Property?’.

Others have opined at length about Proudhon’s ‘property’ issue. What interests me, especially in terms of ‘The Great Resignation’, are the practical effects of what ‘private property’ enforces.

Proudhon outlines, through a number of logical arguments, that where a small minority hold the mass of society’s assets as a ‘private right’, then the majority cannot secure a living other than by service to those asset-holders: From ancient times this was formalised as slavery; by the Medieval, indentured servitude or peonage; and today we call it, ‘wage slavery’.

If the land, in particular, were not held from the mass of people as a private asset, do you think people would willingly engage in paid work – or would work as hard – if they could simply subsist by their own labour?

Proudhon prefigures the modern panic over ‘The Great Resignation’ when he says:

“The principle, ‘To each according to his labour’, interpreted to mean, ‘Who works most should receive most’, is based, therefore, on two palpable errors: one, an error in economy, that in the labour of society tasks must necessarily be unequal; the other, an error in physics, that there is no limit to the amount of producible things. ‘But,’ it will be said, ‘suppose there are some people who wish to perform only half of their task?’… Is that very embarrassing? Probably they are satisfied with half of their salary. Paid according to the labour that they had performed, of what could they complain?, and what injury would they do to others?”

If, then, people don’t want to work today, why should we object to that?

The traditional argument over private property focuses on the fairness of possession. For Proudhon, the greater concern is that people are forced work, or starve – must work, or be denied food, shelter, and thus conviviality. Therefore, the social injustice to which he refers is not simply the possession of the land, but the fact that denying access to the possibility of subsistence necessarily creates ‘slavery’; effectively ‘robbing’ society of the freedom it might have enjoyed should that property be equitably shared.

A society which deliberately grants certain people proprietary rights, and coerces those who cannot access them to work, is based upon a fundamental injustice: It forces the mass of society into exploitation in order to survive. When politicians decry, ‘The Great Resignation’, the subtext of this reinforces this same argument: That the people must be enslaved to preserve the rights of property; for if they are not, it denies the asset-owning class the opportunity to exploit them.

After-thoughts on, ‘What Is Property?’

‘The ‘Right to Food’ Revisited, 2022.

I had not planned to review this book now, but it was necessary as part some other work I have planned later this year. Last year, I looked at the issue of ‘The Right to Food’, and the link that has to the control of land and food production. This year, I want to develop that further, by considering the critical importance of accessing land to how we survive the coming ‘collapse of technological society’.

I read, ‘What Is Property?’, in the early 1980s. Ever since, whenever I’ve seen the book discussed, it’s always been in the context of the ‘possession’ of the land. For me, though, what I’ve always taken from the book is that proprietary rights for a minority in society, must inevitably give rise to the state-backed compulsion to work by those divested of this right.

In the Marxist context, we might argue how property rights are the basis for the ‘labour theory of value’, the ‘reserve army of labour’, or in the global context, ‘unequal exchange’, in the modern-day world – yet these all derive from the industrial society proprietary rights have created, not independently of it. If we want to move prefiguratively beyond this state, especially one where ‘Western’ industrial development has destroyed the global biosphere we depend upon, we need to look at a situation where industrial production need not compel people to live in a certain way.

Practically, then, exploitation rests upon Locke’s idea of the ‘labour theory of property’ – which as Proudhon outlines, necessitates certain actions by those who control property, and enforces service by those who do not. And thus how we move beyond that must think outside the confines of industrial or material production – as the competing theories of Marxism or Liberalism would have us do – to consider the practical basis for how we meet our basic needs as, in Proudhon’s words, “an animal living in society”.

This is why, for me, the current debate over ‘The Great Resignation’, should bring these ideas front and centre to the debate over work today. ‘Work’, where that necessitates the expropriation of value from our labour by social coercion, is the problem.

In some senses, my entire working life echoes what is now being referred to as, ‘The Great Resignation’ – since I chose to abandon the expected path of ‘education’ and ‘career’ early in adulthood to explore other options. Along the way, I’ve met many others who, like me, have rejected those expectations, at various stages of life, to find other ‘ways of living’.

However, if that idea is now blossoming – encouraging many more to part ways with traditional jobs or careers – then that is not simply a function of the vicissitudes of the modern work environment. It has an economic basis within the changing wealth structure of society.

2022/28: ‘A Book in Five Minutes’, No.17: ‘The Harried Leisure Class’.

The only reason I could take a different path in life from that laid-out for me was that, through chance circumstances created by economic forces, I had the opportunity to do that. Likewise, those abandoning work today do so because, provided they minimise their expenses, they have accumulated sufficient wealth from the past operation of the economic process to be able to do that. But let’s be absolutely clear here: Going forward from here, this will not be the case for Millennials and Gen-Z.

The Western economic model is in decline because it has reached the limits of neocolonial exploitation, the limits of fast-paced technological innovation, and in terms of daily life, the limits of time-consumption. The large increase in affluence this generated for the ‘Boomers’, and my own Gen-X, will not be replicated in the same way for later generations. Therefore, as this process implodes into its growing debt-burden and failing economic ideology, if up-coming generations are going to have an opportunity for ‘conviviality’ – certainly against the backdrop of climate change and resource depletion – then we seriously need to dismember the core assumptions of the current economic model which obstructs this: Clearly, proprietary rights must be a priority for action.

‘George Monbiot’s Multi-Level Marketing of Ecomodernism’, 2022.

The problem is that centrist and ecomodernist ideas for change will not relinquish their demand for high-consumption within any future social model. Likewise, techno-optimists of the left or right assume the perpetuation of current material trends without any evidence that this is physically possible – because, like the ecomodernists, they refuse to accept that such physical limits exist.

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Yet, as Proudhon acknowledges in his remark about, “an error in physics”, there are limits to the amount of ‘producible things’. Given that the consumption of a minority in the world vastly surpasses that of the majority, by the same token that we criticise the asset-owning class, so we must accept that the ‘Western lifestyle’ must contract significantly to enable the majority of humanity to have a chance for convivial existence.

Reading ‘What Is Property?’ cover-to-cover requires a lot of background research, into both classical political theory and figures in European radical politics of the early Nineteenth Century, because that is how the book is written. And how we translate those ideas to the present-day requires a similar effort to understand how the context of that debate persists in politics and economics today.

Ultimately, though, the core of Proudhon’s argument is sound. That’s because, in the context of ‘private property’, and though ‘proprietary rights’ have significantly developed over the Technological Revolution, the function of private property has not changed: It confers economic power on the few; and in parallel, it necessitates the coercion of the many to serve those economic rights in order for most people to survive. If there is to be radical change, subverting those rights – in part, by refusing to comply and ‘resigning’ from that expectation – is the simplest means to create greater freedom for all.


Teaser photo credit: Proudhon and His Children by Gustave Courbet, 1865. By, Public Domain,

Paul Mobbs

Paul Mobbs is an independent environmental consultant, investigator, author and lecturer, and maintains the Free Range Activism Website (FRAW).

Tags: limits, neoliberal economics, powering down, private property, the Great Resignation, work