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The man behind the theft slogan

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Issue 1749

Critics of capitalism

The man behind the theft slogan

By Kevin Ovenden

A RECENT letter to Socialist Worker asked what is meant by the slogan “Property is theft.” The man who made it famous was the early French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who wrote a book in 1840 called What is Property? Karl Marx called it “the first decisive, vigorous and scientific examination of property”. By property Proudhon and Marx did not mean the small number of personal possessions that people own. They were targeting the private ownership of huge concentrations of wealth, and above all the means of making the things society needs-factories, machinery, technology and so on.

They saw that the capitalist class’s property came from the exploitation of the labour of others. Laws and ideologies protect the capitalists’ ownership of wealth. But their laws hide a great crime. Their property is based on theft. Marx’s remedy was for the working class to break the capitalists’ hold over the means of production and use them collectively to meet the needs of society.

In contrast, Proudhon’s alternative to the growing power of big capitalist firms was to look to small-scale production linked by a network of exchange of goods and services. Some opponents of corporate power today look to similar ideas. In Proudhon’s day the factory system was only just developing in France. Many skilled workers were in very small businesses, which they often felt they were junior partners in.

The idea of linking up such small units as an alternative to the rising big industrialists seemed attractive. Proudhon expressed opposition to the way capitalism reduced people to cogs in a giant money-making machine. But his “mutualist” solution did not provide an alternative. He underestimated how dynamic capitalism is.

It produces immense misery through subordinating everyone to the drive for profit. But in concentrating the means of production in large units, it also creates huge increases in productivity. Modern capitalism means that we can now potentially meet the needs of the world’s population without billions of people being consigned to a life of backbreaking toil. The competition at the heart of capitalism means that is not done.

But trying to rival capitalist giants through small-scale production cannot do it either. Some people today paint a romanticised picture of small-scale peasant or artisan production. But the reality can be very different. Hundreds of millions of peasants in much of the world do backbreaking work just to scratch out an existence.

Proudhon did not find this a problem. He said, “It is not good for man to live in ease.” But developing human potential depends on reducing the amount of labour we are forced to do to produce the necessities of life. Even where small producers have more modern techniques they cannot escape the pressures of capitalism. They are forced to compete on the market. Proudhon liked competition, calling it “the spice of exchange, the salt of work. To suppress competition is to suppress liberty itself.”

But competition does not bring freedom. It forces people, no matter what their intentions may be, to sacrifice the freedoms of those who work and produce in order to gain a market advantage. This is true even where small groups of people decide to produce cooperatively. Market competition has forced workers at the Tower Colliery cooperative in Wales to work just as hard as those in privately owned pits.

The same happened to family businesses in the 19th century. They had to try to compensate for the advantages of the capitalist giants by imposing even harsher conditions.

And even then the big firms won out, gobbling up the smaller ones. Proudhon was clear that his strategy could not run in tandem with the idea that workers should collectively take over production. He opposed any planned or collectively organised society and argued instead for people to turn their backs on political action and set up small business.

This meant that despite his famous slogan he ended up defending property, saying it was “liberal, federalist, decentralising, republican, egalitarian, progressive, just”. Proudhon’s ideas did not work 150 years ago and cannot work today. People yearn to have control over their labour. But setting up local units of production is not an option for the vast majority of humanity.

Those few who do still find themselves constrained by capitalism. We can change that only by collectively confronting the power of the capitalist giants.

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