by Misha Lepetic
“Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy.”
Back in undergraduate days, when, if it is to be believed, my prose was even more incomprehensible than it is now, I wrote a paper on the economic history of the concept of private property ownership. After 37 pages, and having only reached JS Mill, I bowed out as gracefully as I could, and spent the next week wondering how anyone could be said to own anything at all. And yet, society’s legal and social construction of property ownership continues to be of the utmost importance in setting the course for economic development in general, and urbanization in particular.
In this sense, past commentators have looked at housing as an especially crucial area, since the larger issue of urban migration had already reached a boiling point in Europe by the mid-19th century. The work of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is worth singling out in this regard. Originally an unapologetic Anarchist best known for the pithy aphorism “property is theft”, by the end of his life Proudhon had moderated his views considerably. Writing in the posthumously published Théorie de la Propriété,
“…property is the greatest revolutionary force which exists, with an unequaled capacity for setting itself against authority … [The] principal function of private property within the political system will be to act as a counterweight to the power of the State, and by so doing to insure the liberty of the individual.” Proudhon, quoted in Gray, p135
For the later Proudhon, the validity of property is resurrected only “if it is purged and infused with justice” (Gray, p243). Specifically, this right to property would encourage workers to defend themselves against the depredations of the State and its capitalist abettors. In contrast, the propagation of rent-based housing only exacerbated the uncertainty of their situation. It would also go a ways towards preventing slum clearance, which was as ineffective then as it is now. In fact, two decades after Proudhon’s death in 1865, Great Britain’s Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes published a report where the acknowledged that
Rookeries are destroyed, greatly to the sanitary and social benefit of the neighborhood, but no kind of habitation for the poor has been substituted… The consequence of such a proceeding is that the unhoused population crowd into the neighboring streets and courts…and when the new dwellings are complete…the tenants are not the…persons displaced [so that] those whose need is greatest suffer most acutely. (p19-20)
Thus Proudhon’s hope was that, in aggregate, the landowning proletarian class would throw up a legal-materialistic barricade against those who would otherwise bulldoze their neighborhoods and subsequently engage in the kind of property speculations that only further exacerbate income inequality and displacement of urban populations.
Read more »