Chapter IV: That property is impossible

The last resort of proprietors, — the overwhelming argument whose invincible potency reassures them, — is that, in their opinion, equality of conditions is impossible. “Equality of conditions is a chimera,” they cry with a knowing air; “distribute wealth equally to-day — to-morrow this equality will have vanished.”

To this hackneyed objection, which they repeat everywhere with the most marvellous assurance, they never fail to add the following comment, as a sort Of Glory be to the Father: “If all men were equal, nobody would work.” This anthem is sung with variations.

“If all were masters, nobody would obey.”

“If nobody were rich, who would employ the poor?”

And, “If nobody were poor, who would labour for the rich?”

But let us have done with invective — we have better arguments at our command.

If I show that property itself is impossible — that it is property which is a contradiction, a chimera, a utopia; and if I show it no longer by metaphysics and jurisprudence, but by figures, equations, and calculations, — imagine the fright of the astounded proprietor! And you, reader; what do you think of the retort?


AXIOM: Property is the Right of Increase [droit d’aubaine] claimed by the Proprietor over any thing which he has stamped as his own.


Observations: Increase [aubaine] receives different names according to the thing by which it is yielded: if by land, farm-rent; if by houses and furniture, rent; if by life-investments, revenue; if by money, interest; if by exchange, advantage gain, profit (three things which must not be confounded with the wages or legitimate price of labour).


Property is impossible, because it demands Something for Nothing.

The discussion of this proposition covers the same ground as that of the origin of farm-rent, which is so much debated by the economists. When I read the writings of the greater part of these men, I cannot avoid a feeling of contempt mingled with anger, in view of this mass of nonsense, in which the detestable vies with the absurd. It would be a repetition of the story of the elephant in the moon, were it not for the atrocity of the consequences. To seek a rational and legitimate origin of that which is, and ever must be, only theft, extortion, and plunder—that must be the height of the proprietor’s folly; the last degree of bedevilment into which minds, otherwise judicious, can be thrown by the perversity of selfishness.

“A farmer,” says Say, “is a wheat manufacturer who, among other tools which serve him in modifying the material from which he makes the wheat, employs one large tool, which we call a field. If he is not the proprietor of the field, if he is only a tenant, he pays the proprietor for the productive service of this tool. The tenant is reimbursed by the purchaser, the latter by another, until the product reaches the consumer; who redeems the first payment, plus all the others, by means of which the product has at last come into his hands.”

Let us lay aside the subsequent payments by which the product reaches the consumer, and, for the present, pay attention only to the first one of all, — the rent paid to the proprietor by the tenant. On what ground, we ask, is the proprietor entitled to this rent?


Buchanan — a commentator on Smith — regarded farm-rent as the result of a monopoly, and maintained that labour alone is productive. Consequently, he thought that, without this monopoly, products would rise in price; and he found no basis for farm-rent save in the civil law. This opinion is a corollary of that which makes the civil law the basis of property. But why has the civil law — which ought to be the written expression of justice — authorised this monopoly? Whoever says monopoly, necessarily excludes justice. Now, to say that farm-rent is a monopoly sanctioned by the law, is to say that injustice is based on justice, — a contradiction in terms.

Say answers Buchanan, that the proprietor is not a monopolist, because a monopolist “is one who does not increase the utility of the merchandise which passes through his hands.”

How much does the proprietor increase the utility of his tenant’s products? Has he ploughed, sowed, reaped, mowed, winnowed, weeded? These are the processes by which the tenant and his employees increase the utility of the material which they consume for the purpose of reproduction.

“The landed proprietor increases the utility of products by means of his implement, the land. This implement receives in one state, and returns in another the materials of which wheat is composed. The action of the land is a chemical process, which so modifies the material that it multiplies it by destroying it. The soil is then a producer of utility; and when it asks its pay in the form of profit, or farm rent, for its proprietor, it at the same time gives something to the consumer in exchange for the amount which the consumer pays it. It gives him a produced utility; and it is the production of this utility which warrants us in calling land productive, as well as labour.”

Let us clear up this matter.

The blacksmith who manufactures for the farmer implements of husbandry, the wheelwright who makes him a cart, the mason who builds his barn, the carpenter, the basket-maker, &c., — all of whom contribute to agricultural production by the tools which they provide, — are producers of utility; consequently, they are entitled to a part of the products.

“Undoubtedly,” says Say; “but the land also is an implement whose service must be paid for, then...”

I admit that the land is an implement; but who made it? Did the proprietor? Did he — by the efficacious virtue of the right of property, by this moral quality infused into the soil — endow it with vigour and fertility? Exactly there lies the monopoly of the proprietor; in the fact that, though he did not make the implement, he asks pay for its use. When the Creator shall present himself and claim farm-rent, we will consider the matter with him; or even when the proprietor — his pretended representative — shall exhibit his power-of-attorney.

“The proprietor’s service,” adds Say, “is easy, I admit.”

It is a frank confession.

“But we cannot disregard it. Without property, one farmer would contend with another for the possession of a field without a proprietor, and the field would remain uncultivated...”

Then the proprietor’s business is to reconcile farmers by robbing them. O logic! O justice! O the marvellous wisdom of economists! The proprietor, if they are right, is like Perrin-Dandin[4] who, when summoned by two travellers to settle a dispute about an oyster, opened it, gobbled it, and said to them:

“The Court awards you each a shell.”

Could anything worse be said of property?

Will Say tell us why the same farmers, who, if there were no proprietors, would contend with each other for possession of the soil, do not contend to-day with the proprietors for this possession? Obviously, because they think them legitimate possessors, and because their respect for even an imaginary right exceeds their avarice. I proved, in Chapter II, that possession is sufficient, without property, to maintain social order. Would it be more difficult, then, to reconcile possessors without masters than tenants controlled by proprietors? Would labouring men, who respect — much to their own detriment — the pretended rights of the idler, violate the natural rights of the producer and the manufacturer? What! if the husbandman forfeited his right to the land as soon as he ceased to occupy it, would he become more covetous? And would the impossibility of demanding increase [aubaine], of taxing another’s labour, be a source of quarrels and law-suits? The economists use singular logic. But we are not yet through. Admit that the proprietor is the legitimate master of the land.

“The land is an instrument of production,” they say. That is true. But when, changing the noun into an adjective, they alter the phrase, thus, “The land is a productive instrument,” they make a wicked blunder.

According to Quesnay and the early economists, all production comes from the land. Smith, Ricardo, and de Tracy, on the contrary, say that labour is the sole agent of production. Say, and most of his successors, teach that BOTH land AND labour AND capital are productive. The latter constitute the eclectic school of political economy. The truth is, that NEITHER land NOR labour NOR capital is productive. Production results from the co-operation of these three equally necessary elements, which, taken separately, are equally sterile.

Political economy, indeed, treats of the production, distribution, and consumption of wealth or values. But of what values? Of the values produced by human industry; that is, of the changes made in matter by man, that he may appropriate it to his own use, and not at all of Nature’s spontaneous productions. Man’s labour consists in a simple laying on of hands. When he has taken that trouble, he has produced a value. Until then, the salt of the sea, the water of the springs, the grass of the fields, and the trees of the forests are to him as if they were not. The sea, without the fisherman and his line, supplies no fish. The forest, without the wood-cutter and his axe, furnishes neither fuel nor timber. The meadow, without the mower, yields neither hay nor aftermath. Nature is a vast mass of material to be cultivated and converted into products; but Nature produces nothing for herself: in the economical sense, her products, in their relation to man, are not yet products.

Capital, tools, and machinery are likewise unproductive. The hammer and the anvil, without the blacksmith and the iron, do not forge. The mill, without the miller and the grain, does not grind, &c. Bring tools and raw material together; place a plough and some seed on fertile soil; enter a smithy, light the fire, and shut up the shop, — you will produce nothing. The following remark was made by an economist who possessed more good sense than most of his fellows: “Say credits capital with an active part unwarranted by its nature; left to itself, it is an idle tool.” (J. Droz: Political Economy)

Finally, labour and capital together, when unfortunately combined, produce nothing. Plough a sandy desert, beat the water of the rivers, pass type through a sieve, — you will get neither wheat, nor fish, nor books. Your trouble will be as fruitless as was the immense labour of the army of Xerxes; who, as Herodotus says, with his three million soldiers, scourged the Hellespont for twenty-four hours, as a punishment for having broken and scattered the pontoon bridge which the great king had thrown across it.

Tools and capital, land and labour, considered individually and abstractly, are not, literally speaking, productive. The proprietor who asks to be rewarded for the use of a tool, or the productive power of his land, takes for granted, then, that which is radically false; namely, that capital produces by its own effort, — and, in taking pay for this imaginary product, he literally receives something for nothing.

Objection — But if the blacksmith, the wheelwright, all manufacturers in short, have a right to the products in return for the implements which they furnish; and if land is an implement of production, — why does not this implement entitle its proprietor, be his claim real or imaginary, to a portion of the products; as in the case of the manufacturers of ploughs and wagons?

Reply — Here we touch the heart of the question, the mystery of property; which we must clear up, if we would understand anything of the strange effects of the right of increase [droit d’aubaine].

He who manufactures or repairs the farmer’s tools receives the price once, either at the time of delivery, or in several payments; and when this price is once paid to the manufacturer, the tools which he has delivered belong to him no more. Never does he claim double payment for the same tool, or the same job of repairs. If he annually shares in the products of the farmer, it is owing to the fact that he annually makes something for the farmer.

The proprietor, on the contrary, does not yield his implement; eternally he is paid for it, eternally he keeps it.

In fact, the rent received by the proprietor is not intended to defray the expense of maintaining and repairing the implement; this expense is charged to the borrower, and does not concern the proprietor except as he is interested in the preservation of the article. If he takes it upon himself to attend to the repairs, he takes care that the money which he expends for this purpose is repaid.

This rent does not represent the product of the implement, since of itself the implement produces nothing; we have just proved this, and we shall prove it more clearly still by its consequences.

Finally, this rent does not represent the participation of the proprietor in the production; since this participation could consist, like that of the blacksmith and the wheelwright, only in the surrender of the whole or a part of his implement, in which case he would cease to be its proprietor, which would involve a contradiction of the idea of property.

Then, between the proprietor and his tenant there is no exchange either of values or services; then, as our axiom says, farm-rent is real increase, — an extortion based solely upon fraud and violence on the one hand, and weakness and ignorance upon the other. Products, say the economists, are bought only by products. This maxim is property’s condemnation. The proprietor, producing neither by his own labour nor by his implement, and receiving products in exchange for nothing, is either a parasite or a thief. Then, if property can exist only as a right, property is impossible.

Corollaries — 1. The republican constitution of 1793, which defined property as “the right to enjoy the fruit of one’s labour,” was grossly mistaken. It should have said, “Property is the right to enjoy and dispose at will of another’s goods, — the fruit of another’s industry and labour.”

2. Every possessor of lands, houses, furniture, machinery, tools, money, &c., who lends a thing for a price exceeding the cost of repairs (the repairs being charged to the lender, and representing products which he exchanges for other products), is guilty of swindling and extortion. In short, all rent received (nominally as damages, but really as payment for a loan) is an act of property, — of theft.

Historical comment — The tax which a victorious nation levies upon a conquered nation is genuine farm-rent. The seigniorial rights abolished by the Revolution of 1789, — tithes, mortmain, statute-labour, &c., — were different forms of the rights of property; and they who under the titles of nobles, seigneurs, prebendaries, &c. enjoyed these rights, were neither more nor less than proprietors. To defend property to-day is to condemn the Revolution.


When the ass is too heavily loaded, he lies down; man always moves on. Upon this indomitable courage, the proprietor — well knowing that it exists — bases his hopes of speculation. The free worker produces ten; for me, thinks the proprietor, he will produce twelve.

Indeed, — before consenting to the confiscation of his fields, before bidding farewell to the paternal roof, — the peasant, whose story we have just told, makes a desperate effort; he leases new land; he will sow one-third more; and, taking half of this new product for himself, he will harvest an additional sixth, and thereby pay his rent. What an evil! To add one-sixth to his production, the farmer must add, not one-sixth, but two-sixths to his labour. At such a price, he pays a farm-rent which in God’s eyes he does not owe.

The landlord’s example is followed by the industrialist. The former tills more land, and dispossesses his neighbours; the latter lowers the price of his merchandise, and endeavours to monopolise its manufacture and sale, and to crush out his competitors. To satisfy property, the worker must first produce beyond his needs. Then, he must produce beyond his strength [...]


If the worker receives for his labour an average of three francs per day, his employer (in order to gain anything beyond his own salary, if only interest on his capital) must sell the day’s labour of his employee, in the form of merchandise, for more than three francs. The worker cannot, then, repurchase that which he has produced for his master. It is thus with all trades whatsoever. The tailor, the hatter, the cabinet-maker, the blacksmith, the tanner, the mason, the jeweller, the printer, the clerk, &c., even to the farmer and wine-grower, cannot repurchase their products; since, producing for a master who in one form or another makes a profit, they are obliged to pay more for their own labour than they get for it.

The labouring people can buy neither the cloth which they weave, nor the furniture which they manufacture, nor the metal which they forge, nor the jewels which they cut, nor the prints which they engrave. They can procure neither the wheat which they plant, nor the wine which they grow, nor the flesh of the animals which they raise. They are allowed neither to dwell in the houses which they build, nor to attend the plays which their labour supports, nor to enjoy the rest which their body requires. And why? Because the right of increase [droit d’aubaine] does not permit these things to be sold at the cost-price, which is all that workers can afford to pay. On the signs of those magnificent warehouses which he in his poverty admires, the worker reads in large letters: “This is thy work, and thou shalt not have it.” Sic vos non vobis!


If the factory stops running, the manufacturer has to pay interest on his capital the same as before. He naturally tries, then, to continue production by lessening expenses. Then comes the lowering of wages; the introduction of machinery; the employment of women and children to do the work of men; bad workmen, and wretched work. They still produce, because the decreased cost creates a larger market; but they do not produce long, because, the cheapness being due to the quantity and rapidity of production, the productive power tends more than ever to outstrip consumption. It is when workers, whose wages are scarcely sufficient to support them from one day to another, are thrown out of work, that the consequences of the principle of property become most frightful. They have not been able to economise, they have made no savings, they have accumulated no capital whatever to support them even one day more. Today the factory is closed. To-morrow the people starve in the streets. Day after tomorrow they will either die in the hospital, or eat in the jail.

And still new misfortunes come to complicate this terrible situation. In consequence of the cessation of business, and the extreme cheapness of merchandise, the manufacturer finds it impossible to pay the interest on his borrowed capital; whereupon his frightened creditors hasten to withdraw their funds. Production is suspended, and labour comes to a standstill. Then people are astonished to see capital desert commerce, and throw itself upon the Stock Exchange; and I once heard M. Blanqui bitterly lamenting the blind ignorance of capitalists. The cause of this movement of capital is very simple; but for that very reason an economist could not understand it, or rather must not explain it. The cause lies solely in competition.

I mean by competition, not only the rivalry between two parties engaged in the same business, but the general and simultaneous effort of all kinds of business to get ahead of each other. This effort is to-day so strong, that the price of merchandise scarcely covers the cost of production and distribution; so that, the wages of all workers being lessened, nothing remains, not even interest for the capitalists.

The primary cause of commercial and industrial stagnations is, then, interest on capital, — that interest which the ancients with one accord branded with the name of usury, whenever it was paid for the use of money, but which they did not dare to condemn in the forms of house-rent, farm-rent, or profit: as if the nature of the thing lent could ever warrant a charge for the lending; that is, theft.

In proportion to the increase received by the capitalist will be the frequency and intensity of commercial crises, — the first being given, we always can determine the two others; and vice versa. Do you wish to know the regulator of a society? Ascertain the amount of active capital; that is, the capital bearing interest, and the legal rate of this interest. The course of events will be a series of overturns, whose number and violence will be proportional to the activity of capital.


Property is impossible, because it is powerless against Property.

I. By the third corollary of our axiom, interest tells against the proprietor as well as the stranger. This economic principle is universally admitted. Nothing simpler at first blush; yet, nothing more absurd, more contradictory in terms, or more absolutely impossible.

The manufacturer, it is said, pays himself the rent on his house and capital. he pays himself; that is, he gets paid by the public who buy his products. For, suppose the manufacturer, who seems to make this profit on his property, wishes also to make it on his merchandise, can he then pay himself one franc for that which cost him ninety centimes, and make money by the operation? No: such a transaction would transfer the merchant’s money from his right hand to his left, but without any profit whatever.

Now, that which is true of a single individual trading with himself is true also of the whole business world. Form a chain of ten, fifteen, twenty producers; as many as you wish. If the producer A makes a profit out of the producer B. B’s loss must, according to economic principles, be made up by C, C’s by D; and so on through to Z.

But by whom will Z be paid for the loss caused him by the profit charged by A in the beginning? By the consumer, replies Say. Contemptible equivocation! Is this consumer any other, then, than A, B. C, D, &c., or Z? By whom will Z be paid? If he is paid by A, no one makes a profit; consequently, there is no property. If, on the contrary, Z bears the burden himself, he ceases to be a member of society; since it refuses him the right of property and profit, which it grants to the other associates.

Since, then, a nation, like universal humanity, is a vast industrial association which cannot act outside of itself, it is clear that no man can enrich himself without impoverishing another. For, in order that the right of property, the right of increase [droit d’aubaine], may be respected in the case of A, it must be denied to Z; thus we see how equality of rights, separated from equality of conditions, may be a truth. The iniquity of political economy in this respect is flagrant. “When I, a manufacturer, purchase the labour of a worker, I do not include his wages in the net product of my business; on the contrary, I deduct them. But the worker includes them in his net product...” (Say: Political Economy)

That means that all which the worker gains is net product; but that only that part of the manufacturer’s gains is net product, which remains after deducting his wages. But why is the right of profit confined to the manufacturer? Why is this right, which is at bottom the right of property itself, denied to the worker? In the terms of economic science, the worker is capital. Now, all capital, beyond the cost of its maintenance and repair, must bear interest. This the proprietor takes care to get, both for his capital and for himself. Why is the worker prohibited from charging a like interest for his capital, which is himself?

Property, then, is inequality of rights; for, if it were not inequality of rights, it would be equality of goods, — in other words, it would not exist. Now, the charter guarantees to all equality of rights. Then, by the charter, property is impossible.

II. Is A, the proprietor of an estate, entitled by the fact of his proprietorship to take possession of the field belonging to B. his neighbour? “No,” reply the proprietors; “but what has that to do with the right of property?” That I shall show you by a series of similar propositions.

Has C, a hatter, the right to force D, his neighbour and also a hatter, to close his shop, and cease his business? Not the least in the world.

But C wishes to make a profit of one franc on every hat, while D is content with fifty centimes. It is evident that D’s moderation is injurious to C’s extravagant claims. Has the latter a right to prevent D from selling? Certainly not.

Since D is at liberty to sell his hats fifty centimes cheaper than C if he chooses, C in his turn is free to reduce his price one franc. Now, D is poor, while C is rich; so that at the end of two or three years D is ruined by this intolerable competition, and C has complete control of the market. Can the proprietor D get any redress from the proprietor C? Can he bring a suit against him to recover his business and property? No; for D could have done the same thing, had he been the richer of the two.

On the same ground, the large proprietor A may say to the small proprietor B: “Sell me your field, otherwise you shall not sell your wheat,” — and that without doing him the least wrong, or giving him ground for complaint. So that A can devour B if he likes, for the very reason that A is stronger than B. Consequently, it is not the right of property which enables A and C to rob B and D, but the right of might. By the right of property, neither the two neighbours A and B, nor the two merchants C and D, could harm each other. They could neither dispossess nor destroy one another, nor gain at one another’s expense. The power of invasion lies in superior strength.

But it is superior strength also which enables the manufacturer to reduce the wages of his employees, and the rich merchant and well-stocked proprietor to sell their products for what they please. The manufacturer says to the worker, “You are as free to go elsewhere with your services as I am to receive them. I offer you so much.” The merchant says to the customer, “Take it or leave it; you are master of your money, as I am of my goods. I want so much.” Who will yield? The weaker.

Therefore, without force, property is powerless against property, since without force it has no power to increase [s’accroître par aubaine]; therefore, without force, property is null and void.


End Notes

[4] Perrin Dandin, a character in François Rabelais’ Third Book. (Editor)