Three questions left as an exercise for the reader…

As a sort of follow-up to the Proudhon materials I’m posting, I’ve got three questions for you, that you may find rather interesting (depending on how much you already know on the topic). Either way, please post your answers in the comments, no matter what your political position.

Of course, I have my own opinion on all three, but I will only give it out on the entry where I discuss your answers (if there are enough of them).

Before I ask the questions, I need to first clarify a couple of things, for those who don’t already know them. If you understand them, then feel free to skim to the questions.

The right of property is traditionally divided in three parts:
the right of usus– to use (mix your labour with)
the right of fructus– to take the fruit of that use (such as the actual fruits produced by a tree that one has used)
the right of abusus– to abuse, meaning: to destroy or damage, to sell, to rent, etc.

Usus and fructus together constitute possession, and all three together constitute property. Usus and fructus are necessary conditions for both property and possession.

For the rest of this entry, let’s take as our example a box of macaroni and cheese on the shelf of a chain grocery store (just to be clear here, I am indeed talking about a corporation) in our current capitalist system.

As it sits on the shelf, no one has a recognized right of usus or fructus on that box. We know this because, if anyone grabbed the box, carried it straight home, and tried to use it, he has already committed the crime of shoplifting (whether shoplifting is actually a crime or not is irrelevant here: we’re talking about what is currently recognized). As far as I know, there are no exceptions to this law, and therefore we can safely say that no one has any right to use or benefit from this box.

Since there is no right of usus or fructus over this box, this brings us to the first question:

Q1: Since the box of macaroni and cheese is not property, nor is it possession, what category of owned object is it?

When I buy this box of macaroni and cheese, however, I can go home, cook it, and eat the results. I have usus and fructus over it: in fact, that’s the whole purpose of buying products at a grocery store! And yet, before I bought it, no one had either of these rights. So how did these rights come to exist?

Q2: Since no one can sell what he does not have, how could I be sold the rights of usus and fructus over the box of macaroni and cheese, when no such rights existed? If they were created, how?
(please note that I am looking for a theoretical justification here, not merely a practical one: saying “the rights were created when I bought it” is not enough)

There is no right of usus or fructus over the box, but there is a presumed right of abusus, or at least there is a presumed right of sale. I know this is true because there are tags with prices below the product, and I can buy the product.

But from whom am I buying the product? Who has this right of sale? Not the cashier. If I come up to her in the store while she isn’t working and ask if I can buy a given box of macaroni and cheese from her, she will rightly say that she cannot do such a thing, since it’s not hers. When I come up to the checkstand and purchase the box, she does not put my money in her pocket; she puts it in a till, over which she only has usus, and the money is never hers.

I must therefore come to the conclusion that she is actually acting as a proxy for someone or a group of people who do have this right of sale.

Q3: Who has the right of sale over the box of macaroni and cheese?

(the answer to this question also provides us with the answer to: if shoplifting is actually a form of theft, then who are we stealing from?, since the right to sale is the only right we can steal from anyone when we steal the box of macaroni and cheese)

Keep in mind that for all these questions we’re talking about the box of macaroni and cheese yet unsold, still on the shelf- not after it was bought or before it was shipped to the store.

24 thoughts on “Three questions left as an exercise for the reader…

  1. David Gendron July 24, 2009 at 17:13

    Not easy. I’ll think about that!

  2. Francois Tremblay July 24, 2009 at 17:26

    Thank you David, I’m looking forward to seeing your answers.

  3. John V July 24, 2009 at 19:42

    If we were to pretend that a box of macaroni were like an apple on a un-humaned tree, then, yes, none of those three have been exercised on it. But:

    “If anyone grabbed the box, carried it straight home, and tried to use it, he has already committed the crime of shoplifting.”

    Except for the owner of the store, right? Or, to make it simpler, the maker/seller of macaroni. There is the question of proxy which you bring up later, but that only adds layers to this.

    Maybe I can state it another way, no one is expressing their usus or fructus over the box, but that doesn’t mean no one has usus or fructus over it. Similarly, nothing has happened to your ownership of the cooked macaroni once you set the bowl on the table and wander off for a second.

  4. John V July 24, 2009 at 19:43

    This all assumes I’ve generally understood things. Lemme know if I’ve failed at it all.

  5. Roderick T. Long July 24, 2009 at 22:39

    As it sits on the shelf, no one has a recognized right of usus or fructus on that box.

    Why don’t the store owners have usus and fructus?

  6. Shawn P. Wilbur July 24, 2009 at 23:00

    It seems pretty clear that the owners of the store have *recognized* property in all three senses. We know this because the owners have a recognized right to remove product from the store, entirely control the conditions of sale, or destroy the product, all of which they may do regularly–not to mention their tax liability for the merchandise. Inventory staff and cashiers are agents of the owners, with limited powers necessary to perform their jobs, which are generally pretty clearly spelled out.

  7. kentmcmanigal July 24, 2009 at 23:16

    I was thinking along the lines of Roderick…. the owner of the store could walk up, take the box and walk out with it as he already owns it.

  8. Francois Tremblay July 25, 2009 at 03:16

    All of you are talking about the “owner” of a chain grocery store. I have no idea what you are talking about. Who is this owner? Certainly not the store manager. Are you talking about the CEO of the corporation?

    If that’s gonna be your answer, at least be specific enough for me to recognize who you’re talking about, because I have no idea who this “owner” is. Whoever he is, he is apparently an exception to the shoplifting laws, which is something I have never heard about.

  9. Shawn P. Wilbur July 25, 2009 at 03:54

    So, we’re dealing with a corporation, Francois? If so, then the recognized owner is the corporation as legal person. The CEO no doubt has greater powers as an agent of the corporation, but remains an agent.

  10. Francois Tremblay July 25, 2009 at 03:59

    I should have made this more clear, but yes, I am talking about a corporation.

    “If so, then the recognized owner is the corporation as legal person.”

    All right then, but I fail to see what the relevance of that is to the issue. Is the “legal person” gonna come to the store and grab the box? If not, then there’s still no usus or fructus.

  11. Sandra Kurman July 25, 2009 at 04:15

    You’re all making pretty good points.. It makes sense that the controllers of the product, i.e. whoever has control over the name of the store, would be the person who controls the product. The store itself acts as a person, but is there an actual person who controls this product? No, probably not. See big corporations often have split up ownership and such to the fact that the exact owner is none too clear, what with shareholding, just one complicated part of this. So if it was owned by some person than some person could also come into the store and take the macoroni without paying for it and or taking account for it. While someone possibly can do this in the way that he can make large handed decisions without being stopped if he were to start taking product from the store and didn’t account for it, sooner or later he would probably be considered a criminal who is breaking the law. See the store itself is law in business and there really is no person. Just a great mass of slaves working to keep the illusion of a store going. Cause stores are all superfluous extra, and pretty much an imaginairy place, what makes it real is peopels belief that it’s real. Likewise what keeps their right to sell is people’s belief that the store has the right to sell.

  12. Shawn P. Wilbur July 25, 2009 at 12:35

    The recognized rights associated with property do not appear to depend on the proprietor’s ability to exercise them. In this case, the corporate person is specifically recognized as a kind of repository for rights (and legal responsibilities.) Now, the corporate person is obviously a product of collective force, much like the box of mac’n’cheese, and is subject, in turn, to various sorts of ownership claims. When you steal the mac’n’cheese, you steal directly from the corporation and indirectly from stockholders, other investors, suppliers with outstanding accounts, etc.

    I’m curious how you think Proudhon relates here. The mac’n’cheese is the sort of thing he pretty consistently dealt with as “product,” rather than “property” in the sense of land or other “free gifts of nature.” Certainly, for Proudhon, who makes the collective nature of production central to his critique of property, and who makes space in his theory for a range of collective persons and “true legal fictions,” the question of which individual human being you’re stealing from isn’t necessarily going to be the most important one.

  13. Hellbound Alleee July 25, 2009 at 16:17

    Actually, the CEO of the store would be recognized as a thief if he just went into a store, and grabbed the box of macaroni and cheese.

    In a corporation, any one person in the hierarchy, who took the box home without paying, would be considered a thief, and anyone looking the other way would probably feel like one.

    Even if every single one of the stockholders marched in together and in unison went off with the box of Kraft Dinner, they would also be Kraft Dinner thieves.

  14. Brian Holk July 26, 2009 at 10:39

    I think we must first answer the question: How did the box of Mac & Cheese get to the shelf?
    Unlike an apple growing from a tree on free land that would become the property of the first hungry man with the incentive to pick it as a gift from nature, an individual or group somewhere mixed the flour and water to create the Pasta, added the cheese and packaged it for transportation and sale. They presumably have been payed and transfered ownership to the store for resale.
    My answers:
    1. It is real property created by individuals.
    2. The right to ownership was transfered by the creators.
    3. The current owner.

  15. Francois Tremblay July 26, 2009 at 14:22

    “1. It is real property created by individuals.”

    Property without usus or fructus?

    “2. The right to ownership was transfered by the creators.”

    To whom?

    “3. The current owner.”

    Who is that?

  16. Shawn P. Wilbur July 26, 2009 at 19:02

    Francois, you haven’t established the lack of usus or fructus, so your objections aren’t clear. (It would be nice to know if and how you differentiate between the rights associated with real property and those associated with chattles or products.) If an individual laborer was hired by an individual to make packaged pasta, which was distributed and retailed to consumers by sole proprietorships, presumably there would be no question about the continuing existence of the various rights in the product. Right?

    Is the situation different, from your perspective, if two laborers work together? Or if a single laborer is hired by a partnership?

  17. Francois Tremblay July 26, 2009 at 21:12

    Shawn, as long as you accept capitalist work contracts as valid (which they aren’t, of course, but you already know that), then obviously there’s no problem in the scenarios you gave.

  18. Shawn P. Wilbur July 27, 2009 at 01:38

    Well, none of my scenarios are necessarily “capitalist work contracts,” unless you are saying that no contract involving work for hire can be valid. My question was aimed at determining exactly why you think there is “no usus and no fructus” in the supermarket scenario, since it seems to be an unsubstantiated premise.

  19. Francois Tremblay July 27, 2009 at 01:45

    … I already stated why in the entry.

  20. Shawn P. Wilbur July 27, 2009 at 03:45

    Ah, so you simply reject outright the possibility of the “legal person” as a repository for rights. It will be interesting to see where you go with this in the context of Proudhon.

  21. Francois Tremblay July 27, 2009 at 03:50

    Actually, I never rejected any answer on my exercise. You are the one assuming that I am rejecting your answer.

    In fact, since no one has posted their answers (except for Brian, bless his heart), there’s no point in me making a follow-up.

  22. Shawn P. Wilbur July 27, 2009 at 12:38

    Well, if the reason that there is no property in the mac’n’cheese is because no person can walk away with it, then you pretty well have to have rejected the notion of the legal person, which is recognized as having property in the object without having the physical ability of carting it off. Yes, I have to *assume* that, because you won’t clarify your own premises, but it seems like a fairly safe assumption.

    It’s possible, I suppose, that you have simply decided that no property rights are possible, or that the mac’n’cheese is a *product* and not property at all, or that no legitimate property rights are possible while capitalism reigns (or any number of other things), and that the question was not about “recognized” rights at all, but I guess we’ll never know.

    But I remain curious about the Proudhon connection, since his emphasis on the social nature of production and the existence of collective persons makes some sort of non-state corporate form very likely as the logical holder of many property rights.

  23. David Gendron July 27, 2009 at 16:31

    “All of you are talking about the “owner” of a chain grocery store. I have no idea what you are talking about. Who is this owner? Certainly not the store manager. Are you talking about the CEO of the corporation?”

    In reality (the actual capitalist system), the owner is the Corporation itself and I have a big problem with that! No corporation can exist in an anarchist system.

    “Q1: Since the box of macaroni and cheese is not property, nor is it possession, what category of owned object is it?”

    In the actuel capitalist context, it’s a statist property (sic) owned by the Corporation itself.

    In my view, before selling, macaroni and chesse is the possession of all grocery’s workers (including the grocery manager, as a co-worker itself ).

    “Q2: Since no one can sell what he does not have, how could I be sold the rights of usus and fructus over the box of macaroni and cheese, when no such rights existed? If they were created, how?”

    In the actual capitalist system, the Corporation itself has these rights. The State created this right for the Corporation.

    In my view, it’s way more complicated!

    1-Land and cows are the possession of the farmer (as a co-worker) and his workers.
    2-Milk and wheat are also the possession of the farmer (as a co-worker) and his workers
    3-When the initial possessors sold milk and wheat to the factory, they abandoned their possession rights to the factory workers and manager (as a co-worker).
    4-Macaroni and Cheese are also the possession of the factory workers and manager (as a co-worker)
    5-When the Mararoni and Cheese possessors sold their product to the distributor, they abandoned their possession rights to the distributor.
    6-When the distributor sold their products to the grocery store, they abandoned their possession rights to the all grocery’s workers (including the grocery manager, as a co-worker itself ).

    Q3: Who has the right of sale over the box of macaroni and cheese?

    In the actual capitalist system, the Corporation itself decides to abandoned this right to the grocery manager in return of financial compensation.

    In my view, all grocery’s workers (including the grocery manager, as a co-worker itself ) have this right.

  24. David Gendron July 27, 2009 at 16:36

    “Not the cashier. If I come up to her in the store while she isn’t working and ask if I can buy a given box of macaroni and cheese from her, she will rightly say that she cannot do such a thing, since it’s not hers. When I come up to the checkstand and purchase the box, she does not put my money in her pocket; she puts it in a till, over which she only has usus, and the money is never hers.”

    Not the grovery store manager, for the same reason. Only the Corporation itself has fructus and abusus rights.

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