Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Archiving news

I've transcribed two rather obscure bits by William B. Greene:

I'm in the midst of transporting the texts in the Libertarian Labyrinth and some related collections to a Mediwiki-based archive. New texts will probably appear in the wiki. It will take some time to work through the indexing issues involved, but eventually this ought to be a much more usable resource.

There's some good news on the Liberty archive front as well. Before Christmas, a libertarian affiliated with the Distributed Proofreaders group contacted me about working on transcribing Liberty. That should take care of some of the "heavy lifting" involved with making that collection more usable.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

William B. Greene's "A Priori Autobiography"

1849 was a busy year for William Batchelder Greene. In that year, he published at least six articles, under the pseudonym "Omega," in The Worcester Palladium, then collected some of that material and some new work in Equality, the first of his major mutual banking works. He published the first pamphlet edition of his Transcendentalism, which had previously appeared as two articles in The American Review, and he also published Remarks on the Science of History, followed by an A priori Autobiography, a work integrating his apparently wide reading in European philosophies of history with a kind of autobiographical self-evaluation. We have every reason to believe that those were not easy years for Greene. He lost two children during his years as the pastor of the Brookfield Congregational Church. Robert Shaw Greene, born May 15, 1849, died only three days later. His relations in Unitarian circles were strained, thanks to conflicts with Theodore Parker. In a letter dated May 28, 1849, John Weiss (later a contributor to the Radical Review) writes:
The a-priori autobiography is by our friend who knocks the wind out of dying ministers after themanner of Mexican nurses, and doubtless with the same humane intention of putting them out of pain. Part of it was read to the Hook-and-Ladder, and created inextinguishable peals of laughter, which he bore so genially that I thought there was something in his essay.Each one can judge for himself. The introduction seems to be a brisk flirtation with Pythagoras and the science (?) of numbers. The autobiography purported to be a genuine experience of Greene's in Florida, and as such is valuable. . . . Parker does not yet forget his wrongs. That is the worst thing I know about him. He flourishes and has influence; but he begins to complain of his head again. He works too hard. There is no controversy with him now; but the Boston Association does not yet fraternize with him, and the whole matter is in abeyance.
Greene's biography is still largely a matter of mystery. We know that Parker was attached to Greene's wife-to-be, Anna Blake Shaw, and that some mix of philosophical differences, incompatibilities of temperment and personal jealousies boiled out into a conflict involving Greene, Parker, Orestes Brownson, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (who had been rather attached to Greene), and others. It's hard to imagine a more formidable crowd in a controversy that touched both philosophical principles and personal honor.

Greene's sister Mary, having converted to Catholicism, was living in a convent in Maryland, and her letters (published after her death from cholera, crossing the Isthmus of Panama in 1852) give some glimpses into the everyday difficulties of life in the mid-19th century.

Weiss' letter refers to Greene's periodic bouts with illness. In the A Priori Autobiography, Greene marshalls his protrations by remittant fever, his bouts with tropical disease, and the like in the service of a personal narrative which seeks not only to tease out the logical development of his own beliefs, but to show the connections of that development to the development of beliefs in general. Something like the Biogenetic Law finds itself recapitulated in the realm of ideas here, and this seems to have been something of a commonplace in the largely Saint-Simonian philosophy of history in which Greene had obviously immersed himself in the 1840s. But there is also an adaptation of apostolic conversion narratives here: Greene presents himself as struck down on his own personal "road to Damascus."

It would be simple to speculate further about Greene's narrative, his illnesses, his controversies, and about the representative nature of the "autobiography." Greene himself claims he is not to be understood as the "hero" of his story, but it is hard to escape the fact that it is at least based in the details of his experiences. As more biographical details emerge, it will become easier to evaluate the narrative, of course, and it no doubt contains some clues to aid in that discovery process.

For now, though, the work is available at Google Books, and in the Labyrinth, and is worth a look, for those interested in Greene's deeper philosophical interests, or in a glimpse into his personal development.

Meaningful responses from Google Books?

I'm curious if any readers of this blog have actually seen any meaningful change in specific offering at Google Books, as a result of providing feedback. Have you seen a badly scanned book rescanned, or a public domain book in "snippet view" released for full browsing?

After a year of attempting to get some sort of straght answer about the unavailability of the(apparently fully scanned, but only snippet-viewable) Univercoelum and Spiritual Philosopher, I'm beginning to suspect that nothing results from feedback responses other than the dispersal of vague form letters.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Stephen Pearl Andrews Vs. Wendell Phillips, 1847

I've posted an 1847 exchange between Stephen Pearl Andrews and Wendell Phillips on abolitionism and disunion at The Very Idea!

1848 origins of "agro-industrial federation"

We can't say he didn't warn us, but Proudhon, despite his explicit embrace of a certain kind of productive contradiction, challenges readers to keep his antinomies in play, and to follow along as he reasons from the most individualistic of starting positions—complete and absolute insolidarité, the denial of common interests—to something like agro-industrial federation, which involves at least some sort of intense "centralization." In 1840, Proudhon was already concerned with fulfilling the aims of a "communism" that he opposed as resolutely as he did "property." And he was going to do just that, he told us in 1840, by combining and harmonizing "communism and property." At the end of his life, in the 1860s, his vision was more nuanced, but his project hadn't changed much: take what is positive in human institutions, and strengthen those aspects of those elements which opposed what was clearly negative in other (well-intentioned but practically disastrous) institutions, or pit those institutions best points against their worst. Universalize credit and property, so that those institutions are self-neutralizing. Pit property against the state, so that the state gradually withers and the political realm is absorbed by the economic realm.

It is a commonplace that we should not look for a "system" in Proudhon. It is true that we shouldn't look for a description of an anarchist society "after the revolution." Proudhon considered full-blown anarchy an abstraction. What he proposed were a series of transitional programs, more or less well adapted to conditions at the times he was writing. There are no utopias in Proudhon, and what is most systematic in his work has to do primarily with how we view the conditions around us: look for the Revolution immanent in all our activities and institutions, and then add our individual strength to the current. Rather than thinking of revolutionaries as a visionary vanguard, there are indications the Proudhon considered Revolution a matter of that "collective force" that also gave power to industry, that was allied to progress. Individuals, even radical ones, might be sluggards in comparison with the forces building in their own societies. The "Toast to the Revolution" suggests this: there is no Revolution without our active participation, but it is our tardiness, our failure to perceive the potential advances around us, that makes revolutionary change this steeplechase affair. Trot along, rear back, leap—the "great equitations of principles, these enormous shifts in mores."

That is probably both more and less radical than we generally have considered our role. And, honestly, we are all much more comfortable with opposition to a "world" we reject more or less tout court, and with speculations about final states, than we are with transitional programs and possibly interminable revolutionary processes. Be that as it may, we need to read Proudhon according to his own lights, before we can either accept or reject him. And his vision, from What Is Property? through to The Theory of Property and The Political Capacity of the Working Classes, is all messy transitions, mixtures, balancing acts, antinomies.

And, as I suggested at the start of this, none of his "contradictions" are much more important, or much harder to wrap our heads around, than his vision of "centralization" (by which he really means widespread federation) growing out of the most radical individualization of interests. Consider this passage from 1848's "Revolutionary Program:"

I am, as you are well aware, citizens, the man who wrote these words: Property is theft!

I do not come to retract them, heaven forbid! I persist in regarding this provocative definition as the greatest truth of the century. I have no desire to insult your convictions either: all that I ask, is to say to you how I—partisan of the family and the household, and adversary of communism that I am—understand that the negation of property is necessary for the abolition of misery, for the emancipation of the proletariat. It is by its fruits that one must judge a doctrine: judge then my theory by my practice.

When I say, Property is theft! I do not propose a principle; I do nothing but express one conclusion. You will understand the enormous difference presently.However, if the definition of property which I state is only the conclusion, or rather the general formula of the economic system, what is the principle of that system, what is its practice, and what are its forms?

My principle, which will appear astonishing to you, citizens, my principle is yours; it is property itself.

I have no other symbol, no other principle than those of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: Liberty, equality, security, property.

Like the Declaration of Rights, I define liberty as the right to do anything that does not harm others.

Again, like the Declaration of Rights, I define property, provisionally, as the right to dispose freely of one's income, the fruits of one's labor and industry.

Here is the entirety of my system: liberty of conscience, liberty of the press, liberty of labor, free trade, liberty in education, free competition, free disposition of the fruits of labor and industry, liberty ad infinitum, absolute liberty, liberty for all and always.

It is the system of '89 and '93; the system of Quesnay, of Turgot, of J.-B. Say; the system that is always professed, with more or less intelligence and good faith, by the various organs of the political parties, the system of the Débats, of the Presse, of the Constitutionnel, of the Siècle, of the Nationale, of the Rèforme, of the Gazette; in the end it is your system, voters.

Simple as unity, vast as infinity, this system serves for itself and for others as a criterion. In a word it is understood and compels adhesion; nobody wants a system in which liberty is the least bit undermined. One word identifies and wards off all errors: what could be easier than to say what is or is not liberty?

Liberty then, nothing more, nothing less. Laissez faire, laissez passer, in the broadest and most literal sense; consequently property, as it rises legitimately from this freedom, is my principle. No other solidarity between citizens than that which rises accidentally from force majeur: for all that which relates to free acts, and manifestations of reflective thought, complete and absolute insolidarity.

And, now, another section of the same piece:
Who does not see that the mutualist organization of exchange, of circulation, of credit, of buying and selling, the abolition of taxes and tolls of every nature which place burdens on production and bans on goods, irresistibly push the producers, each following his specialty, towards a centralization analogous with that of the State, but in which no one obeys, no one is dependent, and everyone is free and sovereign? [my translations—shawn.]
Well now! Proudhon goes on to say that there is nothing inevitable about this free organization. It is quite possible to screw things up, to end up with "communism," which he, like Warren, associates with a premature assumption of common interests (not necessarily a fault of our contemporary communist comrades) or "agro-industrial dictatorship"—or any number of other new feudalisms or authoritarian governments. The key to avoiding those pitfalls is the heart of mutualism—reciprocity, the Golden Rule. Opposition to authority in the form of the Absolute, a certain skepticism or papillon restlessness of thought, helps too.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

My NaNoWriMo

Well, I'll admit with no regrets that I did not complete the 50,000 words of fiction necessary to "win" during November's National Novel Writing Month. Some other realities intervened. I wrote a little over 25,000 words on The Distributive Passions, some of which is up on the site. (I may have covered the other half in other writings.) Winner or not, I had a very good time trying, and the pressure of trying to get ready for a month of sustained writing did wonders for my overall sense of where the novel is going. I did manage to write a little nearly every day, and characters and events are becoming more clearly defined all the time.

I recommend the experience, particularly if you've wanted to write a longer piece of fiction, but haven't taken the plunge. Even if, as in my case, there aren't local events to bring writers together, the challenge itself is a good spur.

For me, the chance to play the historical and political "what if?" game has been very useful. There's nothing to make you familiar with a given ideology like trying to imagine a character living it, or raised immersed in it. Anarchistic speculation is one thing on the blog, and another if I'm trying to make readers believe my societies have actually existed.

At a time when my other projects seem to be picking up steam, I think I can promise that The Distributive Passions will emerge slowly. I'm playing around with some related material in short story form, dealing with issues like intellectual property and cooperative public institutions, which may find their way into print a little more quickly. We shall see.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Anarchist-communism, work, and the virtue of selfishness

I've been reading some of the work of Joseph Déjacque—early anarchist, critic of Proudhon, communist, and one of the first to distinguish himself as a libertaire, rather than a libéral . There is a very nice online archive containing much of his work in French. Déjacque shows the influence of Fourier even more strongly than Proudhon. He retains much of the language of Fourier's historical scheme, and emphasizes the positivity of human impulses. A key source of his differences with Proudhon may indeed have been the extent to which, and the manner in which, the two men accepted the notion of the perfectibility of human beings and their institutions. Pierre Leroux also seems to have been an influence on Déjacque. L'Humanisphère—Utopie Anarchique contained much of Déjacque's vision of an anarchist society. There's a lot in it, and not all of it is clear without some serious digging for contexts. It also seems to have been subject to rather piecemeal republication. The version I initially printed out was heavily edited. Another short essay turned out to be part of a chapter missing in that version. That excerpt, on "Authority and Idleness," goes something like this:


In anarchy, consumption feeds itself by production. It would make no more sense to a humanispherean that a man might be forced to work, than that he might be forced to eat. For natural man, the need to work is as pressing as the need to eat. Man is not all stomach: he has arms and a brain, and apparently this is so he might work. Work, whether manual or intellectual, is the food which makes him live. If a man has no needs but those of the mouth and stomach, he is no longer a man, but an oyster, in which case, nature, in place of hands, which are attributes of his intelligence, would have given him, like a mollusk, two shells.—And idleness! Idleness! Do you cry to me, you civilizées?


Idleness is not the daughter of liberty and human genius, but of slavery and civilization; it is something foul and against nature, that one could only encounter in some Sodom, old or new. Idleness is not a pleasure, it is a gangrene and a paralysis. The bygone societies, the old worlds, the corrupt civilizations could only produce and spread the same scourges. Humanisphereans satisfy naturally the need for the exercise of the arm, as well as that of the stomach. It is no more possible to ration the appetite for production that the appetite for consumption. It is up to each to consume and to produce according to their strengths, according to their needs. By bending all beneath a uniform remuneration, one would starve some and cause others to die of indigestion. Only the individual is capable of knowing the proportion of labor that his stomach, his brain, or his hand can digest. One rations a horse at the stable; the master allocates to domestic animal so much food. But in liberty the animal rations itself, and the instincts offer it, better than the master, that which suits its temperament. Wild animals scarcely know disease. Having all in profusion, they do not fight among themselves to pull up a blade of grass. They know the wild meadow produces more pasturage than they are able to graze, and they mow it in peace, one beside the other. Why do men wrest consumption from one another, when production, by mechanical forces, furnishes more than their needs?

—Authority is idleness.
—Liberty is labor.

The slave alone is lazy, rich or poor:—the rich, slave to prejudice, to false science; the poor, slave to ignorance and prejudices,—both slaves of the law, the one to suffer it, the other to impose it. Isn’t it suicide to dedicate its productive faculties to inertia? The inert man is not a man; he is less than a brute, because the brute acts in the measure of its means, and obeys its instinct. Whoever possesses a particle of intelligence could at least obey it. And intelligence is not idleness; it is fertilizing movement. It is progress. The intelligence of man is his instinct, and that instinct says to him without ceasing: Labor; put the hand and the brow to the work; produce and discover; productions and discoveries, these are liberty. Those who do not work, do not enjoy. Work is life.—Idleness is death!

That might not sound all that appealing to the "anti-work" crowd, though it is clear that Déjacque is talking about a kind of "attractive labor" that would not have the character of work within authoritarian institutions. It does give a pretty unequivocal answer to the question often posed about expectations about labor under anarchist-communism. The treatment of the relation between abilities and needs, on the one hand, and production and consumption, on the other, is itself fairly attractive. And Déjacque, at least, was pretty sure that everyone would be busy at their attractive industries. In fine Fourierist fashion, we might extend his claims about "natural man" and laziness, and guess that those who appear naturally lazy are, instead, enslaved by ill-wrought social systems, or perhaps just bored. (Time to exercise the papillon a bit, maybe.)
When I tracked down the installment of L'Humanisphère from which this excerpt was taken, I was a bit surprised to find that it led off with a long passage on l’égoïsme:

L’égoïsme, c’est l’homme : sans l’égoïsme, l’homme n’existerait pas. C’est l’égoïsme qui est le mobile de toutes ses actions, le moteur de toutes ses pensées.

I don't think that's too hard to follow, even if you don't have much French. Egoism is the motive of all human actions, and the motor of all human thoughts. Here is one of those points at which we can explore the original differences between mutualism and anarchist communism, and one of the things that is clear is that individualism per se was not the point of contention.
More about these issues as I work my way through the sources. . .