Monday, February 18, 2008

Not just for pear-growers anymore

The anarcho-Fourierist renaissance continues. In "The Lesson of the Pear Growers' Series," I had suggested that there might still be some lessons to be learned from Charles Fourier's approach to questions of individual passion, competition, etc. Unfortunately, "Note A," which contains the most concise explanation of Fourier's associative model, is not available (yet) in a public-domain translation online—and it is a bit of a stretch, at times, to make the analogies between growing pears (and apples, and quinces) and other sorts of labor we might actually be planning on engaging in. Fortunately, one of Fourier's disciples wrote a work illustrating how the dynamic of "Note A" might be applied to the problem of rebuilding a town. Mathieu Briancourt's The Organization of Labor and Association was published in French in 1846, and translated into English by Francis George Shaw (William Batchelder Greene's brother-in-law, and a proponent of a competing form of "mutual banking") in 1847. It's a fascinating work, applying Fourier's theory to a practical problem, without relying on Fourier's esoteric terminology. Part of the point of the book is that what Fourier is suggesting is not alien to widely-held values. There are a few funny moments, too:
The Merchant. "So, sir, it is Fourier who discovered this beautiful science which you call phalansterian, which is so logical, so religious, that you have had the goodness to explain to us, and which has singularly modified my ideas respecting man and society?"

The Professor. "Yes, sir; at the commencement of this century, Fourier discovered the phalansterian or social science, which was propagated very slowly at first, like all new truth—but which is now known and discussed among all civilized nations."

The Magistrate. "I had formed, I confess, an entirely different opinion of Fourier's system. I thought it absurd, impracticable, subversive of property and the family."

Ah, yes. Good old wholesome Fourier. We're reminded that his disciples frequently neglected any mention of copulating planets, lemonade seas, or the particular virtues of lesbians. Still, while one could wish the fourierists had been bolder about the positivity of the passions, there is a good deal to like in works like The Organization of Labor and Association.

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A note on "association." Proudhon was pretty clear in his criticism of "the principle of association" that what he opposed was placing "association" as a principle ahead of the specific human drives and desires that led to association in practice. In this, I think, he would have been in accord with Fourier, if not always with the fourierists.

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