Monday, June 30, 2008

Un commerce équitable est-il possible ?

The new issue of the French-language Offensive bears the title "Un commerce sans capitalisme." It asks the question: "Et si le commerce et l’échange étaient indissociables de la création de véritables espaces de résistance ?" / "And if commerce and exchange were inseparable from the creation of real spaces of resistance?"

This one looks well worth tracking down. (Hat tip to the Research on Anarchism list.)

Proudhon: A biographical introduction

The Tucker translation of What Is Property? is prefaced by a translation of J. A. Langlois' "P. J. Proudhon: His Life and Work," the biographical introduction to Proudhon's collected Correspondence. Tucker includes a disclaimer regarding Langlois' account, and it would be nice if we had the ability to easily judge Proudhon by his works, but with so much still to be translated, the careful use of commentary is necessary for most of us. Most of what Langlois wrote rings true to me, and the chronology provided is extremely useful. I recommend the account for all participants in the Proudhon seminar, and anyone else interested in understanding Proudhon's work.

What Is Property? seminar

As announced, I'll be doing a close reading of Proudhon's first memoir from What Is Property? during the month of July, and I am inviting one and all to read along. I have set up a discussion list and wiki page on the anarchylist.org site. Please subscribe to the list if you are interested in participating in the main discussion. If you're not up to that kind of commitment, I will be posting material on this blog, and compiling a running list of seminar-related material on the wiki page.

My ambitions for the reading are fairly simple: I would like to provide an opportunity for individuals, anarchists of whatever school or non-anarchists, to read (or reread) this very important text, in a context where it is also possible to develop a reading of the material. Developing a reading—really coming to terms with the text—is a bit more complicated process than just going the distance through it. But if Proudhon's argument, that "property is theft," is to be more than just an empty slogan, it is necessary to engage with the complexities involved. There are all kinds of complicating issues: Proudhon's very specific definitions of "property" and "possession," potential inconsistencies in Proudhon's various treatments of the question of "property," subsequent developments in Proudhon's property theory, idiosyncratic or period-specific use of terms, etc. The text treats certain conventional libertarian approaches to property, such as "self-ownership," rather obliquely. In my running commentary on the work, I hope to clarify some issues, and highlight the difficulties with regard to others. I'll try to provide some context from other of Proudhon's writings, including some that remain untranslated.

Contrary to my original posting, I intend to spend the entire month of July dealing with the text, and will extend the seminar if it seems desirable. I'll begin slowly this week, with some general comments, and some discussion of the first chapter. The Tucker translation of the first memoir is a little less than 300 pages long, making the pace around ten pages per day. I'll try to give some guidance for the busy about which sections are must-reads.

I'll post links to some biographical material later this evening. Sign up for the discussion list if you're interested in reading along.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Infoshop / bookstore economics

Let me put on one of my other hats for a second:

Well, it didn't take long for me to get involved with a bookstore in Portland. I seem to be well on my way to joining the collective at Laughing Horse Books, a radical bookstore with an ideologically diverse inventory and staff. Like pretty much all independent bookstores, Laughing Horse is trying to figure out how to adapt to present conditions, keep the wolves at bay, be useful in a perplexing political climate, etc. After visiting my first collective meeting, I found myself right back in the mode I had been in for so many years at my own bookstore, calculating break-even points, prioritizing payments, etc.

Infoshops and independent bookstores are still extremely important, as centers of distribution of information, as meeting places, as art and music venues, as quasi-public space where free political discussion is not only allowed but encouraged. Volunteer collectives have the economic advantage of not paying wages, but, if you are considering attempting such a thing, there is one basic rule of the book business to consider:

At any given moment, if your sales are mostly books, mostly at the industry-standard 40% discount, you need to be making 2 1/2 times in gross sales what you pay out in fixed expenses (rent, insurance, utilities, regular advertising, etc.) That means that if you have $1000 in fixed expenses each month, you need to be making $2500 in order to simply stand still (pay bills, keep the lights on, replace inventory). In order to grow the business, increase inventory, capitalize any of your labor in equipment, or savings for a rainy day or slow spell, you have to make more. And unless you take some satisfaction in treating your own labor as pure expenditure, it makes sense to at least try to recoup something from it. It makes good sense to invest individual labor in group resources, as long as those using the resources are also contributing in one way or another to the collective effort, and as long as those resources are being cared for. Labors of love are fine, and the first goal is always simply to keep the operation going as long as it serves a useful function, but it is perhaps easier on the volunteers if they are explicitly planning to have their labor "compensated" by growth in the project.

All radical and independent projects that function in the business sector have to behave more or less like a business, at least as far as making sure the incoming and outgoing funds (and inputs of other sorts) balance out in a sustainable way. Beyond that, they have to be flexible, ready to reach out to like-minded businesses and organizations, able to counter, in one way or another, their disadvantages in the broad marketplace, and so on. Enthusiasm, expertise, openness, willingness to network with and advertise other projects: all of these things are increasingly absent from the parts of the business world that most consumers see on a regular basis. There is no reason that the corner infoshop can't serve the fuctions once served by a number of now-defunct small businesses, and expand its power to serve community needs in the process, with a little attention given to taking care of the bottom line and the work-satisfaction of collective members.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Gems

We convened 40% of the newborn Pacific Northwest ALL for lunch on Sunday. Not quite a quorum, but the two of us had a good time. I can now vouch for the quality of the eats at the Red and Black Cafe. Good stuff. A lot of the discussion naturally revolved around what works were available that might be fodder for more pamphlets at Invisible Molotov. (Bookmark it now, if you haven't already.) Much of the rest revolved around similar questions. Get two market anarchist nerds together and. . .

In the course of the conversation it became clear that there are probably some things added in the flood of new archived material over the last couple of years (close to 35,000 original pages, in one form or another) that deserve another mention. Here's a few gems you might have missed:
I'll be re-featuring more as I start cleaning up the wiki archive for the Grand Reopening.

LeftLiberty extra: Individualism vs. Socialism, c. 1900

The historical material in LeftLiberty #1 will be drawn primarily from the individualism/socialism debate of the mid-19th century, for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that, if we take our cues from any much later iteration of the debate, we find ourselves faced with the sort of simple opposition of entrenched positions that I suspect many of us would like to get past. However, in the interest of completeness, I offer what is perhaps the exemplary "exchange" of the Talking Past One Another Era: Ernest Belfort Bax, sometime collaborator of William Morris, vs. Henry Wilson, of the Liberty and Property Defense League. Bax, with Henry Quelch, published A New Catechism of Socialism in 1900; Wilson responded with his A Catechism of Individualism in 1902. If you're a regular in these circles, chances are that there will be very few real supprises for you. You know the drill. But I think these are valuable documents precisely as exemplars of the positions that left-libertarians, and all anarchists and libertarians interested in the possibilities of broad coalition, need to move beyond. I think part of that process is, perhaps, some final coming to terms with the polar positions. And the positions are pretty polar. From Wilson:
What do you understand by Individualism ?

It is the opposite of Socialism.

Why do you give this negative definition ?

Because Individualism is the natural system, and would never have got a distinctive name, or have had to search for its principles, and the reasons on which they are founded, but for the rise of the artificial system of Socialism.

Am I to understand, then, that Individualism is the earlier of the two systems ?

No. Modern Socialism is an attempt to give a scientific justification for a barbarous stage through which men passed in their upward struggle to their present happier state.
And so on. . . Bax and Quelch boil individualistic ethics down to "The devil take the hindmost," etc. This is the Wikipedia talk-page squabble as relatively high art, well worth the time it will take to read through.

Of course, the earlier debate, as I've begun to show, looked very different, and perhaps more useful, at least to those interested in left-libertarian alliance.

Coming up: in preparation for both LeftLiberty and the What Is Property? "open classroom event," some background on Proudhon's philosophy and on that "creepy" motto I stuck on the 'zine.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A minor treasure

Thank goodness we don't all value the same things.

I made my first foray back into Portland on Wednesday, after about a decade's absence. William Gillis suggested a couple of stops, and I had a cup of coffee at the worker-owned Red and Black Cafe while I puttered away at translating some Bellegarrigue. I made the obligatory stop at Powell's as well, still the Imperial Death Star of the used book world, but still useful in its way. They had Flora Tristan's The Workers' Union on the shelf, which I had been itching to read, but they also had a translation of Victor Considerant's Principes du socialisme: manifeste de la démocratie au XIXe siècle, which I have counted among those important texts I probably should read, but probably wouldn't get around to. Principles of Socialism was a manifesto issued at the launch of Démocratie pacifique, the successor journal to La Phalange, the major Fourierist journal of the 1840s. It featured Considerant's rather tame version of Fourierism, free of the whimsy, and the sex, of Fourier's full thought, but still very interesting, and important, as part of the context for the work by Proudhon and Leroux which occupies so much of my time these days. Not my favorite stuff from the period, and chances are that it won't be yours. But thank heaven that somebody cared enough to translate it.

Considerant's manifesto is often cited as a potential source for the Manifesto of Marx and Engels. There are certainly some points of similarity, though Considerant considered himself in many ways a good conservative and opposed revolutionary socialism as "retrograde." There are some chuckles, or head-shakes, here: Considerant attacks the defenders of the current system, but defends the constitutional monarchy as appropriate to "peaceful democracy." He makes some allusions to the notion that "property is theft," always in the context of defending property, though not in a way that is likely to inspire any but the most uncritical of propertarians.

Joan Roelofs' translation appears to be quite good. I haven't done a lot of double-checking, but I also have had any of the usual alarm bells go off as I read the thing. The edition was published by Maisonneuve Press (ISBN 0944624472), and set me back about fifteen bucks. I consider it money well spent, and recommend the volume to anyone who really wants to understand the range of positions surrounding our anarchist and libertarian socialist founders.

And it's a book I will not have to translate, or feel guilty for neglecting.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Left-libertarians in the PNW?

Who else is out here on the NorthLeft Coast? Any mutualists, agorists, or others interested in organizing with the Alliance of the Libertarian Left, situated in Portland, Seattle, Eugene, Corvallis, etc?

Get in touch! Let's get stuff rolling!

UPDATE: The Northwest ALL now has a discussion list. Sign up!

Mutualschool Open Classroom Event #1

Mark your calendars: July 1-14, mutualschool.org will be hosting its first educational event, a close look at the first memoir of Proudhon's What Is Property? I'm preparing an annotated wiki version of the texts, a series of notes and "lectures" on various aspects of the text, and some short translations from related works. Proudhon's first work on property was not his final word on the matter, and it was written at a time when he was still developing his understanding of the issues involved. There are, I think, some pretty serious problems with the text. It is, nonetheless, and deservedly so, considered one of great works of the anarchist tradition. It's basic claim—that "property is theft"—was one which Proudhon never abandoned, even as he came to embrace property "in its aims" in his later works.

Market anarchists or anti-propertarians—we will make no headway in dealing historically with the question of "property" (or "possession" or "occupancy and use," etc.) without coming to terms with Proudhon's original work.

The form of the event is largely open. I can provide a discussion list, but we already have discussion lists (anarchy-list, leftlibertarian2, etc), forums (leftlibertarian.org, infoshop.org, libertarian-labyrinth.org, etc), wikis, blogs, etc. While more traditional courses will probably require the use of mutualschool.org's Moodle "classrooms," these "open classroom" events are perhaps best tackled as an extension of the sorts of communication we are already engaged in, and may be organized rather differently. I'm open to suggestions, and will make the resources on my sites available to facilitate things. At minimum, I'll be setting up some wiki pages to track things, and to establish a basic path through the material, and we ought to be able to figure out a way to generate an RSS feed of material.

"Tutition" for these events will be purely voluntary. If you think that the organizing work merits compensation, then there will be opportunities to contribute to the cause. If other forums serve the project well, I would encourage contributions to support them. The formal courses, with set fees, will come in time, but these exploratory projects might as well explore our inclination and ability to create self-supporting institutions, as they explore our historical and theoretical legacy.

Spread the word. Leave a comment if you are interested in participating, or if you have suggestions. I would love to see a variety of perspectives involved in the discussion, though things will obviously work best if we all attempt to really understand the work before we critique it, or its alternatives, too much.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Countdown to Relaunch!

Well, I reached the Pacific Northwest yesterday, patched things up with the cats (who flew out five days ago) and am waiting for my library and computers to arrive. I had a chance to putter away at some translation of Bellegarigue's second issue of Anarchy: A Journal of Order on the train. I dragged the paper files for LeftLiberty with me in an old salesman's specimen case that serves as a mobile file cabinet, so I can get back to work on that today.

I've been rearranging a lot of projects, trimming some obsolete stuff, incorporating old efforts into new ones, and working on networking the whole mess a whole lot more efficiently. My hope is to get the basic structure of everything in its new form prepared for launch/relaunch by July 4. That includes: the wiki versions of the Libertarian Labyrinth and The Distributive Passions, a portal site on Mutualism at mutualism.info, a site for the 20-year-old Anarchy-List (which is set for a relaunch of sorts of its own), the first issue of LeftLiberty and a portal in the Labyrinth archive for that, the first educational material associated with mutualschool.org, and a new project related to "civil defense" in the contemporary context.

If that sounds like a lot, well, it pretty obviously is. But my situation is this: for the last three years I have been living the simplest of lives, going without lots of things (car, insurance, heat in the winter last year, etc) just to keep working at the things that are important to me. That has meant I've been relentless on the research side, and a bit spotty on the writing and publishing side. Nobody is more aware than I am of the number of projects left unfinished, or transformed into something else. I have now placed myself in a position to "go to work" on liberty-related projects as if it was my job. And that's what I'll be doing, in a variety of ways. It's a matter of vocation for me (in a strong sense, that has more than just a little to do with my Christian upbringing). What I hope to explore is the extent to which it can also be made a career of the sort that requires fewer sacrifices. More about that anon. . .