Sunday, October 26, 2008

More Proudhon on the origin of property

Here's another little bit from "Justice," which immediately follows the last passages linked. In it, Proudhon explains how, in the very early phases of the "shock of ideas," property emerged as a social convention precisely because human beings had not yet learned to question their own absolutism. Elsewhere, however, he makes it clear that our "absolutism" is not simply something we need to "get over" or grow out of, but an important enabling component in ethical evolution. This is part of the revision of the material Rafael posted, once Proudhon had decided that the antinomies did not resolve themselves.

There is some really elegant anarchist philosophy in this stuff - very challenging, but also very plumb-line in its way, without sacrificing either the individual or the social.



"Let us consider what occurs in the human multitude, placed under the empire of absolutist reason, so long as the struggle of interests and the controversy of opinions does not bring out the social reason.

"In his capacity as absolute and free absolute, man not only imagines the absolute in things and names it, which first creates for him, in the exactitude of his thoughts, grave embarrassment. He does more: by the usurpation of things that he believes he has a right to make, that objective absolute becomes internalized; he assimilates it, becomes interdependent (solidaire) with it, and pretends to respect it as himself in the use that he makes of it and in the interpretations that it pleases him to make of it. Each, in petto, reasoning the same, it results, in the first moment, that the public reason, formed from the sum of particular reasons, differs from those in nothing, neither in basis nor in form; so that the world of nature and of society is nothing more than a deduction of the individual self (moi), a belonging of his absolutism.

"All the constitutions and beliefs of humanity are formed thus; at the very hour that I write, the collective reason hardly exists except in potential, and the absolute holds the high ground.

"Thus, by virtue of his absolute moi, secretly posed as center and universal principle, man affirms his domain over things; all the members of the State making the same affirmation, the principle of societary absolutism becomes, by unanimity, the law of the State, and all the theories of the jurists on the possession, acquisition, transmission, and and exploitation of goods, are deduced from it. In vain logic demonstrates that this doctrine is incompatible with the data of the social order; in vain, in its turn, experience proves that it is a cause of extermination for persons and ruin for States: nothing knows how to change a practice established on the similarity of egoisms. The concept remains; it is in all minds: all intelligence, every interest, conspire to defend it. The collective reason is dismissed, Justice vanquished, and economic science declared impossible." (Justice, Tome III, pp 99-100)

"It is the shock of ideas that casts the light"

One good Proudhon tidbit deserves another, so here are the first couple of sections from Chapter 6 of the Seventh Study ("Ideas") in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church. The chapter covers "Intellectual discipline, or method of elimination of the Absolute according to the principle of the Revolution. — Constitution of the public reason," and it is here that Proudhon, having proven, to his own satisfaction at least, the existence of "collective beings" corresponding to the "collective force" which was such an important part of his critique of property, tackles the question of "collective reason." Characteristically, he gets to the collective by a radical individualization, so that, despite the extremely important place he assigns to collective beings, he could never be considered a "collectivist" in any of the conventional senses. Taking off from a line in the Encyclopédie, Proudhon insists that the "absolutism" of individuals can only be overcome by allowing it free rein. Only free beings can "justify" themselves and evolve towards full expressions of justice. Premature agreement on "common interests" (the key characteristic of the "communism" opposed by Proudhon, Warren, Greene, etc.) is deadly to intellectual and moral development, damaging to both individuals and society. Human beings are "free absolutes," and both their freedom and their absolutism are necessary to the social "shocks" which provide the material for self-education, self-government, the creation of free relations, etc. It's a fascinating approach to ethics and politics, and you can get a taste on the soon-to-be-launched Collective Reason collaborative translation site. More about Collective Reason soon, but, for now, thanks to Rafael Hotz, Jesse Cohn, Roderick Long, and various friends from the Anarchist Studies Network,, anarchy-list, and Proudhon Seminar for the encouragement.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Property: its contradictions and origins

Rafael Hotz has posted some translations from the chapter on property in Proudhon's "System of Economic Contraditions" on his Enxurrada blog. This is an important link in the chain of reasoning between What is Property? and the Theory of Property.

Friday, October 03, 2008

What's your four-year plan?

If the mayan-calendar-apocalypse folks are right, plans for 2013 might be a bit pointless. But if the poles don't shift on December 21, 2012, or it they do, but the Earth's crust doesn't crack, we really ought to be thinking about goals. High on my list would be not throwing another election-related welcoming gala for the police state, since the cost of these just keeps getting higher.

It seems like it's time for a Call for New Memes. Maybe we want to aim for our own sort of "pole shift." Maybe we want to hitch a ride on the prophecy train, and make our next street party a coming-out affair for that "new world" that we're always saying is possible. Maybe we should steal all that civil defense/Great Depression rhetoric from the politicians that don't seem to know what to do with it, and start our own Victory Gardens and perform random Acts of National Recovery ("words are weapons in the war of ideas.")

Personally, I've set myself a year of historical study and local resource surveys, with whatever assistance I can round up, at the end of which I feel like I need to set some very concrete goals, beyond the usual scanning, pamphleting, informal education stuff (or explicitly not beyond that, I suppose.) For the left-libertarian and anarchist movements in general, it feels to me like time to ask ourselves (or ask ourselves again) if we can move in concrete ways towards any of our goals, if our base can either be expanded or concentrated, etc.

What are you thinking?

What ever happened to (the discourse on) Neoliberalism?

Not so long ago, it seemed to me that it was generally accepted among most of my political allies that NAFTA-style "globalization," and the financial and legislative chicanery that went along with it, were part of a very conscious tilting of the political-economic playing field, which we referred to as "neoliberalism." The term is one which has had a range of uses, but we were probably most influenced at the time by the writings of Subcommandante Marcos of the EZLN and by "first world" commentaries at least partially inspired by those same writings. And, in that context, "neoliberalism" was very much a matter of flows and their freedom: capital experienced a reduction in barriers to movement, coupled with legislative override privileges when it encountered many sorts local resistance; labor faced all the old barriers, and a range of new ones. The post-9/11 world seems to have witnessed, if anything, an acceleration of the trend, but the critical narrative seems to have bumped into some obstacle in the collective memory of radicals.

When I hear progressives, and even some anarchists and libertarians, talk so blithely about the history of "deregulation of the market" and "laissez faire," it's hard to believe how recently "anti-globalization" discourse was centered around governmental restructuring of world markets.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Colon-Cleansers for Proudhon (and other comment-spam)

Well, the spammers seem to be getting a new degree of sophistication, adding comments that are at least related to the topic of the post, cut-and-pasted from some other source, with a link attached to their name which goes to, say, reviews of their product for cleansing your colon. . .

Whether this is an improvement over emails with subject lines like "News about your ehnancing will be know to all the girls around" is an open question.

The Call of the Present

William Henry Channing, editor of The Present (1843-44) and The Spirit of the Age (1849-50),was well placed to gather together the radical threads of the early 1840s. The nephew of the prominent Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, and a friend or acquaintance of figures like Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, William Batchelder Greene, Orestes Brownson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Lane, Bronson Alcott, etc., he was in touch with much of what was bubbling up in the years prior to the 1848 revolutions. The works of Fourier, Swedenborg, Saint Simon and Proudhon all appeared in his publications, and he translated a number of excerpts from the works of Pierre Leroux. The Present featured a three-part manifesto of sorts, "The Call of the Present," by Channing. Couched in rather sedate, religious language, the casual reader might easily miss or misunderstand Channing's interventions into important debates (individualism vs. socialism, free trade vs. protection, etc.) and the rather nuanced nature of his responses. Take Channing's piece as an indication of the extent to which the "antinomian" positions that Proudhon would soon embrace were already floating around, if in somewhat vague forms, in the internal debates among American radical intellectuals in the early days of the American Renaissance.

There are some amusing bits of seemingly contemporary commentary, making you wonder occasionally which "present" you're in. I particularly like this: "In the wasted millions and massacres of Florida, the horrible carnage of Afghanistan, the brilliant skirmishes of the Arabs. . ., a world sees and announces the retribution, only too mild to seem just, for atrocious crime." Apparently, however, we have regressed since 1843, since it is clearly not the case that "Monarch and minister, captain and noble, statesman and politician, who dare to-day, from private or public pique, from ambition or miscalled national pride, to break the holy league of peace, must make up their minds to stand in pillory, and to be cropped as rogues before the bar of Humanity." Would that it were the case in our present.