Sunday, February 14, 2010

A funny thing happened on the way... (1)

Nobody who knows me or my work will be surprised if I admit to working primarily on a large — and sometimes over-large — scale. There are obvious disadvantages to the approach: I have certainly not published as much as I might have, in any of the various fields where I've gained some expertise, and much of the writing I have done has been in the form of theoretical "feelers" and thought experiments scattered in a wide variety of forums. The more definitive statements that I have started have been slow to develop. The logistics of serious interdisciplinary study are a monster, in any case. Keeping all the balls in the air at once is not always possible, so one is forced to constantly revisit and relearn in order to incorporate old insights into new approaches. The upside to all of that is that, if you stick with it, you can gradually pull together some pretty good stuff. But the moments of pulling-together can be rather traumatic, as the obvious hazard of trying to think about damn-near-everything is that sometimes you're going to discover that everything you know is at least a tad-bit wrong.

I've been going through one of those traumatic consolidations recently, as the lessons of my increasingly precarious life as a retail wage-worker and those of my increasingly intense exploration of some very early anarchist and proto-anarchist writings have set off ripples across what I thought I knew about libertarian social theory large enough to capsize quite a bit of stuff.

It's funny how things combine, and how changing one's position in the social scheme can revolutionize one's perspective. Certain realizations are probably only possible when the wolf is not (or not quite) at the door; others don't come until it is. Different kinds of clarity arise from different situations, and the resulting contrasts are useful, if not always nice to deal with.

A certain degree of personal and political messiness has accompanied the most recent set of epiphanies. Having worked for much of the last ten years in the twilight zone between mainstream social anarchism and what we've come to call left-libertarian market anarchism, I now find myself somewhat adrift — in large part because my encounter with the first, and largely forgotten, stage of anarchist history suggest that the two factions with which I have been associated, where most of my friends and allies still labor away, are, perhaps, unfortunate mutilations of something much more comprehensive and promising.

This is, of course, a fight I have been picking (albeit somewhat quietly) for some time. In "Unexpected dangers of the free market?,"and in the various posts collected in the two issues of LeftLiberty, I raised the question of "one-sidedness" (or "simplism," as the Fourier-influenced have put it). Proudhon, I said, "seems to call consistently for an analysis more "two-sided" than anything we have been able to put together in a divided anarchist movement. Maybe it's time to realize his ambitions." In the year+ since that comment, I've been working to provide the background texts necessary to grapple with "two-sidedness" in this context — the first step in recognizing a number of "funny things" that have happened on our way to anarchism in its current forms. One of the most important of those texts is Pierre Leroux's "Individualism and Socialism," which I recently posted in translation. [Part 1, Part 2]

What's the "funny thing" there? Nothing but the possibility of essentially having ended the "individualism" vs. "socialism" debates in the same moment as coining the terms.

If you haven't read the piece, and have any interest in following the next phases of my work on mutualism — a more direct and definitive sort of work, explicitly "Out of the Libertarian Labyrinth," if perhaps into a whole new set of libertarian difficulties — I encourage you to take a look.

Next up: Genealogical thoughts

2 comments:

c.t.mummey said...

"in large part because my encounter with the first, and largely forgotten, stage of anarchist history suggest that the two factions with which I have been associated, where most of my friends and allies still labor away, are, perhaps, unfortunate mutilations of something much more comprehensive and promising."

they might be mutilations or, from another perspective, hopefully, the start of something new (or old). to say what i believe now is a mutilation of what was makes what was out to be pure & above criticism & not of its time. now you are sounding like an old man - real old - and as dark as times can seem, as impatient (as opposed to hopeless) as i can be, there is also a lot of crazy good shit happening too.

Shawn P. Wilbur said...

Well, since you presumably should know that I don't hold "what was" to be "pure & above criticism & not of its time," maybe you can hang on a little before you dismiss me as not of "your" time, or my own.

There seems to be general agreement that the anarchism of the 1820s-1860s and that of the 1880s and after were significantly different. Lots of important factors intervened in the meantime: Marx, Darwin, advances in industrial and military technology, the various ups and downs of the First International, etc., etc. A major shift should be no surprise. But anarchist history -- like most history, written by the victors, according to present(ist) priority -- has generally treated the first period as if it was just a prologue, and treated any break in the continuity of the movement as negligible.

What if that account is both untrue and ultimately unhelpful, where the cause of freedom is concerned? Maybe strong words on the subject could be attributed to something other than my graying mane...?

I'll be curious to see what you think of the next installment.