Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Two-Gun Mutualism and the Golden Rule - Part 3

and the

[continued from Part 2]


Perhaps this has all taken a strangely martial turn, given mutualism’s generally peaceful reputation. Isn’t the core of mutualism the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you?” Yes, indeed. But there’s nothing simple about fulfilling the Golden Rule. The principle is not, for instance, Do unto others as if they were you. If I serve you Postum for coffee, or bake you a chocolate cake on your birthday, because, Hey, I like Postum!—and chocolate’s my favorite!—I haven’t acted according to a mutual or reciprocal principle. Instead, I have acted according to a rather narrow sort of egoism. If the terms are reversed, I certainly don’t want to be treated as just another instance of a type defined by someone else. Respect for the individuality of each actually seems to require a move into the realm of the general, recourse to a rule of individuality—a rule which ultimately tells us that there isn’t going to be any simple rule of thumb for how to fulfill the Golden Rule. If I assume that the way that I would like to be treated is as an individual—but as the specific individual that I am—then presumably I should treat the other as an individual (according to a fairly simple, general rule)—but also as an-other individual (and here all simple, general rules begin to break down.)

The individual-collective dynamic is a sort of antinomy, already pretty familiar to students of Proudhon and mutualism. No theory of the individual or society is going to be complete without constant recourse to the ways in which one influences the other. Leroux, Greene and Proudhon all embraced this particular antinomy as a key sociological insight, and Proudhon, taking cues from Leroux, gradually built his social science around the notion that not only are individuals and collectivities intimately connected, but collectivities may be themselves understood as individuals—let’s say individualities for the moment—to the extent that they manifest a single law of organization.

There is ultimately more—much more—that needs to be said about the social theories that the early mutualists, and libertarian communists like Déjacque, elaborated, the ways in which peopling the world with collectivities and individualities at every imaginable scale—from the infinitesimal to the universal—did or did not contribute to a robust anarchist critique of hierarchy and a sustainable model for a free society. For now, it is important to simply note that in Proudhon’s theory—undoubtedly, the most fully and clearly developed of the bunch—he was moving towards a vision in which our all personal individualities, and whatever social individualities emerged from their free interactions, would be allowed their fullest development, bounded only by the principle of reciprocity—the Golden Rule.
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.
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?—P.-J. Proudhon, “The Revolutionary Program” (1848).
This is the “communist ends by individualist means” that we find in his early work. In his later works, Proudhon acknowledged that even the state should be acknowledged as an individuality, along with all the human individuals, workshops, voluntary associations, and the like—but that all these individualities must be understood as equals. The state-individuality, to take the most contentious example, has its role, its law of development, and its “rights,” but they do not take trump the role or “rights” (scare-quoted here since the question of “rights” is itself contentious in this context) by virtue of belonging to a collectivity—since every individual is assumed to be a collectivity, a group, organized according to a unique law—nor by virtue of the size or scale of the individuality, nor by virtue of the participation of the constituent individuals in collective-individuality.

There are obviously some serious issues to wrestle with here. On the one hand, the approach radically levels the political playing field. If we were aiming for a democracy, it would be a one organizing principle = one vote sort of affair. … The radical leveling means that the mutual principle—“actors recognize enough of themselves in one another to build a basic relation of mutuality…or they do without…society”—ought to be applicable to essentially all relations, as long as we’re willing to allow some diversity in the means by which different sorts of individualities can “recognize” one another. Proudhon was hardly naïve about those sorts of differences. And, again, our current focus is on person-to-person mutuality. But what we’ve already suggested is that at least some of the radical difficulties of recognition between individualities of different scales or natures are just the writ-large versions of a problem we encounter in much more familiar settings.

In attempting to work within the antinomy, we encounter an aporia. If our rule is to treat the other as an other, as a unique individual (and not just another instance of some type we can assume we exemplify), then our rule isn’t enough. Our understanding of common human traits or shared circumstances may well be the thing that is least useful in addressing the other as individuality.

There is, of course, no question of attempting to dispense with generalization. It is, after all, our pursuit of a general rule which brings us to the brink of this new and particularly thorny set of problems. There is a common tendency to treat any road that leads us to an aporia as the wrong road, no matter how rational and rigorous the process that led us there. The desire for a priori ethical rules that can simply be applied, once we know the details of the case, is perfectly understandable, but the notion that any alternative to this sort of ethical technology is pure dispersion and despair, ethical relativism, quietism or defeatism—or even “anti-principled, in-your-face consequentialism”—may well be one of those effects of fear that Leroux warned against, pushing us towards one extreme or the other.

It would be easy here to rail a bit about how adherence to the principle of reciprocity, understood in this aporetic way, is transformed, in the minds of opponents, into “relativism” or “nihilism,” and countered with such unlovely beasts as the purely consequentialist defense of this or that “principle.” But, frustrating as this sort of thing is, it’s not the sort of thing that a mutualist can get too high-and-mighty about. Mutualism’s own history is replete with examples of how to fall short of the Golden Rule, provided by the very figures who have most powerfully advanced its doctrine. For now, we’ll concentrate on those internal examples of how giving in to logical simplism can have disastrous consequences—with particular attention to Proudhon.

First, however, let’s make sure we have the problem well defined: Mutualism, as understood by the figures we are examining, consisted of very little besides a commitment to the principle of mutuality—the Golden Rule—and a sense—presumably based in social science—that the individual and society were inextricably bound together, and that individuality and collectivity were neither logical nor social opposites, but instead characteristics of all beings, manifesting themselves at different scales. In Proudhon’s hands, this all led to the potential of a radically leveled social and political playing field, with all individuals—or all those that he could recognize as full and social individuals—interacting on essentially equal terms. The uncertainties and complexities of such a system make no real argument against it, from a mutualist point of view. With no exact means of knowing how to treat the other as an other like ourselves, and with the Golden Rule as guide, the only ethical option is obviously to “aim high,” to exceed the letter of the law, to exceed tit-for-tat, etc. Proudhon was skeptical about the exchange of values anyway, seeing “equal exchange” as largely a matter of convention, “approximation”—and such approximations are always open for improvement. As for complexity, Proudhon saw it as a key component of (positive) liberty. It might not be too much to say that it was precisely in the instances of incommensurability, uncertainty, interminable experiment and approximation, that Proudhon saw the openings—and the mechanism—for progress and perfection.

This is a sort of thought that tends to escape easy summary, and mutualists have not always been as clear as they might be. (I can only appeal to the difficulties myself.) For the progressive or perfectionist, a fair amount of ambivalence is perhaps unavoidable, and a certain messiness in exposition almost inevitable. All the evils and disarray of the present call for strong condemnation; but they may also signal, by their very intensity and vileness, at least the possibility of real change. Once again, it’s not simply that social disorganization marks the collapse of an old system. The progressive faith requires a fundamental belief in the reality of collective action and collective reason—a belief which can never be uncritical or quietist, and which indeed can probably never be critical enough, since the individual must engage the collective with their individual reason; a belief that must constantly be tested with social science and historical study, and which has no very specific content or context without that study; but a belief that leads the progressive or perfectionist to at least always entertain the possibility that human institutions are sound in their aims, however flawed they may be in their implementation.

Such an approach is full of pitfalls, of course. We can see that in the uneven and opportunistic ways in which its practitioners have applied it. Proudhon, even while completing his critique of property and the state, as he found them, turned to an engagement with their ends, and the best-developed elements of his writings map out the twists and turns of that engagement. In the end, in The Theory of Property, Proudhon embraced both property and the state, but only in a particular sort of opposition, and he acknowledged explicitly that it “it falls to us to govern [that opposition] and to make it act according to the laws of logic.” Proudhon picked up both pistols—and it is up to us, ultimately, to decide if that was the best that can be done, or whether perhaps, in embracing the aims of the institutions, he gave too much credit to their existing forms.

In “The Gift Economy of Property” and other writings, I have suggested some alternatives to Proudhon’s final approach to property—alternatives which are no less highly charged, but are perhaps less martial in their approach. I’m not certain that there is anything in that work, however, that clearly raises it to or above the level of The Theory of Property. But we can perhaps more clearly see the dangers of the progressive approach if we look at Proudhon’s response to potential changes in the institution of the family, and in gender roles. Proudhon was at once progressive and conservative when it came to most economic questions, and questions regarding institutional government. Even when he advocated the conservation of existing forms—or when he advocated a strengthening of private property, provided it was widely distributed—it was with the understanding that those forms would fulfill a substantially new function. When it was a question of changes to the family, he instead denied progress, at best bringing new justifications to bear for institutions which would ultimately pull against the general trajectory of his libertarian thought. With regard to women’s rights, his thought was worse than simply conservative. In “picking up the pistols” with regard to property, he sought to shelter individuals in such a way that liberty was preserved for all, and progressive change had a space within which to occur. When it came to women, his impulse was to shelter them from change. The defenses of the traditional family that he developed could just as easily have supported any number of non-traditional living arrangements. A strong case could be made—and was being made at the time—that the aims of the family could be at least as well addressed by other forms. The patriarchal rights that he ultimately defended were, like the private property rights of The Theory of Property, an intensification—Leroux might have said “exaggeration”—of existing rights, and we might suspect that they were driven by nothing other than “horror”—again the word is Leroux’s—of the polar alternative. Proudhon once again “picked up the pistols,” but because he turned against his own stated principles—affirmation of progress, opposition to the absolute, movement by an indefinite sequence of approximations—and, most seriously, quite simply denied women full participation in society, he could hardly do better than the soldiers in the Rue Transnonain. “[W]e are ordered to do this, we are compelled to obey, though it makes us as wretched as you…” Treating the traditional family and patriarchy as providential, Proudhon could hardly avoid discharging both pistols at women in general, jeopardizing his entire project in the process.

Proudhon’s particular failure was not intrinsic to his libertarianism or his social science. Leroux did not share it, nor did Greene. But they had their own failings. Every system has its attendant hazards, and, on one level, mutualism combines those of individualism with those of extreme collectivism—and when it is not in danger of slipping to extremes it has to be careful not to settle into some comfortable rut in the middle. Faith in collective reason has to be truly a matter of faith, as opposed to knowledge—and has to be treated as such. If a mutualist thought they knew that a given institution was correct in its aims—that it represented a manifestation of progress in the collective reason—they would be on shaky ground. And, as the historical record pretty clearly shows, radicals are not magically shielded from all the confusions of their era, no matter how critical they may manage to be. Leroux went through some truly peculiar gyrations in his work to explain the nature and extent of his own anti-semitism; in the end, it isn’t clear if he entirely understood it himself. And he probably didn’t. His most extreme expressions are, from a more consistently logical and libertarian perspective, awkwardly grafted onto a critique of capitalism as obstruction of the circulus that is both perceptive, humorous, and well ahead of its time in its proto-ecological arguments. (If you were looking for the missing link between the physiocrats’ treatment of natural production and modern environmental science, this might be it.) But the seriousness of the failure is in some ways heightened—particularly for us, in an ideological environment that is very, very sensitive to such failures—by the promise of the thought surrounding it. Proudhon’s failure is colossal: it is in the very same works where he points most clearly to the possibility of a radical equality which does not efface individuality, and where he at least hints at a contr’un far more powerful than the triad, in the multiplication and association of free forces, that he excludes women from that potential promise land, denying them equality and the basic relations of society. Like Leroux, he twists and turns, but there is really no escaping the fact that he can recognize the role and rights of the (anarchist) state and the workshop, but not those of women. (Honestly…)

There, but for real care in our application of the one principle that drives mutualism, go we. The hard part of embracing continual progress is also embracing constant incompletion, approximation, non-innocence. Mutualism, by emphasizing complexity and attaching itself to institutions only provisionally and experimentally, makes tremendous demands—but they are essentially anarchistic demands. The trick is to really progress, but that, as Proudhon insisted, also involves a careful sort of conservation. We can’t settle solely for critique or celebration of the tradition as we have inherited it—to do so would perhaps be more comfortable, but it would also be a simplist betrayal of mutualism’s basic approach.
The alternatives should become clearer as we move to incorporate more of the mutualist tradition into the analysis

[to be continued...]

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