Monday, October 14, 2013

Practicing the Encounter: Appropriation (and Ecology) - I

Let's get a little practice with all the tools we've been assembling. And, to do so, let's stick, for the moment, with the question of property. It's been one of my more or less explicit beliefs for a long time now that property theory may be transformed from a tool of capitalism into a tool useful to anarchists, simply by reexamining it very closely with a set of presuppositions informed by the insights of anarchism and ecological science. I've also been fairly emphatic that one of the reasons that this has not happened to any great extent, despite the emergence and/or reemergence of anarchistic schools with a fairly significant interest in questions of property, is that we have tended to focus on questions of abandonment, rather than on the question of initial appropriation. It's probably also the case that in at least some of the "libertarian" capitalist circles where anarchists were once likely to be challenged most seriously on questions of principle, there has been a recent to retreat from well-developed, principled arguments, for vague position such as voluntaryism, uncertain predictions about most "efficient" practices, and bald assertions about natural "liberties." I think, however, that a different, and potentially more interesting, set of challenges have emerged as a result of the examination of genuinely anarchist theory, and there is no particular need in this instance to bounce ideas off those of our adversaries in order to refine our understanding.

For the moment, I am just going to take it as a still-controversial given that some sort of theory of "property," in the general sense I have been giving it, is not just useful, but probably unavoidable for anarchists. While we want to avoid the (mis)conceptions by which property becomes capitalist from the outset, and we are, as anarchists, committed to opposing the sorts of hierarchical, "propertarian" structures that we see all around us, we probably still have a need to distinguish between the mine and thine, to make specific judgments about the just distribution of both "natural resources" and the fruits of labor, and to make judgments about responsibility in various senses which never stray very far from the question of "one's own." There are a lot of reasons why it would be nice if anarchist theory could bypass the question of "property," but my experience is that failing to confront the problem doesn't make it go away, while acknowledging that it is indeed a problem, and settling down into problem-solving mode, has in many way caused the problem to diminish in importance. And now, with the model of the encounter established as a key element of our anarchistic toolkit, it seems possible to position the problem of property as one part of the larger problem of the encounter, the problem we can expect to be solving, and re-solving, as long as we seek to practice anarchistic social relations. 

There is a very thorny analysis of property in the context of this encounter of equal uniques, with more or less incommensurable values, which still has to be on our agenda, and which will involve a more head-on encounter with some of the varieties of egoism, but I suspect it may be easier to work towards that question through a somewhat less abstract, speculative look at appropriation. In the past, engaging in a sort of variant reading of Locke, I've identified the elements that would probably be necessary for a complete, coherent theory of just appropriation:
  1. An understanding of the subject of appropriation ("individual," "collective," irreducibly individual-collective, etc.;
  2. A theory of the nature of that subject's relation to itself as "self-ownership," "self-enjoyment," etc.;
  3. A theory of nature (active or passive? productive? capable of "projects" worthy of acknowledgment?) and of the relation between nature and the subject of appropriation;
  4. Some answer to the question "is there a right of appropriation"?—and some reasonable account for any such right, grounded in the previous elements;
  5. A theory of justice in the exercise of appropriation (provisos, etc.);
  6. A mechanism for appropriation;
That still looks like a fairly useful list, but a number of the elements look rather different to me than they did in early 2011. 

Some of the questions look considerably simpler than they once did, and others look enormously more complicated. Having rather thoroughly embraced Proudhon's sociology in this examination, the answer to the first question seems to be "irreducibly individual-collective," at least in the sense that we have been looking at all potential subjects as at once individualities and collectivities.

Let's take a moment and define those two terms a bit more precisely. They both refer to the range of individuals recognized within Proudhon's sociology, but designate different aspects of those individuals. Since every individual is also a group, since the unity of the individual is itself a matter of the organization of elements according to a specific, developing law of organization, there are occasions where the different designations will be useful, and since we are not just talking about individual humans, let's let these other terms designate the full range of possibilities.

Now, despite my recourse to borrowing from Stirner's vocabulary, we're starting from a place rather different than at least some egoists would probably choose. Someone like John Beverley Robinson, for example, suggested that egoism involved the realization by the individual "that, as far as they are concerned, they are the only individual." We are isolated by what we might call the opacity of the other:
For each one of us stands alone in the midst of a universe. We are surrounded by sights and sounds which we interpret as exterior to ourselves, although all we know of them are the impressions on our retina and ear drums and other organs of sense. The universe for the individual is measured by these sensations; they are, for him/her, the universe. Some of them they interpret as denoting other individuals, whom they conceive as more or less like themselves. But none of these is his/herself. He/she stands apart. His/her consciousness, and the desires and gratifications that enter into it, is a thing unique; no other can enter into it.
However near and dear to you may be your spouse, children, friends, they are not you; they are outside of you. You are forever alone. Your thoughts and emotions are yours alone. There is no other who experiences your thoughts or your feelings. 
This is probably not the only way to interpret Stirner's position, and Robinson is not terribly consistent, if this understanding of the unique as "the only one" is supposed to be taken at all literally. In any event, it seems to involve an almost entirely opposite response to this problem of opacity from that made by Proudhon, for whom the world seems to be filled with an unknown, but unquestionably large number of at least potential others, which must, by his sole criterion of justice, be encountered as equals.

Does it make sense to extend our range of possible subjects of appropriation to include everything that fits Proudhon's criterion for an individuality? He talked about approaching rocks as equals in some contexts. Must we stretch our theory of appropriation to accommodate sedimentation?

We can probably dodge some of the worst elements of this particular dilemma, since there are theoretical conundrums that are unlikely to come up in any practical context. So let's turn to those which are indeed likely to come up. They are probably bad enough, when it comes to shaking up our view of what property theory is all about. We're familiar with a range of arguments which claim that non-human animals may have as good a "right" to resources as human beings, despite their inability to, say, claim those "rights" in the conventional institutions. It isn't clear that the counterarguments have much behind them that isn't ultimately derived from some version of divine command or simply anthropocentric assertion. We may reject the panpsychist intuition that seems to lurk behind Proudhon's hesitation at drawing a firm line between animal, vegetable and mineral (or we may not), but that still leaves a lot of candidates for some sort of reasonable claim to be subjects of appropriation, even if we're just now thinking of individuals of species within the animal kingdom. And we have no reason to believe that we can stop there. After all, we have introduced the notion of individualities that are also collectivities precisely because we know that the claimants who must be accounted for in the balance of justice come in a variety of scales.

Some of the collectivities for which we probably have to account are easy enough to recognize. In a given workshop, for example, whether or not we decide that individual laborers have separate claims to some portion of the fruits of the collective labor equal to their individual input, Proudhon's theory of collective force leads us to believe that some portion of the products is the result of the association itself, and so we might say that the association was among the subjects of appropriation. Most of the practical disagreements among anarchists probably come down to differences of opinion about at what scale we should identify the subject of the property relation, with individualists looking towards the human individual and communists looking towards some relevant collectivity. Where the Proudhonian approach differs from these is in not choosing a particular scale, because there doesn't seem to be a clear criterion for doing so, and attempting to produce a relation of justice among individualities of various scales. We might, then, find instances where a family, or a city, or a federation, or perhaps in some case, even humanity, seemed to be the appropriate subject of property relations (weeding out, of course, all the instances where those terms refer to spooks, usurpations, etc.) And if we accept the theory of collective force it becomes fairly hard to find a reason to exclude these collectivities from our account, since they expressions, at least in large part, of the associated actions of agents that we would be hard put to exclude from the realm of equal uniques.

What we have accepted on the basis of social science has its equivalents in the realm of ecological science. When Proudhon moved from the critique of property to that of the State, he simply shifted his attention from one form of oppression of human beings by human beings to another. With a greater appreciation of our material interconnectedness within ecosystems, and the interconnectedness of ecosystems, perhaps there is another, analogous critique that needs to be made. There are probably a variety of ways in which the collective force and the fact of association involved in our de facto ecological associations are harnessed and turned against us, both by denying them and by affirming them in fundamentally political ways. The "debates" about anthropogenic climate change seem full of political arguments posing as ecological ones. But the thing that we can no longer entirely deny, despite all of our politic ducking and weaving, is that we are connected, and connected with nonhuman nature, in ways which are not reducible to the best of our sociological or economic models. What we are understandably slow to conclude from that is that those models, which tend to treat "nature" simply as a store of "resources," "unowned" prior to human appropriation, may not really be up to the tasks to which we attempt to apply them.

Alongside a range of social collectivities, ranging from individual couples to whole societies, we have to consider the possibility that our potential subjects of appropriation may include a range of natural communities, perhaps culminating in that universal circulus that Pierre Leroux, Joseph Déjacque, and others spoke about. As in the case of social collectivities, we find ourselves confronted with associations in which some of the associated force with which we are confronted is our own, but, in contrast with them, much of it comes from individualities that we are much less likely to include in our present discussions of property. I don't think the Proudhonian philosophy or sociology leaves us any easy way to leave out these previously excluded elements, but even if we were just to focus on the traditional concern for the protection of the property of individual human beings from invasion or destruction there seem to be enough potential "downstream effects" to call for at least some reconsideration.

So, assuming we accept that something like the full range of potential subjects of appropriation have to figure in our account, what implications does that have?

It looks like the consequences are fairly significant, beginning with the fact that there is likely to be very little that looks like unowned resources, which we could simply homestead, with or without the consideration of provisos.

It appears that every act of appropriation will involve an encounter.

[to be continued...]

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