Saturday, October 26, 2013

Practicing the Encounter: Appropriation and Ecology - II

The search for an anarchist theory of appropriation has led us into an interesting position. It is common to ask the proponents of property: What happens when all the resources have been appropriated? But we're faced with a more challenging question: What if, in some very important senses, they always already are? We have to be clear, because we are not yet really talking about property rights, or rightful appropriation, but describing circumstances under which little or nothing of what we might consider available for anything like "homesteading" is not already mixed up with individualities and collectivities that our Proudhonian sociology suggests we should treat as having at least some weight in the scales of justice. So far, we haven't found much ground on which to treat the weights of the various claims of the various individualities as other than equal, but we also haven't begun to wrestle with some fairly obvious questions which arise from our expanded roster of potential subjects of appropriation. 

We know that there are important differences between free absolutes, which are capable of reflection, responsibility, self-conscious action, etc., and the other absolutes which inform and/or are informed by their actions. Back in 2010, when I began to explore these aspects of Proudhon's thinking in the context of the Deepwater Horizon spill, the conversation took the predictable turn of focusing on the fact that non-human animals and ecosystems can't vote, represent themselves in court, purchase their freedom, etc. Proponents of "market environmentalism" rightly suggested that it was necessary for human actors to be convinced of the values represented by those non-human actors' stakes, but the question of whether those values could actually be represented in a market which considered those other actors as, or as composed of, "resources" which are legitimately appropriable, apart from humans setting limits on themselves, doesn't seem to have really registered. Our thinking on matters of economics and governments is, on the one hand, mostly anthropocentric and is, on the other, married to a notion of the human person which confines the subject of appropriation largely "between hat and boots." Capitalist property then arguably splits that person against itself, but that's not a sort of complexification that is likely to lead in any of the directions Proudhon indicated. Instead, the body becomes just another sort of resource. 

Some of the differences between the "common sense" we have inherited and Proudhon's approach are ideological, and some are no doubt matters of dominant philosophical or scientific trends. I suspect we seem warring 19th century tendencies in Proudhon, who often seems ready to reduce his sociology to a sort of social physics, reminiscent of Comte's positivism, but also seems to flirt with some kind of panpsychism. As Proudhonian antinomies go, that would be neither particularly surprising nor particularly extreme, but I suspect that both aspects are at least a bit alien to most of us. We don't, I think, necessarily need to go the places that Proudhon's specific interests and influences took him, but we are undoubtedly better off attempting to be clear about what they might have been. 

A more challenging question is just how literally we have to take all this business of individualities and collectivities. And once we've settled that, we finally do need to figure out how these other claims to property are to be dealt with in practical terms. For Proudhon, the first important question is whether or not there is something there in the places that we gesture towards with words like society, family, association, market, etc., or whether we have misidentified collections of elements with no real organization for organize wholes. Such an error is always possible, and we should cultivate the egoist's disdain for spooks when we encounter them. But it has been an important aspect of radical thought to recognize that sometimes our misidentifications are of a different sort than that, as when we have mistaken our own social self-organization for the work of a State, or our collective force for divine power. Almost all anarchist factions seem to acknowledge, and even depend on the fact that there are emergent, agent-like structures in society with at least something very like interests of their own. So the broad question of collectivities doesn't seem to me to pose particular problems, however much particular structures of association may be denied by the individual factions. I think that Proudhon's treatment of the State as something which persists suggests one of the criteria we might look at for identifying potential subjects of appropriation, and the fact that what seems to persist in this particular sort of collectivity is human projects is another. When it is a question of acknowledging that our associations might deserve a place in our considerations of what it means to live together in just relations, I don't think there is a much of a stretch, theoretically speaking, though I think most of us are ideologically predisposed to resist acknowledging certain collectivities. The notion that these collectivities might have interests which are in some ways at odds with the interests of those implicated in them is also probably not a great stretch for most of us, although, again, we may have ideological reasons to resist the notion in particular cases. Communists may be loathe to acknowledge the market, and slow to acknowledge the potential space between the interests of the commune as such and the individuals who are a part of it. Capitalists can be expected to embrace and resist in a roughly opposite manner. But for those who are resistant, the escape route is probably a familiar one. We are dealing here, after all, with just another version of the "synthesis (or irreducible dialectic) of community and property." While Proudhon leads us to tackle the resulting tensions pretty much head-on, I think most of us are familiar with the ways in which individualist or collectivist theories adapt to accommodate the key questions posed by the opposing theories, without erasing either human individuals or all persistent forms of association. 

In previous posts, I've tried to lay out the reasons that Proudhon felt he had no anarchistic grounds on which to exclude these social collectivities from consideration, but those who are unconvinced still have to deal with the fact of these human projects and the individual human interests which presumably lie behind them. Existing positions being somewhat flexible, as I've suggested, regarding their individual and collective aspects, perhaps there are other means to deal with the problems raised by Proudhon's analysis, although the question of the specific, possibly antagonistic interests and reasons of the collectivities strikes me as something that it at least not easily incorporated into most existing theories. 

Incorporating ecological science, however, seems to pose a much greater challenge, even before its incorporation poses its own challenge to the conventional homesteading model of appropriation. With persistent social collectivities, we are presumably always dealing with human will, even if it is sometimes the effects of wills belonging to humans that are dead. Sometimes we are able to extend our concern to future generations, but generally without leaving the resource-management paradigm, within which most of nature remains fair game, except insofar as we impose anthropocentric consumption limits on ourselves. What ecological science teaches us is that we are dependent for the conditions of our existence on complex systems which, within limits that are not precisely known to us, do much  of the heavy lifting in the process of purifying air and water, transforming waste into the ground for new life, etc. While the political conversation about "the environment" focuses on fairly simple, abstract notions, like average global temperature, debates over the specific health effects of genetically modified species, or individual endangered species, the science ought to lead us into the much more complex study of all the various ways in which anthropogenic changes in the nature and complexity of various natural systems are really undeniable, while the effect remain unpredictable.

In relation to property theory, ecological science teaches us that our interventions in natural systems, our appropriations of resources, involve a "mixing" that goes beyond anything we usually account for in our Robinson Crusoe scenarios. Since very little of our appropriation now involves anything even remotely like the desert island or wilderness homesteading scenarios, and since contemporary appropriation is almost always technologically amplified far beyond the sort of human scale of the classical theories, we can't ignore the possibility that virtually all of our appropriation will have significant downstream effects. Most of our talk about non-invasive appropriation is probably rooted in science that is a couple of centuries out of date, even if we don't take into account any claim but those of human beings. We need to confront the fact that the rights generally granted to first-comers now clearly amount to something like a right to determine, in significant but often indeterminable ways, the sort of world in which later arrivals will live. There may be visions of liberty within which that sort of right appears justifiable, but I'm not sure we should call them anarchism, and I'm fairly certain that they do not fall within the scope of the anarchic justice advanced by Proudhon.

So we have a series of reasons to think that we may have trouble identifying "resources" which can be appropriated in a way that only influences the property of a single individual—the very sort of exclusive, individual property that we tend to think of when we used the word—and then we have Proudhon's individualities, multiplied by our advances in scientific knowledge. We not only have to account for social labor, collective force attributable to specific association, but we have the amplifying force of social labor, in the form of technology, being exerted as a part of what we still call individual appropriation. And we have collectivities which result in part from our actions and exertions, but not entirely or in any way which necessarily corresponds with our own interests and wills. How, given all this, do we define the limits of what is "our own"? An awful lot of traditional individualisms seem to fall short, leaving us, not unexpectedly, with a range of approaches which attempt to maintain individualism and some form of socialism or collectivism in some sort of interconnection or antinomic balance, such as those found in Whitman's "Song of Myself," or Pierre Leroux's work. (Whitman constantly connected oneself, "from top to toe," with the "en masse," which is "not contained between hat and boots." For Leroux, see in particular the section on Humanity in the Aphorisms.) The visions of self, and of the self's relations to its others, quickly become rather dizzyingly complex. There is the self, already a group, and then the collectivites in which the self has some interest, as well as those which perhaps have an interest of their own in the self. All of these are potential subjects of appropriation, though their various appropriations in some sense all come down to either individual human appropriations or the sort of things we tend to treat as simply "nature." And only the individual humans seem to be the sort of free absolute which can shoulder any responsibility in any of this.

What remains to us is to attempt a practical solution of the problem of defining just appropriation in a situation where nothing seems to be free to appropriate, and where the various agents of appropriation come with significantly different capacities for achieving anything like justice. It probably won't come as any surprise to say at this point that I still see some of our most promising indications in the system of Locke, and particular in the various provisos. But the exposition will have to wait for another day.

(to be concluded...)

No comments: