Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Practicing the Encounter: Appropriation and Ecology - III

"Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)"
The difficulties facing our theory of just appropriation seem enormous. Hopefully, they also seem familiar. We're still just trying to find a property that would not be theft, while still remaining property in some fairly strong sense. Theories of possession, to the extent that they remain concerned with matter of fact, don't get us where we need to go. In order to provide a principle for action they require some additional element, such as respect. But those additional elements always seem to throw us back into the realm of property. There does not seem to be any possibility of talking about just relations in a material sense without some material distinction between selves and others, which inevitably involves a distinction—though not always an exclusive distinction—between mine and thine.

This is not an equivocation or compromise. Nor does it even need to be an attack. The capitalists have had their say about what is proper to human being for long enough, but it's a rotten story, which has become worse over time, and a good, Stirnerian shrug of the shoulders is about all it takes to move us along. Whether or not capitalism itself is moving towards some final crisis, capitalist philosophy seems to be an increasingly slapdash affair, and we don't have to look much farther than its own philosophical touchstones to demonstrate the fact. Proudhon's critiques of the contradictions and impossibilities of capitalist property theories still stand up pretty well today.

So let's shrug those shoulders and move along. We're working with a model of anarchist relations that depend on equality (in the absence of any clear means of applying any specific hierarchy or authority) and a recognition of the otherness of the other, the incommensurability or opacity of individuals with regard to one another (which is ultimately just part of the same argument for equality.) We will move towards harmony and accord, but have to start without any a priori criteria for exactly how we'll get there. What we have is what is imposed on us by the conditions we recognize at the start: there will always be a first step, into the encounter, which we will have to make in a sort of principled isolation, and what I've been suggesting is that the principle is property itself, manifested in three "gifts." There are plenty of ways of looking at the world which might lead us to think of it as fundamentally undivided, and might then lead us to associate that undivided world with our selves—with our own. We see versions of this in Stirner and in Whitman, and we might derive something similar from Déjacque or Pierre Leroux, or simply from the natural sciences. But, despite the truths captured by those various visions of the world, they couldn't function for us as principles in any social setting, since the first appearance of a really other being would force us to at least supplement them with some theory of property (in the broad sense we have been using.) Similarly, we might, as some individualisms do, break down the larger collectivities into their component parts and simply refuse to deal with the social as such, but that leaves us without the means to account for any sort of collective force. And, in practice, though some individualisms attempt to dispense with the notion of society, the defenders of capitalism and capitalist property seem prone to positing some other, emergent collectivity in its place, whether explicitly identified as the market or simply gestured at as a realm of emergent good consequences. Among the hierarchies for which we seem to have no sanction is the hierarchy of scales of analysis.

Still, while we have no principled grounds on which to privilege any particular class of interests, we have the practical problem posed by the fact that, despite the wide range of possible subjects of appropriation, those free absolutes who can be expected to act according to principle and who can be held responsible for their actions seem to cluster pretty much entirely among individual human actors. Some collectivities can provide feedback in the form of consequences, but generally after the fact. What the complexities of our involvements and the opacity of the others demands is a principle of individual action which allows us to enter into various encounters well-prepared to do justice, in the sense of balancing all of the various interests involved at every stage of the struggle towards accord and harmony.

In that sense, then, the anarchism we are exploring is, as I have put it elsewhere, an individualism, but an individualism at a variety of scales. And the mechanism by which we enter the encounter with an anarchistic posture is the practice of the three gifts of property: the acknowledgment of the other as other, and the gift of those parts of ourselves most integral to that other; the gift of a space within which to explore, and err, in the practice of being a material self, without the inevitable errors fatally disrupting our gift economy of property; and the gift of anarchy, the relinquishing of all existing hierarchies and the advantages they might afford us, whether directly in the material realm or on more ideological terrain, which is the step by which we move beyond mere voluntaryism. It is an individualism always already married to an aspiration that is social, that movement towards accord, harmony and justice, but we can't skip the individualizing step, nor the principle which attaches to it, without simply scrapping the whole analysis we've made here and starting anew.

We're circling an inevitable conclusion: if we want just appropriation, no matter the range of subjects we suppose, it's up to us—up to individual human actors, working through the tangled layers of our varied and potentially conflicting interests—to make it happen. We have to enter the encounter in all of our Whitmanesque largeness, representing not just our own interests—including, presumably, the interest in anarchism—but also that of the multitudes which we contain, by which we are contained, and with which we are inextricably involved. And those are big shoes to fill.

There's not really that much more to say, at least at the level of principles. It has been clear since I entered the discussions of mutualism a decade or so ago that for Proudhon property is a problem. What has been dawning over time is the extent of the problem, and the extent to which it is possibly the problem, which must be solved if we hope to make headway with a range of others. The choices, it seems to me, are to find some means to avoid this particular problem, to tackle the questions of appropriation and ecology in some other terms, or to take on the problem, and to take on in process all of that Whitmanesque largeness, those multitudes, and, of course, those contradictions that Proudhon also considered so integral to our existence. The second approach seems to have a variety of advantages, not the least of which is that it is indeed direct. and as we have posed the question it is not just an approach to the question of property, but at the same time it is a direct approach to the question of ecology—and of anarchy as well.

So, if we move forward and begin to spell out a theory of anarchistic property, how do we proceed? With our explorations of the possible subjects of appropriation, we have the beginnings of a descriptive account of possession, an account of what has been appropriated by individuals in a strictly de facto sense. We have not account of property rights—and to the extent that rights are understood as realization or justification external to our very basic encounter, we know that we won't be going there. We know that the droit d'aubaine or right of increase is almost certainly off the table. In Proudhon's terms, we can expect the fruits of social labor to become social property; whether they are ultimately managed and consumed in common, or dispersed to individuals, the role generally assigned to the capitalist—essentially that of external realization of the association—is unlikely to be rewarded as it is at present. We know that exclusive, individual property is unlikely to be the default form, given all the ways in which even apparently solitary production is amplified by accumulated technological power, and, of course, given all of the overlaps in our descriptive account of present appropriation. We now that the liberty to appropriate unowned resources will be fundamentally meaningless, as we will be hard put to find resources which are not already involved in collectivities which are themselves already involved with us human individuals. Given all of that, however, I'm still not certain we will find any more elegant place to begin looking for our principle of just appropriation than in the "enough and as good" proviso of Locke.

It was over three years ago that I spent quite a bit of time talking about that proviso and its consequences, culminating in a series of posts examining under what circumstances the individual might feel themselves free to take "a good draught" of water from a river. My argument was that Locke's appropriation proviso demanded that unilaterally just appropriation was limited to circumstances where the resource was essentially non-rivalrous, a condition very different from most modern interpretations of the very conditions for appropriation. Our good draught has to still leave a "whole river," which seems like a problem since, as I put it at the time, "a quantity of water, X, minus some non-zero "good draught," G, is unlikely to = X." But we know that our appropriation of resources is not really, or at least not necessarily, any sort of simple subtraction from quantity X, but an intervention in systems—and ultimately in something like the universal circulus of Leroux and Déjacque—with some capacity for replenishing some of their elements. We really can pull the trick with the good draught and the whole river. We just have to wait, assuming that we have not also crippled the ability of the hydrosystem to do its ordinary work. So if we want to leave enough and as good just for humans, we have to manage our resource use in such a way that we do not diminish the virtually non-rivalrous character of the resource for ourselves and those others. If we are consuming resources in a way which diminishes the resilience of ecosystems, then we need to make sure that we are doing our level best to repair the damage we are doing. And because the mechanics of this stuff is enormously complex, there are going to be lots of instances where we simply can't know the consequences of our actions, and if we want to claim anything approaching just appropriation, then we're damn well going to have to walk softly.

Of course, if we were to incorporate ecological norms into our common sense about just appropriation, I suspect that we would pretty quickly learn quite a bit more about ecological science, and would find that at least some of the conceptual work necessary to at least begin to represent the interests of various non-human actors in our schemes of just property was perhaps not so difficult as it seems at the moment, when our common sense about such things is of an almost entirely opposing character. It terms of the mechanisms of representing those interests, I think there are any number of ways of approaching the problem of appointing surrogates or caretakers, once the work of analysis is well under way. I think if we were honest with ourselves, we might feel that we had a good deal of restorative work to do, before we could really feel that any further appropriation was justified. I suspect a lot of folks don't want to confront that sort of dilemma, but it may be precisely what is needed to break down barriers to more efficient resource use, reduction and reuse of waste materials, etc.

Let's stop there, with the understanding that there is a great deal that can and eventually should be said about anarchistic property, but also that the models and mechanisms so briefly sketched out here should at least suggest ways in which a number of other social problems might be addressed with our simply system of the encounter. Rather than belabor this particular line of thought any longer at the moment, I would like to turn my attention to other concerns, with the understanding that we will come back to the threads that remain hanging here.

1 comment:

Samuel Conner said...

Am new to your weblog; appreciate it very much. Thank you.

This reminds me a little of Jonathan Edwards' definition of "true virtue", which was a large-heartedness that considered and valued the good of individualities beyond itself. Edwards extended this all the way up the scale of being, to include God.

Can enlightened self-interest be enough to motivate a large-hearted regard for the interests of individuals beyond oneself? There will always be a strong temptation to defection.