Sunday, June 30, 2013

Anarchy, understood in all its senses

"The first term of the series being thus Absolutism,  the final, fateful term is Anarchy, understood in all the senses."–Proudhon, The General Idea of the Revolution
In order to start to address the question posed in the last post, about what Proudhon meant when he said "I am an anarchist," we need to grapple a bit with the thorny question of how consistently he used his various keywords. One of the traditional methods of dealing with the complexities of Proudhon's arguments, including those terminological issues, has been to wave our hands and recall that he was a "man of contradictions," as if contradiction wasn't very explicitly a part of his theoretical apparatus, about which he had a lot of fairly specific things to say. I think we can come to considerably clearer terms with Proudhon's method. He left us quite a few explicit guides.

In "Self-Government and the Citizen-State," I made extensive use a distinction Proudhon made in his correspondence between critical and constructive periods. Let's explicitly add that distinction to the "toolkit" here, and explore some of the ways that it relates to some other concerns regarding the interpretation of Proudhon's work. 

I have long emphasized the importance of the shift in Proudhon's use of keywords, marked explicitly in The Philosophy of Progress, when he opts to "preserve for new institutions their patronymic names." Early on, Proudhon had mocked Pierre Leroux for believing that "there is property and property,—the one good, the other bad" and insisted that "it is proper to call different things by different names." Hence the "property" vs. "possession" distinction. But he was, at the same time, already beginning to insist on a progressive account of some of his most important keywords—justice chief among them—which showed them progressing through radically different stages. Justice, for example, started its journey to more humane forms from beginnings in force and fraud. Harmonizing his choice and use of terms with his emphasis on progress was a critical moment in Proudhon's development, and also, of course, a real stumbling block in understanding that development if we do not take careful account of it. It doesn't explain everything, as sometimes it seems Proudhon was simply inconsistent in his choice of words, or tailored his expression to particular audiences, but it does give us another tool to attempt to resolve what may seem like real contradictions in his work (as opposed to productive or provocative antinomies.)

The explicit change in approach to keywords occurs roughly at the watershed between critical and constructive periods. And it is probably simplest to think of that period in the early 1850s precisely as a kind of watershed, where the predominance of approaches shifted from criticism to construction. Prior to it, we are more likely to see Proudhon's critical project at center stage, and afterwards, we are more likely to see some of his experimental constructions. The work has a tendency, if you will, to flow in one direction or the other, despite a mixture of emphases at most points in Proudhon's career.

The Philosophy of Progress also provides us with two accounts of truth, which we might distinguish as critical and constructive.  In the first, "the truth in all things, the real, the positive, the practicable, is what changes, or at least is susceptible to progression, conciliation, transformation; while the false, the fictive, the impossible, the abstract, is everything that presents itself as fixed, entire, complete, unalterable, unfailing, not susceptible to modification, conversion, augmentation or diminution, resistant as a consequence to all superior combination, to all synthesis." In the second, "All ideas are false, that is to say contradictory and irrational, if one takes them in an exclusive and absolute sense, or if one allows oneself to be carried away by that sense; all are true, susceptible to realization and use, if one takes them together with others, or in evolution." Together, they correspond to the two phases of the program that Proudhon presented in the "Study on Ideas" in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church:
I intend to suppress none of the things of which I have made such a resolute critique. I flatter myself that I do only two things: that is, first, to teach you put each thing in its place, after having purged it of the absolute and balanced it with other things; then, to show you that the things that you know, and that you have such fear of losing, are not the only ones that exist, and that there are considerably more of which you still must take account.
Given these explicit indications of Proudhon's method, and context, we should have a pretty good chance of navigating through his texts successfully.  We should be on the lookout for any reading which seems to commit us to simplism, which does not seem to have a complementary critique or construction lurking somewhere nearby. We might be inclined to anticipate that most keywords will have absolutist forms to be critiqued and balanced forms to take their place in various experiments and approximations. And that is at least part of what we find—but things get fairly complex fairly quickly, since, beyond all of the individuals that are always also groups, and the fact that constructive concepts only acquire truth in combinations, it appears that there really are few, if any exceptions to this rule we have proposed. Even absolutism seems to come in absolutist and balanced forms, forcing us away from any very simple reading of Proudhon's "opposition to the absolute." Even anarchy seems to appear in a variety of senses, some of which are perhaps also absolutist, and all of which we are presumably to understand, together, as the "final, fatal term" of an evolutionary series away from at least absolute absolutism. It will be useful to revisit the discussions of property and possession in this context in the near future, but for now let's at least begin to deal with the problem that's already on the table.

I've started a project—really a formalization of a process I've been using for some time now—assembling collections of all the passages in Proudhon's collected writings and correspondence where he uses particular keywords. At the moment, I'm working through all of the appearances of the words anarchie, anarchiste, and anarchique, and their plural forms, and finding some very interesting things, not the least of which is that Proudhon most often used those terms to designate "economic" or "mercantile anarchy," which he associated with the goals of the economists, laissez faire, decentralization, and insolidarity. He also, of course, used the word anarchy to designate self-government, an English term he opposed to all of the authoritarian, governmental alternatives which would establish the rule of human beings over human beings. There is also the anarchy that, at least by 1863 and The Federative Principle, he came to think of as a "perpetual desideratum," an ideal form which human approximations would never quite achieve. That has created problems for those concerned with knowing whether or not Proudhon should still be considered "an anarchist." Putting these various notions of anarchy together, or deciding that they belong apart, is a project that may occupy us for a while.

I want to approach these questions by first giving Proudhon the benefit of the doubt. He was the guy we credit with first claiming the term, so let's be fairly careful before we decide we can detach him from it. And, of course, this toolkit we're assembling from Proudhon's works is a fairly complicated rig. Ultimately, in order to use Proudhon's work, we have to choose which of the various presentations of that work we're going to begin with, and I want to propose, for our purposes here, to take the works of 1851-1861, roughly as I've described them in "Self-Government and the Citizen-State," as that starting-place. What choosing those works, rather than, say, What is Property? or The System of Economic Contradictions, or perhaps just The General Idea of the Revolution by itself, gives us is precisely the toolkit of explicit writings on philosophy and method, much of which appeared in the period from 1853 to 1858, and enough of the slope on either side of our "watershed" to feel confident we're not missing the general development of things. I am actually fairly confident that the approach from that 1853-8 period is relatively consistent with both earlier and later works, but that's an assumption that is widely contested, with many interpreters differentiating the clear "property is theft" period from any of the more complicated formulations and/or considering the later work on federation as no longer anarchist.

Anyway, if we begin in this period where Proudhon had begun to talk explicitly about his philosophy and method, some questions naturally present themselves. For example, what sort of definition of "anarchy" would meet the criteria for truth that he laid out in 1853? Are the difficulties of formulating a true idea greater if the notion in question is anarchism or being an anarchist? Under what circumstances could an ideology be true, given these criteria? I think that it is fairly uncontroversial to believe that Proudhon, who thought of himself as "the man whose thought always advances, whose program will never be completed," might have had an evolving notion of what it meant to be an anarchist, but my sense is that the real problems of interpretation arise from the fact that there are so obviously several ideas in play.

So we have to ask ourselves whether the various, apparently different, meanings of "anarchy" can be accounted for as alternately critical and constructive, or absolutist and non-absolutist? Or do some of them perhaps arise in contexts where Proudhon had not clarified his method enough for us to easily apply those definitions? I want to take time in another post to really work through the developing theories of property and possession in these terms, but I think we can point to a number of possible kinds of relationships between concepts which might have parallels in the treatment of "anarchy, understood in all its senses." For example, in The Theory of Property, we find discussions of property in its absolutist form, retaining the "right of increase" and the rest of its mystique, and unbalanced by any effective countervailing force. We also find discussions of a property which has lost its authority and many of its attendant "rights," as a result of the critique of absolutism, and we find that property balanced by a "State" which has also been stripped of its authority. Alongside these, we find a somewhat negative treatment of possession, now understood as equivalent to fief, but the issue seems to be that it is now an approximation that Proudhon has moved beyond:
But is that the last word of civilization, and of right as well? I do not think so; one can conceive something more; the sovereignty of man is not entirely satisfied; liberty and mobility are not great enough. 
There are, it seems to me, a lot of ways for ideas to fall short of truth in Proudhon's terms, and only approximate means, in combination with other aspiring true ideas, to approach it. Can anarchy, anarchism, anarchist, etc., be exempt from this general rule? If not, then the treatment of anarchy as a perpetual desideratum is probably no objection to treating the later Proudhon as an anarchist after all, at least by the terms he established in the period where we are focusing our attention. That would leave open the question of whether the early notion of anarchy as self-government could be understood in some other terms, consistent with the work of an early-period Proudhon who had a different idea of how ideas and ideologies might work.

My immediate thought is that there is at least some evidence in both The Celebration of Sunday and What is Property? that Proudhon always leaned towards a progressive account of truth-in-ideas.

If we can make sense of the various senses of "anarchy" with the help of Proudhon's statements about philosophy and method, then we need to sort them out in those terms. It's not, I think, too hard to accept that "self-government" might involve a series of progressive approximations, or to understand Proudhon's "perpetual desideratum" in much the same sense as William Batchelder Greene's "blazing star" or my own "ungovernable ideal." It's a little harder to know quite what to do with ideals in Proudhon's thought. In the context of his treatment of metaphysics (in the opening sections of Justice in the Revolution and in the Church), we probably have to treat any "anarchist ideal" as an unavoidable but unscientific speculation about the in-itself of anarchy or a reflection of our sense that we are not there yet, but not ultimately the sort of engagement with relations that Proudhon was concerned with. We probably don't have to take on all of Proudhon's quasi-comtean positivism to see some value in emphasizing anarchy in the context of specific, individual interactions.

The most ideologically charged question that arises from sorting out these various anarchisms, which Proudhon apparently considered closely enough connected to sometimes gesture at them en masse, is undoubtedly the relation between anarchy as self-government and the economic anarchy which he sometimes quite explicitly connected to the concept of laisse faire and the goals of the free-market economists. Proudhon's discussions of economic anarchy are fascinating, since they are largely negative, and perhaps even more so than his discussions of property, but, like the treatments of property, they periodically turn positive, and we see instances where laissez faire seems to be presented as a key element in mutualism. The parallels with the property theory suggest a very interesting set of possibilities. The transformation of property from theft to a potentially powerful tool of liberty occurred according to the critical itinerary we've already cited: first the absolutist elements of property were identified and critiqued, and its fundamental untruth established, and then those very same elements, now presumably rid at least of their aura of authority, were incorporated into a balanced (or justified, as balance and justice were one for Proudhon) approximation with the non-governmental citizen-State as the countervailing force. If there is a parallel treatment of anarchy, we'll probably find it in Proudhon's many statements about the close relation between property and liberty, and his opposition of government and economy. These have been the basis for the common claim that Proudhon advocated some kind of "market anarchism." Now, the "system" that Proudhon summarized as always reducible to "an equation and a power of collectivity" may conform to some definitions of "market," but I think the question of the relationship between the anarchism that he actually advocated, mutualism, and the anarchy of the market, may be substantially more complex and interesting than we have generally made it. 

In the context of the present discussion, one of the most interesting passages of The General Idea of the Revolution is this:
"...the Government, whatever it may be, is very sick, and tending more and more toward Anarchy. My readers may give this word any meaning they choose."
Given everything else he has said about the various forms of anarchy, it's pretty hard to imagine this means Proudhon was indifferent to the differences between them. But it does appear that he considered anarchy as an appropriate label for a variety of tendencies associated with the decline of government. One of those tendencies was obviously "the system of '89 and '93; the system of Quesnay, of Turgot, of J.-B. Say; the system that is always professed, with more or less intelligence and good faith, by the various organs of the political parties," which he invoked in the 1848 "Revolutionary Program," and characterized as:
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.
But is that "the last word of civilization, and of right as well"? Was Proudhon really saying that there was no difference between himself and the economists with whom he had certainly expressed no shortage of differences? The continuation of the argument, in which he first seems to describe market anarchy and then explains how it will result in something that sounds more than a bit like anarchist communism, is a little hard to parse, but it appears that, however anarchic market forces may be and however non-governmental the resulting economic centralization may be, something else is required to maintain what I think most of us mean when we think of the outcomes of anarchism, and that missing element seems to be justice, a balancing of the forces of property and community—and suddenly we find ourselves facing what seems to be just one more of a series of formulas involving the balancing or synthesis of very similar elements, spanning Proudhon's entire career.

So what are we to make of this economic anarchy, which seems to be an anti-governmental force, but does not seem to be quite what Proudhon is aiming for? It seems to me that we have located a prime candidate for the category of absolutist anarchies. A range of more provocative questions are then raised, including, just as a start:
  • Is there then a sort of anarchism that we might associate with this market anarchy, and, if so, is it perhaps a sort of absolutist anarchism? The answer, I think, from the Proudhonian perspective, will depend on the extent to which we think an aura of authority stills clings to notions like property and market.
  • Assuming that anarchy, in this more general sense, can be rid of its absolutism, and that it makes sense to call oneself an anarchist as a means of signaling a commitment to both non-governentalism and anti-absolutism, how would we construct the larger system within which that form of anarchism would steadily increase in truth?
  • What role can we expect all the complicated and complicating collective individuals that people the Proudhonian landscape to play in all of this? I began to speculate, for example, on how "the market" might take its place alongside the citizen-state, in the "Notes on Proudhon's changing notion of the State," and the "Notes on the Notes" that followed. I'll undoubtedly have to come back to some of those speculations.
There is a lot more than could be said about the questions raised by Proudhon's sometimes puzzling discussions of "anarchy," and I want to keep coming back to clarify what I think he really meant, particularly as I get a chance to do additional research on some keywords that are only emerging as particularly interesting in this context. But I also want to spend some more time dealing with the methodological and philosophical issues.

I think an argument could pretty easily be made that what we see in Proudhon's approach to question of method, metaphysics, etc., is something very much like his anarchism or federalism, applied to the realm of thought. Indeed, there seems to be a strong suggestion in at least some of what Proudhon wrote that something like mutualism is essential in virtually all sorts of human endeavor. That seems like a notion worth following up on.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The General Idea of the Revolution (partially revised translation)

Since the question of Proudhon's understanding of "anarchy" is complicated by the fact that the English translation of one of the key texts, The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, obscures the range of meanings that term might have, I thought it would be useful to make available a revision of John Beverley Robinson's translation, which at least restores that particular complexity to the text. I have marked portions of the text in bold: first, I've bolded all of the instances in which "anarchie" was originally translated as "chaos," "disorganization," etc., and I have restored the term "anarchy;" second, I have highlighted a few passages where Proudhon either makes comments about how the term "anarchy" should be understood, or where he says things about "anarchy" which it seems to me the range-of-meanings question has particular consequences. The changes are not substantial, at least in terms of the amount of text modified, but I think they raise some very interesting questions, which will perhaps pose some challenges for all of us who have sought, to one degree or another, to build up from a foundation in (or explicitly distinguished from) Proudhon's work.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

To be a (synthetic, positive) anarchist

I want to turn next to some considerations of Proudhon's keywords, and the development of his use of terminology. This has been a key concern in my previous work on "property," and promises to emerge again as I look at the various things that Proudhon meant by "anarchy," and what then it meant to him to "be an anarchist." There are just a handful of places where he explicitly declared himself an anarchist, the most famous of them being from 1840, in What is Property? In 1853, in The Philosophy of Progress, he referred to that declaration, clarifying what he intended by it. The explanation is interesting:
I wrote in 1840 that profession of political faith, as remarkable for its brevity as its energy: I am an anarchist. I posited with that word the negation, or rather the insufficiency of the principle of authority... By that I meant, as I later showed, that the notion of authority is only, like the notion of an absolute being, an analytic idea, powerless, from whatever direction one might come at authority, and in whatever manner it is exercised, to give a social constitution. For authority, for politics, I then substituted ECONOMY, a synthetic and positive idea, alone capable, in my opinion, of leading to a rational and practical conception of the social order. However, I did nothing in this but to repeat the thesis of Saint-Simon, so strangely disfigured by his disciples, and combated today, for tactical reasons that I cannot work out, by M. Enfantin. It consists in saying, based on history and the incompatibility of the ideas of authority and progress, that society is on the way to completing the governmental cycle for the last time; that public reason has gained certainty of the powerlessness of politics, with regard to the improvement of the condition of the masses; that the predominance of the ideas of power and authority has begun to be succeeded, in opinion as in history, by that of the ideas of labor and exchange; that the consequence of that substitution is to replace the mechanism of the political powers by the organization of economic forces, etc., etc.
The declaration seems to get a little lost as the clarification wanders off into Saint-Simon's work. He is asserting once again, as he did in his 1849 debate with Louis Blanc, that "Anarchy is the condition of existence of adult societies, as hierarchy is the condition of primitive societies: there is an incessant progress, in human societies, from hierarchy to anarchy." And he reaffirms his 1840 claim that anarchy is "the form of government that we approach every day." But there are also these philosophical considerations in play—and there is a very interesting shift from "negation" to "insufficiency."

If being an anarchist has something to do with the insufficiency of the principle of authority, but perhaps not its negation, and if it relates to the "synthetic and positive idea" of "economy," well...? We obviously have some details to fill in.

Is the answer perhaps related to this summary statement from the "Study on Ideas," in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church?
Two families, two cities, two provinces, contract on the same footing: there is always only these two things, an equation and power of collectivity. It would involve a contradiction, a violation of Justice, if there were anything else. 
My inclination is to say that the answer to the question essentially is that passage—but for now I want to leave it an open question.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Libertarian Labyrinth and the Antinomies of Anarchy

The articles on ungovernability were an attempt to deal with a fairly limited problem: we have a limited vocabulary with which to accomplish the work of anti-authoritarian social change, and arguably we have to use the tools at hand carefully. Without delving too deeply here into questions of traditions, canons, and orthodoxies, we can probably acknowledge that there are both good reasons to exert some measure of control over how broadly the traditional keywords of anarchism are applied, or misapplied, and equally good reasons—especially when we are talking about anarchism and anarchy—to leave room for those terms to "get away from us" a bit. The thing I've identified as "the Mutualist's Dilemma," the fact that our political identifications tend to associate us with both a largely unknown past and an unpredictable future, is the Anarchist's Dilemma as well, and if the "retrospective" character of anarchist development is considerably less pronounced in the broader movement, it may just be because there is less perceived need to address history at all. When we do attempt to go "back to basics" with any sort of historical perspective, the difficulties seem very familiar.

What the work on ungovernability didn't really address is that behind whatever we choose to call "the tradition," there is something even more ungovernable, the raw flood of events from which any sort of historical tradition must be assembled. That's ultimately what I was gesturing at, years back, when I first began to talk about the "libertarian labyrinth." If we do "movement history" or search for the limits of "the tradition," we find ourselves building a sort of ever-more-complex maze around the ideological points we have chosen to focus on, and there's not much choice but to wander back and forth, and back and forth, from the points we think we know down untraveled paths, hoping to find a break in the hedges that will lead us out onto some terrain better adapted to our goals. It's not quite as bad as that might make it sound, of course, since anarchism as we've inherited it isn't such a bad place to be, and even many of the dead ends we might explore in the neighborhood are interesting. A few are, of course, horrifying, but you'll have that. Anarchism is a fairly high-stakes endeavor—the sort of thing that can go very badly wrong if it starts to go that way.

In many ways, life within the labyrinth is just life. Anarchism is the movement towards anarchy, not just any old thing, and the struggles over just how that movement is to proceed are to be welcomed, as long as we keep moving forward. Anarchism, too, proceeds by approximation. So I can disagree with the conclusions of a Black Flame, while having a great deal of sympathy with at least parts of the project. There is really no question, when the issue is history and tradition, of somehow occupying a space in that "raw flood of events," without ideological or historiographic anchors on some firmer terrain—unless, that is, the point is simply to be swept away.

For all my frustrations with the anarchist movement, I don't see any advantages in pulling up anchor in that way. If anything, I'm prepared to push quite a bit harder against the status quo on some of the questions surrounding the definition of "anarchism"—but that's where my work as a theorist is, in some important ways, at least temporarily diverging from my work as a historian.

There are two moments or movements in the sort of history I've been doing. In one of them, the work opens existing generalizations about those canons, traditions, and orthodoxies to new data and new interpretations of old data, almost inevitably blurring the edges of things. In the other, it's necessary to make decisions about what is wheat and what is chaff. We can think of the process in terms of a progress by approximation, of the creation and recreation of "metaphysical" concepts (in the sense Proudhon gave that term in Justice), or perhaps, incorporating a bit more obvious "high theory" (from Georges Bataille, in this case) we could think about the relationship between "the tradition" and the "raw flood" as something like that between limited and general economies of anarchism. This last approach confronts us with the likelihood that there is always some "accursed share," some bit of "raw" anarchist history that must be excluded in order to formulate any given account of the tradition.

Sometimes it seems that the "accursed share" involved in maintaining "the tradition" is an awful lot of what we might otherwise call "anarchist history:" the deviations, heresies, and failures not useful as propaganda tools; the lives of anarchists beyond their political projects and commitments; the near-misses, close cousins, and the anti-authoritarian practices of those who never took on the label, or even fought against "anarchy" or "anarchism," as they understood it; etc.

It's the potentially treacherous, roiling mess of anarchisms, near anarchisms, and unexplored or unclassified potential anarchisms that I want to explore in a new radical history blog, which will launch fairly soon now, under the name "Dispatches from the Revolution—Atercracy." [Now live!] The word "atercracy" is a borrowing from, and tribute to, Claude Pelletier, a French worker exiled after the French Revolution of 1848, who settled in New York City to make artificial flowers and agitate for something fairly close to Proudhonian mutualism in the context of the Union Républicaine de Langue Française. For Pelletier, "atercracy" was another way of saying "anarchy," without the existing connotations of disorder and violence. For the purposes of the next phase of things here, I would like to use the term to signify that "general economy" or "raw flood" of historical events from which we draw our understandings of "anarchism"—and at the same time, over on the new history blog, I would like to make the question of whether or not this or that figure, or institution, or proposal, or event, "is anarchist" at least temporarily off limits. There will be no shortage of other questions to ponder, as we take on all the material bound to rush in as we pull down that particular wall. And I will undoubtedly be provocatively concrete enough about "anarchism" here on the Contr'un blog.

So, that's one terminological monstrosity, which at least has a good, radical pedigree, however unknown it may be to most anti-authoritarian radicals, to mark a continuation of the exploratory project I launched with my first departures into the realm of mutualism and the first Libertarian Labyrinth archive. That leaves the three key-terms so prominently displayed in the header to be clarified, as I stop hemming and hawing here and get things really rolling again.

Contr'un, as I've said, is drawn from the subtitle of Etienne de la Boetie's work on voluntary servitude. It has been translated as "anti-dictator" and might, with a little Proudhonian spin, be rendered as something close to "anti-authority." But given all that we know about Proudhon's understanding of individuality and collectivity, his tendency to find antinomic conflict in pretty much everything, and his understanding of human individuals as "free absolutes," we might be tempted to think of the contr'un as a "counter-one," as an antinomic one. This antinomic one will take some time to describe, as we unpack its various aspects, but it will be the star of the show as I move forward with the work on Everything in the Balance. For now, longtime readers (or those interested in searching the archives) can think about what that notion might mean for the "gift economy of property," and how it relates to my flirtations with the thought of Stirner and Pierre Leroux.

The last two terms, contr'archy and guarantism, are a neologism, derived from an obvious source, and a borrowing from Fourier, but borrowed already by Proudhon, with which I would like to mark two antinomic tendencies of anarchist practice. This first—which might easily have been contr'anarchism, were that not an even more barbarous coinage—will designate the tendency of the quest for "full anarchism" to sacrifice everything for the anti-authoritarian principle, while the second—which Proudhon sometimes used as a synonym for mutualism—will designate the drive to achieve a material amelioration of conditions, even if, at times, the approximations sacrifice the principle in ways that trouble us. At least for now, any anarchism seems stuck, in practice, negotiating some path between these two endpoints—striving to find the balance that Proudhon called justice.

How long these terms remain useful will depend on a variety of factors, but for now I think that there is some use in making anarchism a little strange, as well as in identifying a little more specifically the various elements we can expect to deal with in a more-or-less Proudhonian examination of anarchist theory. And the somewhat awkward borrowings from the tradition have their place as well, if only to remind us that even anarchist history and theory may be built on a foundation of suppressed voices. We'll keep at least some of those potentially silenced voices close by here as we make hard choices about anarchist theory.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Assembling the New Toolkit

There's been a long and rather pregnant pause between the decision that I really needed to adjust the way I was approaching my work and the beginning of the new phase. Honestly, I really enjoy those periods where you realize that everything you think you know about the things you really care about is just a little (crucial) bit wrong, particularly when the realization has been dawning for some time. It's best just to get these things out in the open and let the situation breathe, so you can move on. But those times are also terrifying, and the waiting can be exhausting—and as often as not you don't get to them with much left in the tank in the first place.

The silver lining of my particular recent crisis is that it has put me in a place where I can feel both a bit expert and a bit out of my depth—which is an exhilarating mix, but also perhaps precisely the sort of place that you might expect someone who really espoused the "anarchism of approximations," which has absorbed so many of my waking hours for a fair number of years, now to live. Presently, I'm a little uncertain just what "anarchism" is—but I'm pretty certain that an uncertainty of that sort is an appropriate, and perhaps even necessary, part of being an anarchist (assuming an anarchist is something that one can be.)

When I started to explore mutualism, there was the feeling that I had stumbled onto some strange and fascinating variation on the social anarchism I knew, and it gradually dawned on me that the variation really made everything I knew vary in important ways, but at first the realizations were largely contextual. Exploring mutualism was largely a matter of rethinking that "anarchism" thing and getting the contents and contexts straightened out, in accordance with a huge body of new information that I was constantly working my way through. But eventually, of course, the contextual adjustments not only began to raise some rather difficult questions about the content of "anarchism" as I had inherited it, but they made me think that perhaps, had I been paying the sort of careful attention that I like to think I do, they should have confronted me with this potential "slipping from the moorings" much sooner.

Oh, well. "Slow, but steady..."

Anyway, tardily or not, I've reached a point in my encounter with anarchism, particularly as it emerged in the thought of Proudhon, where I want to really pursue my previously stated belief that the first explicit anarchist was "more consistent than complete" in a series of studies here on this blog, while I look at a more complete, but less consistent canon of figures than we usually associate with "anarchism" on a new radical history blog. Over time, the two projects will converge, but that convergence is another matter than should probably be allowed to breathe, to have the benefit of its own long, fruitful interval.

What the two projects will have in common is their shared origin in the studies that I've undertaken here, and in the body of concepts and concerns that I have been assembling, sometimes no doubt with insufficient clarity, in that work. In order to simplify what will undoubtedly be a complex set of moves, and to make it easier for readers who have not been along for the whole, long ride this far, it makes sense to do some clarifying.

Let's start with some basic vocabulary:

Ungovernability—For Proudhon, it was "government" or "the principle of authority" that was the thing to strive against, whatever form it took. Real associations respond only to their own, internal laws. Society, if it is based in association, is ungovernable. Anarchy cannot be less so.

Anarchy—Let's save this word, in the context of the blog at least, for our (anti-)political ideal, our "blazing star" in that realm. We'll call our ideologies and the various traditions that we have constructed, or might construct around them Anarchisms.

Mutualism—While the term has come to represent a really wide, perhaps unmanageably wide, range of positions, if I use the term here, assume that I mean something fairly close to the position I staked out for the "two-gun" variation:
Mutualism is not a specific social, political or economic system. It is—at its core—an ethical philosophy. We begin with mutuality or reciprocity—the Golden Rule, more or less—and then seek to apply that principle in a variety of situations. As a result, under mutualism every meaningfully social relation will have the form of an anarchic encounter between equally unique individuals—free absolutes—no matter what layers of convention we pile on it. To the extent that our conventions, institutions and norms respect that basic premise, we can call them “mutualist.” To the extent that we commit ourselves to viewing our relations through this lens, and exert ourselves in the extension of mutualistic freedom, we can call ourselves “mutualists.” We don't take anarchy lightly and understand that archic relationships and coercive force come in lots of varieties, and the exertion matters—if mutuality is reduced simply to an outcome of this or that system, mutualism as such almost certainly disappears.
And recall that I had characterized the practice of that mutualism as a matter of Approximation. If we can count on change as one of our few constants, if we have joined Proudhon in a commitment to Progress and against the Absolute, then we can't get too cozy with any of our institutional arrangements.

If we agree that the Antinomy "does not resolve itself," that productive conflict and contradiction are inevitable, and that Justice is a matter of allowing the various potentially warring elements to express themselves fully and in balanced fashion, then we will be on guard for Simplism, "the fault of viewing a complex question from only one side, of advancing on one side by retreating on the other, so that the real progress is null or negative."

There are other terms which we will have to assemble, many of them drawn from the works of Proudhon and his contemporaries, while a few have been cobbled together recently to serve perceived needs. But in rechristening this blog I've chosen to unite historical terms and neologisms under the banner of the Contr'un, a strange pseudo-French word—meaning something fairly close to "anti-authoritarian"which appeared as the subtitle to Etienne de la Boetie's Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, and which Pierre Leroux appropriated as one of his keyword in the period from which anarchism emerged. 

The term has actually been on the masthead for a long time, in the phrase "the multiplication of free forces is the true contr'un." It's not a phrase I have attempted to explain. Instead, it has been sort of a surveyor's market or blaze, marking a route that I knew the studies here would eventually have to take. I intend to allow this question of "the true contr'un," which we've inherited from Leroux, to remain a bit of a puzzle, at least for awhile, but let's at least start to grapple with its possibilities by returning to Proudhon's critique of governmental absolutism and his theory of collectivities and individualities, and suggest that it is Justice that we may expect to oppose the absolute One, and that the "organ of justice" is likely to be social, but that the social is impossible if there are not Free Absolutes, individuals inclined to conflict but capable of striking a balance.

In balance, One and Contr'Un may finally be, in at least some senses, one and the same.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


I had been intending to simply go without a "theory" blog for a while, letting this one go dormant while I closed down a couple of the specialized archive-blogs and integrated that material, and new projects, into the new Libertarian Labyrinth site. But as I've had a chance to get the new archive news-blog together and have been preparing materials for the Atercracy project, I've found that there seems to still be plenty of more or less pressing material that is perhaps better treated as a continuation of this multiply-reinvented project. So I'm reinventing once more, and will continue to explore the more strictly theoretical side of my work here, though with a somewhat less partisan—or perhaps just differently partisan—focus.

Welcome to Contr'un...

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Libertarian Labyrinth archive-news blog

As the action gradually moves away from this blog, I'm generally going to split my posting between the newsy stuff that has to do with the Libertarian Labyrinth archive and the history-and-theory stuff. If you want to keep track of major additions to the archive, new collections and exhibits, etc., then you'll want to check this new blog.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: Self-Government and the Citizen-State

I've spent much of the last six months on a journey down the rabbit hole in search of Proudhon's theory of the State, and as I suspect my notes on the study have made clear, it's been quite an adventure. The essay, "Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: Self-Government and the Citizen-State," has been accepted for publication in German, in Nomos's Staatsverständnisse series. Rather than shop the English-language version around, I'll incorporate significant parts of it into the Everything in the Balance, where everything that was cut and condensed in this very short essay can get a chance to be and breathe. I'm in the midst of compiling a pamphlet, containing the essay, my notes from the blog, and some translations from Proudhon, but the text and a pdf version of the essay are now available in the new Labyrinth archive.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The Pleasures and Perils of "Getting Back to Basics"

I've talked a bit, in this period of personal and political transition, about the effects of working backwards through the anarchist tradition, "chipping away at ... accepted wisdom." I would hope that the practical difficulties shine through in most of my recent work, whether it is the attempt to grapple with Proudhon's developing notion of the State, in the period before anti-statism was really a thing, or the discovery that his idea of "anarchy" may have been a bit more complicated than we generally acknowledge. I'm in the last throes of revising my essay on the State right now, and find myself forced to unlearn nearly as much as I'm learning–as quickly as humanly possible–and then forget parts of what I'm un/learning, temporarily, so that something actually gets written. Some of these maneuvers have been easier than others. Coming to terms with Proudhon's developing property theory was hard, given the importance placed on his famous statement that "property is theft," and filling in the blanks between 1840 and the 1860s took me on a wild ride through his works. Translating The Philosophy of Progress and The Celebration of Sunday gave me some important signposts for mapping Proudhon's general itinerary, and some more recent dips into his collected correspondence have confirmed that Proudhon himself recognized a major transition–what he called, in what is perhaps a bit of characteristic overstatement, a "complete transformation"–in the period immediately following the coup d'état of Louis Napoleon, a shift from critical to constructive work.

One of the more disorienting experiments of the last few months has been attempting to take Proudhon at his word–at least provisionally–when he declares property defeated, "never to rise again," at the beginning of a life-long examination of the problems involved with it, or when he makes these claims about "complete transformation" in his work. With some real confidence about the broad trajectory of his project–drawn from those signposts he himself left us–I've been trying to entertain a wide range of possibilities with regards to the details, reading and rereading texts with an eye to the fine points, particularly concerned with the patterns of keyword-use, and the places where they might break down.

I didn't really expect anarchy to be as troublesome a notion as it has become, despite a long-standing suspicion that, for Proudhon, it was not quite the same, absolutely central concept that it has become for those of us who have inherited the tradition. Anyone who even dabbles in anarchist history can cite examples of anarchists using "anarchy" to mean disorder, since the term was not widely used for self-identification until late in the 19th century. But in The General Idea of the Revolution, where he paid quite a bit of explicit attention the senses in which various terms should be understood, and where he used the term anarchy to designate both his political ideal and chaos and "anarchie économique," he went out of his way in two passages to link the two usages, describing the general trajectory of progress in these terms:
Le premier terme de la série étant donc l’Absolutisme, le terme final, fatidique, est l’Anarchie, entendue dans tous les sens.

The first term of the series being thus Absolutism,  the final, fateful term is Anarchy, understood in all the senses. 
The Robinson translation obscures the range of "senses," of course, which means this troublesome passage has been hidden in plain sight for a long time now. And I have yet to do a sufficiently exhaustive survey of Proudhon's use of the term to be sure of anything, except that the complications are probably not yet exhausted. 

It has been an interesting challenge to track the various critical and constructive uses of notions like property and the State. It's a little different sort of problem when the keyword that seems to have slipped free from its ideological moorings is anarchy. On the one hand, it's extremely exciting to think that the old dog perhaps has some "new" tricks to show us, right at the point of its origins. On the other hand, these are the foundations we are talking about, and while some of us have been talking about the anti-foundationalist elements in Proudhon's thought for awhile now, I think perhaps we've tended to assume that anarchy was going to remain relatively unscathed as things developed. Instead, it looks like maybe anarchy is going to be the site and occasion of some of the most interesting and challenging developments to come. 

This is the stuff that was looming on the research horizon as I wrote up the outline for the Two-Gun Mutualism book, and it has loomed considerably larger in the meantime–to the extent that I'm pretty sure addressing it, and laying out the nitty-gritty details of how to rig your "occupancy and use" property so that it is ecologically sustainable and provides the basis for a traditional mutualist currency (etc.) are probably two separate projects. For better or worse, given what I perceive to be the state of the anarchism movement(s) at the moment, focusing a bit more philosophically on that business of "anarchic encounters between equally unique individuals" has honestly seemed like it was of more immediate and practical use. Thus, Everything in the Balance, which will at least be a good, close look at those old "foundations," and the Atercracy project–my Great Leap Sideways–which will, I hope, let me work around and through this potential "slipping free" on the part of the concept of anarchy.

As I mentioned, the ANARCHISMS Project is a sort of bridge, built of as many individual conceptions of anarchism and anarchy as I can assemble, with the goal of highlighting at least some of the dizzying complexity that the tradition has either suffered or enjoyed, depending on your perspective, in the historical archive. But one of the rules of that game is that the texts included will be in at least some very broad sense orthodox and also fairly programmatic. That still leaves a lot of the material I've been dealing with–all the near-misses, close cousins, precursors, experiments, and roads-not-taken that the Libertarian Labyrinth was originally created to document–outside the envelope. The project can provide a much-extended variety of anarchist canon, a body of evidence in support of the hypothesis of the ungovernability of the anarchist tradition, but it is ultimately still a project about what "anarchism" is, even if it seems likely to open that question up to a range of interesting concerns.

There is, arguably, another sort of ungovernability lurking beyond the concerns I have addressed so far, the fact that the events of history seldom really conform to our after-the-fact categorizations, which pretty much always seem to beg some question or questions which perhaps we should address. There are specifically anarchistic theoretical concerns about how we deal with "raw" history, some of them relating to the way Proudhon conceptualized "the Revolution" in works like his famous "Toast." But, honestly, there are also just plenty of indications that we've been pretty slipshod and ideologically-driven in the way we have dealt with our own tradition–as well as indications that we can do better.

So I'm in the midst of trading up (as I see it) a bunch of interesting, but presently also very frustrating, questions and conflicts within the little world of resurgent "mutualisms" for some more basic questions about how we got to the place in our questioning and conflicting that we occupy today–questions about the various things that Proudhon meant by "anarchy," about Dejacque's invention of the "you're just a liberal" attack, about "anarchists" who never claimed, or explicitly rejected, the label, about the failures and missteps of the tradition, and about the bits and pieces of anarchism scattered far and wide in the most unlikely places. I want to take one big step to the side and look at the histories from which we have gleaned "the tradition" in a context where nobody needs to worry that it's an ideological attack–or the end of everything–if it turns out that things weren't really the way we "remember."

Anarchism is what it is, and, warts and potential misconceptions and all, anarchism is where I've chosen to stand my ground politically. But I hope that perhaps this other thing–this Atercracy–this sort of parallel-Earth reflection of often-familiar events, may have some potential to enrich the anarchist tradition.