Friday, September 27, 2013

The Third Gift

One of the consequences of adopting this model of the encounter as a key tool is that we are confronted more directly with the ways in which Proudhon's sociology complicates oppositions like that between individualism and socialism. On the level playing field we're exploring, both individual human beings and all of the collective individualities enter the encounter as what I've been calling equal uniques, individuals, but on potentially very different scales. In the context of the analysis of Proudhon's State-theory, I raised the practical difficulties of realizing this sort of encounter in practice between individuals of such different scales, and/or between free absolutes and collective individualities, but I think we're seeing that perhaps there are real difficulties even when we're just dealing with human individuals. Equal uniques in the sense we've been borrowing from Stirner are without a type, they are in this specific sense "the only ones." This sense that seems to separate us all more or less absolutely is, of course, perhaps the one sense in which we can all be united as equal in a context that is truly anarchic. The type is already the beginning of the hierarchy.

Is it desirable to pursue this sort of equality-in-uniqueness? The obvious objection is that in focusing on individuality, we are likely to neglect the social. But we've come to this essentially egoist emphasis by a somewhat different path than most egoists, arguably even those, like James L. Walker, who mixed more than a bit of Proudhon into their philosophy. I've already suggested that we'll have to distinguish between actual spooks and real, though collective individualities. And if we are happy to think of each individual as "the only one" in the sense of not being in any sense typical, there doesn't seem to be any way to construe those individuals as alone, even in the limited, phenomenological sense that people like have John Beverley Robinson advanced. But with equal uniqueness we are positing at least some sort of fundamental incommensurability between individuals, and their experiences and values. And we always run the risk of overstating that gap in any particular context, particularly as we are also positing any number of persistent products of association, links between human individuals stable and organized enough to count as social actors in their own right. But, again, we are united at the same time we are dividing. By leveling the field on which individuals of various scales encounter one another, we hardly leave ourselves means to distinguish between individual and social, in any hierarchical sense. If we are to balance the interests of the actors that we find on that terrain, we'll either end up addressing what we usually think of as individual and social, or we'll have failed to do justice in some way.

We're not just interested in precise accounts of the most specific details, nor just concerned with the general state of social collectivities, and our analysis can't solely focus on either principles or consequences. All the aspects of Proudhon's tend to force us to eventually look high when we start off looking low, or left when we start off looking right. If we find ourselves zigging a lot without also zagging, we can probably suspect we haven't followed through completely. That means that a lot of the ways that we usually type our practices may not work for us.

For Proudhon, bigger was not better, in the sense that society could take precedence over the individual, or the other way around. But if he did not associate any sort of virtue with particular scales, the same is probably not true of intensities, which, for Proudhon, were bound up with the question of liberty. If we adopt the notion that freedom is essentially the measure of the intensity and complexity of the contradictions within an organized relation, we find ourselves with another of these concepts which is relatively blind to scale, but we also find a strong incentive to pursue complex analyses, so that we do not simply miss the play of freedom, and constructions which respect the complexities we expect to find in anarchic relations.

If these are our considerations as we come back to the problem of the anarchic encounter, then perhaps the sort of obsessive deepening of the chasm between individuals that I've arguably been engaged in looks a little less like some sort of atomistic impulse run amok. There is, of course, always something a bit amok about the contr'archic tendency to make our anarchism ever more so, but the antidote for that extremism seems to be a balancing tendency which we might suspect is going to be fairly naturally bound up with that first project. As we increase intensity, we always court the possibility of things blowing up in our faces, but, one way or another, that seems like an occupational hazard we should expect.

To better understand the dynamics of the encounter, perhaps we need to add just a bit of complexity to Proudhon's simple model. In practice, in the midst of lives which are very deeply, strongly structured by all manner of hierarchical or potentially hierarchical elements and connections, to encounter one another in an anarchic manner probably necessitates a sort of preliminary encounter between the individual actors and the possibilities inherent in anarchy. That's probably going to involve some staring into the abyss, some shrugging off of the hierarchies will almost inevitably be available to us, and a recognition of the other as another equally unique individual.

That recognition brings us onto familiar territory. It is a part of what I have been describing as "the gift of property," though perhaps it is a part that we haven't really explored yet. So far, the "gift of property" breaks down into a couple of different gifts, roughly corresponding to the rights of use and abuse, as Proudhon understood them:
  1. A conscious ceding of all that we might claim of our own in others; and
  2. An affirmation of the right to err in the process of learning to manage one's own. 
But there seems to be another aspect of the gift, which perhaps we should just call the gift of anarchy, by means of which we relinquish all the things that might prevent the encounter from being truly anarchic. This is where anarchism differentiates itself from voluntaryism, which seems content with the persistence of existing authority, provided no "new" authority is exercised. There seem to be similar weaknesses to at least some nominally libertarian forms based on "non-aggression." Somewhat ironically, what this suggests is that these systems are specifically inadequate to grant each their own, and secure the sort of anarchic property that we've been pursuing.

So, does this approach mean that we are done with all of the typical classifications through which we tend to approach our encounters with one another? Not exactly. There is still plenty of room in our scheme for those real persistences which operate as social actors. But perhaps we need to let those actors enter encounters as individuals of sorts, and take their own places in the balance of justice.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Note on Contr'archy and Guarantism

One of the more difficult tactical questions in this new phase has been the question of vocabulary, of how to stock this "toolkit" that we've been assembling. I would love to keep the truly esoteric terminology to a minumum, but even jargon has its uses—chief among them the highlighting of concepts which are themselves more than a bit esoteric. I have a great deal of faith in readers' abilities to negotiate complex discussion of property, capitalism, socialism, association, etc., without recourse to anything more than the sort of clarification one would expect in any careful study. But when it is a question of historical concepts, or when we are negotiating the twists and turns of this anarchistic analysis of the various manifestations of anarchy and anarchism, well,  perhaps it makes sense to underline the potentially alien nature of the concepts in question. When I first introduced contr'archy and guarantism, the poles of our new version of "the larger antinomy," I didn't necessarily expect much understanding of either concept, but perhaps now, as we have spent quite a bit of time exploring the way in which anarchistic critique can be turned on anarchy or anarchism itself, that first concept is beginning to assume a somewhat more definite form. As we turn, in the last sections of this series on "the anarchic encounter," to questions of practice, I hope that the second term will also begin to acquire a bit more clarity.

As we are also currently in the midst of clarifying the relations between this phase of exploration and those that have come before, I suppose it makes sense to note that these new poles of this new antinomy are much like the "two guns" the last phase, transferred for the moment to the realm of method and practice. Instead of our old "brace of rusty pistols," individualism and socialism, we have, on the one hand, the principled opposition to everything of an absolutist or hierarchical nature, an analysis always open to the devils in the detail, bound to sacrifice everything else to a relentless consistency, should the critique lead that way, and, on the other, we have the commitment to make the sort of real change, material improvement in conditions without which no principles, however obsessively pursued, really amount to much. As with the antinomies more familiar from earlier studies, we can probably say that either emphasis, without the balance of the other, is unlikely to take us where we want to go, but from this we cannot simply fall back on some compromise or middle way—particularly if Proudhon is our guide. For him, we must not forget, liberty was always something enhanced as much by the complexity and intensity of complication and conflict as it was by the mere absence of constraint.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Mutualism Revisited

Six months ago, I announced, after a lot of soul-searching, that I was going to abandon "mutualism" as a description of my politics, and opted to scrap the Two-Gun Mutualism: Rearmed book and begin work on a book examining the lessons of Proudhon for the broader anarchist movement. I always knew that it was going to be easier said than done. If the "mutualist" label covers too much ground, and what passes for a "mutualist movement" is too heterodox to move forward together, pursuing a neo-Proudhonian anarchism outside of that particular rhetorical framework was pretty well guaranteed to be very lonely work—not least because I was simultaneously in the midst of discovering that anarchism itself was rather different in its origins than I had previously suspected. What I discovered added a number of strange, new wrinkles to the story of the relationship between Proudhon, mutualism, and "market anarchism," placing the anarchy of the anarchists and "the anarchy of the market" in much closer proximity than I think almost any of us would have anticipated—and at the same time seeming to draw a much firmer line between them than Proudhon's rhetoric might otherwise suggest.

That discovery made it possible, even necessary, to approach anarchy, and anarchism, with the same mixture of critical and constructive tools that I had been applying to concepts like "the State," and prompted some adjustments in the ongoing project of coming to grips with the general dynamic of anarchism. This is interesting territory, in part because an encounter with anarchism is something that would have been impossible for Proudhon. Many, if not most of the arguments dismissing "old stuff" and "dead philosophers" as useful in the present aren't very convincing, but here's a genuine difference: for Proudhon, and for others among the pioneers of anarchism, engagement with the idea had to be an act of creation, experimentation, and communication. There was no anarchist tradition to fall back on, no existing cultural capital to hoard, and no blueprints for "being an anarchist," beyond a general experimental approach dictated by some initial definitions. If we shift our focus to Joseph Déjacque, apparent inventor, during Proudhon's lifetime, of the "you're not an anarchist, you're a liberal" response, and the game has changed. Something collective has emerged, and Déjacque has that, and Proudhon, to engage with. The change in the game is significant.

There is a lot that we should examine, eventually, about Déjacque's two manners of propagating new ideas, and his preference for scandal, in the context of the critical/constructive dichotomy and the watershed that Frédéric Tufferd marked between roughly Proudhonian and Bakuninist forms of social analysis. Certainly, the extent to which social change can be provoked by the work of reason was estimated very differently by Proudhon and Déjacque, and there is now perhaps plenty of evidence that Proudhon was always more "successful" with scandal ("property is theft!") than we was "injecting truth drop by drop into minds that are already prepared." But was the "success" of Proudhon's scandals a success for anarchism? It's hard to say exactly, since anarchism as we know it emerged in the context of those scandals, and has treasured them, without always understanding very well what more reasonable appeals were behind them. The anarchism that we have individually encountered was born, at least in part, of scandal, and has conserved a strong connection to those origins. 

But for now let's stick closer to the question of what happens when Déjacque responds to Proudhon. One very important thing happens: when Proudhon said "I am an anarchist," he opened up a realm of positive possibilities; when Déjacque argued that Proudhon was in fact not an anarchist, or not an "entire anarchist," he opened up a space between Proudhon and anarchism itself, acknowledging, if only tacitly, the emergence of that collective something (movement, tradition, shared ideal) which invariably haunts all of our discussions about anarchism. Déjacque was among the first to encounter anarchism itself, at a stage where it was little more than an idea—when, in reality, it was probably largely a spook—and played an important role in finishing the job that Proudhon had started, of launching this new something into the world. After Déjacque, I would argue, the game changes substantially once again. 
None of these operations, however, go off without a hitch. Proudhon sabotaged his own scandals and fell short of his expressed ideals. Déjacque, launching anarchism at the same time he was attempting to correct or govern it, can probably be credited as the inventor of anarchist sectarianism, and of a type of anarchist identity which has the tradition has conserved to this day. When we get over our slightly malicious glee at seeing Proudhon taken down a few pegs, there is a lot about Déjacque's essay on "The Human Being, Male and Female" that might give us pause. Between the notion that Jenny d'Hericourt needed a defender, and the idea that the right way to straighten out Proudhon for his coarse, anti-feminist rants was to call him names and attack his masculinity, there are reasons to think that Déjacque was not himself perhaps an "entire anarchist," or entire feminist for that matter—but where we come down on those questions will undoubtedly depend on whether we think the likes of Proudhon (whatever we think that means) deserves more than the scandalous treatment. 
On that question, I suspect, anarchism itself is likely to be called in as a judge. We, who have inherited the results of at more than 150 years of encounters explicitly related to anarchism, generally have a pretty clear sense of what is and is not permissible for "allies" and towards "enemies." We have conventions based on that long history of internal and external struggle. We can assume, with some confidence that many of those conventions serve to protect aspects of the anarchist movement that are probably worth protecting. The question, though, is whether the conventions are themselves anarchistic, whether there is any anarchistic rationale for calling on our conventions as a means of judging individual anarchists, etc. 

I have a lot of thoughts about these issues, and about the uses and perils of what we might call anarchist identity politics. What seems clear to me at the moment is that there is a tension between the sorts of conventional ways in which anarchists relate to each other and/or relate to "anarchism" in its various more-or-less collective, persistent senses and the dynamic of the encounter we see described by Proudhon. There are reasons to believe that at least a certain sort of anarchistic encounter is rather far from conventional anarchistic practice, among "allies" and especially with regard to "enemies." Based on this observation, it seems to me that there is probably at least some utility in pursuing an analysis of how we think about "being an anarchist" and how that structures our relations, using the tools that Proudhon has provided us. Those unconvinced about the analytic apparatus can judge the study by its consequences. Those already convinced of its consistency with anarchist principles are faced with more immediate concerns, but perhaps also provided with at least some of the means of dealing with them. 

There is just a bit more to say about the potentially absolutist concepts and institutions which may work against the interest of individual anarchists in pursuit of the anarchistic ideal—the constructive side of the question, by which we potentially bring back in, in variously modified forms, some of the same potential obstacles we just dismissed. Since we have raised the stakes considerably now, by including various manifestations of anarchy and anarchism among the elements potentially in need of reform, I think it makes sense to sketch out that side of things before we go too much farther into what is necessarily a difficult exploration. First, however, an aside and a much-delayed return to the question of "mutualism:"

Back in the early 1990s, in my brief career as an internet sociologist, I wrote a series of papers examining the popular but hotly contested notion of "virtual community." At the time, of course, I wasn't using the Proudhonian toolkit, but more and more I find that some of the questions I was pursuing then are connected to issues I am wrestling with now. The collective actors of the present analysis are not, I think, so different in some ways from virtual communities. But as I was working through the arguments in this post and the previous one, beginning to chart the process by which perhaps anarchists began to encounter, and identify with, anarchism as such as much as other anarchists, I was reminded of my days on the edges of the "cyberpunk movement," and some observations I made about the dynamics of that subculture when it felt itself under attack. As a sort of long footnote to this post, allow me to suggest the paper that resulted: "Running Down the Meme: Cyberpunk, alt.cyberpunk, and the Panic of '93." I will undoubtedly come back to it down the road.

That leaves the issue of "mutualism." In our present vocabulary, the problem with mutualism has been that the collective something—or, more accurately, somethings—represented by the word seemed to be working, as such things "work," at cross-purposes with the project in which I found myself engaged, and perhaps with all such projects, despite the solid grounding of that project in the mutualism of Proudhon. It made sense to withdraw participation, to the extent that this was possible, in this particular association. Given the way that our debates within anarchism tend to focus so strongly on questions of identity and identification, it still makes sense to me. But, were those conditions different, or should they differ in the future, there would be good reason, I think, to reinstall the notion of mutualism right at the heart of the sort of anarchistic project I'm pursuing. However, in keeping with the approach to social study that we're borrowing from Proudhon, one difference would be necessary: rather than identifying a political identity, an allegiance to an ideological current or a movement—rather than referring to any sort of essence—we should keep our eyes on relations, under which circumstances "mutualism" might very aptly describe the dynamic we find within the anarchic encounter, where the whole mechanism of justice is composed of the agents involved in an act of social creation, without the mediation of outside authority. There would be no sense in calling ourselves "mutualists," though perhaps we could in some transitory sense prove ourselves such in the act, because this mutualism is nothing but the basic dynamic of this very demanding conception of anarchism. Whether there would be any point, or any justice, in calling ourselves "anarchists"—whether there is any point and any justice in that, according to the standards we are applying here—is a question that we'll probably have to wrestle with quite a bit more. 

Is that a scepter in your invisible hand?

We're following what should by now be a familiar trajectory: in a critical moment, concepts and institutions are knocked down on the grounds that they are absolutist; in a subsequent, constructive moment, we can expect a fair number of those same concepts and institutions to be set back on their feet, but with the difference that we treat them now as approximations, and we put them into balance with other approximates. In some instances, the differences between absolute and approximate forms may be nearly complete, while in others it may be that a good knocking-down is all that is required to eliminate the absolute, as the real problem is not with the concept or the institution, but with our relationship to it. 

What is different in this particular examination is that what we are looking at are various conceptions of anarchism itself. The stakes are high. If we're committed to progress, and acknowledge the ungovernability of anarchism, then we are forced to think of every existing attempt at anarchism as an approximation, and most like more than just one approximation. Radical social change is not likely to be a one-size-fits-all affair. Obstacles to anarchy will come in various shapes and sizes, and we're going to have to be able to distinguish between them. And then we're going to have to become mighty adept at transforming them from obstacles to aids, whether that means tearing them down and rebuilding them, or just looking at them differently. 

It isn't clear that the familiar distinction between reform and revolution will serve us particularly well. The key is in each instance to be genuinely radical in both or critiques and our constructions, to get down as close as we can to the roots of things.

There's no reason to think that will be particularly easy, and lots of reasons to suspect precisely the opposite. This anarchism thing is likely to keep us on our toes.

We've assembled a lot of our toolkit. If Proudhon's approach has brought us new problems, it has also brought us new tools. We have a sort of template for the anarchic encounter, and we have a sociological approach which allows us to adapt that template to a tremendous range of possible situations, at a wide variety of scales. There is something quite elegant about Proudhon's use of justice as sole criterion, but most of us have plenty of cautionary experience with some of the other contenders for anarchistic criteria, such as "voluntaryism" or the "non-aggression principle." And I think nearly all of us with experience with the debates around mutualism have some sense of how the less rigorous formulations of Proudhon's "systems" can bog down in quibbles about what is or isn't "mutual" or "reciprocal," just as surely as those other systems run up against problems with defining what is "voluntary" or what counts as "aggression." When the tool-kit is simple and the problems are complex, we have to bridge the potential gap with the care we take in our analyses. We aren't going to build a meaningfully free society with slogans.

But the truth is that we love our slogans, and we tend to love our favored approximations. And we're soaking in a culture that is arguably more and more fundamentalist in all sorts of ways, which means that anarchism suffers from multiple sorts of attacks, confronting the sort of dogmatism from outside which is increasingly hard to break down, but also arguably sapped from within by a similar sort of tendency to rigidity. Living under siege, as we unquestionably do, it's hard to cultivate the sort of relationship to anarchism that would arguably allow us to move forward most easily, and most readily avoid the traps of an anarchism turned absolutist, and degenerated into ideological dogma. It's hard to imagine being too comfortable asking ourselves, on a regular basis:

So, what's still authoritarian about my anarchism? What needs to be fixed today?

And yet that's probably just the sort of relationship we need to build, if we are going to keep pushing on towards our ideal. 

What would it mean to "have a relationship with anarchism"? What would that involve? We can apply Proudhon's sociology,  and guess we are likely to have several relationships, with several sorts of anarchism. That's really what the posts on "ungovernability" were gesturing towards: the various ways in which individual anarchists find themselves in relations with the various things that "anarchism" has meant, and how those relations shape our relations with one another.

One of the things that was not clear in those earlier posts was the extent to which our relationship with those anarchisms must, in order to remain a part of our anarchism, be fundamentally equal. If we accept Proudhon's notion of the one criterion for justice, and we don't want to install injustice right at the heart of our anarchisms, then it's important that we find the way to encounter anarchism itself one-on-one, understanding all of the complicated connections we make in the process, but not subordinating ourselves to any of that. Virtually every form of anarchism has its favored institutions or expected emergent forms, its own particular manifestation of "the tradition," etc. and all of these non-human actors will occupy their place in the complex balance of justice. None of them should probably be exempt from the sort of scrutiny we've been proposing for all actors in all potentially anarchic encounters—whether we call them "the State," or "the market," or "society," or "the commune," or even "anarchism."

The thing I'm working around towards here is, I suppose, a relationship with anarchism which, once we've done the work of chasing away the spooks and cutting through a fair amount of smoke and nonsense, comes down to treating the tradition, and the movement, as something like a comrade, rather than the foundation of our political identity. It involves a step away from the sort of anarchist identity that is almost inescapably absolutist, the kind of relationship with the ideal, the tradition, and the movement which either renders us subject to anarchism, or else devolves into "l'anarchie c'est moi." Putting a scepter in an invisible hand is really no more appealing, no more anarchistic, if the hand is presumably that of libertarian revolution.

What the corrected translation of General Idea of the Revolution suggests to us is that this coincidence of "anarchism" and an "invisible hand"—the invisible hand—is perhaps not so far-fetched. If we go back and pick up a number of Proudhon's other insights—the observation that the collective reason is of a different character than our reason, and the realization that Revolution always involves both conservation and progress—then perhaps we can begin to flesh out the potential details of this peculiar comradeship with anarchism that I am proposing. 

Monday, September 09, 2013

Encounters and Transactions

I expect that for many of the readers of this blog, the most significant of the dangling questions is the one opened in the post on “Anarchy, understood in all its senses.” I’m surprised that there has not been more comment on the main points in that post, which demonstrates that for Proudhon, in one of the works that social anarchists have generally championed, the anarchy of the laissez faire market and the anti-authoritarian anarchy of the anarchists were in some senses so closely connected that Proudhon was indifferent to which meaning was applied to the word “anarchy,” and that the connection was obscured for English readers by poor translation. We have been able to shrug off similar provocations by figures like Anselme Bellegarrigue, who referred to the Revolution as “purely and simply a matter of business,” largely because those figures don’t feature as more than footnotes in our understanding of the tradition. But it’s a little different story when we’re talking about the details of a work which already enjoys broad, roughly canonical status.
Proudhon has frequently been characterized as a “market anarchist,” of course, and The General Idea of the Revolution has often been the work used to support the characterization. And perhaps that is less surprising, given that the book was specifically addressed “to the bourgeoisie,” than the work’s place in the anarchist canon. Whether the corrected translation is likely to make the work more or less accessible to the various anarchist factions is a question that strikes me as very interesting. On the one hand, the terminological indifference seems to suggest a closer kinship between the anarchy of the market and the anarchy of the anarchist tradition. On the other, all of the many damning things Proudhon said about the anarchy of the market can now be tracked much more accurately towards their target. Where does “market anarchism” fit in all of this? Is there, as I asked in the earlier post, “a sort of anarchism that we might associate with this [anarchy of the market], and, if so, is it perhaps a sort of absolutist anarchism? Answering that question requires coming to grips with how the transactions of various proposed markets compare in their basic structure to the anarchic encounter. Unfortunately, there’s no very easy way to answer that question, as the assumed structure and function of “the market” varies rather dramatically, even just among market proponents. But we can certainly make a good start at determining general criteria for how the question could be answered in individual cases, and explore a few possibilities.
Let’s review the critical analysis of the State. Proudhon presented the existing State as a usurpation of the power of a real collectivity, under the pretext that the social collectivity could not realize itself. The assumption of governmental authority by a part of society over the rest amounts to an imposture, and a not terribly convincing one at that, with the usurpers pretending to be an organ society, but somehow outside and above society as well. Now, Proudhon went on to assert that there is indeed a State, which is in some sense an organ of that society, so it does not follow from that assertion that this State could perform the role of government. This State is simply one of the various non-human “individuals,” collective absolutes, which exists on the social terrain, and which, according to the bare-bones “social system” we’re exploring, encounters other individuals as equals. The collective reason and interests of the State have their place in the balance of justice. Perhaps free absolutes even have certain responsibilities towards them, but I’ve already suggested that those responsibilities are not of obedience, but of tutelage. The existing theory of State-rule seems to be a failure of logic, but rule by the citizen-State would be a failure of justice, and perhaps several sorts of failure in that realm.
We can apply a similar analysis to the Market—by which we will, for now, designate a range of possible emergent structures, collective “individuals,” capitalist usurpations, etc., without seeking to pick and choose too much. Proudhon’s practice ought to suggest to us that there will be places in an anarchist sociology for critical and constructive applications of the term, and a variety of practical approximations that might be designated by it. For the moment, it is less important to know what the Market is than to know how to make sense of it however we happen to encounter it. Would-be market anarchists can then make up their own minds if and how their proposed institutions might measure up alongside Proudhon’s “system.”
We can easily pick out some uses of the term, or related terms, which are obviously analogous to the usurping State. When we hear talk loose talk about the growth or health of “the economy” we’re generally hearing one of two things: when the reference is to some sort of statistical average, then we can probably just say that we’re dealing with a spook, in Stirner’s sense; when it is clear that the reference is to the prosperity of a particular segment of the economy, one of those “what’s good for General Motors…” or trickle-down appeals, then we’re dealing with a confusion of parts and wholes that really just amounts to usurpation from an anarchist point of view.
Would-be anarchist capitalists sometimes fall into these forms of “vulgar libertarianism,” but in those circles, and in left-leaning market anarchist circles, there are treatments of “the market” that are somewhat harder to judge. The common notion that markets are an emergent form, displaying something very much like Proudhon’s “collective reason,” shouldn’t be hard to accept for anyone who has followed the reasoning here this far, but I do think there are questions that need to be answered about the relationship between the market and the individuals who engage in the relations from which it emerges. Sometimes, for example, it appears rather precisely like the market is the external realization or justification of the individual transactions, and as if the reason of the market is assumed to be of a higher order than individual reason.
There are quite a variety of specific explanations of how markets emerge, what role they play, and what sorts of individual relations are likely to result in particular outcomes—too many to safely make blanket responses. What we can say, however, is that to the extent that market forces or market logics are used to justify what would otherwise seem like injustice with regard to individual actors, we have to be rather suspicious that the market has been elevated above the individual free absolutes from whose actions it presumably emerges. This is fairly clearly a problem in those cases where an “invisible hand” is invoked as if it was the real agent in market relations, with the content of individual self-interested acts being a matter of relative indifference, provided that the market itself remains “free.” Whether more sophisticated approaches should also sound alarm bells remains, for me, something of an open question.
Back in early 2011, Sheldon Richmond and I had a brief exchange regarding Bastiat and the notion of the “double inequality of value.” Readers might be interested in looking, or looking again, at the “Note of Bastiat and Double Inequality” I posted that I posted at the time, with an eye to comparing the elements in play in Rothbard’s model of exchange with those in what we’ve been calling “the encounter.” It still seems to me that Bastiat, like Proudhon, was not simply promoting “the anarchy of the market,” but suggesting that free-market conditions are conducive to association and thus harmony, by means which look a bit more direct and creative than perhaps we see in Rothbard or Condillac. It seems to me that, in this particular instance, we might find means of reconciling Bastiat’s position with Proudhon’s very limited “social system,” while I find it hard to see any interpretation of the Rothbard/Condillac position which does not complicate Proudhon’s model, by positing a different criterion for justice in exchange, or by positing some form of external realization of otherwise uncoordinated acts.
My suspicion about “market anarchism” in general is that the best of it walks a fine line between elevating a genuine collective actor, an emergent market, to a position above human individuals and obscuring a mechanism perhaps very much like Proudhon’s with a language which obscures, perhaps even for its proponents, just quite how anarchistic things really are. On the social anarchist side, there is undoubtedly a similar sort of balancing act involving notions like “society,” “community,” “the commune,” social classes, various other sorts of identities, etc. And, in this moment of attempting to very ruthlessly identify all of the possible obstacles to encounters as anarchic as Proudhon seems to be have been describing, I’m inclined to think that pretty much all talk of rights and duties, permissions and prohibitions, including much of the talk of liberties from quarters very concerned not to moralize, such as egoism, have the potential to obstruct the anarchic encounter—at least to the extent that the hard lines and a priori criteria that come with them are presumed to be absolutes.
Of course, one of the things we have been learning from Proudhon is that if the absolute can be eliminated—even just sufficiently identified—then virtually every sort of concept may find a role as a practical approximation. So that’s what we have to look at next.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

A note on "external constitution"

I would hope by now that the practical application of Proudhon's theory of the State, or more precisely of the theory of society underlying it, would be clearer than perhaps they were when I first published the chapter. But it can't hurt to clarify things. 

Clarifying the history of anarchist anti-State thought is arguably useful, and probably even important, given the current struggles over the scope of anarchism's critique. The sole focus on the State is a tool of entryists of various sorts, and while there is nothing in Proudhon's development that suggests we should be any friendlier to any existing State, the clarifications about what the early anarchists actually opposed in the State point to the heart of the broader anti-authoritarian critique. And that gives us some clearer points of comparison, when the would-be suitors come knocking. 

So what's the heart of the critique? It looks to me like "authority" is always connected to something like "external constitution." The chapter on the State and the writings since its publication should give some sense of the consistency of Proudhon's thought. With justice identified as the sole criterion for a whole range of projects, and balance the mechanism of justice, we can start to grasp the ways in which all of Proudhon's various criticisms and constructions revolved around a single logic. 

When we look at the anarchist encounter, with its formula of equality plus collective power, there is no question of an external force or entity "realizing" the tiny society present, as the State was presumed to do in the broader society, and very little room even for a unifying principle to regulate the association or lack thereof. Equality, as Proudhon presented it, is a principle which arguably pulls in the opposite direction. 

If the "authority" that anarchist anti-authoritarians oppose is then any sort of governance, any attempt to assert an outside force or principle as the source of organization, then it becomes a question of examining the forces, principles, assumptions, axioms, utopias, and forms of common sense that we bring to our anarchism, in order to determine which can be rendered compatible with the limited social system and which must be treated as incompatible with it. In the rest of this series of posts on the encounter, I'll start by doing my best to banish everything that seems even potentially banishable, and then see if at least some of those elements, having been, as Proudhon put it, "rid of absolutism," can be reincorporated in some balanced manner. As a bonus, I think I'll also be able to finally spell out in fairly specific terms, just what I think "mutualism" means, and how I think it might be best to use the notion moving forward.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Anatomy of the Encounter

If I’m right about Proudhon’s anarchism [specifically here, and then here], then everything depends on understanding the nature of what I’ve been calling the anarchic encounter. (If I’m wrong, I wish someone would point out where I’ve gone astray.) If we apply the lessons of Proudhon’s critical period, and take up the tools of his transitional period, nothing is exactly simple, but we know that amidst all the complexities one pattern repeats which at least has very few moving parts—“an equation and a collective power.” I’ve been encouraging people to think of this repeating pattern, this repeating moment, as a creative moment, pregnant with possibility. “Another world is possible,” every time equal uniques, free absolutes, meet on a terrain shaped by any number of histories but no structures of authority. And from the association of these free absolutes something else is inevitably born, though at the scale we’re talking about it may be a rather ephemeral something. But we know that our focus on any one instance of this encounter is just a sort of “Crusoe economics” in a field that may or may not turn out to be primarily economic, and we have at least made a start at wrestling with the more powerful, persistent varieties of these offspring of association—the State, the Market, etc. 
But it’s hard to address relations at those much more extensive scales, if we can’t come to terms with the fundamental dynamics of the encounter. So we’ll linger just a bit longer and play with those few moving parts.

1.     We begin with these free absolutes, these uniques. According to the first, Proudhonian designation, we are dealing with individuals, groups organized according to an unfolding law of development, but with a consciousness of their nature and a capacity for self-reflection. They may, on the one hand, be inclined to absolutism, to taking their internal law for the law of the world, but they are also capable of recognizing another like themselves, and understanding that in a world of absolutes either some must be masters of others, or there must be balance. With no criterion of certainty for their observations or judgments, beyond the apparently similarity—in this absolutist dimension—of these otherwise unique beings, with incommensurable experiences and unknowable essences, they find themselves with equality, Proudhon suggests, as the only basis on which to proceed from individual isolation to society. And this is the heart of Proudhon’s “system.” Although he doesn’t share the same vocabulary, or a number of philosophical assumptions, his free absolutes rather closely resemble Stirner’s “unique,” which is always in an important sense a singular being, irreducible even to a class of uniques. The singularity of the unique is not simply a unity; it is not simple, and it is in-progress—or it is, like Proudhon’s “Revolution,” always in the midst of a play between conservation and progress, change and persistence. Resisting any reduction to static singleness and simplicity, these subjects of the encounter are one sort of contr’un
2.     We have these selves, which might be just as well designated as these others, meeting on a terrain without hierarchical elevations, without laws of the land. While there are any number of material constraints on every encounter, and any number of histories weighing on the moment, the thing that we should probably be concentrating on is the enormous range of possibilities facing every new encounter, presenting options for new associations. If Proudhon’s whole anarchic social system begins with an equation, then to follow him onto the terrain of his anarchy, we probably have to set aside a lot of our usual guides—a priori axioms, natural laws, rights and duties, even some kinds of “common sense.” Or if we choose to employ them, we probably have to really choose to employ them, to take responsibility for them. By Proudhon’s criteria, these guides are likely to resemble the outcomes of metaphysical speculation—we can’t help but speculate, but our generalizations are at best approximations, which we should jettison as soon as our observations of relations, the real matter of all the sciences, prompt us to. By the time Proudhon has had his way with philosophy and the various sciences, equality stands as essentially the sole criterion for a whole range of operations and justification—balance—appears to be the essence of method. (Though, naturally, we speak of essences only with reservations.) Whether or not we follow Proudhon this far in practice, there seem to be lots of good reasons to attempt to at least understand where that move would leave us. If at first it appears a bit like Dr. Suess’ Prairie of Prax (meeting-place of the stubborn, stationary Zax), maybe that’s not too far off, except that our north-going and south-going absolutes are budding mutualists, and they can be assumed to find means to either associate or step aside. 
3.     We have association, mutualism, the constructive side of anarchy, and before we have any issue from the encounter, we have an assemblage of sorts, a coming-together which is not fusion and does not create a single, simple individual—or does not simply create one—but creates what I what to call the mechanism of justice. Proudhon had, in the “Catechism of Marriage,” identified what he considered the “organ of justice” in the married couple, but as we attempt to avoid the obvious missteps in that work and push beyond some of Proudhon’s weaknesses I think we can generalize from his observations and locate the relationship that he gave special prominence at the heart of the family wherever the encounter leads to association. Stripped of the categorical roles Proudhon couldn’t abandon with regard to men and women, and rid of the fairly unavoidable phallic associations of the term “organ” (which were remarked upon by at least one of Proudhon’s female contemporaries), we have another sort of contr’un, and a comparatively simple sort of collectivity, which is presumably the mechanism by which balance is achieved between individuals and interests which are not simply unique, but in important senses are incommensurable. But the details are perhaps a little counterintuitive. There is no question of these individuals and interests taking their place on some scales of justice, because their assemblage is itself the scales of justice. Together, our free absolutes make incommensurable things equal, according to a convention—exchange, or perhaps equal exchange—according to which that sort of operation is possible. For those who assume that Proudhon’s understanding of mutuality never developed beyond his equal-pay speculations in What is Property? there is probably a fairly rude awakening awaiting. The conventional equality obviously can’t be just anything. We know at least that there are quite a range of explanations for familiar relations—such as those surrounding property and its rights under capitalism, or the State as “external constitution of society”—which just don’t hold up to any sort of scrutiny, and which are irreparably compromised by their dependence on fundamentally authoritarian or governmentalist notions. The material consequences of various conventions have demonstrated, or will demonstrate, their insufficiency. No instrumentalization of equality-in-uniqueness is likely to satisfy completely. At the same time, perhaps many approaches will satisfy under many specific conditions, in the context of specific moments, specific encounters. 
4.     Alongside these other concerns, there will be the question of what will issue from these comings-together—and here we should probably just let the sexy word-associations snowball—what we will be bringing into the world as a result of our associations. Like children, these new collectivities will tend to have minds or at least interests of their own. They will be organized according to their own laws of development, and while they may be expected to exhibit valuable sorts of collective reason, and powerful sorts of collective force, these expressions will be both somewhat alien and, in at least the usual senses, inarticulate. They will not be free absolutes, but absolutes of another sort. And we may have to assume a sort of tutelage over them, taking responsibility for loosing them upon the world, even as our basic principle suggests that when we encounter them it must be as at least potential equals.

From this point, the isolated encounter obviously begins to weave a web of new encounters—and we never really start with the isolated encounter, being always already in relations with a range of persistent collectivities, including families, States, markets, etc. We are always navigating a complex web of relations. 
What I want to suggest, with regard to Proudhon’s philosophy and social science, is that if we are armed with his critique of all that might be based on authority or governmentality in those relations, then we can take the next step by beginning to analyze them on the basis of this notion of the anarchistic encounter, a notion which we can also apply moving forward into new relations.
As a next step, I want to compare the encounter with a more overtly commercial sort of exchange, or transaction, and see what the contrast reveals.