Anarchy, Understood in All its Senses

[From Contr’un, June 30, 2013]

“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.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.