2014: The Final Lessons

I had really hoped that I might get through the last week of 2014 without any new worldview-shaking epiphanies. As it turned out, there were a couple, which I’ll at least start to address here.

That’s really been the way the year has gone, and, for the most part, it has been a remarkable, exciting experience. The questions raised in 2013 about just how many senses “anarchy” might have had in Proudhon’s writings have spawned a variety of other fairly fundamental questions about anarchist history and the contents of Proudhon’s theory. I’ve spent a lot of time feeling like a bit of a dummy, given just how fundamental some of those questions were, but ultimately each oops! has been followed by an aha!—and the whole process has felt like a series of breakthroughs onto a terrain that I’ve suspected was there, but have never quite discovered.

The work on Anarchies and Anarchism: 1840-1920 really confirmed just how much there was to discover in the years we often lump together under the label of “classical anarchism,” and how much of that belongs to a world in which anarchy, rather than anarchism, was still the dominant keyword. There are questions still to answer about the role of isms in that period, with the most important one probably being whether a term like mutualism should be understood, in its original context, as designating an ideology or as simply describing a class of social relations. Then a similar analysis is necessary for anarchism, when it emerges in the writings of Déjacque and his contemporaries. Given the emphasis on some sort of scientific socialism in many early anarchist writings, and the strong critiques of fixed ideas, it would not be surprising to find that there was a general tendency toward what we might now call an anti-ideological position. In order to really explore the reality of that situation, it will be necessary to make sense of what radicals other than Marx and Engels were responding to when they spoke against “utopias,” and determine what anarchists like Proudhon and Warren really opposed when they made of point of speaking against “systems.” That will necessarily force us to engage much more fully with the work of the “utopian socialists” of the early 19th century, many of whom would have placed themselves on the “scientific” side of Engels’ divide, and make some less partisan sense of the connections between the early anarchists and their immediate predecessors. When we look at the anarchists of the 19th century, there is no escaping the fact that figures like Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen, Cabet, Comte and the Leroux brothers had a significant influence, and as we look at later anarchist writers it becomes clear that some of that influence was lasting. But when we look at the writings of those writers, like Proudhon, who were contemporaries or near-contemporaries to the “utopian’ schools, it is easy to be carried away by the jostling polemics at face value, and imagine, at least for the moment, that there was indeed as clear a divide between camps as subsequent accounts have claimed. I have often found myself a little stuck between a strong sense of continuity between the traditions and a strong consciousness of rupture. Fortunately, that impasse was one of the positions shaken by the last researches of 2014.

The work on “Anarchy, in All its Senses” has posed the provocative possibility of a “mercantile anarchy” or even “anarchic capitalism,” present in Proudhon’s thought and in some way connected to the non-governmental anarchy for which he is known. In terms of its present consequences, that has been a fascinating possibility to wrestle with. Taking this material with Proudhon’s 1858 comments about laissez faire “libertarians,” it is amusing to think that the tradition has been prescient enough to identify and dismiss the anti-state capitalists, perhaps even before they had really emerged. And these distinctions add some interesting dimensions to the debates about “market anarchism.” However, the identification with a kind of (false, incomplete, or impure anarchy) raises some interesting questions in its original context as well, and one of my tasks last week was to track down, if I could, just where that association was in use when Proudhon adopted it. I’ll write up my finding more completely sometime soon, but the bottom line is that there was really only one obvious source for the notion of  “mercantile anarchy,” which ends up playing such a large role in Proudhon’s thought, and that source was Fourier.

It’s easy to limit our research, according to what we think we know continuities and ruptures within the tradition. While searching high and low for the earliest relevant treatments of anarchy, I have repeatedly skipped over Fourier, and hadn’t read his De l’anarchie industrielle et scientifique (Industrial and Scientific Anarchy, one of the (variant?) introductions to Fourier’s Le Nouveau monde industriel et sociétaire, published separately in 1847) until last week. I was immediately reminded how simple it is to be distracted by the sometimes fanciful illustrations that Fourier incorporated into all his work, and forget that there was a fairly straightforward, and often familiar, economic critique driving his project. Behind the anti-lion and the archibras, there is the opposition to false commerce and parcelling-out in the use of land, two of the chief characteristics of the period of Civilization in which he (like Proudhon) was writing. Again, it is sometimes hard to ignore the fact that all of the other periods in Fourier’s great historical chronology lead to the wonders of Harmony, and judge his assessments on their own merit, but he was often a very keen observer. Consider this paraphrase of his theory of modern development under Civilization:

Whereas the predominant characteristic of the third phase of civilisation is mercantile anarchy or false competition, that of the fourth phase, or age of the senility or decrepitude, of civilisation, is a species of false regulation, resulting from a general monopoly of commerce and industry by an oligarchy of capital. A feudality based on wealth is fully developed, gains the command of all labour, regulates all the movements of trade, monopolises industrial and financial enterprise, controls governments, and by its system of loans draws to itself the revenues of nations. The mass of mankind thus find themselves in the last phase of civilisation destitute of all the natural rights which the savage enjoyed, including that of sharing in the consumption of what they have themselves produced. The earlier servitude of individuals has only been replaced by a collective servitude. While the two first ages of civilisation diminished and abolished personal and direct bondage, its two last ages produce an increase of general and indirect bondage, seeing that, as population grows and industry expands, the labouring classes become more and more dependent on a league of capitalists who have the wealth of society in their hands. The hopes of man in its closing phase are placed in association, but these hopes are illusions, for the association aimed at is the false association which merely combines capitals, and so only increases their power of absorption; it is a caricature of the true association which duly combines capital, labour, and talent.

I have noted elsewhere that capitalism was initially defined in France in terms of industrial and financial feudalism. It seems likely that Fourier was at least one of the sources of that definition. Now, having just acknowledged certain blind spots in my research, I’m not about to make any absolute claims about the origins of these terms. Indeed, one of the key lessons of 2014 has been that we should probably expect the early decades of the anarchist tradition to present multiple origins for key terms and concepts and considerable diversity in most areas, until many of those currents converge around the notion of anarchism in the early 1880s. We have Jules Leroux saying “property is theft” in 1838. We have anarchistic communists writing for l’Humanitaire in 1840. We have multiple, conflicting coinages of terms like libertaire. Etc. Etc. But what I feel very comfortable in saying right now is that there appears to be a strong continuity, and some significant evidence of influence, in the case of Proudhon’s discussion of economic anarchyand then that an examination of Fourier’s De l’anarchie industrielle et scientifique suggests a number of other terms and concepts that seem to have been incorporated by Proudhon.

Fourier’s influence on Proudhon is, of course, not really news, but we have tended to treat Proudhon’s debt as primarily a matter of adopting some terminology and making some very loose adaptations of his scheme of universal history. There is, after all, no question that Proudhon rejected the systems of influences like Fourier and Pierre Leroux, despite some surprisingly flattering comments about their work. But our general sense of radical history has emphasized the elements in Fourier that were fanciful and collective, and treated Proudhon as a fundamentally petit bourgeois defender of the very “société morcelée et en concurrence anarchique” (that is, divied, parceled out and given over to anarchic competition, precisely because of capitalism and its form of property) that he, like Fourier, opposed, while it would undoubtedly be more accurate to emphasize the attention to multiple scales (from the infinitesimal to the universal, in Fourier’s scheme) that informed the social science of both men. (Think of passages like this one from the manuscripts on Economy: “Theory: Everything that can be appropriated must be appropriated; everything that can be grouped, even among the things appropriated, must be grouped.”) Once we start looking or indications that there was more continuity between Fourier’s thought and Proudhon’s, familiar notions start piling up, some already noted (simplism, guarantism, series, etc.) and some unnoticed thus far (societary approximations, parceling-out, etc.) Proudhon’s use of terms like true and false, in contexts where they might seem to clash with his own methodology, might be easily explicable if they were fairly orthodox borrowings from Fourier.

Without attempting to say too much about research that is in its earliest phases, it seems obvious that there are at least some significant questions to be addressed, and that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that untangling the provocative complexities of  “anarchy, in all its senses” commits us to a longer look at Fourier’s writings.

There are, of course, other reasons why a closer study of Fourier is likely to pay dividends for us as we wrestle with the ideas of the early anarchists. Consider, for example, this short text by Joseph Déjacque, a note on the infinitesimal, intended as a complement to his work on the universal circulus:

The Theory of Infinitesimal Humanities
or System of Four Gradations

If my ignorance of many sciences is not an insurmountable obstacle to what I contemplate, I will attempt some day to develop more completely a theory which is only in germ in the preceding article (and which is not without analogy to the “Series” of Fourier and the “Triad” of Leroux, but more rational, I think.) It is the theory of “Infinitesimal Humanities” or the application, to all the beings in universality and to the universality of all beings, of the system of the three kingdoms (mineral, vegetable, animal), crowned by the fourth, the hominal, or perfectible essence of every organism, conducting agent which makes the transit from a body of an inferior species to another body of a superior species, a sort of intermediary which puts them in direct communication, and establishes exchange between them: the body of the lower species delivering what is most “hominalized” in it to the body of the higher species and receiving in compensation what is least hominalized in the other, or, to put it another way, the most “mineralized.” — Any physical or moral sensation is the result of a contact — a shock or kiss that places what is most pure in the lower into relation with what is most impure in the higher — circulation thus propagating from organism to organism and from sphere to sphere, from attraction to attraction, via the four gradations, variously and universally manifested. This system must be given a geometrical figure that I would represent in the form of a cubed triangle whose three points on the base correspond, one to minerality, the other to vegetality, and the third to animality, and the culmination, the peak of the pyramid, to hominality.

If the discovery of this law is true in relation to humans, as everything demonstrates to me, the law must be universal and be found again in the infinitely small as in the infinitely great. It is applicable to all that exists. It is an instrument that can be used to penetrate deeper into the immensities of the Unknown. Undoubtedly, this is not all; it is a key, and there is more than one door to open, more than one mystery to explore. But the key can put us on the road, it can clear the way to sudden clarities, and within the darkness, bring light!

Yes… but what would I make of this key by myself, with my crippled intelligence, afflicted with paralysis and blindness, I who can do nothing except by trembling, by groping? … The key … The darkness … Ah! Always the mantle of Alexander over the eyes of Diogenes, always a cloud between Poverty and Science, always Privilege!…

Ignorance! Ignorance! … get out of my sun! ! !

There are a couple of other 11th-hour lessons to address, but I’ll save them for future posts.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2700 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. One of these days I really have to make some sense of Andrews’ universology, and figure out if it is as mad as it seems at first glance, or whether there’s some good reason for all the support he seems to have had.

Comments are closed.