All Actors Are Collective Actors: The Unity-Collectivity


Every individual is a group. There are a small number of key concepts in Proudhon’s work, without which it is almost impossible to understand. The notion of the collective actor, or unity-collectivity, and that of the collective force with which it is imbued may top the list in terms of importance. Virtually everything else depends on this basic insight into the nature of unity. The logical contender for top spot would be the philosophy of progress, but it turns out that Proudhon really saw the two analyses as intertwined. While much of Proudhon’s 1853 work, The Philosophy of Progress, focused on questions of truth and certainty, we also find declarations that make it clear that those analyses were not separate from the analysis that led Proudhon to believe that “property is theft.” For example: “All that reason knows and affirms is that each being, like every idea, is a GROUP.”

There is a general principle being asserted here: unity, in whatever sphere we encounter it, is not simple, but is always a matter of converging forces and multiple elements. We’ll keep exploring aspects of this principle, and its various consequences, but for now let’s stay fairly close to the notions of property and theft.

Property, in its simplest form, is what is proper to a given individual. The notion of the proper at least potentially covers a lot of ground, from what is appropriate to the individual to what is a part of the individual or what is owned by the individual. All of the various things that can be considered my own fall within this broad sort of proper-ty. I want to insist on the individual character of property, if only to challenge the narrow range of things that we are accustomed to consider individual. If every individual is a group, then what defines individuality is not singleness, but a particular sort of relation between multiple elements. Proudhon gave that relation a number of names, each highlighting an aspect of the relationship, but perhaps it is enough to suggest that the elements of an individuality are closely enough associated to manifest a shared pattern or “law” of development (at least within some sphere of existence) and that their relationship is balanced and non-hierarchical. There is, to use one of Proudhon’s favorite keywords, a kind of justice among the elements.

We’ll come back to these concerns, but let’s see what happens when we try to map out the property of particular individuals.

Think of the work group from the first post. The 1000 workers add up to at least 1001 individuals, and the more complex their organization in the workplace the more individuals we should probably recognize. And the unity-collectivities that we recognize in the workplace are only some of the individualities that these workers will find themselves contributing elements to, with these other unity-collectivities ranging in scale from close friendships and families to universal wholes, perhaps on a larger scale than we can imagine. And the workers themselves are collectivities. Any attempt to map out the mine and thine of the situation—which is, after all, the most common use of the notion of property—is going to run into a problem: while there will be no shortage of clearly individual property, there will be very little that we can consider exclusive to any given individual. We’re quite simply going to find that, without some convention to strike some new, mutually constructed balance, the various spheres of individual property will overlap in overwhelmingly complex ways.

I will have repeated recourse to two phrases from the poetry of Walt Whitman, which seem to capture the two truths about property introduced by this notion that individuals are always groups:

“I am large, I contain multitudes.”

“I…am not contain’d between my hat and boots”

The individuality of the individual does not preclude, and in fact presupposes, the individuality of constituent elements, the “multitudes” contained by the individual. And as those constituent multitudes participate in the unity-collectivity that is our self, as the workers participate in the unity-collectivity that is the work group or firm, we participate in unity-collectivities of various sorts—including many still organized along authoritarian lines, within which the collective force to which we contribute is captured and appropriated by some usurping class of elements and used against us.

In his economic manuscripts, Proudhon took some steps toward generalizing the analysis of capitalist exploitation in What is Property? to include parallel sorts of exploitation in the realm of government. He might well have gone farther, at least to recognize the similar dynamic at work in the family. (See my post on “The Capitalist, the Prince, the Père de famille, and the Alternative” for some thoughts in that direction.) We can certainly go that far, but we should perhaps also go considerably farther. One of the intriguing possibilities of Proudhon’s social science in our own time is that it might help us to wrestle with the sorts of issues we seem unable to quite come to terms with using the tools of “identity politics,” “privilege theory,” etc. We will move slowly but surely towards that sort of application, but not before we spend a bit more time clarifying some basics.

For those who have not read it, this might be a good time for a first reading of my essay “Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: Self-Government and the Citizen-State.” If you’ve read it before, but feel like you need some clarification, another read probably wouldn’t hurt. There are really only a few key principles in Proudhon’s work, but, in part because of that relative simplicity, it takes some real work to get a firm grasp on their application.

Further Reading: The Fundamental Laws of the Universe

Next: Justice and Equality