Anarchy: Action in the Face of Uncertainty

“A distinct, anarchy-centered anarchism is not just possible, but necessary, if we are to confront the systemic challenges facing us, and that anarchism seems likely, if seriously pursued, to be adequate to the task.”

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Defining Anarchy:

These preliminary, exploratory writings are always half pleasure, half drudgery for me. You can have the right elements in hand and still require a lot of experimenting before they are anything like an elegant ensemble. With this series on “Defining Anarchy,” I’m conscious, not for the first time, that between the simplest and most abstract sorts of definitions and those that we might really apply in practical terms there are a variety of clarifications regarding present contexts and future possibilities that need to be made. And the more we expand the scope of our definition of anarchy beyond mere antistatism, the more of these clarifications are necessary, as it becomes necessary to shift from simply negative senses of the term to positive conceptions—and to think of some potentially difficult concepts (profusion and uncertainty, “lawlessness” and “lack of principles,” etc.) in their positive senses. Profusion is, of course, obviously positive in a material sense—involving great, perhaps overwhelmingly great quantities of something—even while it appears to us negative from the point of view of organizing and controlling things—but perhaps only because we cling to particular notions of organization. The practical task for anarchists is—returning to the metaphor we’ve borrowed from Joseph Déjacque—to both scuttle the existing mode of organization and learn to recognize the anarchy that pours in to replace it as a medium for radically forms of organization—all without kidding ourselves about the difficulties or the stakes involved. And maybe that is a little easier if we take hold of the kinds of analysis provided to us by figures like Fourier and Proudhon, which lead us to expect that increases in real freedom may involve more tempestuous forms of organization.

Coming to terms with uncertainty may be a bit more difficult, even if it is very much one of the things we most need to do in the context of our present crises.

Uncertainty is not a concept that is particularly prominent in anarchist theory—and certainly does not generally figure as a positive value or indicator. But when we suggest that what is tempestuous about anarchy is a lasting feature, then it is not a stretch to further suggest that one of the ways we will know that we are acting as anarchists is that our actions will be taken in the face of fundamental sort of uncertainty.

As soon as we abandon legal and governmental order—general prohibition and equivalent sorts of permission—uncertainty necessarily becomes a constant factor in our practices. So there is a new set of skills to be mastered, at which we might expect anarchists to eventually excel.

And perhaps we are occupying a historical moment in which the real value of mastering those skills is particularly apparent.

But, before we turn to the practical questions—like living in a social world reshaped by asymptomatic contagion—let’s spend a bit of time in that part of anarchist theory where the question of certainty does indeed play a prominent role. In his early works, Proudhon returned a number of times to the philosophical question of the criterion of certainty and made a critique of the notion the centerpiece of the second letter in The Philosophy of Progress. In the Second Memoir on Property, he introduced the concept in a biographical account of the origin of the First Memoir:

By taste as well as by discretion and lack of confidence in my powers, I was slowly pursuing some commonplace studies in philology, mingled with a little metaphysics, when I suddenly fell upon the greatest problem that ever has occupied philosophical minds: I mean the criterion of certainty.

Those of my readers who are unacquainted with the philosophical terminology will be glad to be told in a few words what this criterion is, which plays so great a part in my work.

The criterion of certainty, according to the philosophers, will be, when discovered, an infallible method of establishing the truth of an opinion, a judgment, a theory, or a system, in nearly the same way as gold is recognized by the touchstone, as iron approaches the magnet, or, better still, as we verify a mathematical operation by applying the proof.

He then goes on to explain how the question of the criterion of certainty drove the research that led to What is Property? But, in the end, he did not find the criterion. And the sense we get is that his use of the concept was ultimately negative, critiquing various proposed criteria used to prop up unjust social relations.

He then returned to the question a couple of years later, in The Creation of Order in Humanity. There, he included a section on the “Solution of the problem of certainty.” There, it was a question of adapting Charles Fourier’s theory of the series—and those not already initiated into the mysteries of that system may find the argument more than a bit obscure. But what is clear enough, without descending all the way down that particular rabbit hole, is that, looking for a criterion, Proudhon seems to be finding a process or practice by which he will account for elements that perhaps necessarily remain uncertain in at least some senses.

In The Philosophy of Progress, Proudhon assures us that:

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.

There is a good deal to unpack in this claim. Proudhon, finally turning to elaborate his constructive program, has declared himself a partisan of progress and a relentless opponent of the absolute, with these two terms corresponding, on the one hand, to the fluid and at least potentially “true” and, on the other, to the (allegedly) fixed and false. So that:

the notion of Progress is provided to us immediately and before all experience, not what one calls a criterion, but, as Bossuet says, a favorable prejudice, by means of which it is possible to distinguish, in practice, that which it may be useful to undertake and pursue, from that which may become dangerous and deadly,—an important thing for the government of the State and of commerce.

And, to be clear, it is the shifting, progressive, that is “useful to undertake and pursue,” while all that makes a claim to an absolute, fixed character can be expected to “become dangerous and deadly.” So here we have the affirmation of a “favorable prejudice” in favor of all that we must consider, at least in an authoritarian context, uncertain. It is no surprise, then, to find Proudhon further claiming that “the criterion of certainty is an anti-philosophical idea borrowed from theology, the assumption of which is destructive of certainty itself” and proposing what is essentially a different kind of certainty: a certainty without criterion.

If you feel like we’re back in the hold of the ship of state, drilling away at the hull and hoping for the sea change that will transform going down with the ship into something more liberating, I’m right there with you…

This new certainty and uncertainty seem, at least at present, rather hard to completely distinguish. But that’s a “problem” that we can probably embrace, at least for now.

In The Philosophy of Progress, Proudhon sets up the project that he will pursue in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, where justice provides “a principle of guarantee for our ideas” and “a rule for our actions.” But justice is immanent and emerges from an ongoing process of balancing, a justification that is unlikely to ever be complete. Insisting that abandoning the absolutist conceptions of a criterion of certainty does not leave us unable to make useful general observations about the world, to elaborate “laws” speak usefully about tendencies—even to recognize what is absolute about the unfolding of material processes—he wants to distinguish between the “certainty” of those mobile, developing truths he has affirmed and the impossibility of using them as a rule for conduct in the moment. “There is a certainty for the theory, but there is no criterion for practice”—which means, among other things, that the certainty of the theory is not necessarily accessible to us in the moment.

So, for example, when Proudhon talks about the opposition between progress and the absolute as “an infallible criterion” with regard to himself, perhaps it is not incidental to the passage that he chooses a thousand-year life as the life that readers might might know on the basis of that criterion—or that, even then, this “infallible criterion” largely identifies him as “the man whose thought always advances, whose program will never be finished.”

If, then, I could once put my finger on the opposition that I make between these two ideas, and explain what I mean by Progress and what I consider Absolute, I would have given you the principle, secret and key to all my polemics. You would possess the logical link between all of my ideas, and you could, with that notion alone, serving for you as an infallible criterion with regard to me, not only estimate the ensemble of my publications, but forecast and signal in advance the propositions that sooner or later I must affirm or deny, the doctrines of which I will have to make myself the defender or adversary. You would be able, I say, to evaluate and judge all my theses by what I have said and by what I do not know. You would know me, intus et in cute, such as I am, such as I have been all my life, and such as I would find myself in a thousand years, if I could live a thousand years: the man whose thought always advances, whose program will never be finished. And at whatever moment in my career you would come to know me, whatever conclusion you could come to regarding me, you would always have either to absolve me in the name of Progress, or to condemn me in the name of the Absolute.

There is indeed a truth here, but it is very different, I think, from a criterion by which actions might be judged and shaped in the moment.

Let’s take a step back from Proudhon’s project, which at least allows us to connect this concern with uncertainty, even an embrace of the uncertain, with “classical” anarchist theory, and talk about more mundane things, like guiding our daily actions in the context of a global pandemic.

Particularly in the US, there are lots of aspects of the governmental and capitalistic responses to the threat of widespread contagion that have limited our options. Failed “relief” attempts—which have arguably just been successful capitalist wealth redistribution—have imposed all sorts of costs on cautious action that might easily have been avoided had the same resources been applied where they were needed most. But the corruption and ineptitude simply amplified what is arguably the single greatest difficulty associated with Covid-19: our uncertainty about so many aspects of its spread.

It is really astonishing how many questions still remain about very basic issues like the persistence of contamination on surfaces and within the last week we’ve seen the WHO appear entirely uncertain about the threat of asymptomatic and presymptomatic transmission. We remain uncertain about even precisely what kind of illness it is, with reported symptoms now covering a really remarkable gamut. Media coverage of all of these questions has been occasionally deep, generally unfocused and often unhelpful, so that, for example, we know enough to know that viral load and viral shedding in the early stages of infection are issues that we should be have answers about, but very little idea if the answers are out there or what they might be.

Still, even if the reporting was clearer and the urgency of things not amplified by governmental mismanagement, we would almost certainly be facing a situation largely defined by what we do not and cannot know. And that, it appears, is a situation we really, really do not want to be in.

The various responses to the snowballing crisis are all, in their way, quite interesting, as are the responses that we might have expected, but haven’t yet seen. The other day, after spending some time trying to get very basic suggestions about handling face coverings, I observed that:

if ours wasn’t a fundamentally failed society we would already have whole genre of articles on how often the dapper man-about-town washes his designer face masks, how many he packs for a weekend business trip, what clever luggage accessories he uses to keep his supply both clean and at the ready, etc.

Instead, we seem to have a lot of indications that US political culture has, in general, nearly exhausted its capacity to respond to crisis in anything but the most cartoonish ways. Think, for example, about the “right to reopen” protests, which look like nothing more or less than “open carry” demonstrations for possible contagion. Privilege is a word that has perhaps suffered from too widespread application at times, but I have trouble thinking of the claimed “right” to simply ignore the possible consequences of inadvertent disease transmission in any other terms (with or without the martial posturing.) Having seen rote protests of “government overreach” turn almost immediately into protests of government restraint as soon as the new round of BLM protests erupted couldn’t have been any less surprising. And nothing about the old politicians somehow imagining the problem at the moment was lack of police funding was surprising, except perhaps the fact that they didn’t have the sense to keep that thought to themselves, at least for a little while.

There are certainly hopeful flashes of energy and light from various quarters, particularly where the protests and occupations have passed through their own fairly rote phases and participants are learning to occupy and make use of the comparatively novel social spaces that have emerged. And I’m in no hurry to see those spaces closed or to witness the postmortems that will inevitably follow. I hope the impulse to drag things out and drag things into the open will continue to prevail for a good long time, with or without help and encouragement from the anarchist milieus.

But I can’t help feeling that, alongside all the other things that are happening in this particular moment, there is a particularly anarchistic opening, of a sort that perhaps we are not well prepared to grasp as our own. The mixture of urgency and uncertainty we feel as pandemic precautions have become the factor organizing so much of our social existence, in a context where conventional political responses are so plainly inadequate, is a real taste, not just of the anarchic, but of a rather profound sort of anarchy, which we might associate with conditions a few steps “after the revolution” (with all due reservations about the r-word.) It is an experience of anarchy without liberation, as the whole stupid apparatus of authority continues to do its best to grind us down, but still…

Action in the face of a critical sort of uncertainty, under conditions where the whole apparatus of laws and rights struggles to find a purchase on acts with no very clear consequences, at a moment when the regime of authority is clearly showing strain at the seams — this is almost certainly no one’s idea of “the revolution,” but it may be as close as we are likely to come, for now, to being in the shoes of Déjacque’s bilge-rat, finally drilling through that hull and being fairly certain that the anarchy pouring in is not actually drowning us.

And perhaps that is all still rather vague, but one explanation would be that a genuinely anarchy-centered anarchism is not something we have had a lot of practice recognizing “in the wild.”

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2417 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.