Anarchy: Lawless and Unprincipled

“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:

The ideal republic is an organization that leaves all opinions and all activities free. In this republic, every citizen, by doing what he wishes and only what he wishes, participates directly in legislation and in government, as he participates in the production and the circulation of wealth. Here, every citizen is king; for he has plenitude of power, he reigns and governs. The ideal republic is a positive anarchy. It is neither liberty subordinated to order, as in a constitutional monarchy, nor liberty imprisoned in order. It is liberty free from all its shackles, superstitions, prejudices, sophistries, usury, authority; it is reciprocal liberty and not limited liberty; liberty not the daughter but the mother of order. — Proudhon, “Democracy” (1848)

This is the description of positive anarchy that we are trying to come to terms with—and, as promised, that means we’ll be taking a look at the role of desire in anarchy, addressing the debts of the early anarchists to figures like Charles Fourier. But there’s a lot here to unpack and before we can really concentrate on the possibility of anarchic Harmony, perhaps we have to spend just a bit more time with Déjacque’s bilge-rat.

He’s stuck, you will recall, in the hold of the ship of state and he wants to get out, so he’s surreptitiously drilling a hole in the hull. And we have every reason to think that what threatens to come rushing in, should he manage to breach the hull, is some variety of anarchy—but there is a lot about this method of “escape” that is less than comforting.

We know that part of the problem is that we’re not just stuck in that “ship of state,” but also in the metaphor, the belief system that grants it legitimacy. And because we are indeed stuck within governmental institutions and mindsets—and, if you doubt it, go check out any of the ongoing debates about anarchy and democracy, “justified hierarchy,” “legitimate authority,” etc.—a concern that escaping will be hard to distinguish, in practical terms, from going down with the ship seems as much a product of foresight as, say, false consciousness.

There always seems to be some thorny problem of the transition to be solved.

But I would be lying if I said I didn’t relish the opportunity to “say the worst” about anarchy. After all, how else are we going to determine which of the new conditions that seem dangerous to us really are new dangers and which are simply opportunities that authoritarian, absolutist ways of thinking tend to distort?

We’ve set ourselves the task of coming up with an anarchism more consistent, radical and shareable than that which we have previously recognized the “classical” anarchist pioneers. We are exploring the extent to which that increased consistency and more radical character can arise from the focus on a more consistent and radical account of anarchy. And we are very specifically looking to what is most radical in the work of Proudhon for inspiration, which means our anarchism is likely to be an anti-absolutism, as our anarchy is likely to be an an-arche of a potentially very radical character.

To reframe the description of “positive anarchy,” which will be the focus of the next post, more consistently in these terms undoubtedly requires a number of steps. First, we can dispense with the rhetorical confusions. It doesn’t help us to know that “every citizen is king” if we are imagining a context in which the polity-form itself has been rejected, as citizens and kings alike are simply part of the narrative we wish to move beyond. Second, there are some lingering attachments to real instance of the polity-form to discard as well. That includes both the worn-out remnants of patriarchal government that persist, in however contested a form, in Proudhon’s writings on gender, marriage etc. and at least a temporary step back from the proposals in works like Theory of Property that attempt to achieve a kind of resultant anarchy from the counterbalancing of fundamentally political forms. The state conceived as “a kind of citizen” and the citizen reimagined on the model of the state are almost certainly salvageable in some more thoroughly mutualist form, but that project has to occupy some more advanced stage of our analysis. And, although the question has not really been raised yet, we should probably be on the lookout for other instances where the polity-form persists in modified forms. If “the commune,” “the people” or even “the individual” ends up functioning as a divided or naturalized polity, then our work is clearly not done.

Those preliminaries accomplished, we can turn to Proudhon’s Philosophy of Progress, where he lays out his anti-absolutist program:

That which dominates all my studies, its principle and aim, its summit and base, in a word, its reason; that which gives the key to all my controversies, all my disquisitions, all my lapses; that which constitutes, finally, my originality as a thinker, if I may claim such, is that I affirm, resolutely and irrevocably, in all and everywhere, Progress, and that I deny, no less resolutely, the Absolute.

and then explains what he means by progress:

Progress, in the purest sense of the word, which is the least empirical, is the movement of the idea, processus; it is innate, spontaneous and essential movement, uncontrollable and indestructible, which is to the mind what gravity is to matter, (and I suppose with the vulgar that mind and matter, leaving aside movement, are something), and which manifests itself principally in the march of societies, in history.

From this it follows that, the essence of mind being movement, truth,—which is to say reality, as much in nature as in civilization,—is essentially historical, subject to progressions, conversions, evolutions and metamorphoses. There is nothing fixed and eternal but the very laws of movement, the study of which forms the object of logic and mathematics.

The absolute, then, is everything that makes a claim to being fixed and unchanging.


It’s not just a question of of rejecting attempts to lay down statute laws on the basis of some presumed authority, whether divine or earthly, but also—and in some ways more particularly—a matter of rejecting the attempts to assert that a law has always already been laid down in the nature of things.

Regarding arche, Stephen Pearl Andrews observed that:

Arche is a Greek word (occurring in mon-archy, olig-archy, hier-archy, etc.), which curiously combines, in a subtle unity of meaning, the idea of origin or beginning, and hence of elementary principle, with that of government or rule. En arche en ho logos, “in the beginning was the word” (John i: 1), means the logical beginning in elementary principles, as a language begins in its alphabet, which then governs the development of speech or the word.

And it may indeed seem a “curious combination,” at least while we are still partially in the grip of the authoritarian narrative that has played a shell-game with statute law and naturalized quasi-legal principle in order to suggest that there is  no alternative. But it is hardly any more curious than a range of combinations that we take quite seriously: conflations of authority and expertise, conflations of authority and various kinds of power (or even mere capacity), confusions of hierarchy and interdependence, real association and political grouping in abstract polities, etc.

We’re still drilling away at the hull of the ship of state, trying to figure out if we’ll drown when the work is done. But there is pretty clearly no answer until we figure out which unities of meaning are subtle and which are ideologically imposed nonsense. So let’s attempt one more clarification regarding anti-absolutism and hopefully set up our previously scheduled discussion of desire.

Most of the confusions and conflations I have noted, as well as the reluctance to clearly distinguish anarchy from democracy, are defended on the grounds that there are indeed instances where the order of things imposes practices on us that seem to have a hierarchical or authoritarian character. If we reject those practices, along with the authoritarian premises that still cling to them, we presumably cannot “get things done.” Anarchists seldom resort to calling each other idealists, but there are a lot of less formal (and often more colorful) ways that we suggest others are perhaps a little too fond of “theory.” So the pertinent question here becomes, I suppose, precisely what sorts of practical problems we might be prevented from addressing if we reject the absolute tout court. And part of the answer is in one last clarification of Proudhon’s vocabulary.

Allow me one long quotation from Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, where, in the study on ideas, Proudhon introduces the notion of the free absolute:

Man is a free absolute. I use the word free here in same manner as the physician distinguishing the free from the latent caloric. It is thus that I have already said free spirit and latent spirit, in order to distinguish the intelligence that knows itself and that moves in man, from that of which we recognize the imprint, but which seems asleep in nature.

In short, the free absolute is that which says “I;” the non-free absolute is that which cannot say “I”

As a free absolute, man tends to subordinate all that surrounds him, things and persons, beings and their laws, theoretical truth and empirical truth, though as inertia, conscience and love as stupidity and egoism.

Hence the character of individual reason, in which the absolute, the very law of individuality, comes to occupy an ever greater place, unlike that of the collective reason, in which the absolute tends to occupy an ever-smaller space. It is in the collective reason, indeed, that relations, sustained by one another, according to the expression which M. Lenoir attributes to me, are at once the law and the social reality.

That difference of character between the particular reason and the collective reason will become sensible at once by the facts; but it is necessary to explain first how the second rises from the contradictions of the first.

From the side of nature, the tendency of particular reason to absolutism meets neither resistance nor control; and one could doubt that science existed, that it was even possible, if the truth and reason of things, as the sole object of philosophy, had only that individual reason for an interpreter.

Before his fellow, an absolute like himself, the absolutism of man stops short; or, to put it better, these two absolutisms destroy one another, allowing to remain of their respective reasons only the relations of things, about which they struggle.

As only a diamond can cut a diamond, only a free absolute is capable of balancing a free absolute, to neutralize it, eliminate it, such that, by the fact of their reciprocal cancellation, there remains of the debate only the objective reality that each tended to denature for his profit, or to make disappear.

It is the sparks from clashing ideas that cast light, says the proverb. Let us correct this slightly metaphysical proverb: it is by mutual contradiction that minds purify themselves of all ultra-phenomenal elements; it is the negation that the free absolute makes of his antagonist which produces, in the moral sciences, adequate ideas, pure of all egoist and transcendental dross, in conformity, in short, with reality and social reason.

If we go to work on this passage in the way we have the other, distinguishing between the real appeals to governmentalist institutions and the rhetorical uses of a governmentalist vocabulary, we have an odd commentary on social psychology, wrapped up in a metaphor drawn from outdated theories of thermodynamics, with absolutism being essentially the tendency of forces to progress in an orderly manner until stopped or deflected. The “laws” in question are “laws of nature.” And if we recall Proudhon’s remarks on liberty, anarchy and law from What is Property? —

Liberty is anarchy, because it does not admit the government of the will, but only the authority of the law; that is, of necessity.

— we might be tempted to reduce all the natural “laws”—and human absolutism as well—to that single law of necessity, by which he seems to mean simply material determination, in the context of complex, ongoing relations of cause and effect. And “law” here really only designates an observation about the general tendencies of forces and relations.

Behind all of the metaphors and borrowings from the language of governmentalism—and perhaps more than a little lost behind all of that—we have an analysis of forces and their interactions. And that seems to be what is necessary to “get things done.” Perhaps it is a little bit confusing for us, in the midst of trying to clarify the nature of anti-absolutism, to find one focus of a non-governmental, anti-absolutist analysis of relations described in terms of “human absolutism” and our anarchic social actor dubbed a “free absolute,” but we can probably get over it. Once we pick our way through the rhetorical distractions, we’re once against confronted with that sociology of collective force I talked about at the end of the last post.

There, I suggested, a bit cryptically, that “the sociology of collective force is a lens through which the workings even of our present, authoritarian relations seem to exhibit at least some of the qualities of anarchy.” What I want to suggest here is that it is in the absence of the narratives that dominate our current, authoritarian, absolutist societies that the sociology of collective force really comes into its own. When, instead of always attempting to find “the law” and figure out who had or claimed the right to lay it down, we turn our attention directly to the play of forces, the dynamics of progressive change, etc., then, at a certain scale, all anarchy is really likely to mean is something like the evolving dynamics of collective force in the absence of authority and hierarchy. That definition and that scale of analysis are not all that we will need to ground our plain anarchism, but they are certainly one of the things that we are likely to need.

What we perhaps do not need—at least at the scale where we usually talk about arche—is an understanding of things based in laws or fixed principles. And if we can learn to think of ourselves as lawless and unprincipled in this respect, then it almost certainly becomes easier to dispense with governmentalist norms and institutions at other levels of analysis.

Anyway, where were we…?

Ah, yes, thinking about desire and contemplating the maelstrom…


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