The silver lining of my particular recent crisis is that it has put me in a place where I can feel both a bit expert and a bit out of my depth—which is an exhilarating mix, but also perhaps precisely the sort of place that you might expect someone who really espoused the “anarchism of approximations,” which has absorbed so many of my waking hours for a fair number of years, now to live. Presently, I’m a little uncertain just what “anarchism” is—but I’m pretty certain that an uncertainty of that sort is an appropriate, and perhaps even necessary, part of being an anarchist (assuming an anarchist is something that one can be.)
When I started to explore mutualism, there was the feeling that I had stumbled onto some strange and fascinating variation on the social anarchism I knew, and it gradually dawned on me that the variation really made everything I knew vary in important ways, but at first the realizations were largely contextual. Exploring mutualism was largely a matter of rethinking that “anarchism” thing and getting the contents and contexts straightened out, in accordance with a huge body of new information that I was constantly working my way through. But eventually, of course, the contextual adjustments not only began to raise some rather difficult questions about the content of “anarchism” as I had inherited it, but they made me think that perhaps, had I been paying the sort of careful attention that I like to think I do, they should have confronted me with this potential “slipping from the moorings” much sooner.
Oh, well. “Slow, but steady…”
Anyway, tardily or not, I’ve reached a point in my encounter with anarchism, particularly as it emerged in the thought of Proudhon, where I want to really pursue my previously stated belief that the first explicit anarchist was “more consistent than complete” in a series of studies here on this blog, while I look at a more complete, but less consistent canon of figures than we usually associate with “anarchism” on a new radical history blog. Over time, the two projects will converge, but that convergence is another matter than should probably be allowed to breathe, to have the benefit of its own long, fruitful interval.
What the two projects will have in common is their shared origin in the studies that I’ve undertaken here, and in the body of concepts and concerns that I have been assembling, sometimes no doubt with insufficient clarity, in that work. In order to simplify what will undoubtedly be a complex set of moves, and to make it easier for readers who have not been along for the whole, long ride this far, it makes sense to do some clarifying.
Let’s start with some basic vocabulary:
Ungovernability—For Proudhon, it was “government” or “the principle of authority” that was the thing to strive against, whatever form it took. Real associations respond only to their own, internal laws. Society, if it is based in association, is ungovernable. Anarchy cannot be less so.
Anarchy—Let’s save this word, in the context of the blog at least, for our (anti-)political ideal, our “blazing star” in that realm. We’ll call our ideologies and the various traditions that we have constructed, or might construct around them Anarchisms.
Mutualism—While the term has come to represent a really wide, perhaps unmanageably wide, range of positions, if I use the term here, assume that I mean something fairly close to the position I staked out for the “two-gun” variation:
Mutualism is not a specific social, political or economic system. It is—at its core—an ethical philosophy. We begin with mutualityor reciprocity—the Golden Rule, more or less—and then seek to apply that principle in a variety of situations. As a result, under mutualism every meaningfully socialrelation will have the form of an anarchic encounter between equally unique individuals—free absolutes—no matter what layers of convention we pile on it. To the extent that our conventions, institutions and norms respect that basic premise, we can call them “mutualist.” To the extent that we commit ourselves to viewing our relations through this lens, and exert ourselves in the extension of mutualistic freedom, we can call ourselves “mutualists.” We don’t take anarchy lightly and understand that archic relationships and coercive force come in lots of varieties, and the exertion matters—if mutuality is reduced simply to an outcome of this or that system, mutualism as such almost certainly disappears.