Assembling the New Toolkit

There’s been a long and rather pregnant pause between the decision that I really needed to adjust the way I was approaching my work and the beginning of the new phase. Honestly, I really enjoy those periods where you realize that everything you think you know about the things you really care about is just a little (crucial) bit wrong, particularly when the realization has been dawning for some time. It’s best just to get these things out in the open and let the situation breathe, so you can move on. But those times are also terrifying, and the waiting can be exhausting—and as often as not you don’t get to them with much left in the tank in the first place.

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.
And recall that I had characterized the practice of that mutualism as a matter of Approximation. If we can count on change as one of our few constants, if we have joined Proudhon in a commitment to Progress and against the Absolute, then we can’t get too cozy with any of our institutional arrangements.
If we agree that the Antinomydoes not resolve itself,” that productive conflict and contradiction are inevitable, and that Justice is a matter of allowing the various potentially warring elements to express themselves fully and in balanced fashion, then we will be on guard for Simplism, “the fault of viewing a complex question from only one side, of advancing on one side by retreating on the other, so that the real progress is null or negative.”
There are other terms which we will have to assemble, many of them drawn from the works of Proudhon and his contemporaries, while a few have been cobbled together recently to serve perceived needs. But in rechristening this blog I’ve chosen to unite historical terms and neologisms under the banner of the Contr’un, a strange pseudo-French word—meaning something fairly close to “anti-authoritarian”which appeared as the subtitle to Etienne de la Boetie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, and which Pierre Leroux appropriated as one of his keyword in the period from which anarchism emerged. 
The term has actually been on the masthead for a long time, in the phrase “the multiplication of free forces is the true contr’un.” It’s not a phrase I have attempted to explain. Instead, it has been sort of a surveyor’s market or blaze, marking a route that I knew the studies here would eventually have to take. I intend to allow this question of “the true contr’un,” which we’ve inherited from Leroux, to remain a bit of a puzzle, at least for awhile, but let’s at least start to grapple with its possibilities by returning to Proudhon’s critique of governmental absolutism and his theory of collectivities and individualities, and suggest that it is Justice that we may expect to oppose the absolute One, and that the “organ of justice” is likely to be social, but that the social is impossible if there are not Free Absolutes, individuals inclined to conflict but capable of striking a balance.
In balance, One and Contr’Un may finally be, in at least some senses, one and the same.
About Shawn P. Wilbur 2607 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.