Collective force and the problem of authority

God, philosophy says finally, is, from the ontological point of view, a conception of the human mind, the reality of which it is impossible to deny or affirm authentically;—from the point of view of humanity, a fantastic representation of the human soul raised to the infinite. — Proudhon, Justice in the Revolution and in the Church

In Proudhon’s writings we encounter the notion that what lies behind the most durable examples of authority—chief among them the famous pair, God and the State—is, in fact, collective force. It is our own force, the force of society or humanity, to which we attribute a “higher” power and authority when we encounter it.

This notion has two important elements:
  1. We really do encounter something, for which we need to account, since it is tied up with ourselves;
  2. We are mistaken in associating these manifestations of collective force with a higher realm than our own, and attributing authority to them.

But having recognized manifestations of collective force as such, we would also be mistaken to assume that these organized collective beings have interests and reasons which are necessarily similar to, or compatible with, our own individual interests and reasons.

If we try to think about what anti-authoritarianism looks like in the context of this analysis, perhaps the majority of our concerns can be addressed by adjusting what actors we recognize and how we recognize them. We need to demystify notions like God and State, but we can’t deny the organized bodies of collective force that do in fact exist. We need to be rid of the real “spooks,” and learn to confront our own power when we find it coming around to meet us in slightly alien form—without elevating it as either a god or a demon. We need to learn how to benefit from the “collective reason” of these collective beings, and we need to learn how to come together differently when that reason, and the interests that go with it, are inimical to our own, and to the principles of justice and equality. There are lots of ways to approach this complicated set of tasks, some of which would answer to familiar names like “anti-statism,” but probably not in the ways they do at present. The temptation to elevate Humanity in the place of God has largely passed us, but maybe not so with Society, or Nature, or the Market. And perhaps we still engage in a bit of idolatry in the ways we demonize the State.

For those who like clarity, without fundamentalist reduction, there may be some appeal in this focus on correctly identifying forces, on demystification, and on the leveling/horizontalizing of our critical framework—even if it runs counter to a lot of our current critical language and logic. There’s nothing simple about the practical integration of these mute-but-powerful collective actors into our anarchism, but perhaps the difficulties will seem less as we really grapple with the theoretical problem.
About Shawn P. Wilbur 2628 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.