Collective Force: Notes on Contribution and Disposition

A force of one thousand men working twenty days has been paid the same wages that one would be paid for working fifty-five years; but this force of one thousand has done in twenty days what a single man could not have accomplished, though he had labored for a million centuries. Is the exchange an equitable one? Once more, no; when you have paid all the individual forces, the collective force still remains to be paid. — P.-J. Proudhon, What is Property?

I think that the concept of collective force and the theory of exploitation that Proudhon developed from it are at least increasingly well known among anarchists. But, even in mutualist circles, when we talk about non-capitalist economies, we still tend to focus on “the worker’s right to the full product of their labor,” without much attention to the difficulties of knowing what “their labor” means for any given worker. So how do we make sense of the various contributions to production, incorporating the Proudhonian analysis, so that we can make practical proposals regarding the distribution of its fruits?

This is a set of questions that might take us in a variety of directions, but what I would like to do is to try to simply propose a general formula—on the model of the communist “from each according to ability, to each according to need”—that could guide further exploration. These formulas are not blueprints, but they are concise visions. In the communist instance, while we can imagine all sorts of conflicts and confusions regarding specific instances of “ability” or “need,” we can also pretty easily understand why the formula describes a system that would almost certainly work, provided that those uncertainties could be addressed.

We might even take the familiar communist formula as a more general formula for non-capitalist economies. What the theory of collective force suggests is that, in a well-organized economy of any complexity, we might expect modest contributions by individuals to result, thanks to the multiplying power of association, in subsistence for all—even in cases where the individual contributions might not, if isolated from one another, be sufficient to meet individual needs. And it isn’t likely to change things much if the distribution of the fruits of labor takes the form of the communistic prise au tas (free consumption), some form of non-capitalist market or some combination of those approaches. Communistic distribution simply adds the wages of individuals to the fruits of collective labor and puts it on the pile. If you want instead to divvy up the fruits of association among the contributing individuals, any division that is not wildly out of proportion with the contributions made should enrich those individuals and expand the capacity of the economy to support those who cannot contribute directly. Of course, outside of a capitalist economy—where contribution essentially means capacity to create a profit for a capitalist—there will be considerably less concern about ability to contribute. But the key issue, when it comes to addressing the needs of those who might need particular social assistance, will arguably not be the mode of division of the fruits of collective force, but instead the organization of productive association itself and increases in the multiplying capacities of collective force.

The question becomes whether or not we can produce a general formula with the elegance of the familiar communist example—one about which we might at least say that “it works when it works,” as, of course, there are all the unanswered questions about capacities and needs to be addressed. If we are not assuming the simplicity of the communistic “pile”—if, for example, we retain a lively interest in avoiding the individual experience of exploitation, even in less systemic forms—then perhaps we might begin by suggesting something like this:

  • From each: a share of the socially necessary labor commensurate with their capacities—performed with an awareness of larger contexts.
  • To each: a subsistence—and a share of whatever social wealth is produced through association of labor.

But, again, that just gestures at the real complexities involved, including the issue of collective force. In order to grapple more directly with all of that, let’s move from a largely individualized account to one that recognizes three classes of contribution:

  1. Ambient contribution: all of the contributions of collective force from sources outside a given association of producers;
  2. Collective contribution: the collective force generated by a particular association;
  3. Individual contribution: the productive power of isolated individuals or of each associated producer’s efforts if exerted individually at a task similar to that performed within the association.

We know that the various kinds of contribution are connected. Assuming the best case, where the elements are in relative harmony, increases in ambient force should decrease the contributions at other scales necessary to provide for subsistence, increase general prosperity, accommodate more individuals unable or unwilling to contribute, etc. The key concern is that the ambient force remains free, unmonopolized by any class or faction, so that it can do this sort of general work. But we’ve essentially defined the ambient force as the contributions that can’t be attributed to any particular individual contribution, or even to any particular association of individuals, so, while each individual has an interest in maintaining and enhancing this general multiplying force, they can only do so by associating their labor more locally with an eye to larger dynamics.

In the best case, that probably means simply making an effort not to gum up the works, while being vigilant about the possibilities of the ambient force being monopolized. And, because the production of collective force is as much a matter of controlled conflict as it is simple cooperation, there seems to be plenty of room for self-interested behavior in the mix. Perhaps very little is called for, in this case, other than a particularly robust sort of anti-monopolism, informed by anarchistic sociology, extending beyond Tucker’s “four monopolies” to address monopolization of collective force as a systemic element in archic social structures.

We are not likely, however, to have the luxury of working with a best case scenario any time soon after the defeat of those archic systems. The material base of society is likely to require a significant transformation, which will take some time. But we might think of that necessary transition as a blessing in disguise, as what will be required of us under those less-than-ideal circumstances is just a steady advance toward anarchic relations.

That process will demand careful analysis of the institutions we are transforming and new consultative networks to provide feedback on the systemic effects of our efforts. I imagine a “complete” transformation, assuming such a thing is possible, would involve a fairly complete abandonment of the polity-form and the replacement of the governmental apparatus with this new consultative apparatus. Priorities will be driven by real needs, as we are likely to find that the institutions established by capitalism and governmentalism really aren’t all that well suited to providing generally for human subsistence—let alone a more general prosperity. Potential enterprises will be constrained by the state of the transformation. And the more abstract sorts of calculation problems probably won’t materialize, as our choices will be limited in a variety of ways.

Individuals who want to be relatively self-sufficient will have to work for the social conditions under which that is a possibility, often by working with others to establish sustainable patterns of resource use. But certainly they can be afforded all of the autonomy that they can create without engaging in harmful or monopolistic behavior towards others. If they benefit from the effects of ambient force, no one is the poorer for it—and, ultimately, there ought to be plenty of opportunities for even loners to contribute their share to flows of information, expertise, etc. in the public domain.

Those inclined to association will have plenty of opportunities to explore, although there may be some heavy lifting involved ridding our associations of archic elements that we presently take for granted. Abandonment of the firm, which is really just the polity-for transported into the economic sphere will mean that the unity of given associations will be complex. What Proudhon suggested about social collectivities was that they are indeed a kind of real social actor, with their own interests and a particular form of agency, but that, in an anarchic society, they must not be elevated in any way above the human individuals who are also parts of their complex whole.

Accounting for the equality of human individuals and social individualities across a range of scales—with only the first being what Proudhon called free absolutes, capable of self-consciousness and reflection—is bound to make demands on our understanding of social relations that are novel—or very nearly so.

But there is also a kind of simplification that comes with this theoretical shift, as, when we turn back to the question of the disposition of collective force, we can treat all of the various contributors we have to account for as individuals of one variety or another. So, for example, we can begin with the assumption that in an anarchistic society choices about the disposition of the fruits of labor ought to be in the hands of the laborer—even if that laborer is an association, recognized as a kind of collective person. But we can recognize that each individual, at whatever scale, is likely to have complex investments and interests — (and here the recent posts on anarchist individualism ought to provide useful insights) — while, at the same time, each instance of more-or-less individual labor also has to be understood in terms of a collaboration of sorts with what we have been calling the ambient contributions.

In order to understand the general dynamic of a society or economy understood in these terms, we might return to the rudimentary “social system,” proposed by Proudhon in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, which I have often discussed in terms of an anarchic encounter:

Two men meet, recognize one another’s dignity, state the additional benefit that would result for both from the concert of their industries, and consequently guarantee equality, which means economy. That is the whole social system: an equation, and then a collective power.

Two families, two cities, two provinces, contract on the same footing: there is always only these two things, an equation and a collective power. It would involve a contradiction, a violation of Justice, if there were anything else.

In this account, we already have indication of a general equality of actors. Elsewhere, as in his discussion of what I’ve called the citizen-state, Proudhon clarifies that the equation applies to circumstances like the encounter of an individual and an anarchistic “state.” And then the addition of ambient force to our analysis suggests that something very similar occurs even when individuals act in relative isolation, so that we might say that every attempt to act according to this model demands the recognition of the interests of others, if only, in the most isolated cases, in a very general way. “Don’t gum up the works.”

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2701 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.