Encounters and Transactions


I expect that for many of the readers of this blog, the most significant of the dangling questions is the one opened in the post on “Anarchy, understood in all its senses.” I’m surprised that there has not been more comment on the main points in that post, which demonstrates that for Proudhon, in one of the works that social anarchists have generally championed, the anarchy of the laissez faire market and the anti-authoritarian anarchy of the anarchists were in some senses so closely connected that Proudhon was indifferent to which meaning was applied to the word “anarchy,” and that the connection was obscured for English readers by poor translation. We have been able to shrug off similar provocations by figures like Anselme Bellegarrigue, who referred to the Revolution as “purely and simply a matter of business,” largely because those figures don’t feature as more than footnotes in our understanding of the tradition. But it’s a little different story when we’re talking about the details of a work which already enjoys broad, roughly canonical status.

Proudhon has frequently been characterized as a “market anarchist,” of course, and The General Idea of the Revolution has often been the work used to support the characterization. And perhaps that is less surprising, given that the book was specifically addressed “to the bourgeoisie,” than the work’s place in the anarchist canon. Whether the corrected translation is likely to make the work more or less accessible to the various anarchist factions is a question that strikes me as very interesting. On the one hand, the terminological indifference seems to suggest a closer kinship between the anarchy of the market and the anarchy of the anarchist tradition. On the other, all of the many damning things Proudhon said about the anarchy of the market can now be tracked much more accurately towards their target. Where does “market anarchism” fit in all of this? Is there, as I asked in the earlier post, “a sort of anarchism that we might associate with this [anarchy of the market], and, if so, is it perhaps a sort of absolutist anarchism? Answering that question requires coming to grips with how the transactions of various proposed markets compare in their basic structure to the anarchic encounter. Unfortunately, there’s no very easy way to answer that question, as the assumed structure and function of “the market” varies rather dramatically, even just among market proponents. But we can certainly make a good start at determining general criteria for how the question could be answered in individual cases, and explore a few possibilities.

Let’s review the critical analysis of the State. Proudhon presented the existing State as a usurpation of the power of a real collectivity, under the pretext that the social collectivity could not realize itself. The assumption of governmental authority by a part of society over the rest amounts to an imposture, and a not terribly convincing one at that, with the usurpers pretending to be an organ society, but somehow outside and above society as well. Now, Proudhon went on to assert that there is indeed a State, which is in some sense an organ of that society, so it does not follow from that assertion that this State could perform the role of government. This State is simply one of the various non-human “individuals,” collective absolutes, which exists on the social terrain, and which, according to the bare-bones “social system” we’re exploring, encounters other individuals as equals. The collective reason and interests of the State have their place in the balance of justice. Perhaps free absolutes even have certain responsibilities towards them, but I’ve already suggested that those responsibilities are not of obedience, but of tutelage. The existing theory of State-rule seems to be a failure of logic, but rule by the citizen-State would be a failure of justice, and perhaps several sorts of failure in that realm.

We can apply a similar analysis to the Market—by which we will, for now, designate a range of possible emergent structures, collective “individuals,” capitalist usurpations, etc., without seeking to pick and choose too much. Proudhon’s practice ought to suggest to us that there will be places in an anarchist sociology for critical and constructive applications of the term, and a variety of practical approximations that might be designated by it. For the moment, it is less important to know what the Market is than to know how to make sense of it however we happen to encounter it. Would-be market anarchists can then make up their own minds if and how their proposed institutions might measure up alongside Proudhon’s “system.”

We can easily pick out some uses of the term, or related terms, which are obviously analogous to the usurping State. When we hear talk loose talk about the growth or health of “the economy” we’re generally hearing one of two things: when the reference is to some sort of statistical average, then we can probably just say that we’re dealing with a spook, in Stirner’s sense; when it is clear that the reference is to the prosperity of a particular segment of the economy, one of those “what’s good for General Motors…” or trickle-down appeals, then we’re dealing with a confusion of parts and wholes that really just amounts to usurpation from an anarchist point of view.

Would-be anarchist capitalists sometimes fall into these forms of “vulgar libertarianism,” but in those circles, and in left-leaning market anarchist circles, there are treatments of “the market” that are somewhat harder to judge. The common notion that markets are an emergent form, displaying something very much like Proudhon’s “collective reason,” shouldn’t be hard to accept for anyone who has followed the reasoning here this far, but I do think there are questions that need to be answered about the relationship between the market and the individuals who engage in the relations from which it emerges. Sometimes, for example, it appears rather precisely like the market is the external realization or justification of the individual transactions, and as if the reason of the market is assumed to be of a higher order than individual reason.

There are quite a variety of specific explanations of how markets emerge, what role they play, and what sorts of individual relations are likely to result in particular outcomes—too many to safely make blanket responses. What we can say, however, is that to the extent that market forces or market logics are used to justify what would otherwise seem like injustice with regard to individual actors, we have to be rather suspicious that the market has been elevated above the individual free absolutes from whose actions it presumably emerges. This is fairly clearly a problem in those cases where an “invisible hand” is invoked as if it was the real agent in market relations, with the content of individual self-interested acts being a matter of relative indifference, provided that the market itself remains “free.” Whether more sophisticated approaches should also sound alarm bells remains, for me, something of an open question.

Back in early 2011, Sheldon Richmond and I had a brief exchange regarding Bastiat and the notion of the “double inequality of value.” Readers might be interested in looking, or looking again, at the “Note of Bastiat and Double Inequality” I posted that I posted at the time, with an eye to comparing the elements in play in Rothbard’s model of exchange with those in what we’ve been calling “the encounter.” It still seems to me that Bastiat, like Proudhon, was not simply promoting “the anarchy of the market,” but suggesting that free-market conditions are conducive to association and thus harmony, by means which look a bit more direct and creative than perhaps we see in Rothbard or Condillac. It seems to me that, in this particular instance, we might find means of reconciling Bastiat’s position with Proudhon’s very limited “social system,” while I find it hard to see any interpretation of the Rothbard/Condillac position which does not complicate Proudhon’s model, by positing a different criterion for justice in exchange, or by positing some form of external realization of otherwise uncoordinated acts.

My suspicion about “market anarchism” in general is that the best of it walks a fine line between elevating a genuine collective actor, an emergent market, to a position above human individuals and obscuring a mechanism perhaps very much like Proudhon’s with a language which obscures, perhaps even for its proponents, just quite how anarchistic things really are. On the social anarchist side, there is undoubtedly a similar sort of balancing act involving notions like “society,” “community,” “the commune,” social classes, various other sorts of identities, etc. And, in this moment of attempting to very ruthlessly identify all of the possible obstacles to encounters as anarchic as Proudhon seems to be have been describing, I’m inclined to think that pretty much all talk of rights and duties, permissions and prohibitions, including much of the talk of liberties from quarters very concerned not to moralize, such as egoism, have the potential to obstruct the anarchic encounter—at least to the extent that the hard lines and a priori criteria that come with them are presumed to be absolutes.

Of course, one of the things we have been learning from Proudhon is that if the absolute can be eliminated—even just sufficiently identified—then virtually every sort of concept may find a role as a practical approximation. So that’s what we have to look at next.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2700 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. Proudhon has frequently been characterized as a “market anarchist,” of course, and The General Idea of the Revolution has often been the work used to support the characterization.

    I’ve seen it used once for that particular claim, and I had to conclude the person had not read the book. One sentence taken out of context does not equate of “market anarchism” in the sense of “markets for police.”

    Proudhon obviously argues for competition and against Association (in favour of associations!) but the political vision is very much communal in nature, as are many of his proposed reforms (e.g., on land and housing, the latter completely and shamefully distorted by Engels).

    It would be useful to compare the “Just” price of General Idea with the constituted value of System. I’m still not particularly happy with my understanding of the concept — it was underdeveloped in 1846 and seems to have stayed that way.


  2. I think that the account of exchange in Philosophy of Progress is a fairly significant development, and that both it and the “just price” of 1851 are consistent with the “social system” of 1858. Proudhon argues in 1851 that the cost-price ought to be the most efficient price, overall, and then suggests various forms of guarantee by which the efficiency can be, as he puts it, “paid for.” So the just price, when mutually guaranteed is the price at which nobody loses, and the mechanism by which everyone ought to gain. Warren’s equitable commerce is probably a more convincing approximation of the guaranteed system of exchange than Proudhon provided us with, but that’s because he was able to provide a conventional unit of value which was strikingly adaptable. All of the subjective, momentary calculations that can enter into pricing under Warren’s system mean that there’s a very interesting middle ground struck between the sort of direct, creative haggling that we might expect based on the account in Progress and exchange based on the “double inequality of value.” But we can have the convenience we associate with the latter because the guarantee of reciprocity is built into the system. Something like Warren’s system would rise or fall on how reciprocal relations actually are. In practice, concerns like that would probably break down “the market” into a variety of markets, within each of which the forms of guarantee would be adapted to the details and degrees of reciprocity among traders.

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