Fresh Summer Threads

These are some recent comment threads from Twitter, covering a number of topics, which seem worth collecting here.

On the Use of Proudhon’s Works

One of the constants in the partisan political uses of Proudhon’s work, arguably beginning even while he was alive, has been the focus of critics on isolated passages, a strategy that is always dubious, but is particularly so with someone like Proudhon.

It is common enough to see well-intentioned critics latch onto one aspect of a dialectical development or some point granted for the sake of argument midway through an analysis. Ch. 3 of “What is Property” seems to be a kind of inkblot test for economic preferences.

Add in the fact that the mature, “constructive” works after 1853 have been largely ignored and that the elements in the earlier works that did indeed persist through Proudhon’s career have also been largely ignored.

We have almost always treated Proudhon at second hand. The “Economic Contradictions” matter because Marx attacked a passage. Mutual credit is of prime importance because that was what caught on in the US—and perhaps persisted as a focus long after it was all that useful.

When I started exploring Proudhon, the conversation around mutual credit was still one dominated by the idea of usury, despite the fact that Greene arguably dispatched it by 1850. The absolutely central issues of collective force and the droit d’aubaine had to be recovered.

The difference is critical, since a focus on usury keeps us mired in questions about what will or will not be “permitted” or “forbidden,” as if anarchists had any use for the necessarily elements of legal and governmental order.

We’re arguably not even having a conversation about economics until we begin to talk about these basic mechanisms of capitalist exploitation, because they are what allow us to talk about different kinds of markets, rather than different regulations in some presumably generic one.

If there is a positive mission for a market anarchism within the range of specialized anarchisms, it is arguably to break down the illusion of the generic market-form, to demonstrate that market forces lead to different outcomes when channeled by different norms and institutions.

We’re hampered by the fact that both capitalist and communist analyses tend to reify capitalist elements. And Tucker, with his bold anti-monopolism, opted for a different approach than Proudhon, which may have run its course during his lifetime.

But we can certainly identify the elements of different anti-capitalist critiques that need to be connected through mutual translation. It’s relatively simple to add the theory of collective force to the theory of exploitation anarchists have borrowed from Marx.

Doing so shifts the locus of exploitation from exchange per se to particular ways of thinking about individuality and association, contribution and compensation, etc. And then the concept of collective force can also be applied in a wide variety of other contexts.

You don’t have to believe, as I do, that the dynamics of collective force are fundamental to the functioning of anarchy, in order to do the work necessary to shift our understanding of exploitation in a market economy. But doing so certainly won’t weaken your anti-capitalism.

The droit d’aubaine—what Tucker called the “right of increase” and I have been associating with escheat—is harder to integrate, because it is precisely the thing naturalized by capitalist ideology (and taken for granted, locally and somewhat perversely, in communist critique.)

But it is connected to the myth of the productivity of capital and is almost certainly the elusive key ingredient in most capitalist apologetics.

On Communism and Exploitation

Anarchist communism only compensates collective force. Exploitation is possible, but not systemic as it is in capitalism. Provided those who are capable of contributing do so and need-based consumption remains the standard, anarchist communism is viable, if not always preferable.

Under the right circumstances, anarchist communism might be a mutualist solution to some kinds of general scarcity, such as those we might face in the transition from a capitalist-governmentalist society. It’s weakness is the reluctance to address more individual valuations.

While anarchist communists recognize that the scarcity of necessities is an artificial product of capitalism and provide a formula useful for providing a general subsistence, they lack specific tools for organizing the kind of post-scarcity economies they ultimately hope for.

We can probably blame the perverse consensus between capitalists and marxists on the necessary nature of markets for that weakness, since the examples necessary to think differently have existed in various mutualist experiments and analyses.

From a Proudhonian perspective, we should expect positions that lean too heavily on one side of the collective/individual (community/property) dynamics to struggle toward anarchic liberty. But that means we’re between Tucker and Kropotkin, not that we have any tie to capitalism.

[when asked why communism was not as exploitative as capitalism—“What difference is there then between fraternity and the wage system?”]

Proudhon went on to answer his own question immediately, although obviously there was no anarchist communism for him to comment on at the time. Exploitation is possible under voluntary association, but he had already established that it was fundamental to capitalism.

On Individualism and Socialism, etc.

We really need a name for the aspect of Pierre Leroux’s thought that tried to balance what he originally called “individualism” and “socialism.” “Mutualism” is a logical choice, given at least some of Proudhon’s work with the term, but it is already overburdened with meanings.

Leroux and Proudhon wrestled with the fact that “socialism” came to be the term perhaps closest to what they were pursuing, but that’s hardly an ideal solution for us, attempting to account for both the development of ideas and the deployment of labels.

There is a popular understanding of “collectivism”—an exclusive emphasis on the collective aspects of social relations—that might serve, except that “collectivism” became the term for a different set of more-or-less anarchist socialisms attempting to avoid those extremes.

We have these complicated genealogies, with one strand of anarchistic collectivism giving rise to anarchism without adjectives and “synthesis” persisting as a concern from Proudhon and 1840, but ultimately having to be applied to anarchism itself in order to strike a balance.

Each of these terms—mutualism, collectivism, synthesis, even “anarchism without adjectives”—themselves mark a range of positions, contested by those who claimed them, as well as their opponents and rivals, and developing through these conflicts over time.

When we attempt to treat them as if they were clearly defined terms in a single treatise—or body of scripture—it’s hard to avoid simply imposing our own preconceptions. It’s only if we’re sensitive to the conflicts that we are likely to get to the heart of work like Proudhon’s.

An example of real relevance here is Proudhon’s definition of “reciprocity” in the mutual credit writings as “the mutual penetration of antagonistic elements,” its identification as “the formula of justice” and its association with the golden rule.

There are a lot of elements here about which we are likely to already have strong feelings and perhaps fixed conceptions. But that definition seems designed to seriously shake up all those preconceptions.

If we are to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us” because the separation between individuals is incomplete, while still real enough to require a general ethic of relations, our conception of exchange has to adapt…

…particularly when, in continuing his argument, Proudhon then claims that the economic “translation” of all of that is “the famous formula that products exchange for products.”

The reasonable expectation, when working through the historical sources, is that the rhetorical ground will shift beneath our feet, forcing us to move from the level of engagement with words as already ideologically laden labels to that of ideas. That’s the path to understanding.

But it is always an open question to what extent understanding is the goal in our uses of the past. And we should be brutally honest with ourselves about the extent to which the model for an awful lot of nominally historical work is really clear-cutting or strip-mining.

General Idea of the Revolution

“General Idea of the Revolution” is such a weird book for anarchists to love. It’s interesting, but also sort of utopian socialism for people who don’t like utopian socialism—and it was addressed to the bourgeoisie.

Its primary importance for modern anarchists is arguably that it is almost all we have of the economic writings of the early 1850s—although it is a strange introduction to that work.

None of its peculiarities are reasons to reject it, but they are reasons to use it carefully. Perhaps our response should be to embrace its strangeness as a way of approaching other strange works, like the much maligned “Social Revolution as Demonstrated by the Coup d’Etat.”

One of the things that was hard to keep in sight in the historical survey was that while anarchist ideas might be in some sense perennial, there wasn’t an obviously anarchist audience for them until fairly late in the 19th century.

This is one of the reasons that we find figures like Proudhon and Bakunin wringing every bit of potentially libertarian sense out of the language of authority. They weren’t speaking to us or even necessarily to people all that much like us in vocabulary and ideas.

On the “General Formula”

From the next section, because the clarification is already necessary: “If we look again at the formula proposed it should be clear that only anarchy-centered anarchisms need apply. Anarchy is the defining concept and would-be anarchisms that have placed some other idea, ideal or aim at their center must, at the very least, find their vindication in some process other than the one being proposed here. That criterion alone should make clear, I hope, just how little aid and shelter this analysis aims to extent to ideologies attempting to lay claim to the word “anarchism” while placing some element other than anarchy at the center of their theory and practice.”

To be direct: This is part of a difficult discussion among serious anarchists. F#ck the would-be entryists who see any recognition of pluralism as an invitation to muddy the waters.

Plus ça change…

Something that strikes me about the debates with capitalists twenty-odd years ago and now is the fact that the capitalists do not seem to have added anything to their arguments not ultimately derived, parasitically, from the labor of anarchists.

Brutus Mercereau

Brutus Mercereau contributed quite a bit of fiction to anarchist papers in the 1920s. The tales are generally well written and a bit on the grim side.

When Mercereau was arrested in 1923, for his published defense of Germaine Berton, he was missing from the pages of “Le Libertaire,” but a new writer appeared, sometimes continuing Mercereau’s column “Sous les Roses”—Bruto Reaucemer.

He was back, writing under his own name, but writing from prison, about a month later.

The appearance a month later of Rumer Breauceto suggests some further plot-twist in Mercereau’s life.

Proudhon’s “Pologne” manuscripts

If my understanding of Proudhon’s “Pologne” manuscripts is correct, then the anarchy-as-“perpetual desideratum” stuff in “Federative Principle” would have developed pretty directly from the reference to “approximations of an-archy” at the end of “Theory of Property.”

“Pologne” developed over quite a number of years and was published a bit piecemeal, but the various contents listings in the manuscript suggest that the theory section could have been “Political Geography and Nationality” + “Theory of Property” + “The Federative Principle.”

That would have been a pretty remarkably exploration of the workings of collective force at larger scales. And we know that some of the connecting material, such as the transition from the work on political geography to that on property, contained important clarifications.

Constructing Anarchisms

As the pieces come together, the “Constructing Anarchisms” book is transforming into sort of a mutant self-help guide, but heavy enough on the mutant part that it ought to be fun.

I am very comfortable combining different kinds of analysis, but I think it makes most sense with this material to construct a minimalist analysis around the “general formula” proposed—and then build a separate, mad, maximalist invitation around the “bilge-rat’s gambit.”

❧ ❧ ❧

The questions that have been driving my research and reflection all revolve around “general histories” of anarchism, “general theories” of anarchy and archy, and now “general anarchist practices.”

There seems to be a need to directly confront the anarchy of anarchist accounts, ideologies and practices, in a way that reflects anarchist commitments. Easier said than done, of course, but I feel increasingly close to at least wrapping my head around the problem.

My inclination has been to focus on anarchy, particularly as a principle, since there doesn’t seem to be any other sort of dependable guide for anarchists. But the lesson of Proudhon’s “anarchy in all its senses” is that we also face a kind of “anarchy of anarchies.”

Our polestar seems likely to remain a unique sort of guide. But if we recognize that anarchy is not only what sweeps away the governmentalisms, but also what emerges, more or less profusely, in their absence, we can at least start to think differently about our project.

That’s where Proudhon’s theory of collective force becomes useful in a more general way. If every unique individual is organized such that its balanced internal conflicts are a source of its health, it’s no stretch to situate a fundamental sort of anarchy at the heart of each.

And then “organization” becomes (at least through a certain lens) a matter of bringing instances of anarchy into anarchic relations—which perhaps suggests something more interesting than our usual associations with “synthesis.”

“Anarchy, in all of its senses…”

Proudhon’s indifference to how we might define “anarchy” is an aside in “General Idea of the Revolution,” but a repeated aside. So if we are treating Proudhon specifically as an anarchist writer, it seems like something we should learn to address.

And, given the rather complex play with the concept of “association” there, it should strike us as out of character to acknowledge multiple senses. So we presumably need to find what unites the order of mature societies with the characteristic disorders of governmentalist ones.

Digging through Proudhon’s use of the term and that of his contemporaries, some of the common references for “anarchy” are revolutionary violence (the Terror) and “the anarchy of the market.” “General Idea” is a more or less anarchistic work addressed to the bourgeoisie, one of a series of works addressed to various audiences, arguing for the necessity of revolutionary change. The language of anarchy is most prominent in the last of the series, “La Révolution sociale démontrée par le Coup d’Etat,” addressed to Napoleon III and now neglected.

But the choice presented there—”anarchy or cæsarism”—still doesn’t really come with an analysis elaborated in the terms modern anarchists might hope for. Nor do we find it elsewhere, I think. Proudhon simply wasn’t one of us in that way. He spoke another theoretical language. So we probably have to go back to “the Revolution” (“Toast the the Revolution,” etc.) and look for clues that facilitate a translation.

My sense is that anarchy is always related to the enormous quantities of collective force emerging from modern social organization. In otherwise archic, governmentalist societies, it manifests as an often destructive force, threatening governments but not sparing the people.

Revolution and exploitation are just two possible results of the haphazard, unbalanced distribution of that collective force. Anarchy, in the sense given to the term by later anarchists, is a result of balance, but the dynamism of the whole makes an ideal anarchy fragile at best.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.