In Search of the Justicier

I don’t want to wait to work through the details of Proudhon’s analysis before moving forward with the neo-Proudhonian analysis I’ve been developing. At the moment, in fact, I think that the two projects can diverge usefully:

  • There are a lot of important sociological and economic tools to be uncovered, brushed off and modified for present use, tucked away in the works of Proudhon, and there will come a moment—fairly soon, I hope—when we’ll need all of those tools assembled and in working order.
  • At the same time, there are some very basic elements that we have already recovered, which we arguably need to put to work right now.

My own tardiness in getting down to that second task is currently holding up a number of writing and publishing projects, all of which demand that I be as clear, as simple and also as bold as possible in dealing with a small number of critical concepts—anarchy and anarchism naturally key among them. And the transition is painful. I’ve spent nearly two decades holding open doors that many comrades would rather slam shut—that sometimes I would have been happier to slam shut, if there didn’t seem to be important elements of the anarchist project to be recovered. For the past six or seven years I have even had my own basic anarchist program—what I’ve been exploring as “the anarchism of the encounter”—pretty well elaborated, but not, it seemed to me, sufficiently integrated into the anarchist tradition that we have inherited to be generally intelligible.

At this point, however, I think I’m past the point of needing to put off the more basic, programmatic sorts of work any longer. What the “Year Without Mutualism” accomplished was a sufficiently sharp break with my role as a reluctant standard-bearer (for a school of thought that probably needs as many flags as it has adherants) to allow me just concentrate for a while on what I really want and believe, to sort through my personal projects and try to establish their relations and common threads, etc. And the time since has really mostly just been used in building skills and discipline. None of that reduces the attraction of continuing to chase the exciting details of anarchist history and theory off in whatever direction they might lead, nor have I lost any of my sense of the tremendous value of the kind of open exploration that I’ve been engaged in. But I think I’ve reached the point where the need—both in terms of my own development and in terms of establishing some sort of audience for the work as a whole—has shifted in the direction of simplification, popularization and abstraction. Certain battles have been won, at least to my satisfaction. Anyone who is still working from the “cocktail napkin’s worth of the worst of the worst” understanding of Proudhon, for example, seriously just needs to catch the f*ck up. “That’s not,” as the ads say, “how it works anymore.” The anarchists and anarchisms of the earliest era, in all their heretical glory, are loose once again in the world, and there’s really no easy way of sweeping them—or the challenges they pose for anarchist history and theory—back into the dustbin. Among readers of English, Bakunin is getting a chance to speak in something more like his own voice, and so is Ravachol. What does it all mean for us, here and now, as anarchists? Well, something certainly. Certain partisan ways of using history, or even of “not caring about history,” seem less tenable. Certain hand-waving dismissals of competing schools seem obviously inadequate, at least if we don’t just shield our eyes from the obvious. None of that will necessarily matter to those who, in one way or another, simply do shield their eyes from anything that does not seem to pack a direct, immediate sort of impact. It is, after all, all too common to see comparatively sophisticated radicals insist that we can no longer argue about critically important questions. But those folks can’t really be the focus.

That gear-grinding sound you hear in the background is me, trying to turn a project that I have in the past described as glacial in its development into something direct and immediate enough to be noticed.

It is, as I have said, a truly painful sort of transition—but not because I prefer the complex to the simple, or the deliberate to the direct. There is a time and place for all sorts and speeds of projects. It is simply a matter of the practical difficulties of taking this strange full-time job of mine and fairly rapidly changing almost everything about the way I think about my project, the specific tasks I have to perform, and the new temptations I have to confront if I’m going to stay on task. I feel like I’m running behind on the transition, but there is no question that the time spent clarifying projects, honing translation and research skills, etc. is what makes this next phase even thinkable. So—enough talking about the shift. Let’s get to it.


As I start to lay out the next phase of the research program here, I want to begin with a slight shift in emphasis and vocabulary. For a long time, I’ve been engaged in a exploration, critique and what we might call a deconstruction of anarchist ideologies, first demonstrating historically the real diversity that has existed and then attempting to identify what is essential to anarchism as such. The expansion of scope and the recognition of multiple anarchist ideologies has been useful in itself, but it has also been part of a process of working through what seems most ideological about anarchism. There is probably an encounter with the problem of ideology itself waiting in the near future, but for now I think an important step has been taken challenging certain orthodoxies, if only by giving them plenty of potential company and eroding the ground for their hegemony.

The key element that emerged for me out of all the deep delving into the details of various anarchistic systems was, of course, Proudhon’s minimal 1858 “social system,” the basis for what I have been calling “the anarchism of the encounter.” Moving forward, however, into the next stage of things, I would like instead to focus on the anarchy of the encounter. I’m working on a short text, tentatively titled “We Meet Again,” presenting what I hope will be a simple, positive account of anarchy as a something like a genre of relationships. Anarchists are very good at talking about the things that will not part of that positive anarchy, so good that sometimes we come pretty close to ruling out any sort of positive account at all. For better or worse, we are also very good at talking about what we consider the absolutely necessary preconditions of anarchy, even if our talk often comes off as perhaps not entirely consistent. Anarchism is critique, so it is hard to avoid the relentless negative commentary on existing institutions and norms. It also aspires to be an answer to real-world problems, so it is hard to avoid some of that “anarchy will be X, or it will not be” stuff. When I’ve talked about contr’archy and guarantism, it is those two more-or-less inescapable approaches that I’ve been gesturing toward. But in this new text I hope to occupy, as much as possible, a space somewhere in between those two extremes and describe in a positive manner at least the form of anarchy itself, of the anarchic relation, before beginning to turn back towards the question of what committed anarchists must then believe, if for no other reason than my belief that what remains to describe when we have put critique behind us is something at least potentially very vibrant and full. We have Proudhon’s own testimony that he found anarchism on the way to wrestle with the philosophy question of the criterion of certainty, and it is perhaps not reading too much into his work as a whole to suggest that, in the end, anarchy—in the form of justice—untimately was the single criterion that he found. If that is a reasonable reading, then the relationship between the criterion of certainty and uncertainty itself—sustained uncertainty on a variety of levels—is likely to be close. And where we find uncertainty, we are also likely to find at least some varieties of possibility.

My hope for “We Meet Again” is to explore much more fully the relationships between anarchy, un/certainty, possibility and Proudhon’s conceptions of justice and liberty—all as simply and positively as possible. So far, I am pleased with the progress of the piece, and will probably begin to present parts of the argument here soon.

But there is another issue that I need to at least begin to address in this text about the anarchy of the encounter. Once we have some sense of the lay of the land, the terrain on which an anarchic encounter can take place, then we have to determine this: Who meets in the anarchic encounter? What does the subject of anarchy look like? In terms of the nature and organization of the anarchist subject, I’ve already said a good deal in my writing about the figure of the Contr’un. But while that analysis seems to say something true about human being, and while a conscious engagement with that truth is probably valuable, in much the same way that some of our friends might say that “conscious egoism” is an important response to the fact of uniqueness, there one more distinction that I want to work into my own analysis at this point. In a recent post, focused in part on the problem of patriarchy, I found it useful to place some emphasis on roles. I think that this is an important element that we tend to lose in analyses of patriarchy that emphasize the struggle between sex-classes, although it is presumably well within the realm of gender analysis. But there are also strictly neo-Proudhonian considerations, having to do with his complex theory of “individuals who are groups,” that encourage me to perhaps make some extra distinctions between the kinds of individuals that we are, the degree of consciousness with which we embrace that form of being, and the specific social uses to which we put it. Alongside the figure of the Contr’un, as an anarchistic way of understanding human being, I want to place the Justicier, as a specifically social role through which we might express anarchistic commitments. Before we’re done, they might be joined by any number of other figures—and perhaps we will find that the Justicier does not seem as attractive a role as I imagine at the moment. But, for now, I would like to explore one very specific set of problems regarding anarchism in action, both “before the Revolution” and in anarchistic societies. The Justicier is essentially the individual who accepts the challenge of the anarchic Encounter as the whole of the “social system,” and attempts to act accordingly, to bring and maintain justice. In part, I’ll be looking for a general figure to replace Proudhon’s père de famille, and an alternative initiation, even if only an abstract and self-administered one, to take the place of marriage. I’m interested in that education in “seeing oneself as double,” which seems necessary in the context of Proudhon’s analysis, but I’m curious to see if among the alternative to his marital dynamic there are not also compelling models of the “organ of justice” embodied in the individual. In this context, the figure of the Justicier invokes all of Proudhon’s discussions of justice, but also the specific proposal of the Society of Avengers, which is difficult to distinguish from society as a whole.

There is nothing certain about this particular exploration, except that it will probably take us some odd places. I hope, however, that, whatever the ultimate fate of our Justicier, it will also clarify some of what it will be necessary to avoid and/or overcome in order to push forward, perhaps not just the neo-Proudhonian project but anarchism in general.

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