Is that a scepter in your invisible hand?

Contr’un Revisited: This is, I suppose, a rather odd little piece, with its vague suggestions of a “comradeship with anarchism,” but it was something of a breakthrough for me at the time. I am undoubtedly more than overdue returning and picking up the dropped threads it contains. Long before I had adopted the apparatus of synthesis, I was interested in the ways that the natural, practical development of anarchism might lead to seemingly perverse outcomes. Although much of what I had to say about the “ungovernability” of anarchism related to our inability to contain it, consistently, in any of the little ideological boxes we tend to build for it, I was also beginning to wrestle with the problems of anarchism as an ideology.

Treating anarchism as a persistent manifestation of collective force, rather than simply as an ideology, is a kind of “materialist” move, but it’s also simply a realistic way to approach the real relations that any of us individual anarchists end up having to negotiate with the various institutions that have emerged from our attempts, and the attempts of all those who came before us, to practice anarchism in some way. To master anarchism seems impossible, given its apparent ungovernability, and to be mastered by it is just too sad an irony to consider. But we hardly know how to engage with institutions as equals, to have a variety of the “anarchic encounter” with collective beings. It’s  a problem I really want to return to now, particularly as we attempt to get the Anarchist Survey project up and running.

We’re following what should by now be a familiar trajectory: in a critical moment, concepts and institutions are knocked down on the grounds that they are absolutist; in a subsequent, constructive moment, we can expect a fair number of those same concepts and institutions to be set back on their feet, but with the difference that we treat them now as approximations, and we put them into balance with other approximates. In some instances, the differences between absolute and approximate forms may be nearly complete, while in others it may be that a good knocking-down is all that is required to eliminate the absolute, as the real problem is not with the concept or the institution, but with our relationship to it.

What is different in this particular examination is that what we are looking at are various conceptions of anarchism itself. The stakes are high. If we’re committed to progress, and acknowledge the ungovernability of anarchism, then we are forced to think of every existing attempt at anarchism as an approximation, and most likely more than just one approximation. Radical social change is not likely to be a one-size-fits-all affair. Obstacles to anarchy will come in various shapes and sizes, and we’re going to have to be able to distinguish between them. And then we’re going to have to become mighty adept at transforming them from obstacles to aids, whether that means tearing them down and rebuilding them, or just looking at them differently.

It isn’t clear that the familiar distinction between reform and revolution will serve us particularly well. The key is in each instance to be genuinely radical in both or critiques and our constructions, to get down as close as we can to the roots of things.

There’s no reason to think that will be particularly easy, and lots of reasons to suspect precisely the opposite. This anarchism thing is likely to keep us on our toes.

We’ve assembled a lot of our toolkit. If Proudhon’s approach has brought us new problems, it has also brought us new tools. We have a sort of template for the anarchic encounter, and we have a sociological approach which allows us to adapt that template to a tremendous range of possible situations, at a wide variety of scales. There is something quite elegant about Proudhon’s use of justice as sole criterion, but most of us have plenty of cautionary experience with some of the other contenders for anarchistic criteria, such as “voluntaryism” or the “non-aggression principle.” And I think nearly all of us with experience with the debates around mutualism have some sense of how the less rigorous formulations of Proudhon’s “systems” can bog down in quibbles about what is or isn’t “mutual” or “reciprocal,” just as surely as those other systems run up against problems with defining what is “voluntary” or what counts as “aggression.” When the tool-kit is simple and the problems are complex, we have to bridge the potential gap with the care we take in our analyses. We aren’t going to build a meaningfully free society with slogans.

But the truth is that we love our slogans, and we tend to love our favored approximations. And we’re soaking in a culture that is arguably more and more fundamentalist in all sorts of ways, which means that anarchism suffers from multiple sorts of attacks, confronting the sort of dogmatism from outside which is increasingly hard to break down, but also arguably sapped from within by a similar sort of tendency to rigidity. Living under siege, as we unquestionably do, it’s hard to cultivate the sort of relationship to anarchism that would arguably allow us to move forward most easily, and most readily avoid the traps of an anarchism turned absolutist, and degenerated into ideological dogma. It’s hard to imagine being too comfortable asking ourselves, on a regular basis:

So, what’s still authoritarian about my anarchism? What needs to be fixed today?

And yet that’s probably just the sort of relationship we need to build, if we are going to keep pushing on towards our ideal.

What would it mean to “have a relationship with anarchism”? What would that involve? We can apply Proudhon’s sociology,  and guess we are likely to have several relationships, with several sorts of anarchism. That’s really what the posts on “ungovernability” were gesturing towards: the various ways in which individual anarchists find themselves in relations with the various things that “anarchism” has meant, and how those relations shape our relations with one another.

One of the things that was not clear in those earlier posts was the extent to which our relationship with those anarchisms must, in order to remain a part of our anarchism, be fundamentally equal. If we accept Proudhon’s notion of the one criterion for justice, and we don’t want to install injustice right at the heart of our anarchisms, then it’s important that we find the way to encounter anarchism itself one-on-one, understanding all of the complicated connections we make in the process, but not subordinating ourselves to any of that. Virtually every form of anarchism has its favored institutions or expected emergent forms, its own particular manifestation of “the tradition,” etc. and all of these non-human actors will occupy their place in the complex balance of justice. None of them should probably be exempt from the sort of scrutiny we’ve been proposing for all actors in all potentially anarchic encounters—whether we call them “the State,” or “the market,” or “society,” or “the commune,” or even “anarchism.”

The thing I’m working around towards here is, I suppose, a relationship with anarchism which, once we’ve done the work of chasing away the spooks and cutting through a fair amount of smoke and nonsense, comes down to treating the tradition, and the movement, as something like a comrade, rather than the foundation of our political identity. It involves a step away from the sort of anarchist identity that is almost inescapably absolutist, the kind of relationship with the ideal, the tradition, and the movement which either renders us subject to anarchism, or else devolves into “l’anarchie c’est moi.” Putting a scepter in an invisible hand is really no more appealing, no more anarchistic, if the hand is presumably that of libertarian revolution.

What the corrected translation of General Idea of the Revolution suggests to us is that this coincidence of “anarchism” and an “invisible hand”—the invisible hand—is perhaps not so far-fetched. If we go back and pick up a number of Proudhon’s other insights—the observation that the collective reason is of a different character than our reason, and the realization that Revolution always involves both conservation and progress—then perhaps we can begin to flesh out the potential details of this peculiar comradeship with anarchism that I am proposing.

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