Notes on Liberty and neo-Proudhonian Anarchism

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It’s hard to believe that it has been almost seven years since I first posted the essay on “Self-government and the Citizen-state.” At the time, it felt like a new doorway had opened, quite unexpectedly, on elements of Proudhon’s analysis and apparatus that seemed likely to radically change my understanding of things. And that has indeed been the case, although the subsequent developments have come much more slowly than I might have anticipated. 

There was, in the end, a tremendous amount of material to address, both within Proudhon’s œuvre and in my understanding of mutualist and anarchist history more generally. There was knowledge to be accumulated and processed, but also confidence to be built, as it is no small thing to figure out how to deal with radical changes in our understanding of the foundations of things. It wouldn’t really be until I was well into the planning of Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back that I would feel really comfortable pursuing the most important consequences of my discoveries in 2013. 

But the idea of a neo-Proudhonian anarchism is now more than just an interesting thought-experiment for me, and a sketch of what that might look like seems likely to figure in the early sections of the “lost continent” project, which means it’s time to start pulling some of the scattered insights together.

These notes originally consist, for the most part, of posts and responses on various social media sites. And I will add to them as conversations continue and my thoughts develop.

With too much time on my hands, I’ve been wrestling with the extent to which Proudhon’s anarchism is meaningfully “libertarian.”

If we step entirely away from legal/governmental conceptions of liberty, where it is a question of permissions and prohibitions, then one of the options is to address liberty in terms similar to those used by Proudhon. He spoke about quantities of liberty within beings and social collectivities, determined by the complexity and intensity of their internal relations.

So, from the perspective of a human individual looking inward, increases and decreases in internal collective force might manifest themselves as improvements or declines in health—while comparisons with organisms organized in different ways might give us one way to think about the liberty sometimes associated with “free will.”

Then, looking outward at social and ecological relations, changes in the character and quantity of collective force would mark increases and decreases—as well as qualitative shifts—in the opportunities for human individuals to alter their relations to other elements within the larger social or ecological organism, along with the increasing or decreasing capacity for amplifying the contributions (or less positive interventions) of human individuals.

Viewed through this lens, liberty does not necessarily seem to be a good in and of itself. The persistent good seems to be balance—the key quality of justice in Proudhon’s work—while liberty seems to join the ranks of tools to be adjusted to circumstances, where that is possible, or to which we must learn to adjust our relations in other ways.

I got thinking about this recently when I was trying to sort out the various sorts of individualism that have some connection to the mutualist tradition.

There’s quite a bit of “good fences make good neighbors” in Warren’s approach, with its emphasis on making explicit the individual costs of commerce and its insistence on individual sovereignty. Freedom comes, at least in large part, from the ability to disconnect and simplify relations.

That’s obviously a difference conception than Proudhon’s, but it’s also rather different from the Stirnerian egoist’s position, where the extent of the individual is determined by their might, where unique selves might well overlap, but also where that’s not really a central question until circumstances suggest the utility of some form of union. The unique—being in some important sense also “the only one”—sort of collapses the internal and external considerations in the scheme I laid out (more or less by fiat, in an act of self-sovereignty that makes talk of sovereigns largely moot.)

We often talk about mutualism as if we already knew how to translate between these different conceptions and synthesize them in some way. But that’s probably not really the case.

This takes us back to the questions I raised in “Authority, Liberty and the Federative Principle.” If The Federative Principle is indeed the continuation of Political Geography and Nationality and Theory of Property, then we have reasons to suspect, first, that it involved the same departure from prior Proudhon’s analysis as the latter work and, second, that it should probably be distinguished from a strictly mutualist approach, just as the “new theory” of property has to be distinguished from the “mutualist property” suggested in the final manuscripts.

But, even if we take a slightly more direct path from the questions I’ve raised to The Federative Principle, don’t we either have to assume that the “liberty” to be balanced with “authority” in the latter work is different from the “liberty” that I’ve been describing (from Justice) or that “authority” is simply an unlikely antinomic partner without some kind of transformation of its own? Think about the character of “the state” in Theory of Property. It seems most likely that the conception Proudhon was working with in the early 1860s, when we know the work was largely completed, was the one he elaborated in Theory of Taxation in 1861. It’s likely, I think, that we should probably treat the 1861 work as closely connected to all this later work anyway, as it is one of the first practical attempts to show how a system of pondérations might work. But there’s some work to be done on that text, I think, before it gives up all of its useful secrets.

I’m inclined to think that the “authority” we should expect to see in The Federative Principle is closely related to that “citizen made in the image of the state” that we find in the unpublished opening to Theory of Property:

One of our maxims is that the citizen must be made in the image of the state, that the man given by nature must be repeated on the model of Society, the true and living Word. It is only in this way that the individual will acquire that of which nature has only given him a shadow, liberty and autonomy, become the personification of right, and be able to separate themselves from the magistracy and the government.

And I further suspect that the key to understanding that “state-citizen,” as well as its relations to the “citizen-state,” is in the complex theory of “rights” (another transformed term) in War and Peace (another of the texts from the early 1860s.)

My far-from-final sense of things is that there is at least no necessity, for modern mutualists, to opt for any greater acceptance of “authority” around the question of federative organization than there is around the question of property—and that ultimately we conserve more of Proudhon’s thought by focusing on the figure of the “free absolute” than we would by opting for any more literal interpretation of individual sovereignty (ultimately a notion considerably harder to square with anarchy.) The driving concern seems to be placing all of the various social actors—both individual human beings and more-or-less persistent social collectivities—on the same level (citizen-state, state-citizen, etc.) And that is largely a question, in practical terms of rethinking the nature of our own agency and interests.

But I initially started kicking this around on a walk the other day, as I was working on something rather unrelated. I was trying to find some useful grounds on which to compare the various forms of individualism that have at least connected with the mutualist tradition (Warren, Stirner, etc.) and it struck me that one of the ways to contrast them, with one another and with Proudhon, was to consider how they treated the relation between liberty and social connectedness.

Reading back through Théorie de l’impôt, it looks to me like we have another set of antinomies there to compare with liberty—authority and liberty—absolutism. The rhetoric in the work is fascinating, I think—although it took me a long time to get very enthusiastic about a work on taxation. The terms of the discussion are all apparently governmental, but they are all also amenable to the kind of anti-authoritarian redefinition that we see explicitly worked through in the case of “the state.” Proudhon had worked his magic on “law” very early and would tackle “rights” in War and Peace, etc. The Philosophy of Progress teaches us to be careful about counting too much on the meaning of even key terms in isolation.

We need to keep all of that in mind when we read Proudhon’s description of the state “according to modern right.”

So we end up with an antinomy involving social agents at different scales (state—individual), which also represent different principles (government—liberty.) And this sort of analysis can be extended and adapted to deal with quite a variety of social collectivities, I think. But the agency of the two classes of individuals/groups are significantly different in character. This is where the quality of the human individual as a “free absolute” is important, because one of the most fundamental problems facing us is that, while much of the important action in society takes place at the scale of extra-(human)-individual collective force and collective reason, it is human actors who are ultimately the reflective, potentially responsible agents, capable of negotiating the various kinds of ponderation (deep reflection and balancing.) So, once we strip back the fascinating rhetoric, which allows us to imagine some of the transformative path forward from archic to potentially anarchic relations and institutions more simply, it seems like perhaps we are largely left with a problem, as I suggested in the last comment, of “rethinking the nature of our own agency and interests,” which involves recognizing that our own interests are not simply individual and that neither are the means by which we pursue and fulfill them.


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