Notes on Proudhon’s changing notion of the state

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Contr’un Revisited:

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The most incredible confusion is that between the government and the State. I am an anarchist, as Proudhon was, for like him I want to abolish government, the principle of authority in the State, in order to replace it by an responsible and controllable administration of the public interests; but I do not want, with Bakunin, to abolish the State. The word State comes from stare, to hold, to persist; the State is thus the organized collectivity. Just as the commune is the local collectivity, the State is the national collectivity which has lasted, lasts and will last as long as the nation itself. Even if society ever succeeds in realizing the ideal of the universal Republic, that Republic will still be composed of distinct States, in solidarity with one another, but each living its own life. — Frédéric Tufferd, “Unity in Socialism” (1887)

Although it is something of a commonplace that Proudhon expected some form of “state” to persist within anarchism, and to take its place in a complex balancing of forces with individual absolutisms, property, etc., statements like Tufferd’s are still a bit startling, in part because we have seldom tried to take the theory from works like The Theory of Property and explore what these vague notions of “countervailing forces” would amount to in practice. To do so, of course, requires confronting a number of other key elements in Proudhon’s social theory which threaten to complicate matters rather dramatically.

We know that Proudhon held two different perspectives on “the state,” and that they seem radically different—even opposed. In the debates of 1849, with Louis Blanc and Pierre Leroux, Proudhon made his famous analysis of “the state” in “Resistance the Revolution” and some connected essays (best known in English through the section published separately as “The State.”) In that analysis he identifies “the state” with the manifestation of “the governmental principle,” and opposes both to the “social revolution.”

Given those assumptions, his critique of “the state” follows naturally:

The State is the external constitution of the social power.

The constitution supposes, in principle, that society is a creature of the mind, destitute of spontaneity, providence, unity, needing for its action to be fictitiously represented by one or more elected or hereditary commissioners: an hypothesis the falsity of which the economic development of society and the organization of universal suffrage agree in demonstrating.

The constitution of the State supposes further, as to its object, that antagonism or a state of war is the essential and irrevocable condition of humanity, a condition which necessitates, between the weak and the strong, the intervention of a coercive power to put an end to their struggles by universal oppression We maintain that, in this respect, the mission of the State is ended; that, by the division of labor, industrial solidarity, the desire for well-being, and the equal distribution of capital and taxation, liberty and justice obtain surer guarantees than any that ever were afforded them by religion and the State.

As for utilitarian transformation of the State, we consider it as a utopia contradicted at once by governmental tradition, and the revolutionary tendency, and the spirit of the henceforth admitted economic reforms. In any case, we say that to liberty alone it would belong to reorganize power, which is equivalent at present to the complete exclusion of power.

As a result, either no social revolution, or no more government; such is our solution of the political problem.

But ten years later, as he writes the works of his mature period, Proudhon seems to have changed his position completely, and his discussions of “justice in the revolution” and the dynamics of an anarchist society include a role for state, and even a defense of its “rights.”

This has been taken as an indication that Proudhon abandoned anarchism, that the emphasis on “federalism” in his later works marked some sort of retreat from his early, radical conclusions about government. This interpretation closely parallels the reading of Proudhon’s work on property which opposes Proudhon’s later embrace of individual property to his early claim that “property is theft,” and takes the former as evidence of backsliding. Both interpretations are, I would argue, completely wrong, but there are undoubtedly clues in the development of his thoughts on property—which has been much more extensively documented—which give us clues about how to understand the shift in his thoughts about “the state.”

Proudhon connected the two analyses in “Resistance to the Revolution:” “The Revolution of February raised two leading questions: one economic, the question of labor and property; the other political, the question of government or the State.” The first question, he claims, has been answered by “free credit” and the proposal for a “single tax on capital.”

The economic problem, then, may be considered solved.

It is far from being the same with the political problem,—that is, with the disposal to be made in the future, of government and the State. On this point the question is not even stated;…

If Proudhon’s own development is any indication, he was probably speaking more truly when, in 1846 in The System of Economic Contradictions, he made a similar pronouncement about property:

“The problem of property is, after that of human destiny, the greatest that reason can propose, and the last that it will be able to resolve. Indeed, the theological problem, the enigma of religion, has been explicated; the philosophical problem, which treats the value and legitimacy of knowledge, is resolved: there remains the social problem, which simply joins these two, and the solution of which, as everyone believes, comes essentially from property.”

In 1849, Proudhon’s thoughts about these economic questions were ultimately doomed to further transition. The “free credit” projects were still playing themselves out, although Proudhon had already distanced himself both physically and organizationally from them. His thinking on taxation would also develop substantially.


Arguably, Proudhon did not change his ideas dramatically in the later writings, but he did change the way he talked about almost all of his major concerns. In the case of his analysis of “the state,” his apparent reversal occurred because, as Tufferd claimed, he uncoupled the notion of “the state” from that of “government,” and the governmental principle.

But why did he do that? There are a number of reasons why Proudhon’s developing thought might have led him in that direction:

1) The debate with Louis Blanc and Pierre Leroux was perhaps not Proudhon’s, or French socialism’s, finest hour. When Blanc reprinted his contributions, he made a point of saying that he had removed some remarks of a purely personal nature—and the work certainly benefited from it. The exchange is an example of three very intelligent, talented writers on something very close to their worst behavior. The exchange between Proudhon and Leroux is particularly strange, as even Proudhon insists that they agree on most of the important issues. The period between the Revolution of February 1848 and the coup d’état of 1851 was one where Proudhon was focused more narrowly on the practical questions facing the presumably revolutionary government, and on his political rivalries. And, ultimately, he was not prevailing in his attempts to steer policy. The project of starting the Bank of the People had been interrupted by new legal attacks on him, and had been succeeded by the Mutuality of Laborers, with which he was ultimately unwilling to ally himself. His tax proposal was not accepted. And his battles with fellow socialists were attracting more ridicule than anything else, as works like The Feuding Brothers demonstrate. It must have been a frustrating period for Proudhon, and perhaps he sensed, as it is hard not to sense reading the controversies of that period now, that he was not entirely on the right track. There are certainly still significant, interesting tensions in the theoretical work he did do in that period, including some of his most provocative moments, but they seem to be largely exploratory. It will only be after the coup d’état that he begins to really move beyond the confident claims that this or that critically important question is now closed, to embrace the more nuanced, progressive elements of his analysis.

2) Embracing the notion of “progress” is key to the development of Proudhon’s thought. Once he has determined to his own satisfaction that change is a constant, there can no longer be a question of closing any of the important questions—which we can certainly say in retrospect were not closed by his attempted interventions in the 1840s, and probably couldn’t have been.

3) But the embrace of progress also influences his choice of keywords and the way that he treats concepts. In his early work on “property,” he had differed with Pierre Leroux over Leroux’s decision to use the same word, “property,” to designate both the abusive present forms and possible future forms which would be in accordance with justice. He was rather insistent on the matter, choosing to define “property” in his own work as “a right of use and abuse,” but really only wishing to address, as he made clear in the preface to the second edition of What is Property?,“the sum of [property’s] abuses.” That was a dangerous move, since it is not so impressive a claim to say that “the abuse of property is theft.” And we know that Proudhon fairly rapidly shifted ground. The shift is made explicit in The Philosophy of Progress, published in 1853:

I will retain, with the common folk, these three words: religion, government, property, for reasons of which I am not the master, which partake of the general theory of Progress, and for that reason seem to me decisive: first, it is not my place to create new words for new things and I am forced to speak the language of everyone; second, there is no progress without tradition, and the new order having for its immediate antecedents religion, government and property, it is convenient, for the very guarantee of that evolution, to preserve for the new institutions their patronymic names, in the phases of civilization, because there are never well-defined lines, and to want to accomplish the revolution by a jump, that would be beyond our means.

4) Finally, this new clarity about the nature of social evolution was accompanied by a more sophisticated notion of how “collective force,” which was so important in his analysis of “property,” manifests itself in the form of collective beings—or rather how all beings worthy of the title are always already collectivities, organized according to a law of unity and development. That notion led him to reconsider the status of “the state,” apart from its connection to the principle of government, and to rank some sort of non-governmental state alongside families, workshops, and other collective beings which must somehow be accounted for in his sociology.

The consequences of positing this “organized collectivity” (to use Tufferd’s phrase) as a being, with its own organization, interests and reason, operating alongside human beings and other collective beings (when not itself subordinated to other interests by governmentalism) require careful elaboration, and threaten to take us some very strange and interesting places.

That will be the task in the second part of this analysis.


I’m aware that readers who have followed the argument this far are likely to be resistant to the interpretation I’m presenting, and for a number of reasons. I’m entirely sympathetic, since the most likely resistances are likely to be ones which I faced myself as I worked through Proudhon’s thought.

1) Anti-statism is generally considered an essential part of anarchism—so essential, in fact, that some anarchists consider anti-statism nearly the entirety of anarchism. This is particularly the case among market anarchists, but social anarchists generally have some investment in the Bakunin-style opposition to the state. At the same time, a perception of Proudhon’s thought on the subject has been established on the basis of the portion of “Resistance to the Revolution” that was translated (multiple times, by William B. Greene and Benjamin R. Tucker) as “The State.” To suggest that anarchist theory ought to find a place for a state in its schemes, even “after the revolution,” certainly goes against much of the grain of anarchist thought—so there should presumably be very good reasons for pursuing this other analysis.

2) The whole question emerges in the context of a mutualist renaissance which doesn’t just come with a few potentially topsy-turvy new ideas, but with a radical rereading of anarchism’s early history, which has arguably been neglected by the tradition. As a movement, we’ve tended to boil Proudhon’s thought down to some slogans, a few dubious generalizations, and a selection of his worst missteps—more than fifty volumes of works reduced down to something that could be scrawled on a cocktail napkin. Now, however, we’ve seen a lot of new translation and analysis, not just of Proudhon but of a number of early figures who complicate the origin story of anarchism. Even if all this new material does not threaten any of our closely-held notions about what anarchism is all about, it’s still a lot of new, challenging material.

3) And it is not easy material to take in. There’s not much doubt that one of the reasons that some of the early forms of anarchism did not have more impact was that they were more closely connected in their forms and assumptions to the “utopian” socialisms that predated them than to the forms which survived the battles in the First International and the major cultural transitions of the mid-19th century. But the “utopian” label was ultimately a weapon wielded by Marx’s faction in the battle to define what would count as “social science” and could be recognized as revolutionary theory, and some of those old socialists may now look quite a bit more contemporary. There is, for example, a great deal of Fourier in Deleuze, and we might be inclined to summarize a lot of Derrida’s work with the phrase “property is theft.” But the fact that there are presentist reasons to take a good look at anarchist theory which has been neglected, doesn’t make that theory any simpler—and the need to address the debts to “utopian” socialist thought only increases the amount of material we need to deal with.

Ultimately, though, my own experience is that none of these reasons to proceed carefully comes anywhere close to being a reason not to proceed. On the contrary, a careful reading of Proudhon’s theory seems to lead us towards a radical sociology that is not only more consistent than the napkin’s-worth of Proudhon we’ve inherited, but is also arguably both more powerful than virtually any of the theory provided by the “classical” anarchists and more consistently anarchistic.

Let’s return to the similarities between the development of Proudhon’s thought on property and that of his theory of the state. The general trajectory of Proudhon’s property theory is as follows:

1839—Proudhon makes a few statements about the true meaning of the commandment against theft, which suggest that any system of “private” property might be built on theft (“putting aside”), rather than theft being an abuse of property.

* * *

1840—He makes the bold claims that “property is theft” and “property is impossible” in What is Property? But he also proposes an anarchist form of liberty which he defines in terms of a “synthesis of community and property.” He makes a distinction between “simple possession” (a “matter of fact”) and “simple property” (a right of “use and abuse”), but is not entirely consistent in his definitions. Then, an introduction to the second edition of the book, he defines “property” in terms of “the sum of its abuses,” threatening the strength of his critique. Two more memoirs on property follow.

* * *

1842—In a response given in court, where he was defending the publication of his memoirs, he proposes to eliminate or neutralize property by universalizing the “theft” that it represents.

* * *

1846—In his System of Economic Contradictions, property is given an antinomic character, within which both positive and negative characteristics battle, and he describes property as a problem second only to “human destiny” in importance, and one not likely to be solved soon.

This is the point at which Proudhon declared the problem of religion solved, and it’s worth noting here what Proudhon thought that solution was—particularly because it bears a close resemblance to his analysis of the state.

Proudhon’s claim is that what humans have sought in the form of gods is, in fact, their own collective capacities, which they did not recognize in the collective being which they confronted, and that this failure to understand the nature of their own powers allowed those powers to be harnessed against them by individuals claiming divine right and inspiration. As in the critique of the state, it is a question of the external manifestation of social power being understood as necessarily performing a governmental function, and thus existing above individual human beings.

* * *

1848—Pursuing his theory of property through the revolutionary period and into his brief involvement with the Provisional Government, Proudhon wrote a series of analyses of property and its relations to labor and credit, and his conclusions, often tied to particular occasions and arguments, cover a tremendous amount of ground. In “The Revolutionary Program,” for example, he made a series of rather startling declarations:

I am, as you are well aware, citizens, the man who wrote these words: Property is theft!

I do not come to retract them, heaven forbid! I persist in regarding this provocative definition as the greatest truth of the century. I have no desire to insult your convictions either: all that I ask, is to say to you how, partisan of the family and of the household, adversary of communism, I understand that the negation of property is necessary for the abolition of misery, for the emancipation of the proletariat. It is by its fruits that one must judge a doctrine: judge then my theory by my practice.

When I say, Property is theft! I do not propose a principle; I do nothing but express one conclusion. You will understand the enormous difference presently.

However, if the definition of property which I state is only the conclusion, or rather the general formula of the economic system, what is the principle of that system, what is its practice, and what are its forms?

My principle, which will appear astonishing to you, citizens, my principle is yours; it is property itself.

I have no other symbol, no other principle than those of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: Liberty, equality, security, property.

Like the Declaration of Rights, I define liberty as the right to do anything that does not harm others.

Again, like the Declaration of Rights, I define property, provisionally, as the right to dispose freely of one’s income, the fruits of one’s labor and industry.

Here is the entirety of my system: liberty of conscience, liberty of the press, liberty of labor, free trade, liberty in education, free competition, free disposition of the fruits of labor and industry, liberty ad infinitum, absolute liberty, liberty for all and always?

It is the system of ’89 and ’93; the system of Quesnay, of Turgot, of J.-B. Say; the system that is always professed, with more or less intelligence and good faith, by the various organs of the political parties, the system of the Débats, of the Presse, of the Constitutionnel, of the Siècle, of the Nationale, of the Rèforme, of the Gazette; in the end it is your system, voters.

Simple as unity, vast as infinity, this system serves for itself and for others as a criterion. In a word it is understood and compels adhesion; nobody wants a system in which liberty is the least bit undermined. One word identifies and wards off all errors: what could be easier than to say what is or is not liberty? Liberty then, nothing more, nothing less. Laissez faire, laissez passer, in the broadest and most literal sense; consequently property, as it rises legitimately from this freedom, is my principle. No other solidarity between the citizens than that accidents resulting from chance. . .

Then he proceeded to claim that this sort of laissez faire will lead to a sort of anarchic “centralization:”

Who does not see that the mutualist organization of exchange, of circulation, of credit, of buying and selling, the abolition of taxes and tolls of every nature which place burdens on production and bans on goods, irresistibly push the producers, each following his specialty, towards a centralization analogous with that of the State, but in which no one obeys, no one is dependent, and everyone is free and sovereign?

And we can see that this idea of a state unconnected to the governmental principle was already part of his theoretical repertoire, well before the major shifts in his approach, and that his ideas on both property and the state seem to have gone through significant oscillations during the revolutionary period. It is in this period that he finally describes property as “liberty,” while still maintaining that it is also “theft.”

* * *

1853—This year marked his decision to allow concepts like “religion, government, and property” their “patronymic names.” In practice, he did not often use the terms “property” and “government” in ways that differ too dramatically from his earlier uses. In the case of property, it was enough to begin to talk about it both in terms of its logics and its social aims. He doesn’t seem to have had much interest in making a similar argument about government, although there are a few nods in that direction, but he did once and for all detach the notion of the state from any necessary connection to the governmental principle.

Let’s stop again and think about the moves Proudhon is making. Although he claimed in 1849 that the problems of property were solved, but those of government were hardly touched, it appears that the problem of government—the misrecognition of the collective force embodied in the state as a kind of secular god—was really the problem for which he had at least the solid beginnings of an answer, while property continued to pose significant problems for him.

We can speculate on why these two analyses played out differently. I’ve noted on a number of occasions that Proudhon did not ground his theory of property particular well in a theory of the subject and its ownness (of the sort that we might find in Locke or Stirner, who, despite significant differences, both start from the self in order to talk about appropriation.) Proudhon seems to have taken something of that sort for granted, and even to have assumed some sorts of rights which were closely connected to possession. By 1861, in War and Peace, Proudhon had an interesting theory of rights elaborated:

Right, in general, is the recognition of human dignity is all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives. There are thus as many special rights as humans can raise different claims, owing to the diversity of their faculties and of their exercise. As a consequence, the genealogy of human rights will follow that of the human faculties and their manifestations.

And subsequent elaboration would suggest that we might, in justice, require ourselves to recognize these rights at scale both larger and smaller than that of the unified individual human being. We have at least hints that perhaps the who range of scales, from the infinitesimal to the universal (so familiar from the writings of Fourier and Dejacque), might come into play. Given this, and the claim that rights are simply raised along with potential claims, some of the apparent inconsistencies of the early writings (like the uncertainty whether “possession” is a matter of mere fact or also one of possessory right) seem to be provided with solutions (as Proudhon’s growing tendency to associate property in all its forms with absolutism, and his rethinking of the “right of abuse” salvage his 1840 arguments from the undercutting he gave them in the preface.)

A key difference between the arguments regarding property and those regarding the state is it probably never occurred to Proudhon to question the reality of the human being or its possession of at least some rights, while it is quite likely that he may have dreamt of simply denying or eradicating the state. That, after all, has become the standard anarchist position, to characterize the state as artificial or illegitimate or even imaginary in some key aspects, and to proceed in terms of simply suppressing any form of state.

* * *

1858—By the time Proudhon had published Justice in the Revolution and in the Church he had committed himself to a theory of beings according to which all beings recognizable as individuals were also recognizable as organized groups.

“[T]he beings to which we accord individuality do not enjoy it by any title other than that of the collective beings: they are always groups formed according to a law of relation and in which force, proportional to the arrangement at least as much as to the mass, is the principle of unity.”

That notion that human individuals and collectivities, including the state, are accorded individuality by the same title makes it very hard simply sidestep the question of the reality of the state as a manifestation of collective force—an individual. Another great realization of 1858, that “the antinomy does not resolve itself,” undoubtedly took the wind out of some of the bolder proclamations of Proudhon’s earlier works—or represented the failure of those claims to manifest themselves. And to these we should also add some elaboration of the theory of federation which would become one of Proudhon’s primary concerns in the final phase of his career: “this federation, where the city is equal to the province, the province equal to the empire, the empire equal to the continent, where all groups are politically equal…” The leveling of the playing field is the consequence of denying the governmental principle, which, unlike the manifestation of collective force in the state, seems to be primarily an artefact of our inability to recognize our own strength when it confronts us in collective form.

* * *

1861—We can stop our timeline here, not because Proudhon was finished, but because his elaboration of the various forms of rights in War and Peace, and the “New Theory” of property which he had apparently completed by then, ultimately brought the analyses of property and the state together, as countervailing forces which would work together to create spaces within which liberty—and free beings of various scales—could emerge and develop.

At this point, there has been a fairly radical transformation of Proudhon’s analysis, but no great reversals in his thought—except for his recognition of the non-governmental state as an individual actor which must be accounted for. But what would it mean to account for the state in relations of mutuality? What are the implications of this leveling of the field? And what does adopting all of this rather peculiar theory gain us?

That’s still the work of one more section, where we can look at the possible role of the state within anarchism—but also speculate about other potential collective beings, such as “the market.”


The Republic is the organization by which, all opinions and all activities remaining free, the People, by the very divergence of opinions and will, think and act as a single man. In the Republic, every citizen, by doing what they want and nothing but what they want, participates directly in the legislation and in the government, as they participate in the production and circulation of wealth. There, every citizen is king; for he has the fullness of power; he reigns and governs. The Republic is a positive anarchy. It is neither liberty subjected to order, as in the constitutional monarchy, nor liberty imprisoned in order, as the Provisional Government intends. It is liberty delivered from all its shackles: superstition, prejudice, sophistry, stock-jobbing, authority. It is reciprocal liberty, and not the liberty which restricts; liberty, not the daughter of order, but the mother of order.—P.-J. Proudhon, Solution of the Social Problem

I think that a couple of things should be fairly clear from the sketch I’ve given of Proudhon’s development:

1) It took a while for Proudhon to make a consistent social theory out of the insights of his earliest work.

2) The revolutionary period of 1848-1851, when Proudhon mixed his writing with periods in government, in exile and in prison, was a period when his ideas were in a considerable amount of flux, and his statements, while they were frequently as penetrating as they were bold, were not necessarily definitive—and were sometimes mixed with the sort of interpersonal tension we might expect among reluctant politicians.

3) The theory of collective force—so key to the critique of property—was a driving force in making Proudhon reconsider the necessary connection between “the state” and governmentalism.

Let’s step away from Proudhon for a moment and see if this sort of uncoupling of an institution and the despotic elements which seem to dominate it is really alien to our thought (however strange it may seem in the context of “the state.”) What Proudhon ultimately says about “the state” is very similar to at least part of what market anarchists say about “the market:” There is an emergent order, with logics different from those of the individual economic actors, which is captured or distorted by privilege—and which can be freed by disconnecting the market from the structures and relations of privilege (“government” chief among them) which distort its function. Of course, market anarchists tend to be among the strongest opponents of “the state,” tending to reduce anarchism towards mere anti-statism. For market-oriented mutualists, the project seems to be the one Proudhon laid out near the beginning of The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (1851):

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system, by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State.

But the question remains whether this simple identification of “the Government or the State” is adequate to the analysis of the real manifestations of collective force. My strong suspicion is that many market-mutualists simply define “the market” in terms of those institutions which would remain after the governmental principle had been taken out of the equation, including some that revolve around the cash nexus, but others which do not. There would thus be “unregulated markets” in a particular sense, since governmental regulation would be eliminated more or less by definition, but also “unmarketed regulation” by other means, in the sense that economic customs and norms would not only be suspect to that cash nexus. I suspect that many market anarchists have accepted Proudhon’s non-governmental state without accepting his argument, and while clinging to an anti-statism which might well benefit from a little unpacking and clarifying along Proudhonian lines. What is uncertain is whether or not at least some market anarchists have actually transferred that “external constitution of the social power,” and the governmental principle, from “the state” (or “the gods”) to “the market.” This is a question of considerable importance, which hinges on the relationship between “individual” and “collective” reason (using those terms with the individual human being as a reference), and the way we imagine mutualistic justice—which is always essentially a question of “balance”—playing out.

So let’s get right down to it.

* * * * *

We have the elements of our social science pretty well identified:

1) We have a level “field of play” where the beings we are accustomed to consider “individual” and a range of organized collectivities can actually only claim “individual” status by the same title, their status as groups organized according to an internal law which gives them unity. People, families, workshops, cities, nations and “humanity”—as well, perhaps as animals, natural systems, and even individual human capacities—occupy non-hierarchical relationship with one another, despite differences in scale and complexity, and despite the participation of individuals at one scale in collective-individualities at another. This is key, I think. Without a governmental principle to elevate any of these individuals “above the fray” in any way, mutuality becomes absolutely vital—and dizzyingly tough to come to terms with.

2) We have “rights” manifested by nothing more than the manifestation of capacities—which means we have rights that are going to conflict and clash, and which are to be balanced by some sort of (broadly defined) commutative justice.

3) We also have a theory of freedom (although I’ve neglected to introduce it directly, along with at least one other key elements, in these notes so far) which is not primarily concerned with permissions and prohibitions, but with the strength and activity (the play) of the elements that make up the individual, and the complexity of their relations. Again, this is key, giving us another important justification for the kinds of moves Proudhon made with regard to the question of the state. In all of these elements so far, we see a move away from a legal understanding of individuals and society towards a much more material one (despite all the charges from our more Marxian comrades.)

4) Bound up with these other notions, we have the idea of the human being as a “free absolute,” which is essentially the completion and redemption of the notion that “property is theft.” When Proudhon did get around to talking about what I’ve been calling “ownness” (which is something close to “property in person” or the material material aspect of “self-ownership”) it is in 1858, in the work on Justice, in the context of an explanation of the origins of legal property. Allow me one more long quotation:

Let us consider what occurs in the human multitude, placed under the empire of absolutist reason, so long as the struggle of interests and the controversy of opinions does not bring out the social reason.

In his capacity as absolute and free absolute, man not only imagines the absolute in things and names it, which first creates for him, in the exactitude of his thoughts, grave embarrassment. He does more: by the usurpation of things that he believes he has a right to make, that objective absolute becomes internalized; he assimilates it, becomes interdependent (solidaire) with it, and pretends to respect it as himself in the use that he makes of it and in the interpretations that it pleases him to make of it. Each, in petto, reasoning the same, it results, in the first moment, that the public reason, formed from the sum of particular reasons, differs from those in nothing, neither in basis nor in form; so that the world of nature and of society is nothing more than a deduction of the individual self (moi), a belonging of his absolutism.

All the constitutions and beliefs of humanity are formed thus; at the very hour that I write, the collective reason hardly exists except in potential, and the absolute holds the high ground.

Thus, by virtue of his absolute moi, secretly posed as center and universal principle, man affirms his domain over things; all the members of the State making the same affirmation, the principle of societary absolutism becomes, by unanimity, the law of the State, and all the theories of the jurists on the possession, acquisition, transmission, and exploitation of goods, are deduced from it. In vain logic demonstrates that this doctrine is incompatible with the data of the social order; in vain, in its turn, experience proves that it is a cause of extermination for persons and ruin for States: nothing knows how to change a practice established on the similarity of egoisms. The concept remains; it is in all minds: every intelligence, every interest, conspires to defend it. The collective reason is dismissed, Justice vanquished, and economic science declared impossible. (Justice, Tome III, pp 99-100)

This is another side of the claim that all individuals claim their individuality by the same title. In order to claim any sort of property—to claim that anything is proper to themselves as individuals, that anything is their own—there is a necessary resource to absolutism, a bowing to the continuous demands of an evolving force, a demand for a separation that can only come through a denial of material interconnection. Property is necessarily despotic, and Proudhon finally made it clear how his early bon mot reached far beyond the mere critique of existing property relations. But, in the process, he posed some very significant problems for the constitution of a free society. Not the least of these is that, while all beings seem to manifest themselves to some extent as absolutes, not all of those absolutes are “free,” in the sense of being able to reflect on their natural absolutism or to modify their behavior accordingly.

5) That’s where mutualism comes in, with its complex mix of individualistic and socialistic elements, and its notion that each ethical actor—each free absolute—could carry with them a basic principle for encountering, recognizing and engaging with others, our beefed-up and extremely demanding version of the Golden Rule. However complex our social interaction may be, the mutual principle suggests that the first thing to do is to identify the other as an individual, and then to address them as such, specifically. Perhaps it’s not immediately clear how one practices an anarchic encounter with a non-human manifestation of collective force, but I think Proudhon gives us some very useful clues—not the least of which is proposing a basis on which we can at least begin to relate to any individual. That theory of the individual’s “title” is at least a common structure on which to build more substantive common ground. The identification of human beings as “free absolutes” at least makes it clear to us that if there is to be change in accordance with a conscious mutualistic ethic, it’s going to have to come from beings like us.

6) And we only underline that special responsibility, and the difficulties faced by human ethical actors, when we remind ourselves that, according to Proudhon—and we can probably point to confirmations in our own experience—the collective reason of the collective beings is not necessarily that of individual human beings, nor are the interests of those beings our own, or even necessarily in harmony with our own. Just as it would be a failure of mutuality to simply project our desires onto other human beings, we’ll have to go very carefully in any engagement with these collective beings, which are not themselves “free” in the sense we are. And it is unlikely that anything is made any easier by the fact that part of what we encounter in collective beings is our own force arranged in some larger assemblage according to a new law.

It’s the sort of stuff to make you head spin, and it flies in the face of an awful lot of conventional anarchist and philosophical terminology and theory. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a powerful body of analytic tools for anarchists. The radical leveling of the analysis encourages us to find other means to talk about whatever is not simply governmental rule or systematic privilege in the realm of “hierarchy” and “authority.” What the plumber, or the educator, or the workplace logistics expert, brings to a given interaction is an organization of resources and a quantity of force usefully applicable in particular contexts—and perhaps that’s the best way to talk about that stuff in an anarchist context. The head-on confrontation with the fact that we appear to be hardwired in a way which creates both potentially antagonistic separation the possibility of reflective change in our social relations, and the identification of increasing freedom with increasing intensity in our attempts to work out those evolving balances, strikes me as a very promising direction—and one which provides one more rationale for the sort of complex, decentralizing, federative societies mutualists tend to lean towards. The possibility of demystifying the state, as we have worked to demystify religion and economics, is appealing.

But his business of encountering the state, or the market, or any number of other collective individuals on that radically leveled playing field isn’t likely to lose its more daunting aspects any time soon.

The best indications that Proudhon gave us of how this might play out are probably in War and Peace, a two-volume study as difficult as anything Proudhon wrote, and already subject to many misunderstandings. Rather than attempt to do justice to that analysis, perhaps, for now at least, we can tackle things a bit more simply.

If we set aside all the hot-button terminology, what are we talking about? In the case we have been examining most closely, it is a question of an encounter between a human individual and a collectivity emerging from the actions of human individuals, so that in that encounter we come face to face with the effects of the force we have exerted, organized together with the effects of the actions of others. We encounter ourselves, but not just ourselves, and the encounter is mediated by processes which are more or less “social.” We also encounter some manifestation of persistence (and probably complex, evolving persistence), with the result that, among other things, we probably don’t have any means of simply reducing this encounter to a mass of encounters with specific individuals.

These social persistences, not having bodies of their own, persist—or don’t persist—through us, through physical structures that we build or tear down, through practices and norms that we do or do not honor, maintain and modify. But their persistence means that often the building, maintaining and shaping is not a one-way street. Through customs, norms, languages, etc., they shape us as well—sometimes in ways that increase our health and freedom, and sometimes in quite opposite ways. The possibility that our actions contribute to persistent influences on other human beings, and perhaps on those not yet born, is something that anarchists—and particularly mutualists—probably ought to take into account.

The “how” is the more difficult question here, since this “encounter” with collective beings is never literal. We act in particular ways, and that adds force to particular organizational forms in particular realms of society. Obviously, part of the problem is addressed by simply taking our ethic of mutuality seriously, taking into account the “downstream effects” of our actions and the sorts of collectivities that they seem likely to strengthen. But then we are faced with all of the problems of planning and prediction. Collective beings are interesting to us in large part because they have their own reason and interest, whether we intend to celebrate that fact (as market anarchists often do with the emergent logic of “the market” and social anarchists sometimes do with “society”) or damn it (in which case you can pretty much just switch the terms.)

There’s a lot here to be teased out—and it seems we are still just posing the question in some ways—but if we take seriously the arguments we find in Proudhon for recognizing these collective beings the first consequence has to be to acknowledge that perhaps even our most rigorous application of the principle of mutuality on a more narrowly interpersonal basis will necessarily lead directly towards our goals of social justice. Given that, there are certainly reasons to question whether we can count on any institutions to guarantee justice if we failto apply that ethic to our individual actions.

I’m inclined to think of these collective beings as some combination of social “collective tissue,” inherited resources, and products of our collective production—and to think of the process of incorporating them into the complex counterbalancing act of mutualist justice as a matter of figuring out how to best balance careful stewardship of the resources, care for our fellows being both directly and indirectly through those connecting institutions, and care in what we produce and maintain. In order to strike that balance we probably need to be practicing the sort of sociology that Proudhon began to elaborate, incorporating its lessons into the institutions it creates, and using all of that as a guide to extending existing mutualist theory beyond it’s traditional bounds. The “cost principle,” for example, may have a lot to teach us that has very little to do with “labor notes,” as our opposition to any “right of increase” may strike more fertile ground as we distance ourselves a bit from the traditional concerns with specific forms of “usury.”

Lacking anything but just a sense that there is a potentially useful sort of analysis here, it’s hard to pursue the details too far. But perhaps there’s one more interesting indication we can make. Having rejected the governmental principle, there is no question of respecting any sort of manifestation of collective force which presents itself or is presented as a ruler, judge or arbiter. The market-arbiter is probably as lost to us as Louis Blanc’s state-policeman. Looking around for other ways to think about these abstract beings which seem at once to shape and be shaped by us, and acknowledging that perhaps this Proudhonian analysis will lead us to a fundamentally antinomian “solution,” let me suggest two passages from Proudhon as potential windows into the terms of one possible antinomy.

In the “Toast to the Revolution,” Proudhon argued that The Revolution (which was, for him, a sort of ongoing process) was both conservative and revolutionary. So, while we are committed to change in the direction of ever-great justice, both in our individual interactions and our institutions, we are probably also logically committed to a sort of stewardship role. If we are to go so far as suppressing any of these collective beings, we certainly need to do so with a clear understanding of the effects and their relation to the ethics of mutuality. Embedded, as we are, in a context in which governmentalism and destructive forms of absolutism are woven into the social fabric on almost all sides, we are undoubtedly doomed to some very tough choices—but that just means we need to bring our most powerful tools to bear on those problematic choices.

The passage with which I opened this particular section of the notes—the source of Liberty’s masthead slogan, “Liberty not the daughter but the mother of order”—suggests another way to approach our relationship with these collective beings. Arguably, one of the problems we have with them is a confusion about who is the child and who is the parent in the relationship—a natural confusion, given their evolving persistence. But these collective beings are in part defined by the fact that they are not “free absolutes,” that they cannot enter into relations with us except through the mediation of individuals, and therefore are fairly poor candidates for the parental role, even assuming that role was the relatively horizontal one of guidance and stewardship that anti-authoritarians generally expect from parents. In his early writings on the state, Proudhon explicitly associated the state with the infancy of humanity, and anarchy with its maturity. Perhaps, to the extent that the state will persist as an active actor in anarchist societies, we should be treating it as a sort of powerful child. As we free ourselves from governmental tutelage, perhaps it is precisely a parent’s role, or a role of tutelage, that we ought to adopt towards these children of liberty.


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