Notes on Proudhon’s changing notion of the state (3 of 3)

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 motherof 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.