Notes on the Notes: Another thought on the relation between states and conflict

One of the common responses to my recent writing about Proudhon’s theory of “the state” has revolved around the opposition of his definitions of “state” with the “territorial monopoly on force” stuff that is so common in our circles. I think the action is elsewhere.

It doesn’t look like any of the socialists in the 1849 debate were very concerned with “monopoly on force.” When Proudhon complains that “the state is external constitution of the social power,” he’s probably just agreeing with Louis Blanc (and possibly Pierre Leroux as well) about the definition of the “state,” and differing on whether or not an external constitution of social power is a good thing.

One of the things I haven’t addressed particularly well yet is the objection that Proudhon made to Blanc’s apparent contention that society was always characterized by a sort of state of war, which required that externalization of social power to take a policing role, interposing everyone’s power between everyone, in a sense, to protect those in need of defense. In 1849, Proudhon questioned whether or not such a warlike sort of interaction would create a policeman that could be trusted to keep the peace.

It’s a good question, but it becomes more interesting in the context of Proudhon’s mature theory, when he had developed his own theory of society as made up of a balancing of potentially antagonistic “absolutes.” The approach that sees peace as the perfection/balancing of conflict still isn’t Blanc’s position, since it is unclear that the balancing could actually take place if the collective force mediated all these individual interactions (at least in the way that a policeman-state would likely structure that mediation.)

Instead we have a horizontal working-out of conflict, but within that context we also have the various “persistences* that make up the state. And these latter have no particular authority, no power to rule, but they are obviously going to be important players in that working-out process.

It seems possible and perhaps even most consistent, given the other elements that are present in contemporary mutualism, to pursue the same strategy we have sometimes taken with “the market” and champion some sort of “free/d state” strategy (“real democracy” for anarchists, or some such….) But one of the other potential lessons of Proudhon’s sociology is, as I *did* suggest in the “Notes,” that we need to look a little more closely at both how we think about the relation between the interests of “the market” an our own interests, and that we need to be careful that we have not replaced “the state” with “the market” as that external constitution of social power.

Presumably, the Proudhonian sociology doesn’t really let us deny persistences like “state” and “market,” and they are key actors (though not free absolutes, like the human actors, and thus unable to reflect and adapt by themselves) that constantly confront us in the course of our “individual interactions.” So what should we see when we see these “collective beings,” beyond the extent to which they may currently be hijacked by individual interests? I rather provocatively suggested “an inheritance” and “our children” in the “Notes,” but I’m struggling to say something even stronger, since it appears to me that these problematic collectivities are the most “present” manifestations of justice that will remain on our anarchistically-leveled playing field, and that they will be a far better barometer of just how successfully we have “perfected” our conflicts.

It’s not a question of changing in any way our opposition to social, political or economic hierarchy and rule, but of how we think about what persists in our societies. It seems to me that in our circles we have often fairly simply damned one sort of persistence, and pretended it was a conqueror, while praising another, only lamenting the extent to which it has been conquered. And I am fairly certain we need to escape from that particular interpretive apparatus, not just to make sense of the Proudhonian sociology, but to make sense of “the state” and “the market.”

Which isn’t to say it’s an easy task…

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2684 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.