Scraping some rust off the “two guns” of mutualism

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As I mentioned in the last post, one of the results of turning my back on the “Two-Gun Mutualism” project, and focusing specifically on the anarchic “social system” of “the encounter,” has been to reawaken my interest in the abandoned TGM: Rearmed book project. Much of that interest comes, as I’ve said, from my continuing interest in that atercratic counter-history that I expect will be occupying a lot of my time in upcoming months. But there is another element of my original mutualist project which I have had a hard time clarifying specifically enough to really do it justice, an element invoked in different ways in two unfinished essays—”The Anarchism of Approximations” and “Two-Gun Mutualism and the Golden Rule“—and then again more recently in some posts beginning to deal with the notion of “guarantism.” In that most recent material, I made a somewhat clumsy attempt to draw the material on the “two guns” of anarchist theory into the new toolkit.

As we are also currently in the midst of clarifying the relations between this phase of exploration and those that have come before, I suppose it makes sense to note that these new poles of this new antinomy are much like the “two guns” the last phase, transferred for the moment to the realm of method and practice. Instead of our old “brace of rusty pistols,” individualism and socialism, we have, on the one hand, the principled opposition to everything of an absolutist or hierarchical nature, an analysis always open to the devils in the detail, bound to sacrifice everything else to a relentless consistency, should the critique lead that way, and, on the other, we have the commitment to make the sort of real change, material improvement in conditions without which no principles, however obsessively pursued, really amount to much. As with the antinomies more familiar from earlier studies, we can probably say that either emphasis, without the balance of the other, is unlikely to take us where we want to go, but from this we cannot simply fall back on some compromise or middle way—particularly if Proudhon is our guide. For him, we must not forget, liberty was always something enhanced as much by the complexity and intensity of complication and conflict as it was by the mere absence of constraint.

The notion of “Two-Gun Mutualism” was always a metaphor that needed more development, a poetic provocation to audiences that showed little interest in being provoked. For me, it was the convergence of a desire to suggest that mutualism, rather than being some tame reformism, was really—if we took up the challenge and played our hand with sufficient boldness—among the most radical currents in anarchism. It’s that dangerous, revolutionary edge that I’ve been examining in an anarchy and anarchism that seem more and more ungovernable, and its the centrality of that ungovernable anarchism to Proudhon’s project that threatens to make a “Two-Gun History of the World” the provocative story of how the modern anarchist sects emerged through the dismembering and taming of a revolutionary mutualism. For better or worse, most modern adopters of the “mutualist” label have been considerably more modest in their claims for it, so that aspect of the earlier project never really drew much more than some derisive comments and a few in jokes with friends. But even in distancing myself from the metaphor I’ve never abandoned the conviction that the apparently middle-of-the-road anarchism that I began to explore not all that long ago was really, on closer examination, something powerful and more than a little dangerous. The old sidebar description was more provocation, but I always felt like it was a provocation that got to the heart of something really wrong with an awful lot of the anarchist theory I encountered, particularly in the days of the left-libertarian ALLiance, though certainly not just, or even primarily, from within those circles.


Picking up threads from Proudhon’s early works—“the synthesis of community and property”—and his mature works—“the antinomy does not resolve itself”—and the wonderful image of the two pistols from Pierre Leroux’s “Individualism and Socialism,” we get a silly name for a fairly heady, potentially risky project: to arm ourselves with both individualism and socialism—two ill-kept old implements indeed—and to try to make them serve the needs of an anarchism that slights neither individualities (at a dizzying range of scales) nor collectivities (ditto), when it’s all too obvious that neither one is quite the tool for the job. It’s a tactical, transitional project, an opportunity to gather ourselves, and tend to our tools, before the next campaign…

The brace of rusty pistols, apparently necessary for the struggles ahead, but also as likely to blow up in our faces as to do us any good, seems all to apt a way to describe an awful lot of our rhetorical toolkit. For example, it’s hard to see much of anything in an awful lot of what passes for debate in online political forums except a sort of constant blowing-up-in-our-faces, which we hardly seem to notice, imagining all the while that we’re mowing down opponents.
But there was more to the adaptation of the image from Leroux’s essay than just some edgy language and a nod-and-a-wink to friends for whom images of pistols and such are a more common political stock in trade. The stories that Leroux told about the standoff in the French Revolution and the massacre in the Rue Transnonain, the backdrop for his examination of individualism and socialism, were there to illustrate a sort of general dynamic, according to which fear leads to fratricidal violence. For the Pierre Leroux of 1834, individualism and socialism were the two faces of that single dynamic, the two paths by which that fratricidal violence seemed inevitable, if some means was not found to harmonize the two extreme, one-sided, simplist impulses—if some means was not found to head off the runaway fear before it became fundamentally self-destructive violence. By 1848, of course, a number of attempts at synthesis had been made, many of them under the name of socialism, but we know that as the 19th century progressed, the two concepts diverged once more and the circumstances of their origins were mostly forgotten.

Four years ago, when I began the essay “Two-Gun Mutualism and the Golden Rule,” I had a lot of stories to tell, and bits and pieces of several of them found their way into the essay. That’s one of the reasons that there was never a second part of the work. It was both a little overwhelming to continue and specifically more than a little overwhelming to continue without any real feedback. The third and final post in the series took on Leroux’s antisemitism and Proudhon’s anti-feminism directly, in what I think are ultimately terms as damning as anything written by critics like Déjacque. Allow me another long quote:

In “The Gift Economy of Property” and other writings, I have suggested some alternatives to Proudhon’s final approach to property—alternatives which are no less highly charged, but are perhaps less martial in their approach. I’m not certain that there is anything in that work, however, that clearly raises it to or above the level of The Theory of Property. But we can perhaps more clearly see the dangers of the progressive approach if we look at Proudhon’s response to potential changes in the institution of the family, and in gender roles. Proudhon was at once progressive and conservative when it came to most economic questions, and questions regarding institutional government. Even when he advocated the conservation of existing forms—or when he advocated a strengthening of private property, provided it was widely distributed—it was with the understanding that those forms would fulfill a substantially new function. When it was a question of changes to the family, he instead denied progress, at best bringing new justifications to bear for institutions which would ultimately pull against the general trajectory of his libertarian thought. With regard to women’s rights, his thought was worse than simply conservative. In “picking up the pistols” with regard to property, he sought to shelter individuals in such a way that liberty was preserved for all, and progressive change had a space within which to occur. When it came to women, his impulse was to shelter them from change. The defenses of the traditional family that he developed could just as easily have supported any number of non-traditional living arrangements. A strong case could be made—and was being made at the time—that the aims of the family could be at least as well addressed by other forms. The patriarchal rights that he ultimately defended were, like the private property rights of The Theory of Property, an intensification—Leroux might have said “exaggeration”—of existing rights, and we might suspect that they were driven by nothing other than “horror”—again the word is Leroux’s—of the polar alternative. Proudhon once again “picked up the pistols,” but because he turned against his own stated principles—affirmation of progress, opposition to the absolute, movement by an indefinite sequence of approximations—and, most seriously, quite simply denied women full participation in society, he could hardly do better than the soldiers in the Rue Transnonain. “[W]e are ordered to do this, we are compelled to obey, though it makes us as wretched as you…” Treating the traditional family and patriarchy as providential, Proudhon could hardly avoid discharging both pistols at women in general, jeopardizing his entire project in the process.

But to move forward with this critique of a horrified Proudhon, it was really necessary for me to feel like I had moved the conversation past the default treatment of Proudhon as simply horrifying—at least for some segment of my specific audience. And that’s something I’ve never really felt. There are, of course, any number of pressures within the anarchist milieu’s that make any hint of sympathy for those already cast out, however summarily, even in the course of criticism, grounds for at least a cold shoulder.More than anything, of course, I suspect that I had simply not made the case for sympathy, had not sufficiently clarified the potential horror, we might even say the lurking fear at the heart of the anarchic “social system.” Perhaps I have now made a good start at that, though not in those terms. But I suspect those who stuck with me through the lengthy exploration of the anarchic encounter last year won’t have too much trouble attaching that slightly Lovecraftian label to all the things we find we cannot say with any certainty about the anarchic encounter. For the “little Proudhon book” I’m currently writing, I’ve been keeping things simple, and relatively comfortable. If we throw out everything not included in the simple anarchist “social system” as involving illegitimate authority of some sort, and embrace that notion that “another world is possible” at literally every encounter, then part of what opens for us is a way of remapping what is anarchistic in any given social setting, a sort of anarchology by which we could sort out what does and doesn’t conform to our ideal. That’s an important addition to the toolkit, and one which, in some ways, reduces our uncertainties about the project of anarchism. We can simply focus on whether or not given relations—and relations are all that a Proudhonian social science lets us talk about with any degree of certainty—make the cut, and if not, how we can relate with one another in a more anarchistic manner. The approach seems as marvelously adaptable as it is straightforward—once we accept the notion that we’ll be traversing that “dizzying array of scales,” a move made possible by Proudhon’s particular approach to the question of “individuals.” And then we try to apply our anarchology in pretty much any real-world context, and nothing seems all that simple anymore. The elegant design of the tools in our kit doesn’t change the complexity of the problems we have to solve, and we find ourselves facing the universe of relations with just one tool. That pushes a lot of the responsibility for ingenuity back onto us, and that sort of focused responsibility is just the sort of thing that can push us to one sort of “exaggeration” or another. We begin by isolating an encounter, and identifying its elements: individuals, manifestations of collective force. But our individuals are always already groups, and themselves manifest collective force. These complexities will scale both upwards and downwards, just as far as we choose to pursue them. We’ll never pursue them “all the way,” and yet we have to proceed with organization, with practice. Our commitment to contr’archy, to the negation of everything that might emerge as an archy, even when it calls its self anarchy, enlists us on the side of active ungovernability, demanding chaos before governmentalism. The more we succeed in this side of our anarchism, the more the dark star to which we’ve hitched our wagon may begin to look like a black hole. It is not coincidental that Proudhon’s transitional summary, The Philosophy of Progress, took the form of a discussion of the criterion of certainty, and that ultimately he never identified any criterion beyond justice, understood as balance. Proudhon claimed that if he lived a thousand years his thought would always be driven, in part, by his opposition to the absolute. So if we are attempting to rethink our “two gun problem” in a context broad enough to address Proudhon’s failures with regard to questions of gender, or even to extend it to what I’ve gestured at as “The Larger Antinomy,” perhaps we’ve identified one of our “guns” in what we might call anti-absolutism, contr’archy, negation, etc. In the essay on the larger antimony it seems important to me to also highlight the extent to which that side of the antinomy was also fairly conventionally gendered, or at least genderable, as feminine. And if anti-absolutism and contr’archy are one “gun,” then the other must be practical, institutional progress and guarantism. If we naturally fear that the first emphasis will simply carry us away, or carry our anarchism away from our very real, practical needs, we also always have to fear that any or all of our approximations may settle into archic forms. Proudhon’s was not sparing in his scorn for the various patent-office utopias of his contemporaries, often employing the anti-absolutist side of his thought as a wrecking ball, but neither was he bashful about promoting the virtues of his own practical projects. If we were to pose this rethinking of the essay on “Individualism and Socialism” to a particularly long-lived Pierre Leroux, I like to think that he wouldn’t have too much trouble picking up the threads of his own argument and arguing for a harmonization of the two complementary projects. Unfortunately, I share Proudhon’s sense that harmony is less likely than antinomic balance. If, on the other hand, we were to present the matter to a Proudhon headed on towards his “thousand years,” it’s harder to know if he would recognize what I believe I have drawn fairly directly from the implications of his thought. Why do I say this? Since writing the original “Two-Gun Mutualism” essay, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to engage with Proudhon’s thought. Recently, while finishing up the translation of The Theory of Property, I encountered a chapter which looked more than a bit like a repetition of material elsewhere in the book—until I realized that what really seems to be at stake was an account of the shifting balance of power between State and family with regard to property. What doesn’t seem to have been true about Proudhon’s attachment to small-scale production does seem to have had a parallel in his eventual attachment to small-scale, specifically family-based property. We can probably say that when it came time to balance property against property and property against the State, Proudhon’s concern with balancing anti-absolutism against progressive guarantees was pushed at least slightly aside. There is a kind of accidental minarchism that enters his practical proposals, despite plenty of indications that his theoretical commitment to anarchism had not diminished. His mistaken beliefs about women’s capabilities seem to have conspired with the complexity of the problem he confronted to undermine the degree of justice which he could actually incorporate in his proposed solution. As I said in the “Two-Gun Mutualism” essay, it’s a serious, really disastrous failure, but it’s probably just one of many that anyone wishing to take up Proudhon’s sociology will have to guard against. And one of the ways to begin to take precautions is probably to think about the lesson Leroux presented to us as simply one illustration of a more general danger. It might be, after all, that focusing on “individualism” and “socialism,” out of all the various manifestations of some larger antinomy, might be as disastrous as getting swept up in a particular opposition between men and women, or the family and the State. We can probably pretty easily point the evidence of that fact. The balancing act of anarchist justice has to at least aspire, even in its practical manifestations, to a positive care and inclusiveness equal in intensity to our commitment to negating and tearing down authoritarian structures. And then we have to be able to take those two intense tendencies and find some means of striking a balance between them. The sort of positive anarchy that Proudhon was seeking will demand pretty much everything we can give it, and it is likely we will always still fall short in our various anarchisms. I personally see that as the attraction, as much as the danger of would-be anarchist activity, but it’s obviously a bit of both, and there is an important sense in which attempting to drag anarchism back out onto the rather bare stage proposed by Proudhon threatens to increase both the dangers and the attractions tremendously. Leroux’s concern was that the two primary means of thinking about society at the time he wrote his essay were dangerous weapons, more likely to do harm than good to those who attempted to use them. For him, there was another way forward, a way to not pick up the guns by devoting oneself to a project of harmonizing extremes. There is, I think, a good deal to admire in that approach, but if Proudhon’s general analysis was correct, we still have to set it aside, at least for the foreseeable future, along with any notion of lasting harmony. To take on this theory of the encounter as the entire anarchist social system is necessarily also to, as we’ve been putting it, “pick up the guns,” and take on all of the dangers that come with it. It is to knowingly position ourselves in a position where we have to resist the urge to give way to any of the powerful impulses held in tension within our model and method. We can expect that when we have scraped all the rust off our brace of pistols they will not be less deadly, even to ourselves, but potentially more so, just as they will be more capable of harm to others if we fail to use them with care. There is a lot of “scraping” yet to do before it is even clear just what sort of tools this “brace of rusty pistols” is and can be, but I’m once again finding myself drawn to the metaphor, and perhaps also to a specific identification with “mutualism.” But what remains for me to confront are some enormously thorny questions about anarchism and identification itself.


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