The Anatomy of the Encounter


If I’m right about Proudhon’s anarchism [specifically here, and then here], then everything depends on understanding the nature of what I’ve been calling the anarchic encounter. (If I’m wrong, I wish someone would point out where I’ve gone astray.) If we apply the lessons of Proudhon’s critical period, and take up the tools of his transitional period, nothing is exactly simple, but we know that amidst all the complexities one pattern repeats which at least has very few moving parts—“an equation and a collective power.” I’ve been encouraging people to think of this repeating pattern, this repeating moment, as a creative moment, pregnant with possibility. “Another world is possible,” every time equal uniques, free absolutes, meet on a terrain shaped by any number of histories but no structures of authority. And from the association of these free absolutes something else is inevitably born, though at the scale we’re talking about it may be a rather ephemeral something. But we know that our focus on any one instance of this encounter is just a sort of “Crusoe economics” in a field that may or may not turn out to be primarily economic, and we have at least made a start at wrestling with the more powerful, persistent varieties of these offspring of association—the State, the Market, etc.

But it’s hard to address relations at those much more extensive scales, if we can’t come to terms with the fundamental dynamics of the encounter. So we’ll linger just a bit longer and play with those few moving parts.

  1. We begin with these free absolutes, these uniques. According to the first, Proudhonian designation, we are dealing with individuals, groups organized according to an unfolding law of development, but with a consciousness of their nature and a capacity for self-reflection. They may, on the one hand, be inclined to absolutism, to taking their internal law for the law of the world, but they are also capable of recognizing another like themselves, and understanding that in a world of absolutes either some must be masters of others, or there must be balance. With no criterion of certainty for their observations or judgments, beyond the apparently similarity—in this absolutist dimension—of these otherwise unique beings, with incommensurable experiences and unknowable essences, they find themselves with equality, Proudhon suggests, as the only basis on which to proceed from individual isolation to society. And this is the heart of Proudhon’s “system.” Although he doesn’t share the same vocabulary, or a number of philosophical assumptions, his free absolutes rather closely resemble Stirner’s “unique,” which is always in an important sense a singular being, irreducible even to a class of uniques. The singularity of the unique is not simply a unity; it is not simple, and it is in-progress—or it is, like Proudhon’s “Revolution,” always in the midst of a play between conservation and progress, change and persistence. Resisting any reduction to static singleness and simplicity, these subjects of the encounter are one sort of contr’un.
  2. We have these selves, which might be just as well designated as these others, meeting on a terrain without hierarchical elevations, without laws of the land. While there are any number of material constraints on every encounter, and any number of histories weighing on the moment, the thing that we should probably be concentrating on is the enormous range of possibilities facing every new encounter, presenting options for new associations. If Proudhon’s whole anarchic social system begins with an equation, then to follow him onto the terrain of his anarchy, we probably have to set aside a lot of our usual guides—a priori axioms, natural laws, rights and duties, even some kinds of “common sense.” Or if we choose to employ them, we probably have to really choose to employ them, to take responsibility for them. By Proudhon’s criteria, these guides are likely to resemble the outcomes of metaphysical speculation—we can’t help but speculate, but our generalizations are at best approximations, which we should jettison as soon as our observations of relations, the real matter of all the sciences, prompt us to. By the time Proudhon has had his way with philosophy and the various sciences, equality stands as essentially the sole criterion for a whole range of operations and justification—balance—appears to be the essence of method. (Though, naturally, we speak of essencesonly with reservations.) Whether or not we follow Proudhon this far in practice, there seem to be lots of good reasons to attempt to at least understand where that move would leave us. If at first it appears a bit like Dr. Suess’ Prairie of Prax (meeting-place of the stubborn, stationary Zax), maybe that’s not too far off, except that our north-going and south-going absolutes are budding mutualists, and they can be assumed to find means to either associate or step aside.
  3. We have association, mutualism, the constructive side of anarchy, and before we have any issue from the encounter, we have an assemblage of sorts, a coming-together which is not fusion and does not create a single, simple individual—or does not simply create one—but creates what I what to call the mechanism of justice. Proudhon had, in the “Catechism of Marriage,” identified what he considered the “organ of justice” in the married couple, but as we attempt to avoid the obvious missteps in that work and push beyond some of Proudhon’s weaknesses I think we can generalize from his observations and locate the relationship that he gave special prominence at the heart of the family wherever the encounter leads to association. Stripped of the categorical roles Proudhon couldn’t abandon with regard to men and women, and rid of the fairly unavoidable phallic associations of the term “organ” (which were remarked upon by at least one of Proudhon’s female contemporaries), we have another sort of contr’un, and a comparatively simple sort of collectivity, which is presumably the mechanism by which balance is achieved between individuals and interests which are not simply unique, but in important senses are incommensurable. But the details are perhaps a little counterintuitive. There is no question of these individuals and interests taking their place on some scales of justice, because their assemblage is itself the scales of justice. Together, our free absolutes make incommensurable things equal, according to a convention—exchange, or perhaps equal exchange—according to which that sort of operation is possible. For those who assume that Proudhon’s understanding of mutuality never developed beyond his equal-pay speculations in What is Property? there is probably a fairly rude awakening awaiting. The conventional equality obviously can’t be just anything. We know at least that there are quite a range of explanations for familiar relations—such as those surrounding property and its rights under capitalism, or the State as “external constitution of society”—which just don’t hold up to any sort of scrutiny, and which are irreparably compromised by their dependence on fundamentally authoritarian or governmentalist notions. The material consequences of various conventions have demonstrated, or will demonstrate, their insufficiency. No instrumentalization of equality-in-uniqueness is likely to satisfy completely. At the same time, perhaps many approaches will satisfy under many specific conditions, in the context of specific moments, specific encounters.
  4. Alongside these other concerns, there will be the question of what will issue from these comings-together—and here we should probably just let the sexy word-associations snowball—what we will be bringing into the world as a result of our associations. Like children, these new collectivities will tend to have minds or at least interests of their own. They will be organized according to their own laws of development, and while they may be expected to exhibit valuable sorts of collective reason, and powerful sorts of collective force, these expressions will be both somewhat alienand, in at least the usual senses, inarticulate. They will not be free absolutes, but absolutes of another sort. And we may have to assume a sort of tutelage over them, taking responsibility for loosing them upon the world, even as our basic principle suggests that when we encounter them it must be as at least potential equals.

From this point, the isolated encounter obviously begins to weave a web of new encounters—and we never really start with the isolated encounter, being always already in relations with a range of persistent collectivities, including families, States, markets, etc. We are always navigating a complex web of relations.

What I want to suggest, with regard to Proudhon’s philosophy and social science, is that if we are armed with his critique of all that might be based on authority or governmentality in those relations, then we can take the next step by beginning to analyze them on the basis of this notion of the anarchistic encounter, a notion which we can also apply moving forward into new relations.

As a next step, I want to compare the encounter with a more overtly commercial sort of exchange, or transaction, and see what the contrast reveals.

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