The Capitalist, the Prince, the Père de famille, and the alternative

It is common to debate whether anarchists attach too much importance to the struggle against capitalism vs. the struggle against statism, or to either or both of those vs. the struggle against patriarchy and other forms of oppression. But how much difference is there really between the various struggles? Without downplaying various real differences, I want to suggest that the oppressions involved at least share a dynamic familiar to students of Proudhon’s work, with the result that a commitment to some very basic aspects of Proudhon’s anarchism ought to simultaneously set us against capitalism, statism, and the patriarchy (to start what is ultimately likely to be a very long list.) From there, we can explore why Proudhon himself was able to see two of those struggles as naturally his own, but fail to take on the struggle against patriarchy—at which point the path forward beyond Proudhon’s failure ought to be much clearer. Let’s start with just a very quick sketch.

In recent writings, I’ve emphasized the problem of governmentalism in the realm of politics, and the droit d’aubaine in the economic realm. I’ve suggested some of the ways that these problems can be see as more widespread, but I think we can make a much stronger and more general claim. Governmentalism is characterized by what Proudhon described as external constitution. The State, he said, is “the external constitution of society.” The theory of the State that he opposed suggested that society was not “realized,” was, in fact, not society in any meaningful sense, until some element was placed at its head, above it in some fundamental way. In past posts, I’ve linked this rejection of external constitution to Proudhon’s beliefs that justice was immanent, and that no criterion could be found outside and above relations themselves. They are, I think, simply aspects of the same analysis. What Proudhon said about the governmentalist State, he could have easily said about the capitalist firm. And he actually did say it about the père de famille, but he thought in that case he was identifying something positive. Similarly, the pattern of privilege, particularly over the disposition of the life and labor of others, carries over from one context to the others.

Proudhon’s lifelong opposition to the capitalist’s alleged “right of increase” is sufficient testimony that he rejected the characterization of the capitalist as the head of the firm, as his notion of the citizen-state illustrates his rejection of the reality of external constitution by any actor, or group of actors, in the political realm. There is no place in the anarchic social system of what we’ve been calling “the encounter,” for those hierarchical relationships. So we are done with bosses and politicians, but we still have to deal with the very fundamental role that Proudhon assigned to fathers.

It was only in January, 2014 that the notion of the bon père de famille was replaced in French legal language by that of the reasonable individual, but Proudhon’s attachment to the figure of the father was more than just conventional. Certainly, Proudhon’s père de famille is the model of the reasonable man, but he occupies that role for reasons that relate very specifically to his place within a family group. Recall that, for Proudhon, the “organ of justice,” the basic building block of a just society, was the family, with the heterosexual couple at its center. This conception is central to Proudhon’s vision, and it’s transformation has to be central to any attempt to move beyond Proudhon and contest the rule of fathers. To see why such a transformation seems possible, we need to look more closely at the complex and probably conflicting elements involved.

Let’s start by imagining a very simple family, consisting of a father, mother and child. If we were to approach these three individuals simply as individuals, following the model we’ve been constructing around the notion of the encounter, things would already be complex. Each of the individuals would have to be recognized as an individual, but also as a group of individualities at other scales and a collection of potentialities. All of these individualities and potentialities, as well as the family itself, recognized as an individual, should be seen as in-progress, unfolding according to their individual, internal laws, and each possessing (or manifesting) a “right” (in the sense Proudhon gave the term in texts like War and Peace.) All the relations between these individual and individualities are assumed, according to Proudhon’s general model, to have no criterion but justice, understood as a balancing between the parties. And the actors are to be considered equals, because Proudhon extended this presumption of equality even to individualities which did not seem to act. In the first study of Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, he concluded:

Instead of seeking the law of my philosophy in a relation between myself, which I consider as the summit of being, and that which is the most inferior in creation and that I repute to be non-thinking, I will seek that law in a relation between myself and another self that will not be me, between man and man. For I know that every man, my fellow, is the organic manifestation of a mind, is a self; I judge equally that animals, endowed with sensibility, instinct, even intelligence, although to a lesser degree, are also selves, of a lesser dignity, it is true, and placed at a lower degree on the scale, but created according to the same plan; and as I no more know of a demarcation marked between the animals and the plants, or between those and the minerals, I ask myself if the unorganized beings are not still minds which sleep, selves in the embryonic state, or at least the members of a self of which I ignore the life and operations?

If every being is thus supposed self and non-self, what can I do better, in this ontological ambiguity, than to take for the point of departure of my philosophy the relation, not of me to myself, in the manner of Fichte, as if I wanted to make the equation of my mind, simple, indivisible, incomprehensible being; but of myself to another that is my equal and is not me, which constitutes a dualism no longer metaphysical or antinomic, but a real duality, living and sovereign?

It is a sad irony that I’ve remarked on before that Proudhon could, on the one hand, extend that presumption of equality to plants and stones, but, on the other, have difficulty extending it to wives and children. So how do we address this apparent contradiction? Let me reintroduce a set of interpretive options that I first proposed back in April, 2012. In the second part of the essay on “The Larger Antinomy,” I said:

I think we can safely posit two very general categories of responses to Proudhon: those which assume that his work, and particularly his work on property, was more complete than consistent, and those which insist that it was more consistent than complete. According to the first approach, the phrase “property is theft,” certain proposals in The General Idea of the Revolution, and the general trajectory of The Political Capacity of the Working Classes (or some roughly similar collection) constitute Proudhon’s major work—laying the foundation for social anarchism—and the critical task is to clear away all the distracting deviations and contradictions that might lead down other roads. The second approach focuses on the central role of “contradictions” in Proudhon’s work, and tends to pay close attention to the recurrence of certain challenging elements of his thought across his entire career, accumulating loose ends and suggestive repetitions, while constantly digging through the works for more data. Both approaches have their associated risks, but I don’t think anyone is under any illusions about which one I consider more useful, particularly at this stage of our rediscovery of Proudhon.

Lest there be any doubt, I remain convinced that Proudhon’s work was indeed more consistent than complete, and I think my belief continues to be borne out through the process of completing our sense of that work, as we incorporate the manuscript writings, engage in new translation, etc. So the first part of my response to what appears to be a serious contradiction in Proudhon’s theory is to consider and explore the possibility that the pieces I can see are not contradictory, or not as contradictory as they might seem, and that I am missing some of the pieces of a larger argument.

(Allow me one more aside on this particular topic: If we accept the notion that Proudhon’s writings at least present a high level of general consistency, if we recognize his characteristic concerns and approaches, then the missing pieces of those larger arguments can emerge from unexpected places. If we accept the hypothesis of incompleteness, then we have the incentive to be a little more creative in our attempts to complete the work. If we acknowledge that there were subjects in the content of which Proudhon himself could be stubbornly blind to the implications of his own general theories, then we can anticipate the places where we may find gaps and real contradictions. For me, at least, the strategy that has emerged has been an attempt to constantly check each new elaboration of familiar dynamics against those I’ve already encountered. So, to take an example that is fresh in my mind, we may have recourse in this exploration of family dynamics, justice and the rule of fathers to pull in insights from Proudhon’s discussion of tyrannicide, as a way of indicating one potential path past his own patriarchal impasse.)

So what could reconcile the general theory of just relations with the apparently governmentalist theory of the family? In the end, I suspect that nothing quite accomplishes that task, but we can still go a few more steps before we have to part ways with Proudhon. Much of the material we have to work with comes from the “Catechism of Marriage,” in Justice, and I encourage those who haven’t read it to take a careful look. I think it is as genuinely contradictory text as any that I can think of from Proudhon’s pen. Through much of it, we have an argument that downplays material differences between men and women, while emphasizing symbolic roles. There is, in general, a general distancing from reproductive or conjugal concerns—so that we might say Proudhon was less committed to biological essentialism than, say, Déjacque—but there is another, equally gendered division of labor which forms the basis for the “domestic religion” that Proudhon presents as perhaps the key function of the family.

Marriage is the sacrament of Justice, the living mystery of universal harmony, and the form given by nature itself to the religion of the human race. In a less elevated sphere, marriage is the act by which men and women, elevating themselves above love and the senses, declare their will to unite according to right, and to pursue, as much as they are capable, the accomplishment of social destiny, by working for the progress of Justice. That definition is related to the definition of Modestin, Juris humani et divini communicatio, which M. Ernest Legouvé translated, with less pomp, as School of mutual perfection.

In this religion of the family we could say that the husband or the father is the priest, the woman is the idol, and the children are the people. There are several initiations: the wedding, the hearth or the table, birth, puberty, the advice, the will and the funeral. All are in the hands of the father. They are nourished by his labor, protected by his sword, subject to his government and his tribunal, inheritors and upholders of his thought. Here is justice, complete, organized and armed. In the father, wife and children, it has found its apparatus, which will only be extended by the increase of families and the development of the city. Authority is there as well, but only temporarily. When the children reach majority, the father preserves only an honorific title with regard to them. Finally, religion is also preserved. While the interpretation of symbols, the habits of science and the exercise of reasoning steadily weaken it everywhere else, it remains in the family, is distilled there, and fears no attack. The revelation of women, entirely ideal, cannot be analyzed, nor denied, nor extinguished.

Given everything else Proudhon has said about justice, and about governments and tribunals, some of this is hard to understand. But some of it appears to be very familiar, at least to anyone with a knowledge of the ideas surrounding Proudhon. Some portions of it could even pass for aspects of the proto-feminist thought of the era. A secular “religion” (which in this context probably means little more than a shared set of values) based on symbolically uniting male and female roles or tendencies was an extremely common project among the “utopian” socialists of the early nineteenth century. Much of the treatment of female chastity and prostitution might have been lifted from some of his proto-feminist critics. There is a large, difficult problem that faced virtually all of the socialists of Proudhon’s era, an inability to entirely reconcile their scientific sense that the world was orderly and knowable—a context within which everything seemed to “find its place”—with their commitment to individual liberty. It is arguably a problem we still struggle with. What differentiates the various attempts to reconcile the conflicting factors is generally a matter of individual emphasis, some stubborn interest that the individual would not let go. In retrospect, some of those emphases look better to us than others, but that’s not an entirely conclusive standard.

With respect to Proudhon, it appears that he was never able to let go of his sense of male superiority in the material realm, but it also appears that he had taken many of the steps necessary to break with some familiar forms of gender essentialism. I think we could say that in the context of the family, understood as the organ of justice, Proudhon abandons a certain, familiar model of male supremacy, in favor of a kind of radical equality—but then replaces it with an idealized or spiritualized version of the same thing, with the father replacing the man. But perhaps even that does not quite capture what Proudhon would like the family, as organ of justice, to be. When Proudhon talked about the failure of larger social collectivities, particularly in the writings on “moral sanction,” he often spoke of them losing their “family” character. We have lots of evidence, I think, that he at least wished for the family to have a distinctly non-governmental character, to be constituted solely and precisely by the individuals who were a part of it. So that if the rights and duties of the father and those of the prince or the capitalist appear to have the same names or characters, it is not because the father is some sort of legitimate tyrant, while the others are usurpers, but because the tyranny of the others is a product of the usurpation, through which the rights and duties are deformed. We can acknowledge the wish, while still wanting to go farther, or elsewhere, and that’s what I think we should probably do. But, again, let’s see just how far Proudhon can go.

Justice, “complete, organized and armed… has found its apparatus,” and found it in the family. If relations within the family can be shown to be unjust, if they are not the result of a balance between the individuals involved, but of the imposition of an external criterion, then perhaps Proudhon’s statement is simply false, and we have to look elsewhere for the organ of justice in society. Or perhaps we have to recall the progressive side of Proudhon’s thought. “[T]here are degrees to existence, to truth and to the good, and the utmost is nothing other than the march of being, the agreement between the largest number of terms, while pure unity and stasis is equivalent to nothingness…” Another possibility might be that justice has indeed found its organ—but perhaps only for now, for this stage of the progress of justice. That’s a possibility that could be hard to judge, but Proudhon has actually explained a number of ways in which the family he is talking about is in the process of changing and indicated some of the ways that it might continue to change.  So there are a variety of directions that our investigation might go from here, but those possible directions are also fairly familiar—and they roughly parallel the ways that, following in Proudhon’s footsteps, we have approached institutions like property and the State.

Questions remain that concern the principles involved in Proudhon’s theory of the family, and of the father’s role within it. We need to determine, for instance, whether Proudhon believed that the family is simply a more local form of persistence, like the State, or whether, like property, it is one of those fundamentally objectionable institutions, which can only be rendered acceptable in some sort of balance with other potentially authoritarian institutions. We need to learn if the family triad can really be rendered non-hierarchical, as the manifestation of a simple division of labor, or whether Proudhon believed that there were instances where something like governmentalism could also play a part—and perhaps a very central part—in the establishment of justice. In either case, we are going to have to confront the father’s role as justicier, which will take us deep into Proudhon’s writings on moral sanction, crime and punishment. In the course of that investigation, we’ll have to decide how to reconcile the specialized role of the father within the family with potentially broader accounts of moral education. For example, there are unpublished manuscript pages where Proudhon suggests that the only moral education necessary is self-respect, learned through labor, but we need to determine is women’s labor is considered sufficient.

Then there are questions about the specific form of the family, understood as an institution of guarantism. Each of our conclusions about principles ought to pose very specific functions to be fulfilled by the family-form and the labors, rights and duties divided among its members. While we’re testing the institutional form against the functions, we can also step beyond Proudhon’s own preconceptions about gender and attempt to see if there are forms that would better fulfill the functions he assigned to the family. The idea of a rite of passage that initiates the individual into a fundamentally mutualist social life is actually a very interesting one, but also one we might pursue rather far beyond Proudhon’s notion of marriage.

At the far edge of this second sort of exploration, there are options that, despite their Proudhonian inspiration, jettison a lot of Proudhon’s fundamental assumptions, much as my work on the “gift economy of property” does in the context of his “New Theory.” We might, for example, decide that the progress of the organ of justice allows us to dispense altogether with any sort of marriage, and instead focus each individual more abstractly on the fact that living their own lives and pursuing their own interests is always already a social pursuit. It might be that the very same “gift economy of property,” the establishment of individual property by mutual gifting, rather than taking, as with property, or joining and “completing,” as in marriage, is the key act around which to build our shared values. I’m inclined to think that this is, in fact, the case, and that, while there is a great deal to be learned in exploring the specifics of Proudhon’s theory in this context, what we learned will be best used to push us far beyond the possibilities he considered.

In any event, there is no real chance to avoid the questions of the family, the role of the father, etc. until we have worked our way quite a bit deeper into our study.

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