What would it take to flesh out the federative theory of property hinted at in the last post? What exactly does it mean to say that “property can be understood as an instance of federation”? We’re starting from a provocative reading of bits and pieces from Proudhon’s later works, and leaning hard, for the moment, on a portion of the title of The Theory of Property that didn’t make it out of the manuscript, and we’re going to have to go beyond anything explicitly laid out in Proudhon’s work. Still, I don’t think the extrapolation I’m about to make should strike anyone who has been following the work here as particularly extreme—particularly given the extremities to which we’ll see Proudhon go along the way.
So let’s start with the idea of federation. Proudhon’s The Federative Principle may have been, as he claimed, a rapid sketch, but it was obviously an important one. In it, we find one of those professions of principle of which Proudhon was so fond:
All my economic ideas, developed over the last twenty-five years, can be defined in three words: agro-industrial federation; all my political views may be reduced to a parallel formula: political federation or decentralization; and since I do not make my ideas the instruments of a party or of personal ambition, all my hopes for the present and future are contained in a third term, a corollary of the first two: progressive federation.
“…transported into the political sphere, what we have previously called mutualism or guarantism takes the name of federalism. In a simple synonymy the revolution, political and economic, is given to us whole…”
As a concept, this mutualism-guarantism-federation is perhaps a little tough to grasp. The synonymy doesn’t really seem all that simple. But that not-so-simple synonymy turns out to be a problem with several layers, as we start to look again at the individual synonyms. If we look at the explanation of “the mutualist system” in The Political Capacity of the Working Classes we find a fairly representative example of Proudhon’s treatment of mutuality:
The French word mutuel, mutualité, mutuation, which has for synonyms réciproque, réciprocité, comes from the Latin mutuum, which means [a consumer] loan, and in a broader sense, exchange. We know that in the consumer loan the object loaned is consumed by the borrower, who gives the equivalent, either of the same nature or in any other form. Suppose that the lender becomes a borrower on his side, you would have a mutual service, and consequently an exchange: such is the logical link has given the same name to two different operations. Nothing is more elementary than this notion
We need, however, no great effort of reflection in order to understand that justice, union, accord, harmony, and even fraternity, necessarily suppose two terms and that unless we are to fall in to the absurd system of absolute identity, which is to say absolute nothingness, contradiction is the fundamental law, not only of society, but of the universe!
Such is also the first law that I proclaim, in agreement with religion and philosophy: it is Contradiction. Universal Antagonism.
But, just as life supposes contradiction, contradiction in its turn calls for justice: from this the second law of creation and humanity, the mutual penetration of antagonistic elements, RECIPROCITY.
RECIPROCITY, in all creation, is the principle of existence. In the social order, Reciprocity is the principle of social reality, the formula of justice. Its basis is the eternal antagonism of ideas, opinions, passions, capacities, temperaments, and interests. It is even the condition of love.
RECIPROCITY is expressed in the precept: Do unto others what you would have others do unto you; a precept that political economy has translated in its famous formula: Products exchange for products.
Now the evil that devours us comes from the fact that the law of reciprocity is unknown, or violated. The remedy is entirely in the promulgation of that law. The organization of our mutual and reciprocal relations is the entirety of social science.
This is really pure Proudhon, writing like the best socialist philosophers of his era, swooping from one scale of concerns to another, and back again, so quickly and nimbly that you might miss it if you’re not expecting the maneuver. And these are the moments that, from my perspective at least, give us our clearest glimpses of just how much is going on in Proudhon’s thought. So, on the way to a practical proposal about credit, we get the first two “fundamental laws of the universe:” universal antagonism and mutual penetration of the antagonistic elements.
We’ve tended to see and remember that Proudhon thought reciprocity resembled the Golden Rule, and I’ve spent some time working out the most robust version of that principle that I can, but it’s been harder to incorporate all the other things that Proudhon said about reciprocity into our account of mutualism. What we have generally treated as an ethical principle is also, and perhaps primarily, an observation about how the world works, an observation about ontology. I think some reluctance to tackle the fundamental laws of the universe may be considered simply prudent. But those who have been reading along can perhaps see that I’ve been trying to pull these various threads together for quite some time, and that for roughly a year now I’ve had a sort of “Note to self” stuck up at the top of the page here.
The first law of the universe is Contradiction, Universal Antagonism, and we know it because everything important to us about being in the world seems to rely on something other than, and opposed to, “the absurd system of absolute identity.” So now we need to talk about identity (which will, necessarily, carry us back into the vicinity of property.) And, again, we have to recognize that we are not just, and perhaps not even primarily, talking about ethical precepts now. Identity leads us to antagonism because all of the ways that we identify identity seems to depend on something other than simple internal uniformity. Absolute identity is an illusion of authority, and the alternative is a sort of contr’un, which is always to some degree at war with itself (as a simple unity.) We can recall some of the ways that we have marked this non-simple character, in relation to human selves:
- Proudhon: “Every individual is a group.”
- Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
The more you chase the references around in Proudhon’s work, the more the metaphors of love and war, science and commerce seem to all get mixed up together. But that’s often a good sign in his work, suggesting you’re closing in on something central. A full explication of all the textual concerns would be demanding, but the general idea isn’t terribly difficult. As Whitman said, we are “not contain’d between [our] hat and boots.” The business of possessing an individual identity involves us in a sort of constant borrowing and lending, which involves some overlapping, some interpenetrating which is at least antagonistic to the simpler ideas of identity. That naturally means it will have some consequences for any simple notions of property as well.
And this is really a point in the elaboration of Proudhon’s thought that we’ve reached quite a number of times. When we bring in Proudhon theory of collective individuals, with his judgment that we must always encounter other individuals as at least potentially our equals, and then add in his theory of rights:
RIGHT, in general, is the recognition of human dignity in all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives. There are thus as many special rights as humans can raise different claims, owing to the diversity of their faculties and of their exercise. As a consequence, the genealogy of human rights will follow that of the human faculties and their manifestations.
we end up with a cast of political characters that would be complicated under any circumstances, but which we must account for in ways that acknowledge all sorts of overlap and interpenetration—but without, in the process, retaining or introducing any sort of hierarchy.
In the next post, I want to retrace some of the same ground, while talking about the disposition of the products of labor, and we’ll be able to explore some specific applications of Proudhon’s theory, but for now I want to make sure we spend enough time with this notion of mutualism-guarantism-federation to be sure we’re really applying the right principle.
The two laws respecting identity give us a subject always in the midst of an antinomic play between various sorts of contradiction and various sorts of justice. And we should probably understand justice as a temporary reconciliation, taking the form of a balancing between interests between which we have no more defensible criterion of choice. With anarchy generalized, external constitution rejected, we have to work things out without recourse to any outside referee, whether that’s a state or a notion of what is “natural.” We naturally bring lots of experience—and we each bring unique portions of experience—to the encounter, and we equally naturally will not disregard the lessons of that experience, but there is always at least some degree of sheer incommensurability when we’re dealing with experience. That means, of course, that our balances will have no externally constituted scales, no predetermined standards of weights and measures. It is, after all, anarchy that we’re talking about. Presumably we knew what we might be getting into when we started down this road. But let’s let it all sink in. No external criteria means that it is all on us to work things out when there is conflict, and, if Proudhon is to be believed, conflict is the first of the fundamental laws of the universe. So there isn’t much room for passivity, at the same time there isn’t much chance of absolute certainty.
Being a subject already seems hard, and rising to the occasion of being an anarchist actor, worthy of the under such uncertain circumstances, that much harder. There is a reason that I started all of this exploration with the notion that a Proudhonian anarchism would necessarily be an “anarchism of approximation.” Things get harder when we add in the fact that we apparently have to negotiate approximations of justice with all sorts of actors that are radically different from us: other species, states, ecosystems, etc., etc., etc. And it isn’t going to be lost on us that many of those other actors are not what Proudhon called “free absolutes,” beings capable of reflection, or that, whatever their capabilities, most of them do not seem to be capable of negotiation.
From the perspective of the individual human actor, it might begin to look like there was an imbalance developing between rights and responsibilities—an emerging injustice. In federation, human individuals will have to find balance with collectivities of various scales, some of which they will also be “part of” (in the sense of contributing to their collective force) and some of which they will not. Guarantism will involve the development, not just of institutions, but of balances between individuals and institutions, again at a variety of scales. Identity and property theory will always have to deal with an open balance of debits and credits in all the places where we overlap, and the multiplication of individualities means a multiplication of potentially overlapping property claims, always at a variety of scales. I have yet to find anywhere in Proudhon’s work where he elaborates how his sense that something like “contract” and “negotiation” applies to our interactions will all sorts of things that can’t seem to negotiate and enter into contracts gets put into action. Given the puzzle we’re working through at the moment, however, I think we might suspect that had he explicitly expanded his analysis into, say, ecological matters, we probably would have found yet another “synonym” or analogous set of metaphors. But maybe the strongest argument for not simply balking at the difficulties is that the bulk of Proudhon’s work—the critiques of absolutism and governmentalism, and then the elaboration of the theories of justice and conflict—don’t leave us an awful lot of obvious alternatives to at least exploring a bit farther. Having complicated the question of identity, and thus pushing us towards notions of property that may be individual, but will have a hard time being anything but approximately exclusive, there isn’t any very stable ground left to retreat to, without simply chucking an awful lot of what makes up our rationale for anarchism.
There are, I think, lots of ways to expand the scope of human liberty beyond the status quo which do not involve quite so great a leap into the unknown.
The question (which we will no doubt return to again and again) is whether any of them are really worth calling anarchism…