The Lesson of the Pear Growers’ Series


Contr’un Revisited: At the time, I had only the vaguest notion of how important the influence of Fourier would be on my own thinking, although this is one in a series of instances where we have to make a note that there is much more work to be done. I still think it is fair to characterize Proudhon’s understanding of social forces as “relentlessly positive,” although my appreciation of the role that “universal antagonism” plays in his thought has grown enormously. There is clearly a side to Proudhon that is relentlessly critical, sometimes earning him the reputation he has gained as a “moralist,” but there is also another side that remains largely detached from much of the sort of critique that tends to absorb anarchists. He can be unflinching at times when I think nearly all of us are likely to flinch, as if looking at everything from a great height. The world described is perhaps not all that different, ultimately, from Fourier’s, where every sort of sin and perversion may find its social expression and lose its “subversive” character entirely, but, stripped of the fanciful illustrations, the impact seems to be quite different. In some ways, I think this is a strength, rather than a weakness, but I will admit that I have not yet fully plumbed some of the dark places that Proudhon indicates from his viewpoint aloft.

The translations of The Philosophy of Progress andNote Ahave, of course, long since appeared

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Given the reputation of “classical” anarchists these days, it might be too much to ask anarchists to consider the lessons of those “utopian” socialists who came before. But I want to do just that. It is generally acknowledged that Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was influenced by Charles Fourier, whose Le Nouveau Monde Industriel et Sociétaire Proudhon helped to print in 1829. Fourier’s Theory of Four Movements found an echo in the theory of “four movements” that ends Proudhon’s De la création de l’ordre dans l’humanité, and less specialized versions of Fourier’s analysis of series remained an important aspect of Proudhon’s work throughout his career. I think it is likely, as well, that Proudhon absorbed some of Fourier’s relentlessly positive understanding of social forces. Reformers, Fourier complained, always try to locate the source of social problems in human passions and move to restrain or suppress passions they determine are antisocial or destructive. This, said Fourier is impractical, irreligious, illogical, simplistic, etc. We find ourselves in the position of attempting to adapt human beings to some ideal model, derived from something other than demonstrable human passions. We should instead look at what people actually seem to want, and to enjoy, and try to imagine the society in which these desires would not produce the “subversive” manifestations that they do in our own clearly imperfect societies. This is pretty much the same move Proudhon makes when he distinguishes between the existing relations of “property” and state-based “govermentalism,” and the “aims” which seem to drive them. Individuals do not value property primarily, he reasons, because it allows them to be unjust. They value it as a tool of justice, though it is, he argues, a very flawed one. Proudhon’s antinomies are essentially the conflicts between the progressive and subversive manifestations of given social situations. Fourier takes it for granted that there will be such conflicts until the dawning of the Era of Harmony. Proudhon, jettisoning the specific timeline, still sees such conflicts as a natural part of the progress towards justice, reciprocity and equality.

As a result, there is very little that is black and white in Proudhon. The “manichaean” approach so often attributed to “classical anarchism” is largely absent there. Instead, there is a much more nuanced understanding of the interaction of social forces, of the play of individual intentions within complex social fields. This leads Proudhon to his theory of “approximations,” experimental steps and temporary summings-up, each an attempt to advance from the last, and each setting the terms for the next stage. This is the process that William B. Greene described in his essay on “The Blazing Star,” a road that always beckons once we start down it. Proudhon’s Philosophie du progrès, which lays out some of the key principles here, is a really fascinating work, which deserves a full translation. I’ll try to post some sections of it soon. Let it suffice to say, for now, that Proudhon, who was always summing up “the whole of his thought” in one way or another, there summed it up in a very proto-postmodern opposition to The Absolute.

Anyway, it’s Fourier that I want to talk about right now, but it’s worth mentioning again (and again and again) that Proudhon was not exactly what modern commentators tend to reduce him to. If he was not the sort to predict lemonade seas, or wax eloquent about the virtues of the quagga, he still holds surprises for us. And Fourier is not simply reducible to his wilder rapsodies.

“Note A,” in The Theory of Four Movements (available online in French, and in English in the Cambridge University Press edition) discusses the “series” of workers growing pears in Fourier’s phalanstery. The serial method of analysis really involves little more than a separation or spreading out of similar elements according to their differences. Thus, pear-growers are united by a passion for pears, but separate into sub-groups according to their pear-preferences, and those subgroups can be arranged (in “ascending and descending wings,” around a “pivot,” in Fourier’s scheme) according to their relation to closely related elements (apple-growing, in this example, which places the quince-growers at a transitional “wing-tip” between series.)

There are plenty of discussions of the structure of the series, but what is interesting about “Note A” is that it focuses on the practical question of how the series will influence the production of pears (and apples, etc.) What Fourier suggests is that encouraging individuals to focus on pursuing their passions—their desire for pears of their favorite sort, in this example—instead of focusing on either individual profit or common goods in some abstract sense, will produce a lot of pears, probably more than a more calculating approach, in proportions pretty well suited to demand. Reading this stuff in the context of internal anarchist debate, I’m both charmed by the simple elegance of the approach and depressed at how far anarchists of any stripe seem to be from this “follow your bliss” model of business—a model that seems to me in some ways quite compelling. Fourier, of course, thinks the model will work because people are naturally competitive, that, given a little organizational incentive, they’ll plow labor into pear-growing for the sake of the honor of their favorite fruit, with an ardor we generally save for college football or sectarian debate. That faith in competition is going to be a problem for some of the comrades who are, at least in theory, opposed to any such thing. Of course, those opponents of competition are often among the quickest to pile on to “squash the opposition,” when, say, market anarchist heresy rears its ugly head. Maybe the de facto competition of the anti-competitive might be sufficient, if we turned our task from growing pears to growing anarchism. In any event, what Fourier really believed would make the series work was a combination of factors, of “distributive passions,” including the competitive, analytic “cabalist,” the synthetic “composite,” and the restless “papillon” or “butterfly passion.” Compete when we feel competitive, make up when we feel the urge, conspire or create schism, change our strategies when we grow bored.

So. What if we thought in Fourierist terms about the question of expanding the anarchist movement? If anything at all seems clear, it is that those who are committed to particular schools, are not likely to be moved by the sort of sectarian squabbling that currently goes on. Mutualists aren’t likely to decide communism is their favorite fruit, no matter how many times you call them petit bourgeois. Communists are unlikely to change their minds about markets. Or, perhaps, we’ll all change our minds a bit as the questions become more practical, the possibilities more real to us—down the road a piece. It’s like we’re all standing around arguing about what pear tastes best, when what is wanted is pears, preferably some variety, as long as they fill the bill.

What is wanted, it seems to me, is anarchism, of some variety, please, as long as it fills that bill. Is it possible to focus on that, rather than on details that may be, in the end, just details?


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