The Libertarian Labyrinth and the Antinomies of Anarchy

The articles on ungovernability were an attempt to deal with a fairly limited problem: we have a limited vocabulary with which to accomplish the work of anti-authoritarian social change, and arguably we have to use the tools at hand carefully. Without delving too deeply here into questions of traditions, canons, and orthodoxies, we can probably acknowledge that there are both good reasons to exert some measure of control over how broadly the traditional keywords of anarchism are applied, or misapplied, and equally good reasons—especially when we are talking about anarchism and anarchy—to leave room for those terms to “get away from us” a bit. The thing I’ve identified as “the Mutualist’s Dilemma,” the fact that our political identifications tend to associate us with both a largely unknown past and an unpredictable future, is the Anarchist’s Dilemma as well, and if the “retrospective” character of anarchist development is considerably less pronounced in the broader movement, it may just be because there is less perceived need to address history at all. When we do attempt to go “back to basics” with any sort of historical perspective, the difficulties seem very familiar.

What the work on ungovernability didn’t really address is that behind whatever we choose to call “the tradition,” there is something even more ungovernable, the raw flood of events from which any sort of historical tradition must be assembled. That’s ultimately what I was gesturing at, years back, when I first began to talk about the “libertarian labyrinth.” If we do “movement history” or search for the limits of “the tradition,” we find ourselves building a sort of ever-more-complex maze around the ideological points we have chosen to focus on, and there’s not much choice but to wander back and forth, and back and forth, from the points we think we know down untraveled paths, hoping to find a break in the hedges that will lead us out onto some terrain better adapted to our goals. It’s not quite as bad as that might make it sound, of course, since anarchism as we’ve inherited it isn’t such a bad place to be, and even many of the dead ends we might explore in the neighborhood are interesting. A few are, of course, horrifying, but you’ll have that. Anarchism is a fairly high-stakes endeavor—the sort of thing that can go very badly wrong if it starts to go that way.

In many ways, life within the labyrinth is just life. Anarchism is the movement towards anarchy, not just any old thing, and the struggles over just how that movement is to proceed are to be welcomed, as long as we keep moving forward. Anarchism, too, proceeds by approximation. So I can disagree with the conclusions of a Black Flame, while having a great deal of sympathy with at least parts of the project. There is really no question, when the issue is history and tradition, of somehow occupying a space in that “raw flood of events,” without ideological or historiographic anchors on some firmer terrain—unless, that is, the point is simply to be swept away.

For all my frustrations with the anarchist movement, I don’t see any advantages in pulling up anchor in that way. If anything, I’m prepared to push quite a bit harder against the status quo on some of the questions surrounding the definition of “anarchism”—but that’s where my work as a theorist is, in some important ways, at least temporarily diverging from my work as a historian.

There are two moments or movements in the sort of history I’ve been doing. In one of them, the work opens existing generalizations about those canons, traditions, and orthodoxies to new data and new interpretations of old data, almost inevitably blurring the edges of things. In the other, it’s necessary to make decisions about what is wheat and what is chaff. We can think of the process in terms of a progress by approximation, of the creation and recreation of “metaphysical” concepts (in the sense Proudhon gave that term in Justice), or perhaps, incorporating a bit more obvious “high theory” (from Georges Bataille, in this case) we could think about the relationship between “the tradition” and the “raw flood” as something like that between limited and general economies of anarchism. This last approach confronts us with the likelihood that there is always some “accursed share,” some bit of “raw” anarchist history that must be excluded in order to formulate any given account of the tradition.

Sometimes it seems that the “accursed share” involved in maintaining “the tradition” is an awful lot of what we might otherwise call “anarchist history:” the deviations, heresies, and failures not useful as propaganda tools; the lives of anarchists beyond their political projects and commitments; the near-misses, close cousins, and the anti-authoritarian practices of those who never took on the label, or even fought against “anarchy” or “anarchism,” as they understood it; etc.

It’s the potentially treacherous, roiling mess of anarchisms, near anarchisms, and unexplored or unclassified potential anarchisms that I want to explore in a new radical history blog, which will launch fairly soon now, under the name “Dispatches from the Revolution—Atercracy.” [Now live!] The word “atercracy” is a borrowing from, and tribute to, Claude Pelletier, a French worker exiled after the French Revolution of 1848, who settled in New York City to make artificial flowers and agitate for something fairly close to Proudhonian mutualism in the context of the Union Républicaine de Langue Française. For Pelletier, “atercracy” was another way of saying “anarchy,” without the existing connotations of disorder and violence. For the purposes of the next phase of things here, I would like to use the term to signify that “general economy” or “raw flood” of historical events from which we draw our understandings of “anarchism”—and at the same time, over on the new history blog, I would like to make the question of whether or not this or that figure, or institution, or proposal, or event, “is anarchist” at least temporarily off limits. There will be no shortage of other questions to ponder, as we take on all the material bound to rush in as we pull down that particular wall. And I will undoubtedly be provocatively concrete enough about “anarchism” here on the Contr’un blog.

So, that’s one terminological monstrosity, which at least has a good, radical pedigree, however unknown it may be to most anti-authoritarian radicals, to mark a continuation of the exploratory project I launched with my first departures into the realm of mutualism and the first Libertarian Labyrinth archive. That leaves the three key-terms so prominently displayed in the header to be clarified, as I stop hemming and hawing here and get things really rolling again.

Contr’un, as I’ve said, is drawn from the subtitle of Etienne de la Boetie’s work on voluntary servitude. It has been translated as “anti-dictator” and might, with a little Proudhonian spin, be rendered as something close to “anti-authority.” But given all that we know about Proudhon’s understanding of individuality and collectivity, his tendency to find antinomic conflict in pretty much everything, and his understanding of human individuals as “free absolutes,” we might be tempted to think of the contr’un as a “counter-one,” as an antinomic one. This antinomic one will take some time to describe, as we unpack its various aspects, but it will be the star of the show as I move forward with the work on Everything in the Balance. For now, longtime readers (or those interested in searching the archives) can think about what that notion might mean for the “gift economy of property,” and how it relates to my flirtations with the thought of Stirner and Pierre Leroux.

The last two terms, contr’archy and guarantism, are a neologism, derived from an obvious source, and a borrowing from Fourier, but borrowed already by Proudhon, with which I would like to mark two antinomic tendencies of anarchist practice. This first—which might easily have been contr’anarchism, were that not an even more barbarous coinage—will designate the tendency of the quest for “full anarchism” to sacrifice everything for the anti-authoritarian principle, while the second—which Proudhon sometimes used as a synonym for mutualism—will designate the drive to achieve a material amelioration of conditions, even if, at times, the approximations sacrifice the principle in ways that trouble us. At least for now, any anarchism seems stuck, in practice, negotiating some path between these two endpoints—striving to find the balance that Proudhon called justice.

How long these terms remain useful will depend on a variety of factors, but for now I think that there is some use in making anarchism a little strange, as well as in identifying a little more specifically the various elements we can expect to deal with in a more-or-less Proudhonian examination of anarchist theory. And the somewhat awkward borrowings from the tradition have their place as well, if only to remind us that even anarchist history and theory may be built on a foundation of suppressed voices. We’ll keep at least some of those potentially silenced voices close by here as we make hard choices about anarchist theory.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2628 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.