The Third Gift

One of the consequences of adopting this model of the encounter as a key tool is that we are confronted more directly with the ways in which Proudhon’s sociology complicates oppositions like that between individualism and socialism. On the level playing field we’re exploring, both individual human beings and all of the collective individualities enter the encounter as what I’ve been calling equal uniques, individuals, but on potentially very different scales. In the context of the analysis of Proudhon’s State-theory, I raised the practical difficulties of realizing this sort of encounter in practice between individuals of such different scales, and/or between free absolutes and collective individualities, but I think we’re seeing that perhaps there are real difficulties even when we’re just dealing with human individuals. Equal uniques in the sense we’ve been borrowing from Stirner are without a type, they are in this specific sense “the only ones.” This sense that seems to separate us all more or less absolutely is, of course, perhaps the one sense in which we can all be united as equal in a context that is truly anarchic. The type is already the beginning of the hierarchy.

Is it desirable to pursue this sort of equality-in-uniqueness? The obvious objection is that in focusing on individuality, we are likely to neglect the social. But we’ve come to this essentially egoist emphasis by a somewhat different path than most egoists, arguably even those, like James L. Walker, who mixed more than a bit of Proudhon into their philosophy. I’ve already suggested that we’ll have to distinguish between actual spooks and real, though collective individualities. And if we are happy to think of each individual as “the only one” in the sense of not being in any sense typical, there doesn’t seem to be any way to construe those individuals as alone, even in the limited, phenomenological sense that people like have John Beverley Robinson advanced. But with equal uniqueness we are positing at least some sort of fundamental incommensurability between individuals, and their experiences and values. And we always run the risk of overstating that gap in any particular context, particularly as we are also positing any number of persistent products of association, links between human individuals stable and organized enough to count as social actors in their own right. But, again, we are united at the same time we are dividing. By leveling the field on which individuals of various scales encounter one another, we hardly leave ourselves means to distinguish between individual and social, in any hierarchical sense. If we are to balance the interests of the actors that we find on that terrain, we’ll either end up addressing what we usually think of as individual and social, or we’ll have failed to do justice in some way.

We’re not just interested in precise accounts of the most specific details, nor just concerned with the general state of social collectivities, and our analysis can’t solely focus on either principles or consequences. All the aspects of Proudhon’s tend to force us to eventually look high when we start off looking low, or left when we start off looking right. If we find ourselves zigging a lot without also zagging, we can probably suspect we haven’t followed through completely. That means that a lot of the ways that we usually type our practices may not work for us.

For Proudhon, bigger was not better, in the sense that society could take precedence over the individual, or the other way around. But if he did not associate any sort of virtue with particular scales, the same is probably not true of intensities, which, for Proudhon, were bound up with the question of liberty. If we adopt the notion that freedom is essentially the measure of the intensity and complexity of the contradictions within an organized relation, we find ourselves with another of these concepts which is relatively blind to scale, but we also find a strong incentive to pursue complex analyses, so that we do not simply miss the play of freedom, and constructions which respect the complexities we expect to find in anarchic relations.

If these are our considerations as we come back to the problem of the anarchic encounter, then perhaps the sort of obsessive deepening of the chasm between individuals that I’ve arguably been engaged in looks a little less like some sort of atomistic impulse run amok. There is, of course, always something a bit amok about the contr’archic tendency to make our anarchism ever more so, but the antidote for that extremism seems to be a balancing tendency which we might suspect is going to be fairly naturally bound up with that first project. As we increase intensity, we always court the possibility of things blowing up in our faces, but, one way or another, that seems like an occupational hazard we should expect.

To better understand the dynamics of the encounter, perhaps we need to add just a bit of complexity to Proudhon’s simple model. In practice, in the midst of lives which are very deeply, strongly structured by all manner of hierarchical or potentially hierarchical elements and connections, to encounter one another in an anarchic manner probably necessitates a sort of preliminary encounter between the individual actors and the possibilities inherent in anarchy. That’s probably going to involve some staring into the abyss, some shrugging off of the hierarchies will almost inevitably be available to us, and a recognition of the other as another equally unique individual.

That recognition brings us onto familiar territory. It is a part of what I have been describing as “the gift of property,” though perhaps it is a part that we haven’t really explored yet. So far, the “gift of property” breaks down into a couple of different gifts, roughly corresponding to the rights of use and abuse, as Proudhon understood them:

  1. A conscious ceding of all that we might claim of our own in others; and
  2. An affirmation of the right to err in the process of learning to manage one’s own. 

But there seems to be another aspect of the gift, which perhaps we should just call the gift of anarchy, by means of which we relinquish all the things that might prevent the encounter from being truly anarchic. This is where anarchism differentiates itself from voluntaryism, which seems content with the persistence of existing authority, provided no “new” authority is exercised. There seem to be similar weaknesses to at least some nominally libertarian forms based on “non-aggression.” Somewhat ironically, what this suggests is that these systems are specifically inadequate to grant each their own, and secure the sort of anarchic property that we’ve been pursuing.

So, does this approach mean that we are done with all of the typical classifications through which we tend to approach our encounters with one another? Not exactly. There is still plenty of room in our scheme for those real persistences which operate as social actors. But perhaps we need to let those actors enter encounters as individuals of sorts, and take their own places in the balance of justice.

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