Toward a General Theory of Archy


 A lot of my frustrations with the anarchist milieu have less to do with the sorts of internal problems we face, which seem to me to be logical manifestations of the larger social environment, and more to do with the fact that, even if we had the will to address the various things that hold us back, we might not have enough shared theory and vocabulary to get the job done. But, as I have said, my feelings of alienation have been parallel to, and undoubtedly also arise from, a very strong sense of having finally plumbed a lot of the depths of anarchist theory and history. The combination leaves me very few excuses for putting off writing the sort of general anarchist theory that I have been circling for the last few years, something I’ve been wrestling with as I added the role of anthologist to the various other roles I’ve played within the milieu. I could be generally agnostic about defining terms like anarchy and anarchism—in their various senses—as long as the primary vehicles for my work were blogs like this one, the Libertarian Labyrinth archives and Corvus Editions. It’s been easy to treat everything as a working translation or a sketch for a chapter in a work to be completed when more data had been gathered. And it has also been extremely useful to do so, and not to tie myself prematurely to a particular guiding narrative. Opening anarchism onto itself and its possibilities, by documenting all the messiness of its history and the complexities of its earliest theories, has, I think, been an extremely useful project, and one in the context of which I think I can claim some real accomplishments.

It is, however, only part of the work necessary to rethink the milieu in terms that allow us to move on beyond existing obstacles. Adding complexity to the narrative of anarchist history and showing the permeability of sectarian boundaries is a good tonic for those who think of our problems in terms of rigidity, dogmatism, etc. For us—and I proudly count myself a member of that particular faction—more anarchy in our anarchism just seems natural. By itself, however, this approach doesn’t necessarily have much to offer those who are concerned that anarchy might ultimately be a principle of pure dispersion, insufficient to guide us toward the specific changes we desire in our lives and relations. Fortunately, the sort of clarification of the idea of anarchy that would be necessary to chase the fears of this group is likely to be of use to the rest of us as well, and that other work of opening closed narratives and engaging complexity has probably unearthed everything we need to attempt some sort of positive account of anarchy as sufficient to the needs of anarchism—a narrative shareable by a variety of present tendencies, but also one suggesting a shared thread through various historical tendencies.

In my present state of dissatisfaction with the anarchist milieu, such a narrative, while shareable, can’t help but also be a sort of provocation. For me, one of the lessons of the past couple of years is that some “sectarian” battles, very narrowly defined, are indeed worth fighting. To embrace “anarchism without adjectives” in any sense that is not absurd and ultimately indifferent is to adopt the hardest sort of line against any sect that would attempt to ground anarchism on any basis but the shifting ground of anarchy. That means taking a stand against the various would-be “anarcho”-authoritarianisms and the ideological quibbling of various competing approaches. So feel free to take what follows as quite consciously polemic. Just understand that I’m pretty sure it’s a well-grounded polemic, the product of decades of thinking about these issues, and, of course, it is not just polemic.

Nearly everything I have written recently converges on this potential shareable narrative, with the “Propositions for Discussion” being the central bit of work. In the sections that I’ve outlined so far I’ve set up a couple of basic claims about anarchy:

  1. The nature of the idea of anarchy leaves very little room for arguments about definitions—unless they are rather fruitless fights about etymology and whether anarchy is “the right word” for what anarchists have proposed. As anarchists have understood it, at least, anarchy really does “accept no adjectives.”
  2. The majority of our disputes have really been over the range of human relations for which anarchy seems to be a suitable ideal. When we get bogged down in debates over whether a capitalist employer is a ruler, the question really seems to be whether the relationships we oppose in the political and economic realms are sufficiently of a type that principled opposition to one demands opposition to the other.

It is at this point that our lack of shared vocabulary and theory makes our lives very difficult. We have our laundry lists of things that we oppose—oppression, exploitation, hierarchy, authority, absolutism, privilege, government or governmentalism, statism, sexism, racism, patriarchy, etc., etc., etc.—but all of these terms are subject to the usual tug-of-war that determines the local meanings of ideologically charged words. In the end, even anarchists can’t agree on what they all mean. Marxists and Proudhonists will see different sources for the exploitation of labor, and different mechanisms in its operation. Anarchists will trot out Bakunin’s “defenses” of “the authority of the bookmaker” and the “invisible dictatorship” almost as often as our opponents. Some anarchists are perfectly comfortable with the notion of “anarchist law” and complain that “anarchy mean no rulers, not no rules”—and there are ways to turn the various words in those phrases in directions that are consistent with the main currents of anarchist thought, but it’s very hard to tell at any given moment if that’s what’s on the table. We need a way of defining the “archy” that unites the various things that we’re against, but, if anything, the trend at the moment seems to be away from that sort of approach and toward a taxonomy of oppressions that are considered either incommensurable or subject to a rigid sort of hierarchy of severity.

I’ve had a suspicion for a long time—a thought I’ve voiced here on a number of occasions—that there was something in Proudhon’s analysis of unity-collectivities and collective force that might serve to bring together at least some of these opposition into a kind of General Theory of Things Anarchists Oppose. But there are at least a couple of steps in making that case. First, there is the necessity of finding the connections, or at least clear grounds for the connections, in Proudhon’s own work—where, we can be sure, any standard for identifying archic relationships will have been applied somewhat unevenly. Then, it is necessary to demonstrate that the proposed standards are applicable under present conditions, in the context of 21st century anti-authoritarian discourse. If, for example, it was possible to find parallels between the critique of capitalism and the critique of governmentalism in What is Property?, it would still be necessary to show that the critique could be extended to patriarchy and that it would either connect those analyses to, say, the analysis of privilege or demonstrate why that connection wasn’t necessary.

The hardest part of reading Proudhon’s work is probably simply the sheer number of writings, and the very diverse nature of them, joined with the fact that, for Proudhon, there was obviously a great deal of connection between the various analyses. I’ve noted more than once how often a key piece of theory will be tucked away in some entirely unexpected place. The presence of key remarks on the nature of the “citizen-State” in The Theory of Taxation is just one example. The various twists and turns in Proudhon’s use of keywords—well-documented over the years on this blog—is another complicating factor. The strategy I’ve had to develop to deal with these problems has involved a lot of keyword-searching across all the digitized volumes, a lot of mapping of equivalent terms, and the establishment of chronological accounts of the development of various concepts. Another decade or two of that and I think I’ll know Proudhon’s work pretty well, but the last decade of it has arguably given me a useful sense of the broad outlines of his project, with really in-depth knowledge of some aspects of it. And if some of the mysteries of his use of words like anarchy and anarchist still elude me, the nature of our elusive archy has become increasingly clearly to me.

As I’ve been suggesting over on, some key answers seem to have been hiding in plain sight, clustered around the famous claim that “property is theft.” It took some time to clear away a lot of dubious interpretations of that phrase, to focus on the issue of “collective force” and get clear about the account of exploitation provided in 1840. That work accomplished, it because possible to see that a fundamentally similar account of governmentalism was present in various places, such as the “Little Political Catechism” in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church. And when the manuscripts of Economie became available online, we gained Proudhon’s own testimony that the two processes were, in fact, fundamentally the same in his estimation. It took wading through the “Catechism of Marriage” to see that Proudhon’s strong feelings about the physical inequality of the sexes was still joined to a strong insistence on other sorts of equality—a state of affairs that is hard not to find maddening, but which seems nonetheless to have been the case–which opens at ;east the possibility of attempting to extend Proudhon’s anarchic critique to the institution of patriarchy  (as I started to do in “.”)

It turns out that Proudhon may have even laid some of the foundations for an extension of his own critique. In the “Little Political Catechism,” he wrote:

Of the Appropriation of the Collective Forces, and the Corruption of the Social Power

Q.—Is it possible that a phenomenon as considerable as that of the collective force, which changes the face of ontology, which almost touches physics, could have been concealed for so many centuries from the attention of the philosophers? How, in relation to something that interests them so closely, did the public reason, on the one hand, and personal interest, on the other, let themselves be misled for such a long time?

A.—Nothing comes except with the passage of time, in science as in nature. All starts with the infinitely small, with a seed, initially invisible, which develops little by little, toward the infinite. Thus, the persistence of error is proportional to the size of the truths. Thus, one is thus not surprised if the social power, inaccessible to the senses in spite of its reality, seemed to the first men an emanation of the divine Being, for this reason the worthy object of their religion. As little as they knew how to realize it through analysis, they had a keener sense of it, quite different in this respect from the philosophers who, arriving later, made of the State a restriction on the freedom of citizens, a mandate of their whim, a nothingness. Even today, the economists have barely identified the collective force. After two thousand years of political mysticism, we have had two thousand years of nihilism: one could not use another word for the theories which have held sway since Aristotle.

Q.—What was the consequence of this delay in knowledge of the collective Being for peoples and States?

A.—The appropriation of all collective forces and the corruption of social power; in less severe terms, an arbitrary economy and an artificial constitution of the public power.

Q.—Explain yourself on these two headings.

A.—By the constitution of the family, the father is naturally invested with the ownership and direction of the force issuing from the family group. This force soon increases from the work of slaves and mercenaries, the number of which it contributes to increase. The family becomes a tribe: the father, preserving his dignity, sees the power he has grow proportionately. It is the starting point, the type of all such appropriations. Everywhere where a group of men is formed, or a power of collectivity, there is formed a patriciate, a seigniory. Several families, several societies, together, form a city: the presence of a superior force is felt at once, the object of the ambition of all. Who will become its agent, its recipient, its organ? Usually, it will be that of the chiefs who hold sway over the most children, parents, allies, clients, slaves, employees, beasts of burden, capital, land—in a word, those who have at their disposal the greatest force of collectivity. It is a natural law that the greater force absorbs and assimilates the smaller forces, and that domestic power becomes a title of political power, and only the strong may compete for the crown.

There is a good deal here that is interesting, but certainly nothing is more interesting, from the point of view of moving beyond Proudhon’s anti-feminism, than this treatment of the father and the constitution of the family as the example of how the “appropriation of all collective forces and the corruption of social power” gets its start.

I don’t want to get too bogged down in the textual details here, but if you wanted to explore them yourself you couldn’t go too far wrong by tracking down the various references to this “power of collectivity” (puissance de collectivité.) Regular readers of the blog should recognize the phrase from a line from Justice that I have quoted many times:

Voilà tout le système social : une équation, et par suite une puissance de collectivité.

That is the whole social system: an equation, and consequently a power of collectivity.

I have generally used this as a description of anarchy, to the extent that its fundamentally anti-systemic character can be expressed in terms of a system. (This sort of slightly paradoxical relation of anarchy to archic systems, which I have already mentioned in the case of Bakunin, seems to be something of an occupational hazard for anarchist theorists.) What I’ve suggested is that anything that can’t fit into this very simple model probably falls somewhere within the realm of archic relations. But perhaps we can clarify things just a bit more, with another look at the two elements of this “system.”

Let’s start with the equation. Proudhon describes the scenario he is imagining:

Two families, two cities, two provinces, contract on the same footing: there is always that these two things, an equation and power of collectivity. It would involve a contradiction, a violation of Justice, if there were anything else.

So, here, the equation is a matter of being “on the same footing,” of equal standing between the parties. Equality was an extremely important keyword for Proudhon. Society, for example, was essentially a synonym, in the sense that equality was the primary precondition for relations worth calling “social.” But Proudhon was at the same time very skeptical of any sort of material equality. In The Philosophy of Progress he wrote:

…the correlative of liberty is equality, not a real and immediate equality, as communism intends, nor a personal equality, as the theory of Rousseau supposes, but a commutative and progressive equality, which gives a completely different direction to Justice.

And later in the same work:

Some philosophers who think themselves profound, and who are only impertinent, imagine that they have found a flat refusal of the principle of equality, which forms the basis of the anti-proprietary critique. They say that there are not two equal things in the whole universe.—Very well. Let us admit that there have not been two equal things in the world: at least one will not deny that all have been in equilibrium, since, without equilibrium, as without movement, there is no existence.

So equality become, through its “commutative and progressive” character, closely connected to reciprocity, defined by Proudhon as “the mutual penetration of antagonistic elements,” and roughly synonymous with justice, which he understood in terms of the balance of interests among equals. And all of them are essentially aspects of anarchy, understood in its most general sense.

Of course, as interesting as all that is, and as vital as it is to understanding Proudhon, it doesn’t necessarily take us much closer to the sort of tools we need to recognize archy whenever we encounter it. For that, we have to look at the other half of Proudhon’s “system,” the “power of collectivity” and the ways in which it is appropriated and corrupted.

There’s nothing terribly complicated about the “power of collectivity,” which is, of course, the “collective force” familiar from What is Property? and various other works. And there’s really nothing mysterious about the way that this force or power (puissance), which is a product of society (in the sense we’ve just noted), comes to be appropriated by individuals, who then transform it into some form of more-or-less governmental power (Pouvoir) and use it against the very society that created it. Real force changes hands as a result of relations that are in some sense collective, but lack the element of equality that would make them really social, and the rationale for this privatization is the denial of equality—in that form that is hardly distinguishable from society, reciprocity, justice, etc.—through some alternate systemization of the social body, through what Proudhon called “the external constitution of society.” Now, “external constitution” is a fiction, or at least a misunderstanding, depending on some rhetorical sleight-of-hand in order to introduce hierarchy in the place of society. Of course, one of the most common forms of this fiction is precisely the one that takes “society” as a thing, the unity-collectivity of the associated individuals, as opposed to a relation of equality and justice among them, and then elevates that real collectivity to a fictive superiority over its component members.

And now maybe things are getting a little complicated, or at least unfamiliar to those not steeped in Proudhon’s thought. If every individual is a group, and every organized group is a sort of individual, these unity-collectivities are real, and have their own interests. They even, Proudhon suggested, have a sort of “soul,” if we have to talk about what “realizes” them, but that “soul” is nothing but the collective force that it contains. But, here again, we have dipped into the realm of figurative language, aimed at identifying alternatives to those in archic systems. In a less rhetorically loaded explanation, Proudhon identified the collective force in these social beings as their liberty, so that it is precisely liberty—material liberty, everything in these social systems above the sort of bare subsistence we might expect from isolated, unassisted labor—that is appropriated by the various classes of usurpers as a means to elevate themselves. But elevation is not one of the elements of the proposed system, and Proudhon was quite clear that the composite nature of social collectivities did not grant them any authority or precedence over the individuals of which they were composed. An association of some number (N) of workers—all assumed to be on an equal footing—produces at least N+1 individuals whose interests must be balanced if justice is to be served, but those individuals all remain on that equal footing.

So, if we stopped here and tried to sketch out the characteristics of archy, what would they be? If every form of association produces a collective force, then in an anarchistic society we should expect to see that force serve the interests of all the individuals, whether human individuals or social collectivities, in a just, balanced way—not according to any mechanical, quantitative form of equality, but according to a “commutative and progressive” process of creating and maintaining an equilibrium of interests. If we borrow terms from the most familiar of Proudhon’s analyses of collective force, we should expect to see individuals compensated both individually and collectively for their contributions, with no individual or class of individuals being able to appropriated more than a balanced share. Importantly, we should find some awareness of the collective force resulting from the association and collaboration of individuals and a steady experimentation to find the best means of balancing, justifying all the various interests. And, indeed, if we follow Proudhon’s principles, as opposed to his imperfect practice, the individualities included in that balance might ultimately range “from the infinitesimal to the universal” (as Fourier might have said.) In an archic “society,” then, we can expect to find equality denied and the products of collective action individually appropriated—in most cases, precisely as a means to maintain inequality. That privatization may take the form of economic exploitation, hierarchical government, or any number of systems of inequality based on the exploitation of identitarian categories. A full analysis would have to involve sketching out a wide range of such systems, but it seems likely that virtually all of the forms of exploitation, oppression and privilege that we oppose could, in fact, be mapped onto roughly the same framework.

And if that is the case, then perhaps the problem of discovering the proper scope for the application of anarchy is not a great deal more difficult than that of defining it.

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