A Schematic Anarchism: Notes on Application


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MAPPINGS: Notes for an Introduction
GREAT DIVIDES: Lessons of the Outbound Journey
SOURCES: The First Leg of the Journey
    CONFLUENCES: The Final Leg of the Journey

      One thing leads to another. In this case, a rereading of Proudhon’s War and Peace—in the new English translation—led back to his unpublished Economie manuscripts, where some methodological writings that I had neglected on earlier readings suggested refinements of the schematic anarchism toolkit. I’ll try to address all of this in some brief notes.

      The Anarchy of Definition

      Anarchists struggle to define “anarchism.” We struggle to defend existing definitions against the subversions and appropriations of ideological rivals. More than a few of our struggles arise from the fact that we act like the practice of definition should produce results that are really definitive, in the sense of being final. That leads some people to try to preempt discussion with entries from the dictionary of their choice and others to fall back on the truism that “words mean different things to different people” (often while still clinging to their personal meanings as if they were somehow authoritative.)

      I think that it’s safe to say that definition is an ongoing process, but never, despite our best efforts or greatest indifference, a free-for-all. These qualities arguably mark it as an anarchic practice, even in the midst of predominantly archic social relations, despite the attempts of lexicographers and ideologues to throw their weight around. The extent to which a conscious engagement with that particular sort of everyday anarchy might function as a prefigurative practice is one that perhaps we have to explore more seriously.

      In the meantime, we can at least recognize that a lot of our familiar keywords have been shaped, and continue to be shaped, by ongoing conflicts. And it may be the case that what is most in need of defending is not any specific attempt to establish the definitive, but the ongoing anarchy of definition.

      Definable and Indefinable Notions

      Proudhon never finished his proposed course on political economy, but the Economie manuscripts have already proven a valuable resource, thanks to the extended discussions of the theory of collective force that they contain. It turns out that they also contain some very useful discussion of concepts and meaning.

      These are writings from roughly the same period as The Philosophy of Progress, where Proudhon discussed the nature of truth and meaning in language, and The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, where he exhibited a strange indifference to the precise meaning given to the word anarchy. Those writings have been among the inspirations for “A Schematic Anarchism,” where the one weird trick proposed involves searching for a “sweet spot” where the most naive “common sense” about anarchy overlaps with the sorts of nuanced interpretation that comes from immersion in the study of the anarchist past.

      Rereading War and Peace recently, I encountered passages that struck me as similar in tone to those in The General Idea and, thanks to the vaguest sort of recollection and a bit of direction from a colleague, I found myself on a deep dive into parts of the Economie manuscripts that I had previously neglected. I have posted some draft translations of relevant sections, but the argument, which appears as part of the introductory material for the unfinished course in political economy, is fairly simple.

      Proudhon claims that the concepts used by the political economists—defenders of capitalism. identified explicitly as reactionaries—are basically all indefinable notions. Definability, in the sense he gives the term here, is really reserved for a very small number of concepts, such as geometric shapes, which can be presented in formulas. Most concepts require us to either assemble a series connecting the varied instances or provide some other kind of explanatory narrative. The indefinability of notions is not necessarily a strike against them, but it is a quality that has to be accounted for.

      This approach, which breaks the realm of ideas down into a comparatively small number of formulas and a very large number of stories, is arguably just a particularly radical recognition of something we acknowledge when we critique the naturalization or reification of concepts. But confronting it in its starkest form seems useful in the present context. After all, it’s not that we, as anarchists, have any particular reason to think that an anarchy of anarchisms or even an anarchy of anarchies is a bad thing. We’re just faced with the need to distinguish between stories that are plausible when presented as stories about anarchy and anarchism and stories that are not. And we know that not every such story is equally plausible, even if we perhaps still lack any widely shared stories that explain why that is the case.

      I want to refine and extend the story I’ve been telling about “A Schematic Anarchism” by incorporating this material from Proudhon’s work—and specifically I want to rework some of what I have said about synthesis and the possibility of adjectiveless anarchisms.

      War and Peace is surprisingly free of some of the analyses that we might expect to find there. It would seem, for example, a natural place to discuss the relationship between the kinds of conflict that give impetus to collective force and conflicts of other sorts. But those discussions are not present, as easily as we might see them featuring in the final sections on the transformation of war into a still dynamic, conflict-driven peace. What we do find is some of the language of “indefinable notions,” as when peace is described as a “still unknown and absolutely indefinable” state of relations. War and peace, we are told, “call to one another, define each other reciprocally, complete and sustain one another, like the opposite, but adequate and inseparable terms of an antinomy.” These notions seem, in Proudhon’s view, to be inescapable. He describes war as “divine, which is to say primordial, essential to life, to the very production of man and society.” As peace is simply the frère ennemi of war—reciprocally bound in that Proudhonian sense that combines interconnection and antagonism—presumably it has a similarly inescapable character. However, the inevitability of these notions does not seem to arise from any fixed truth associated with them, but—if I may put it this way—from their capacity to force us to tell particular genres of stories.

      Now, the classification of an important category of ideas as at once indefinable and “divine” (etc.) is probably enough to provoke a heavy sigh, but War and Peace is a work where Proudhon’s familiar rhetorical play reaches heights unmatched in the more familiar works. I took the time to reread the first few studies in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church before reading the new translation of War and Peace and found the experience equal parts enlightening and disorienting. Much of the earlier work involves Proudhon telling a new set of anarchistic, anti-absolutist stories about notions like justice, morality, rights, law, etc., establishing a sense of these terms that one can apply to the early chapters of War and Peace, but Proudhon only very gradually introduces the most relevant of those senses in his analysis of war. As a result, those early chapters can force readers familiar with the early works to wrestle with a good deal of uncertainty about precisely which senses of some of the most important terms are in play. And then there are those passages where Proudhon seems both aware that this might be the case and quite consciously unbothered by the possibility.

      There are days when I can just about hear old P.-J. laughing at me. At times, that seems like a good excuse to try to confront him head-on. Understanding the difficulties associated with incorporating Proudhon’s theories of language and meaning into an already complicated set of explorations, my attitude has often been “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” But perhaps enough of the groundwork has been laid to make the task both useful and achievable.

      In the Silence of the Gods

      I read the new translation of War and Peace with the French text beside me, figuring I could use all the help that I could get. The experience reinforced some of my ideas about translation, as I was at times simultaneously pleased with the interpretation presented to me and forced to supplement it with additional translations of my own. I learned lessons I hope to incorporate into a forthcoming E. Armand collection, where the “right” answer to the problem of translation seems to be simply providing more than one rendering of at least one key text.

      I want to talk more about those lessons in another context. For now, I just want to introduce my own translation of a passage that seems relevant to these notes.

      In principle, every war indicates a revolution. In primitive times, it is the act whereby two peoples, driven to fusion by proximity and interests, have a tendency to seek mutual absorption, each for its own particular profit. Suppose that, at the point where battle is joined, Right were suddenly able to appear, like a god, and address the two armies. What would Right say? It would say that the revolution, which must change the circumstances of both peoples, is inevitable, legitimate, providential and sacred; that, as a result, there are grounds to proceed, while preserving each nation’s rights and prerogatives, and while sharing the sovereignty of the new State between them, in proportion to their strength. The divine verdict here would merely be the application of the right of force.

      But, in the silence of the gods, men do not accept revolutions that run counter to their interests; they even conclude that revolutions are an affront to Divinity. In the silence of the gods, they do not consider a proportional sovereignty to be an adequate compensation for complete sovereignty, and they reject any such arrangement. In the silence of the gods, finally, they refuse to acknowledge the superiority of the enemy; they would feel themselves dishonored by surrendering without a fight to a lesser force. They all prefer instead the armed path, each hopeful, each flattering themselves that luck in battle will be with them.”

      So the duel is inevitable…

      At this point, I’m not even sure what about this strange, suggestive passage sent me searching the French text or even why, once I had done so, I was a bit haunted by the phrase “dans le silence des dieux.” But I have increasingly come to think of that phrase as a rather wonderful expression of the kind of privative circumstances that I have been associating with anarchy in recent writings.

      Anarchy is what happens in the absence of the very things we are led to believe will always be present.

      In War and Peace, Proudhon has been arguing in favor of the legitimacy of the judgments of war—at least in particular forms, sometimes hard to see clearly through the distorting effects of polysemy. There is a sense in which he seems to be arguing precisely that something stands above the battlefields, in possession of a judgment that he is prepared—again, in particular senses and within particular limits—that he is prepared to treat as an expression of right and justice. If we take a small leap and say that the judgment is an expression of the collective reason—one of the subjects of Justice in the Revolution and in the Church—we don’t have to look any further than the Economie manuscripts to find Proudhon providing a secular understanding of gods (as characteristic collective forms) that would give a less metaphorical sense to some of the imagery. So the new and surprising element here is perhaps not the presence of “the gods,” but precisely their silence.

      Any adequate answer to the questions raised here has to be obtained through more than just riffing on attractive passages and ideas. I want to start a thorough examination of these questions in a series of posts under the general title “In the Silence of the Gods,” starting with a careful rereading of The Philosophy of Progress. In the meantime, the possibility of treating anarchy and anarchism in much the same way that Proudhon treated war and right—treating those terms as perhaps both inescapable and indefinable, but also as present to, but inexpressible by collective reason—suggested a rethinking of my appropriations of anarchist synthesis and anarchism without adjectives.

      Three Adjectiveless Anarchisms

      It’s no very great leap from the position I had already taken in “A Schematic Anarchism” to the one I’ve been exploring in Proudhon’s manuscripts. In general, I have been proposing that we shift our approach from endless, more or less interminable arguments about whether or not a given ideology or practice is anarchism or not to analyses of proposed anarchisms that ask: “If we treat X as an instance of anarchism, in what sense is that claim true and how does it compare to other instances?” The answers to that question ought to demonstrate that some of the proposed anarchisms only qualify in the most trivial senses, on the basis of the most implausible explanations, while others can be plausibly situated among the ranks of anarchisms on the basis of a variety of plausible narratives.

      I’m inclined to think that we are on solid ground treating anarchy as one of those unavoidable notions, at least in the context of societies like our own, where authority has been naturalized. We live “in the silence of the gods,” no matter how many people offer themselves as mouthpieces or interpreters, leaving us always at least close to a privative state with respect to any of definitive authority. At the same time, it’s easy to accept that anarchy might be indefinable in Proudhon’s sense, forcing us to tell stories and create series in order to give a clearer sense of what we mean by the word.

      The question is whether adding these considerations to those already acknowledged changes anything important about the potentially “adjectiveless” anarchist forms I have proposed as comparatively fixed elements in the new analysis. For now, I think that the answer is “no”—but, at the same time, I want to refine my proposal and add a third form of anarchism as such to the toolkit.

      1. — A Schematic Anarchism

      In the revised context, let’s treat the schematic anarchism as, if perhaps not quite definable in Proudhon’s sense, at least very nearly so. My goal in crafting an abstract “formula” was to establish the basis for the creation of a series, to reduce the amount of story-telling necessary to present this particular anarchism. It obviously gains in definability by having no application except as a formula. When we place it within a typology of anarchism and compare it to others proposed, it obviously suffers as much as any of the others from its partial character. Where it differs—and where it perhaps shines—is precisely in its amenability to definition, which allows it to serve as a stable point of comparison.

      I feel comfortable, for now, calling the schematic anarchism the one definable form of anarchism—but, if we were to consign it to the realm of the indefinable, I think we could still say that, in a context where the various stories we could tell about anarchism seem destined to conflict with one another, it is perhaps the story that will conflict with the fewest plausible contenders.

      2. Anarchism-in-General

      Moving forward, I want to treat anarchism-in-general as anarchism as it is present to the collective reason, with the understanding that the theory of the collective reason is something that still needs considerable explanation. 

      Anarchism-in-general is the story we would tell if somehow we could tell all the stories suggested by the word “anarchism.” in the absence of the stories that would allow or require us to choose. It is, as I have said before, not a tendency to which anyone belongs or an ideology to which anyone subscribes. It is, however, something at least potentially invoked whenever there is loose talk about anarchism, so that it is real in at least one important sense, but arguably not expressible. It posits limits on new attempts at definition or it poses challenges. It provides the standards for judging the plausibility of stories about anarchism, even if the mechanisms are a bit hard to pin down.

      Thinking about these difficulties in the context of Proudhon’s theory may not simplify anything, but perhaps it gives us an occasion for applying some of the theory we find in War and Peace in a context other than that of the study of war. 

      3. A Blazing Star / A Beautiful Idea

      So far, so good. We capture a lot of what is most simply given about anarchism when we think about it in its most formulaic sense and in its most general historical expression, but there is at least one critically important, obvious aspect that we haven’t yet addressed.

      We have yet to deal directly with anarchism as a provocation and an expression of at least a certain kind of extremism. I have already suggested that, when it comes to judging what proposed anarchisms are most plausibly understood as such, some will aim to dispense with such trivial sorts of archy that they will be hard to take seriously, but even the most implausible claims to the label seem intent on making some claim to extremity. The “anarchist” capitalist or nationalist believes, or wants others to believe, that their version of the status quo is really pretty “out there.”

      By itself, however, recognizing this widely shared quality of anarchisms doesn’t necessarily get us very far. Sometimes style is just style—and sometimes it is nothing more than pretense—but, in any case, I think what we are likely to find is that the style of the provocation involved and the form of extremity invoked are going to be key issues, determined by elements we have already begun to discuss.

      What interests me in this particular context, where it’s a question of developing tools for the ongoing work of anarchist synthesis, is not the ways in which anarchism attempts various kinds of external provocation, but instead the ways in which certain anarchists and certain anarchist tendencies have embraced anarchy as an internal provocation and a problem that anarchism may never entirely solve. Early in my own exploration of synthesis, in “Anarchy as a Beacon and as a Focus for Synthesis,”I invoked William Batchelder Greene’s notion of “the Blazing Star” to suggest some of the ways in which our commitment to anarchy itself confronts us with the need to look well beyond our current projects if we are really pursuing that elusive ideal. I’ve cited “The Anarchist Tension” elsewhere, in the service of similar arguments. Those familiar with the work will have no trouble finding plenty of evidence that, for me, the “beautiful idea” of anarchy always calls for greater efforts and expanded explorations.

      It seems to me that anarchist synthesis, as I have been presenting it, demands a conception of some potential anarchism, which wouldn’t simply reflect the minimum, schematic elements of anarchism as a concept or its past expressions, but would indicate at least the hope for a state, however unreachable it might be in practice, in which all of our explorations and consultations might result in something like full anarchism. At the same time, it seems to demand a conception of anarchism-in-practice that always falls at least a bit short of that full flowering. I have a sense that something like that combination of elements is implied by some very common understandings of the provocative, extreme side of anarchism—but I’ll admit that I’m still struggling to make as compelling a case as I like to think I have with the other two adjectiveless anarchisms proposed.

      Perhaps that half-facetious notion of full anarchism at least gives us a place to start looking for a more complete rationale. We might expect a “full” anarchism to be anarchism at its most anarchistic—which we might understand as anarchism at its most resistant to the kinds of fixity we so often associate with isms of various sorts. The familiar objection that “organized anarchy” amounts to some kind of contradiction in terms might, we have to suspect, be backed up by a range of arguments, ranging from the most uniformed to some of the most subtle available to us.

      I guess I will leave things there for now, with two anarchisms clarified and one additional, problematic conception proposed. Perhaps more application of the schematic anarchism toolkit will suggest additional clarifications.

      Episodes in Another History

      Providing a useful account of the relationships between the various partial anarchisms will obviously be a much more involved process than sketching out these “adjectiveless” outliers. Some of that work probably can’t be done outside of the reexamination of anarchist history that I’ve started to outline. But I do have a fairly substantial archive of comparatively simple statements describing various kinds of anarchism from various periods, tendencies and regions. Application of the tools of the schematic anarchism to a selection of those accounts, alongside a similar examination of various precursors and near-anarchisms, out to at least suggest some of the considerations that will need to be kept in mind during the more concerted explorations.

      I’ll probably start that work right away, in a series of posts quite consciously focused on curiosities from the anarchist past. I have been working on compiling a series of “collected works” volumes of my own writings and one of the things that I’ve found I miss from the early days of this project was the fairly steady stream of historical novelties, which sometimes constituted the majority of what I was sharing with readers. Revisiting some of my favorite anarchist and anarchist-adjacent episodes sounds like good fun—and doubly so if I can, in the process, simplify things when it is time to focus on more mainstream elements.

      A Summary

      November 10, 2022 — Feedback suggests that a quick summary might be useful.

      The schematic anarchism is a formula—or as close to a formula as we are likely to come when describing the range of anarchisms. The “exploded view” I have proposed looks like this:

      anarchism ↔ (((((an + arche)X)ist)X)ism)

      The most important variables in the formula are the arche to be dispensed with and the individual or associated group of individuals (marked by the X) who will craft a response to that perceived problem.

      It is an “adjectiveless” anarchism in the sense that the specification and focus all comes from those variables and from the specific environment in which the formula informs a particular anarchism. It is definable, in Proudhon’s sense, because the story-telling and series-constructing only starts once we have to account for a particular instance of anarchism.

      I have described the various specific, practical anarchisms as “partial,” following suggestions in Voline’s 1924 essay “On Synthesis,” because a narrowing of focus from anarchy as such to an engagement with a particular archy seems more or less inevitable, if we are taking particular struggles seriously. That assumption then becomes the basis for suggesting that anarchist synthesis might be understood as an additional practice, shared by or distributed among all anarchists, with an aim to retaining a shared connection to the fundamental “beautiful idea” in its fullest forms.

      I have suggested here, in a preliminary manner, that a distinction between anarchism as formula and anarchism as ideal is probably necessary if we are to capture both the general sense of the term, based on widely recognizable etymological elements, and its general impact as an expression of extreme, potentially intractable ideas.

      Most of what I have described so far is a question of specific, individual formulations—products of individual reason or of interactions on scales where we could, with a bit of work, trace the main interactions involved. Even anarchism-as-ideal, if it to function as a guide in the practice of synthesis, arguably has to be something that individual anarchists conceive in their own terms. All of that construction of anarchisms we discussed in the recent workshop remains a fundamental skill to be learned and honed by anarchists.

      Anarchism-in-general—understood as the full range of practical, historical manifestations of anarchist thought and activity—seems to be “adjectiveless” simply because of its imponderable inclusiveness. Unlike the various individual constructions, it is a product of collective forces, on which the various individual contributions may have had more or less impact, but which has its particular character precisely because it exists on far larger scales than those of more clearly individual projects. I am probably still using the term in ways that conflate unlike things: the mass of historical events I tend to call the anarchist past and the more-than-individual conception that might exist in the collective reason proposed by Proudhon. At this stage, that probably isn’t a serious problem. We simply need to recognize that our individual (or closely associated) attempts to grapple with anarchism-in-general in its truly collective sense will almost certainly involve some kind of individual interpretation, reduction or construction.

      There are undoubtedly more clarifications that might be made, but let’s leave it there for now.

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