Archy vs. Anarchy

These short contrasting entries constitute an attempt to sketch out some basic principles of existing archic society and some anarchic alternatives. Those alternatives are drawn largely from what we have been calling the “neo-Proudhonian” project. As such, they are not necessarily the alternatives most often proposed by self-proclaimed anarchists. They are proposed, however, as a means of approaching some baseline for a consistently anarchistic synthesis of existing anarchisms. That approach will undoubtedly require considerable elaboration and clarification of the contrasting principles and tendencies presented here—but it is important to make a start.

The Polity-form: Archic social organization seems to quite consistently depend on a particular conception of social collectivities as bodies—specifically rather anthropomorphic bodies with the organs of direction placed in some “head.” This model of social collectivity seems to inform our understandings of the patriarchal family, the governmental state, the capitalist firm, the democratic People and, sometimes, even the anarchistic commune, community or federation.

The Federative Principle: An alternative principle is federation, understood in its more radical, anarchic senses. That almost certainly has to include doing more than simply networking conventional polities. Freedom from the polity-form allows considerably more flexibility in the realm of decision-making (so often a stumbling-block in discussions of anarchistic organization), potentially transforming legislative networks and assemblies into largely consultative bodies, specializing in the gathering and dissemination of the far-flung knowledge necessary as context for sound, responsible local action.

External Constitution: Proudhon described the governmental State as “the external constitution of society,” referring to the belief of some of his fellow socialists that society was not “realized” until it was given a “head,” in the form of a government, to direct it. There are probably a variety of ways in which the constitution of polities can be considered “external” to the actual associations to be “realized,” starting with the transformation of the individual into a citizen and the mass of individuals into the People—and then extending through all of the various ways in which identities are legally constituted within governmentalized collectivities.

Constitution by Association: The actual, fluid, evolving associations established between individuals and groups of individuals seldom resemble that archic centrally controlled social body. Instead, we find acephalous bodies, bodies with capacities distributed according to less anthropomorphic models and evolving networks that may stretch the metaphor of a social body to its breaking point. Among the alternatives to external constitution explored by Proudhon, we find the idea that the distinction between society and government could perhaps be erased. In its strongest statements, the proposal to replace political relations with economic relations amounts to a proposal to simply recognize the organization of daily life as all the “government” that anarchy can accommodate—a proposal that would obviously alter the way we think about daily life.

Legal and Governmental Order: Proudhon made some strong statements about the absolute opposition of anarchy and social orders rooted in authority. Without necessarily embracing the claim that there is, for example, no middle ground between anarchy and dictatorship, we perhaps have to recognize that once the possibility of binding legislation has been recognized, the limitation of the principle seems at least quite difficult. The existence of the prohibition seems to imply permission in other cases and the status of acts not already granted or denied some prior stamp of approval becomes hard to even account for.

Responsibility: In the absence of both prohibition and permission—the logical outcome of rejecting legal and governmental order—responsibility emerges as the key concept “governing” action. And anarchistic responsibility is specifically mutual responsibility in the face of uncertain consequences. Each act potentially exposes the actor to an unbounded set of possible responses, but the mutual character of this extreme exposure ought to create incentives that minimize the extremity of responses—in the interest of preventing cycles of reprisal spinning out of control, but also because the responses are no more authorized in advance than the actions themselves. Best practices for avoiding damaging conflict will almost certainly begin with some attention to the problem of carrying one’s own costs.

Hierarchy: The stratification of society, with its establishment “rights” to command and “duties” to obey, is perhaps not the whole of archy, but it is obviously a necessary element in the aspects we’ve examined so far. And perhaps it would not be too much to claim that archist social relations would be impossible without some the “elevation” of some party, sect, faction or representative symbol above the mass of not-unequal individuals and daily interactions. This notion of the “not-unequal” seems necessary, if only in passing, to avoid a simple slide to an in sufficiently examined notion of equality.

Difference, Mutual Interdependence, Reciprocity: The alternative is one in which the differences among individuals—differences of capacity, experience, interest, etc.—are treat as differences and as largely incommensurable. Where judgements about equality or inequality demand some shared scale or measure, the recognition of difference allows us to entertain the possibility that no such shared scale exists—at least where it is not imposed. And that is a possibility that anarchist thought almost certainly needs to take quite seriously, if it is to avoid naturalizing certain kinds of social hierarchy. (Fortunately, the anarchist tradition is rich in attempts to address the unique.) Viewed without an already hierarchical lens, even fairly simple social interactions seem to suggest that mutual interdependence is the norm—and where interdependence is indeed mutual, it seems hard to make a strong claim for one dependent as the element that “realizes” the potential in another, unless we do so in the very non-hierarchical sense that there is a kind of mutual “realization” in horizontal association. At that point, however, it seems more useful to consider the dynamics of association in other terms—and it is here that Proudhon’s theory of collective force seems to find its field of application. That analysis, in turn, ought to help us break down what is perhaps the most stubborn instance of the polity-form—the individual human subject—as we come to terms with reciprocity—not in terms of some simple “equal exchange,” but, in the form that Proudhon proposed, as “the mutual penetration of antagonistic elements.” (And here, as I have suggested so often in the part, Walt Whitman joins Proudhon and Stirner as a thinker with contributions to make to our emerging analysis.)

Authority: If hierarchy is a structural form dependent on some kind of imposed scale or yardstick, then authority, understood in two related senses, is the yardstick and the rationale for its imposition. The two concepts are intertwined in the common sense of archic societies and both almost certainly represent attempts on our part to make sense of the world that we find ourselves in, starting with the intuition—correct or not—that we are surrounded by something other than a random arrangement of whatever stuff the universe is built from. We imagine a creation, then a creator and then some sort of plan, before attempting to make our experiences—and our own plans—conform to those imaginations. The plan—if we could know its details—would perhaps provide the sort of authority that could serve as a standard and measure of our projects and our differences, as well as giving evidence of an ultimate source of authority. But knowledge of that ultimate, authoritative blueprint and its author seem to be the one thing that is not offered to us by any of the major schools of thought. Searching our philosophical and religious schools, we find the hypothesis that that is no plan and no author,—and that perhaps our intuition is based doubt and projection of our own capacities;—the possibility that there is indeed a plan, but one unknowable to us; and religious the option of faith, revelation, etc., which ultimately seems to want to have it both ways where the question of knowledge is concerned. There are other options as well, but it seems fairly clear that this sort of ultimate authority has never been established according to the usual standards of evidence. And an authority that cannot establish itself authoritatively seems to be nothing but an invitation to juggling and abuse.

And it doesn’t seem to matter how far we attempt to drag the meanings of authority from some divine or natural origin. There remains some sense that a particular kind of vision or knowledge provides a rationale for imposition of some standard, creating a duty to conform in those who lack it. And—all quibbling about “the authority of the bootmaker” aside—that doesn’t seem to be a notion that anarchists can consistently embrace. Bakunin himself suggested that even perfect knowledge would have to be resisted if it came to us in forms that demanded compliance.

Influence, Attention to Authority-Effects, Vigilance: With the notions of mutual interdependence and the Proudhonian version of reciprocity, we have already guaranteed that influence will be an important (if generally mutual) factor in our understanding of social relations and that expertise will find its uses. We’ve simply raised the question whether any standard can show itself sufficiently self-evident to move us from the terrain of largely incommensurable differences to that of in/equality. This objection to authority does not a denial of differences in individual power, but it does attack the means by which those differences might be naturalized and made the basis of some new, archic social form.

It  is important to recognize the extent to which what we have previously called  authority-effects can still emerge, even where the principle of authority has been rejected, simply because even the most anarchic social organization does not occur in a vacuum. There are likely to be both external, material constraints on our free associations and there are certainly no guarantees that the expertise and experience needed at any given moment will be simply given. So we will always find ourselves combining a principled opposition to the imposition of plans and standards with a vigilant concern about the kinds of accidents and externalities that might constrain some among us more than others.

This is one of the circumstances where an awareness of the dynamics of collective force is likely to be among the most important tools in our kit.

Exploitation and the Right of Escheat: What is perhaps a bit abstract when framed in terms of anti-hierarchy and anti-authoritarian theory gains considerably in practical import when we recall that Proudhon’s reimagination of anarchy took place in the midst of a critique of exploitation—a critique that he explicitly extended from the economic to the political sphere and one that we can undoubtedly extend much farther. One of the things that the analysis of exploitation provides us is a considerably more dynamic look at the consequences of archic organization and its power to continuously concentrate capital of various sorts in a comparative few hands. It isn’t just a question of a one-time appropriation of surplus value or even just the sum of all the individual instances of that kind of exploitation. To harness collective force against its primary producers is to provide oneself with the capacity to tighten the screws at various points all through the economic cycle, to transform economic wealth into political clout, etc.

Property as a Problem: Early in the period of mutualism’s reemergence, it was common in at least some of our circles to talk about “the problem of property,” acknowledging that there was a lot about the issues raised by anarchist critiques that we had perhaps not yet plumbed entirely. I think that the shift in focus toward social-scientific analysis and particularly the attention given to the dynamics of collective force have dramatically increased the questions we might raise about how best to solve that problem.

It isn’t clear that the sort of balance-of-despotism proposed in Theory of Property is well adapted to modern contexts, where the amplifying powers of collective force and the technological base are so great. For the same reasons, it isn’t clear that the familiar demand that individuals be compensated with “the full fruits of their labor” gets us very far—unless it is toward some kind of communistic arrangement, which, in turn, does not necessarily address the dangers of exploitation.

The possibility of a specifically mutualist property—raised by Proudhon in his last manuscripts—and, in general, the possibilities of anarchy in what I’ve called its resultant form, remain largely unexplored. But it seems likely that it is in this general direction that our explorations should turn.

Limited Economy: If we were to attempt a kind of philosophical summary of what has been proposed so far, pulling back from the specifics of Proudhon’s work or even the anarchist tradition in general, we might have recourse to something like the distinction made in Georges Bataille’s The Accursed Share between general and limited economies. Archic social relations are shaped by the questions that they consider answered in advance, the standards they take for granted and the structures—starting with the presence of vertical ranks—that give them their fundamental character.

General Economy: Anarchic social relations—taken in, as Proudhon put it, “the full force of the term”—are, on the contrary, characterized—at least in our present, largely archic context—by the lack of these fundamental standards and, in general, by a lack of foregone conclusions when it comes to specific arrangements. We know that archic arrangements seem to have failed in establishing their bona fides, but, beyond that, the positive implications seem to carry us into realms dominated by profusion and uncertainty. It is not, of course, a question of any of the real problems we face becoming any more difficult to solve. It may, in fact, be quite the opposite. But the loss of familiar certainties—even if they were of a dubious sort all along—does carry with it a range of new costs.

Anarchyin the full force of the term—is only negative in the sense that it precludes one particular sort of social arrangement—and one related view of the world. But, of course, that worldview has been pervasive. It has shaped our major institutions and shaped us as social subjects as well.

[There is obviously a good deal more to be said and I’ll do my best to continue developing these notes in the near future.]


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