Constructing an Anarchism: Privation

Constructing Anarchisms (WriteFreely instance):
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Moving forward, I am going to try to let the Fediverse fork of my Constructing Anarchisms project fend for itself a bit, archiving it here in appropriate sections, but letting part of the experiment be to determine just what reach the project can achieve on its own. But I do want to start to situate this particular account in my larger project as well. I am increasingly leaning toward a position that combines an emphasis on ongoing synthesis with an explicit recognition that synthesis itself does not reduce what I’ve been calling “the anarchy of anarchisms,” but instead simply changes its character. We’re probably heading back in the direction of long-dropped threads about “the anarchism of approximation,” but I’m also feeling compelled to address the ways in which my own understanding of anarchy and anarchism is already a bit of a “braided stream.” 


Privation is a state in which the essentials are lacking.

That may seem like a strange place to begin constructing an anarchism, but perhaps not when we remind ourselves that the prefix “an-” is a privative prefix. When we find a concept shaped by that prefix, we should expect to find privation, the lack or absence of something fundamental or essential. There may be exceptions, since we do all sorts of things with language, but, in general, we do not mark the absence of the merely incidental or inessential.

If we unpack “anarchy” as an-arche—”in the full force of the term,” as Proudhon put it, marking a privation with regard to fundaments and essences as such—we are really just giving the term its most general sense. We might define the term is some narrower sense, but, if we are really are marking instances of privation, the narrower sense of “archy” (government, rule, authority, hierarchy, etc.) is almost certain to mark the absence of what is presumed to be essential or fundamental in some narrower context. We can say that “anarchy” marks an absence of government (in some more or less narrowly defined sense) or a lack of hierarchy (with term similarly delimited), but the narrower definitions are unlikely to be mutually exclusive, forming instead a series of instances in which the general, abstract notion is applied to specific contexts.

This is a slightly stronger reading than I gave the etymological elements in “A Schematic Anarchism,” but I don’t think it’s too great a leap to say that a really privative “an-” forces whatever follows it to appear as an instance of arche. If we accept that logic, then perhaps it is a bit simpler to make sense of my aphoristic claim that:

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

We are left, of course, to distinguish between elements that would truly be fundamental or essential—and which we would expect simply could not be absent in any real sense—and those elements that we are led, presumably as a result of ignorance or deception, to think of in those terms, but which in fact we seem to experience as absences. Those who claim the role of “anarchist” or embrace some sort of “anarchism” will obviously make those distinctions differently than those who accept the claims regarding what is essential or fundamental in existing societies. It isn’t clear, however, than we can yet place ourselves outside of relations shaped by those claims enough to experience those absences as anything but some kind of privation.

If, to borrow another phrase from Proudhon, we find ourselves “in the silence of the gods”—if where we have been led to hear the voice of authority and certainty we hear nothing at all—we still have no problem attaching a name to that which does not speak to us. Privation is not all that we experience when we experience anarchy—or the possibility of anarchy—but it is, I think, an inescapable, significant part.

So we are in a peculiar position as anarchists and proponents of anarchism, since, by standards that even we must acknowledge we recognize, that identification and advocacy make us—among other things, of course—champions of privation.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2637 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.