A New Glossary

This new page will, for the time being, merge material from “A Contr’un Glossary” with new summaries prepared for use in “Constructing Anarchisms.”


— Anarchism (Schematic)

A Schematic Anarchism

Anarchism = (((an + arche)ist)ism)

* * *

We might expect any consistent, well-developed body of anarchist theory to account for at least the following concepts:

The principle of anarchy, understood as an-arche, involving the identification of some fundamental element of existing social relations—archy—and it’s systematic rejection;

The figure of the anarchist, who embraces anarchy, both as a destructive critique of archy and as an opening to new, not entirely foreseeable relations, and seeks to promote and realize anarchy in various experimental practices;

And various forms of anarchism, which are the products of these experiments in the promotion and creation of anarchic visions and relations.

* * *

SUMMARY: “Becoming an anarchist” involves a constantly renewed commitment to two ongoing practices: embracing anarchy and constructing anarchisms.

— Anarchism-in-General


Anarchism is the experimental expression of internalized anarchy. There are, therefore, various forms of anarchism arising from different experimental contexts. We make and remake anarchism as we try to realize anarchy in the world. We make our own anarchisms through theoretical constructions. We do so individually and in groups, cooperating and competing in various ways.

All of this is consistent with the varied uses of the term “anarchism” by anarchists.

The schematic anarchism proposed is intended as a kind of foil, a means by which various particular anarchisms (and near-anarchisms) can be examined and compared. We can use it to develop different kinds of typologies, focusing less on proposed initiatives or institutions and more on the kinds of analysis and resistance implied by specific understandings of key concepts in particular contexts.

However, no matter how fully and richly we elaborate the series of possible anarchisms, there remains a sort of virtual anarchism-in-general, the ensemble, if such a thing is possible, of all of that variety across the history of the development of anarchistic ideas. It is arguably that elusive anarchism-in-general that is the subject of so many of our debates.

(And we may, in time, pursue it through the use of concepts like Proudhon’s collective reason and Alfred Fouillée’s idea-forces. )


— Anarchy (Historical, Abstract & Resultant)

What follows is a look at three possible senses of anarchy related to Proudhon’s work, together with a sketch of their possible relations as developments from one another. The intention here is to simply present some basic definitions as a kind of hypothetical framework, which can then be tested against close readings of the relevant texts.

Historical anarchy: In a society organized around the principle of authority, resistance appears as anarchy, whether it is the active resistance of those oppressed or simply the friction generated by the contradictions of an authority-based society. This is the sense that Proudhon most frequently gave to the term, drawing on existing usage, to describe various tendencies within existing societies: the violence emerging from political conflict, the “anarchy of the market,” etc.

Abstract anarchy: The various manifestations of historical anarchy then suggest, however dimly at times, a general principle or social form, which unites them. In The Federative Principle, Proudhon gives us anarchy conceived as one of four a priori forms of government. These forms emerge “necessarily” and “mathematically” from the logical consideration of government and can be characterized through the consideration of two factors: the opposition of the principles of authority and liberty (understood in part as the opposition between division and non-division of power), and the symmetry or asymmetry of the rulers and the ruled. Anarchy, or self-government, is characterized by division of power and symmetry between the rulers and the ruled. It is the “government of each by each.”

In that text, however, we are presented with this abstract anarchy, only to have it rejected as “an empirical creation, a preliminary sketch, more or less useful, under which society finds shelter for a moment, and which, like the Arab’s tent, is folded up the morning after it has been erected.” The obviousness of the forms is a “snare,” as none of those that first present themselves through logical analysis are ultimately practicable.

Just as monarchy and communism, founded in nature and reason, have their legitimacy and morality, though they can never be realized as absolutely pure types, so too democracy and anarchy, founded in liberty and justice, pursuing an ideal in accordance with their principle, have their legitimacy and morality. But we shall see that in their case too, despite their rational and juridical origin, they cannot remain strictly congruent with their pure concepts as their population and territory develop and grow, and that they are fated to remain perpetual desiderata. Despite the powerful appeal of liberty, neither democracy nor anarchy has arisen anywhere, in a complete and uncompromised form.

This appears, then, to be a decisive rejection of anarchy as a guiding notion. In its place Proudhon presents federation, the only system that he believes can truly fulfill the role of “all political constitutions, all systems of government,” which is “the balancing of authority by liberty, and vice versa.”

The question is whether this appearance is deceiving. There are quite a number of additional questions raised, but perhaps we can start here:

  • Did Proudhon stop being an anarchist, did he discover he had never been an anarchist or is there some some sense in which his rejection of this abstract notion of anarchy still leaves open the possibility of another anarchy, and thus another way of being an anarchist?

If we choose the first interpretation, then presumably we believe that the abstract anarchy of The Federative Principle was the same anarchy that Proudhon embraced as a positive goal, but that developments in his thought—perhaps the discovery in the 1850s that “the antinomy does not resolve itself”—led him to abandon that position.

The second interpretation seems a natural choice if we once again identify the abstract anarchy of the later works with the anarchy of the early works, but then recognize that this form of self-government could not remain “strictly congruent” with its “pure concept” in any analysis involving collective force and unity-collectivities, making it inadequate even in the earliest works, where at least the basic analysis of collective force was already at work.

The third interpretation requires that we recognize multiple senses of anarchy in Proudhon’s work—which we can certainly do given his explicit recognition of multiple senses in The General Idea of the Revolution—but also that we find a way of thinking about federation as not simply a replacement for an impracticable sort of anarchy, but as the key to some other form.

Each approach has consequences.

The first presumably preserves Proudhon within the anarchist tradition as a kind of early adopter or precursor, but then draws some kind of line between his mature work and anarchism. That then leaves us to ask what sort of anarchy was adopted by the anarchist movement as it emerged after Proudhon’s death—a question complicated by the fact that some of Proudhon’s late works, such as The Political Capacity of the Working Classes, were particularly influential in the period of the International and works like The Federative Principle seem influential in the present. If we think of Proudhon as an early adopter of an abstract anarchy later embraced by the explicit proponents of anarchism, then we are faced with the question of how we respond to Proudhon’s claim that such a notion is at best only approximately applicable to practice. The problem of collective force seems difficult to overcome, so we presumably forced to choose between the concept behind Proudhon’s declaration that “I am an anarchist” and the theory behind his claim that “property is theft.” If, instead, we think of him as a mere precursor, then we are left to determine just how the anarchy that emerged in later years differed from Proudhon’s conception and how it escapes his critique.

At this point, it is tempting to simple note that there is a great deal of discontinuity in the early anarchist tradition and a certain amount of opportunism when it comes to the use of Proudhon’s work in later anarchist thought. But the theoretical questions still remain, if we want to attempt to establish continuity in the tradition. I am not entirely opposed to the project of attempting to understand Proudhon’s mature work as something other than anarchism in the received sense—if that is the only way to move forward with a serious discussion of Proudhon’s mature work—but I think other options still remain.

The second choice forces us to confront the possibility that adopting the language of anarchy was something of a wrong turn for those who took up Proudhon’s project, with whatever degree of fidelity. That opens a lot of potentially interesting paths of inquiry, from an examination of “libertarian socialism” as an already existing alternative (in the works of writers like Gaston Leval) to the exploration of possible alternate histories (such as my still largely nascent musing about atercracy, art-liberty, etc.) But while I am attracted to these research possibilities as ways of illuminating aspects of the anarchist tradition, I’m still basically convinced that:

  1. Anarchy is a fundamentally useful concept, which nothing else can really replace.
  2. Proudhon’s social science is a powerful set of tools, which we have barely begun to understand and use.
  3. We don’t have to sacrifice one to the other.

That forces us to return to the analysis in The Federative Principle and ask ourselves if the movement from abstract anarchy to federation is perhaps not a break, but yet another development? The “pure concept” of self-government seems to fail when it encounters the effects of collective force. If we attempt to envision that “government of each by each” in practice, with even the most basic elements of Proudhon’s social science intact, we must account for the reality and even the “rights” of social “unity-collectivities.” And it becomes nearly impossible to address the question of just who or what will take the role of “each” without noticing that some of the possibilities might also answer to “all,” at least in some contexts. But if we are committed to the analysis that began with “property is theft,” then this is precisely what we should expect and, as complicated as the next steps promise to be, confronting them is no setback.

It’s important, I think, to treat the analysis in The Federative Principle as both advanced, in terms of Proudhon’s theoretical development, and a bit compressed. What seems to have stuck with us is the a priori principles, when the lesson of the texts seems to be precisely that we cannot simply stop there, given the potential disconnections between their “mathematical” and “necessary” nature and the “infinitely flexible” nature of politics as an “applied art.” Rigorous logical analysis is essential, but it appears that it also has its perilous side, if we do not follow through. As Proudhon said:

Logic and ingenuousness are primordial in politics: and that is exactly where the trap lies.

The third choice seems to be to follow Proudhon from abstract anarchy, through the difficulties and antinomies associated with its application, to federation—and then to ask ourselves if there is another kind of positive, practical anarchy that emerges in this new context, not simply as a kind of political autarky or as a negative ideal, but as the result—or resultant—of “the balancing of authority by liberty, and vice versa.”

Resultant anarchy: Let us simply propose a third general variety of anarchy, which does not arise directly from the application of a simple principle to a simple society full of simple, individual subjects, but emerges from the balancing of social forces, norms and institutions. And let’s borrow from Proudhon a word that he was fond of using in his later works: resultant (résultante). According to the OED, a resultant is “the vector which is the sum of two or more given vectors” or “the force that is equivalent to two or more forces acting at the same point,” as well as simply “the product or outcome of something.” So let us then say that we approach this other sort of anarchy as the sum of the various social forces in play (understood as vectors) approaches zero. And let us raise the possibility that we might speak of quantities or degrees of anarchy based on the intensity of the forces held in balance.

This third definition is presented here merely as a sort of hypothesis, a direction that subsequent research might pursue, as well as a potential escape from at least some of the difficulties that have emerged as we examined the first two. For those who might want to pursue the line of inquiry on their own, I can suggest that the most promising line of research seems to run from the 1840 discussion of “liberty” as a “third social form” and “synthesis of community and property,” through the study on liberty in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church and then on into the works of the 1860s.



Anarchy, in the form of an-arche, is the central term in the schematic anarchism proposed. Anarchists, however, often struggle to define this term. The “no means no” of the prefix seems clear enough, but there is no consensus regarding precisely what anarchists deny and oppose.

Perhaps the most useful attempt at an anarchist definition of arche comes from the near-anarchist Stephen Pearl Andrews:

Arche is a Greek word (occurring in mon-archy, olig-archy, hier-archy, etc.), which curiously combines, in a subtle unity of meaning, the idea of origin or beginning, and hence of elementary principle, with that of government or rule.” (1873)

Because ours is a radical critique and refusal, addressed to elements fundamental to the status quo, perhaps that “subtle unity of meaning” is where we have to begin, as we complete and extend our analysis.

* * *

Historically, in some anarchist circles, the terms archy, archist, archism, etc. were used to designate the full range of principles, practices and institutions that anarchists oppose. That usage will be adopted and extended in this work.


Authority: The OED presents a wide range of definitions, of which the one most pertinent to anarchist concerns is (II.2) “Power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience; moral, legal, or political supremacy.” The general heading (II.) is “Power to enforce obedience or compliance, or a party possessing it” and this is distinguished from the following set of definitions (III), which pertain to “Power to influence action, opinion, or belief, or a party possessing it.” Fundamental to the anarchist understanding of authority is this power to command and enforce compliance and obedience, since this power necessarily occupies a position “above” those subject to the authority, required and possibly compelled to obey. This is a hierarchical relationship.

A few clarifications:

Regardless of its origins, this sort of authority involves a non-voluntary relation between a ruling power and ruled subjects. An individual may choose to conform to the demands of authority, either through fear of punishment, shared interests, general indifference, etc., but non-compliance is not among the options open to the subject of authority.

Some custodial relations or relations of tutelage may appear to be relations of authority. The parental relation is an example where one party is presumed to have a right to command another, but the appearance of authority is arguably deceptive in these cases, as the parental right to command is generally bundled with a duty to place the interests of the child above those of the parent in many instances. Where we have a conventional right to command and a social hierarchy, but the interests of the subject of command are placed above those of the “authority” figure, we have something more complicated than authority, which is probably better understood as analogous to some form of hospitality.

The “power” behind authority is fundamentally one of right. Outside of some context where “might is right” is recognized as the basis of social order, the mere capacity to compel another does not constitute authority. At the same time, authority need not be competent to rule wisely, nor actually capable of compelling obedience. Rights and capacities may coincide, but that is arguably a different concern than whether or not authority exists. Nor is authority ultimately dependent on the importance of the rights assigned. It is, for example, quite possible to be authorized to exert powers that would never be called for.

As a matter of right, authority is specifically vested in or assigned to an individual, group, role or institution. As the right is not dependent on the capacity of the authority, neither is it dependent on the capacities or needs of the subject or on any of the various material conditions that might give a greater or lesser practical significance to the authority. The appearance of authority or an unauthorized power to compel may emerge from a variety of instances, but we must account for those authority-effects separately.

— Authority-effect

Authority-effect: The infamous “authority of the bootmaker,” from Bakunin’s “God and the State,” is probably the most familiar example of an instance where the uneven distribution of expertise, together with the staple nature of the object of expertise, combine to create a condition of quasi-authority, where an expert may be capable of “commanding” a situation, not because they have any right to do so, but because they occupy an advantageous position in society, thanks to the division of labor. We may be forced to take the advice of a specialist, but the source of their power to influence our decision is as much our lack of expertise and whatever exigencies we face as it is their own knowledge and skill. In a medical crisis, a doctor may be able to wield considerable power over patients without medical expertise, while in a time of good health or under circumstances where the patient has medical expertise, that power melts away. Certainly, we don’t bow to bootmakers when we don’t need boots, even if sufficient need on our part may create real power that they can wield. Credentialing systems may create a slightly different sort of authority effect, particularly where they are faulty or corrupt, by increasing the possibility of the false appearance of expertise or by limiting the ability of capable practitioners to meet the needs of others.

Authority-effects are very real, in the sense that the combination of factors can compel obedience to just as great an extent as more formal authority, and they may continue to be a problem even under circumstances where the principle of authority has been rejected. But their ill effects will almost certainly be reduced as we move beyond a social model that treats authority as a foundational principle and learn to engage in anarchistic relations.

— Authority (Language of)

In societies where authority is the dominant principle, we can expect to find that the language of authority has become ubiquitous, often adapted to describe relationships in which authority, hierarchy, etc. play no role even in existing societies. This tendency has presented difficulties for anarchists, who wish to speak in the language of the societies of which they are a part, but wish to express ideas that break with the dominant principles of those societies. That has led to a certain amount of wordplay and what we might now call a deconstructive tendency in anarchist rhetoric. Proudhon’s infamous declaration that “property is theft” has that character and Bakunin’s writings are full of curious rhetorical constructions, attempting to turn the language of authority against authority itself.

It is likely, however, that we have long since passed beyond the point where anarchy is such a novelty that we can only speak of it in terms borrowed from the language of authority. And we should probably acknowledge that the language of anarchy poses problems of its own sufficient to keep us on our toes. So there is almost certainly a good argument to be made for a rhetorical practice that consistently underlines the differences between the regimes of anarchy and authority, rather than clinging to those instances where the language of authority can be stretched to include the most radically anti-authoritarian positions.

What we often see, however, seems to be a strong resistance to abandoning notions like “legitimate authority” and “justifiable hierarchy,” often involving an even more pronounced effort to stretch the language of authority to fit all cases. At stake is the distinction between anarchy and mere voluntarity, the loss of which seems fatal to consistently anarchist thought.

Legal Order

In the anarchist context, it is common to approach the question of legal order by asking whether anarchists truly desire a society in which nothing is prohibited. This is, it seems to me, only half of the question that needs to be asked, as an anarchic society would also be one in which nothing is permitted. And it is probably this second aspect that is most helpful in evaluating the antinomian character of anarchy.

Legal order exists when society is guided by laws, rules or principles that are considered binding and enforceable. Legal order inevitably depends on some assertion of authority and is part of the apparatus of a legal hierarchy. The range of presumed authorities is, of course, great, but whether the basis is divinity, democracy, sanctified might or nature, the basic quality of legal order changes very little. If we understand the anarchist critique as at least in part a rejection of the hierarchical pretense of elevating some elements of society above others (either directly or as proxies for some reigning abstraction) and endowing those elements with a “right” to command, then the specific pretext for that elevation is a matter of only secondary concern.

It is also important to recognize that legal order is pervasive. Where law is in force, it tends to divide all actions into the categories of legal and illegal, licit and illicit, permitted and prohibited. So, while there are lots of obvious differences between Leviticus, the penal code of a given government, papal bulls, the non-aggression principle, “natural law,” etc., the systems that represent presume to pass judgment on essentially the whole of future human activity, with necessarily limited attention to contexts.

In anarchist circles, the defense of some form of law usually depends on the recognition that some small number of acts seem unjustifiable to almost anyone under any circumstances, but this is hardly a compelling argument for imposing a necessarily pervasive legal order, with all the recourse to authority and hierarchy that seems inseparable from it. But, to return to my first point, this insistence on the necessity of law seems to involve a confusion of the lawlessness of anarchy with some form of license, as if anarchy would remove the prohibitions, but not the permissions also imposed by legal order.


In the course of developing the ideas that I’m now in the process of summarizing on the Contr’un blog, I have at times given in to the temptation of resorting to new words or at least rather obscure old ones, in order to draw certain ideas out of the web of common associations so that they could be considered as if they were new as well. So, for example, after borrowing contr’un (the counter-one or antinomic one), I cobbled together contr’archy (“the tendency of the quest for ‘full anarchism’ to sacrifice everything for the anti-authoritarian principle.”) There have also been new phrases and formulas, such as “two-gun mutualism,” “the gift-economy of property,” “the anarchic encounter” and “absolutist anarchy.” And who could forget the old masthead phrase: “The multiplication of free forces is the true contrun.”

There are, as I am painfully aware, various things, both pro and con, that could be said about these inventive practices. Fourier, in his Theory of Universal Unity, made a point of distinguishing neologisms and neology:


Has not a new Science the ability to use some new words and to create for itself, if necessary, a complete nomenclature? Would we refuse to the sciences the prerogative granted to the subordinate functions, which have their collection of technical terms chosen without method?

I will use that license with moderation, and when I am forced to resort to neology, it will be with a care to avoid NEOLOGISMS and arbitrariness, and support the denominations already accepted in the fixed sciences.

The same regularity will reign in the signs, the special numbers, the gamut sand series, and the whole apparatus of the new science. I reiterate this opinion in the Médiante (188), addressed to the meticulous and punctilious readers.

TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: See Mercier, 1801: “Neology is the art of forming new words for new or badly rendered ideas. Neologism is the mania for using new words needlessly and tastelessly. Neology has its rules; neologism has no guide by a vain caprice.”

I leave it to others to decide which I have practiced here. But the inventions remain and the summaries that are underway will depend in part on clarifying them. So I am beginning to work on a Contr’un Glossary page for the new site and I would be grateful if any longtime readers would suggest terms that they would particularly like to see addressed there.

Summary: 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.


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