Polity-form (External constitution)

L’Etat est la constitution extérieure de la puissance sociale. — P.-J. Proudhon, “Résistance à la Révolution” (1849)

In Proudhon’s 1849 essay, “Resistance to the Revolution,” we find him explaining, in his own terms, the nature of the now-familiar conflict between libertarian and authoritarian socialists. The essay is arguably a fairly important one, marking one of the places where Proudhon presented a clear and well-developed opposition between archic and anarchic conceptions of society. Parts of it will be familiar to many, since Benjamin R. Tucker translated portions of it as “The State: Its Nature, Object and Destination,” and I can recommend a careful reading or rereading of it to anyone interested in Proudhon’s thought. But we will draw on just a few elements from the essay here, focusing on the notion that archy can be understood, using Proudhon’s  terms, as “the external constitution of the social power.”

We will have to clarify a number of terms and note just a few contexts. It is important to know, for example, that Proudhon’s attempt to define “the State,” and to distinguish himself from those socialists who would naturalize and cling to it, appeals to a theory of historical development. Indeed, the “Revolution” that the authoritarian socialists resist is very simply a progressive transformation of social forms.

We maintain that, once capital and labor have been recognized as one and the same, society subsists by itself and has no more need of government. Consequently we are — and we have proclaimed it more than once — anarchists. Anarchy is the condition of adult societies, as hierarchy is the condition of primitive societies. There is a constant progress, in human societies, from hierarchy to anarchy.

If you ever doubted that the opposition between anarchy and hierarchy was a well-established “classical” anarchist position, doubt no more.

The problem that the essay attempted to address was that not all of Proudhon’s fellow revolutionaries were so comfortable with the notion of anarchy, however close they may have been in most other respects. Naturalizing the idea of the State, they saw the goals of revolutionary change in terms of the establishment of good government and rejected anarchy in the most emphatic terms. Turning to the question of defining the State, Proudhon complained that Louis Blanc couldn’t manage anything more than a catalog of examples, which he then accepted or rejected without much very compelling analysis.

Proudhon then proposed his own definition:

The State is the external constitution of the social power.

That leaves us with two additional notions to define: the social power (puissance sociale) and its external constitution (constitution extérieure.)

The social power is society understood in terms of its collective force. Proudhon and his revolutionary opponents all believed that the association of individuals produces collective beings—but they disagreed on just how those organized collectivities were constituted. Are they essentially self-organizing or is some external force required before they are endowed with anything other than social potential? For Blanc and his party, external constitution was the required mechanism.

This external constitution of the collective power [collective force], to which the Greeks gave the name arché, [meaning] principality [sovereignty in Tucker’s translation], authority or government, rests then on this hypothesis: that a people, that the collective being that we call society, cannot govern itself, think, act or express itself, unaided, like beings endowed with individual personality; that, to do these things, it must be represented by one or more individuals, who, by some title or another, are regarded as custodians of the will of the people and its agents. According to this hypothesis, it is impossible for the collective power, which belongs essentially to the mass, to express itself and act directly, without the mediation of organs expressly established and, so to speak, posted [like troops] ad hoc. It seems, let’s say,—and this is the explanation of the constitution of the State in all its varieties and forms,—that the collective being, society, being only a creature of reason, cannot make itself felt save through monarchical incarnation, aristocratic usurpation, or democratic mandate; consequently, that all special and personal manifestation is forbidden it.

Proudhon, on the other hand, believed that:

…the people, society, the masses, can and ought to govern themselves; to think, act, rise and halt like a man; to manifest themselves, finally, in their physical, intellectual, and moral individuality, without the aid of all these spokesmen…

There is the social power and then there is something extra, perhaps something extraneous, in the form of external constitution. External constitution is identified with arché — so the state prior to its imposition is presumably an-arché or anarchy.

Shades of “property is theft.” And perhaps it is useful to recall Proudhon’s argument in The Celebration of Sunday that theft (in the sense of “putting aside”) is as much a precondition of property as it is (in other senses) a derivative notion. Both property and archy pose problems for oppositional analysis because they are naturalized, hegemonic concepts. They appear to be something like first principles, but might in fact simply be particularly difficult problems.

In some ways, it is easier to grapple with Proudhon’s understanding of these concepts and their place in the development of human institutions when we have access to the approaches he used in the later works. A work like War and Peace, where the achievement of social harmony is presented as something like the perfection of practices we have traditionally associated with war, may turn out not just to be a key to understanding his mature approach, but also an aid in working through what remains most difficult in the early works. But the language and logic of War and Peace is not, I think we have to recognize, the language and logic of the anarchist movements that emerged after Proudhon’s death. And there is no need to employ Proudhon’s full apparatus when we are trying to isolate — to extricate — just a few key concepts for a more or less schematic account of anarchism.

So we can acknowledge, in passing, that Proudhon would eventually find other uses for a notion like “the State,” positing the possibility of what I’ve called a “citizen-state,” a collective being of a basically anarchic sort. But we have Proudhon’s own testimony that the shift in rhetorical strategy was conscious and that it takes nothing away from the rather stark division between anarchy and archy that we find in this earlier work.

So, once again, if we are to follow Proudhon’s an-archic account of social organization, we can expect the social collectivities that we encounter to be self-organizing associations of human beings, onto which some kind of governmental framework has been imposed from the outside. The authoritarian pretense is that society — human association in all its dynamic forms — has not really been established until the material relations of association have been seconded in some way by the establishment of an authority, sitting atop some kind of fundamentally political hierarchy. The anarchic response is that authority and hierarchy are inessential elements that we must learn to do without.

Recall Stephen Pearl Andrews’ definition of arche:

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.

We’re close, I think, to recognizing at least some of the reasons for the curious combinations he associated with the term. And it hardly seems a stretch to imagine that much of what we take to be “elementary” or natural in our social relations is, in fact, merely widespread for now and for lack of clear alternatives. But if we imagine that, then we have to be prepared to question even those elements that appear most fundamental and to extend ourselves in the search for real alternatives.

It would probably also not be a stretch to admit that we are not always so rigorous or conscientious. 

Working through the arguments of the authoritarian socialists of Proudhon’s day, it was hard not to be reminded of more contemporary debates. One of the questions that we encounter on an almost daily basis in peer-education forums like Reddit’s r/Anarchy101 is that of “getting things done.” Advocates of at least nominally anarchist “democracy” and “organization” seem to echo, with an unnerving frequency, the arguments about the inability of self-organizing associations to govern themselves, think, act or express themselves, if unaided by the particular organization forms or decision-making mechanisms of which they are partisans.

In attempting to distinguish between the approaches that seem to me more consistently anarchistic and those that seem to cling to some form of archy, I have proposed the notion of the polity-form as a descriptor for more or less fixed, static associations or organizations including the governmental state, the capitalist firm, the patriarchal family, “the People” within a democracy, the commune in some descriptions of communism, the individual in the context of some forms of individualism, etc. All of these are in some sense both hierarchical, authoritarian and, to some extent, representative structures. Even when, in a democracy or some forms of communism, the People at the top of the hierarchy is presumed to be the sum of the persons at the bottom, the doubling is almost always explicitly for the purposes of imposing the will of the whole on more recalcitrant parts. Armed with the theory of collective force and social power, we don’t even have to claim that some usurpation by representatives or agents is necessary for this subordination to occur. If we accept that collective beings may have interests of their own — a notion that we also find in the explorations of collective egoism by James L. Walker — then we can imagine the most perfect functioning of the association still leading to circumstances where the collectivity-in-power might well oppress some or all of its members.

That’s why the State in Proudhon’s later works is a citizen-state, “equal” in its “rights” to the individuals citizens. It’s why we might make an effort, in our attempts to think about the dynamics of anarchistic self-organization — with or without explicit or formal organizations — about association, federation, etc. as ongoing processes, before we think about the explicit or formal associations or federations that might emerge. It’s why the transition from association-as-practice-and-process to the constitution of more or less official social bodies should perhaps be approached with the problem of external constitution in mind.

You can find some discussion of self-government as self-subjugation and of the individual as “the last polity” in the Rambles in the Fields of Anarchist Individualism — beginning in earnest in the third installment. That, together with the material in “Self-Government and the Citizen-State,” should give some more precise indications of the kinds of structures I hope to bring together under the label of polity-form. In general, it simply comes down to questions about whether every social body necessary has its head, brain or guiding organ — or whether anarchic organization will force us to think of different sorts of organisms than the metaphor is likely to immediately bring to mind. The Stirnerian elements included in the “Rambles” may be a help, provided we don’t take the step — the misstep, if my favorite egoists are to be believed — of positing an “ego” very much in the mold of the individual-as-polity. If nothing else, it seems useful to emphasize that the collective beings that emerge from real association are likely to be unique, while associations constituted from without are as likely to reflect their general type as they are the specific qualities and dynamic interactions of the individuals involved. 

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2701 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.