Positive Anarchy and Collective Force

A distinct, anarchy-centered anarchism is not just possible, but necessary, if we are to confront the systemic challenges facing us, and that anarchism seems likely, if seriously pursued, to be adequate to the task.

We’re off to a good start, having defined anarchy in terms of a complete break with legal and governmental order. Any anarchism taking this concept of anarchy as a focus or ideal is certainly likely to be distinct from the full range of governmentalisms.

This is clearly not the only lesson that could have been drawn from the writings of the anarchist pioneers. The complexities of those early works and their largely non-ideological nature—their existence in a context without any concept of anarchism or with emerging conceptions significantly different from our own—have left them available for all kinds of piecemeal appropriation by subsequent ideological tendencies. I feel confident that the approach I have taken is at least as representative of the general tendencies of those early anarchist theories as any of the alternatives—and probably more so—but there’s no point in downplaying the extent to which the present project will necessarily strike out into un- or under-explored territory.

It is a choice to seek synthesis and it is a choice to emphasize those elements of the tradition that are likely to ground that synthesis in a distinct, anarchy-centered anarchism. Perhaps some other anarchist synthesis is possible. But the choice made here is certainly not a random or whimsical one. The difficult task of proposing a shareable anarchism probably has to stick fairly close to issues with more-or-less self-evident relevance, even if it then addresses those issues in unexpected ways. There needs to be some intelligible connection between the proposed synthesis and a range of anarchisms, from the simplest sorts of Wikipedia knowledge to the more complex adaptations of established anarchist schools. So focusing on anarchy as the focus or ideal of anarchism and anarchists, and further focusing on what is genuinely distinct about anarchy, seems among the most obviously practical approaches—particularly as a first, foundational step in an exploration that is certain to move quickly in directions that can make few claims to self-evidence.

The fact that not every self-proclaimed anarchist has any real interest in sharing anarchism, in focusing their anarchism on anarchy or in making the anarchist project distinct from that of various kinds of “good government” simply can’t figure too much in what follows—even if, as may be the case, this rather “obvious” approach seems bizarre, heretical, even anti-anarchist to some large percentage of those to whom it might be addressed. That too is a matter of choice, supported by certain obviously traditional contexts—even if it seems like it might qualify as bizarre, heretical, even anti-anarchist…

In any event, having committed to this path forward and having proposed an anarchy that is at least conceptually distinct from all forms of authority and hierarchy, the next step is to see what remains to be done to render our concept useful in practical terms.

One obvious difficulty facing an anarchy-centered anarchism is the fact—or the perception—that anarchy is a fundamentally negative conception. There is no escaping the fact that modern anarchism frequently amounts to anti-statism + various other oppositions, or that even the broad anti-absolutism of someone like Proudhon still requires that we keep returning to the thing we oppose in order to define our position. To embrace this problem, to embrace that sort of “apocalyptic openness to whatever floods in when we manage to drill a hole in the hull of the ship of civilization,” is perhaps a necessary part of being an anarchist in the sense that I’m sketching out here.

“I am an individualist because I am an anarchist; and I am an anarchist because I am a nihilist. But I also understand nihilism in my own way…” — Renzo Novatore

But it is almost certainly not the only part. Most of us, I think, whatever our feelings about “revolution” and “the future society,” look forward to circumstances under which our activities are not simply defensive.

So we need some kind of positive conception of anarchy.

We’ve opposed anarchy and authority, anarchy and hierarchy, anarchism and governmentalism. And if we sometimes have trouble giving authority a clear definition, we know that in authoritarian systems someone sooner or later lays down the law—and we can describe in considerable detail the various norms and institutions that go with the establishment of legal and governmental order. If we don’t naturalize legal order, then presumably the fact that, in anarchy, nobody ever lays down the law is not really “positive” or “negative,” any more than that single observation tells us much about the desirability or undesirability of the non-governmental arrangements that might emerge. So the first step is obviously to resist the naturalization, to consider the possibility that the water rushing into the ship of state is not disaster and certain death, but instead some manifestation of positive anarchy, “liberty free from all its shackles, superstitions, prejudices, sophistries, usury, authority; it is reciprocal liberty and not limited liberty; liberty not the daughter but the mother of order.”

If we can do that—if we can recognize that authority and governmentalism are indeed absent from relations based in anarchy, but that this single absence is perhaps much less interesting that the wide range of (uncertain and profuse) possibilities that might exist in its stead—then our problem is a bit different. We have the first element of a more obviously positive description of anarchy. The question then becomes: What’s next? What will help to complete our picture? And are the elements, or at least some of the elements, already close at hand?

As we move forward toward an anarchist synthesis, we obviously understand that the additional elements of our description will have to pertain very directly to the qualities of anarchy itself. In “Anarchy as a Beacon and as a Focus for Synthesis,” suggested that anarchy is likely to be a demanding ideal, not simply a state to be instituted once and for all, and in the work on “Theories of Anarchist Development” I’ve appealed to Voline’s notion that anarchist practice will probably involve a kind of division of labor among anarchist tendencies. But, as useful as these observations are, they are still mostly peripheral observations and still largely tied to expectations we bring from contexts in which authority is naturalized.

We can say with some confidence, I think, that the broad anarchist tradition has prepared us to think fairly clearly about the contexts in which anarchy remains contextually negative, but in what context would it be contextually positive? We know the general qualities of authoritarian systems, so, even if authority itself is a bit slippery as a concept, we have no trouble pointing to its effects. But in what mechanisms would we as readily recognize the effects of anarchy?

The “small-a” emphasis on anarchy in everyday life, the attempt to create milieux libres in the midst of authoritarian society and similar approaches take us some of the way toward identifying social mechanisms and relations with a distinctly anarchistic character, but it is still probably the case that we recognize them primarily by the absence of other mechanisms and relations. But, again, this is clearly a step in the right direction.

The post on “Archy vs. Anarchy” was an attempt, having laid out some of a “general theory of archy” (most fully, so far, in “Escheat and Anarchy”), simply to pose alternatives to various prominent elements of authoritarian society, in the hope of bringing them together is some kind of preliminary sketch of anarchic society. We could certainly do with other anarchist proposals what I did with elements drawn largely from the Proudhonian sociology—and, indeed, that will be one of the tasks in Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back—but as I have already proposed the neo-Proudhonian anarchism as a candidate for a shareable, plain anarchism, I want to try to complete that thought here, at the beginning of the “journey back,” and then test it out as part of that other labor of surveying alternatives.

What I want to suggest here—and what I cannot perhaps quite demonstrate until I’ve done more of the work of situating readers within the world as Proudhon described it—is that the sociology of collective force is a lens through which the workings even of our present, authoritarian relations seem to exhibit at least some of the qualities of anarchy. Taking up that lens in that context is, once again, just one more step toward the account we arguably need, but perhaps it is a fairly significant one.

Next up: Some thoughts on anarchy and desire

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