Equality and Justice

Let’s take a little extra time to emphasize the flatness of Proudhon’s system. Unity-collectivities at different scales overlap, but their relationships remain horizontal. The anarchistic “State” is, Proudhon tells us, “a kind of citizen” and the principle of political equality applies to all the citizens, no matter their kind. And the collective is a kind of individual almost everywhere we look in Proudhon’s work, and equality extends across widely different scales and between individuals of radically different makeup.

The recognition of equality becomes the foundation for justice—and Proudhon’s individualities at various scale crowd the world with potential equals, whose interests must be balanced in order to establish justice. And, indeed, equality, justice and balance are all just descriptions of particular aspects of a world without hierarchy and authority. They are really all just aspects of anarchy. But if we are to bring about anarchy, naturally we need to look closely at it from all sides.

When we are focused on equality, perhaps the most pressing question becomes what individualities can be recognized as equals. In the opening study in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, Proudhon suggested broad inclusion as a principle. As we look around the world, we recognize those individuals capable of looking back at us, but, he said, “the passive does not exclude the reciprocal,” suggesting that ethical recognition at least potentially has to extend farther, perhaps to “plants and rocks, which are, like the hairs and the bones of my body, parts of the great organism.” With a modern ecological sensibility, we can certainly begin to consider some of the unity-collectivities in non-human nature that might call for recognition, along with others on a scale that includes human beings along with other elements. But the breadth of Proudhon’s conclusion will, I think, still challenge many of us:

Instead of seeking the law of my philosophy in a relation between myself, which I consider as the summit of being, and that which is the most inferior in creation and that I repute to be non-thinking, I will seek that law in a relation between myself and another self that will not be me, between man and man. For I know that every man, my fellow, is the organic manifestation of a mind, is a self; I judge equally that animals, endowed with sensibility, instinct, even intelligence, although to a lesser degree, are also selves, of a lesser dignity, it is true, and placed at a lower degree on the scale, but created according to the same plan; and as I no more know of a demarcation marked between the animals and the plants, or between those and the minerals, I ask myself if the unorganized beings are not still minds which sleep, selves in the embryonic state, or at least the members of a self of which I ignore the life and operations?

If every being is thus supposed self and non-self, what can I do better, in this ontological ambiguity, than to take for the point of departure of my philosophy the relation, not of me to myself, in the manner of Fichte, as if I wanted to make the equation of my mind, simple, indivisible, incomprehensible being; but of myself to another that is my equal and is not me, which constitutes a dualism no longer metaphysical or antinomic, but a real duality, living and sovereign?

We know the instances where Proudhon struggled to be as just to women as he presumably would be to rocks or hair and bones, but even then his failure was more a matter of fact than principle. He struggled, as we still do in other contexts, to reconcile the absolute equality of his principle with his sense of greater or less capacity or “dignity.” As I understand the work of Joseph Déjacque, the figure usually proposed as an alternative to Proudhon on questions of gender, he also wrestled with reconciling anarchistic thinking with his sense of natural hierarchies, and was perhaps a little more certain about the “place” of men and women in the universal circulus than we would be entirely comfortable with. Between them, I suspect we might have the material for a more successful attempt—but I’m fairly certain we won’t succeed without some additional wrestling of our own.

From the side of justice, it is a question of what individualities can demand (in one way or another) to be included in the balancing of interests, and, again, Proudhon concluded that those claims could come from a wide range of sources. In War and Peace, he laid out a general theory of “rights:”

RIGHT, in general, is the recognition of human dignity in all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives. There are thus as many special rights as humans can raise different claims, owing to the diversity of their faculties and of their exercise. As a consequence, the genealogy of human rights will follow that of the human faculties and their manifestations.

What we have here is a scheme in which “faculties, attributes and prerogatives” seem to be among the elements that call for recognition. And every right “exists only under the condition of reciprocity.”

Reciprocity, however, is something we will have to return to in more detail.

In the meantime, the post on “” addresses some of the issues we will have to makes sense of.