Rambles in the Fields of Anarchist Individualism — No. 3

“Life as experience tears up programs, treads decorum under foot, breaks the windows, descends from the ivory tower. It abandons the City of Established Facts, out through the Gate of Settled Matters and roams, vagabond, in the open countryside of the Unforeseen.”

Rambles in the Fields of Anarchist Individualism:

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Rambles in the Fields of Anarchist Individualism

No. 3. — Thoughts on “Self-Government,” the “State-citizen,” etc.

It’s been heartening to get some positive feedback on No. 1, since one of the things I am trying to determine is to what extent Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back might take a more rambling form. Ultimately, any sort of relaxed engagement with general anarchist history is probably a sort of liberty that you have to take, if you can manage it, but perhaps I am starting to believe that the project could be manageable. One of the temptations has been to treat the majority of The Journey Back as a kind of explorer’s journal / travel narrative, framed in the various volumes by more strictly theoretical discussions about the possibility of a synthetic, anarchy-centered plain anarchism. I may be just about ready to succumb to that temptation.

Echoes… of Zarathustra?

And they — the intellectual vagabonds — shattered the windows and rushed eagerly through the desecrating freedom of the fields, where festive nature wove songs of life; there where the golden crops danced in the wind, kissed by the sun. — Renzo Novatore, “Intellectual Vagabonds” (1917)

I did indeed take my copy of the Novatore anthology out for a walk and worked my way through the first few essays leaning up against a wooden rail down in a wooded flood control basin, on my way out to the grassy hillside. I find Novatore harder to love than some of the individualists, but I do get a lot of enjoyment out of the way his voice often provides a useful foil to voices I find it easier to love. “Intellectual Vagabonds” is an essay I have spent some time with, in part because of the place that intellectual vagabondage plays in the work of individualist friends and camarades, but I had not consciously connected the passage quote above with the bit from Armand’s “Life as Experience” that already plays a prominent role in this work. Apparently the two passages share an allusion to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, where, in the chapter on “The New Idol,” we find the admonition “Better break the windows and jump into the open air!” But both also move from the shattering of the windows to a flight into the countryside.

And what countrysides! What flights!

In Armand’s work it is Life that “vagabonde, à l’aventure, dans la campagne ouverte à l’Imprévu.” Vagabonder means to roam—and vagabonder à l’aventure means to roam at random. My translation—”to roam, vagabond”—was a nod to those friends and camarades already mentioned. My only hesitation about it now is that the phrase “à l’aventure”—which I now know was the title of one of Armand’s columns in …hors du troupeau…—ends up lost in the shuffle. For the description of the fields themselves—la campagne ouverte à l’Imprévu—I’ll stand by “the open countryside of the Unforeseen.”

Novatore’s vagabonds “dello Spirito”—who are Nietzsche’s “brethren”—flee the “apes and lunatics” who worship the New Idol of the state, escaping through the shattered windows into the “la libertà profanatrice dei campi.” Novatore calls them sovvertitori—subverters or revolutionaries—and they declare themselves banditi. And we are left to contemplate an open-air liberty that profanes, defiles, dishonors, violates—all possible readings of profanare—if only in a world where the sacred is among the things most to be resisted.

There are, of course, plenty of passages in Thus Spake Zarathustra that might have been invoked in the discussion of the solitaire. “The Flies in the Market-Place,” which follows “The New Idol,” begins:

Flee, my friend, into thy solitude! I see thee deafened with the noise of the great men, and stung all over with the stings of the little ones.

Admirably do forest and rock know how to be silent with thee. Resemble again the tree which thou lovest, the broad-branched one—silently and attentively it o’erhangeth the sea.

Where solitude endeth, there beginneth the market-place; and where the market-place beginneth, there beginneth also the noise of the great actors, and the buzzing of the poison-flies.

I suppose that some day soon it will have to be the Zarathustra that I take out for a walk, as I have barely begun to account for its echoes.

Translating E. Armand

It strikes me, rereading No. 2 and discussing its contents, that I was probably remiss in not translating the title “Parce que je tu considère comme mien” as “Because I Consider You To Be My Own.” Not every possessive pronoun in Armand’s work is an invocation of Stirner, but not every instance that does reflect egoist concerns is marked en guillemets—and it is probably bad practice to miss simple chances to mark those other instances when it can be done so easily.

And it is definitely a work in progress, but I spent some time this evening considering the English translations of quite a range of French phrases that all signal some kind of relation to the outside: en dehors, au-delà, hors de, en marge de, etc. It will eventually be necessary to choose standard translations for a number of these—and to account for the fine differences among them. Armand had repeated recourse, for example, to the phrase “en marge du vice et de la vertu,” which is similar to the Nietzschean formula “beyond good and evil” (au-delà du bien et du mal), but not quite the same.

Anyway, on to the promised encounter with Proudhon…

Individualism and the Polity-form

I would, I think, be happy enough to call the human individual the first in a series of societies, if, in the process, I was able to avoid positing it as the first in a series of polities. — Rambles…, No. 1

In announcing a discussion of “self-government and the State-citizen,” I’m obviously signaling a return to some old concerns, including those addressed in my chapter for the Staatsverständnisse series, “Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: Self-Government and the Citizen-State.” That essay has, I think, weathered the years fairly well. Further research has not particularly challenged the account I gave, but it has uncovered some additional elements that need to be incorporated to fully understand Proudhon’s State-theory.

The provocative figure at the center of that essay was what I called the citizen-State, appealing to the language of a passage from Proudhon’s work on taxation:

It was in The Theory of Taxation, also published in 1861, that the citizen-State finally emerged. While primarily concerned with methods of public finance, the book contained a very brief section on “the Relation of the State and Liberty, according to modern rights.” Despite its brevity, however, it is perhaps the most concise summary of Proudhon’s later theory of the State. The modern theory of rights, he claimed, “has done one new thing: it has put in the presence of one another, on the same line, two powers that until now had been in a relation of subordination. These two powers are the State and the Individual, in other words the Government and Liberty.” He reaffirmed that the State had a “positive reality,” manifesting itself as a “power of collectivity,” issuing from the organized collective, rather than imposed on it from outside, and thus possessing rights—of the sort introduced in War an Peace—but no authority. He asserted that in a regime of liberty it too must be ruled, like the citizens, only by reason and by justice—because, as he put it, “it is itself, if I may put it this way, a sort of citizen.” This image of the citizen-State, neither master nor servant, and located “on the same line” as the other citizens, may be the simplest characterization possible of Proudhon’s complex and elusive ideal for the State. Finally, Proudhon declared the State “the protector of the liberty and property of the citizens, not only of those who have been born, but of those who are to be born. Its tutelage embraces the present and the future, and extends to future generations: thus the State has rights proportional to its obligations; without which, what use would its foresight serve?”

At the time, there was perhaps some question whether this one reference to the State as “une espèce de citoyen,” in work hardly noticed by most Proudhon scholarship, was a strong enough peg to hang the study on. But not too long after completing the chapter, I read the unpublished opening section of Theory of Property, which would have explained the connections of that work with the six previous chapters on “Political Geography and Nationality.” And there I found a State-citizen to go with the citizen-State.

One of our maxims is that the citizen must be made in the image of the state, that the man given by nature must be repeated on the model of Society, the true and living Word. It is only in this way that the individual will acquire that of which nature has only given him a shadow, liberty and autonomy, become the personification of right, and be able to separate themselves from the magistracy and the government.

But it is not only by intelligence and justice, not only by theoretical and practical reason that the citizen must follow the example the State. If it were thus, the civic quality would be reduced to a pure ideality. The humanitary republic would exist only in the imagination, in the dream of the conscience; the State alone, having its feet on the soil, king of the temporal, would possess things and could say: I am. The nation, deprived of a body, without authority over matter, would be in the air, lost of the wave of its spirituality. There is not, there cannot be here, as in the Apocalypse, two Jerusalems, one on the earth, the other in the heavens: the two are only one, and it is a question of establishing their identity. So it is necessary that the citizen, declared free and inviolable, in full possession of himself by education, having autocracy over his labors, his opinions, his desires, his conceptions, his will, as well as over his person, called to resist, if necessary, the despotic tendencies of the State, and to react against the driving and incursions of his fellows, must furthermore be established, like the State, in sovereignty over things; that his self, relying on the external world, creates there a position, a domain, without which his liberty, like a force that had exploded in the void, would remain without efficacy and would fall back into nothingness.

Now, to confer to the citizen power and jurisdiction over things, to assign him a possession, a territory, to make him in this way the head of a state within the state, that is what I call closing the political circle, and finishing just where we began. It is not, in fact, by the soil that the political life begins for the individual, as we have previously seen the political State set out from its embryonic valley. It is by the possession of the soil, on the contrary, by the eminent domain that is granted to him over a portion of territory that the citizen is completed, and dignity begins. Thus the citizen becomes the fellow, what am I saying?—the equal, the rival of the State. He is himself the entire State, reduced to its simplest expression, to its most minimal extent. Thus is accomplished in the social world the union of matter and mind, a phenomenon inexplicable in the world of nature, where the creative operation is performed, without our being able to discover its beginning; where the syntheses are given to us ready-made, without our being able to resolve them.

This is arguably a really vital clarification of Proudhon’s mature work, one that helps to clarify some of the elements that are hard to understand in works like The Federative Principle—which, as I’ve noted before, seems to have originally been intended as a continuation of Theory of Property, just as that work was a continuation of the chapters on political geography—and also helps to underline the ways in which Proudhon, without rejecting the notion of anarchy, was nonetheless almost certainly a different kind of anarchist than most who have chosen that label.

There is a lot going on here, particularly if we try to incorporate what we know about the other aspects of Proudhon’s analysis, but I think it is safe to say that in this context, where our concern is with varieties of individualism, the choice I have proposed—between looking at the human individual as the first in a series of societies or, alternately, as the first in a series of polities—confronts us with at least one important issue. (For my analysis of the polity-form as a key consideration in formulating an anarchy-centered anarchism, see the “Note on Mutualism and the Market-Form” and the posts on a “general theory of archy” linked there.)

Prior to the discovery of the passage on the State-citizen, it was possible to think of Proudhon’s project at this point as a matter of bringing the various social collectivities in which human individuals participate down to the same level, in terms of rights, as the human individuals themselves, without in any way rejecting their real existence or subjecting them in turn to purely individual concerns. It was easier to speak of “anarchic self-government,” without believing that the tensions in that phrase were much more than the rhetorical tensions so common in Proudhon’s work. So, for example, I could propose this general explanation:

The work on Justice also presented an important evolution in Proudhon’s discussion of reason, the sole source of legislation in his anarchist vision. Collective reason emerged alongside collective force as a manifestation of collective being, and in the study on “Ideas” Proudhon described the special role that it had to play in safeguarding individual reason against the corrupting influence of the absolute. To simplify what is both a wide-ranging and occasionally puzzling discussion, we might simply observe, in this context, that as the force exerted by individuals in industry finds expression both in industrial organizations and in more strictly individual forms, the individual reason which is supposed to inform our self-government is expressed, if we may put it this way, by individuals as individuals, by collectives as individuals, and by individuals as parts of collectives. The anarchic self-government of a given society will have to be grounded in the balancing of those manifestations of reason, and the overlaps between individual and collective give us some clues to the mechanisms likely to be involved. (“Self-Government and the Citizen-State”)

There is no point in denying that an account of this sort assumes—or pretends—that Proudhon had no more real curve balls to throw, when, in fact, it is well-known that Theory of Property complicates things in a variety of ways. But as we confront this newest complications, it’s probably worth noting that they are very much like those associated with Theory of Property and those I addressed in “Authority, Liberty and the Federative Principle.” On the one hand, in each of these cases, Proudhon at least appears to be embracing the very things that he began by criticizing, including strong property rights and political authority. On the other, he does not appear to have abandoned any of the early critiques—and does not appear to have established any footing, other than those he has pretty well demolished, on which to reconstruct those elements.

So we are left to consider to what extent we have become lost in Proudhon’s shifting language—and to what extent he had not really yet found and positioned himself in it all. I have, on various occasions, suggested that Proudhon’s work was ultimately “more consistent than complete,” proposing the project of a neo-Proudhonian anarchism as an attempt to complete some of what was left unfinished, and I remain convinced that the most compelling interpretations of Proudhon’s work lead toward an anarchy-centered anarchism. For every apparent turn back toward some kind of absolutist or governmentalist foundation, there are too many passages like this:

Property is not measured by merit, as it is neither wages, nor reward, nor decoration, nor honorific title; it is not measured by the power of the individual, since labor, production, credit and exchange do not require it at all. It is a free gift, accorded to man, with a view to protecting him against the attacks of poverty and the incursions of his fellows. It is the breastplate of his personality and equality, independent of differences in talent, genius, strength, industry, etc.

And here we are back in the realm of “the gift economy of property” and similar constructions.

Perhaps all we are really dealing with is that tendency, so obvious and so troublesome in figures like Proudhon and Bakunin, of trying to let the language of the system to be rejected continue to do the work of describing an alternative. Perhaps there isn’t really much to be done beyond finally, once and for all, dispensing with the language of “self-government” and similar notions.

It’s remarkable how these posts balloon, once they get started, when I have given myself the green light to wrestle with the details. Ultimately, these rambles around the last open hillside in a particular suburb are always just a connection or two from becoming that journey back across the lost continent of anarchist history that have occupied me elsewhere. And, of course, some topics pose that risk more constantly than others.

But perhaps the task at hand can be accomplished by stopping here, a bit midstream, and focusing on a couple of critical issues.

So far, we’ve documented the emergence of a potential problem in Proudhon’s later work. First, there is what appears to be a turn back toward governmentalist ideas, with the notion of the State-citizen. But this is not by itself an insurmountable difficulty, as we really expect Proudhon’s project at this stage to be some kind of resultant anarchy, balancing elements that are perhaps not really anarchic in character themselves. The real difficulty is that he does not seem to be consistent in making this turn toward the governmental, so that it simply isn’t clear how it would work. Whether or not that is a real problem, within the context of Proudhon’s own work, or just a function of incomplete exploration probably depends on what we make of his last works on universal suffrage and other manuscripts connected to the study on The Political Capacity of the Working Classes. And we aren’t going to do that work in the course of an afternoon ramble.

What we can do quite easily here, however, is to take a closer look at a couple of common models for human existence that depend on some form of self-control, including the notion of self-government, which Proudhon appealed to throughout his career. And then we can engage in at least a quick survey of the Proudhonian and neo-Proudhonian alternatives to the figure of human individual as self-governor.

Self-Ownership and Self-Government

Concepts like self-ownership and self-government obviously represent a certain kind of progress in a history where individual liberty was not something that could be taken for granted, but they only take us so far in the transit from archy toward anarchy.

Self-ownership confronted the institution of chattel slavery with a significant challenge, simply by positing a prior owner for every human being. What it didn’t do is to present us with any example of human beings not subject to some kind of proprietorship. In an important sense, all that was accomplished was a generalization and naturalization of the institution of slavery.

This creation of what is essentially a notion of self-slavery was undoubtedly the product of a kind of uneven development in the tools for conceptualizing real and potentially anarchic liberty, while the often peculiar arguments advanced in favor of self-ownership in the present seem to be shaped by similar dynamics. The propertarian defense of self-ownership twists itself around to accommodate scenarios like individuals homesteading themselves—sometimes at the expense of the most elegant parts of Locke’s theory—because self-proclaimed libertarians somehow find it hard to talk about property and liberty without recourse to rights-talk. But, as I’ve suggested on various occasions, there is a sense of property that is separate from and prior to the rights-talk, which might be very useful to anarchists. Consider, for example, this passage from “How does property become capitalist?” :

What is “property”? What is it, that is, when taken in its most general sense, before we attempt to establish its attendant “rights” and such?

“Property” appears to be little more than one of the characteristics of the self or personhood, which comes into play when it is examined from the perspective of conflicts over material resources. On this reading, property is a concept similar to identity, which is a characteristic of the self or person when examined in the context of social interactions, where some distinction between actors is required. In both cases, we’re dealing with useful approximations. We know, on reflection, that any stark distinction between the self and the other is likely to involve some degree of philosophical violence, some substitution (in Bataille’s terms) of a limited economy for a general economy, with some necessary accursed share. The argument in favor of anarchist property would do well to address a series of potential alienations and approximations in the formation of even the most basic property, in order to determine if this is the sort of norm that is truly useful to us, particular given its practical history. But, remember, nobody seems to really be attacking property at this level. And perhaps we can point out a little more clearly just where some of those practical problems have had their source.

If we accept that there is a broad sort of property, which simply designates what is “one’s own,” what is “proper to the self,” without any assertion of specific rights and norms, we immediately encounter a complication, since “the self” is not a static thing. To too clearly delimit its boundaries is essentially to condemn it to death. The dynamic nature of the self is the problem that makes more concrete conceptions of property necessary, and it is that dynamic nature that introduces the first complications to the notion of “self-ownership” or “property in one’s person.” While critics object to the the way that those ideas seem to split the self, perhaps we have to acknowledge the extent to which the self is always splitting from itself, always redrawing the boundaries of the proper in ways that our property theories will have to account for. But different ways of accounting for this problem will have different consequences. I want to sketch out two possibilities, one roughly mutualist and the other arguably capitalist, which diverge based on their understanding of what is involved in “property in one’s person.” (Contr’un, August 2, 2013)

This sort of property, which obviously has some points of contact with Stirner’s account of “one’s own,” addresses—or raises—a different set of problems than the question of who owns a given individual person. And we’ll keep coming back to all the various ways that our attempts to identify and isolate separate individuals tend to run aground on the dynamic and fundamentally non-exclusive character of human being. I’ve already proposed part of a reading of Stirner that addresses it and referenced Proudhon’s account of reciprocity as a kind of immixture. And Whitman provides us with the figure of an individual “not contain’d between … hat and boots.”

So perhaps we can be done with self-ownership without, in the process, being done with property of some form that does not imply self-slavery. But what, if anything, can we salvage from the notion of self-government?

This is another clear instance where the notion that we control our selves, rule our selves, boss our selves around, etc. is some kind of advance on having that stuff done to us by someone else. But what are the consequences of making the basic unit of our social systems an individual already in a relationship with its self based on an abstract sort of hierarchy and a presumed necessity for constraint? It is essentially self-slavery in a slightly different context.

And we have no shortage of alternatives. Stirner provides us with the concept of self-enjoyment. Proudhon, despite all of his benighted ideas about sex and gender, transformed the heteronormative couple into an “organ of justice,” in the context of which human individuals become social in intimate, interdependent relations with others fundamentally different from them. The basic building-block of a just society is thus the entrance of the individual into a formal relation of reciprocity—in the fullness (and much of the full weirdness) of that phrase “mutual penetration of antagonistic elements.” Proudhon also provided the inspiration for what I have called “the gift economy of property,” which I expect to spend quite a bit of time discussing in this series. But, for now, I want to focus on another of those isolated but apparently vital turns of phrase in Proudhon’s work, in the hope not just of proposing a clear alternative to the State-citizen and all its close relations, but also of bringing our rambles back around to some issues already raised by E. Armand.

The Free Absolute

Man is a free absolute. I use the word free here in same manner as the physician distinguishing the free from the latent caloric. It is thus that I have already said free spirit and latent spirit, in order to distinguish the intelligence that knows itself and that moves in man, from that of which we recognize the imprint, but which seems asleep in nature.

In short, the free absolute is that which says “I;” the non-free absolute is that which cannot say “I.”

I’ve recently quoted this passage from Justice in the Revolution and in the Church at greater length in “Anarchy: Lawless and Unprincipled,” but here I want to focus specifically on the difference between the free and the latent forms of the absolute. The origin of this distinction in an old scientific theory, which explained heat in terms of “a self-repellent fluid called caloric that flows from hotter bodies to colder bodies,” is an attractive rabbit-hole, which might actually shed some light on Proudhon’s theory of collective force, but all I really want to observe here is that he situates himself in the ranks of those for whom the key human characteristic is self-consciousness and the power to reflect.

The whole question of property arises from this capacity to identify the self—to say “I.” But property really is, perhaps inescapably, a question and a problem, because that self-consciousness seems to confront us with both a real experience of isolation and an experience, real by many of the same criteria, of intimate connection with world around us. We find all of the figures whose work we have been examining attempting to solve that problem in one way or another—and often in multiple ways, not all of which are perhaps entirely compatible. What we are not seeing, I think, even in Proudhon’s other attempts to address the question, is much of anything that suggests that the best use of this presumably unique sort of human freedom is to employ it in a project of self-constraint.

Without fully embracing any of the particular projects of self-creation proposed by various individuals, egoists and anarchists, I don’t have any trouble affirming that creation seems like a much more promising project for a free absolute.

And that is probably just about enough rambling for this go-round…

Translating E. Armand (continued)

It strikes me, in this context, that perhaps one of the more puzzling translation problems posed by Armand’s idiosyncratic word usage is at least partially solved by bringing his ideas closer to those of Proudhon, as we have just done. Armand frequently talks about individuals’ determinisme, seemingly designating the elements within a given individual through which determinism, as a more general principle, manifests itself—or else the specific manifestation of that general determinism, treated as a kind of principle of individuality. This is almost certainly one of those terms that will eventually just earn itself a longish footnote and a place in the glossary, but I wouldn’t be surprised in that footnote ended up containing a discussion of Proudhon’s absolutisme—and, who knows, perhaps that will be the time to really delve into the caloric theory.

Some circuits are a bit more arduous than others. That’s no surprise. And some do not, perhaps, pay off in the same moments of real clarity. I have the sense, having brought the discussion of Proudhon this far, of having taken a detour the ultimate utility of which is perhaps far but clear. But we are still very early in these explorations and there is something to be said for getting cards on the table, introducing concepts that we can now refer back to if and when necessary.

What I have to remind myself is that the exposition of Proudhon’s works still goes on at least one more stage, even without delving too deeply into any neo-Proudhonian innovations. Among the other unpublished manuscripts attached to Theory of Property there is a note where Proudhon corrected himself, saying of the form of property he proposed in that work: “It is not, and it cannot be modern property.” The rest of that note is merely suggestive and somewhat confusing, but it does point in several specific directions where clarifications might be found. I am not, at this point, convinced that Proudhon ever really circled back to the more anarchistic formulations of early works, but I am fully prepared to be surprised once again by new research.

For now, I think I’ll close this number with no promises about what comes next, since I really don’t know—and we can all be surprised by new research in No. 4.


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2428 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.