on An-archy

What are we fightin’ for? Well, it’s not a word in a dictionary, and it’s not any very specific, single political project. We’re not utopians, with blueprints for the perfect society, which we would be happy to show you, if you would just clear off that table over there. . . . None of the usual anarchist slogans are really adequate. We’re “against all authority,” except, of course, all those sorts of authority that are derived from individual talents and qualities, and are a natural expression of human group dynamics. Rulers are unwelcome, as are states. Maybe anarchy is the absence of government, or maybe it’s just a fairly pure form of self-government. Maybe we’re primarily after liberty, or maybe it’s ownness. Or maybe its justice. A good deal—everything, really—depends on what we mean by those various terms, and it’s not always obvious. To the extent that we’re all citizens of states, products of a state-system, on the road to something that we have only ever experienced piecemeal, it’s not just that it isn’t necessarily clear what we mean when we speak to one another. There is undoubtedly a good deal about full-blown anarchy, if such a thing is possible, that we’ve hardly even begun to anticipate. That’s OK. We know the state-system all too well, and we know it rubs us in all the wrong ways. We can see enough of what might be down the road to know there’s something else out there, something worth working towards. We have a couple of centuries’ worth of work in that general direction to draw on as well, though the traditional heroes of our alliance are a rather varied bunch, drawn from diverse traditions.

Let me invoke one of those heroes—Pierre-Joseph Proudhon—one of the the first folks to use that term anarchy in a positive sense, in an attempt to open up a little space for discussion. Proudhon thought of anarchy as a sort of political ideal type, a limit-case unlikely to be seen in actual societies, but one towards which modern political society seemed to be tending.

Anarchy is, if I can express it in this way, the form of government, or constitution, in which public and private conscience, formed by the development of science and the right, suffices alone for the maintenance of law and order and the guarantee to all freedoms, where consequently the principle of authority, the institutions of police force, the means of prevention or repression, officialism, taxes, etc, are reduced to their simplest expression; in its strongest sense, where the monarchical and highly centralized forms, replaced by the federative institutions and communal mores, disappear.

This explanation, from an 1864 letter, is classic Proudhon, in that it refuses to simply discard or demonize existing institutions, while it calls for, or predicts, their radical transformation. In his 1846 System of Economic Contradictions, he had expressed his faith that collective human intelligence made very few missteps, though he understood progress as a movement through series of antinomies, or productive contradictions. This understanding made him a rather generous, if also relentless, critic of existing institutions, and kept him, when he was most consistent, from at least one class of blueprint utopias.

I’m working my way through the System of Economic Contradictions these days, plugging away at the still untranslated second volume now. There are so many of Proudhon’s major works still untranslated that it is hard to discover to what extent he brought these notions of anarchy and antinomy into play with one another. They seem, in some ways, to be nearly synonymous, though derived from slightly different roots. Antinomy as counter-law (really the play of counter-laws) may, in fact, describe the “engine” of Proudhon’s anarchy as well as anything. Almost from the beginning, Proudhon understood liberty as resulting from a balance of forces. We might be tempted to attempt a deconstructive hyphenation of an-archy, to roughly signify the antinomic forces at work within. What does that gain us, in terms of our understanding of our goals? Mileage is bound to vary. But maybe, for right now, it gets us a sense that our goal is not something simple, self-evident, easily understood, clearly separate from existing institutions, etc. Maybe it gives us something to talk about. . . .

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2607 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.