Constructing an Anarchism: Governmentalism

Suggested readings:
Related readings:
From last week:
Ways to get lost for a while:
A neo-Proudhonian Synthesis:
A Tour of the Lost Continent:
    Constructing Anarchisms:

      GovernmentalismArchy, particularly in the political realm; the organization of social relations according to the principle of authority or governmental principle, as well as the ideology that holds that form of social organization as superior or necessary. Governmentalism was the target of anarchist critique in the era before the emergence of statism as a primary concern.

      Each of these concepts allows us to position ourselves in particular ways in or against more familiar frameworks. With synthesis, I’ve made an effort to breathe some new life into a debate that has featured in modern anarchist consciousness, but just barely. With tradition, it’s been a question of trying to conceptualize an inescapably fuzzy thing—which some of us undoubtedly resist recognizing—in a way that is at least a bit clearer and arguably quite a bit more useful. With governmentalism, it’s a matter of placing an even less familiar term, archy, in the context of a developing anarchist vocabulary, a history with at least is fair share of surprising episodes.

      We’ve already addressed the comparatively late emergence of anarchism as an anarchist keyword. It turns out that statism—and anti-statism—emerged at roughly the same time, after several decades during which governmentalism served as a main target for anarchist critique. Frédéric Tufferd’s essay on “Unity in Socialism,” which we will read for its treatment of the concept of aubaines, documents some of the conceptual and terminological shift—although this is probably no need to rush off and read it now. Those interested in the more peculiar aspects of statism‘s late and somewhat difficult birth might find themselves better rewarded by the brief tale told in “Statism: It’s not just for dentists anymore…” And then my essay on “Self-Government and the Citizen-State” provides a fairly extensive case-study on the uses of the contested terms in Proudhon’s work.

      Ultimately, I’m inclined to think that the emergence of statism as a keyword and the subsequent comparisons of state and government ought to have been source of increased clarity in anarchist circles. Whether that was actually the case is, of course, open to debate. But I know that as I began to try to account for the various currents of anarchist thought, wrestling with the distinction between anti-governmentalism and anti-statism led me to recognize other defining oppositions, such as the anti-monopolism of Tuckerite individualism.

      It is an extremely common refrain in modern anarchist discussion that anti-statism does not describe the full program of anarchism, either because it does not explicitly include anti-capitalism or because it does not include other struggles, such as those against patriarchy, colonialism and its effects, white supremacy, etc. My appeal to archy—understood in roughly structural terms—is an attempt to pose a concept uniting all of the things that anarchists oppose as anarchists. But, for better or worse, practical opposition generally means tackling some specific manifestation or another, however vital a more general understanding is to directing our practice. And, as we are presently involved in a project that involves searching through the anarchist past for bits we can use to construct modern theory, we probably need to be just as capable of recognizing the particular emphases of past manifestations as we are of engaging in synthesis.

      Virtually every manifestation of anarchist thought and practice that we encounter in our historical researches will have been centered around and driven by some narrower set of concerns than the an-archy I have proposed. So we need to be attentive to and patient with the wrangling over state vs. government and clear when other terms entirely are dominant.

      We also need to be able to invest similar levels of attention and patience to the debates that have arisen and still arise when it is time to break down these archic principles and institutions into their constituent parts. We need to be able to talk about law, authority, hierarchy, rule, etc. in ways that acknowledge the pure babel of senses given to those terms—if only long enough to make better sense of things. This is, of course, often easier said than done, in large part because, unsurprisingly, societies based on hierarchy and authority have found an almost endless number of ways to extend the definitions of those terms, naturalizing them in the process. The success of that tendency can, I’m afraid, be measured by the currency of notions like “legitimate authority” and “justified hierarchy” in at least some anarchist circles.

      The three readings on authority—my retranslation of the key sections from Bakunin’s “God and the State,” the polemical analysis of “But What About The Children?” and the glossary entry on “Authority and Authority-effects”—are probably more than enough to introduce the uninitiated into the twists and turns of those debates. I encourage folks to devote some attention to those readings, if only because our opportunities to address any key concept—except anarchy—in quite so much depth will be limited.

      The readings for next week, selections from Proudhon’s “Principles of the Philosophy of Progress,” are primarily concerned with the theories of collective force and collective reason, which we’ve already touched on in passing. There is a good deal of attention to the anatomy and physiology of “collective beings”—and it may be helpful to recall some of the details from “Self-Government and the Citizen-State” when reading those sections, as the questions are really about “external constitution” or the necessity of every social body to have “head” that “realizes” and controls it. Rather than balk at the notion, as may be natural for anarchists of at least some tendencies, I would encourage readers to consider the novel, potentially monstrous, perhaps acephalous configurations of non-governmental unity-collectivities. And I may return to some of my semi-heretical musings on Stirner and self-creation, in this new context, in my second post of the week.

      Again, what is probably most important at this stage is to make the most of the opportunities to engage with unfamiliar anarchist conceptions.

      And that same spirit may serve readers well in considering the shortest, but arguably not the least radical of the weeks readings: the glossary entry on “Legal Order.” Learning to think about anarchy as a condition in which “nothing is permitted” has, I think, been one of the most useful exercises I’ve put myself through in recent years.

      A caution: “Principles of the Philosophy of Progress” is drawn from Proudhon’s manuscripts. It has been published in French, but at the time when I first encountered it the only way to read it was to wrestle with the scanned manuscripts:

      or to work with partial and often undependable typescripts produced by past researchers. I would be lying if I said I haven’t grown to love that kind of research, but it can certainly be daunting. And the unfinished nature of the text should be obvious. Proudhon, who was famously meticulous about preparing manuscripts for publication, never worked his magic on this one—and the particular account of collective force contained here is comparatively early in Proudhon’s career, having probably been produced within a couple of years of the published Philosophy of Progress. What that means is that we can revel in all that is fine and suggestive in the work—assuming it hits us that way—but we can’t treat it in the same way that we would a finished text.

      Perhaps, once again, the appropriate strategy is to treat this week’s reading as a kind of skill-building exercise and consider the experience of grappling with the text as important as the specific insights that might be drawn from it.

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