Margins and Problems: The Bilge-Rat’s Gambit

Constructing Anarchisms

Part II—Anarchist History: Margins and Problems (An Idiosyncratic Survey)

General Resources:
II—Anarchist History: Margins & Problems:
I—Constructing an Anarchism:

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Onward!—to the next experiment—with Scandal as our muse and encounter as our method.

Lets establish some working assumptions for this new experiment:

If anarchism—understood as a kind of joint enterprise—is to be useful in attaining and sustaining anarchy, then we can almost certainly anticipate at least a certain kind of prefigurative character to it: involving a resistance to authoritarian dogmatization and an anarchic vitality comparable to that which we expect to find in anarchic social relations.

The theoretical exploration that we have engaged in thus far might lead us to associate anarchic vitality with a kind of productive conflict. If so, we should prefer probing questions, illuminating disagreements and the occasional good fight to lock-step, united front unity, with regard to matters of both theory and joint practice.

So we might embrace the theory of collective force, and the sociology that emerges from its application, alongside the critiques of ideology and fixed ideas, expecting those elements to be mutually reinforcing and in line with our anarchistic aspirations.

We might, in that context, also conclude that not only is it possible to “make anarchism our own” individually, without lapsing into some kind of ideological solipsism, but such an appropriation may be necessary to the anarchic vitality of anarchism (understood, again, as a joint project.)

If that is our conclusion, I think we also have to conclude—based on the present state of anarchist culture—that we have some work to do to give that shared anarchism the genuinely and anarchically vital character that it presumably needs.

So how does our idiosyncratic survey of the anarchist past serve that particular end?

This is the question I started to explore in “Halfway to Anarchism,” addressing the process of becoming an anarchist as one that had evolved over time, changing with the accumulation of what we have been calling the anarchist past. For Proudhon, it could involve a comparatively simple—or at least considerably more direct—encounter with the concept of anarchy, while subsequent generations of would-be anarchists could only really share the anarchist label by also encountering and coming to some accommodation with the emerging and evolving anarchism.

But we may now have reached a point where anarchism can only really be encountered individually and partially, as the accumulation of the anarchist past simply renders anarchism per se as something imponderable in its fullness. That leaves us to search for the methods of partial encounter that seem most likely to preserve our focus on anarchy—and perhaps give us a taste of anarchy at work in the process.

Two approaches come immediately to mind:

First, there is a practice that I expect most of us engage in already, more or less consciously. A bit like the tale of the blind men and the elephant, we develop of sense of what anarchism is based on our own contacts, experiences and individual studies, with varying degrees of awareness (or concern) just how partial and personal our conceptions might be. The variety of these conceptions can’t be much of a surprise.

This practice can be flexible or rigid when it comes to the incorporation of new and conflicting ideas—sometimes because of flexibility or rigidity inherent in the reigning conception of anarchism and sometimes just as a result of temperament. When attached to a desire for unity or synthesis, it may favor complex forms of pluralism or some variety of fundamentalism. But at its most anarchic, it seems likely to demand a good deal of flexibility, a tolerance for uncertainty and a taste for that productive sort of conflict already invoked.

It was in the service of this sort of practice that I attempted to define tradition in terms of specific elements “active” in the thought and practice of a given milieu. Rather than either invoke an imponderable anarchism or attempt to do without any accounting of the influence of the anarchist past, it has seemed possible to treat the elements of tradition in a particular anarchist milieu as, if not known and enumerated, at least generally knowable and presumably enumerable with some significant effort. If we can drag anarchist tradition even back into the realm of the ponderable, then we can begin to work on it and with it, even if we have to do so while at the same time depending upon it for at least some of our sense of being anarchists and being a part of anarchist movements and milieus.

I was thinking about this familiar problem of essentially building a theoretical edifice and renovating its foundations at the same time—something I’ve described in one narrower context as “The Mutualist’s Dilemma“—when, in the course of a debate on other anarchism and normative ethics, I ran across the notion of “Neurath’s ship.” In a 1921 work, “Anti-Spengler,” Otto Neurath, a member of the Vienna Circle, presented these observations, ending in a novel variation on the “ship of Theseus” thought-experiment:

That we always have to do with a whole network of concepts and not with concepts that can be isolated, puts any thinker into the difficult position of having unceasing regard for the whole mass of concepts that he cannot even survey all at once, and to let the new grow out of the old. Duhem has shown with special emphasis that every statement about any happening is saturated with hypotheses of all sorts and that these in the end are derived from our whole world-view. We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood, the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.

This struck me as a illustration relevant to some of those general difficulties of care and maintenance that I touched on in the post on “Vital Things.” But I was also already thinking about all of this in terms of ships and practices not at all related to maintenance, so I present it here largely as a foil for the strategy that I am going to propose.

There’s no denying the utility of anarchism as a vessel or vehicle for various projects—including that of providing ourselves with some kind of identity. At the same time, it’s hard to deny the capacity of vessels to constrain—including the capacity of even presumably libertarian ideologies to succumb to authoritarian dogmatization. So it seems worth considering the circumstances under which the project of making anarchism our own and the constraining tendencies of the given anarchist milieus come into conflict in ways that simply exhaust our skills as tinkers and bricoleurs.

It’s under those conditions that a second strategy comes to mind, which I’ll call—with a nod to the discussion in “Anarchy: Into the Maelstrom“—the Bilge-Rat’s Gambit.

The reference is to the opening of Joseph Déjacque’s The Humanisphere, where, in a rather characteristic flood of mix metaphors, he prepares readers for the works scandalous tone and revolutionary ambitions.

Being, like the cabin boy of the Salamander, unable, in my individual weakness, to strike down all those who, on the ship of the legal order, dominate and mistreat me, when my day is done at the workshop, when my watch is finished on the bridge, I descend by night to the bottom of the hold, I take possession of my solitary corner and, there, with teeth and claws, like a rat in the shadows, I scratch and gnaw at the worm-eaten walls of the old society. By day, as well, I use my hours of unemployment, I arm myself with a pen like a borer, I dip it in bile for grease, and, little by little, I open a way, each day larger, to the flood of the new; I relentlessly perforate the hull of Civilization. I, a puny proletarian, on whom the crew, the horde of exploiters, daily inflict the torment of the aggravated misery of the brutalities of exile or prison, I open up the abyss beneath the feet of my murderers, and I spread the balm of vengeance on my always-bloody scars. I have my eye on my Masters. I know that each day brings me closer to the goal; that a formidable cry—the sinister every man for himself!—will soon resound at the height of their joyous intoxication. A bilge-rat, I prepare their shipwreck; that shipwreck alone can put an end to my troubles and to those of my fellows. Come the revolution, will not the suffering have, for biscuit, ideas in reserve, and, for a life-line, socialism!

Scuttling the ship—whether it is the ship of civilization or a given anarchism understood as vessel or vehicle—is obviously a different and perhaps more desperate kind of practice than the sort of tinkering reform that would both keep the thing afloat and perhaps reshape it steadily to meet new challenges. The thought of the inrushing flood—even if it is only the anarchist past—might still inspire a bit of panic and sauve qui peut!

The ultimate life-line here, of course, is that the strategy, however drastic it may seem, is one that we can practice experimentally. We can throw things open to more or less complete reconsideration, with nothing to prevent a return to a familiar understanding of things except perhaps our recognition that we were wrong in the first place.

So we might treat this kind of radical opening to the anarchist past as a sort of practical strategy, to be used when other strategies seem to have run up against their limits. The chief difficulty is probably in distinguishing between the elements of the anarchist past and various other elements that might threaten to flood in as well. And then there is simply the matter of becoming accustomed to working with both a much more tentative conception of anarchism and a much larger pool of materials from which we might draw inspiration than we are likely to be working with at present.

Given those considerations, an exploratory survey, focused specifically on questions regarding the boundaries of anarchism, might seem as useful as it is doubtless unusual.

So let’s give this gambit a try, not because the idiosyncratic selection of texts will provide participants with some shared canon, but precisely because each of the texts we engage with closely will be chosen for its defects and the questions it raises about what can and cannot be considered as part of a clear and shareable anarchism.

This week’s second post—Anarchic Encounters with the Anarchist Past—will focus on the adaptation of the notion of an anarchic encounter as a tool in our exploration of the anarchist past.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2516 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.