Category Archives: Propositions for Discussion

Anarchy and its Uses

Fundamental to everything I’ve been saying about anarchy and anarchism over the last couple of years is a sense that anarchy works as a useful guiding principle only when we take it very, very seriously. I’m not interested in an argument about language or ideas, so much as one about the conditions under which we attempt to produce alternatives to existing authoritarian systems. All the references to assembling a toolkit aren’t accidental or rhetorical, and all of the sometimes fussy play with very specific aspects of our analytical and rhetorical tools is at least aimed at very practical ends.

You can’t properly choose a saw until you know the kind of cutting you need to do. You can’t properly sharpen it until you understand how the teeth are arranged. A woodworker who refused to concern themselves with this sort of thing might be expected to run into problems. I think it is safe to expect the same sort of difficulties for would-be anarchists who won’t wrestle with the details where anarchy, authority, and the like are concerned. I’ll go so far as to suggest that much of the ineffectiveness of the anarchist movement has arisen from a failure to make certain that we’re using the right tools for the job–or, slightly more perversely, from the failure, having presumably chosen our tools, to make certain that we’re doing the right job for the tools.

This has led me to pursue what I think of as a “hard line” with regard to the centrality of anarchy to any meaningful anarchism, but in the sense that the stands we take and the lines we draw in defense of anarchy have to be properly anarchic stands and lines. The anarchist tradition began not just as a revolt against existing governments, but as a revolt against every governmental alternative that might be proposed. If we are to maintain that aspect of the tradition, it is vital that anarchism not solidify into any sort of fixed system–but it is at least as important that our thinking about anarchy does not coalesce into any sort of hard and fast rule.

There are tasks for which we almost certainly do not believe that anarchy–or any of the anarchisms or anarchist practices derived from it–is the right tool. We don’t try to build bridges or bind books with anarchy, nor do we pretend that it is this or that anarchic practice that lets us write clean code or tie tight knots. In the real-world practice of any number of skills, there are moments when our core concerns as anarchists may be raised, but those moments almost always involve social organization–or they involve the pervasive influence of the dominant ideas about social organization, as they have been applied, correctly or incorrectly, in other domains. In the latter case, part of being very, very careful with our tools is knowing when we have allowed our thoughts to slide from one domain to another.

Of course, we can’t always avoid certain kinds of conceptual slides. Indeed, anarchist critique has often made powerful use of unacknowledged distinctions and opportunistic conflations in the dominant discourses. Proudhon’s claim that “property is theft” depends on this sort of play with already existing uncertainties. And Bakunin’s “God and the State” is full of examples, some more successful than others, of attempts to use the language of authority to illustrate anti-authoritarian ideas. For example, he connects human freedom to the notion of a “slavery” to natural laws, which ultimately isn’t slavery at all, as an alternative to authoritarian notions that freedom arises from obedience to the law.

It’s probably safe to say that not all of Bakunin’s rhetorical maneuvers are as elegant as “property is theft,” but they are certainly not indecipherable. We just have to find some relatively fixed reference points that we can use to guide ourselves through the maze. So, for example, when we’re going to try to make sense of the section of “God and the State” dealing with authority, we need to recall that it starts as a continuation of a discussion of the absolute opposition between the idea of God and human liberty. The idealists can talk about the two in the same breath because of the way they think about human liberty:

Perhaps, too, while speaking of liberty as something very respectable and very dear, they understood the term quite differently than we do, as materialists and revolutionary socialists. Indeed, they never speak of it without immediately adding another word, authority—a word and a thing which we detest with all our heart.

Bakunin sort of buries the lead here, but the point seems to be that authority is the missing link that allows the idealists to link human liberty and the idea of God, which Bakunin has been treating as necessarily implying human slavery. Then he simply moves, with no transition, to a discussion of the one instance in which authority and human liberty might be fundamentally in harmony with one another, and with a certain kind of “obedience to the law”—even a certain kind of “slavery”—eventually concluding that if liberty and authority were brought into this kind of hierarchy, they would prove the assertions of the anarchists:

The most stubborn authoritarians must admit that then there will be no more need of political organization, direction or legislation, three things which, whether they emanate from the will of the sovereign or from the vote of a parliament elected by universal suffrage, and even should they conform to the system of natural laws—which has never been the case and could never be the case—are always equally deadly and hostile to the liberty of the masses, because they impose upon them a system of external and therefore despotic laws.

Then he turns to showing how this sort of natural authority and political government are fundamentally incompatible, since making science (the always ongoing process of understanding that natural authority) the basis for political authority would be deadly to both human liberty and science itself.

This section of “God and the State” is both fascinating and maddening, precisely because, while Bakunin makes a bunch of fascinating observations and draws a series of useful conclusions about “authority,” he seems to have stitched them together without much indication of which conclusions should be drawn from which observations. But, in the interests of making some simple observations of our own, we can pretty safely say that there are at least two different notions of authority in play:

  • a purely internal authority, representing the inescapable power of the laws of nature; and
  • a range of external authorities, of which God and the State can be considered prime examples.

We would be tempted, given this division, to make the simple distinction that Bakunin himself makes in the essay and say that only internal authority could be considered “legitimate”—except that we already know that this particular variety of authority is indeed inescapable, and it seems silly to involve ourselves in a debate about the legitimacy of the inevitable.

How we proceed depends on what we want to take for a fixed point. If “authority” refers only to the inevitable consequences of natural laws, then “legitimate authority” seems to be a useless notion. On the other hand, if “authority” refers to externally sanctioned, a priori legitimacy, then “legitimate authority” is essentially redundant. The difficulty is that there seems to be something that still has to be addressed in “the authority of the bootmaker” and all the other specialists we encounter. It does not at first appear to be the sort of internal authority that is “vested” (to the extent that this remains a useful term) within us, but does not grant us a right to command others. Nor does it appear to be the sort of external authority that is vested in others and gives them a right to command us. And yet, Bakunin says, he is compelled to “bow.” And, whatever this authority is, it is not uncommon, as this newly retranslated passage makes clear:

I bow before the authority of exceptional men because it is imposed upon me by my own reason. I am conscious of my ability to grasp, in all its details and positive developments, only a very small portion of human science. The greatest intelligence would not be sufficient to grasp the entirety. From this results, for science as well as for industry, the necessity of the division and association of labor. I receive and I give—such is human life. Each is a directing authority and each is directed in his turn. So there is no fixed and constant authority, but a continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination.

We are dealing with a really ubiquitous sort of authority, which, in the best case, is both voluntary and beneficial. It is imposed on us, inescapably, by the laws of our nature, but it manifests itself in others in the form of some power (however limited) to command. Is this then “legitimate authority”? It that was the case, I think it would put us an an awkward position with regard to principles. The reason that we might willingly bow to the expert is thoroughly social, in the sense that it requires the encounter between the capacities of the expert and our relative incapacity in the same areas to create the appearance of an external authority validated by internal necessity. But it isn’t clear how this hybrid authority would work: the very limited “legitimacy” created by inevitability, when used as a rationale for a real power to command could only resemble a principle like “might makes right,” which hardly seems like the sort of principle to which anarchists should voluntarily bow, with the expectation of mutually beneficial outcomes.

Honestly, I just don’t see how an authority imposed by our own reason doesn’t simply remove “legitimacy” as an interesting question. And, when it comes right down to it, most of the evidence that we are dealing with authority, or obedience, or any of the concepts that we associate with archic society, seems to arise from the slightly perverse metaphors that anarchists have used to compare authoritarian and anti-authoritarian relations. When Bakunin describes what “obeying natural laws” actually means, it is hardly passive. Even when he talks about the practice of “bowing” to experts, it involves a lot of verification and testing. The simplest answer to the problem of “legitimate authority” seems be to to say that if there is an “authority” that fits within anarchist theory, there is nothing to say about its “legitimacy.” It’s simply not a question that makes any sense.

But there is still something—something real, if not legitimate—that is at least reflected in the expert. We know that this question of authority-as-reflection was something that Bakunin and his contemporaries were familiar with. The critique of God as merely a reflection of human excellence, along with the subsidiary critiques of Man, Humanity, etc. as mere displacements of this sort of projection,  were commonplace. We find Bakunin rejecting God as the illusion of a universal authority, but also any real instance of universal expertise:

This same reason prohibits me, then, from recognizing a fixed, constant, and universal authority-figure, because there is no universal man, no man capable of grasping in that wealth of detail, without which the application of science to life is impossible, all the sciences, all the branches of social life. And if such a universality was ever realized in a single man, and if he wished to take advantage of it in order to impose his authority upon us, it would be necessary to drive that man out of society, because his authority would inevitably reduce all the others to slavery and imbecility.

If there is room, in between the universal man and the divine symbol of that universality, for something real and potentially positive, I’m not sure we’re going to get a clear look at it through the lens of authority. But that’s not the only lens available to us. To think of the cobbler as “the person who can make the shoes that I can’t make” is not necessarily to raise them up in any sort of hierarchy. After all, the cobbler may be looking back at “the person with language and research skills I don’t have,” rather than, say, “the person who needs my shoes.” But perhaps they’re just looking at a person with a particular set of skills, drawn from the vast number of skills distributed among human beings.

It just seems to be the continued dominance of the principle of authority, and our old habit of recognizing it, that keeps us focused on the expert as a “special man,” when the specialness of the embodied expertise is almost always going to be dependent on circumstances external to the natures of all the human actors involved. Face it: the times when we’re actually going to want to bow to the cobbler are likely to be limited to when we really, really need shoes, but at those times we may be happy to bow most reverently, if the alternative is to go unshod. The cobbler and our relation to them in the realm of expertise remain unchanged, while other factors introduce a new urgency to the proceedings.

Still, I’m no believer in post-scarcity, so it seems likely to me that all sorts of urgency will continue to press at least the appearance of authority upon us, for at least the foreseeable future. So if we’re going to have to continue to deal with the messy details of when we bow to cobblers and when we find other people bowing to us, and if we can sometimes at least partially transform the situation by consciously rejecting authoritarian interpretations, there are almost certainly also going to be plenty of instances where the stakes are too high to pretend that we can simply think ourselves out of our predicament.

So what do we do when faced with instances of authority that seem inescapable?

It seems to me that there are two basic responses, both of which should be available to anarchists. The first is fairly obvious: we can remind ourselves that “legitimate authority” is a weird, hybrid notion at bestand probably too muddled to take very seriously. The second takes us way back to our discussion of tools and their uses, and perhaps isn’t so obvious, but try it on for size:

Faced with real-but-not-“legitimate” authority, the kind that arises from the intersection of differing individual capacities and material exigencies of various sorts, and having reminded ourselves that the principle of authority seems to be built on no firm basis, and further having done our best to reconsider our position in accordance with some more consistently anarchistic lens and surveyed the possible consequences of our future actions is terms of their impact on the degree and quality of the freedom we can expect to enjoy in the various available cases, perhaps the work of anarchy is done for the momentand we have to pick up other tools.

A lot of the problems that emerge in our debates seem like non-problems. There are people in the world who know not to touch the stove when it’s hot and not to run into traffic, while others do not, just as some people know how to make boots or do open-heart surgery, while others do not. We hardly think about how “authority” plays in all of this until other circumstances raise the stakes to the point where someone can exercise a right to command, even if it’s just the “right” to command an exorbitant wage in the capitalistic market. If we manage to eliminate more and more of the ways in which exploitation plays a key role in our societies, the necessity of addressing these attempts at command will certainly decrease. Given the artificial, systemic sources of many of the exigencies we face, we’ll be eliminating opportunities for command in large blocks, should we ever make any headway toward anarchy.

But until we’ve destroyed the foundations of those systems of authority and exploitation, we’re going to keep running into reminders of how little anarchy we really have, in contexts where there isn’t a heck of lot we can do about it. In those instances, there isn’t going to be any way to choose “correctly” among options all tainted to some degree with the kinds of relationships we oppose and abhor. We’re going to have to recognize when and where anarchist theory isn’t the tool we need—or at least isn’t a tool we can use—and concentrate of getting boots made, or building bridges, or whatever practical task is facing us. Anarchy is a goal and anarchist theory is at least a decent alternative to the hegemony of the principle of authority, but sometimes we just need to get stuff done, because we simply don’t live by liberty alone.

I think that this is the approach we should take to the question of the relationship between anarchy and democracy. If we affirm anarchy as a goal and oppose the principle of authority, it’s hard to see how we can have much good to say about democracy as a principle, beyond perhaps considering it a better sort of governmentalism than others, but, at the same time, sometimes we have to make decisions when real consensus is impossible. Under those circumstances, sometimes the least worst imposition on the interests and desires of dissenting minorities will be some kind of voteand we’ll just have to hold our noses, recognizing that this is not one of those instances when anarchy is a tool we can use, and deal with the circumstances imposed on us.

But let’s be clear about what is imposed on usand what most definitely is not. We may have to make use of this or that imperfect tool for decision-making, but that that doesn’t make those tools a part of our specifically anarchist toolkit. That toolkit has real limitations. Sometimes we will approach the goal of anarchy indirectly, by balancing clearly un-anarchistic practices, as Proudhon suggested in much of his mature work. Understanding the existence of real limitations on our options, recognizing that while authority can probably never be “legitimate,” it may still exert some real influence on our practices, we need to remain clear about the nature of our goals, the qualities of the available means and the specific limitations presented by our material and social contexts.

My sense is that this demanding mix of requirements imposes that “hard line” on us, according to which notions like anarchy have to be maintained with whatever clarity and purity we can manage intact, so that they provide useful guidance when we’re neck-deep in the complexities of a world still very much dominated by the principle of authority.

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But what about the children? (A note on tutelage)

It’s a question again of “legitimate authority” and “justified hierarchy,” and specifically of the favorite example used by those who want to leave a space within anarchist theory for those things: the care of very young children. The argument I have encountered repeatedly is that parenting is, at least in the case of those very young children, a necessarily authoritarian relation: children must be ordered about in order to protect them from hazards; parents have a duty and presumably also a right to dictate to their children; and children have an obligation to obey.

It’s one of those debates that all too often comes down to: “WHY WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!” And we know all too well all the dodgy uses to which that appeal has been put. But it should also be clear that the underlying questions, regarding our relations with those individuals with substantially different capacities for self-determination, are important on their own and probably have some connection to how we organize our relations with non-human nature. So we have to try to get to the bottom of what’s really at stake, despite the difficulties. Unfortunately, the terms that seem most useful to make the kinds of distinctions we would need are the very terms that seem to have been extended to encompass all sorts of potentially conflicting ideas, so we have to be try to find other vocabularies.

The general distinction that critics of all authority arguably need to make is between the capacity to act and various sorts of social permission or sanction for action that include some right to command others. It’s a distinction that we make regularly: the capacity to kill another individual does not generally carry with it any right to do so, nor does the capacity to understand complex social relations itself grant any right to arrange them for others. The expert has to possess something more than mere expertise in order for there to be authority (in the strong sense) vested in them. That something more is social in character, and indeed structures the sort of society that can exist between individuals.

The question becomes where, in relations presumably guided by anarchist principles, that extra, social something could come from. The case of the parental relation is at least useful as a place to examine the possibilities. In order to be particularly careful, it may be useful to first address it in terms of the question of “legitimate authority” and then again in terms of “justifiable hierarchy.”

There are some possible source of authority, such as ownership of the child by the parents, that we can probably set aside without much comment. Similarly, there seems to be little sympathy for the notion that the parental relation might be one in which might makes right. In general, even those who consider the parental relation necessarily authoritarian seem inclined to also treat it as a relation of care. Indeed, they often characterize parental guardianship as a duty, although it is often unclear to whom the duty is, or could be, owed. We’ll return to the dynamic of duty and obligation. First, we should see if perhaps parental authority could just be a matter of superior capacity and expertise, and perhaps one that could make us think differently about “the authority of the bootmaker.”

Certainly, one of the elements of the parent-child relation is that adults have a significantly greater experience of the world and the business of making our way through it relatively unscathed. They have capacities that are more developed in a variety of ways. If we were to assent to the notion that the difference between knowing how to make boots and not having those skills could be a source of authority, then certainly the difference between the skills and capacities of parent and child could be a similar source. The question becomes how a difference in capacities is transformed into a right to command on the part of the more capable and a duty to obey on the part of the less capable.

Let’s imagine a society of talented generalists, where skills and capacities are widely distributed and each individual is relatively self-sufficient. It is hard to imagine the rationale by which we would say that interference by certain individuals in the lives of others could be considered justified or legitimate. Perhaps the case of plucking someone out of harm’s way would be the sort of exception we might note, but, in the case of individuals of equal capacities, it seems hard to characterize the act as one of authority. Under these circumstances, the intervention has to be considered one that we make on our own responsibility and if we find it was unwelcome, it isn’t clear that we could justify our interference in any way that the recipient/victim should feel obliged to accept. Certainly, in a society of competent bootmakers, no particular bootmaker could be said to have much in the way of authority.

Let’s consider then what happens if, in this society of competent bootmakers, one individual becomes expert. It still isn’t clear that the additional capacity translates into any sort of authority. There are certainly likely to be economic effects as we begin to see specialization in a society, but there’s no obvious way in which any power or right to command emerges from the scenario.

But let’s consider the other end of a certain spectrum, in a society where we have a great deal of specialization—so much, in fact, that individuals are constantly confronted with the need to consult others to complete the most basic of tasks. The dynamics of the society will obviously be more complex, but it isn’t clear that this extreme divvying-up of expertise provides much greater footholds for the establishment of authority, at least in the realm of principle. Here, every individual is, in theory, a potential authority when it comes to their particular specialization and a dependent in most other contexts, but in fact the complex interdependence means that all of that authority remains largely potential, since the social leverage available to each narrow specialization is minuscule in comparison to the combined importance of all the other forms of specialized expertise.

Now, in a more complex society there are more opportunities for equal interdependence to break down. That means that some of our specialists might find themselves gaining relative advantages as circumstances gave their skills particular importance. The various weapon-producers or food-producers might collude, under favorable circumstances, to transform their expertise into the power to command, but we would be hard put, I think, to find an anarchist principle to justify their actions. And I think we would have to say that the source of that possibility was more in the general incapacity of the population with regard to specific skills and the specific environmental circumstances than it was in the expertise of the individuals able to capitalize on the situation.

Obviously, we live in societies where the distribution of expertise lies between these extremes and where the existing conditions already structure which sorts of expertise have access to the power to command, whether it is a matter of commanding wealth in the market or obedience in a wide range of authoritarian institutions. But it isn’t clear how our own societies differ from these extreme examples, where the question of “legitimate authority” arising from expertise is concerned. The power to command seems to emerge from just about every element in society except individual expertise: already existing political authority, economic monopoly, the comparative incapacity of others, accidents and “acts of God,” etc. We can’t seem to make the leap from “I can…” to “I may and others must…,” but that is precisely the leap we have to make in order to establish some principle by which expertise itself really establishes some authority vested in the expert.

Add to these considerations Bakunin’s comments on the corrosive effects of authority on expertise, and perhaps we can acknowledge we have to look elsewhere. The ultimate sanction of expertise is presumably truth, but practical truth in a developing context is not the sort of thing that stands still, so that sanction has to be renewed and tested by new study and experiment. So even if we could establish the present legitimacy of an authority based on the most rigorous sort of scientific truth, in some way that the non-expert could verify (and this is not at all clear), we have no guarantee that the legitimacy would remain as circumstances changed, while the exercise of the authority as such is itself at least potentially a break from the exercise of the practices of the field of expertise on which it is presumably based. Once crowned an expert, it is easy to stop renewing one’s expertise.

When we apply these considerations to the parental relation, it doesn’t seem any easier to explain why the greater capacities of the parent would alone establish a power to command or an obligation to obey in this instance than it is in the relations between adults. At the same time, there seem to be other explanations for why we might act in their defense that don’t depend on either authority or even on the relative differences in capacity between adults and children. We might, after all, act to save another adult, without any attempt to establish authority or permission. We might do so out of specific relations of care or simply on the basis of our experience of what constitutes intentional and accidental behavior in our own societies. The major difference with children is that we can be fairly certain that nobody, except the child, is likely to make much fuss if our exercise of real or imagined authority seems to be “for the good of the child.” And the reasons for that may have more to do with our tendency to think of children and their actions as existing within a “justifiable hierarchy” beneath adults and the ordinary workings of adult society.

The parent-child hierarchy is often cited as one of a class of educational or tutelary hierarchies. Tutelage is guardianship and in tutelary relations the assumption is that the subordinate (child, pupil, apprentice, etc.) is at least temporarily incapable of protecting themselves and their interests, so the right to exercise the power of command is based on the assumption that it is exercised for the subordinate—or at least “for their own good.” Bakunin left open the possibility of exercising authority over very young children, because he understood human development as in part characterized by a progressive increase in humanity, at the very beginning of which children are effectively not yet human and need to be given the tools to take on their own development before they can start that progressive development on their own terms.

Even this may not be entirely defensible as a matter of principle. The familiar example of pulling a child back from traffic already assumes a particular sort of “adult world” in which the spaces for free exploration are dramatically limited by the business as usual of the institutions we have created. It isn’t clear what could justify the busy street, in principled terms, so it is at least a little bit hard to know how that busy street contributes to the principled legitimization of the parental act.

But if we assume that, specifics aside, there will always be some set of coping skills that need to be acquired before children can assume responsibility for their own safety and development, we still have to work out just what form the tutelary hierarchy really takes—and then whether it amounts to evidence in favor of retaining some space for “legitimate authority” and “justified hierarchy” within anarchist thought.

Early in our examination, it was suggested that parental care might be a duty. Now, if this was the case, the parent would presumably be superior to the child because they were inferior to some other power that imposed the duty. We might certainly think of familiar circumstances, under which the care of children is indeed dictated by law and by specific social norms, but I suspect we can also think of reasons why most of those factors which presume to dictate to the individual might not be consistent with anarchist principles or present in an anarchist society. We could also think of the duty as a duty to the child, but that puts us in the strange position of imagining a hierarchy in which the superior interest is that of a being elevated to that status by their incapacity. If there is a hierarchy here, it is an odd one, disconnected from our usual understanding of authority, since the child who cannot manage their own interests is hardly in a position to exercise a right to command.

Instead of a hierarchy, we seem to be left with one of those complicated relationships, like the guest-host relation of hospitality, where the roles are fluid and the usual rules are suspended. In this case, we have some of the forms of command and rule, but without any of the usual authoritarian or hierarchical rationales. Rather than being an exception to anarchist principles, perhaps we should understand the parental relation as a most accessible example of how anarchists principles ought to be applied in our struggle towards a more genuinely free society, characterized by more thoroughly anti-authoritarian and non-hierarchical relations.

After all, the parental relation, with all of its negotiations between the rights and needs of children and those of parents, is not the sort of thing that we intend to maintain forever, assuming that we value our children as developing human beings. Confronted with the limited capacities of the child, our action is directed toward increasing those capacities. We teach and, in those instances where our teaching has not caught up with the needs of the day, we intervene more directly. But the hope, assuming that desire to see children grow up to be independent, is that the tutelage is a very temporary thing. And child-rearing is, like every other kind of expertise, itself a matter of practice and developing expertise. The specific difficulties of negotiating rights and interests mean that it is necessarily a work of trial-and-error. There’s nothing easy or comfortable about the relation, particularly for those who concern themselves with the principled critique of authority, so there’s even some strong incentives to move things along and reduce the quasi-hierarchical elements of the relation.

That doesn’t sound like a set of reasons to make space in anarchist theory for any more extensive acceptance of hierarchy—and perhaps quite the contrary. It would seem to me that each time we are confronted with an imbalance of expertise and the opening to authoritarian relations, the logical anarchist response would be to work, on our own responsibility, to cultivate greater, more widespread knowledge and skill, rather than accommodating ourselves to the imbalance. There will, of course, be times when we have to move forward with the limitations imposed on us by hard necessity. That was, after all, the one law that anarchists like Proudhon and Bakunin would acknowledge. But the point of necessity-as-law was not to grant authority to any particular response to the inevitable, but to emphasize that we must respond. How we respond will seldom be entirely dictated by our circumstances, which is precisely the reason that our principles need to be clear, so that we can advance most effectively, given our real limitations, toward the beautiful ideal of anarchy.

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Anarchism, Plain and Simple

I’ll do a proper year-end round-up sometime soon and talk about a number of changes coming to the Libertarian Labyrinth, but I’ll start with some updates on publishing and translating projects. If things have been fairly quiet on the blog, it’s because virtually all my time and energy has been invested in attempting to finish up the manuscript of Anarchist Beginnings: Declarations and Professions of Faith, 1840-1920 (the book previously known as Anarchies and Anarchisms.) And that project has been a learning (and unlearning, and relearning) experience on a scale that I couldn’t have imagined when I started it, almost three years ago. It has made me feel, alternately, awfully clever and pretty darn thick, as I’ve struggle to make sense of just exactly what lessons it had to teach. Things are finally coming together—once and for all, I think—and not just for that particular book. As a result of the work necessary to complete that project, I’ve also got a healthy head start on a sort of companion volume, tentatively titled Anarchism, Plain and Simple: Propositions for Discussion (portions of which have already appeared here and on the Responsibility, Solidarity, Strategy blog.

Anarchism, Plain and Simple is a 2016 project, which will undoubtedly have to play second fiddle for a month or three to the stack of nearly completed manuscripts that trouble my sleep most nights, but which I expect will be finished before 2017 comes around. Part of my confidence comes from the fact that the work is, in effect, a sort of summary of work that I’ve already done in piecemeal fashion over the last few years. Regular readers will recognize elements of the “anarchism of the encounter” and longtime readers will find most of the elements promised in the abandoned Two-Gun Mutualism book, stripped of the idiosyncratic language of that project.

Notes from a draft introduction to Anarchism, Plain and Simple

Anarchism had hardly established itself as a tendency before anarchists began to ask themselves why their beautiful ideal was not gaining wider acceptance in the world. And it should come as no surprise to any of us that the most animated debates in those early years revolved around familiar issues like organization, future economic forms and the possibility of pluralism regarding these questions within an anarchist movement worthy of both parts of its name.

Let’s date the emergence of anarchism as a widely used label sometime around 1880, and then note the fact that anarchism without adjectives was already being promoted—and not just in Spain, where it had emerged around mid-decade—within less than ten years. By the turn of the century the discussion had shifted from the necessities of cooperation among anarchists to the more fundamental question of the nature of anarchy, with Ricardo Mella declaring in 1899 that “anarquía no admite adjetivos”—anarchy accepts no adjectives. Max Nettlau, having undergone a rapid conversion from anarchist-communist partisan to proponent of the “sin adjectivos” school, wrote the essay “Some criticism of some current anarchist beliefs” in 1901 and followed it with a book-length work, Essai d’une critique de quelques tendances actuelles du mouvement anarchiste, the following year.

We could go back through the first forty years following Proudhon’s declaration “je suis anarchiste”—I am an anarchist, or perhaps just I am anarchist—tracing the steps by which the anti-authoritarian internationalists of the First International came to adopt the anarchist label, despite the taint of “proudhonism,” and launched an anarchism with at least conflicted relations to the an-archie of the 1840s. And then we could trace the various points in the subsequent history where a renewed focus on anarchy was proposed as a solution to anarchism’s failures. But that would take us too far afield from present concerns. Let’s just acknowledge that there has been, perhaps from Proudhon’s first declaration, the potential for conflict between the ideal of anarchy and any attempt to systematize its application to real social relations. “Humanity proceeds by approximations,” as Proudhon reminded us in The Theory of Property, with “the approximation of an-archy” being one part of that process. But approximation presupposes a more perfect limit or ideal, even if it is a more perfect absence or elimination of hierarchy and authority, as in the case of anarchist activity.

There will always be a tug-of-war between the ideal and the various approximations. Anarchists must learn to choose both, or else sacrifice one to the other. This is not, it seems to me, a knowledge that many of us have mastered yet, and arguably it is anarchy that tends to be sacrificed when it comes time for us to choose.

It is a certain kind of virtue not to be paralyzed by the difficulties posed by our ideal and to be able to keep looking for the next step towards greater freedom. But if we do not also keep that beautiful idea of anarchy fresh in our minds, it becomes hard to be certain just what is guiding our footsteps. The tension created by the dual demands of anarchist praxis—to “change the world,” but by steadily bringing our relations, in all spheres, closer to the ideal of anarchy—can be exhausting—and perhaps many of the shortcomings of present anarchist practice are best attributed to various kinds of exhaustion—but perhaps not quite so exhausting as we tend to make them, nor even necessarily more so than the tensions inherent in not transforming our existing relations.

Perhaps some of what feels particularly demanding about the ideal of anarchy is not, in fact, a function of the ideal, but instead a function of our resistance to it. Perhaps those—and they seem so common now—who imagine an “anarchism” that would make room for all manner of fundamentally hierarchical, authoritarian or even patently governmental elements—but for “the right reasons,” for “the common good,” etc.—have actually taken the harder road by refusing to strike out into largely unexplored, really anarchic territory. And perhaps those who fear that anarchy itself is an insufficient ground for “organizing” anarchy on a meaningful scale have made a similar miscalculation—while those who simply insist on a particular social system as the only means of achieving anarchy have arguably missed the point of anarchy completely.

That is the premise that these propositions seek to explore and, for the most part, to defend: Anarchy is sufficient to the needs of anarchism, and refocusing on the ideal of anarchy might be the thing—perhaps the only thing—that could serve as a common commitment and ground for solidarity among anarchists not bound too tightly by their own approximations.

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Anarchy and Anarchism, Insides and Outsides

Dad blame anything a man can’t quit.”—Roger Miller

Make a more or less angry break with the anarchist milieu. Settle down to write a book about anarchism. It might all seem a bit bizarre if it wasn’t, for a certain sort of anarchist, pretty much inevitable. I know that there are people who move from the anarchist scene to other political scenes, who trade in the beautiful idea for other ideas. Honestly, though, I don’t understand them and don’t imagine I have much in common with them. For me, the encounter with anarchy was a sort of Rubicon—or perhaps more like a sort of Styx. Anyway, once across, there has never been any question of crossing back. But it’s not some radical sort of semper fidelis that keeps me faithful to a movement. Instead, for me at least, anarchy is one of those things that, as we say in less serious contexts, “you can’t unsee.” It started as a look outside—and gradually became a kind of being outside—which has always mixed uncomfortably with the often strict border-patrolling characteristic of the milieu.

The outside that characterizes anarchy is not just the outsider status that brought so many of us to the brink. That, as I think most of us recognize, is a relative thing, entirely compatible with various inversions and the creation of new kinds of insider status. Instead, there is something about anarchy itself—the thing that makes it immediately familiar to the intuition and endlessly elusive in the realm of precise definitions—that mocks and punishes us every time we try to build a wall, a system, even a fixed meaning around it. Every time… I firmly believe that—although it has taken some years to come to grips with just how truly ungovernable our ideal of anarchy really can be. And it’s not just a matter of that ideal giving us a kick in the shins every time we go wrong. The kickings are likely to be pretty constant, even when we’ve kept our eyes on the prize and really put our all our strength into the work. Eventually, there ought to be a point at which we stop thinking about every “One more effort, comrades!” as a rebuke and understand that this is is just what living by our own standards entails, but we don’t seem to be anywhere near that point yet. There are arguably a number of transformations to accomplish between our current emphasis on call-outs and laying down the (anarchic?) law and a culture in which we could come together in mutual ungovernability, but perhaps the key to all of them is to come to grips, individually and collectively, with just how demanding our ideal really is, and the specific, systematic problems that ideal of anarchy poses for any and all of the anarchisms we might concoct in pursuit of it.

What happens if we let anarchy have its way—first in our thoughts and our imaginations, and then, bit by bit, in our practice? Should the prospect frighten us? Perhaps. But if anarchy does not seem to be the impulse that takes us the places we want to go, should we think of ourselves as anarchists? Probably not. When I see self-proclaimed anarchists back away from the concept of anarchy, it is generally because it “can mean too many things,” including presumably some bad ones. Now, I’m pretty well convinced that anarchy can actually only mean a very narrow range of things, but that the thing it most obviously means is that none of our pet projects and personal desires are exempt from potential critique. When the early anarchists identified anarchy with progress, what they meant was that only dead things stop growing and not much of anything stops changing. When they identified it with order, it was not in any way that ought to make any “law and order” crowd feel safe. If we don’t feel a tug of fear when we embrace anarchy, we’re probably not doing it right. But the thing to do when we feel it is not to retreat, but to look squarely at our fear. Chances are pretty good that what we fear most is uncertainty—but where, apart from resigning ourselves to some regime of authority, would certainty come from?

Let’s be clear: we will build plenty of safer spaces on the road to anarchy, but anarchy itself is probably not one of them.

Let anarchy have its way. “Anarchy accepts no adjectives.” It is not a space whose borders we can patrol. It is not a substance we can stockpile. It is not, as Bonanno reminded us, a concept that can be defined once and for all or an inheritance that we can squirrel away. It is not any sort of capital. If anything, it is a powerful solvent, with all the dangers we associate with such things.

But it’s not like we’re trying to build a new world with that solvent. Anarchy can only be one tool in our kit, however critically important it may be. And that realization—which perhaps comes harder to us than it should—ought to be an opening to others. Among other things, perhaps it clarifies the precise sort of tension that necessarily exists between anarchy and every sort of anarchism.

Anarchy is an ideal that pertains to a particular aspect of our lives. It concerns the nature of our relations to each other, and to the world. In a sense, all that is really implied by anarchy is that we will relate directly with the world as we encounter it, rather than mediating our interactions through the filters of authority and absolutism. When Proudhon referred to the governmentalist State as “the external constitution of society,” he pointed to something fundamental about the way our lives are organized. We are encouraged to believe that our interactions and collaborations are not significant in themselves—are in some sense not enough—until they are put in the service of a boss or an institution or a reigning abstraction. The real is merely relative until it is validated by some absolute standard. The alternative—what Proudhon called “the elimination of the absolute”—is really just what we might now call a very thoroughgoing horizontalism. If, for the moment, we find ourselves skeptics, relativists or nihilists—or enthusiasts for alternative systems—it is because we remain in a moment of critique, still subject to the terms of the dominant, authoritarian, absolutist culture. There will, however, come a moment, if we do not simply fail, when those critical terms will lose their sense and we will have to continue on into realms, and according to logics, that are hard even to adequately describe right now. But we can, I think, at least imagine ourselves walking away—from law and order, crime and punishment, permission and prohibition, and all the other facets of authority and the absolute—provided, of course, we have not internalized our role as critics as a form of identity. That should be a familiar enough danger. We have to be able to imagine a day when we will no longer be rebels—and when that will be just fine.

The overwhelming emphasis on authority in our culture probably makes us place too high a value on our own rebellion. In our truly authoritarian societies, virtually everything we would like to do is in some sense controlled or mediated by authority, so once we have embraced the position of anarchist—dedicated opponent of all of that—everything we do seems to be a part of our struggle. But there’s a real danger of turning anarchy into just another absolute, another rule to be applied universally. Even the language of ideals tends to play into that kind of thinking—threatening us with a sort of absolutist anarchism—if we don’t fairly carefully eliminate the absolute from our thinking in this case as well. So let’s remember that we became anarchists for specific reasons, because we felt blocked, frustrated or hemmed in in particular aspects of our lives, and then came to generalize our rebellion as the process of questioning specific instances of authority led us to reject authority itself. (If those colors don’t seem right to you, you might ask yourself how else one might become truly and thoroughly anti-authoritarian, and then judge your own experiences accordingly.) If, in the end, we end up substituting “being anarchists” for all those other, specific things that we wanted to do, I would be inclined to think we had either made a bad trade or else had come to think of our anarchism in terms too broad and general to be particularly useful. Your mileage, of course, may vary, but humor me while I propose a somewhat more carefully contained notion of anarchism.

Anarchism is a really curious word, which has come to mean a wide, and seldom particularly well defined, range of things. Let’s recall that both anarchy and anarchist were subject to a similar sort of indeterminacy. For the entire “Era of Anarchy” self-proclaimed anarchists frequently used the word “anarchy” in ways that made no clear distinctions between the absence of government and disorder—to the extent that when we see folks like Proudhon and Bakunin declare themselves in favor of anarchy, we probably have to acknowledge that they had no safe, well-contained program in mind. And, of course, there were those like Ernest Coeurderoy, for whom the road to anarchy appeared inseparable from the mayhem of a Cossack invasion. At the same time, there is at least some question about the extent to which Proudhon’s initial declaration—Je suis anarchiste—should be taken as marking out a specific category of being or identity (“I am an anarchist”), as opposed to a tendency (“I am anarchist.”) Noun or adjective? Interestingly, the original statement is grammatically a bit anarchic, so things could go either way. Now, add in all the things that “anarchism” has been used to designate: ideologies, movements, styles of individual practice, forms of social relations, etc. As I have already suggested, in the face of so much emphasis on authority, it’s not hard for the majority of what we do or say to be colored, at least in our own minds, by our anti-authoritarian positions. But even in this world, if the struggle colors everything, it still is not everything. To the extent that authority conditions our existing relations, our anti-authoritarianism will color our responses, but the goal is still to live, not to conform to an ideology or belong to a tribe. Life may be anarchic—at least when freed from authority—but we probably shouldn’t confuse it with anarchy or anarchism.

We are faced, then, with some distinctions that should probably be made. Anarchy is one way to organize social relations (with all those potentially problematic terms defined very broadly.) Anarchists are those who see that mode of social organization as preferable, in part because we can no longer wrap our heads around the justification for anything else. Anarchism is, in one sphere or another, the application of anarchy to our goal and projects, or against everything that stands between us and their fulfillment—between us and living. But in applying anarchy to life, the mix ought to be really heavy on life, with anarchy just being one of the characteristics of a life worth living. So living is another step from our abstract engagement with the idea of anarchy.

It is because we still do living in a world dominated by authority that it is worth making some sort of anarchist declaration (je suis anarchiste) and developing some set of practical applications worth calling anarchism. And until we find ourselves living in a different sort of world, we are probably going to be stuck dividing our attention between the ideal that is at the center of our critique and the life that we would like to be living. But—to return to our discussion of insides and outsides—neither anarchy nor life is the sort of thing that ought to appear to us as a limited territory that we can or must defend. Both of those focuses ought to have us looking outward—away from the narrow constraints of life under authority, toward freedom and possibility. And if anarchism is the messy, practical bridge between the idea we have formed of a life worth living and actually living it, the vehicle that we imagine will take us from one to the other, we should probably be suspicious of any manifestations of it that appear to wall us up, even in a defensive posture, in the name of anarchy and life.

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Toward a General Theory of Archy

 A lot of my frustrations with the anarchist milieu have less to do with the sorts of internal problems we face, which seem to me to be logical manifestations of the larger social environment, and more to do with the fact that, even if we had the will to address the various things that hold us back, we might not have enough shared theory and vocabulary to get the job done. But, as I have said, my feelings of alienation have been parallel to, and undoubtedly also arise from, a very strong sense of having finally plumbed a lot of the depths of anarchist theory and history. The combination leaves me very few excuses for putting off writing the sort of general anarchist theory that I have been circling for the last few years, something I’ve been wrestling with as I added the role of anthologist to the various other roles I’ve played within the milieu. I could be generally agnostic about defining terms like anarchy and anarchism—in their various senses—as long as the primary vehicles for my work were blogs like this one, the Libertarian Labyrinth archives and Corvus Editions. It’s been easy to treat everything as a working translation or a sketch for a chapter in a work to be completed when more data had been gathered. And it has also been extremely useful to do so, and not to tie myself prematurely to a particular guiding narrative. Opening anarchism onto itself and its possibilities, by documenting all the messiness of its history and the complexities of its earliest theories, has, I think, been an extremely useful project, and one in the context of which I think I can claim some real accomplishments.

It is, however, only part of the work necessary to rethink the milieu in terms that allow us to move on beyond existing obstacles. Adding complexity to the narrative of anarchist history and showing the permeability of sectarian boundaries is a good tonic for those who think of our problems in terms of rigidity, dogmatism, etc. For us—and I proudly count myself a member of that particular faction—more anarchy in our anarchism just seems natural. By itself, however, this approach doesn’t necessarily have much to offer those who are concerned that anarchy might ultimately be a principle of pure dispersion, insufficient to guide us toward the specific changes we desire in our lives and relations. Fortunately, the sort of clarification of the idea of anarchy that would be necessary to chase the fears of this group is likely to be of use to the rest of us as well, and that other work of opening closed narratives and engaging complexity has probably unearthed everything we need to attempt some sort of positive account of anarchy as sufficient to the needs of anarchism—a narrative shareable by a variety of present tendencies, but also one suggesting a shared thread through various historical tendencies.

In my present state of dissatisfaction with the anarchist milieu, such a narrative, while shareable, can’t help but also be a sort of provocation. For me, one of the lessons of the past couple of years is that some “sectarian” battles, very narrowly defined, are indeed worth fighting. To embrace “anarchism without adjectives” in any sense that is not absurd and ultimately indifferent is to adopt the hardest sort of line against any sect that would attempt to ground anarchism on any basis but the shifting ground of anarchy. That means taking a stand against the various would-be “anarcho”-authoritarianisms and the ideological quibbling of various competing approaches. So feel free to take what follows as quite consciously polemic. Just understand that I’m pretty sure it’s a well-grounded polemic, the product of decades of thinking about these issues, and, of course, it is not just polemic.

Nearly everything I have written recently converges on this potential shareable narrative, with the “Propositions for Discussion” being the central bit of work. In the sections that I’ve outlined so far I’ve set up a couple of basic claims about anarchy:

  1. The nature of the idea of anarchy leaves very little room for arguments about definitions—unless they are rather fruitless fights about etymology and whether anarchy is “the right word” for what anarchists have proposed. As anarchists have understood it, at least, anarchy really does “accept no adjectives.”
  2. The majority of our disputes have really been over the range of human relations for which anarchy seems to be a suitable ideal. When we get bogged down in debates over whether a capitalist employer is a ruler, the question really seems to be whether the relationships we oppose in the political and economic realms are sufficiently of a type that principled opposition to one demands opposition to the other.

It is at this point that our lack of shared vocabulary and theory makes our lives very difficult. We have our laundry lists of things that we oppose—oppression, exploitation, hierarchy, authority, absolutism, privilege, government or governmentalism, statism, sexism, racism, patriarchy, etc., etc., etc.—but all of these terms are subject to the usual tug-of-war that determines the local meanings of ideologically charged words. In the end, even anarchists can’t agree on what they all mean. Marxists and Proudhonists will see different sources for the exploitation of labor, and different mechanisms in its operation. Anarchists will trot out Bakunin’s “defenses” of “the authority of the bookmaker” and the “invisible dictatorship” almost as often as our opponents. Some anarchists are perfectly comfortable with the notion of “anarchist law” and complain that “anarchy mean no rulers, not no rules”—and there are ways to turn the various words in those phrases in directions that are consistent with the main currents of anarchist thought, but it’s very hard to tell at any given moment if that’s what’s on the table. We need a way of defining the “archy” that unites the various things that we’re against, but, if anything, the trend at the moment seems to be away from that sort of approach and toward a taxonomy of oppressions that are considered either incommensurable or subject to a rigid sort of hierarchy of severity.

I’ve had a suspicion for a long time—a thought I’ve voiced here on a number of occasions—that there was something in Proudhon’s analysis of unity-collectivities and collective force that might serve to bring together at least some of these opposition into a kind of General Theory of Things Anarchists Oppose. But there are at least a couple of steps in making that case. First, there is the necessity of finding the connections, or at least clear grounds for the connections, in Proudhon’s own work—where, we can be sure, any standard for identifying archic relationships will have been applied somewhat unevenly. Then, it is necessary to demonstrate that the proposed standards are applicable under present conditions, in the context of 21st century anti-authoritarian discourse. If, for example, it was possible to find parallels between the critique of capitalism and the critique of governmentalism in What is Property?, it would still be necessary to show that the critique could be extended to patriarchy and that it would either connect those analyses to, say, the analysis of privilege or demonstrate why that connection wasn’t necessary.

The hardest part of reading Proudhon’s work is probably simply the sheer number of writings, and the very diverse nature of them, joined with the fact that, for Proudhon, there was obviously a great deal of connection between the various analyses. I’ve noted more than once how often a key piece of theory will be tucked away in some entirely unexpected place. The presence of key remarks on the nature of the “citizen-State” in The Theory of Taxation is just one example. The various twists and turns in Proudhon’s use of keywords—well-documented over the years on this blog—is another complicating factor. The strategy I’ve had to develop to deal with these problems has involved a lot of keyword-searching across all the digitized volumes, a lot of mapping of equivalent terms, and the establishment of chronological accounts of the development of various concepts. Another decade or two of that and I think I’ll know Proudhon’s work pretty well, but the last decade of it has arguably given me a useful sense of the broad outlines of his project, with really in-depth knowledge of some aspects of it. And if some of the mysteries of his use of words like anarchy and anarchist still elude me, the nature of our elusive archy has become increasingly clearly to me.

As I’ve been suggesting over on, some key answers seem to have been hiding in plain sight, clustered around the famous claim that “property is theft.” It took some time to clear away a lot of dubious interpretations of that phrase, to focus on the issue of “collective force” and get clear about the account of exploitation provided in 1840. That work accomplished, it because possible to see that a fundamentally similar account of governmentalism was present in various places, such as the “Little Political Catechism” in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church. And when the manuscripts of Economie became available online, we gained Proudhon’s own testimony that the two processes were, in fact, fundamentally the same in his estimation. It took wading through the “Catechism of Marriage” to see that Proudhon’s strong feelings about the physical inequality of the sexes was still joined to a strong insistence on other sorts of equality—a state of affairs that is hard not to find maddening, but which seems nonetheless to have been the case–which opens at ;east the possibility of attempting to extend Proudhon’s anarchic critique to the institution of patriarchy  (as I started to do in “.”)

It turns out that Proudhon may have even laid some of the foundations for an extension of his own critique. In the “Little Political Catechism,” he wrote:

Of the Appropriation of the Collective Forces, and the Corruption of the Social Power

Q.—Is it possible that a phenomenon as considerable as that of the collective force, which changes the face of ontology, which almost touches physics, could have been concealed for so many centuries from the attention of the philosophers? How, in relation to something that interests them so closely, did the public reason, on the one hand, and personal interest, on the other, let themselves be misled for such a long time?

A.—Nothing comes except with the passage of time, in science as in nature. All starts with the infinitely small, with a seed, initially invisible, which develops little by little, toward the infinite. Thus, the persistence of error is proportional to the size of the truths. Thus, one is thus not surprised if the social power, inaccessible to the senses in spite of its reality, seemed to the first men an emanation of the divine Being, for this reason the worthy object of their religion. As little as they knew how to realize it through analysis, they had a keener sense of it, quite different in this respect from the philosophers who, arriving later, made of the State a restriction on the freedom of citizens, a mandate of their whim, a nothingness. Even today, the economists have barely identified the collective force. After two thousand years of political mysticism, we have had two thousand years of nihilism: one could not use another word for the theories which have held sway since Aristotle.

Q.—What was the consequence of this delay in knowledge of the collective Being for peoples and States?

A.—The appropriation of all collective forces and the corruption of social power; in less severe terms, an arbitrary economy and an artificial constitution of the public power.

Q.—Explain yourself on these two headings.

A.—By the constitution of the family, the father is naturally invested with the ownership and direction of the force issuing from the family group. This force soon increases from the work of slaves and mercenaries, the number of which it contributes to increase. The family becomes a tribe: the father, preserving his dignity, sees the power he has grow proportionately. It is the starting point, the type of all such appropriations. Everywhere where a group of men is formed, or a power of collectivity, there is formed a patriciate, a seigniory. Several families, several societies, together, form a city: the presence of a superior force is felt at once, the object of the ambition of all. Who will become its agent, its recipient, its organ? Usually, it will be that of the chiefs who hold sway over the most children, parents, allies, clients, slaves, employees, beasts of burden, capital, land—in a word, those who have at their disposal the greatest force of collectivity. It is a natural law that the greater force absorbs and assimilates the smaller forces, and that domestic power becomes a title of political power, and only the strong may compete for the crown.

There is a good deal here that is interesting, but certainly nothing is more interesting, from the point of view of moving beyond Proudhon’s anti-feminism, than this treatment of the father and the constitution of the family as the example of how the “appropriation of all collective forces and the corruption of social power” gets its start.

I don’t want to get too bogged down in the textual details here, but if you wanted to explore them yourself you couldn’t go too far wrong by tracking down the various references to this “power of collectivity” (puissance de collectivité.) Regular readers of the blog should recognize the phrase from a line from Justice that I have quoted many times:

Voilà tout le système social : une équation, et par suite une puissance de collectivité.

That is the whole social system: an equation, and consequently a power of collectivity.

I have generally used this as a description of anarchy, to the extent that its fundamentally anti-systemic character can be expressed in terms of a system. (This sort of slightly paradoxical relation of anarchy to archic systems, which I have already mentioned in the case of Bakunin, seems to be something of an occupational hazard for anarchist theorists.) What I’ve suggested is that anything that can’t fit into this very simple model probably falls somewhere within the realm of archic relations. But perhaps we can clarify things just a bit more, with another look at the two elements of this “system.”

Let’s start with the equation. Proudhon describes the scenario he is imagining:

Two families, two cities, two provinces, contract on the same footing: there is always that these two things, an equation and power of collectivity. It would involve a contradiction, a violation of Justice, if there were anything else.

So, here, the equation is a matter of being “on the same footing,” of equal standing between the parties. Equality was an extremely important keyword for Proudhon. Society, for example, was essentially a synonym, in the sense that equality was the primary precondition for relations worth calling “social.” But Proudhon was at the same time very skeptical of any sort of material equality. In The Philosophy of Progress he wrote:

…the correlative of liberty is equality, not a real and immediate equality, as communism intends, nor a personal equality, as the theory of Rousseau supposes, but a commutative and progressive equality, which gives a completely different direction to Justice.

And later in the same work:

Some philosophers who think themselves profound, and who are only impertinent, imagine that they have found a flat refusal of the principle of equality, which forms the basis of the anti-proprietary critique. They say that there are not two equal things in the whole universe.—Very well. Let us admit that there have not been two equal things in the world: at least one will not deny that all have been in equilibrium, since, without equilibrium, as without movement, there is no existence.

So equality become, through its “commutative and progressive” character, closely connected to reciprocity, defined by Proudhon as “the mutual penetration of antagonistic elements,” and roughly synonymous with justice, which he understood in terms of the balance of interests among equals. And all of them are essentially aspects of anarchy, understood in its most general sense.

Of course, as interesting as all that is, and as vital as it is to understanding Proudhon, it doesn’t necessarily take us much closer to the sort of tools we need to recognize archy whenever we encounter it. For that, we have to look at the other half of Proudhon’s “system,” the “power of collectivity” and the ways in which it is appropriated and corrupted.

There’s nothing terribly complicated about the “power of collectivity,” which is, of course, the “collective force” familiar from What is Property? and various other works. And there’s really nothing mysterious about the way that this force or power (puissance), which is a product of society (in the sense we’ve just noted), comes to be appropriated by individuals, who then transform it into some form of more-or-less governmental power (Pouvoir) and use it against the very society that created it. Real force changes hands as a result of relations that are in some sense collective, but lack the element of equality that would make them really social, and the rationale for this privatization is the denial of equality—in that form that is hardly distinguishable from society, reciprocity, justice, etc.—through some alternate systemization of the social body, through what Proudhon called “the external constitution of society.” Now, “external constitution” is a fiction, or at least a misunderstanding, depending on some rhetorical sleight-of-hand in order to introduce hierarchy in the place of society. Of course, one of the most common forms of this fiction is precisely the one that takes “society” as a thing, the unity-collectivity of the associated individuals, as opposed to a relation of equality and justice among them, and then elevates that real collectivity to a fictive superiority over its component members.

And now maybe things are getting a little complicated, or at least unfamiliar to those not steeped in Proudhon’s thought. If every individual is a group, and every organized group is a sort of individual, these unity-collectivities are real, and have their own interests. They even, Proudhon suggested, have a sort of “soul,” if we have to talk about what “realizes” them, but that “soul” is nothing but the collective force that it contains. But, here again, we have dipped into the realm of figurative language, aimed at identifying alternatives to those in archic systems. In a less rhetorically loaded explanation, Proudhon identified the collective force in these social beings as their liberty, so that it is precisely liberty—material liberty, everything in these social systems above the sort of bare subsistence we might expect from isolated, unassisted labor—that is appropriated by the various classes of usurpers as a means to elevate themselves. But elevation is not one of the elements of the proposed system, and Proudhon was quite clear that the composite nature of social collectivities did not grant them any authority or precedence over the individuals of which they were composed. An association of some number (N) of workers—all assumed to be on an equal footing—produces at least N+1 individuals whose interests must be balanced if justice is to be served, but those individuals all remain on that equal footing.

So, if we stopped here and tried to sketch out the characteristics of archy, what would they be? If every form of association produces a collective force, then in an anarchistic society we should expect to see that force serve the interests of all the individuals, whether human individuals or social collectivities, in a just, balanced way—not according to any mechanical, quantitative form of equality, but according to a “commutative and progressive” process of creating and maintaining an equilibrium of interests. If we borrow terms from the most familiar of Proudhon’s analyses of collective force, we should expect to see individuals compensated both individually and collectively for their contributions, with no individual or class of individuals being able to appropriated more than a balanced share. Importantly, we should find some awareness of the collective force resulting from the association and collaboration of individuals and a steady experimentation to find the best means of balancing, justifying all the various interests. And, indeed, if we follow Proudhon’s principles, as opposed to his imperfect practice, the individualities included in that balance might ultimately range “from the infinitesimal to the universal” (as Fourier might have said.) In an archic “society,” then, we can expect to find equality denied and the products of collective action individually appropriated—in most cases, precisely as a means to maintain inequality. That privatization may take the form of economic exploitation, hierarchical government, or any number of systems of inequality based on the exploitation of identitarian categories. A full analysis would have to involve sketching out a wide range of such systems, but it seems likely that virtually all of the forms of exploitation, oppression and privilege that we oppose could, in fact, be mapped onto roughly the same framework.

And if that is the case, then perhaps the problem of discovering the proper scope for the application of anarchy is not a great deal more difficult than that of defining it.

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Propositions for Discussion: The Scope of Anarchy

[Here is a rough outline for the second section of the “Propositions:]

The Scope of Anarchy

  1. To claim that anarchy is sufficient as an anarchist goal or ideal is not, of course, to claim that it is in some way all-sufficient.
  1. Most of our arguments about the definition of anarchy turn out to be, on closer inspection, arguments about its proper scope of application—and there are questions still to be answered.
  1. On the one hand, we have defenders of various archic systems—capitalism, nationalism, racial and gender-based hierarchies—attempting to identify their systems with anarchy, on the basis that the proper scope of anarchy does not include those spheres of human relations.
  1. On the other, we have proponents of various solutions to social problems insisting that their system is a necessarily prerequisite for anarchy.
  1. There is certainly room to disagree about the range of spheres to which anarchy is an applicable standard, in part because anarchists have attempted to apply it in so many contexts.
  1. There is also a range of social systems that may—or may not—really embody anarchistic ideas to an extent that their full realization might produce anarchy within the particular sphere to which they apply.
  1. Perhaps we have to acknowledge that while anarchy may be a partial solution to the widest variety of questions, it is not a compete answer to any of them.
  1. Let us take time to refine our definition of anarchy just a bit more and say explicitly that it is a form of human relations.
  1. We might then break our examination down into a consideration of inter-human relations and relations of humans with non-human nature.
  1. And just as we suggested that once we had eliminated all the hierarchical elements in social relations, something would remain, we should probably say that when we have set aside all the questions of archy or anarchy in those relations, there are plenty of other aspects to consider.
  1. Now, the anarchist intuition has generally been that anarchy is an ideal for all of the relations in the first category, while we may have different opinions regarding the second category.
  1. In order to clarify what is at stake in both cases, it will be helpful to review a bit of Proudhon’s thought and sketch the very broad application of the anarchic ideal to be found there.

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Propositions for Discussion: The Idea of Anarchy

[Since posting the first installment of this project, I have considerably expanded the scope of the material to be covered, with the result that what was supposed to be a pamphlet’s worth of provocation may now become a short book’s worth of exposition. I’m going to post sections from the work, in rough form, in the hope that I might get some feedback on the general shape of the argument, and will return to further clarify and expand as time and inspiration allow. The work is essentially a rethinking of “anarchism without adjectives,” starting from the assertion that the concept of anarchy really is a sufficient center for a real, diverse and evolving anarchism.]

The Idea of Anarchy

  1. Anarchy is a simple, accessible notion, sufficient to provide the necessary glue for a real, diverse and evolving anarchism—the only anarchism worthy of the name.

There’s probably nothing simple about implementing anarchy, particularly in a world dominated by authority, hierarchy, absolutism and the like, but the notion of anarchy is really pretty simple. We have given it a variety of definitions, starting with Proudhon’s formulation, “the absence of a master, of a sovereign,” and some of these definitions may seem at first glance to conflict. But when we begin to seek a fuller understanding, the various approaches arguably converge. We have treated the ideal of anarchy as essentially negative, but perhaps we have confused things a bit. Certainly, our approach to anarchy is generally eliminative: we strip away the archic elements one by one—rulers, bosses, hierarchies, laws, authoritarian forms of organization, absolutist forms of thought—but at every stage, something remains. Full-fledged anarchy may remain undiscovered, and may remain so for some time, but is not nothing—and we advance stage by stage towards a fuller understanding of what it would entail. We glimpse its dynamics as we clear away those that obviously display other, incompatible tendencies.

  1. For our purposes here let’s define anarchy somewhat abstractly: Anarchy is simply the absence of archy.

And then let’s say that archy is the common denominator among all the various specific authoritarian, governmental, absolutist or hierarchical forms of social relations that anarchists have opposed—the factor by which we will recognize new obstacles on the road to an anarchist society. The effect is not to make our present targets any less clear, but to clarify the grounds on which we—as anarchists—target them, with an eye to the expansion of our opposition in new directions as new targets become clear to us. I think there is already a general sense that there will be new or newly recognized archies to combat for some time to come. Between our internal, sectarian struggles and the challenges posed by would-be “anarcho-” authoritarians of various sorts, we have plenty of incentives to think of our struggle as one with multiple dimensions and potentially unplumbed depths. We are constantly faced with definitions of anarchy or anarchism that don’t seem to be radical enough to truly get to the roots of things. At the same time, however, those same factors do little to encourage open exploration of our core concepts.

  1. A natural result of the tension created is that anarchy itself can come to seem like a weakness in our program, instead of its strength.
  1. We can end up limiting the anarchy we pursue to some particular sphere or spheres, in order to be sure that it is well-defined and practicable, even if it is not consistent and comprehensive.

The natural desire to live according to our ideal places pressures on us to keep things workable, particularly as we are constantly challenged to show examples of our ideas in practice. Those challenges often take the form of a sort of double-bind, demanding that we demonstrate the validity of our ideal by producing it in some more or less archic form—but that hasn’t, I think, prevented us from rising to the bait and from limiting our endeavors to forms that perhaps better fit the mold we’re trying to break.

  1. Meanwhile, our opponents are liable to claim that anarchy is, in fact, impossible.

The most common strategy here involves a conflation of force and authority, and, as a consequence, the naturalization of government as just one instance among others of the limitations that elements within a finite nature place on one another. Short of some claim that might makes right, this seems like a real confusion, mixing up questions of fact and of right rather indiscriminately. But has certainly been a common enough response to anti-authoritarians, from Engels up to the present day. And perhaps some of the tendency to limit our conception of anarchy comes from a fear that our opponents are in some sense correct.

  1. “Anarchy accepts no adjectives,” in the sense that any attempt to modify anarchy simply destroys it.

Let’s acknowledge that there are things about our chosen ideal that can be disconcerting, not least this tendency—recognized early in the period of organized anarchism—to resist any sort of complete specification. To extend the metaphor, we might say that anarchy is the adjective, in the sense that anarchy may modify other forms of organization, whether it seeps in as entropy or is introduced in a principled manner, but it simply ceases to be itself wherever it is subordinated to any other determined form of order. All of our explorations of the relationships between anarchy and order have been useful, particularly as answers to the prevailing, authoritarian notion of “social order,” but as with so many of our useful provocations (starting with “property is theft”) we have to make sure we remember that they are indeed provocative. Whenever we feel the need to specify our projects and positions more specifically than just as anarchist, we should probably call ourselves anarchistic communists, anarchistic individualists, anarchistic mutualists, anarchistic feminists, etc., rather than pretend, even in the limited context of a label, that it makes much of any sense to talk about a communistic or individualistic anarchy.

  1. If anarchy is sufficient, then, to serve as a point of convergence for the proponents of a diverse, dynamic anarchism, it is at least in part because it is ungovernable, and as anarchists we should view our own attempts to govern our ideal with suspicion.
  1. This particular sort of ungovernability may be unique to anarchism—in which case we need to pay particular attention to the resulting dynamics and learn the lessons required to practice a properly anarchic solidarity among ourselves.
  1. But ungovernability is not insufficiency.

Our concerns about it may point to shortcoming on our own part, but the beautiful and ungovernable ideal of anarchy is precisely what ought to urge us on to new efforts.

  1. There is a leap of faith involved in pursuing our intuition regarding anarchy, but we can have few illusions at this point about the realities of life under regimes of authority.

In another sense, then, we might say that even the possibility of anarchy is sufficient as a spur to further investigation.

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Propositions for Discussion (on Anarchy and Anarchism) — I

  1. Anarchy is a simple, accessible notion, sufficient to provide the necessary glue for a real anarchist current or movement.

I’ve been struck by the number of times recently that I have encountered the argument that a really thoroughgoing idea of anarchy was an impediment, and perhaps the great impediment, to the anarchist movement. It seems obvious that attempting to do justice to the notion of anarchy could be an impediment to any number of other kinds of products or movements, but it is hard for me to wrap my head around the notion that anarchism—as an ideology, movement, individual aspiration or whatever—could have any other focus. And the difficulties presented by anarchy as a focus and ideal seem relatively minor, however great the difficulties may be as we struggle towards its realization. Words are, of course, never sufficient to really define concepts, but what the tradition seems to demonstrate is that when anarchists have turned to discuss what they meant by anarchy, they have tended define it in the broadest, most radical terms, and often with specific reference to its tendency to race on ahead of our practical projects. From Proudhon’s The Philosophy of Progress to Bonanno’s The Anarchist Tension, we are reminded that anarchy is special in that regard, that it doesn’t let us rest with a single vision of freedom in a single context. With that in mind, anarchy necessarily becomes more for us that a label or even a concept. It becomes a kind of practice or discipline, which we can share widely—provided that is really what we desire—without necessarily binding one another to any particular practical projects or philosophical commitments. And that, of course, is just the sort of relationship that we should expect in anarchy. When we see people rejecting it, we have to ask if perhaps they are mistaken about what their own focus or ideal really is.

  1. “Anarchy accepts no adjectives,” in the sense that any attempt to modify anarchy simply destroys it.

This was the strong sense of “anarchism without adjectives,” as it emerged in the earliest years of the era of anarchism. To extend their metaphor, we might say that anarchy is the adjective, in the sense that anarchy may modify other forms of organization, whether it seeps in as entropy or is introduced in a principled manner, but it simply ceases to be itself wherever it is subordinated to any other determined form of order. All of our explorations of the relationships between anarchy and order have been useful, particularly as answers to the prevailing, authoritarian notion of “social order,” but as with so many of our useful provocations (starting with “property is theft”) we have to make sure we remember that they are indeed provocative. whenever we feel the need to specify our projects and positions more specifically than just as anarchist, we should probably call ourselves anarchistic communists, anarchistic individualists, anarchistic mutualists, anarchistic feminists, etc., rather than pretend, even in the limited context of a label, that it made much of any sense to talk about a communistic or individualistic anarchy.

  1. We really are faced with a fairly stark choice—to be or not to be anarchist—but perhaps we have misunderstood the usefulness of having lots of people identify specifically as anarchists, when perhaps their most pressing concerns are elsewhere.

In a manuscript fragment from 1902, Max Nettlau expressed what I think is a rather startling sentiment for someone deeply involved in promoting and documenting the anarchist movement: “I can only consider the generalization of an idea as equivalent to its complete neutralization, to its death by anemia. It is in this sense that I have said: anarchy to the anarchists, because it is dear to me and I have seen with horror that it is sacrificed to the thirst for success…” But this was only part of the set of ideas that Nettlau was exploring. He had, for instance, discovered the notion of panarchy, which was originally conceived as a sort of “free market in governmental systems,” but which he elaborated as a kind of general cultivation of what is freedom-oriented in a variety of ideologies and projects, in the hope of creating an environment in which the more complete sorts of anarchy might actually have some chance to taking root. It’s a hard notion to come to terms with, at least as long as we imagine that the anarchist/not-anarchist divide is something we can clearly discern and effectively patrol. We treat that divide as a sort of frontier to be fortified, and then do our best to gather those with whom we feel at least some minimum of solidarity inside, while striving to keep everyone else safely outside our defenses. But, of course, even the most committed anarchists differ on how that minimum should be understood and there is no agreement about who to include and who to exclude. Could we come to an agreement on that, well, we would then be walled up in an enclosure largely of our own making, on a war footing with the rest of the world—but the truth is that there isn’t much danger of us resolving those basic issues. We are stuck in a familiar debate over which adjectives we will allow to modify anarchism, when that whole project is probably a losing proposition. If, on the contrary, we really accepted that anarchy is what works to modify all our projects, we would still have difficulties. We could not, for instance, exclude the possibility of more or less anarchistic variants of various authoritarian ideologies—but that purely rhetorical problem certainly wouldn’t prevent us from clearly identifying which projects did or did not approach our ideals.

  1. For better or worse, none of us are ever just anarchists.

To really come to terms with this sort of “anarchism without adjectives” would involve admitting to ourselves that, for example, individualism is not anarchy, although it may be anarchistic in its tendencies and those tendencies may be emphasized and encouraged—and that the same is true of mutualism (understood as a system), of collectivism, communism, etc., etc. Our hyphens have everything to do with the uncomfortable position that we, as individuals, find ourselves in, attempting to put our ideals into practice. We may be deeply committed to the ideal of anarchy, but this is presumably for reasons that have everything to do with the fact that we are ourselves individual, organized beings with specific needs and desires, who cannot be indifferent to the way the world around us is arranged. The ideal is never enough, and if we embraced the ideal without those specific, individual reasons we would have to suspect that what we were embracing was not really anarchy, but just a very particular vision of order and authority. It might be a very pleasant vision, but it would, I think, still be at odds with the vision of anarchy elaborated without our tradition. And if we acknowledge that being an anarchist is neither the whole of our identity, nor even the motivating element, then perhaps there is room in our general thinking about politics, society, etc. to consider whether perhaps we have let ourselves be pushed into placing at least the wrong sort of emphasis on that identification, while we have perhaps missed other principles around which many of our struggles might be more usefully organized.

[To be continued…]


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