Embracing the Antinomies

[This post originally appeared at the Center for a Stateless Society, as part of the Mutual Exchange on Anarchy and Democracy.]

Embracing the Antinomies

[including a response to Gabriel Amadej]

It should be clear that one of the key conflicts in these debates about anarchy and democracy is a struggle over the nature of anarchism. And it is probably safe to say that nearly all anarchists wrestle with the difficulties of defining that term. Part of the difficulty is that anarchism is simultaneously a kind of system and a matter of tradition. It is at once a political—or anti-political—ideology, a social-scientific approach, and a body of practices that have emerged within—and sometimes against—a particular set of social movements. It is no surprise, then, when our discussions of anarchist theory and practice oscillate between, on the one hand, attempts to show logical consistency between given practices and established principles and, on the other, appeals to the practices of certain pioneers.

When anarchist thought is vital, we should expect the two aspects to work together, since ideally anarchism should never become either simply a theoretical construction or a matter of merely copying past practices. At its best, anarchist thought uses elements of tradition to increase freedom in the present, while new contexts in the present cast new light on the insights of the past. But we should probably be honest and admit that we do not always know quite how to achieve that mix.

Looking back over this exchange, it seems to me Gabriel Amadej’s short contribution “The Regime of Liberty” is a good example of how to at least begin to achieve that balance—and one that works with a particularly difficult body of thought. The attempt to propose a market anarchism “in the spirit of Proudhon” is provocative—I assume intentionally so, given familiar arguments about the place of “the market” in Proudhon’s thought—and the claim that he “held his ground and asserted the principles of anarchy” in late works such as The Principle of Federation simply ups the ante, given the tendency to treat those works as some kind of departure from the spirit of works like What is Property?

As one of those who has pretty consistently advised caution in linking Proudhon and market anarchism, I want to explain a few of the reasons for my reticence in that regard, and also talk a bit about the difficulties involved with attaching Proudhon, and especially his mature works, to any of our projects, but then I would like to briefly explore how we might move at least a few more steps down a path at least similar to the one Amadej has indicated. “Sancta sanctis,” wrote Proudhon in The Theory of Property. “Everything becomes just for the just man; everything can be justified between the just.” And let’s take that as a challenge that it is up to us to determine whether “the market” can find its place among the key institutions of an anarchist society.

First, however, we have to confront the fact that, as Amadej puts it, “Oppression comes in all forms. Any exercise of liberty can, in certain conditions, succumb to tyranny.” Lets underline the possibility that “all forms” really means ALL forms, including some that we might consider anarchic. There’s nothing very unorthodox in this possibility. After all, we have figures like Bakunin claiming that even science—a true understanding of the world—would have to be rejected should it be coupled with the ability to command. And we have the fact, which so many people have found so perplexing, that Proudhon and Bakunin never stopped describing disorder and even tyranny with that same word, anarchy, that they used to describe non-governmental society. And we know (although it is obscured in the translation of The General Idea of the Revolution) that one of the other senses of anarchy was the capitalistic “anarchy of the market.” So we are forced, even in these early works, to distinguish between senses and forms of anarchy, and perhaps, as I have already suggested, to imagine a series of anarchies much like the series that Proudhon described as running from absolutism to “anarchy in all its senses.”

Obviously, as soon as we attempt to address this possible series of anarchies things get complicated. But it seems to me that the major objection to the principle-driven position of the anti-democratic anarchists is precisely that things are complicated, so presumably no one should object to attempts to clarify the nature of the complication. And maybe we don’t have to go too far down this particular rabbit hole to get a sense of the difficulties likely to be faced in the attempt to elaborate a market anarchism “in the spirit of Proudhon.” Let’s start by examining the possibility of what we might call absolutist anarchy or exploitative anarchy.

In the first case, we might successfully navigate all of the theoretical difficulties involved in positing anarchy as a principle, but then treat the resulting concept as the basis for a rule, to be applied much like any other sort of law or deontological principle. There are a couple of potential problems here. First, of course, there is the obviously break with the spirit of anarchy involved in imposing the practice of anarchic relations as a duty. But there is also potentially a misunderstanding about the path to anarchy. If, for example, we simply take the four-quadrant model from The Principle of Federation as a kind of guide, then we might think of the path from any of the other quadrants to anarchy as a relatively simple one: increase the division of power within society while individualizing or simply eliminating authority. But we know that the model was not intended as a map of the real world, but as an a priori construction, a simplism appealing to “logic and good faith,” and that, as Proudhon put it, “therein, precisely, lies the trap.”

The thing that we learn from the rest of the discussion in The Principle of Federation is that none of these a priori forms appear in reality in fully realized form. They remain “perpetual desiderata.” This is one of the reasons that some have claimed that Proudhon distanced himself from anarchy in his later works. But I think that Amadej is correct in saying that Proudhon “held his ground and asserted the principles of anarchy.” It is just not the simplist form of anarchy that he ultimately asserts. Rather than an a priori principle, anarchy becomes something like an active principle, achieved, as Amadej rightly observes, though various kinds of balance.

If we skip ahead to Chapter VI of The Principle of Federation, we find Proudhon in fine form, taking obvious pleasure in the twists and turns of his argument: “If the reader has followed the above account with some care, human society should appear to him as a fantastic creation, full of surprises and mysteries.” But his claims are fairly straightforward, beginning with the assertion that “Political order rests upon two complementary, opposed, and irreducible principles: authority and liberty.” There should be absolutely no surprises here for anyone who has encountered the argument that “property is theft,” that the first forms of justice were force and fraud, that the key to abolishing property-theft was in universalizing it, etc, or who has worked through any of the exposition of the “economic contradictions.”

There is really a good deal of consistency in Proudhon’s treatment of irreducible oppositions in his work, but certainly in any of the works written after 1858 we can say with certainty that we are dealing with a worldview in which the antinomy is the dominant form. As a result, there are no neat syntheses to wipe old problems off the table and resolutions generally come in the form of some balancing of forces.

That means, for example—and for better or worse—that property is never just “theft” or just “liberty.” We should probably be very cautious, in any event, in attempting to map the concept of property onto real-world institutions, but the key to understanding Proudhon’s conceptual analysis of property (and this might be true as early as 1842 and the Explanations Presented to the Public Prosecutor concerning the Right of Property) is that he never relented in his critique of “the idea in itself” or backed down on the question of its “incompatibility with all the known systems.” Property always remained “theft,” at least when considered in simple isolation, and always would, at least until human beings intervened with the intention of striking a balance and making the essentially unjust just among themselves. In The Theory of Property, he argues that:

There is only one point of view from which property can be accepted: it is the one that, recognizing that man possesses Justice, within himself, making him sovereign and upholder of justice [justicier], consequently awards him property, and knows no possible political order but federation. (Ms. 2847, p. 36.)

And again:

Thus, on this great question, our critique remains at base the same, and our conclusions are always the same: we want equality, more and more fully approximated, of conditions and fortunes, as we want, more and more, the equalization of responsibilities. We reject, along with governmentalism, communism in all its forms; we want the definition of official functions and individual functions; of public services and of free services. There is only one thing new for us in our thesis: it is that that same property, the contradictory and abusive principle of which has raised our disapproval, we today accept entirely, along with its equally contradictory qualification: Dominium est just utendi et abutendi re suâ, quatenus juris ratio patur. We have understood finally that the opposition of two absolutes—one of which, alone, would be unpardonably reprehensive, and both of which, together, would be rejected, if they worked separately—is the very cornerstone of social economy and public right: but it falls to us to govern it and to make it act according to the laws of logic.

So here we have an “opposition” that is at the same time a “cornerstone” of society. Whatever might remain uncertain about the approach described here—and I certainly still have plenty of questions about its practical application—I think we can say that the method of moving from one general political form to another is not necessarily going to follow any very straight and narrow course, and that it is likely to involve a lot of experimental limiting and balancing of a wide variety of social forces, with nothing more than our growing understanding of social dynamics to guide us.

And every reservation we might have about attempt to apply anarchy as a rule should probably apply to attempts to embody it in a system. Building on a “cornerstone” of irreducible opposition obviously imposes a particular character on the edifice, so when we think of federation as a “political order”—or as the principle of a form of political order—we have to keep that character in mind. What seems to be true of anarchy and federation as principles is that they authorize nothing. Because they are fundamentally principles of relation, they address the elements and institutions of society only indirectly, focusing instead on their interactions and what Proudhon called their “resultant forces.”

All of this undoubtedly sounds a bit vague and perhaps alien to conventional anarchist discourse. In large part, that is because works like The Principle of Federation and The Theory of Property are just the tip of a rather formidable iceberg. What is becoming clear about Proudhon’s work, now that the Besançon manuscripts have been available online for a few years, is that pretty much everything he wrote from 1859 on is part of one large, sprawling, unfinished study, in course of which he developed some of his most interesting social-scientific theory, with the later works that are available to us in English (partial translations of The Principle of Federation and Literary Majorats, plus my draft translation of The Theory of Property and a few other odds and ends) giving only the most fragmentary glimpses of the larger work. The Theory of Property, for example, was intended to be the final chapter of a work on “the birth and death of nations,” where it was titled “Guarantism—Theory of Property,” and there are some indications that The Principle of Federation grew out of material intended to serve as its final section. So, in each of the published versions, we seem to have the conclusions of other studies, but with nearly all traces of those other studies erased. Among the earlier works, The General Idea of the Revolution has a similar relationship to the manuscripts on “Economy.” So it is perhaps unsurprising if we’ve struggled to make good sense of the works at hand.

This is the context in which my personal reluctance to talk about mutualism as a “market anarchism” has to be understood and, I think, the context within which any attempt at a market anarchism “in the spirit of Proudhon” has to succeed or fail. Every time we attempt to start this conversation—and I can only applaud the attempt by Amadej—we find ourselves in remarkably deep waters. And it shouldn’t be lost on us that many of the most elusive aspects of Proudhon’s theory remain those most necessary to an adequate account of “the market.” It’s not just that there are untranslated works (like the Manuel du spéculateur à la Bourse) and works lacking important contexts (like The Theory of Property), but that key works remain available only in the forms of scans of handwritten manuscripts (Economie, La propriété vaincue, the other Solution du problème social, the unused chapters of Système des Contradictions économiques, plus various scattered fragments) or perhaps no longer exist at all (Suite du Spéculateur à la Bourse, nouveau Manuel.) I’m finally deep enough into these studies to begin to see some of the possibilities, but the difficulties are really considerable—and I think the texts that we have ready access to testify to those difficulties. Indeed, if we’ve really understood why “property is theft” in the early works and explored the consequences of the theory of collective force, particularly as it might apply to our more socially complex and technologically advanced context, none of the emerging complications should surprise us too much.

I’m happy to encourage anyone willing to wade into those deep waters with a relatively open mind, but I’m also happy to encourage anyone who is not prepared to have a lot of their basic ideas challenged to save themselves the time and stress and find another point of reference. I’m just not sure that there is much room for anything in between immersion and rejection—or at least anything that will stand up to much scrutiny. But if one chooses immersion, then the arc of the analysis is likely to be very similar to that involved in the critique of democracy, and my educated guess on the matter is that we might well find ourselves in a similar position with regard to the tension between principles and practices.

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