Note on Anarchism and the Rhetoric of Democracy

The battle over the relationship between anarchism and democracy rages on, without necessarily gaining much in clarity. It shouldn’t surprise us, really. The earliest explicit proponents of anarchy had to find a way to place anarchy among a range of otherwise governmentalist possibilities, so we have inherited constructions like “the best form of government is that which does not govern,” leaving us to figure out whether anarchy is the last form of government (“pure democracy”) or the first form of something else–or whether perhaps the choice is largely rhetorical.

To be clear, I think the choice is more than rhetorical, but what if it really was just a question of what language we choose to make our appeal for truly and fully anarchic relations? What evidence do we have that the sort of move contemplated by those who want to present anarchy as (or at least as involving) a particularly pure form of democracy would work?

Here are a few thoughts from a recent Reddit exchange:

We certainly have choices about the way we use the language available to us and the tradition gives us a variety of examples of how those choices might play out. Proudhon’s claim that “property is theft” is an example of making the received language work against received ideas, and one that has been fairly durable and successful. It raises a paradox, which the curious can then explore in the set of arguments Proudhon provided. Taken out of context, it at least doesn’t lead anyone too far astray. Bakunin’s remarks about “the authority of the bootmaker,” on the other hand, has had the effect, as often as not, of making even anarchists forget the rest of what Bakunin said about authority, even just a sentence or two away from the original statement. Elsewhere in “God and the State” we have the powerful, scandalous statement that he preaches “the revolt of life against science” (the “property is theft” of the piece), which ought to send us back into the text to try to understand how this opposition plays out. But that’s not the phrase that has persisted in our memory, at least in the English-speaking world, and the one that has, when taken out of context, gives no clues as to the complexities of the argument from which it is lifted.

Proudhon wrestled with the way to deal with the words he used for new forms of familiar institutions. He initially called his preferred form of property “possession,” on the principle that new relations should have new names, but eventually doubled back, wanting to emphasize the evolutionary nature of the process he was describing, and so, for example, his description of the anarchic institutions of the future society retains the “patronymic name” of “State,” even thought the citizen-state he described is perhaps even farther removed from the governmentalist State than simple possession was from simple property. There are good reasons for the latter strategy, but the fact is that almost everyone who encounters the word “State” in the later works comes away thinking he had stopped being an anarchist.

Given all that, we might wonder why many of those same anarchists think talking in terms of “democracy” will prepare people for a new social form, rather than simply confusing everyone about what we really want.

The question seems simple enough: if anarchist have themselves often had trouble recognizing anarchic ideas presented in more conventional terms, what is the evidence that non-anarchists will be more attentive to the concepts behind the language?

There are, of course, deeper issues to consider. One of the reasons that we are having this conversation is that we have convinced ourselves that there is a pro-democracy current that goes back to the beginnings of the anarchist tradition. But it seems likely that this perception is itself in part an effect of our failure to really address the concepts behind the words and place the discussions of democracy in their proper contexts. Those of us who want to draw clear lines between anarchy and democracy are not arguing, for the most part, that democracy has not been an advance over more despotic forms of government or that anarchists will be able at all times to resolve conflict in ways that reflect “pure anarchy.” But when, for example, we look at Proudhon’s work, it seems obvious that there are critical differences between what he approves of in principle and those practices that he believes will find a place in the balancing of interests within a free society. We absolutely must, in this context, be able to distinguish between various democratic practices and the principle of democracy. When we turn to Déjacque’s later writings, we find him assigning an necessary and inevitable role to a certain kind of democracy, but as the chrysalis from which the anarchist papillon will eventually emerge, as a transitional institution and not as an anarchic one. These distinctions seem simple enough that if we were to take democracy itself as seriously as I would hope anarchists take anarchy, they would still probably be expected to emerge in our pursuit of its “pure” or “true” forms.

So why does this debate seem destined to go nowhere? From my admittedly partisan position, I would at least have to ask whether part of the problem is that we have already burdened ourselves with too much ambivalent rhetoric, which we have then treated with an indifference unbecoming among radicals. The search for that democratic current in the tradition is one more aspect of anarchist theory that ought to bring us face to face with the central concerns of the tradition. Let’s try not to waste the moment.

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The Stirner Question

stirner-roguesEach of the earliest pioneers of the anarchist tradition asked, I think, a question or three that still very much pertain to the problems of 21st-century life. They’re not always easy to extract or to drag into the present, and they’re not always flattering to us when applied to the culture of anarchism that has developed since the late 19th century. Working from the roots of the tradition has been a valuable experience, both in terms of focusing my analysis on key concepts and in terms of gaining tools with which to understand why the anarchist milieu is the often frustrating place that it is.

Getting to know the early history and theory is one of the things that keeps anarchist thought fresh and inviting for me. And I think that there are very few of the problems faced by the anarchist milieu that can’t be resolved by a bit of careful rethinking of our relationship to that history and theory. But some aspects of that rethinking are more demanding than others, and perhaps the hardest of all involve a dilemma I have alluded to on a variety of occasions, when discussing the differences between the “era of anarchy” and the “era of anarchism.”

The emergence of anarchism as the key organizing concept of an emerging anarchist milieu in the late 19th century meant that a variety of new things were possible. As anarchists positioned themselves around specific, shared ideologies, anarchism also became a manifestation of collective force, with, as we might expect, interests, dynamics and logics all its own, not always, as we might also expect, precisely in sympathy with the interests and logics of individual anarchists. Unsurprisingly, that meant that at times individual interests would be sacrificed to the interests of the collective and that some anarchists would recreate the governmentalist dynamic of “external constitution” right in the heart of the tradition that began with a call for its abolition.

It is not hard to go as far as opposing anarchy to anarchism—at least as a vague, conceptual opposition—but it is hard, I think, to know what to do with the opposition once we have made it. We are, after all, all products of ideological societies in which individual identity tends to be defined in terms mediated by a identifications that are themselves really instances of external constitution. So, among other things, we are anarchists because of a relationship to anarchism that can hardly escape some degree of self-subordination.

I’m not terribly interested at this point in talking about the benefits of that kind of identification, which are, I think, clear enough to all of us, whether our goals involve building mass movements or just making it through the day without being crushed by our alienation from other collective movements. We get together to get things done and hopefully, if we are anarchists, we find some means to balance interests in a way that is at least better than the alternatives. In the process, if we are conscientious about applying the theories that we have inherited, we engage Proudhon’s questions about the dynamics of social life and collective force, and keep in mind his cautions about absolutism. We bring the lessons of Proudhon and Bakunin to bear on those situations where we real the limits of our capacities for freedom and are forced to roll the dice with some form of authority. But the truth is that there are conflicts baked right into the anarchist tradition that no amount of conscientious analysis is ever going to resolve, in part because these fundamental, “classical” questions are largely alien to the thought of much of the anarchist milieu.

That leaves a difficult problem for those of us who fervently believe in the desirability and possibility of anarchy, who would consider ourselves anarchists, who even acknowledge the necessity, given the history through which we have inherited those other notions, of some kind of anarchism: how to think about our place in the contemporary milieu without just joining one faction or another in the hope of dominating the definitions. It’s a Stirnerian question: how to “be an anarchist” and still be unique, in the sense of not defining ourselves, or allowing ourselves to be defined, as an instance of a type.

For me, this is the last question to be answered for the work-in-progress, Anarchism, Plain and Simple, but it has become the urgent next question to be answered for me personally, as the milieu seems more and more likely to simply wring all the joy of anarchy out of me. The difficulties of the question are, I think, underlined by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any easy way to think about the adjustments required except in terms of quitting or burning out. And, honestly, it’s not so easy to think of the sort of movement and necessary separation involved in anything but relatively maudlin terms, even if, at some other level, the whole, still indistinct process is at least conceivable as the preservation and intensification of joy, the refusal of unnecessary and harmful mediation, etc., etc.

Anyway, that is my question for the foreseeable future. And the answers will undoubtedly involve a variety of changes in my practices and affiliations, though the long-term, essentially custodial work on key texts and core ideas will continue. Like the “year without mutualism,” this shift is not a threat or a promise about what I might decide is necessary another year down the road, but like that adjustment it is driven by the realization that I am certainly not doing myself or anyone else any favors by clinging to a particular relationship with a milieu that I find at least as exhausting as sustaining.

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Joseph Déjacque and the First Emergence of “Anarchism”

One of this week’s tasks was to finally go back and take a closer look at  how Joseph Déjacque used the language of anarchy in his writings. I finally assembled a couple of text files of all the articles from Le Libertaire and worked through the required keyword searches. That process led me to focus on some pieces that I admit I had never read, or read closely, before and produce some new translations. I think the results are interesting and pose some new interpretive challenges.

Déjacque is notable for using the conventional anarchist vocabulary much more than most of his contemporaries, but I have been particularly interested in his use of the term anarchisme. I have made much in recent years of the lag between the emergence of anarchy as a keyword in 1840 and the eventual adoption of anarchism by various anti-authoritarian currents in the late 1870s, but there have always been potential problems with that account, chief among them the first emergence of anarchism as a keyword during Proudhon’s lifetime. It seems certain that some of that part of the story is still to be told. We find an entry for anarchisme in the 1853 Dictionnaire universel, with a reference to Proudhon (“Voir l’Anarchie de P.-J. Proudhon, l’éminent publiciste chef de cette école.”) But there are no references to self-proclaimed anarchists using the term and the dictionary provides very little clarification about the beliefs of Proudhon and his “school.” In a period when so many isms were coined, the term would perhaps have seemed obvious to a lexicographer, even if it had not really seen much use. My own searches have still revealed no clearly anarchist uses of the term prior to its appearance in Le Libertaire on August 18, 1859, in the third part of Déjacque’s “La question politique,”

This section, “Le Catholicisme. — Le Socialisme,” is a fine example of Déjacque in ranting mode. He has, for example, just identified himself as a “revolutionary Satan,” with “an infernal snicker for an amen,” when he first deploys the now-famous keyword:

The time is coming. Jesuitism and Anarchism, the extremes will meet. But it is by marching to meet one another, by clashing mortally like bulls who compete for a heifer. Which of the two will take possession of Humanity? — The old are the old and the young are the young: To the old the Past, to the young the Future!!…

So, there you have it: anarchism may well have emerged first into the world “like a bull who competes for a heifer.” More importantly, of course, anarchism emerges as one of two fundamental forces in a Manichean struggle for the possession of Humanity. And that is the tone for the rest of the essay:

If, on their side, the Jesuits have the belfry of Saint-Barthélemy, we, anarchists, have the tocsin of revolutions. To arms! in the two camps. To arms! and let the idea cross with the idea and the iron with iron! — To arms! We fight for oppression, they say. — To arms! We, we fight for deliverance! And do not forget that those we have to combat are those who have said: “Kill, always kill…” Only, this time, it is not “God” but Humanity that will recognize its own!!

But you, bourgeois and protestants, what will become of you in this colossal brawl? There is no place for you, poor vagabonds, between the two enemy camps, that of anarchic Liberty and catholic Authority. You will be crushed, like caterpillars, beneath the feet of the terrible principles in battle. Men of the happy medium, you no longer have a reason to exist. Political constitutionalism, like religious constitutionalism; all the schisms, all the mixed heresies; the bastard reforms, part liberal, part religious; the protestant superstition and the representative superstition; everything apart from the extremes; everything that is a corruption of radical Good or radical Evil; everything that is not exclusively one or exclusively the other, pure-bred libertarian or pure-bred authoritarian; everything, finally, that has been brought into the world by a coupling of which nature disapproves, is destined for death without posterity, like the mule, that sterile product of the donkey and the horse. Your last hour has sounded, bourgeois and protestants, mules incapable of reproduction. Whether it is Jesuitism or Anarchism that triumphs, that is it for you, your elimination is assured. For neither cannot tolerate you any more than the other. — Jesuitism does not want intermediaries between it, — the sacred consumer, the holy and blessed and privileged caste, — and the immense mass of the taxable and exploitable people, the profane beast of burden, the servile and gigantic producer. Every other profession of faith but its own is a hanging offense. Anarchism, it wants no more parasites: it denies God in the heavens and on the earth; it leaves no pretext for the existence of religious or governmental superstitions; no vestige of a chance to the exploiters of all sorts; it is the envoy of equality and solidarity among men. — It is death, death for you, see it well, — whether by Authority or by Liberty. You can no longer find salvation except in metamorphosis, in transformation. — With the Anarchists, you must deny God, deny religion, deny government, deny property, deny the family, affirm the right to work, the right to love, the right to individual autonomy, to social fraternity, to all the rights of the human being; make yourselves socialists, finally. Or, with the Jesuits, you must affirm God, the Father-Master; divine right; the seigniorial rights of the clergy, the rights of jambage and aubaine pour the reverend catechizers; pay the tithe, furnish the corvée, be beaten and… content ; deny progress; deny the sciences, deny the arts and letters; cast Voltaire and the curé Meslier, Luther and Calvin in the fire; make an auto-da-fé of all the liberal writings, of all the reformist books; and, at the least leaning towards independence, you expect to have your bones ground by torture or you flesh toasted on the pyres; finally make yourselves good catholics,… — It is all one or all the other. There is no middle ground: choose…

And admit that it is you, Bourgeois and Protestants, who have made this situation for yourselves!… Ah! How you have earned your punishment!

Who restored the Pope to his temporal throne in 1815, if not you, bourgeois protestants of England? Who restored him again in 48? Who exiled and put to death the socialists in June and in December? You again, voltairean bourgeois of France.

And what will be your recompense, bourgeois and protestants of England? — To be eliminated by those you wanted to restore!… And you, bourgeois and voltaireans of France? — To be exiled and put to death by those you wanted to eliminate!!… And do not hope to flee to America or elsewhere: — either Catholicism or Anarchism will pursue you there. There is no longer a stone on the globe where you could safely rest your head. Like Adam and Eve at the end of the terrestrial Paradise, you will be reduced for your sins to wandering naked and cursed in a vale of tears!

So metamorphose yourselves, transform yourselves, bourgeois voltaireans and bourgeois protestants. From conservative parasites become revolutionary workers: “revolutions are conservations.” Remember the time, no far gone, when you were the avant-garde of Progress; when, — in the sciences and in the realm of letters, in the parliaments and in the public square, — you marched to conquer liberty. And if your disposition is no longer to occupy the first rank, know that there is still a place for the best of you in the rearguard. Do not wait to be forced by the Revolution to submit to it; for to your judaical support at the last hour, the Revolution could respond, as to all the Powers too slow to submit to it, all the deposed Powers: it is too late!!!

And we, the Proletariat, we the anarchists, we the revolutionary flesh and idea, will be let ourselves be butchered or bound in chains without defending ourselves? — Isn’t it the tool that makes the bayonet? And what we have made, could we not break?… So let us rise up! And, in passing, in order to achieve it, on the guts of the emperors, it’s proconsuls, let us prove to Catholic Rome that the Proletarians of today are the equals of the Barbarians of the past!!

Hurrah!! For the liberation of men and women!!!

Hurrah!! For Liberty, — individual and social liberty!!!

There are some obvious references to Proudhon here. “Revolutions are conservations” is a nod to the “Toast to the Revolution,” where Proudhon said:

Whoever talks about revolution necessarily talks about progress, but just as necessarily about conservation. From this it follows that the revolution is always at work in history and that, strictly speaking, there are not several revolutions, but only one permanent revolution.

But it is a rather partial nod, I think. There are moments, in similar contexts, when Proudhon drew stark battle lines similar to those we see here. “La question politique” starts with a discussion of Louis Napoleon’s imperial ambitions and end up, by the sort of circuitous route we expect from Déjacque, at the oppositions of “catholicism — socialism” and “jesuitism — anarchism.” Proudhon’s responses to Louis Napoleon include some of his most stark oppositions: the choice “anarchy or Caesarism” in the conclusion of The Social Revolution Demonstrated by the Coup d’Etat and the choice of “archy or anarchy, no middle ground” in the posthumously published Napoleon III. These, however, are theoretical lines drawn in the sand, marking clearly distinct tendencies, but not, I think we have to admit, armies in some final showdown between “radical Good” and “radical Evil.”

The other obvious nod here is to Ernest Coeurderoy, who published Hurrah!!! or Revolution by the Cossacks in 1854. According to the program of that work, the first part of a projected trilogy, the birth of a new world of freedom would begin only with the destruction of Europe by Cossack invasion. I suppose we might think of it as an early accelerationist text, with the accelerating events being precisely the sweeping away of the very possibility of any middle ground.

There is a good deal else here that would deserve comment, from the invocation of “good versus evil” to the reference to “judaical” adherence to the revolutionary cause. References to sterile couplings as those “of which nature disapproves” can be added to our list of indications that perhaps Déjacque was not as clear an alternative to Proudhon where sex, gender and sexuality were concerned. We’ve yet to really do justice to Déjacque’s thought, but it’s probably useful not to wander too far afield right now.

In the next issue of Le Libertaire (No. 17, September 30, 1859), the term anarchism appears again, in much the same context:

So, men of small liberties or great, you the lukewarm and the hot, rally, all of you, to Liberty, to complete, unlimited liberty, for apart from it there is no salvation: Liberty or death!… Rally to the only true principle. Together let us oppose radicalism to radicalism, anarchism to jesuitism, so that what the cross-bearers and sword-bearers, the bravos of the autocratic and theocratic Authority provoke as a Riot (which they strive to drown in blood and drag around in irons) responds to them by growing to the level of the circumstances, by declaring Revolution!!! — So much for the general question.

In the essay on “Ideas” (Le Libertaire 18, October 26, 1859), there is a bit more explanation of the idea itself:

If the ideas of the Past, uprooted ideas, still give, alas! their dead leaves, the ideas of the Future, living ideas deep-rooted in the Present, give their green buds. The fibers of Anarchism, finally feeling the atmosphere heat up around them, breaking the nets that hold them captive. They rise from their torpor, they overrun the reawakening branches of Humanity and vigorously unwind there their progressive spiral, spreading their growing veins on the brows of new generations. The ideas of twenty years ago, of even ten years ago, seem like the ideas of another century, so much has the movement of revolutionary thought, of public opinion, advanced. It is not only the form of the Royalty of the Divinity tat are attacked today, but Authority in its principle; it is Divinity and Royalty in itself and in all its metempsychoses: Duality, Paternity, Delegation, Capital; Religion, Family, Government, Property. The insurrection of ideas against the monarch of the heavens or the monarchs of the earth is no longer political; it is social! It is now no longer a revolution of paradise or palace that is necessary, it is a radical revolution, the substitution of full and complete Liberty for full and complete Authority. It says: Down with the idlers, down with the parasites; down with all who produced without consuming. Down with the heavenly master, exploiter of worlds! Down with the terrestrial masters, the exploiters of men! — What is the universal God? Everything. — What must he be? Nothing. — What is universal matter? Nothing. — What must it be? Everything. — And, fraternal insurgents, the ideas proclaim universal autonomy, the autonomy of each, the government of worlds and men by themselves, Life being Movement, Movement being the producer of Progress, and Progress being solidary and infinite in its attractions.

The term then appears again, after a hiatus of several issues, in the last two numbers of Le Libertaire. In the third section of “The Organization of Labor,” it is once again a question of a clash between anarchy and authority, but there has been a fascinating change in Déjacque’s presentation of that conflict. Back in No. 15, he had begun an essay on “Direct and Universal Legislation,” which begins with the caution:

As libertarian or anarchist as we may be, we must still live in our own century and deal with contemporary populations. We can catch a glimpse of the great and free human society [cité], the city of the future, but we can reach it only by passing over the bodies of several generations.

This essay, which ran simultaneously with the material already cited, was then continued by “The Organization of Labor,” which began with a reiteration of the defense of that “direct and universal legislation” as a transition to anarchy, followed by some reassuring words to those who fear the possible outcomes of this course of action:

I have said in the preceding articles, the universal and direct vote (not to be confused with universal and direct suffrage, which is about men and not things), the vote on measures of public necessity by each and all is, still in our days, for the individual as for the commune, as for the nation, the instrument of social revolution; it is the logical and inevitable transition from authority to an-archy. The review of the thing being voted on being permanent, and the element of progress spreading more and more each day in the masses by the exercise of the vote and the discussion that accompanies it, by the rise of insights and the generalization of acquired knowledge, it naturally follows that we will distance ourself more and more each day from authority, in order to approach more closely each day to an-archy. Woe to the proletariat if, on these triumphant barricades, it does not know how to seize this lever of emancipation, the legislative scepter, and establish itself in a universel and provisional government. Woe to it, if it allows a new partial power to be established, a new representative dictatorship on the ruins of the one that it has overturned, though that power or dictatorship might be the most well-intentioned. The people can only progress on the revolutionary path if they are invested with a revolutionary function; every man and every woman, every infinitesimal fraction of the people must come into immediate possession of their equal part of universal sovereignty and fully enjoy their right to participate directly in the use of the common weal. Doubtless, in a milieu as corrupt and as ignorant as our own, it would be necessary to submit, to a certain degree, to the heavy pressure of a great number of the blind; but it would be necessary to submit to that pressure only conditionally, while making a constant effort to project light where darkness still reigns, and to destroy, by a philosophical propaganda, authoritarian prejudices, political and religious superstitions. If we who call ourselves anarchist-revolutionaries are really conscious of the truth of our principle, we should not fear, with this transitional system, which clings to the past through legal arbitrariness and to the future through the fraternitarian, egalitarian and libertarian exercise of our moral and intellectual faculties, to be led back to absolutism; all the odds, on the contrary, are for anarchism. It is not in the destiny of the human being to march backwards, when Progress, spreads its wings to launch it forward.

This is perhaps not a clean break with the climactic conflict narrative, as the opposing sides still seem quite distinct, but it is hard not to think of this transitional program as a bit of a mule. That it is eventually doomed seems overshadowed by the assertion that it is essential in its specific role as “logical and inevitable” transition.

This is probably where we should review the essay on “Scandal” (Le Libertaire No. 4, August 2, 1858), in which Déjacque declared that there are two different approaches to promoting social change, both of which “are good and useful, depending on the sorts of listeners we encounter along our way.” The key passage is probably this:

Two manners of acting present themselves to those who want to become propagators of new ideas. One is calm, scientific discussion, without renouncing anything of principles, to report them, and comment on them with a fine courtesy and firm restraint. This process consists of injecting truth drop by drop into minds that are already prepared, elite intelligences, still beset by error, but animated by good will. Missionaries of Liberty, preachers with smiling faces and caressing voices, (but not hypocrites,) with the honey of their words they pour conviction into the hearts of those who listen to them; they initiate into the knowledge of truth those who have a feeling for it. The other is bitter argument, although scientific as well, but which, standing firm in the principles as in a coat of mail, arms itself with Scandal as with an axe, to strike redoubled blows on the skulls of the prejudiced, and force them to move under their thick covering. For those, there are no words blistering enough, no expressions cutting enough to shatter all these ignorances of hardened steel, that that dark and weighty armor that blinds and deafens the dull masses of the people. All is good to them–the sharp sting and the boiling oil—in order to make these apathetic minds tremble to their heart of hearts, under their tortoise shells, and to make resonate, by tearing at them, these fibers which do not ring out. Aggressive circulators, wandering damned and damnators, they march, bloodthirsty and bleeding, sarcasm on the lips, the idea before them, torch in the hand, across hatreds and hisses, to the accomplishment of their fateful task; they convert as the spirit of hell converts: by bite and fire.

Ultimately, however, it will probably take a closer examination of the arguments in the more “scientific” essays to determine if Déjacque’s general position shifted. What we probably can say safely right now is that he associated anarchism with both parts of the project.

The final appearance of anarchism is in the final issue of Le Libertaire, in the first section of an essay “On Religion” that remained unfinished when the paper ceased publication. The essay begins:

What is Religion? What must it be?

What is Religion today? It is the immutable synthesis of all errors, ancient and modern, the affirmation of absolutist arbitrariness, the negation of attractional anarchism, it is the principle and consecration of every inertism in humanity and universality, the petrification of the past, its permanent  immobilization.

What must it be? The evolving synthesis of all the contemporary truths; perpetual observation and unification; the progressive organization of all the recognized sciences,  gravitating from the present to the future, from the known to the unknown, from the finite to the infinite; the negation of arbitrary absolutism and the affirmation of attractional anarchism; the principle and consecration of every movement in humanity and universality, the pulverization of the past and its rising regeneration in the future, it’s permanent revolution.

Perhaps here we have some partial resolution of the questions just raised, if “attractional anarchism” is a principle of movement, a universal tendency that explains and “consecrates” that “permanent revolution” that we cannot help associating with Proudhon. But I’m inclined to think that at this stage, so early in the evolution of this part of the anarchist vocabulary, we are likely to find, even after we dig much more deeply into the remainder of Déjacque’s works, that not all of the pieces fit neatly together.

But perhaps that should be no surprise, as it is unclear that the second emergence of anarchism was ever any more successful in reconciling all the tensions that emerged along with it.

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New home for Working Translations

Most of my old blogs have been integrated into the new Libertarian Labyrinth site over the last couple of years, but my translations have remained scattered in various places. I’m finally starting to remedy that situation, with the launch of a new Working Translations site, attached to the Labyrinth archive. The Index page there contains a recently updated list of translations archived throughout the Labyrinth, and the blog itself features side-by-side dual-language presentations of selected works. Gradually, I’ll revise everything and pair it with the text in the original language. 
So if you are here and not there, you are probably missing some good stuff.

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One for the road?

I’m contemplating a research “tour” in the fall, gathering up some missing pieces for various current projects and surveying the possibilities for some longer-term work. By that time, I will have at least Anarchy and the Sex Question to promote—and my publisher would certainly like me to take the opportunity. But as I have been thinking about what I really have to offer in the way of presentations that might themselves be taken out on tour, it strikes me that telling folks about what Emma Goldman is going to tell them in a book we hope they’ll buy might not be the most compelling option. On the other hand, some of the lessons about the present, practical uses of anarchist history that I learned along the way might well be interesting fodder for discussion, particularly as I have, over the last year or so, developed some fairly stringent standards for judging when works are finished.

So here is a description of a potential talk that I might give various places along various Amtrak or bus routes, during the second half of this year. If you can think of a likely venue for such an encounter, feel free to get in contact.

Tools that Cut Both Ways:
Thoughts on Anarchist History and Publishing

There is an approach to the study of the anarchist tradition that focuses on the process of documentation, with the guiding assumption being that at least one of the ways that we can put our history to use in the present is simply by confronting it in all its diversity. History is messy and, as a result, a continued engagement with anarchist history is one guard against the solidification of nominally anarchist ideology. With projects like Corvus Editions and the Libertarian Labyrinth archives, I’ve probably been as ardent a champion of that approach as anyone in recent memory. And I like to think that there have been some real positive, practical results from the years of saying, over and over again, “But wait! There’s more! Anarchism’s possibilities are far from exhausted!” That said, I’ve also had a very intimate experience of the strategy’s failures and incapacities.

One of the successes of the long campaign was that a few years back I became sufficiently known as someone who knew things about anarchist history that presses started wanting to turn some of that knowledge into “real books”—and not just little, insignificant books. Suddenly, I found myself in a position where I could not help shaping the reception and understanding of some very prominent figures and central texts. I had been pretty cozy being the champion of figures like Sidney Morse, Eliphalet Kimball, Jenny d’Héricourt and “He who was Ganneau.” Work on Proudhon has been less cozy, certainly, but increasingly satisfying in a personal way, while the public impacts follow their own much slower course. All of that fit well in the life I have been eking out.

Then, out of the blue, I was the editor—and pretty much the whole team, if truth be told—of the collected works of Bakunin in English. I was preparing new editions of “God and the State” and Nettlau’s “Short History.” I had potential outlets for my Proudhon translations. And Déjacque. And Ravachol. I had the opportunity to produce a mass-market introduction to anarchism. And, of course, I had a chance to weigh in on the question of Emma Goldman and feminism.

The transition from working at the margins of both anarchist publishing and anarchist history to work somewhere much closer to the core of both involved a lot of complicated rethinking about the uses of the tradition for practical purposes. I want to talk about some of the new projects, the process of turning them from Corvus-style document collections to “real books,” and the standard that I have been developing for judging when a work of anarchist history or theory is really finished and ready to be unleashed upon the world.

I started with a sort of general question: “Is this a tool yet?” It has always seemed necessary, if I was going to bring a manuscript to a publisher, that it have a fairly clear use, adapted to present or foreseeable future problems. But as I wrestled with the revisionist elements in some of the projects, the criterion became a bit more specific: “Does it cut both ways?”

To “cut both ways,” in this context, means that not only does the work of history provide some means of dealing with present, “real-world” problem, but it does so in a way that at least has a fighting change of clarifying what it means to confront present problems as an anarchist. Sometimes that means confronting problems in the anarchist tradition itself. Sometimes that simply means updating old analyses. And sometimes, finally, it simply means recognizing our entertainments and consolations as such and presenting them accordingly.

This talk—which I hope will fairly rapidly become a conversation—is, first, an opportunity to introduce the new Emma Goldman anthology, Anarchy and the Sex Question, and to preview some forthcoming books, but it is also a sort of explanation and position-taking regarding the work that I do as a writer, translator, archivist, publisher, etc. If you’ve ever wondered just what is driving my various projects, well, I’m right there with you sometimes—but I think perhaps I’m ready to explain.

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“Young Russian Woman With an Infernal Machine in Handkerchief”

Sof'ja_Perovskaja_1The newest addition to the Libertarian Labyrinth archive is The Beautiful Nihilist: Representations of Revolutionary Women. The project is to gather material from the popular press depicting radical and particularly militant women, in all its sensationalist and often exploitative glory. The articles and tales collected here document a familiar fascination with a political variety of femme fatale, often with a great deal of emphasis on the sexual desirability and social status of the women portrayed in presumably “unwomanly” acts of violence. At the same time, however, the tabloid presentation often allows important bits of history and biography to show through. Indeed, in many cases, this spectacular journalism is all that we have to document the lives of women who were on the front lines of the most militant sorts of struggles.

Expect lots of headlines like the one at the top of the post, or “Plot of a Beautiful Nihilist: To Make Her Lovers Kill the Czar—Her Failure and Trial—The Official’s Side of a Story Hitherto Told Differently.” The newspaper articles will be seasoned with some bits of fiction, although it may be hard at times to tell which is which.

The Beautiful Nihilist is ultimately part of a long-term project to document the more militant side of the anarchist tradition, along with projects like Saint-Ravachol: Myth and Resistance. But it is also a sister-site to La Frondeuse: Black and Red Feminism and the Emma Goldman archive, Anarchy and the Sex Question.


The addition of a new section in the archives, along with my decision to keep a couple of slowly developing projects online, will necessitate a bit of house-cleaning and link-shuffling, some of which is already underway. Part of that process is the establishment of some gallery pages, including one featuring newspaper sketches of Emma Goldman.

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Bakunin and Proudhon / Authority and Anarchy

If (in the passage from God and the State discussed in the last post) Bakunin has not simply changed the meaning of the word “authority” from one paragraph to the next, as he moves from his general critique to his consideration of “the authority of the bootmaker,” then we presumably have a case in which authority must indeed be rejected when considered in general, but cannot be spurned or simply pushed away (repoussé) in the messy realm of practice, where the limits of our knowledge and the limitations of our animality confront us on a regular basis. We find ourselves forced to reject authority and not spurn it because these same limitations apply to all human beings. So we are forced to accept, however reluctantly, apparent authority on a temporary basis and we seek to limit the damage by seeking confirmation from other sources. That’s “life,” Bakunin tells us: alternating instances of command and subordination, imposed but never legitimated by our material conditions and offset as much as possible by the division and association of labors.

This should all really look quite familiar. Think of Proudhon’s developing thought on the question of property. Only a couple of years had passed after his declaration that “property is theft” when, in his Arguments to the Public Prosecutor of the Right of Property, he argued that the way to neutralize property was to generalize it. His mock-reassurance to the members of the jury is probably one of the funniest things he ever wrote:

I have only written one thing in my life, gentlemen jurors, and I will tell you that thing right away, so there is no question: Property is robbery. And do you know what I have concluded from that? In order to abolish that species of robbery, it is necessary to universalize it. I am, you see, gentlemen, as conservative as you; and whoever would tell you the contrary, would prove by that alone that they have understood nothing of my books, and, I would say, nothing of the things of this world.

And, of course, as we see so many places in his work, the answer to injustice is equal distribution and balance, even when it is a question of distributing and balancing potential evils:

Thus, profit, interest, the right of increase, property or suzerainty, is a usurpation, a theft, as Diderot said, more than a century ago, and yet society could live only with the aid of that theft, which will no longer be one, as soon as by the irresistible force of institutions it will become general, and which will cease completely when an integral education has rendered all the citizens equal in merit and in dignity.

The claim that “society could live only with the aid of that theft” should probably be read, in Bakunin’s language, as a recognition of conditions imposed by our individual limitations.

So, perhaps, rather than an instance of Bakunin’s sloppiness or a “legitimate” exception to our general anti-authoritarian stance, we are looking at a clue to something fundamental about the anarchist project. Anarchism is, after all, the ongoing and ever more rigorous application of an anti-authoritarian ideal to conditions that are anything but in harmony or sympathy to it. The question becomes: What does the advance of that project look like? How does we oppose authority in practical terms? Proudhon framed the project in terms of “the elimination of the absolute.” Now, the character of the absolute is that it does not mix and mingle, does not offer itself up for comparisons and second opinions, and encourages us to make the leap (in the terms we’ve been using here) from necessity to legitimacy. But the necessary is (in those terms) just the stuff we have to deal with, right here and right now. If we cannot simply push it away, without leaving the realm of good or common sense, we need not give it any power not imposed by very specific, generally transitory circumstances.

The anarchist project, then, would not be some doomed opposition to the inevitable, but a matter of knowing the very narrow limits of any particular inevitability. This is perhaps some of what Proudhon was getting at when, in the “Study on Ideas” in Justice, he said:

I intend to suppress none of the things of which I have made such a resolute critique. I flatter myself that I do only two things: that is, first, to teach you put each thing in its place, after having purged it of the absolute and balanced it with other things; then, to show you that the things that you know, and that you have such fear of losing, are not the only ones that exist, and that there are considerably more of which you still must take account.

The various parts of this program are in large parts simply different sides of the same act. When we really “put each thing in its place,” the spell of the absolute is necessarily broken. As we identify that “place” in time and space, other times and spaces, other things, naturally emerge as alternatives. Anarchy emerges less in the form—or formlessness—of specific institutions, but in the practical application of a perspective that refuses to linger too long or grant too much significance to any of the things the world presents to us. And that restless perspective—something like Fourier’s papillon passion—is probably nothing more than a sane response to the real conditions of what Bakunin called our human animality.

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The “authority” of the bootmaker

183px-Carl_Schleicher_SchusterI’ve remarked elsewhere on the curious phenomenon of self-proclaimed anarchists who are much more comfortable with the language of governmentalism and authority than they are with the concept of anarchy. It is curious, but it is far from inexplicable. After all, some of the most famous pioneers of anarchist thought muddied those waters rather enthusiastically at times. Over the years, I have spent quite a bit of time working through Proudhon’s complicated engagements with property, the State, anarchy and other terms. There are potentially cautionary tales there regarding just about any strategy we might take with these complex and contested terms.

I want to come back in a later post to some of the reasons that anarchist rhetoric has tended to be so convoluted, but we don’t have to look much farther than the declaration that “property is theft,” and its various aftermaths, to recognize that it has been so. And Proudhon certainly wasn’t the only offender in this regard. When we look at Bakunin, we often find Proudhon’s familiar provocations repeated in even more provocative, and sometimes baffling, forms. If we had to pick a phrase in Bakunin’s work that was his “property is theft”—one that gets at important concerns, but perhaps not in the most immediately helpful manner—perhaps “the authority of the bootmaker” would be a good choice. Certainly, the work from which it comes, God and the State, is just full of rhetoric that seems designed to provoke and confuse.

There are, of course, other good reasons to try to understand exactly what is being said in the discussion of this “authority of the bootmaker,” to which Bakunin admits he must “bow,” with the most prominent of those being the idea that Bakunin is arguing for a variety of “legitimate authority,” and doing so in a work where he defines his position as explicitly “anarchist,” thus making at least Bakunin’s “anarchism” (square-quoted, since the term itself is not Bakunin’s) something other than anti-authoritarian.

Is that what Bakunin is arguing? Let’s take a careful look at the relevant passages:

Perhaps, too, while speaking of liberty as something very respectable and very dear in their eyes, they give the term a meaning quite different from the conception entertained by us, 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.

Perhaps Bakunin considers “a word and a thing which we detest with all our heart” to be legitimate, but, if so, we pretty obviously need an explanation. So let’s back up to the beginning of the text—itself just a section of Bakunin’s great, unfinished work, The Knouto-Germanic Empire and the Social Revolution—and see who Bakunin is talking about.

Who is right, the idealists or the materialists? The question, once stated in this way, hesitation becomes impossible. Undoubtedly the idealists are wrong and the materialists right. Yes, facts are before ideas; yes, the ideal, as Proudhon said, is but a flower, whose root lies in the material conditions of existence. Yes, the whole history of humanity, intellectual and moral, political and social, is but a reflection of its economic history.

It is the idealists who can’t talk about liberty without talking about authority.

And, Bakunin has already told us, the idealists are wrong.

Indeed, they are so wrong that Bakunin gets distracted by his anger at their wrongness and has to apologize for the distraction a few paragraphs into the fragment, before returning to his main argument about the fundamental elements of human being:

Three elements or, if you like, three fundamental principles constitute the essential conditions of all human development, collective or individual, in history:

  1. human animality;

  2. thought; and

  3. rebellion.

To the first properly corresponds social and private economy; to the second, science; to the third, liberty.

This argument, Bakunin assures us, enrages the idealists as much as the idealists anger him. And he takes some time to assure the reader that his materialism is not some mechanical theory of what the idealists might call “vile matter.” And it is in the course of his discussion of the debate concerning these three elements or conditions that he finally comes to address the question of authority.

What is authority? Is it the inevitable power of the natural laws which manifest themselves in the necessary concatenation and succession of phenomena in the physical and social worlds? Indeed, against these laws revolt is not only forbidden — it is even impossible. We may misunderstand them or not know them at all, but we cannot disobey them; because they constitute the basis and fundamental conditions of our existence; they envelop us, penetrate us, regulate all our movements, thoughts, and acts; even when we believe that we disobey them, we only show their omnipotence.

His approach, however, is a bit roundabout. Rather than talking about what the idealists consider to be authority, he asks a question, in which we see a possible materialist definition. But this is an authority that would presumably eliminate one of those “essential conditions of all human development, collective or individual,” since revolt against it is impossible. Instead of liberty, it seems to offer an inescapable slavery.

Yes, we are absolutely the slaves of these laws. But in such slavery there is no humiliation, or, rather, it is not slavery at all. For slavery supposes an external master, a legislator outside of him whom he commands, while these laws are not outside of us; they are inherent in us; they constitute our being, our whole being, physically — intellectually, and morally: we live, we breathe, we act, we think, we wish only through these laws. Without them we are nothing, we are not. Whence, then, could we derive the power and the wish to rebel against them?

Obviously, there are rhetorical maneuvers underway. The “slavery,” it turns out, “is not slavery at all.” The “laws” we cannot break are internal to us.

This actually puts us on familiar ground, provided we have paid some attention to Proudhon. The final section of What is Property? includes a description of “liberty, the third form of society,” and in that description we find that:

Liberty is anarchy, because it does not admit the government of the will, but only the authority of the law; that is, of necessity.

And we are reminded that, however much Proudhon agonized over the vocabulary he used to discuss forms of property, he often simply redefined the language of authority in ways that suited his anti-authoritarian project. Now, having recognized this connection between Bakunin’s thought and that of Proudhon, some of what follows will hold few surprises for those who have read the latter.

In his relation to natural laws but one liberty is possible to man — that of recognizing and applying them on an ever-extending scale in conformity with the object of collective and individual emancipation or humanization which he pursues. These laws, once recognized, exercise an authority which is never disputed by the mass of men. One must, for instance, be at bottom either a fool or a theologian or at least a metaphysician, jurist, or bourgeois economist to rebel against the law by which twice two make four. One must have faith to imagine that fire will not burn nor water drown, except, indeed, recourse be had to some subterfuge founded in its turn on some other natural law. But these revolts, or, rather, these attempts at or foolish fancies of an impossible revolt, are decidedly, the exception; for, in general, it may be said that the mass of men, in their daily lives, acknowledge the government of common sense — that is, of the sum of the natural laws generally recognized — in an almost absolute fashion.

This “government of common sense” seems to parallel Proudhon’s thoughts (again, from What is Property?)

All questions of legislation and politics are matters of science, not of opinion. The legislative power belongs only to the reason, methodically recognized and demonstrated. To attribute to any power whatever the right of veto or of sanction, is the last degree of tyranny. Justice and legality are two things as independent of our approval as is mathematical truth. To compel, they need only to be known; to be known, they need only to be considered and studied. What, then, is the nation, if it is not the sovereign,—if it is not the source of the legislative power?

The nation is the guardian of the law—the nation is the EXECUTIVE POWER. Every citizen may assert: “This is true; that is just;” but his opinion controls no one but himself. That the truth which he proclaims may become a law, it must be recognized. Now, what is it to recognize a law? It is to verify a mathematical or a metaphysical calculation; it is to repeat an experiment, to observe a phenomenon, to establish a fact. Only the nation has the right to say, “Be it known and decreed.”

I confess that this is an overturning of received ideas, and that I seem to be attempting to revolutionize our political system; but I beg the reader to consider that, having begun with a paradox, I must, if I reason correctly, meet with paradoxes at every step, and must end with paradoxes. For the rest, I do not see how the liberty of citizens would be endangered by entrusting to their hands, instead of the pen of the legislator, the sword of the law. The executive power, belonging properly to the will, cannot be confided to too many proxies. That is the true sovereignty of the nation.

There are some interesting tensions here. Both Bakunin and Proudhon insist on a place for “law” in their understanding of liberty, but it isn’t clear that what we conventionally think of as “legal order” is included. Their conception of law is limited to that which we cannot rebel against. This would seem to clear the decks of all governmental, statute law. But that sweeping away is easier said than done. In practice, even obeying the law of necessity may not be as easy as it might seem. To know the law requires science, but science is a work-in-progress and it has adversaries in the advocates and beneficiaries of other sorts of law.

The great misfortune is that a large number of natural laws, already established as such by science, remain unknown to the masses, thanks to the watchfulness of these tutelary governments that exist, as we know, only for the good of the people. There is another difficulty — namely, that the major portion of the natural laws connected with the development of human society, which are quite as necessary, invariable, fatal, as the laws that govern the physical world, have not been duly established and recognized by science itself.

That concern with  “tutelary government” (gouvernement tutélaire) is an extremely common one in the early anarchist  literature. Tutelage is guardianship, a paternal power over a people presumably unable to govern or “realize” itself. And that presumption of “external realization” was the thing that Proudhon opposed quite consistently (except, alas, where actual paternity was involved.)

Once they shall have been recognized by science, and then from science, by means of an extensive system of popular education and instruction, shall have passed into the consciousness of all, the question of liberty will be entirely solved. The most stubborn authorities must admit that then there will be no need either of political organization or 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 never will be the case — are always equally fatal and hostile to the liberty of the masses from the very fact that they impose upon them a system of external and therefore despotic laws.

This last bit is wonderfully strong stuff. Even if a governmental legal order was in conformity with the laws of nature, presumably imposing only what is imposed by necessity—what cannot ultimately not be imposed—it would be “fatal and hostile” to liberty. it seems that even the inevitable can’t be accepted second-hand. If there is really something to “the authority of the bootmaker,” this is obviously a hurdle it will have to get over.

The liberty of man consists solely in this: that he obeys natural laws because he has himself recognized them as such, and not because they have been externally imposed upon him by any extrinsic will whatever, divine or human, collective or individual.

We are now in pretty deep waters, with a rather peculiar set of observations about authority. It is detestable, we have been told, and perhaps it is, at the same time (and in its materialist form), equal to necessity. It is a “slavery” that “is not really slavery.” It is “despotic” if it does not come from within, but can’t be opposed in any event, since (in some sense) it does.

Let’s suppose that all of this is true, to some extent at least. Should we be surprised, or nod our heads sagely, as if this is exactly what we expected? Whatever our actual reaction, we probably have to circle back around (if we haven’t already) to Bakunin’s statements about human development and its conditions, and try to work out how this rather conflicted account of authority might fit in that development. Earlier in God and the State, he had said:

Yes, our first ancestors, our Adams and our Eves, were, if not gorillas, very near relatives of gorillas, omnivorous, intelligent and ferocious beasts, endowed in a higher degree than the animals of another species with two precious faculties — the power to think and the desire to rebel.

That’s our starting point, and we are currently somewhere down the long, possibly interminable road of human progress. We remain animals, but human animals and we set off down the road to ever-greater humanity by exercising some combination of thought and rebellion. Bakunin’s pleasure in the fact that the Biblical story of the Fall makes this argument for him is obvious, but, let’s face it, triadic conceptions of human nature with Biblical references were hardly new by the time he got around to presenting his version of things. There’s no need to dig too deep into the antecedents here, but there are certainly echoes of Pierre Leroux and Charles Fourier here—as there are so many other places in the early anarchist literature. What probably is necessary is to emphasize the extent to which some kind of internal tension between the constituent elements of human nature is to be expected in 19th century socialist writing. “Universal antagonism” and “justice” (in the form of balance) were, for Proudhon, “the fundamental laws of the universe.” We’ve already seen some of the ways that, for Bakunin, animality could come into conflict with reason and revolt. When we pick up the argument again, and Bakunin explores the shortcomings of “the government of science,” we can pick up more of the dynamic between those three elements.

Suppose a learned academy, composed of the most illustrious representatives of science; suppose this academy charged with legislation for and the organization of society, and that, inspired only by the purest love of truth, it frames none but laws in absolute harmony with the latest discoveries of science. Well, I maintain, for my part, that such legislation and such organization would be a monstrosity, and that for two reasons: first, that human science is always and necessarily imperfect, and that, comparing what it has discovered with what remains to be discovered, we may say that it is still in its cradle. So that were we to try to force the practical life of men, collective as well as individual, into strict and exclusive conformity with the latest data of science, we should condemn society as well as individuals to suffer martyrdom on a bed of Procrustes, which would soon end by dislocating and stifling them, life ever remaining an infinitely greater thing than science.

The second reason is this: a society which should obey legislation emanating from a scientific academy, not because it understood itself the rational character of this legislation (in which case the existence of the academy would become useless), but because this legislation, emanating from the academy, was imposed in the name of a science which it venerated without comprehending — such a society would be a society, not of men, but of brutes. It would be a second edition of those missions in Paraguay which submitted so long to the government of the Jesuits. It would surely and rapidly descend to the lowest stage of idiocy.

But there is still a third reason which would render such a government impossible — namely that a scientific academy invested with a sovereignty, so to speak, absolute, even if it were composed of the most illustrious men, would infallibly and soon end in its own moral and intellectual corruption. Even today, with the few privileges allowed them, such is the history of all academies. The greatest scientific genius, from the moment that he becomes an academician, an officially licensed savant, inevitably lapses into sluggishness. He loses his spontaneity, his revolutionary hardihood, and that troublesome and savage energy characteristic of the grandest geniuses, ever called to destroy old tottering worlds and lay the foundations of new. He undoubtedly gains in politeness, in utilitarian and practical wisdom, what he loses in power of thought. In a word, he becomes corrupted.

Reason is not something that can be attained second-hand, but it is also not something that can be maintained if it is mixed with authority, if it is exercised against revolt.

It is the characteristic of privilege and of every privileged position to kill the mind and heart of men. The privileged man, whether politically or economically, is a man depraved in mind and heart. That is a social law which admits of no exception, and is as applicable to entire nations as to classes, corporations, and individuals. It is the law of equality, the supreme condition of liberty and humanity. The principal object of this treatise is precisely to demonstrate this truth in all the manifestations of human life.

A scientific body to which had been confided the government of society would soon end by devoting itself no longer to science at all, but to quite another affair; and that affair, as in the case of all established powers, would be its own eternal perpetuation by rendering the society confided to its care ever more stupid and consequently more in need of its government and direction.

But that which is true of scientific academies is also true of all constituent and legislative assemblies, even those chosen by universal suffrage. In the latter case they may renew their composition, it is true, but this does not prevent the formation in a few years’ time of a body of politicians, privileged in fact though not in law, who, devoting themselves exclusively to the direction of the public affairs of a country, finally form a sort of political aristocracy or oligarchy. Witness the United States of America and Switzerland.

Both privilege and obedience are presented as deadly to science and to human development. And when Bakunin finally draws the conclusions from this section, they are perhaps even stronger than we might expect from the opening question:

Consequently, no external legislation and no authority — one, for that matter, being inseparable from the other, and both tending to the servitude of society and the degradation of the legislators themselves.

“No authority.” That seems clear enough. We’ve had a glimpse of what anarchists might look to instead of authority, but there doesn’t seem to be much room left for authority itself.

And then this happens:

Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism censure. I do not content myself with consulting authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I recognize no infallible authority, even in special questions; consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the sincerity of such or such an individual, I have no absolute faith in any person. Such a faith would be fatal to my reason, to my liberty, and even to the success of my undertakings; it would immediately transform me into a stupid slave, an instrument of the will and interests of others.

When we attempt to follow this real twist, in the context of the full fragment, all sorts of questions come to mind. First of all, it isn’t entirely clear that the bootmaker is in the same category as the savant (scientist, learned individual, expert.) Elsewhere in the text, Bakunin makes a distinction between science, which “cannot go outside of the sphere of abstractions,” and art, which “is, as it were, the return of abstraction to life.” Indeed, science is characterized as “the perpetual immolation of life, fugitive, temporary, but real, on the altar of eternal abstractions,” and this sets up Bakunin’s famous declaration:

What I preach then is, to a certain extent, the revolt of life against science, or rather against the government of science, not to destroy science — that would be high treason to humanity — but to remand it to its place so that it can never leave it again.

Here, it is animality and revolt rising up against reason—at least when reason seems to have exceeded its share of the work. It is tempting to think that bootmakers fare better than scientists because they are, in some sense, as much artists as savants. But I’m not sure there’s anything in Bakunin’s text that let’s us pursue that approach. Another question is whether Bakunin has not himself simply made a blunder here, confusing expertise with authority, letting the rhetorical play get the better of him. It happened at times, I am inclined to think. There is a passage, still down the page a bit, where Bakunin insists on referring to the practices of revolutionary socialists as the beliefs of “our church.” Proudhon’s masterwork, Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, certainly might have suggested a contrast, but Bakunin’s language seems to take it all too far.

What Bakunin says about the “authority of the bootmaker” is all quite level-headed, and roughly what you would expect him to say if he simply refused to grant any “authority” at all in the case. He is clear that he will use his reason, to whatever extent he can, and then use the reason of others to reduce his chances of error. He is wary. He understands that acquiescence is a grave danger. And yet, he says, he “bows.”

If I bow before the authority of the specialists and avow my readiness to follow, to a certain extent and as long as may seem to me necessary, their indications and even their directions, it is because their authority is imposed upon me by no one, neither by men nor by God. Otherwise I would repel them with horror, and bid the devil take their counsels, their directions, and their services, certain that they would make me pay, by the loss of my liberty and self-respect, for such scraps of truth, wrapped in a multitude of lies, as they might give me.

At least Bakunin, in “bowing” to the bootmaker, obviously still detests the the act of submission to authority. And here the fact that we are ultimately talking about concessions as small as trusting in skilled tradespeople becomes interesting. Bakunin doesn’t make the distinction we might expect between the bootmaker and the savant, so perhaps the scale of the act of submission is not so important. If the most perfect legislation is “fatal” if we have to take it second-hand, then we don’t seem to be in a situation where there is much room for “legitimate authority,” despite Bakunin’s assurance that he would never even think of rejecting all authority.

What, in any event, does it mean to “reject all authority”? Let’s look at the French text:

“S’ensuit-il que je repousse toute autorité ? Loin de moi cette pensée.”

“To reject” is certainly one of the ways to translate repousser. There are several others. Rejeter means to reject, but perhaps more in the sense that one would reject, or throw back, a fish that was too small for eating. Refuser is also sometimes translated as “to reject,” often in the sense of turning down an offer, although it may have a variety of other uses. Écarter has the sense of pushing to the side. But repousser is perhaps a little more active and aggressive; it sometimes means to spurn, but also to repel, to push away. This is the verb Bakunin used when he said “I would repel them with horror, and bid the devil take their counsels…” Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that it is precisely Bakunin’s sense of revulsion concerning authority that makes repousser the right choice here. The reading has the advantage of presenting Bakunin as consistent in his attitude toward authority, even if his eventual capitulation to it has to be explained. He assures us that he is not compelled to submit, “neither by men, nor by God.”

I bow before the authority of special men because it is imposed upon me by my own reason. I am conscious of my inability to grasp, in all its details and positive developments, any very large portion of human knowledge. The greatest intelligence would not be equal to a comprehension of the whole. Thence 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 directs and is directed in his turn. Therefore there is no fixed and constant authority, but a continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination.

In the end, it appears that, rather than bowing to “special men” or their “authority,” Bakunin bows to “human life,” to his own limitations as a human animal. He bows to the inevitable, which we know is the only law he will recognize. And if our reading of the nuances is not entirely incorrect, we have no reason, I think, to imagine that he bows, even to necessity, with particularly good grace. At the limits of his knowledge, life, reason and rebellion should, we expect, all be brought to bear. In the absence of “fixed and constant authority,” developing humanity might at least aspire to less of both authority and subordination.

In the remainder of the section I’m quoting here, which ends with the declaration that he and those around him are, in a particular sense, “anarchists,” Bakunin alternates between gratitude to the savants of the “special sciences” and new declamations against authority, with a recognition of the “absolute authority of science” (but not “the absolute, universal, and infallible authority of men of science.”) It isn’t clear if it all quite adds up. I suppose that one can weight those various elements of the text as you see fit, but, for me, it is very hard to make the usual leap from the views presented here to a denial that anarchism is, in principle, not just anti-authoritarian, but resolutely so. If we are forced by the law of necessity to bow to authority in small ways, in the context of that “continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination,” it cannot be, it seems to me, in any way that involves abandoning our animality, our reason or our tendency to revolt. Indeed, it would seem to me that it is when we are faced with our own limits that all of these elements need to be most actively involved. That means rebelling, if only inwardly, when we have to take even the bootmaker on faith, and bringing all our energies into play as the stakes rise. We can, of course, be gracious, as Bakunin was, and feel gratitude for the “special” knowledges that come from our specific characters and aptitudes. But every time we start to get too warm and fuzzy about even the “very restricted authority of the representatives of special sciences,” I suspect our best bet is to remember that if there is such a thing as “legitimate authority,” our only real access to it is still from within, from the force of necessity, expressed through our own human animality, even if it is only expressed through our limits.

Not that our limits, Bakunin reminds us, are all bad:

This same reason forbids me, then, to recognize a fixed, constant, and universal authority, 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 universality could ever be realized in a single man, and if be wished to take advantage thereof to impose his authority upon us, it would be necessary to drive this man out of society, because his authority would inevitably reduce all the others to slavery and imbecility. I do not think that society ought to maltreat men of genius as it has done hitherto; but neither do I think it should indulge them too far, still less accord them any privileges or exclusive rights whatsoever; and that for three reasons: first, because it would often mistake a charlatan for a man of genius; second, because, through such a system of privileges, it might transform into a charlatan even a real man of genius, demoralize him, and degrade him; and, finally, because it would establish a master over itself.

The rest of the selection speaks, I think, largely for itself.

To sum up. We recognize, then, the absolute authority of science, because the sole object of science is the mental reproduction, as well-considered and systematic as possible, of the natural laws inherent in the material, intellectual, and moral life of both the physical and the social worlds, these two worlds constituting, in fact, but one and the same natural world. Outside of this only legitimate authority, legitimate because rational and in harmony with human liberty, we declare all other authorities false, arbitrary and fatal.

We recognize the absolute authority of science, but we reject the infallibility and universality of the savant. In our church — if I may be permitted to use for a moment an expression which I so detest: Church and State are my two bêtes noires — in our church, as in the Protestant church, we have a chief, an invisible Christ, science; and, like the Protestants, more logical even than the Protestants, we will suffer neither pope, nor council, nor conclaves of infallible cardinals, nor bishops, nor even priests. Our Christ differs from the Protestant and Christian Christ in this — that the latter is a personal being, ours impersonal; the Christian Christ, already completed in an eternal past, presents himself as a perfect being, while the completion and perfection of our Christ, science, are ever in the future: which is equivalent to saying that they will never be realized. Therefore, in recognizing absolute science as the only absolute authority, we in no way compromise our liberty.

I mean by the words “absolute science,” which would reproduce ideally, to its fullest extent and in all its infinite detail, the universe, the system or coordination of all the natural laws manifested by the incessant development of the world. It is evident that such a science, the sublime object of all the efforts of the human mind, will never be fully and absolutely realized. Our Christ, then, will remain eternally unfinished, which must considerably take down the pride of his licensed representatives among us. Against that God the Son in whose name they assume to impose upon us their insolent and pedantic authority, we appeal to God the Father, who is the real world, real life, of which he (the Son) is only a too imperfect expression, whilst we real beings, living, working, struggling, loving, aspiring, enjoying, and suffering, are its immediate representatives.

But, while rejecting the absolute, universal, and infallible authority of men of science, we willingly bow before the respectable, although relative, quite temporary, and very restricted authority of the representatives of special sciences, asking nothing better than to consult them by turns, and very grateful for such precious information as they may extend to us, on condition of their willingness to receive from us on occasions when, and concerning matters about which, we are more learned than they. In general, we ask nothing better than to see men endowed with great knowledge, great experience, great minds, and, above all, great hearts, exercise over us a natural and legitimate influence, freely accepted, and never imposed in the name of any official authority whatsoever, celestial or terrestrial. We accept all natural authorities and all influences of fact, but none of right; for every authority or every influence of right, officially imposed as such, becoming directly an oppression and a falsehood, would inevitably impose upon us, as I believe I have sufficiently shown, slavery and absurdity.

In a word, we reject all legislation, all authority, and all privileged, licensed, official, and legal influence, even though arising from universal suffrage, convinced that it can turn only to the advantage of a dominant minority of exploiters against the interests of the immense majority in subjection to them.

This is the sense in which we are really Anarchists.

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The Incomplete Proudhon (draft)

[This is a first draft of a first section of a strategy document for the consideration of other Proudhon scholars and students of anarchist studies. It is every bit as preliminary as that sounds, but everything has to start somewhere. With the Bakunin Library and Proudhon Library projects both moving steadily towards publication, a good deal of what I have been doing behind the scenes lately has been this kind of assessment of available resources and strategizing about how best to present relatively large bodies of work in print. For those who have not read the draft outline for Proudhon: Between Science and Vengeance, that document may add some useful context to this one.]


These are arguably good days for the study of anarchist history and theory, but some old and relatively fundamental problems remain, including the place of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in the anarchist tradition. Neither effectively integrated nor convincingly dismissed, Proudhon’s extensive body of work remains largely unknown, a fact that poses real difficulties for the field, whether we think of him as a foil or a foundation for the anarchist movement (or movements) that emerged in the late 19th century. Certainly, Proudhon Studies has had its own good days of late, with exciting developments on a variety of fronts, but there is arguably still a lot of work to be done before we can safely treat Proudhon as something other than unfinished business.

The scope of the task of “completing” Proudhon for English scholars and readers, together with that of dislodging the “incomplete” Proudhon from his established place in the tradition, means that it is unlikely that our business will really be finished by any heroic attempt by a few scholars, however dedicated and well-supported. But if those of us currently involved in Proudhon Studies will ultimately have to rely on reinforcements, we can certainly prepare the ground for them and coordinate our own efforts more effectively than we have previously. These notes, the first of several exploratory pieces, are an attempt to kick-start that process a bit.

In this first installment, I want to survey some of the ways in which our picture of Proudhon remains incomplete.


The digitizations of manuscripts, and their availability on the Ville de Besançon site and Gallica, has radically transformed what Proudhon scholars can do, even without institutional support. We already had ready online access to all of the published texts in the public-domain era. That leaves the published Carnets as the only published texts unavailable online (unless there is something in the volume of philological writings not available in manuscript.)

To my knowledge, the only major writings not available in either book form or digital scan are the later Carnets (long-since announced, but still not available) and some articles contributed to periodicals. The periodicals that Proudhon was involved with also remain difficult to access, which has contributed to a loss of contextual material.

We also know that our access to the Correspondence and some of the articles in the Mélanges volumes is imperfect, given censorship constraints and editorial choices. The mass of correspondence now available through the Besançon site, together with the letters published outside Langlois’ edition, should help us to restore the Correspondence. The digitizations of many of the letters addressed to Proudhon offers other important research opportunities.

With regard to the texts critiquing Proudhon’s work during his lifetime and those produced by his collaborators and early followers, the situation is not quite as promising. I’ve been trying to link texts as they become available on my “Responses to Proudhon” page, but that’s a continuing labor.


We’re obviously still in the early stages of assembling the Proudhon Library that Benjamin R. Tucker proposed so many years ago. But we are fortunate that, apart from a few instances, we have inherited some well-executed translations. While works like What is Property? and The General Idea of the Revolution need a bit of revision and scholarly introduction, those will not be arduous labors. And the existing translations provide us with at least the beginnings of the sort of shared lexicon that could guide subsequent work. There are texts that are probably waiting for their translators. I can’t imagine, for example, doing justice to the works on canals and railroads. But my sense is that we can probably do useful work now, inventorying texts, suggesting possible future volumes, documenting terminological issues, etc. that can provide some continuity within the library, despite piecemeal production. [I’ll tackle some of these questions in another set of notes.]


Obviously, the appearance of Iain McKay’s anthology, Property is Theft!, was an important step forward. Where Edward’s Selected Writings gave a provocative, but relatively decontextualized mass of thoughts, the new anthology gives us substantial chunks of Proudhon’s arguments. But Proudhon’s mature works are still underrepresented in translation and neither anthology could take advantage of the significant digitizations efforts that have taken place since its publication. My proposed introduction to the Proudhon Library, Between Science and Vengeance, can’t do much more than split the difference between the previous volumes, attempting to better contextualize it’s fragments and fugitive pieces with various helps. There is still plenty of room for introductory material.

[to be continued…]

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Property, Individuality and Collective Force

The events at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge have occupied my thoughts since the armed occupation began, not least because I have close family connections to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the region—connections so close that I spent the first few years of my life on refuges very similar to the one at Malheur and have had a “front-row seat,” so to speak, throughout my life, where some of the thorniest debates about the federal lands are concerned. I’ve posted some of that material to the blog, and will probably post more. But the situation on the refuge has also driven some new thoughts on the question of anarchist property norms, which seem of more direct interest to those who have followed the development of my thoughts here..

For those who haven’t followed my windings through Proudhon’s property theory or my development of an alternative “gift economy of property,” the most immediately relevant writings are the “Practicing the Encounter” section at the end of Contr’un 3 and “Limiting Conditions and Local Desires,” my initial contribution to the C4SS exchange on occupancy-and-use property norms. In the first essay (which, I am afraid, betrays its exploratory nature in some of the prose), I raised questions about what entities could be considered legitimate “subjects of appropriation,” with interests that should be considered as we attempt to formulate a theory of just appropriation. And I raised the possibility that we might have to account for a lot more than just individual human agents, even if the working-out process was necessarily on our human, all too human shoulders. I think that, ultimately, that is correct, but I also think that we can focus a bit more directly on the human actors without a great deal of risk, provided we acknowledge that minimizing damage to the environment and to other species is in the interest of individual human beings. Some notion of stewardship is ultimately necessary for the representation of non-human interests, just a solidarity is necessary for the representation of social collectivities. Those two caveats make it easier to pick up the thread in the second piece, which proposes “mutual extrication” as a model for human individuals attempting to “gift” one another property rights.

The discussion of a “gift economy of property” has taken its initial cues from the second of Proudhon’s three declarations on property: property is impossible. The question I have been exploring for some time now is whether any regime of individual property rights was justifiable, under present conditions and in the face of anarchist critiques of property.

To review a bit: I think that Locke’s basic model, which begins with the “fact” of property in one’s person (in the sense that it encourages us to base any system of property rights in what is, in the most strictly descriptive sense, “proper” to the individual), notes the ever-changing boundaries of the “person” (presenting human activity as “labor-mixing”) and then tries to imagine the conditions under which that most basic sort of appropriation ought to be a matter of moral or legal indifference to others (with the provisos, and the standard of the “good draught” of consumption that leaves a “whole river” of resources, rendering this sort of appropriation unobjectionable because it is essentially non-rivalrous) is sound. This is not a blanket endorsement of Locke, who, it seems to me, has to leave the most elegant parts of his argument behind in order to make sense of actual property conventions and make “homesteading” productive of alienable property appropriate to market relations.  It is the weak, but almost certainly useful, observation that exclusive individual appropriation is no big deal if it is literally the case that nobody is worse off because of it, which is decidedly not the approach we see from modern propertarians. When we return to the problems posed by Proudhon’s critique and ask whether there is some system of property rights that is not essentially its own contradiction and violation—”theft”—we at least have some standard drawn from traditional property theory to use as a point of comparison.

It seems obvious that, at the level of individual appropriation, unamplified by high levels of technology, the possibility of an appropriation that would not (in some genteral, a priori sense) be theft is largely dependent on the renewability of resources. That observation is important, because it suggests that the question of just appropriation is not just a legal or moral question. It is in some sense, and perhaps in a really fundamental sense, also an ecological question. If our rights have some pretense to universal or natural status, then they are going fluctuate as nature fluctuates. There are probably things in our societies that everyone could appropriate without threatening the continued supply, and perhaps even non-renewable resources of this sort (assuming we define “resource” broadly), but some of the traditional components of “the commons” (clean air and water, for example) may no longer be among them. We’ve amplified our individual impacts through technological advances and large-scale social organization. If there was ever a reason to doubt the reality of collective force as a factor in our societies, it’s hard to miss seeing it almost everywhere now. As a result, we may have lost our connection to that simple, elegant homesteading model, not because anything has change about the legal principles or ethical imperatives connected to exclusive, individual property rights, but simply because we are not ourselves exclusive and individual in the same ways as our ancestors. We were probably never, as Whitman put it, “contained between hat and boots,” but the mixing and sprawling of persons is arguably both real and ongoing.

Let’s linger for a moment and consider the implications of this twist on the notion that property is impossible. For Proudhon, the “impossibility” of property arose primarily from the droit d’aubaine (“right of increase”) attached to capitalist property rights. That did not necessarily preclude some kind of return to strong, exclusive, individual property rights, provided those rights could be constrained either by principles like those found in Locke’s provisos or in a strong egalitarian ethic, such as we find in the “personal property” speculations of even communistic anarchists. After all, between the early works advocating “possession” and the “New Theory” of the 1860s, Proudhon explored both possibilities to at least some degree. But if it is indeed the case that our “individual” interventions and appropriations are no longer in balance with the regenerative capacities of our natural environment, then there are arguably some very interesting, and certainly troubling consequences. First, it raises the possibility that exclusive, individual property rights—even in a radically reimagined form like my “gift economy of property”—may be impossible. But it also raises the possibility that it is not just property rights that are threatened by our current social and technological organization. It may be that property, even in the descriptive sense, is no longer sufficiently individual to support the kind of discussion regarding property that we are accustomed to. That notion may be a bit difficult to come to terms with, but let’s at least attempt to give it a try, particularly as a situation in which we could meaningfully say that individuality is impossible would create problems for our presumably non-propertarian options nearly as great as those confronting any new theory of property rights.

What I’m suggesting about the limits of “mutual extrication” might seem like a radicalization or even repudiation of some of what I’ve said in the past, but I think it makes most sense to take it simply as a clarification—and one that allows us to return to some other familiar themes. Whitman was not the only radical voice we have noted for whom the “contained between hat and boots” model of individuality was not adequate. Pierre Leroux, William Batchelder Greene, Proudhon, Stirner and Bakunin, among others, argued in various ways for the recognition of other people as an essential part of what is proper to the growth and continued being of human individuals. And our various explorations of the work of collective force have suggested that what is proper to individuals as individuals does not exhaust their property (in the general, descriptive sense), since it is still necessary to account for what is proper to individuals as parts of various social collectivities.

We certainly shouldn’t be surprised that what is proper to human beings involves involvement, entangling and combination. After all, the reigning metaphor for appropriation is mixing. But if we are surprised that all that mixing involves more than just consumption by relatively isolated and autonomous human beings, then we should probably explore our surprise carefully.

There isn’t space here to go back through all the various approaches I’ve made over the years to this particular understanding of the problem of property. (If you want, you can get an early glimpse of some of the connections.) Instead, let’s just take a look at the proposal I made in the recent C4SS exchange:

If [in our search for a theory of just appropriation] we cannot take, then perhaps we can give. We know the value and the virtues of individual property, as did Proudhon. If we are unable to secure it for ourselves as a matter of individual appropriation, then perhaps we can grant it to one another as a matter of gift or cession, not of a property that we individually own, but of claims that we might otherwise make on one another? Imagine the basis of this new property not as appropriation but as mutual extrication. Some of the steps would resemble familiar propertarian notions. First, perhaps, mutual release would yield a variety of “self-ownership.” Then, the familiar “personal property” in items of more intimate attachment or use. Beyond that, real property on the basis of occupancy-and-use. Then, perhaps, a sphere of alienable goods and a recognition of exchange — based, like the other steps on a mutual willingness not to interfere with one another’s activities. Etc. Etc. Limiting conditions and local desires would determine the limits of the emerging system.

This was a fairly modest proposal, focused on one very limited, if essential aspect of the property-problem. To relinquish claims on one another of a more or less intimate sort, those relating to our bodies and to items “personal property,” begins to reopen a space for meaningful individuality. The recognition of one relative autonomy and responsibility in one another, the basic recognition of individuality itself, is the easiest gift to give one another. The allowance of some space within which to learn and potentially, despite the potentially intimate nature of the consequences, is harder and the gift of anarchy, the decision to refuse to mediate our relationships through any of the fundamentally archic structures that surround us is harder still, involving us in struggles and forms of vigilance without clear endpoints.

To get even this far in our mutual extrication would demand some fairly substantial changes in attitude and practice. Among other things, the emphasis on identities, including the anarchist identity, would have to be substantially reduced. A Stirneresque refusal to treat individuals as instances of some type or symptoms of some system, combined with a Proudhonian recognition of real collectivities, would almost certainly serve to replace most of what might be lost in the way of critical and analytic tools, but it is probably the case that current anarchist practice is much less dependent on conceptual tools than it is on evolving custom and (explicit or implicit) platforms. An anarchism with considerably less “inside” to it would mean a revolution in relations between anarchists, necessitating a greater tolerance of differences, but also forcing our relations of solidarity onto a more specific sort of footing. And, ultimately, I suspect that even the simplest, most abstract sort of transformation in this direction would probably be resisted by many people who consider themselves anarchists at present.

Giving each other space to learn and to err, without the constant mutual policing so common in anarchist circles, would be a big step, even if we are only talking about attitudes and opinions. We are almost all pretty deeply invested in a sort of social symptomology, on the basis of which we tend to judge each other’s every action. But that step pales beside the extension of the same freedom in activities involving the consumption of real, scarce resources. I think it is fair to say that we are not, for the most part, certain that we can even sustain significant differences of opinion, so wary are we of the power of existing hegemonic systems to recuperate and incorporate even presumably dissenting thought. As a result, we have put ourselves in a strange position, where one of the natural responses to divergence from the norms of the milieu is to amplify the divergent opinions, through “calling out,” public shaming, the transformation of local conflicts into national or international causes célèbres, etc.

When we think about this process of amplification, we should recognize the effects of collective force. Whether the anarchist milieu is the association that we wish it was or believe that it can be, it is still an association and, as such, produces a sort of surplus, similar in many respects to those generated within the economic and governmental spheres—and perhaps subject to the same sorts of accumulation and deployment by minorities. And the institutions and social practices that provide a context for anarchist practice also filter and amplify in various ways.

Let’s focus again, and clarify what is at stake here, so we can move on to questions directly relating to property. In the “general theory of archy” post, I was concerned with generalizing the theory of exploitation, which Proudhon applied to capitalist property and the governmentalist State. In those instances, it is a matter of the collective force of an association being monopolized, either by a minority within the association or by outsiders. My suggestion was that some form of exploitation was present at the heart of most, if not all, social hierarchies. To say that a similar sort of exploitation might take place within the context of organized anarchism is not, I think, particularly outlandish, although the “force” appropriated would be of a more abstract character than we generally consider in these discussions.

But when we are talking about the “impossibility of individuality” as an effect of collective force, the problem takes on a rather different character and we are poised to open a new and potentially very large can of worms. Perhaps only primitivism and some anti-civilization thought has come close to addressing this side of the collective force question. I’m not sure that approach has been particularly fruitful, but we should probably at least consider what these currents might add to our analysis.

If we turn our attention to collective force that is not monopolized within associations, that would still exist (and might be even greater) within entirely egalitarian societies as a kind of “commons,” we probably have to acknowledge that there are differences between an egalitarian society in which everyone is equipped with just their bare hands and one in which everyone has access to earth-moving equipment (and we can easily imagine similar differences if it is a question of access to arms, or to any number of other resources.) When we act like every micro-aggression is something like a nuclear strike, and have such trouble finding space in our associations for individual expression, perhaps we’re not actually overreacting. Perhaps, instead, we’re in the position of property theorists who want to talk about “homesteading” as if it was a question of lone individuals with hand tools, rather than members of highly mechanized societies.

This has gone longer than I intended, so let me wrap this introductory post, perhaps a bit abruptly, with some questions. As a first step into what is almost certainly going to be a very complicated discussion of “property,” perhaps we need to ask to what extent we really know our own strength, either quantitatively or qualitatively. To what extent do the conversations we have about individuality, property, responsibility, solidarity, community, etc. actually take any account of the effects of collective force?

[to be continued…]

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