Occupancy-and-use: Response to Kevin Carson’s Rejoinder

[This post originally appeared at the Center for a Stateless Society, as part of an exchange on occupancy-and-use property.]

At base, Kevin and I disagree about the possibility of, as I put it, “a truly anarchic space, outside the legal order and beyond the realm of permissions and prohibitions.” That’s a serious disagreement, since it amounts, for me, to a disagreement about the possibility of anarchy. If I was, as Kevin suggests, implicitly acknowledging any “set of rules” governing property, it would amount to a complete failure of my project. The point of giving familiar, more-or-less legal names to the steps in the extrication I described was simply to mark the rationales for a series of “gifts.” My working assumptions are that Proudhon’s objections to existing property conventions have really not been answered, and that perhaps they are actually unanswerable in legal terms. My project has not been to describe potential property rights, but merely to describe property as a quality of individual being in such a way that its individuality and its exclusivity might be dealt with separately and the potential conflict between them acknowledged. The point is not to reconstruct some “right of self-ownership,” but to suggest that if one wishes to enjoy the freedoms we have come to associate with that so-called right, we could achieve that end by considering our own property and the property of the other in a particular way — a manner involving a certain sort of extrication, or, to bring things back into the familiar language of property, a cession or gift. These are not proposed rules, but simply “transactions,” to use the vocabulary of Proudhon’s work in the 1850s.

Turning to the specific responses, I’m a little surprised to find myself presented at once as proposing a presumably unrealistic world without rules and as defending principles to be somehow enforced. To be clear, the paragraph that Carson treats first has two simple points: 1) use the right tool for the job, and 2) the right tool will almost always be dependent on a variety of local factors. My point about the cost principle was primarily that it, among the various principles regularly discussed by mutualists, is easier to discuss without reference to a wide variety of local factors. I think that is correct, and that it is useful to make the distinction between approaches that are heavily dependent on local factors and those that are not — principally because it is in the need to adapt to local factors that I find my own opening to the sort of property-pluralism Kevin is pursuing. While I have very little faith, for example, in land-value taxation as a general solution to land-tenure problems, because of the difficulties of quantifying land value in a complex economy, I think that it remains a very useful tool in our kit when the conditions are right for its application. And as the representative in this conversation of a certain kind of neo-Proudhonian position, I certainly shouldn’t rule out the possibility that a position which seems uncertain or even unjust in principle might well be, in practice, the right tool to defend liberty and justice under certain conditions. That, after all, is the heart of Proudhon’s “New Theory,” and the means by which he finally found a place for property as a tool for liberty in his mature work.

Anyway, it appears that by introducing the cost principle into the discussion I simply added new confusions, as Warren’s proposal appears to me in very different terms that those Kevin uses to describe it. I certainly don’t see Warren’s approach as working against economic principles, nor do I have any sense that Warren ever intended to “impose” anything. And I am a little baffled that Kevin would quote Engels on “labor-based pricing systems” in this context. After all, one of the most puzzling legacies of Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy is the association that has formed, incorrectly, between Proudhon’s economic proposals and “labor money.” I am not now, nor have I ever been, a proponent of “labor money.” I consider multiple currencies and multiple forms of currency as the most likely solution to most communities’ needs with regard to circulating media, and I suppose any of the various sorts of “labor notes” might sometimes find a place in the mix, but, despite their denomination in “hours,” Warren’s notes were at the very least a very unusual form of “labor money,” and probably should be considered separately (just as Proudhon’s and Greene’s mortgage-money fall outside the category.) The cost principle was not, after all, a labor principle, and certainly did not “eliminat[e] [the] informational function of price.” It involved the combination of subjective valuation and a different pricing strategy than we generally find in the capitalist economy, but one that nevertheless allowed for plenty of fluctuation and for all of the play of supply and demand. Honestly, I picked Warren’s principle as an example because it seemed to me about as far from the intrusions of Parecon, while still being anti-capitalist, as anything I could imagine. In wrestling with the specific account of exploitation in Proudhon’s writings, I have become increasingly interested in the possibility of addressing shared needs with the fruits of that collective force presently appropriated by capitalism and the state. But Parecon is certainly very far from my ideal — and one of my aims in exploring that sort of collective compensation is the possibility it seems to open of freeing the market in other areas of the economy.

In terms of the alternate account of property I have proposed, Proudhon can only be blamed for the inspiration, although I like to think that I have remained fairly faithful to that inspiration in the elaboration. Kevin’s identification of a “functional egoism” in the work is a good call, with precisely the sort of caveats he makes. Some of the more useful additions to my own theoretical toolkit over the last few years have been ideas drawn from the work of Max Stirner and James L. Walker, often in conversation with Wolfi Landstreicher, who is currently finishing up a new translation of Stirner’s The Unique and its Property. Stirner often makes a fine foil for Proudhon, and both of them address some of the most difficult aspects of anarchy.

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Occupancy-and-Use: Neo-Proudhonian Remarks

[This post originally appeared at the Center for a Stateless Society, as part of an exchange on occupancy-and-use property.]

There is a great deal that could be said in response to Kevin Carson’s opening statement, from the “neo-Proudhonian” mutualist perspective, but I’ll try to keep things at least relatively short. Like Kevin, my introduction to the notion of occupancy-and-use land tenure was through the works of Benjamin R. Tucker and the Liberty circle and, like him, I think that Proudhon’s famous phrase regarding property has been used in unfortunate ways by many anarchists to avoid the question of property. Beyond that, however, our positions seem to diverge, beginning with the very basic question of the indispensability of property rules. As a result, my response will tackle two different tasks: to briefly defend the viability of the Tucker- and Ingalls-inspired occupancy-and-use system, and then to suggest that Proudhon’s work, whether it is a question of the early theory of “possession” or the later “New Theory” of property, indicates different approaches to the question of land tenure.

It is hard to talk about the viability of land tenure systems in a vacuum, particularly in a modern context where “land,” even in the broadest sense of natural resources, is arguably less dominant among the factors of production than it has been in other eras. If we were to survey the various reforms championed by Tucker over his career, we might pick something like Josiah Warren’s cost principle as one more amenable to consideration alone, while occupancy-and-use, mutual banking and some others are both more interdependent and more dependent on particular conditions for their efficacy. It is also hard to judge the various proposals without situating them either as transitional reforms or systems for “after the revolution” (however we might conceptualize revolutionary change.) All of this means that the most ardent, but serious advocate of occupancy-and-use ought to be able to imagine scenarios in which it was not a solution to the most pressing problems, where it was not particularly compatible with other solutions, or where the demand for other institutions would specifically shape the way that it was implemented. For example, as a transitional mechanism, some combination of occupancy-and-use and mutual banking on the William B. Greene model might produce a particularly robust system, within which the members of a particular mutual credit organization would have a strong interest in protecting the occupation rights on other members and trading partners. And we would expect this particular combination of institutions to produce something much more like stable conventional ownership, complete with property registries and whatever property insurance was necessary to protect the mutual associations against unforeseen accidents. On the other hand, where the cost principle held sway — or even the more general notion that individuals should carry their own costs — we might at least find fewer incentives to shape the community through land-tenure rules. This dependency on local factors will, of course, also apply to all of the potential alternatives. It’s not hard to imagine communities within which competition for particular locations would have a strong influence on the potential success or failure of large portions of the population, and some form of land-value taxation would be a logical reform, as well as others where the specific distribution of locations and occupations would make land rent a negligible factor.

What we can probably say safely, however, is that where Tucker-style occupancy-and-use is an appropriate solution, in harmony both with local needs and with other institutions, the usual objections seem like quibbles. As Kevin has repeatedly emphasized, all land tenure schemes will be what Proudhon called “approximations,” attempted solutions to particular problems, which will undoubtedly combine success and failure among their effects. What that means is that hopefully the form of the solutions will be driven by the real nature of the problems — the very thing that critics of occupancy-and-use always seem to imagine won’t be done. So, for example, a solution to the problem of “absentee ownership” should be driven by the problem that the phrase designates, not, as is so often the case in our debates, by what we imagine the phrase itself must commit us to. “Occupancy-and-use” is shorthand, not a magic formula, so if too great fidelity to some interpretation of the phrase seems to deprive us of practices that seem harmless or beneficial, we should naturally reexamine what principle we are following or what concrete consequences we are pursuing. To respond to one common quibble, there’s nothing about solving the problem of homelessness that naturally commits us to abolishing hotels, or even equitable rental agreements. New property conventions ought to appear as an opportunity to explore new social relations and new living arrangements. If our general principle is that individuals ought to have some ownership in the real property where they are most individually invested, there is no reason that we should assume that will be a domicile, rather than a workplace or a recreational site. There is also no reason to assume that, given other opportunities, individuals will invest in the ways that a regime of “private property” has encouraged. A more mobile culture could be a less secure one, or it could simply involve additional freedoms.

I am, in the end, considerably less certain than Kevin that the various principled positions on property are likely to converge — at least as a result of their principles. Even if I was willing to grant the indispensability of “property rules” of some sort, it seems to me that the notion of “property” does not amount to a shared concept among the various currents. Among “Lockeans,” for example, the question of the provisos separates what seem to me almost diametrically opposed notions of the nature of “property,” and there are similar differences among the various types of Georgism and geoism. Many, perhaps most communists, do indeed seem to have a theory of property, but the distinction so frequently made between “personal” and “private property” is not, as is so often claimed, the same as Proudhon’s distinction between “simple property” and “simple possession.” I think that, in practice, it is likely that anarchists and other sorts of less thoroughgoing anti-authoritarians might well come to terms, but I expect that the cause would be material interests and a commitment to libertarian values of one sort or another, as opposed to commitment to principles of property. And that might be good enough in some instances, or it might be as much as we could hope for. It is, after all, the play of interests that various early anarchists appealed to most directly as the mechanism of a free society.

As an aside, I think those who are interested in establishing occupancy-and-use property on something like a natural rights basis are likely to find useful and provocative developments in the works of Joshua King Ingalls. Tucker’s use of the work of his influences was always partial and not always particularly faithful, so returning to the sources is often the source of pleasant surprises. Ingalls, for instance, responded to the idea that capitalists should be reimbursed for damage done to the land by suggesting, in a proto-ecological manner, that perhaps it was the land itself that should logically be reimbursed, rather than its owner. In turn, Ingalls’s work might be usefully read or reread alongside Thomas Skidmore’s The Rights of Man to Property. I suspect few modern readers will have much use for his agrarian communist solution to the problem of property, but the analysis that led him there remains interesting, and anticipates Proudhon in some ways.

But it is necessary, finally, to return to Proudhon. It seems clear, as Kevin has suggested, that a cursory treatment of Proudhon’s declarations about property has allowed some anarchists to sidestep the question of property. It would be unfortunate, however, if, having invoked Proudhon, a somewhat cursory treatment of the “indispensability” of “property rules” ended up sidestepping the substance of his critique.

There are, of course, conceptions of property which allow very little outside, but they are not, I think, legal conceptions (or conceptions based on rules), nor are they dependent on property being individual and exclusive. If property is, for example, simply what is proper to a given individual, then some talk of property is inescapable. But property almost always means more to us. Proudhon’s argument was that property involved an “accounting error,” through which a major contribution to production, that of the “collective force” generate by associated laborers, was simply left out of the capitalist account of production. Its share of the wealth generated was then individually appropriated by capitalists. Labor then found its the fruits of its own exertions working against it in the marketplace in virtually all subsequent transactions. Proudhon left open the possibility of a property that would not be “theft” or “impossible,” but in the end he left us without any very clear account of it. Neither “possession” nor the property discussed in The Theory of Property quite seem to fill the bill. Meanwhile, to say that we reject property as Proudhon understood it really remains a mouthful, given the multiple and wide-ranging critiques in his work.

Let us, as a thought experiment, ignore some of the rhetorical complexity of Proudhon’s critical work and assume for the moment that the critique of “property” was really just a critique of the droit d’aubaine. To say that that we embrace property as indispensable, but also reject what Proudhon rejected, we would have to subject every proposed property theory to the multiple critiques he raised. Proudhon argues, for example, against all the usual means of understanding homesteading. Will any of those mechanisms seems less objectionable if no droit d’aubaine is assumed to attach? Can any of them pertain if we acknowledge that the collective force must received its due? The problem seems fairly complex.

But isn’t the answer found in the notion of “possession”? If we take Proudhon’s word for it, then possession is explicitly not a matter of rights or law. Instead, it is simply a matter of fact. Where Ingalls suggested reducing the legal order so that possession, with the recognition of natural rights, was the entirety of the law, Proudhon seems intent on going farther. That shouldn’t startle us, since his writing on “moral sanction” suggest that society could have no power to enforce any of the pacts that might govern a more formal sort of occupancy-and-use system. In “Justice,” he declares that any anarchistic social system that exceeded “an equation and a power of collectivity” (recognition of equality-of-standing among individuals and attention to the manifestations of collective force) would immediately run aground on its own contradictions. Reading What is Property? in this light, some familiar passages may seem strangely naive, but I think there is a lot of evidence that Proudhon really did imagine a world in which the only laws were those of nature and where “rights,” as he explained in War and Peace, referred to nothing more than the future needs of developing individuals. This anarchistic vision of Proudhon’s is so stark that we often seem simply not to recognize it as such, but it seems to be the foundation for virtually all of his thought. We can talk about a “system of justice” in Proudhon’s work, but only if we limit ourselves to that previously mentioned social system. Justice for Proudhon was simply balance, unmediated by any hierarchy or authority.

If we need more indications that perhaps property rules weren’t indispensable for Proudhon, we might recall that his first published remarks on property appeared in The Celebration of Sunday, in 1839, a year before What is Property? And what we find there is a first exploration of the connections between property and theft that flips the ordinary understanding of the terms. Instead of defining theft as the violation of property, we find an exercise in biblical interpretation, an account of property being established by a “putting aside,” which Proudhon links etymologically to theft. The account is, of course, merely suggestive, but what it suggests is a view of the world in which individual property is not a given. When, in the following year, Proudhon appears to reject both exclusive individual property and communism, it is one more indication that we should perhaps take the time to look for alternatives.

That, of course, leaves the third of Proudhon’s famous statements on property, “property is liberty,” to address. From almost the beginning, Proudhon acknowledged that property was treated as indispensable because liberty was widely accepted as primary among its aims. His examination of the positive aims and possible positive effects of property was parallel to, and ultimately inseparable from, his criticism of its absolutist justifications and potentially despotic effects. When he finally truly abandoned the theory of possession for that of property in 1861 (in the work published posthumously as The Theory of Property, which was originally part of a much longer study of Poland), it was not because he believed that property was not theft, but because he believed that there were benefits to equalizing and universalizing that sort of theft (a proposition he had entertained as early as 1842.) In order to really understand the “New Theory” we should probably examine it in the context of War and Peace, which was written at roughly the same time as the bulk of The Theory of Property. Proudhon’s economic manuscripts, written in the early 1850s, reveal to us that while Proudhon was finding evidence of collective force in all sorts of spheres, he did not consider the market an example of the sort of association that generated it. If a workshop or a commune could manifest itself as what he called a unity-collectivity, market interactions were, in his mind, more like war. The “New Theory” is thus more like a model of “armed peace” than it is of, say, emergent order.

Unfortunately, between the invocations of Proudhon to avoid property and the invocations of property that neglect Proudhon, a really proudhonian theory of occupancy-and-use remains a bit elusive. While there is, no doubt, a principled approach at work in both of Proudhon’s treatment of the property question, the principle is ultimately anarchy, and we are left largely on our own to determine just how to conceptualize property. I am inclined to think that Proudhon’s critiques of existing property theories still stand up pretty well, and that the traditional approaches most likely to skirt the problem of exploitation and the aubaines, such as proviso-Lockean theory, are not of a lot of practical use under present conditions. I don’t see any very promising contenders for a theory of just appropriation, which leaves me in roughly the same position I was eight years ago, when I proposed the possibility of a “gift economy of property.” As a conclusion, let me just return briefly and expand on that notion.

There are places where Proudhon described property as a “free gift” of society. Strictly speaking, of course, Proudhon would have to have acknowledged that it was a gift that society had no right to give. According to his critique, even society cannot be a proprietor. (This is probably the simplest objection to LVT schemes.) In a truly anarchic space, outside the legal order and beyond the realm of permissions and prohibitions, there seems to be no principle that can legitimate individual appropriation directly. And in a world filled with unity-collectivities, what is proper to each of us is mixed up with the potential property of everyone else. Conflict seems inevitable. We are told that the present system cannot even sustain a living wage for all workers, so just imagine if everyone simply demanded their own subjective valuation of their labor, let alone their share of the fruits of collective force. Simple anarchy could very well be a matter of everyone being up in everyone else’s business, with no authorization either to intrude or to withdraw. I suspect most of us would prefer some other arrangement.

If we are to find a social order that more closely resembles emergent harmony them armed peace or open war, what are we to do? If 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.

Perhaps this approach will seem either naïve or backward, but it has the virtue of being an approach to some form of exclusive, individual property that I suspect can pass muster according to the Proudhonian standards so often invoked — even in the demanding form I have attributed to them. What I am describing seem to me to be steps on the road from market exchange as a form of warfare to the possibility of reinventing markets in a form much more closely resembling Proudhon’s unity-collectivities, with their dividends of collective force. But I suspect we are already well into a somewhat different conversation.

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Mutual Exchange on “Anarchy and Democracy”

I’ve been participating in the C4SS “Mutual Exchange” on the topic of “Anarchy and Democracy,” along with a star-studded assembly of anarchists and libertarians from various tendencies. While this is technically the June exchange, it has actually been in progress since early April, with the most recent contribution appearing just a few days ago. As a result, some parts of the debate have had a long time to develop, while others have not, and the order of the contributions and the order of their publication are considerably different in some cases. In the interest of clarifying a few things that might be confusing as a result, this is the order in which my own contributions originally appeared:

  1. Anarchy and Democracy: Examining the Divide — lead essay, submitted April 20 and published June 6.
  2. Anarchism without Anarchy — including a response to Wayne Price, “Democracy, Anarchy, & Freedom” (April 10) and “Anarchy and Democracy: A Response” (April 22), submitted April 22 and published July 4.
  3. Embracing the Antinomies — including a response to Gabriel Amadej, “The Regime of Liberty” (April 10) and some new reflections on possible relations between Proudhon and “market anarchism,” submitted May 25 and published June 26.
  4. Social, but Still Not Democratic — including a response to Wayne Price, “Individualist Anarchism vs. Social Anarchism,” submitted June 29 and published July 2.
  5. Antinomies of Democracy — Including responses to Nathan Goodman, “Anarchism as Radical Liberalism: Radicalizing Markets, Radicalizing Democracy,” Kevin Carson, “On Democracy as a Necessary Anarchist Value,” and Wayne Price, 
”A Last Response to Shawn Wilbur,” with thoughts on a neo-Proudhonian recuperation of “democratic practices,” submitted June 25 and published July 20.

I’m fond of the Mutual Exchange format as an opportunity to explore elements of the neo-Proudhonian project that might not be suggested in other contexts. The earlier exchange on occupancy-and-use property norms provoked the thoughts about “mutual extrication” and this current exchange has offered chances to visit or revisit some other concerns that I had not addressed elsewhere. For those who are attempting to dig out the theoretical nuggets, as well as those who just want to get the order of attack and counterattack correct, this chronology will hopefully help with a few details.

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Notes on the anarchist culture wars

[This is actually a social media status that took on a sprawling life of its own. It is not exactly a response to Alexander Reid Ross’ essay “The Left Overs: How Fascists Court the Post-Left,” but rather some more general thoughts on the dynamics that might be in play in all of the similar culture-wars skirmishes that periodically break out in radical circles. I’m happy to grant the best of intentions to some critiques I find less than useful, largely because there really does seem to be one of those infamous “failures to communicate” that keeps this particular pot boiling. I’m a lot more interested in the potential incompatibility of various intellectual cultures within the milieu than I am with the drama that emerges from that problem.]

With regard to the “courting” of anarchists by authoritarians, and as someone who has been so courted on various occasions, it seems to me that the key vulnerability among radicals is not attraction to certain authors or ideas, but particular ways of interacting with ideas. And that vulnerability is widespread in the milieu, with perhaps the more dangerous instances involving ideas that are not themselves so obviously edgy.

What is required for someone to slide from Stirner toward fascism, from Proudhon toward monarchy, from Bakunin toward actual dictatorship, etc. is for a few, generally uncharacteristic bits of their thought to be disconnected from their context, elevated in importance and then associated with similarly disconnected bits of authoritarian thought, with some sort of eclecticism, “syncretism” or outright opportunism as the guiding philosophy. The alt-right has made this sort of opportunist, hodge-podge thinking a fairly explicit policy. Unfortunately, many radicals also engage in it, without much sense of the stakes.The result is a convergence of people who aren’t really all that interested in ideas, except as potential capital to put behind projects with some less philosophical basis or as a sort of personal adornment. And these people, whether they identify with the right or the left, tend to tell a story about “theory” that assumes ideas are generally mixable. No idea is really very distant from any other, provided you simply disregard the bits that establish distance (and, of course, clarity.)

(These folks will “use” any idea, no matter how radical, provided they can break off some little bit of it that appeals to their audience of people who don’t care much. We can never stop these people from this kind of annoying, but ultimately trivial appropriation. All we can do is be clearer than they are, so that people who actually do care aren’t mislead. You never convince opportunists that they are wrong, because that’s not ultimately what it’s about. You can, however, demonstrate the weaknesses of opportunism as a mode of thought.)

Sometimes these folks find common cause with people who think that ideas are indeed important, but draw firm lines between ideas that they think of as “bad” or “dangerous” and some set of ideas that seem to them safe, good, etc. There’s a kind of narrow rationalism that is constantly concerned that “something could go wrong” if we have unsafe thoughts or make use of ideas and ways of thinking unapproved by its particular standards. A lot of well-meaning and unconsciously authoritarian would-be radicals fall into this camp. Some of them are quite serious about the defense of their particular sort of approved thinking and some just have a low tolerance for anything that might seem “problematic,” “sketchy” or “fucked up.”

When we do find people swept from one position to another, I suspect these are often people who rather enjoy the fact that many ideas are dangerous, but aren’t so concerned about using ideas in any very serious way. Philosophy, like ideology, can be just another recreational drug. When we “lose” these people, we probably have to acknowledge that we only had them in a very limited sense in the first place.

None of these groups, it seems to me, are very well situated to deal with the notion of anarchy, which is necessarily (in the short term certainly, but probably also in the longest of terms) a truly dangerous idea. Now, some self-proclaimed “anarchists” are happy to do without the notion of anarchy, but as far as I can see that’s just giving up before you get started. But there are also people who look at Stirner (or something they’ve heard about egoism) and think “that’s problematic,” hear the usual criticisms of Proudhon and Bakunin and think “that’s fucked up,” worry about what might “go wrong” with poststructuralism, etc., but then look at anarchy and think “nothing to worry about here, folks.” But we often find that these folks also consider “democracy” a safe, positive notion, will find room in their nominally “anarchist” theory for authority, hierarchy, etc. It’s easy to be tolerant of this sort of thing as “rookie mistakes,” which ought to be fixed by more exposure to anarchist thought — except that there doesn’t seem to be much in the milieu pushing anarchists towards any more complex engagement, while there is perhaps an increasing resistance.

When it comes right down to it, the only people I have much faith in when it comes to a lasting commitment to anarchist thought and practice are those who are both serious about ideas (although I recognize a lot of ways this seriousness might manifest itself) — and specifically serious about anarchist ideas and anarchistic ways of thinking — and ready to acknowledge that the particular ideas that separate anarchism from the rest of the political or social philosophies out there, anarchy chief among them, are not “safe.” This isn’t a question of an intellectual vanguard or any sort of commitment that should exclude the average working stiff. We just shouldn’t be surprised that committing to even the serious contemplation of anarchy, which involves a radical break with the principles that govern the majority of our current relations and institutions, takes some mental effort, no matter where we’re starting from. You don’t have to know that Proudhon came to anarchy as a result of research into “the criterion” of certainty, but you probably do have to come to terms, in one way or another, that the “definitive” and “authoritative” are at least going to have to undergo some reworking in an anarchistic context, if they don’t simply get swept away with the authoritarian.

But if you can come to terms with anarchy, then you have not only gained an ideal, but presumably also mastered a skill. And that skill is, it seems to me, the one that best protects us whenever we are dealing with “dangerous” ideas. It might even simply involve the recognition that all ideas are dangerous, which is a pretty good inoculation against all the various systems and schemes that are peddled from every direction.

This is really just another version of my usual, broken-record sermon on the necessity for anarchists of really engaging with the notion of anarchy, with the twist that what I want to suggest here is that it is not just an idea that is necessary to build with, if we really want a free society and anti-authoritarian relations, but that it is also an idea that is good to think with, in the sense that the demands it makes on us as thinkers, and the skills that it develops, are likely to stand us in good stead in all areas of our lives.

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Emile Armand, “Without amoralization, no anarchization” (1926)

I came across this article by Emile Armand in L’Insurgé while working on something entirely unrelated, but it was interesting enough that I went ahead and translated it. If there is nothing here that would convince anyone not already sympathetic, it is a clear statement of Armand’s position, with a few nice examples of his literary eccentricities.

Without amoralization, no anarchization

The Larousse dictionary defines the word morality as: the relation of an act, of the sentiments of a person, with the rule of morals. From this comes the expression “certificate of morality,” to designate an official confirmation of a clean criminal record. Each time that I hear morality spoken of in a publication that calls itself anarchist, to whatever degree, there comes to my mind, unbidden, the idea of a “certificate of good behavior,” delivered by the police chief of the district.

As I wrote in the last issue, the word morality would never have appeared in the anarchist or anarchist-friendly journals if the anarchist movement had not been swamped with people coming from bourgeoisie backgrounds, who have brought with them the notion that it is important to conform, in matters of morals, with the established rules.

An experience that is already great, a familiarity that does not date from yesterday, has shown me that a great number of people who declare themselves theoretically as advocates of anarchism have been seduced particularly by the teachings of Rousseau, humanitarianism, and the revolutionary aspiration to egalitarianism revealed by the writings of certain anarchist dogmatists. From that comes an all too obvious tendency to make pronouncements on the acts and movements of comrades, valuations and judgments like those issued by the representatives of bourgeois society and those chiefs of police who deliver certificates of good behavior.

When, in 1900, I entered into contact with the anarchists, I came from a Christian milieu; many times, I have been stupefied by comparing the materialist declarations of certain anarchist theorists with the judgments they passed on the conduct of comrades who had taken seriously formulas like “no gods, no masters” or “with neither faith nor law,” which makes concrete, in a brief and clear form, the whole individual anarchist idea of life. I could not understand how, after having battled the law and the prophets, both religious and secular, they could bring, with regard to certain kinds of individual behavior, condemnations that would not have been disapproved of by the judges in the criminal court. As I did not consider propaganda a profession and did not wish to make a vocation of it, I would have long since dumped these respectable folks, and that would have saved me some unpleasantness, if afterwards I had not been convinced that these judgments simply reflected the bourgeois education (primary and secondary) received by these theorists, of which they have never wished or been able to rid themselves. Later, fortunately, I met real anarchists, liberated and freed from the education of the schools, who avoided, in general, bringing judgment on the actions of their comrades. When they ventured to express an opinion on their manner of conducting themselves, they did so in relation to the anarchist conception of life and not some standard of morality established by the supporters of bourgeois society.

I meet old compagnons who tell me that they have withdrawn from the movement because of the disillusionment they have experienced, meeting too many anarchist theorists with bourgeois inclinations. Where they hoped to meet men who had abandoned social prejudices and moral preconceptions, they found only minds, so spineless as to be ridiculous, whose ethical mentality differed in no way from that of their porter and their housekeeper.

Not that, forced by circumstances, the anarchist individualists do not disguise themselves, but in the manner of the Calabrian brigand, who disguises himself as a carabineer in order to rob a stage-coach. Every concession that the anarchist individualist makes to the social milieu, every concession that seem to make to the State, they make amends by undermining the notion of the necessary power, by demonstrating to all those with whom they come into contact that there is no need for morals and moralists, for imposed, obligatory leaders and magistrates, in order to fulfill the organic individual functions and for humans to get along.

But where is the giant who will get on with the task of amoralizing and immoralizing the anarchist men and women, of making them catalysts of the amoralization and immoralization of the human milieu? For it is only then, O anarchy, that your advent could foreseen.

E. Armand.

L’Insurgé 2 no. 48 (April 3, 1926): 2.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]


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Ricardo Mella, “The Bankruptcy of Beliefs” and “The Rising Anarchism” (1902-03)

[It’s been quiet here for quite a while, while I have been concentrating on writing and research in some new areas. A lot of my attention has been focused on the question of “anarchist synthesis” and my exploration of the debate surrounding it has finally forced me to dive deep into the Spanish-language anarchist periodicals of the early 20th century. Sources like La Revista Blanca and the “Suplementos” of the Argentinian paper La Protesta are remarkably rich in material from a variety of tendencies and nations, and the research has uncovered a number of very interesting discussion on the question of synthesis, including some commentaries from a much earlier period than I expected. These articles by Ricardo Mella are a fine example of the sort of material that has emerged.

The two articles below present a very challenging vision of the development of a revolutionary anarchism. They continue Mella’s arguments for an anarchism “without adjectives,” picking up elements already present in his work in the 1880s, but also connect that notion to the idea of an “anarchist synthesis,” long before Voline presented his account of anarchist development and the need for synthesis that emerges from the very nature of anarchism itself. The translation, from Spanish, is perhaps a little rough around the edges, but I think the ideas are clear enough.]


To my brother J. Prat:

Faith has had its moment; it has also had its noisy bankruptcy. There is nothing left standing at this hour but the lonely ruins of its altars.

Ask the learned people—or those who still wear the intellectual loincloth—and if they wish to answer you conscientiously, they will tell you that faith has died forever: political faith and religious faith, and the scientific faith that has defrauded so many hopes.

When all the past was dead, gazes turned longingly toward the rising sun. Then the sciences had their triumphal hymns. And it came to pass that the multitude was given new idols, and now the eminent representatives of the new beliefs preach right and left the sublime virtues of the dogmatic scientist. The dangerous logorrhea of flattering adjectives, and the never-ending chatter of the sham sages put us on the path to what is rightly proclaimed the bankruptcy of science.

Actually, it is not science that is bankrupt in our day. There is no science; there are sciences. There are no finished things; there are things in perpetual formation. And what does not exist cannot break. If it were still claimed that that which is in constant elaboration, that which constitutes or will constitute the flow of knowledge goes bankrupt in our time, it would only demonstrate that those who said it sought something in the sciences what they cannot give us. It is not the human task of investigating and knowing that fails; what fails, as faith failed in the past, is the sciences.

The ease of creating without examination or mature deliberation, coupled with the general poverty of culture, has resulted in theological faith being succeeded by philosophical faith and later scientific faith. Thus, religious and political fanatics are followed by the believers in a multitude of “isms,” which, if fertilized by the greatest wealth of our understanding, only confirm the atavistic tendencies of the human spirit.

But what is the meaning of the clamoring that arises at every step in the bosom of parties, schools and doctrines? What is this unceasing battle between the catechumens of the same church? It means, simply, that beliefs fail.

The enthusiasm of the neophyte, the healthy and crazy enthusiasm, forges new doctrines and the doctrines forge new beliefs. It desires something better, pursues the ideal, seeks noble and lofty employment of its activities, and barely makes a slight examination, if it finds the note that resonates harmoniously in our understanding and in our heart. It believes. Belief then pulls us along completely, directs and governs our entire existence, and absorbs all our faculties. In no other way could chapels, like churches, small or large, rise powerfully everywhere. Belief has its altars, its worship and its faithful, as faith had.

But there is a fateful, inevitable, hour of dreadful questioning. And this luminous hour is one in which mature reflection asks itself the reason for its beliefs and its ideological loves.

Then the ideal word, which was something like the nebula of a God on whose altar we burned the incense of our enthusiasm, totters. Many things crumble within us. We vacillate as a building whose foundations are weakening. We are upset about party and opinion commitments, just as if our own beliefs were to become unbearable. We believed in man, and we no longer believe. We roundly affirmed the magical virtue of certain ideas, and we do not dare to affirm it. We enjoyed the ardor of an immediate positive regeneration, and we no longer enjoy it. We are afraid of ourselves. What prodigious effort of will is required not to fall into the most appalling emptiness of ideas and feelings!

There goes the crowd, drawn by the verbosity of those who carry nothing inside and by the blindness of those who are full of great and incontestable truths. There goes the multitude, lending with its unconscious action, the appearance life to a corpse whose burial only awaits the strong will of a genius intelligence, who will strip off the blindfold of the new faith.

But the man who thinks, the man who meditates on his opinions and actions in the silent solitude that leads him to the insufficiency of beliefs, sketches the beginning of the great catastrophe, feels the bankruptcy of everything that keeps humanity on a war footing and is aware of the rebuilding of his spirit.

The noisy polemic of parties, the daily battles of selfishness, bitterness, hatred and envy, of vanity and ambition, of the small and great miseries that grip the social body from top to bottom, mean nothing but that beliefs go bankrupt everywhere.

Soon, and perhaps even now, if we delved into the consciences of believers, of all believers, we would find nothing but doubts and questions. All men of good will soon confess their uncertainties. Only the closed-minded belief will be affirmed by those who hope to gain some profit, just as the priests of religions and the augurs of politics continue to sing the praises of the faith that feeds them even after its death.

So, then, is humanity is going to rush into the abyss of ultimate negation, the negation of itself?

Let us not think like the old believers, who cry before the idol that collapses. Humanity will do nothing but break one more link of the chain that imprisons it. The noise matters little. Anyone who does not feel the courage to calmly witness the collapse, will do well to retire. There is always charity for the invalids.

We believed that ideas had the sovereign virtue of regenerating us, and now we find ourselves with ideas that do not carry within themselves elements of purity, justification and truthfulness, and cannot borrow them from any ideal. Under the passing influence of a virgin enthusiasm, we seem renewed, but at last the environment regains its empire. Humanity is not made up of heroes and geniuses, and so even the purest sink, at last, into the filth of all the petty passions. The time when beliefs are broken is also the time when all the fraudsters are known.

Are we in an iron ring? Beyond all the hecatombs life springs anew. If things do not change according to our particular theses, if they do not occur as we expect them to occur, this does not give in to the negation of the reality of realities. Outside of our pretensions as believers, the modification persists, the continuous change is accomplished and everything evolves: means, men and things. How? In what direction? Ah! That is precisely what is left at the mercy of the unconsciousness of the multitudes; that is what, in the end, is decided by an element alien to the work of the understanding and the sciences: force.

After all the propaganda, all the lessons, all the progress, humanity does not have, it does not wish to have any creed but violence. Right? Is this wrong?

And it is force that we accept the things as they are and that, accepting them, our spirit does not weaken. At a critical moment, when everything collapses in us and around us; when we grasp that we are neither better nor worse than others; when we are convinced that the future is not contained in any formulas that are still dear to us, that the species will never conform to the mold of a given form of association, whether it may be called; when we finally assure ourselves that we have done nothing more than forge new chains, gilded with beloved names,—in that decisive moment we must break up all the rubbish of belief, that we cut all the fastenings and we revive personal independence more confidently than ever.

If a vigorous individuality is stirred within us, we will not morally die at the hands of the intellectual vacuum. For man, there is always a categorical affirmation, the “becoming,” the beyond that is constantly reflected and after which it is, however, necessary to run. Let’s run faster when the bankruptcy of beliefs is done.

What does it matter that the goal will eternally move away from us? Men who fight, even in this belief, are those who are needed; not those who find elements of personal enrichment in everything; not those who make of the interests of the party pennant connections for the satisfaction of their ambitions; not those who, positioned to monopolize for their own advantage, monopolize even feelings and ideas.

Even among men of healthier aspirations, selfishness, vanity, foolish petulance, and low ambition take center stage. Even in the parties of more generous ideas there is the leaven of slavery and exploitation. Even in the circle of the noblest ideals, charlatanism and vanity teem; fanaticism, soon intransigence toward the friend, sooner cowardice toward the enemy; fatuity that that rises up swaggering, shielded by the general ignorance. Everywhere, weeds sprout and grow. Let’s not live delusions.

Shall we allow ourselves to be crushed by the grief of all the atavisms that revive, with sonorous names, in us and around us?

Standing firm, firmer than ever, looking beyond any formula whatsoever, will reveal the true fighter, the revolutionary yesterday, today and tomorrow. Without a hero’s daring, it is necessary to pass undaunted through the flames that consume the bulk of time, to take a risk among the creaking timbers, the roofs that sink, the walls that collapse. And when there is nothing left but ashes, rubble, shapeless debris that will have crushed the weeds, nothing will not be left for those who come after but one simple work: to sweep the floor of the lifeless obstacles.

If the collapse of faith has allowed the growth of belief in the fertile field of the human being, and if belief, in turn, falters and bows withered to the earth, we sing the bankruptcy of belief, because it is a new step on the path of individual freedom.

If there are ideas, however advanced, that have bound us in the stocks of doctrinarism, let us smash them. A supreme ideality for the mind, a welcome satisfaction for the spirit disdainful of human pettiness, a powerful force for creative activity, putting thought into the future and the heart into the common welfare, will always remain standing, even after the bankruptcy of all beliefs.

At the moment, even if the mind is frightened, even if all the pigeonholes rebel, in many minds something stirs that is incomprehensible to the dying world: beyond ANARCHY there is also a sun that is born, as in the succession of time there is no sunset without sunrise.


Sequels are never good. But dear friends who, judging the first installment good, decided to publish it as a pamphlet, ask me to expand the material a few more pages, and I cannot and do not wish to refuse.

I wrote “The Bankruptcy of Beliefs” in a painful moment, impressed by the collapse of something that lives in illusion, but not in reality, which sometimes plays with ideas and with affections, to torment us with our own impotence and our avowed errors.

The truth does not give way before ideological conventions, and those of us who profess to worship it, must not, even through feelings of solidarity, much less through party spirit, sacrifice even the smallest portion of what we understand to be above all doctrines.

Whoever has followed the gradual development of revolutionary ideas, and of anarchism above all, will have seen that in the course of time certain principles began to crystallize in minds as infallible conditions of absolute truth. They will have seen how small dogmas have been elaborated and how, through the influence of a strange mysticism, narrow creeds were finally asserted, claiming nothing less than the possession of the whole truth, truth for today and tomorrow, truth for always. And they will have seen how, after our metaphysical drifts, we have been left with words and names, but completely bereft of ideas. To the worship of truth was succeeded by the idolization of sonorous nomenclature, the magic of sensationalism, almost a faith in the fortuitous combination of letters.

It is the evolutionary process of all beliefs. Anarchism, which was born as a critique, is transformed into an affirmation that borders on dogma and sect. Believers, fanatics and followers of men arise. And there are also the theorists who make of ANARCHY an individualistic or socialist, collectivist or communist, atheistic or materialistic creed, of this or that philosophical school. Finally, in the heart of Anarchism, particularisms are born regarding life, art, beauty, the superman or irreducible egoistic personal independence. The ideal synthesis is thus parceled out, and little by little there are as many chapels as propagandists, as many doctrines as writers. The result is inevitable: we fall into all the vulgarities of party spirit, into all the passions of personalism, into all the baseness of ambition and vanity.

How do we uncover the sore without touching the people, without turning the subject into a source of scandal, into the material of new accusations and insults?

For many, Anarchism has become a belief or a faith. Who would deny it? Because this has become so, passionate quarrels, unjustified divisions and dogmatic exclusivisms have been provoked. That is why, when the evolution has been completed, the bankruptcy of beliefs, a reality in fact, must be proclaimed frankly by all who love the truth.

When Anarchism has gained more ground, the crisis must necessarily arise. Iniquity manifests itself everywhere. Books, magazines, newspapers, meetings reflect the effects of the rare contrast produced by the clash of so many opinions that have sneaked into the anarchist camp. In open competition, doctrinal particularisms fall one by one in the battle of beliefs. None are firm, and they cannot be, without denying themselves.

The illusion of a closed, compact, uniform, pure and fixed Anarchism, like the immaculate faith in the absolute, could live within the enthusiasms of the moment, in febrile imaginations, anxious for goodness and justice, but it is exhausted by truth and reason. It dies fatally when the understanding is clarified and analysis breaks down the heart of the ideality. And the supreme moment comes to shatter our beliefs, to break up the ideological clutter acquired from this or that author, in love with one or another social or philosophical thesis. Why hide it? Why continue to fight in the name of pseudo-scientific and semiological puerilities? Truth is not enclosed in an exclusive point of view. It is not guarded in an ark of fragile planks. It is not there at hand or at the reach of the first daring soul who decides to discover it. As the sciences, as everything human is in formation, it will be perpetually in formation. We are and will always be forced to follow after it through successive trials; in that no other way is the flow of knowledge formed and certainty established.

This is how Anarchism will be surpassed. And when I speak of Anarchism and I say that in minds something stirs that is incomprehensible to the dying world, and that we sense beyond the ANARCHY a sun, which is born because in the succession of time there is no sunset without orthography, I speak of Doctrinal Anarchism, which forms schools, raises chapels and builds altars. Yes; beyond this necessary moment of the bankruptcy of beliefs, is the broad anarchist synthesis that gathers from all the particularisms that are maintained, from all philosophical theses, and from all the formidable advances of the common intellectual work, the established and well-checked truths, whose demonstration every struggle is already impossible. This vast synthesis, a complete expression of Anarchism that opens its doors to everything that comes from tomorrow and everything that remains firm and strong from yesterday and is reaffirmed in today’s clash that scrutinizes the unknown,—this synthesis is the complete denial of all belief.

There is no need to shout: Down with the beliefs! They perish by their own hands. Belief, like faith, is an obstacle to knowledge. And in the restless stirring of so many anarchists speaking, beliefs fail. We will not hide it. Let every one of us throw away the old dogmatism of their opinions, the loves of their philosophical predilections, and launching the mind on the broad paths of unrestricted inquiry, reach as far as the conception of a conscious, virile, generous Anarchism, that has no quarrel except with conventionalism and error, and has tolerance for all ideas, but does not accept, even on a provisional basis, anything except what is well proven.

This Anarchism is the one that is quietly forming. It is the one that is elaborated slowly in the beliefs able to feel the pressure of the atavisms that appear everywhere. It is the one that made me write “The Bankruptcy of Beliefs:” a cry of protest against the reality of the anarchist herd; a cry of encouragement for personal independence; a call for the expansion of the ideal that every day lives stronger in me and encourages me to fight for a future that I will not enjoy, but which will be an era of justice, well-being and love for the men of tomorrow. This Anarchism is the rising Anarchism, capable of collecting within its breast all libertarian tendencies, capable of encouraging all noble rebellions and of impressing on generous spirits the impulse of freedom in all directions, without hindrance and without prejudice, with the sole condition that exclusivism does not raise Chinese walls and that the understanding is delivered entirely and unreservedly to the truth that beats vigorously in the most diverse modalities of the new ideal.

It will no longer be said in the name of Anarchism: No further! Absolute justice, revived in the dogma that now dies, will be but the indeterminate goal that changes as human mentality unfolds. And we will not fall into the strange and singular error of setting a limit, however distant, to the progress of ideas and forms of social benefit.

The rising Anarchism proclaims the beyond endless, after having knocked down all the barriers raised by the age-old intellectual absolutism of men.

Don’t you believe that all the particularisms, all the theories, are now failing, that all the factories of rubble, awkwardly raised for the glory of new dogmas, are collapsing? Don’t you believe that the bankruptcy of beliefs is the last link in the human chain that breaks down and offers us the full breadth the anarchist ideal, pure and without blemish?

Faith will have blinded you. And you wound do well to renounce the word freedom; that can be a herd even in the midst of the most radical ideas.

For our part we limit ourselves to record a fact: anarchists of all tendencies resolutely walk towards the affirmation of a great social synthesis that encompasses all the various manifestations of the ideal. The walking is silent; soon will come the noisy break, if there is anyone who insists on remaining bound to the spirit of clique and sect.

Whoever has not emancipated himself will be left behind with the current movement and will seek redemption in vain. He will die a slave.

Ricardo Mella


La bancarrota de las creencias, by Ricardo Mella, «La Revista Blanca», 107, Madrid, December 1, 1902.

El Anarquismo naciente was published as a continuation of La bancarrota de las creencias, in a pamphlet published in Valencia, in 1903, by Ediciones El Corsario.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

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Anarchism: Elements of a Synthesis

In a new series of posts, under the general title Anarchism: Elements of a Synthesis, I’ll be engaging in a sort of back-to-basics exploration of anarchy, anarchism and the practice of being an anarchist. I’ll be going back through a lot of material that has appeared here, in the sometimes unfathomable order dictated by my own research, and reintroducing whatever seems most useful. At the same time, I’ll be fleshing out the outlines of two monographs, Anarchism, Plain and Simple and A Good Word, that I have sketched out. I’ll also be opening one important line of new research, as I’ll be reading, and sometimes translating, sections from the Encyclopédie Anarchiste (Anarchist Encyclopedia) organized by Sébastien Faure and others in the early 20th century. That Encyclopedia, of which only a four-volume dictionary was actually completed, was itself an attempt to gather together insights from the full range of anarchist currents existing at the time, inspired by the notion of an anarchist synthesis, as promoted by Voline and Faure.

It turns out that synthesis was one of the concepts already present in my own work (through Pierre Leroux, Proudhon, Bakunin, Nettlau, etc., in various ways), which I have arguably not made anything like the most of, perhaps because when I had first encountered the works of Voline and Faure, it was in the context of the debate over platformism, a context not calculated to show the idea off in anything like its best light. To the extent that the question is about the organization of federations in Ukraine a century ago, I still am not very excited, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the writings on the anarchist synthesis were really much broader in their concerns. What I found there was a general theory of anarchist development, in the context of which both the separate development of individual schools of thaught and the attempt to combine the lessons of these individual experiments had a role to play.

Consider these remarks from Voline’s Anarchist Encyclopedia entry on “Synthesis:”

In the beginning, when the anarchist idea was still undeveloped and confused, it was natural and useful to analyze it from all sides, to break it down and examine each of its elements in depth, to compare them, to contrast them with one another, etc. That is what has been done. Anarchism was broken down into several elements (or currents.) Thus the whole, too general and vague, was dissected, which helped to deal in depth, to study thoroughly that whole as well as those elements. In that period, then, the dismemberment of the anarchist idea was a positive thing. Various people concerning themselves with the various currents of anarchism, both the details and the whole gained in depth and precision. But afterwards, once that first work was accomplished, after the elements of anarchist thought (communism, individualism, syndicalism) were turned over and over in every way, it was necessary to think of recreate, with these well worked elements, the organic whole from which they came. After a fundamental analysis, it was necessary to return (deliberately) to the beneficial synthesis.

A bizarre fact: we no longer think of that necessity. The people interested in a given element of anarchism end up substituting it for the whole. Naturally, they soon find themselves in disagreement and soon in conflict with those who treat other bits of the entire truth in the same manner. So, instead of reaching the idea of merging the scattered elements (which, taken separately, were no longer good for much of anything) into an organic whole, the anarchists undertook for long years the fruitless task of hatefully opposing their “currents” to one another. Each considered their “current,” their fragment as the only truth and fought bitterly with the partisans of the other currents. Thus commenced, in the libertarian ranks, that milling in place, characterized by blindness and mutual animosity, which continues into the present and which must be considered harmful to the normal development of the anarchist idea.

Now, in this particular essay, the analysis of synthesis is still fairly closely tied to the state of the anarchist movement in the 1920s, where a few fairly well defined factions accounted for most of the anarchists and where, consequently, a specific division of labor could be proposed between them. But in 1924, Voline published another long essay on synthesis in the Revue Anarchiste, and that essay begins with a long discussion of synthesis as the basis of truth and life, before finally turning to the question of anarchism, which he understood as naturally expansive in its concerns.

[I]t is precisely the anarchists who more than anyone must constantly recall the synthesis and the dynamism of life. For it is precisely anarchism as a conception of the world and life that, by its very essence, is profoundly synthetic and deeply imbued with the living, creative and motive principle of life. It is precisely anarchism that is called to begin—and perhaps even to perfect—the social scientific synthesis that the sociologists are always in the process of seeking, without a shadow of success, the lack of which leads, on the one hand, to the pseudo-scientific conceptions of “marxism,” of an “individualism” pushed to the extreme and to various other “isms,” all more narrow, stuffier, and more distant from truth that the last, and, on the other hand, to a number of recipes for conceptions and practical attempts of the most inept and most absurd sort.

The anarchist conception must be synthetic: it must seek to become the great living synthesis of the different elements of life, established by scientific analysis and rendered fruitful by the synthesis of our ideas, our aspirations and the bits of truth that we have succeeded in discovering; it must do it if it wishes to be that precursor of truth, that true and undistorted factor, not bankrupting of human liberation and progress, which the dozens of sullen, narrow and fossilized “isms” obviously cannot become.

This vision of an anarchism “as big as life,” and also as dynamic, is appealing for a variety of reasons. And the synthetic theory helps us to litf the question of “unity” out of the realms of dogmatic squabbling and realpolitik, and explore the possibility that the pros and cons of our organization (or refusal of organization) need to be addressed in the context of larger sorks of development.

I am at least convinced enough by the arguments of the anarchist synthesists to give the approach a serious trial, and to work out the connections between it and the particular sort of “sin adjetivos” approach I have been taking, but I want to frame all of this clearly as a sort of experiment in rethinking the tradition, rather than some attempt to give a definitive account.

Eventually, the collected texts will be featured on the new hub of the Libertarian Labyrinth, where they will also serve as a more accessible entry point. But much of the work will initially be done here, and I’ll probably collect and revise groups of texts before adding them to the self-contained site. That means that things will proceed here very much as “usual,” whatever that is these days, but my hope is also to draw a line between a long period of exploration and dissemination of ideas and a new period of analysis and synthesis of the results.

Anarchism: Elements of a Synthesis will begin in earnest, almost immediately, with a post on “the social problem,” and we’ll see if that old-fashioned notion can provide us with a new starting place for a discussion of anarchism.

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Anarchy and its Uses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anarchy: A Good Word

Every time I begin to think I’ve gone a bit overboard in my research on the language of anarchy, someone on the internet reminds me just how strange things can get in a milieu where anarchism and anarchy may or may not actually have any connection, depending on which self-proclaimed anarchists you ask. Most recently, I have been rather forcefully assured, by more than one interlocutor, that those two notions are completely unrelated and that, if fact, anarchism is opposed to anarchy. That’s just a very strong statement of a sentiment I see around quite a lot, but I was interested to see that it was not a sentiment that raised much in the way of vocal opposition. I doubt that it is anything like a majority position, even among those whose idea of anarchism has been largely shaped by figures like Chomsky, Graeber or Bookchin, but I am beginning to suspect that it no longer appears as an outrageous position. That, by itself, strikes me as sufficient reason to push back a little.

The bright side of all of this, I suppose, is that if it is no longer outrageous to disconnect anarchy and anarchism, then presumably it is not a fool’s errand to take the time to show just how important the notion of anarchy really is (as I plan to do in Anarchism, Plain and Simple) or even to give some detailed account of the emergence of the various terms in the anarchist toolkit, as I’ve been doing in the posts on “Anarchy, in All its Senses.” And if the latter project is perhaps no longer just of interest to serious anarcho-nerds and specialists in intellectual history, it is much more interesting to consider a project that has been in the back of my mind for some time now: expanding the scope of “Anarchy, in All its Senses” and reshaping what I have been thinking of as a scholarly monograph into a more popular sort of account.

An expanded story would allow me to incorporate material like the recent translations from Déjacque on “anarchism,” a response to René Berthier’s “L’usage du mot « anarchie » chez Bakounine” that is taking shape in my notebooks, some analysis too deep to quite fit into Anarchist Beginnings, and a bit of material that has so far been relegated to the very back-burner historiography project, “The Rise and Progress of the Great Atercratic Revolution.”

It might look something like this:

A Good Word
[some subtitle about the emergence of anarchism and its keywords]


Ch. I. “It Means ‘Without a Head'”

For an expanded account, there is no need to start with Proudhon, particularly as one of the questions to be answered is why the keyword anarchy does not occupy a more central place in his work or possess a simpler, more “systematic” meaning. We know that what ties the various parts of our story together was, in fact, not any particular understanding of what anarchy entails in practice, but the fact that it was, in a variety of ways, “a good word” to designate a range of radical oppositions to the status quo, full of untamed potential.

In the interest of first approaching the term anarchy with all its wildness intact and, of course, in the interest of telling good stories, perhaps it would make sense to begin with a lesser-known figure, Eliphalet Kimball, whose home-brewed social theory arguably confronted the dangers and difficulties of anarchy as directly as any of the early adopters of the term. “Anarchy is a good word,” he said in 1862. “It means, ‘without a head.'” And his acephalous anarchy seems like a fine occasion to talk about the direct appeal of an ungovernable anarchy, both as model and metaphor, from the French Revolution-era Acéphocratie to considerably more modern variations on the theme. Kimball’s odd position as a relative unknown, but also as one of the first theorists in the United States to actively embrace anarchy as a keyword, let’s us sidestep, if only for a moment, some familiar distractions and debates grounded in anarchist tradition, while we explore the sense in which anarchy is both an untamed (and perhaps untameable notion) and “a good word.”

A close reading of Kimball’s work also lets us tentatively identify some elements of the anarchism-before-the-name of this early period, which we can compare to the work of better-known anarchist theorists.

Ch. 2. “Anarchy, In All its Senses”

When we turn to the explicit use of anarchy and anarchist as positive terms, obviously Proudhon’s 1840 declaration is a key moment, but in order to grasp all that may be in play in 1840, we probably have to begin by focusing on the instances in The General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century when Proudhon embraced “anarchy, in all of its senses.” That means not just carefully documenting his use of the language of anarchy—along with that of a handful of other key early thinkers (Bellegarrigue, Déjacque, Coeurderoy, Bakunin, Reclus, etc.)—but also documenting the connections to uses of the terms outside the emerging tradition. That means exploring the connections to the French Revolution (and specifically to the Terror), to the work of Charles Fourier, to the literature and critique of emerging capitalism, etc.

I expect to be able to show a fair amount of agreement between the figures examined here and Eliphalet Kimbal, around a rather “wild” conception of anarchy. With that conception sketched out, we can begin to address some of the work that has treated the apparent inconsistencies in the treatment of anarchy as an excuse to downplay the importance of the concept, particularly in figures like Proudhon and Bakunin.

Ch. 3. “A Confusion of Tongues”

Armed with a rather different notion of what anarchy meant to the early anarchists, we can examine the other potential vocabularies for describing similar conceptions of society and progress, with the goal of determining whether our “good word” was indeed good, and how that goodness stacked up against the rhetorical competition. So it may be useful to spend some time with notions like Calvin Blanchard’s Art-Liberty! and look closely at Claude Pelletier’s journey from adjuvantism to atercracy. Both of those approaches very closely resemble the “wild” proto-anarchism of the self-proclaimed anarchists, but were dressed up in different language.

This is also probably the place to examine a range of other vocabularies used by self-proclaimed anarchists, or by the followers of those anarchists, with the goal of establishing the range of possibilities available when “modern anarchism” began to emerge in the 1870s.

The Emergence of Anarchism

There was probably as much discontinuity as continuity between the periods I have been calling the Era of Anarchy and the Era of Anarchism, and the adoption of the language associated with Proudhon by the modern movement naturally involved some plot-twists. This is the most complicated part of the story, since it combines the various attempts to define anarchism, the negotiations with the notion of anarchy, the proposal of alternate terms (acracia, etc.), some very significant resistance to the language of anarchy, all the complexities involved in integrating the work of earlier figures into a tradition that was now specifically and self-consciously anarchist, and all of this negotiated across a wide range of languages, cultures and ideological tendencies.

It should, at the very least, be possible to give a fairly clear sense of the complexities involved and to make some assessment of the strengths of anarchy as a “good word” in the debates. This will also be the place to talk about the emergence of anarchism without adjectives and to introduce some of Max Nettlau’s thought on questions of anarchist organization.

The Synthesis and the Emergence of Anarchist Studies

In Anarchist Beginnings, I’ve consciously focused on a period ending in the early 1920s, which I consider formative, but there is arguably a long aftermath, during which the “modern movement” became increasingly self-conscious and began to address its own complexities and contradictions more seriously. Sébastien Faure would have to be considered a particularly important figure in this era, both because of his role in proposing the anarchist synthesis and because of his role in the production of the Encyclopédie anarchiste (1925-1934). Both projects address both the need to clarify anarchist theory and the existing pluralism within the movement. We might look at Faure as one of the pioneers of what we now call “anarchist studies,” and perhaps as a pioneer with a particularly interesting approach to problems with still grapple with.

There are elements of Faure’s project that I would like to examine alongside the proposals of Max Nettlau, with an eye toward their present application. But I also want to examine the ways in which anarchy and anarchism were transformed in the inter-war period into the subject matter of not just sociology or political theory, but fields of expertise specific to an emerging milieu. That transformation undoubtedly opened possibilities for cooperation, but it just as certainly created a sort of politico-social space with a more or less well-defined “inside,” and in this way created a new set of difficulties (among them the possibility of anarchist practice and the pursuit of anarchy going their separate ways.)

Libertarian Socialism as an Alternative to Anarchism

As an alternative to the possibilities of some modern revival of the anarchist synthesis or anarchism without adjectives, I want, finally, to examine the arguments made by thinkers like Gaston Leval, who came, after years of involvement in the anarchist milieu, to decide that anarchy was not such a good word, after all. In works like “Libertarian Socialist! Why? (1956), “The Permanent Crisis of Anarchism” (1967) and the various publications of the Groupe Socialiste Libertaire, Leval laid out a very interesting critique of the modern anarchist movement. Unlike some of the attempts to purify anarchism by dubious rewritings of its history or commitments, there have certainly been critiques of the focus on anarchy that managed to remain fairly faithful to what seems to be the core of anarchist concerns. I want to look back at some of those, but also forward to the approach of figures like René Berthier, first, in order to explore the ways in which the word anarchy, however good it may be at describing what at least many of us still want, is certainly not the only way that might be good to express our aspirations, and, second, in order to raise the possibility that those who now consider themselves anarchists can perhaps separate, adopting languages more directly related to our key concerns, without necessarily coming into opposition.

Possibilities of Clarification and Synthesis

The result of clarifying our commitment and retailoring our language might be part of a division of the anarchist movement into more useful, coherent tendencies. It might, alternately or perhaps additionally, involve a kind of more-than-anarchist synthesis among more-or-less libertarian tendencies. In the conclusion, I want to revisit some of the conclusions from Anarchism, Plain and Simple, together with some of the practical observations that will have emerged in this history, in order to suggest at least some possibilities for moving forward without tripping each other up at each step, as we seem to do so often now.

Many of the pieces of this project will naturally come together in the course of the next year’s research. Some are already pretty well developed in my notes. I’m thinking of this as primarily a 2018-2019 project, with most of the real writing taking place once Anarchism, Plain and Simple has been pretty well put together. But, for example, I hope to complete my edition of Eliphalet Kimball’s writings later this year, and the first chapter might well at least get drafted at that time. At least having a fairly clear outline means that I can finish odds and ends as other projects dictate or allow.

And if other commitments don’t allow, you still have a provocative outline to consider.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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