From The Libertarian Labyrinth by Shawn P. Wilbur
Rambles in the Fields of Anarchist Individualism
No. 5. — Give and Take: The First Society
I would, I think, be happy enough to call the human individual the first in a series of societies, if, in the process, I was able to avoid positing it as the first in a series of polities. — Rambles…, No. 1
Walks with Zarathustra
For days now, it has seemed more and more likely that it is field clover that will inherit the earth. On some parts of the hill the tall bunchgrass has drooped as it dried, allowing a layer of short, thick, green grass and a variety of flowering plants—mostly invasive, but still pretty—to peek through. But there have also been large, steadily expanding areas where the taller grasses seem to have melted away, as the vegetation often does with the first frosts, giving way to mats of yellow hop clover. The only contenders for showy dominance have been the tall, mustard-bloomed clusters of asters, which first appeared out in the center of the fields, sometimes growing tall enough to show against the horizon—at least from the lower portions of the hill. Clumps of asters three, four and even five feet tall.
More than once in the past week I’ve taken a newly acquired copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra out to keep me company on the walk. I had ordered one of the newer editions, but ended up with a copy of Hollingdale’s translation, which I at least haven’t read recently. The last time I studied Nietzsche at all seriously, I was teaching Beyond Good and Evil to a pack of young, mostly bright, but almost uniformly resistant analytic philosophers. And every day my lesson was “I am not the mouth for these ears.” Working through “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” on a series of walks, with little at stake beyond refreshing my memory, so I can catch Nietzschean allusions, has been remarkably pleasant in comparison, even if it lacks the pleasures of flirting with one’s downfall.
Nietzsche’s voice remains one of those that bores and annoys me as often as it enlightens me or makes me smile, but at this point the boredom and annoyance are familiar enough that the moments of real pleasure are not substantially dulled by them. Our reunion has been, as so many reunions tend to be, a bit of a trial to be endured. But I have been struck, now and again, by passages that I imagine might have had complex resonances for anarchist individualists invested in the thought of Stirner. Consider, for example, this line from the third section of the “Prologue:”
In truth, man is a polluted river. One must be a sea to receive a polluted river without becoming defiled.
I will admit that I find it hard, in the context of the present investigations, not to capitalize Man—and then run with the distinction between Man and (unique) One. Reading Nietzsche with a head full of Stirner, I wonder what use a unique, solitary One could have for Man. And I wonder what someone like E. Armand would have made of a self-separation imagined in terms of contempt for the self. But clear answers to those questions about the specific dynamics of Nietzschean self-overcoming almost certainly call for a close encounter with the will to power—and that is, at the very least, a work for another day.
But, hey, I like a river-sea metaphor at least as much as the next guy. And in today’s work—the work of giving a bit more precision to the notion of the gift economy of property—there may be some opportunities to turn that metaphor to other uses.
Three (Other) Kinds of Self-Separation
Aside from reading Zarathustra, I’ve been working to distinguish the various kinds of self-separation that seem to be in play in the various forms of property theory I’ve been examining. Again, property here is just the side of selfhood or individuality that we see when we consider the self in its relations to the world and to other selves. And it is generally, given the uses to which we conventionally put property, the self when separated from those other elements—an exclusive individual property.
I’ve already gestured at two different kinds of property, based in two different kinds of self-separation. As a shorthand, let’s (cautiously) refer to them as individualist and mutualist.
While both aim to establish some shareable norm or convention related to exclusive individual property, the first approach begins by taking the individuality of the individual as the fundamental “social” reality—and then either affirms or denies the necessity of restraining one’s self for the needs of others and of “society” (or
society, as the notion tends to appear here in some contested sense, sous rature) as a whole. This is the form that seems to give rise most directly to notions like self-ownership, self-government, etc. It is also the basis for a certain kind of (vulgar) egoism, which treats everything outside the self as “in the way,” perhaps even fictive, and always flirts with the dogma of “might makes right.”
The second approach begins with an affirmation of the always already social nature of the individual self—and then proposes a strategic denial of it, the adoption of the polity– or property-form, as a first step toward establishing explicit, voluntary association. In the simplest form of mutual extrication—or in Proudhon’s “New Theory”—selves that might otherwise make contested claims regarding their full person (to say nothing of full product) draw back from one another, ceding what we might otherwise think of as parts of themselves, in order to facilitate this other order of explicit sociality.
In both cases, it is a question of establishing a kind of shared ethic or discipline. The anarchist individualists gather themselves together to better understand their separateness. The mutualists draw apart in order to more consciously address how they might come together in justice and relative peace. And it would be hard, I think, to overestimate the importance of that kind of thing for anarchists. After all, if we are ever to achieve a social world without legal or governmental order, we are arguably going to be that much more dependent on a few anarchic or anarchistic insights about our selves and the world. But neither of these approaches seem adequate to the kind of life I imagine living in conditions of anarchy. One of the things that appeals to me about the Proudhonian emphasis on collective force is that seems well adapted to analyzing all the complex interactions within the self, between selves and between the self and its environment, without, in the process, losing sight of the self as a locus of agency, creative energy and a certain kind of responsibility. What continues to disappoint me about the Proudhonian “New Theory” is that it seems to involve a retreat from the full implications of that emphasis.
The question then becomes whether there is an obvious alternative, an understanding of the relationship between selves and the world that provides a general guide for guiding our behavior, but without introducing any sort of rule or any pretense of its enforceability. And, given the material we have already covered, we might ask, I suppose, whether there is a third sort of self-separation from which we might begin—perhaps the sort that leads us to think of the self as “vast, containing multitudes.”
We’re headed for Walt Whitman territory. More specifically, we’re headed for another encounter with what I’ve half-jokingly called “The Walt Whitman Theory of Political Economy” and a long-overdue elaboration of the gift economy of property. It’s time to go beyond a “giving” that is ultimately just a giving-way—a retreat—and try to establish a notion of anarchistic property that does not depend on self-limitation, but itself on self-expansion, full self-enjoyment, the gifting of the products of self-creation and a giving-space to the similar productions of others.
All of that—and it is admittedly a lot—begins with a somewhat more literal embrace of that “vast, containing multitudes” understanding of the self. It begins when we decide that it is not enough to think of our productions as diverse or inconsistent and that there is some advantage to think of our self-creation as a kind of co-creation, the self as already a society—a potentially anarchic society—and the first instances of social negotiation and mutual utilization as internal to what we may still be inclined to think of as the individual.
I suspect many readers will not be prepared to go that distance at a leap. But perhaps it will seem a little less extreme a project if we take it in stages.
The Elegance of (Proviso) Lockean Property
Anarchism has traditionally treated property as a problem, starting from Proudhon’s analysis of it as “theft” and “impossible.” And there is very little about the property theories we encounter in economic debates to encourage any revision of that attitude. One interesting exception is arguably Locke’s “labor-mixing” account, which is often invoked, but seldom adhered to by capitalists, who tend to find the various “provisos” that are its real strength at odds with their ambitions. I have, in the past, spent quite a bit of time talking about the strengths of Locke’s approach, which, with the provisos intact, seems to me more or less unanswerable—but perhaps also, under modern conditions, impracticable.
In “Property, Individuality and Collective Force,” for example, I described the strengths of the approach:
I think that Locke’s basic model, which begins with the “fact” of property in one’s person (in the sense that it encourages us to base any system of property rights in what is, in the most strictly descriptive sense, “proper” to the individual), notes the ever-changing boundaries of the “person” (presenting human activity as “labor-mixing”) and then tries to imagine the conditions under which that most basic sort of appropriation ought to be a matter of moral or legal indifference to others (with the provisos, and the standard of the “good draught” of consumption that leaves a “whole river” of resources, rendering this sort of appropriation unobjectionable because it is essentially non-rivalrous) is sound. This is not a blanket endorsement of Locke, who, it seems to me, has to leave the most elegant parts of his argument behind in order to make sense of actual property conventions and make “homesteading” productive of alienable property appropriate to market relations. It is the weak, but almost certainly useful, observation that exclusive individual appropriation is no big deal if it is literally the case that nobody is worse off because of it, which is decidedly not the approach we see from modern propertarians.
In the context of this discussion, perhaps it makes sense to take a step back and simply say that what Locke presents are some guidelines for living that, if followed generally, might simply result in social conditions under which the question of property would simply not arise. Thinking of appropriation in terms of human-scaled “good draughts,” which always leave “a whole river”—or at least “enough, and as good”—for others, is perhaps not impossible, given some attention to the natural renewability of basic resources—provided that the appropriation remains really individual.
The fact that very little nominally “individual” appropriation in our societies is really human-scale, thanks to the pervasive effects of association and technology, raises some very serious questions about how useful Locke could be to us, but, for the moment, let’s just focus on the possibility of similar sorts of guidelines, which, if followed individually, might largely “solve” the problem of property by preventing it from arising.
We’re after an alternative to thinking of the world and other selves as fundamentally “in our way.” It is this problem of encountering and consuming the world (and others) that property theory attempts to solve, whether it is a matter of elaborating complex systems of property law or making a Stirnerian end-run around the problem. The Lockean example gives us an elegant model, based fundamentally in self-restraint with regard to consumption, that is at least suggestive. And the connections to the proposal for mutual extrication shouldn’t be too hard to see.
The fundamental problem with the Lockean model seems to be that it assumes a kind of pre-modern individual, very different it its capacities from the individuals that we are. And perhaps the next question is simply to ask if perhaps the very notion of an individual has lost a good deal of its utility in the modern world.
You oceans that have been calm within me! how I feel you, fathomless, stirring, preparing unprecedented waves and storms. — Walt Whitman, “Starting from Paumanok”
Collective Force and the Impossibility of (Exclusive) Property
In “Property, Individuality and Collective Force,” my summary of Locke was part of an assessment of the limits of what was then the recently proposed notion of mutual extrication. (The full essay is linked in the sidebar and, while I will quote significant portions of it here, it might still reward a full reading.) The immediate context was land-use questions raised by the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a context in which ecological science and a certain kind of naive American individualism were revealed, for anyone who still had doubts, as existing within widely separate worlds.
In addressing anarchist circles, where perhaps the Bundy brand of concern about “government overreach” played a little better than it should have, it seemed useful to suggest just how far from the real world all the cowboy posturing really seemed to be:
It seems obvious that, at the level of individual appropriation, unamplified by high levels of technology, the possibility of an appropriation that would not (in some genteral, a priori sense) be theft is largely dependent on the renewability of resources. That observation is important, because it suggests that the question of just appropriation is not just a legal or moral question. It is in some sense, and perhaps in a really fundamental sense, also an ecological question. If our rights have some pretense to universal or natural status, then they are going fluctuate as nature fluctuates. There are probably things in our societies that everyone could appropriate without threatening the continued supply, and perhaps even non-renewable resources of this sort (assuming we define “resource” broadly), but some of the traditional components of “the commons” (clean air and water, for example) may no longer be among them. We’ve amplified our individual impacts through technological advances and large-scale social organization. If there was ever a reason to doubt the reality of collective force as a factor in our societies, it’s hard to miss seeing it almost everywhere now. As a result, we may have lost our connection to that simple, elegant homesteading model, not because anything has change about the legal principles or ethical imperatives connected to exclusive, individual property rights, but simply because we are not ourselves exclusive and individual in the same ways as our ancestors. We were probably never, as Whitman put it, “contained between hat and boots,” but the mixing and sprawling of persons is arguably both real and ongoing.
That is admittedly a rather oblique response to that particular crisis, but nothing about it should come as a surprise to readers of these Rambles or the work on Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back. For better or worse, my sense is that many of the crises, large or small, that we encounter suggest, on any kind of close inspection, that our whole critical and interpretive toolkit needs something of an overhaul. In 2016, having recently reopened the discussion of the gift economy of property with the remarks on mutual extrication, it seemed like a moment to ask whether perhaps the whole project was, despite its radical departures from most anarchist thought on property, still not radical enough.
Let’s linger for a moment and consider the implications of this twist on the notion that property is impossible. For Proudhon, the “impossibility” of property arose primarily from the droit d’aubaine (“right of increase”) attached to capitalist property rights. That did not necessarily preclude some kind of return to strong, exclusive, individual property rights, provided those rights could be constrained either by principles like those found in Locke’s provisos or in a strong egalitarian ethic, such as we find in the “personal property” speculations of even communistic anarchists. After all, between the early works advocating “possession” and the “New Theory” of the 1860s, Proudhon explored both possibilities to at least some degree. But if it is indeed the case that our “individual” interventions and appropriations are no longer in balance with the regenerative capacities of our natural environment, then there are arguably some very interesting, and certainly troubling consequences. First, it raises the possibility that exclusive, individual property rights—even in a radically reimagined form like my “gift economy of property”—may be impossible. But it also raises the possibility that it is not just property rights that are threatened by our current social and technological organization. It may be that property, even in the descriptive sense, is no longer sufficiently individual to support the kind of discussion regarding property that we are accustomed to. That notion may be a bit difficult to come to terms with, but let’s at least attempt to give it a try, particularly as a situation in which we could meaningfully say that individuality is impossible would create problems for our presumably non-propertarian options nearly as great as those confronting any new theory of property rights.
At the time, I did not insist too strongly on the “impossibility” of individuality. Even raising the question was really a kind of complex provocation, inspired by Proudhon’s “mathematical” demonstration that capitalist property simply didn’t add up. That demonstration, of which he was very proud, didn’t prevent him from going on to propose his “New Theory” and attempting to redeem “theft” through various kinds of careful ponderation. And I was ready, with the help of one of my two most-used Walt Whitman phrases, to stave off the problem by suggesting that the problem with most conceptions of individuality was that we tended, despite the contrary indications of various radical pioneers, to treat individuals as exclusive of one another.
Whitman was not the only radical voice we have noted for whom the “contained between hat and boots” model of individuality was not adequate. Pierre Leroux, William Batchelder Greene, Proudhon, Stirner and Bakunin, among others, argued in various ways for the recognition of other people as an essential part of what is proper to the growth and continued being of human individuals. And our various explorations of the work of collective force have suggested that what is proper to individuals as individuals does not exhaust their property (in the general, descriptive sense), since it is still necessary to account for what is proper to individuals as parts of various social collectivities.
We certainly shouldn’t be surprised that what is proper to human beings involves involvement, entangling and combination. After all, the reigning metaphor for appropriation is mixing. But if we are surprised that all that mixing involves more than just consumption by relatively isolated and autonomous human beings, then we should probably explore our surprise carefully.
All of this led to a reaffirmation and elaboration of the program of gradual mutual release quoted in No. 4. And I think that there remains some useful food for thought in that material. But, even at that time, I should probably have recognized that I was applying only one of the two phrases from Whitman that generally served me as reminders of the problems with so many conceptions of the individual. And, of course, coming to terms with the implications of a self truly “vast, containing multitudes” would almost inevitably present new ways to think about individuality and its “impossibility.”
So let’s get right to work on this new problem, by examining a passage from “Self-Government and the Citizen-State,” already cited in No. 3:
The work on Justice also presented an important evolution in Proudhon’s discussion of reason, the sole source of legislation in his anarchist vision. Collective reason emerged alongside collective force as a manifestation of collective being, and in the study on “Ideas” Proudhon described the special role that it had to play in safeguarding individual reason against the corrupting influence of the absolute. To simplify what is both a wide-ranging and occasionally puzzling discussion, we might simply observe, in this context, that as the force exerted by individuals in industry finds expression both in industrial organizations and in more strictly individual forms, the individual reason which is supposed to inform our self-government is expressed, if we may put it this way, by individuals as individuals, by collectives as individuals, and by individuals as parts of collectives. The anarchic self-government of a given society will have to be grounded in the balancing of those manifestations of reason, and the overlaps between individual and collective give us some clues to the mechanisms likely to be involved.
And let’s also pick up the thread, dropped at the end of that installment, regarding Proudhon’s conception of the human individual as a free absolute.
There are a number of elements in Proudhon’s theory that need to be brought together if we are to understand his characterization of the human individual as a free absolute.
First, we have to remind ourselves that, as we noted in No. 1, Proudhon considered individuality and collectivity as two aspects of a single dynamic. “All that reason knows and affirms is that each being, like every idea, is a group.” In this, he was showing a specific influence from Charles Fourier, but we find similar ideas widely dispersed, as in this passage from The Positive Outcome of Philosophy, by the “other” father of dialectical materialism, Joseph Dietzgen:
In the universe, every group is an individual and every individual is a group. The uniformity of nature is not greater than its variety. Both of them are infinite.
So, as we noted at the beginning, our attempts to discover the individual seem destined to have their twists and turns:
Contr’un. Counter-one. A single unit or unity that keeps pointing us towards quantities more or less than simply singular.
With Stirner, we mark the scope of a self in terms of the reach of ” its » might, but we do not assume that this might, this force, is in any way simple. Instead, with Fourier and Proudhon, we identify it as complex, composite—always already a collective force—and we recognize the connections of energy with conflict.
The key here is that we are dealing with living individuals—and life entails complexity, mutability, etc. Proudhon suggested that we could identify individuals in terms of their internal “laws”—patterns of development that characterize their evolution in the long term. So, for example, we find him in The Philosophy of Progress affirming that he is “the man whose thought always advances, whose program will never be finished,” but also suggesting that his specific affirmations and denials could be predicted over the course of a thousand years, if we were to grasp the fundamental tendencies of his thought.
Of course, this quality of life and development, with its exclusion of the simply singular, is shared by all of the individual-collective actors in Proudhon’s world, whether it is a question of human beings, social groups or even natural assemblages that we might not ordinarily think of as living. And the question of individuality, like that of collectivity, is primarily useful as an analytic distinction. The unfolding, developing world unfolds and develops without regard for these questions, indifferent to so many of the relations that we try to read into the natural world. We can probably, say, for example, that the question of “natural hierarchies” is almost entirely a projection of own concerns onto a world with which, as we have seen, our relations are quite complicated.
We might say that there is a sort of anarchy manifested in this conception of the world, but it is an anarchy of indistinction, which lacks the key element in all of the anarchies that anarchists have pursued. The missing bit, of course, is the human, free absolute, which is distinguished from all of the other “lawfully” developing individual-collectives by its capacity for reflection and self-conscious behavior. The anarchy of the anarchists, whatever else it might be in individual hands, is a web of relations in which the element of human self-consciousness is added, but without, in the process, elevating any of the elements in relations of hierarchy or authority over the others. And perhaps we can acknowledge that we are simply talking about a choice between interpretive frameworks, as neither hierarchy nor horizontality seem to be given in the nature of things. Both seem to be artifacts of self-consciousness.
The utility of thinking of all these relations as existing intermingled, side by side, with all of that “involvement, entangling and combination,” is precisely the thing we are seeking to demonstrate, so, for now, let’s simply acknowledge it as indeed an option.
Following these indications in Proudhon’s work, we find ourselves in a world stuff full of individualities that are also collectivities, where the development of those individual-collective elements not only manifest a particular kind of life, but even—and particularly in the assemblages we would most easily recognize as social—a particular kind of reason. But, among all of these beings, self-consciousness emerges only in the rarest of circumstances. Reason (which we should undoubtedly not define too narrowly, given the novel contexts) is presented as the force that opposes absolutism—”the sole source of legislation in his anarchist vision”—emanating from a variety of beings on a range of scales, but perhaps really only a useful tool in the hands of the human free absolute.
Let’s say, modifying the statement quoted earlier, that the various sorts of reason that might inform our self-creation emerge from a variety of sources, are in some sense expressed by beings at a variety of scales, but that it is only through the human free absolute that they can be taken up and put to use in a conscious manner. That then might raise the question of whether “humanity” is, in fact, “the brains of the world”—a familiar enough notion, with enough similarities to the archic theories of social hierarchy to give anarchists pause. There just doesn’t seem to be any reason to go there, particularly as there are other, much less familiar questions that we might ask ourselves.
If, for example, we think of what is conscious in our selves as the free part of a variety of otherwise latent intelligences, then we are in a strange, new world. We are already prepared to find ” our own » well beyond the bounds of the individual human body, even if we will perhaps necessarily grant that particular body a certain privileged status in our analysis, thanks to its special role in the immediate maintenance of life. But what we seem to find is that the conscious self is at least capable of playing an integral role in the expression and direction of multiple bodies, some of which possess considerably greater might than the one we must often think of as ” our own », in its unamplified state.
We are potentially very distant from the approaches to individual property proposed so far, which involve self-constraint or a retreat of the self to a state in which selves might be considered exclusive of one another. But we are also some distance from an account of selves as singular, but overlapping. Instead, we have the conscious elements of a self acting as a shared element or organ in a variety of beings—and this is perhaps one of the best reasons to treat these beings, despite their differences in might and scale, as fundamentally existing on a single plane, without hierarchical relations.
The third variety of self-separation, then, might take the form of accounting for the various beings that intersect in the conscious expressions of the free absolute, as part of an ongoing, “internal” process of self-creation and recreation.
And perhaps it’s time to pause for breath. We’ve taken one more big step down the path—and perhaps, under the circumstances, you can forgive me the invocation of “unprecedented waves and storms” that preceded it. I think we have at least some indications of how the notion of an individual self of the “vast, containing multitudes” variety might pose more significant challenges than just, for example, being “of more than one mind” on particular issues.
But I think, having proposed the participation of the individual in a potential multitude of bodies, we may find that the familiar tools of individualism are not a great deal of help to us—and that the more radical analyses we have examined along the way only get us so far. To make our next advance, we really need the aid of Walt Whitman, who sang a self for which the problems of multiplicity and changing scale were arguably routine.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Varieties of Might
Rambling alone in the fields, my individual might is negligible. Without some preparation, fairly minor fluctuations in the weather pose some real threats. And for me, a modern civilisée, preparation almost inevitably means tapping into social reserves of collective force, organized through massive systems of association.
Under these circumstances, the world that can be meaningfully, exclusively ” my world » is necessarily quite small and bounded on all sides by another world endowed with much greater might—at least if ” my might » is construed as a power to bend the world to my narrowly individual purposes. But we already have plenty of reasons to think that contest and conquest are far from the only ways that we exhibit might.
Armand’s solitaire, for example, may be “in, but not of” a certain social world, but separation from that world and reconnection to the natural world seem to go hand in hand. And if the characteristically human power of reflection is hindered by that first world, which “gets in the way,” it is not just that a connection with the natural world facilitates the exercise of that particular capacity, but that it does so by facilitating a separation of the self from itself. We might, in fact, be inclined to think about self-conscious reflection as depending on internal self-separation, with the separating wedge being some element of the world.
The question that Whitman raises is just how much of the world we can make ” our own ». How much extension can the individual self withstand?
I picked up a copy of the most recent Norton Critical Edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It’s a massive collection and just about every page testifies to his continued attempts to embrace what the world presented to him. And I’ve been trying to pay special attention, as I’ve rambled a bit through those pages, to what Whitman helps us imagine or allows us to believe about the self and the world. It seems to me that, first, he crafts a complex vision of a world that is not in the way and then, in a gesture which seems equal parts giving and taking, he presents that world to his readers as if it is their own.
That second element may be the more challenging of the two. Certainly, there is a kind of relentlessly acquisitive side to Whitman that might seem like the height of arrogance and selfishness in many other writers. When Whitman takes on the world, he does not take it from us or claim it for us, but instead claims to possess it with us in a kind of joint assumption. And that claim involves a remarkable assertion of intimacy, even if it takes the form of a kind of giving: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” If, in the end, we are willing to forgive the familiarity, it is almost certainly in large part because of the real joy with which Whitman infuses this whole exercise in self-creation.
I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious,
Each moment and whatever happens thrills me with joy…
We’re talking about strategies for self-creation, and specifically about various ways of conceptualizing the relationship between the self and the world, but also about the different kinds of might that we would expect to see displayed by various sorts of selves. And perhaps that language is a bit alien to some who might have followed the rambling this far, while the uses I am making of it might seem peculiar to others. If I have chosen to emphasize it more than, say, talk about potentially shareable “ethics” or “disciplines,” it is in part because I want to continue to underline the differences between what I am proposing and the various sort of self-government and self-ownership already discussed. In any event, I’m not sure that more familiar formulations—the “homesteading principle,” NAP, etc.—aren’t pretty well described by a phrase like “strategies for self-creation.” While we tend to treat them as the most basic sorts of legal or governmental principles, they often function, as I have already suggested, as guides for individuals wishing to avoid entanglement in legal and governmental order.
All of these approaches are individualist in the specific sense that they recognize the human individual as the primary locus of conscious agency. Individualisms differ in the manner and the degree to which they recognize that the human individual is always also social—and those differences can be extreme—but they are united by a focus on solving, or avoiding, social problems through more strictly individual action. Obviously, as we recognize more and more complex interconnections between individuals, the effectiveness of individualist strategies—of, for example, principled self-creation as a replacement for social negotiation—depends increasingly on the quality of the analysis of the dynamics we have been examining.
But what goes into a high-quality analysis of that relationship? If we are to draw on sources already in play, I would suggest something like Proudhon’s sociology of collective force. And if it is a Proudhonian strategy of self-creation that we are elaborating, then it will almost certainly involve a ponderation of our various interests, a kind of internal conflict management that certainly will not preclude the intensification of conflicts in the interest of increasing the collective force at our disposal.
The First Society
Through various twists and turns, I have been working steadily toward this notion of the human individual as “the first in a series of societies,” drawing inspiration from a variety of sources.
In Whitman, we have a self “not contained between hat and boots,” but also “vast, containing multitudes,” overlapping with the world (and other selves) and dividing within itself in just about every way imaginable. What we don’t have is any sense that all of this in any way diminishes the self or its status as “Myself.”
In Proudhon, we have beings-as-groups, whose internal vitality is as much a function of division and balanced conflict as it is any sort of uniformity or homogeneity. But we also have a strong thread of developing individuality, so that the present self and the self a thousand years hence are presumably bound together by threads that would be visible if we can attain the proper vantage points.
In our reading of a more-or-less Stirnerian solitaire, we have suggested a similar dynamic. As ” our world » comes to include more and more of the world, our self-creation and self-enjoyment seems less and less attributable to some persistent, self-same “ego”—and, indeed, the encouragements to think in those terms steadily diminish.
And so on…. with E. Armand, it seems to me, somewhere just ahead of us in this exploration, drawing, as he did, from so many of the same sources.
I don’t think that there is anything particularly radical in the claim that we are indeed often “of more than one mind” on important matters or that we often find that our interests are not uniform. This is undoubtedly one of the fundamental facts that the strategies of self-creation we have rejected attempt to address, either by sifting through potential selves and competing interests to establish which are “real” (“authentic,” etc.) or by isolating the individual from its various contexts and environments, as a kind of social atom.
There is, however, probably something at least against-the-grain about starting to address sociality as a quality internal to the individual self (however familiar similar moves may be to the deleuzians in the room, etc.) In any event, novelty is, by itself, of fairly limited interest. What does interest me is the possibility of opening lines of communication between various discourses that are often treated in anarchist circles as not just distinct, but opposed. I don’t imagine that the gulf between committed partisans of communist and individualist anarchisms has been much diminished in the dozen years since I first proposed a “gift economy of property,” but it does seem to me that there is an audience with at least some interest in the project of anarchist synthesis I have been pursuing, for whom an elaboration of that intuition may at least afford some pleasure.
So let’s return to that notion, by reviewing its first appearance.
The Gift Economy of Property
My 2008 essay began with an affirmation of shared anarchist goals in the economic realm:
I think most anarchists and libertarians share a faith that it is possible for needs to be met, goods to be distributed and some level of general prosperity achieved, in a way that is voluntary and at least approximately just. But we couldn’t differ more, it seems, when we start to ask how to get the work done. Probably most of us aim, in the long run, for a society where there is sufficient prosperity that we could be much less concerned about such things, where generosity would be a logical response to plenty.
The context was a familiar one:
I’ve been presenting some of Proudhon’s ideas about individuality and free will, as well as reviewing his work on property. I have begun to suggest some of the ways in which the early critique of property as a despotic, absolutist principle, became the basis for Proudhon’s later reluctant propertarianism, which he based on his analysis of the human self, the moi, which he found was itself naturally absolutist, and despotic when given a chance…. Having had done with the divine Absolute, he could only depend on human ethical actors themselves to accomplish the march towards justice, the justification of their institutions, the perfection of their concepts, etc. But it was obvious to him that they would never do it alone.
And while the language of self-as-society is still to come, much of the present analysis was already at least in progress:
If the self is not innately depraved, neither is it simple, centered, clean and “proper.” Any body or being, Proudhon says, possesses a quantity of collective force, derived from the organization of its component parts. Though these component parts may be subject to rigid determination, the resultant force exceeds the power of the parts and, to the extent that the collective force is great and the organization that it rises from is complex, it escapes any particular constituent destiny. The collective force is the “quantity of liberty” possessed by the being. Freedom is thus a product of necessity, and expresses itself, at the next level, as a new sort of necessity. And perhaps at most levels of Proudhon’s analysis (and we can move up and down the scale of “beings” from the simplest levels of organization up to complex societal groupings and perhaps to organization on even larger scales) the quantity of liberty introduced wouldn’t look much like the “individual freedom” that we value. But the human “free absolute,” distinguished by the ability to say “moi” and to reflect on her position in this scheme, has her absolutism tempered by encounters with her fellows, also “free absolutes,” also pursuing a line drawn by the play of liberty and necessity. Out of their encounters, out of mutual recognition, the “pact of liberty” arises (or fails to arise, where lack or recognition or misrecognition take place), and a “collective reason,” possessed (in social organs and institutions, in “common sense,” etc) by a higher-order being, which is to say a higher-order (but latent, rather than free, because it lacks that ability to say “moi”) absolute.
In the system that emerges around these notions, individual human beings hold a very special place, as the chief architects and artisans of justice. Again, like Fourier, Proudhon makes a point of not stigmatizing the impulses of individuals, and, far more than Fourier, he actually makes a virtue of individual egoism and absolutism, as long as we are not so self-absorbed that we can’t recognize our fellow egoists and absolutists as such. Even the “higher wisdom” that is possessed by the higher-order collective beings, like “society” and “the state” (which, in his later works, takes on a very different meaning than anarchists generally give it), is really in large part in the hands of human individuals.
Necessity gives rise to liberty, which tends to a kind of necessity. “Individualism”, even “complete insolidarity,” tends (as we have seen elsewhere in Proudhon’s work) to centralization, to the dangerous “socialism” that Leroux warned against in 1834, but also, if equilibrium can be maintained, to an expanded space of social freedom (“the liberty of the social being”) for the individual. It’s all a little dizzying; and in the middle of it, star of the show, sits the individual self, the moi, which, while off the hook for original sin, still has to deal with something we might think of as “original impropriety.”
There then follows a certain amount of rambling about anarchist attitudes towards “property” and “gifts,” including some very rudimentary critiques of capitalistic “self-ownership” and communistic zero-price economies. The essay then ends with the statement of an intuition:
My intuition, based in part on some language various places in Proudhon’s work and in part on the connections I’ve been making to other continental thought, is that a “gift economy,” in the sense of a system in which something, which can be rightfully given, is given, with no specific expectations of return, could only arise in fairly limited circumstances, and perhaps can only have one application within Proudhon’s thought—but that one application may be a bit of a doozy. We know that there is, for Proudhon, some opening for society to emerge as a “pact of liberty” leading towards approximations of equality and finally of justice. We know that freedom rises from the interplay of necessity and liberty, and that property too has its internal contradictions. Proudhon’s moi has very little that it can rightfully give, if even his own “property” is theft. But it can, perhaps, give property to the other, through recognition, which steals nothing, robs no one, and is perfectly gratuitous, even if—and this is the character of the gift economy—it cannot be sure of reciprocation. To the extent, however, that commerce is based in equal recognition, if not necessarily any other sort of equality, then this particular gift economy might be strangely (given all we have said, and some of the names we have invoked) foundational.
“The Gift Economy of Property” is perhaps still the best-known of my writings, thanks to its inclusion in Markets Not Capitalism—where I expect it may seem like a bit of an anomaly. It remains one of my favorites, if only because even the most basic articulation of the titular notion has had lasting and what seem to me positive effects in “neo-Proudhonian” circles. However, my original understanding was that the essay would appear with its sequel, “What Could Justify Property,” which at least begins to flesh out the idea proposed, and I suspect that, in circles where the other work is not known, it has been difficult for the original to appears as anything but a curiosity. It seems appropriate to reunite the two short writings here.
Rereading these works, the dozen intervening years seem long and many of the preoccupations of the earlier period just a bit alien. I’ve learned—with a little help from the Chomskyarchists—to do without the notion of justification. And talk about Humanity certainly makes more sense in a context where the the regular references included William Batchelder Greene and Pierre Leroux than it does in something like the present context. But I don’t think it is so difficult to translate a passage like this into the language of this particular investigation:
What could justify property for Proudhon? One answer is simple: Progress, which Proudhon describes as “the justification of Humanity by itself.” Which makes the next answer easy: Humanity, that is, us, learning, through experimental trial and error, to balance our interests in institutions embodying (hopefully) steadily higher and richer “approximations” of Justice.
My main reservation would be that I now take much greater care to avoid appearing to invoke abstract identities (“Man,” etc.) or default polities (“society,” etc.), which dealing with appeals to real, large-scale collectivities. But Leroux’s rather idiosyncratic reflections on humanity certainly contain some elements worth noting in the present context, Consider, for example:
The life of man then, and of every man, by the will of his Creator, is dependent upon an incessant communication with his fellow beings, and with the universe. That which we call his life, does not belong to him entirely, and does not reside in him alone; it is at once within him and out of him; it resides partially, and jointly, so to speak, in his fellows and the surrounding world. From a certain point of view therefore it may be said, that his fellow beings and the world also belong to him. For, as his life resides in them, that portion of it which he controls, and which he calls Me, has, virtually, a right to that other portion, which he cannot so sovereignly dispose of, and which he calls Not Me.
“What Could Justify Property” is linked in the sidebar and will probably reward a complete reading by those specifically interested in Proudhon’s later ideas on property. But this is a hill that I’ve been circling for a dozen years now and, having already explained what I take to be the shortcoming of my early attempts to turn the basic intuition into something more (and with this post already flirting with the 8000-word mark), perhaps it’s time to wrap things up—even if that just means sharing a new intuition.
Some Thoughts on the Journey Thus Far
For the last few days, as this installment of the Rambles… has moved gradually toward its conclusion, I have been living with the madness of the project, which always threatens to ramble too much or not enough. I try, as best I can, not to think too about what it looks like from the outside, writing as much as possible for myself and for the sake of the material that I have picked up along the way. That doesn’t prevent me from feeling, now and then, that I have perhaps bitten off more than I can easily chew.
That usually calls for more and longer walks—more of the world inserted between the thoughts that would otherwise distract me with their push-and-shove. And, with a little luck, I eventually find myself—perhaps on some other, more conventionally suburban hill, looking down over the athletic fields at one of the local schools—drawing calm from a sunset and an evening breeze.
Ramble, n. — A walk or wander without definite route or other aim than recreation or pleasure.
To set oneself a-rambling is to set some guards against things getting too serious, but also to leave your options open. And there is certainly nothing about the practice of rambling that rules out the possibility of getting rather far from home, or even a bit lost, and having to press a bit to set things right and make it home.
The thing I haven’t known about this particular variety of rambling was just how closely I would have to watch my tendency to just keep going—and what it would look like when I was pushing the pace it little to make it home in daylight. And I wasn’t going to know until I had worked my way through one of these longer cycles and done a bit of synthesis of the work. That’s much less of a mystery now—and I expect that every five or six installments of the series will, from now on, constitute some kind of more or less unified arc.
This opening arc has accomplished a couple of necessary tasks, even if their necessity only because clear in the course of the journey—or real in its specific context. I have at least begun to stake out a position from which to continue, another point to which I will no doubt regularly return, if only to see how the passing seasons have changed it. And I have assembled a first group of traveling companions, who might benefit from being more formally introduced.
Let’s be clear. While I have tried to be relatively faithful in my treatment of the various thinkers I have enlisted in this first round of explorations, I have also be necessarily and quite consciously partial in presenting them.
Max Stirner remains perhaps most opaque to me. My clearest insights into the heart of his project have almost certainly come indirectly, through a heady mix of leisure, fine, strong ale and egoist camarades. And my appropriation of his thought in this arc— ” my Stirner » — has been a quite conscious attempt to present a particular interpretation of the einzige as a foil for Whitman’s much-sung self. That “only one” is at once a figure of extreme acquisitiveness and one that, in victory, loses much of its aggressive character. It presents an extreme sort of self-separation, but one that, as I have suggested, perhaps leads to a rather remarkable intimacy, even if it is framed in different terms.
The Proudhon I have focused on in this arc has been the partially or temporarily lapsed anarchist of the not-quite-final years. But in using Proudhon as a cautionary figure, I have tried to be faithful to a particular stage of his developing thought and to draw useful and ultimately Proudhonian conclusions from what I might, in other contexts, be tempted to treat as a period of unfortunate deviation from more strictly anarchist concerns. This Proudhon serves as an example of a self-separation according to what are ultimately governmental guidelines—but he also provides us with the sociological tools that we can expect to employ moving forward, when it is a question of exploring the complex internal dynamics of the self.
Armand—primarily a young Armand in this arc, in the early stages of his own journey—has served as a kind of precursor or advance scout, struggling to untangle himself from some potentially authoritarian ways of relating to the world and manifesting a sort of scattershot assortment of egoistic and individualistic tendencies. He raises the question of self-separation—and then answers it in a number of different ways. We may spend a bit more time with this comparatively young Armand in the next arc.
This particular cast of characters has then allowed me to present a Walt Whitman considerably more useful to the causes of individualism, anarchism and even egoism than he was in life. He is here in this arc first as the representative of a self that tends both to spill itself into the world around it and to multiply internally. But he is also the expansive solitaire who recognizes and lifts up his fellows, as well as an ocean (in something like Zarathustra’s sense) with precious little fear of any pollution. A proud manifestation of internal self-separation, he gives us a glimpse of non-reductive, non-destructive, self-integration and complex self-enjoyment.
Around and around and around. There is a lot that still might and probably ought to be said about all of the issues that have been raised so far, but perhaps we have finally come far enough—established sufficient common language and common ground—to venture a slightly premature revision of the strategy of self-creation I have called the “gift economy of property.”
Elements of a New Intuition
If we were to assemble the first draft of a program from the observations of the first five Rambles…, the result might look something like this:
- The human capacity par excellence is reflection.
- Reflections allows and perhaps necessitates the transformation of the world into something we might call, with the appropriate references, ” our world ».
- If it is up to us, as a part of our ongoing self-creation, to craft a world of our own, we should probably built one that doesn’t cramp us.
- That means first discovering and claiming that which is already ” our own » — for better or worse, we might add, as we can expect to build with some combination of the things we truly desire and those we simply cannot escape.
- Then, having learned just how much of the world is already ” our own » — how much is, in an important sense, already a part of us — we need to learn to live with these selves of ours — we need to learn how to stop fighting with our food.
- Is seems only natural, in fact, that we would prefer to enrich, uplift and enlarge ” our own ».
- But that will obviously mean learning to open spaces within the sphere of the self, reshaping our activities to make the most of changing “internal” dynamics, managing “internal” conflict, etc.
- And the more of this work that we do proactively, egoistically, as a matter of individual self-creation, the fewer opportunities will arise for legal and governmental order to once again rear its ugly head.
Other arrangements would, of course, be possible, given the rambling nature of the work, but it seems to me that this provides us with the outlines of a next intuition regarding property, the nature of the individual and its relation to the world. And if we were to condense it down even more, perhaps we might simply appropriate a bit of that Nietzsche quote from the beginnings of this go-round:
One must be a sea…
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The moon shines through the window above my computer screen, nearly full and strikingly bright, even through the half-closed blinds. It’s been a long day, stretched a bit now into the next, so that this extra-long installment can be posted and I can put myself to bed. Tomorrow promises to be warm and clear, a fine day to start again on a new arc. But right now I am honestly too tired to even begin to imagine where it might lead.