March 2, 2021

Constructing an Anarchism: Individualism

from Libertarian Labyrinth

We’re in a stage of the construction of this first anarchism where we have to focus on the ideological and practical implications of the theory of collective force and unity-collectivities we have been exploring. I had originally intended to address these questions in a different manner, focusing on the concepts of mutualism and federation, but the concerns remain much the same.
Part of the context for the emergence of Proudhon’s anarchist ideas was a period in which new isms were emerging seemingly everywhere one might look. For those unaware of the proliferation of ideologies in that period, it’s worth tracking down Arthur E. Bestor’s 1848 essay on “The Evolution of the Socialist Vocabulary,” just to get a sense of the real fervor for inventing ideologies — even if, in the end, you might be inclined to say with Proudhon that “all these isms aren’t worth a pair of boots.” This was the context in which Proudhon proposed a “system of mutuality” that would, he said, be “all-powerful” against the range of ideological extremes. Things turned out differently, but perhaps he had good reasons for his confidence at the time.
We have been wrestling with questions regarding individuals and collectives, ordinarily the ideological province of individualism and a range of potential opposites — socialism, communism, collectivism, etc. Part of the immediate background of Proudhon’s work was the work of figures like Pierre Leroux, who is generally credited with having introduced the paired notions of individualism and socialism to French political thought in the early 1830s. His “Individualism and Socialism” is one of the first things we will look at in our historical survey, precisely because of his attempt to introduce those now familiar and frequently embraced isms as undesirable extremes that would have to be balanced. When we compare the conditions under which anarchist ideas emerged in the 1840s and those under which anarchism emerged roughly forty years later, one of the most obvious contrasts is the extent to which the tendencies that Proudhon seemed intent on denying separately, and balancing, had become the core concerns of competing anarchist ideologies.
I confess that I am fairly old school in my rejection of both simple individualism—in all of its more atomistic forms—and all of the forms of “social” thought that, when push comes to shove, don’t seem to amount to much but some kind of anti-individualism. But I’ve also come to believe that there just aren’t that many really atomistic theories of the individual—at least of any seriousness—and I think that the work so far in “Constructing Anarchisms” and “Rambles in the Fields of Anarchist Individualism” backs me up.
There are, I think, still very good reasons to be concerned about the means of identifying individualities, whether it is a question of human individuals or relatively distinct social bodies, and to think clearly about their individual physiology, as well as their means of relating to one another. Part of that process clearly responds to concerns and ways of thinking about the world that we tend to associate with the various “social” ideologies, but those ideologies seem rather short on the tools necessary for delimiting and distinguishing. Most of the dogged opposition to communism as a solution to specific social problems is arguably based in somewhat underdeveloped conceptions of social relations and there is an important lesson to be learned about how our identification and examination of individualities is never complete until we have examined their larger contexts. But most communist and socialist analyses are unfortunately threadbare when it comes to tools for analyzing the communes or the society on which they focus, just as the presumably more radical forms of democracy seem to give us an even fuzzier picture of the demos involved.
My approach is explicitly synthetic—with synthesis here being a means of recovering an early anarchist perspective that would have denied any one-sided emphasis—but I often find that I have to draw my tools primarily from the individualist side of the familiar divide. As the selection from E. Armand and the pages of l’en dehors should demonstrate, there are also some real literary pleasures associated with exploring the individualist currents.
The ultimate goal, of course, is not in an way to deny the social, but to address association in consistently anarchistic terms. In the context of Proudhon’s sociology and the unity-collectivities that we have been discussing, we know that it is not just “two men” or “two families, two cities, two provinces” that might “contract on the same footing.” Proudhon’s treatment of the State as “a kind of citizen,” with interests of its own and some kind of standing in social negotiations, still encounters the other citizens “on the same footing.”
We’re moving toward a theory of anarchic encounter, taking quite seriously Proudhon’s assertion that, in the anarchic “social system,” “there are always only these two things, an equation and a collective power.” The first step in that process is to recognize the variety of individualities that might encounter one another, recognizing their variations in scale without building any hierarchies among them, and recognizing that only some of them will be what Proudhon called “free absolutes,” capable of conscious reflection.

We’ll pick up that thread next weekend, in the first of a series of posts really breaking new ground for me, as I try to suggest how Proudhon’s rudimentary “social system” might scale up from the simple interpersonal scale, while at the same time sketching some of the ways that non-governmental federation might meet the needs of anarchic societies.
The suggested readings for this week are quite short. Those with the time to take a look at Pierre Leroux’s “Individualism and Socialism” should find it interesting. The section from Charles Fourier’s The Theory of the Four Movements, describing the “pear-growers’ series,” is another dip back into so-called “utopian socialist” theory, explaining part of the dynamics of harmony, the era and condition in which human interactions all revolve around the satisfaction of our various passions. It will provide some context for next week’s discussion of guarantism, another notion that originated with Fourier.

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