I had anticipated the need for one last serious theoretical intervention at this point, in order to set up the comparatively programmatic elements in the remaining posts. The emergence of some new details in the “social system” section of Proudhon’s Justice—as discussed in the last post—offers a different and more direct path forward. But let’s start by quickly examining the road we won’t be traveling.
My thought, even just a week ago, was that the discussion of guarantism would focus on what I’ve called resultant anarchy, forms of anarchic social organization that emerge from the counter-balancing of more-or-less archic forms. Proudhon’s “new theory” in Theory of Property and indeed most of the work derived from his study of Poland, including The Federative Principle, explores this roundabout approach to anarchy, which has often been understood—misunderstood, I would argue—as an abandonment of anarchistic goals. But there is something very powerful and promising about the possibility that the emergence and persistence of anarchy is not dependent on the flawless functioning of perfectly designed anarchic systems. And, having introduced enough of the theory of collective force to show that, for Proudhon, the kinds of conflicts from which that kind of anarchy might emerge might also be productive of a richer, fuller, more powerful kind of anarchy, I can think of good reasons to spend time exploring the details involved—all other things being equal.
The possibility of resultant anarchy also seems to suggest a potential theory of the transition from archic to anarchic social relations, allowing us to consider the ways in which existing institutions and norms might be shifted into different arrangements, producing not just those checks and balances we have briefly discussed, but real mutual negation or conflicts productive of increased freedom. The problem for us is that we have reached a point where it would be nice to be able to move more directly toward the goal or articulating an anarchism of the general, potentially shareable sort that I first proposed—and these considerations, useful as they may be in other anarchistic contexts, seem to be of another order.
It was a pleasant surprise to find, in the midst of trying to set up some kind of simple transition back from the intricacies of resultant anarchy to something more fundamental, that perhaps what I was looking for was already present in the description of Proudhon’s “social system”—previously unrecognized, despite my repeated examinations of that material. But it was a surprise, even though I had, in some sense, been looking for just the thing I eventually found. I suspect that part of the issue, the reason for a peculiar sort of blindness, is that even those of us who take real pleasure in digging deep into the historical material seldom get to do so without preconceptions, filters inherited from the tradition. Even when you’re used to reading sources against the grain of common interpretations, you can only so much distance without real effort. So consider that my excuse for the sort of obsessive circling around certain topics and passages that is one obvious and central aspect of my work. It isn’t that kind of task that I would necessarily wish on anyone else, but sometimes it gets places that would be hard to reach by any other route.
What this most recent reading of the passage on the “social system” seems to get us is a way to acknowledge, in passing, the utility of Proudhon’s more contract-centered depictions of anarchic relations—both as a rhetorical advance at the time and as a part of a possible strategy of transition in the future—without wasting any more time getting to the parts of his theory—now identified right at the heart of his most finished mature work—that relate most directly to the problem of giving an anarchistic character to our social relations.
We ended the last post with this summary:
Guarantism, in that sense, would just be the consequence of getting mixed up with other people, with associations, with the world around us, etc. To draw on the egoist elements that we have been incorporating into this construction, we’re talking about safeguarding others because we have not just seen ourselves in them, but have joined our might (puissance) to theirs, made them in some sense « our own » — a sort of equation perhaps not so alien to Proudhon’s thought.
And we had interpreted the familiar passage in roughly these terms:
Two individuals meet, recognize themselves in one another, note the additional benefit that would result for both from their concerted efforts, and as a consequence safeguard equality, which essentially means economy. This is the whole social system: an act of mutual recognition, which results in a collective potential.
I don’t think any of that is unfaithful to the spirit of Proudhon’s work. I’m inclined to think it is indeed a much clearer presentation of his thought than I have managed in the past. But, whether or not that is the case, it seems to me that it is a very promising way to approach the question of how to construct durable anarchistic social relations. What I want to do now is to sketch out a couple of applications, which we can then examine in the remaining posts for this “quarter.”
Someone asked me on social media how we might think about a non-patriarchial family—or whatever basic social unit will come to replace the family—starting from this analysis. Here, we obviously have to depart to some extent from Proudhon’s work, as he never managed to entirely abandon a patriarchal conception of family structure—but perhaps we can salvage some of the key elements even of that work.
Those who are interested in the details of Proudhon’s thoughts on relations between the sexes can read the frustrating, fascinating “Catechism of Marriage,” from Justice, which is linked in the sidebar. But let’s not waste any time stripping away the heteronormative aspects of his theory of the family and simply suggest that Proudhon is perhaps right in seeing something like an “organ of justice,” a basic institution with a function closely tied to the balancing of individuals’ interests, in certain kinds of intimate relations. But let’s also say that there is arguably some of this function that emerges in every association where we mutually unite our interests and capacities in such a way and to such an extent that the question of a resulting collectivity emerges—and that this is perhaps particularly true when we approach these associations through lenses other than that of contract, pact, etc.
The question of lenses and framing rhetoric doesn’t just relate to our way of thinking about association, but also to the ways in which we think about individual being. If we think of ourselves as a “political animal” or as homo economicus, there are obviously not just different consequences in our associations, but different possibilities than there would be if we think of ourselves as an einzige. But perhaps almost all of us can imagine circumstances under which mutual recognition and identification becomes a durable sense or conviction of mutual intimacy—passing over, for now, all of the elements of folie à deux that may or may not be involved. Equation may take the form of recognizing one another as kindred or as complements, both forms of identification that at least evoke a potential collectivity to which we might think of ourselves as belonging—at which point it is more than possible to think of the other as « our own », in some dizzying assortment of ways. But, however we get there, having identified the other as our own and having achieved some form of association with them, we arguably don’t need a particular ideological framework to simply not raise the question of their inequality—however we might think about their differences—and we don’t need a pact or contract to have the sentiment that our own is to be protected and the equation with the other to be safeguarded.
If we wanted an instance where equality and economy are near-synonyms, we could at least, I think, point to our own most basic conception of a mutual, intimate relationship. And the conventional institution that still comes to mind when we talk about intimate relations—particularly in the context of oikonomia, the management of the household—is, for better or worse, the family. I keep waiting for repeated readings of Proudhon’s writings on marriage and the family to deliver some epiphanic moment, some means of clarifying what I suspect were real confusions in his mind about equality and economy in that context. There are passages where he traces the origin of the state-form to the patriarchal family, but none, as far as I can see, where he takes the logical step of applying insights he seems to have already possessed and reevaluating the nature of the conjugal couple, so that his “organ of justice” does not tend to compromise the social bodies that it is instrumental in forming. We can take that step—and more.
However we imagine the most basic sort of union, there seems to be very little to stand between anarchists and a conception of it that is both fundamentally anarchic and more or less compatible with the Proudhonian formula of “an equation and a (potential) collective power. So if we think of that union in terms of family, there is no reason why that family should be conceived as a little polity with a patriarch at its head. And if our union, conceived as family, makes reproduction one of its concerted industries, there seems to be very little reason why that decision should compromise the essentially anarchic character of the union.
There are, I have no doubt, even as I write this, would-be anarchists rearing up to parent-splain the reasons why anarchic freedom cannot possibly be extended to the tiny terrors whom childless wretches like myself so dangerously under- or perhaps overestimate. This has become a fixed and fundamentally inevitable element in every online attempt to assert a consistent anti-authoritarian or anti-hierarchy position. I have again linked “But What About the Children? (A Note on Tutelage)” in the sidebar for those who want a more detailed argument on why it seems impossible to derive authority from mere differences in capacity, even under present circumstances. But here I simply want to focus on the basic anarchic union that we have been positing. Assuming a potentially reproductive union, in which the parents have avoided relations of inequality, realizing that potential is first of all a matter of extending the association, enlarging the union.
Children our « our own » in a particularly straightforward way. What that means to us undoubtedly depends on how we understand property in an equally basic sense. There have been infamous anarchist debates on the question, such as the one in which Benjamin R. Tucker involved himself in the 1890s, asserting that “the unemancipated child is property,” property of the mother, and that, while he might engage in forceful intervention if he should “see a woman throw her baby into the fire as a man throws his newspaper,” the woman would be within her rights and he would be an aggressor. In that case, however, I can’t help thinking that Tucker could have usefully spent a bit more time thinking about just what “property” could or ought to mean in that context.
Tucker certain knew well the rights-based distinction Proudhon made between possession—which involves a right of use—and property—which involves rights of use and abuse. He understood full well that property is, in essence, what you can throw in the fireplace without anyone having a right to object. He would presumably also have understood the nature of the domain or allod that Proudhon made use of in his later works—forms of property based in sovereign rule and free from any sort of duty. And perhaps Tucker was faithful, after his fashion, to Proudhon—who considered domain “unpardonably reprehensible,” even as he planned to put it to work—in affirming the right of the mother to destroy the baby, while asserting that he personally might seek to intervene. But I find it beyond me to equate this kind of property with any sort of anarchistic conception of « my own ».
And it is hard to see how domain would emerge from the scenario we have been exploring. It seems much easier to understand the reproductive enterprise of our intimate collectivity-in-formation as at once a realization of collective potential and an extension—or potential extension—of the association. We know that reproduction is presently freighted with all sorts of complicated significances, from the perpetuation of the parents to that of the species. But all of hopes with which the child is burdened hardly seem like the sort of thing to make us consider it fireplace fuel in the case of a parental whim.
The thorniest question, when we are talking about the parenting relationship, is precisely what the differences between the capacities of the child and that of the adults imply in terms of rights and responsibilities. We tend to distinguish the two in terms of the possession of something like “full adult agency,” with the child falling a bit short of our standards for being human enough to be recognized as an equal. We can certainly say that, collectively, we have built a world in which children are at a distinct disadvantage—and, as a result, have built a very strange mixture of authoritarian hierarchy and ambiguous hospitality into the parenting relation—but we might also say that the complex and mutual interdependence of adults in any very complex modern society raises some serious questions about what “full adult agency” might really consist of, out here in the wild. Our ability to fend for ourselves in a way that feels comparatively independent probably emerges at least in part—and perhaps in large part—from relations that we tend to take for granted.
Any perspective that makes the differences in capacity among adult human beings look less obviously distinct from those between adults and children should, I think, reduce the temptations to introduce property, hierarchy or authority at the most intimate scales of our relations. That should, in turn, simplify the processes by which we might scale up the kinds of relations we find in intimate unions to include larger associations and accomplish more generally desirable tasks. There are undoubtedly real complexities and difficulties that we will face in any attempt to construct larger-scale institutions and ultimately “society” as a means of mutually safeguarding equality—which here really amounts to anarchy. What I don’t see, however, is any necessity for compromising the attempt to achieve that end in its early, intimate stages.
We’re at the stage of sketching out possibilities, some of which will be explored in the last few weeks of construction and some of which will undoubtedly have to remain more or less intriguing questions. For today, I would just like to add two short reflections that might help to frame what I’ve already said.
First, it seems important to acknowledge that, while we can probably imagine the progression, through stages of voluntary association, from some intimate dyad through various stages to global federations for which there seems to be some kind of need, the theory of collective force should prepare us for some complicated reflections on the implications of building even what seems most necessary on a large scale. One the one hand, that theory should make us appreciate the potential freedoms that might emerge from the successful balancing of our multitudinous efforts. On the other, it should make us aware of the means by which the association of fairly small-scale efforts might rather quickly snowball out of control. The sort of social anarchy that this neo-Proudhonian approach ought to lead us to value is probably never very far removed from a state of barely controlled chaos. So issues of responsibility and restraint almost certainly come with any very ambitious attempts to take conscious advantage of the power of collective force.
Second, there are a number of our most pressing shared problems which are quite simply not fully explicable in terms of voluntary association. There are the runaway effects of various concerted efforts in the past, some of which have become established as the dominant institutions of our societies, structuring perhaps even our most intimate relations in ways that must be accounted for if we are to resist them and associate differently. We are often linked to others in ways that we never desired and would abandon if it was in our power, but probably have to account for, again, if we wish things to be different. And, of course, this is true of our relationships to the natural world.
The reference to ecology is perhaps one way to begin to think about relations of mutual protection that are not separate from relations of conflict, up to and including real predation. We have no shortage of examples, drawn from comparatively recent changes in the world around us, that illustrate the power of dynamic balance and the danger of breaking down fundamental sorts of equilibrium.
When we are thinking about anarchism as a real-world attempt to advance toward more anarchistic relations, we arguably need both a fairly clear vision of how we might construct new relations of a fairly strictly anarchistic variety and a set of analytic tools that might help us find the means of extricating ourselves from complex relations of a much different sort.