I’m going to tackle two concepts together this week—and start to set up the final summary for this portion of the workshop as well. As an experimental space assembled quickly and redecorated on the fly, “Constructing an Anarchism” has served me pretty well. But it was a space designed for more activity, more encounters with other participants, than it has actually seen—and I would be lying if I said it hasn’t felt just a bit cavernous when I give myself time to think about it. So I want to get the last two components of my anarchism on the table and then perhaps move fairly quickly into the summary.
We’re exploring the extent to which “anarchist practice” can be conceptualized in terms of three kinds of encounter. That’s just a particular way of saying that a part of practicing anarchism is accounting for the ways in which anarchy is and is not present in existing relations at any given moment, as well as the differences in that respect that might result from our actions, our associations, our rebellions, resistances, extrications, etc. But that particular way of saying what might be a fairly straightforward, fundamental thing about “being an anarchist” is also the hook by which we drag along much of the rest of the apparatus we have been constructing.
After all, it seems likely that most of our simple descriptions of anarchism are going to seem, well, pretty simple—which is why it has seemed useful to supplement the most basic elements of our construction (anarchy and anarchism) with enough other relatively well defined and articulated concepts that we can be pretty sure we’ve really said something by the time we’re done.
It’s worth taking a moment to reiterate just how modest the goals of this rather protracted exercise really are. We’re scrabbling for a bit of precious clarity with regard to the “beautiful idea”—or “beautiful ideal”—of anarchy—or anarchism—so that our attempts to see that beautiful thing—(those beautiful things?)—manifested in the world around us aren’t hobbled from the start. And one of the assumptions of the project is that part of the project of achieving personal clarity—of “making anarchism our own”—is a protracted, if not endlessly ongoing, and not always comfortable or cordial encounter with at least some of the various anarchies and anarchisms that we have inherited from those who came before us and found those things beautiful.
Using Proudhon’s work as a point of departure, my task in this opening example of “constructing an anarchism” has been as much to demonstrate a range of possible engagements with the anarchist past, prior to our survey of anarchist history, as it has been to argue for my own obviously idiosyncratic, if “classically” influenced understanding of anarchy and anarchism. So, while I really believe in the utility of the toolkit I’ve been constructing, it’s not terribly important to me whether or not you do. What is important to me is that those who want to work through the process themselves get a chance to encounter anarchy, anarchism and a range of other related concepts in forms that can’t simply be taken for granted. It’s a question, not just of restoring some anarchic character to our sometimes too-comfortable relations with anarchy and anarchism, but suggesting that we need to be prepared for that anarchy in our encounter with even the most “classical” sources.
If, having followed along so far, you still hate the old stuff, that’s fine. If, however, you still find it easy to characterize and dismiss, then one of us has almost certainly failed to make the most of the opportunities presented.
We’ve already covered much of the character of the anarchic encounter. (If you would like to look at some discussions of the concept from 2013, when it was at the center of my work, the third issue of the Contr’un zine is linked in the sidebar.) For Proudhon, it was a “system” that had none of the qualities we usually associate with “social systems,” “where there exists neither primacy nor obedience, neither a center of gravity nor of direction, where the only law is that everything submits to Justice, to balance.” If we want to strip out even more of the quasi-political language, then it is simply a recurring tableau or a lens through which to view all of our interactions.
I have been asked why it is useful to propose a sort of ideal model for anarchic relations, since, in some sense, even the most carefully crafted of models runs the risk of limiting the free play of anarchy. This is a real concern and one that we have addressed in various ways. Ultimately, the risk is really part of the process we’re engaged in. The problem with seeking clarity is that we can always get it wrong—which doesn’t seem to be a very compelling argument against the attempt, even when we’re dealing with concepts like anarchy. So we model with the greatest care.
We also try to clarify our basic assumptions. If, for example, we assume that anarchy is something in particular—not just another name for democracy, voluntarity, the Fay ce que tu vouldras of Thélème, etc.—and that anarchists are after more of it, where that is possible, I think we have to allow ourselves to paint the clearest pictures we can of just what that something is, how we can recognize it in the wild and the various ways in which we might increase the amount of it in the world. While we don’t want to lose what is vital about anarchy to systemization, we arguably also don’t want to lose what is practically powerful about it by forcing it to remain some sort of numinous mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
Personally, I’m looking for a fairly simple way to look at each new interaction and fairly quickly begin to judge just how much it offers is specifically anarchistic potential and how much it presents in the way of obstacles to expanding the anarchy in my life. I find that my particular appropriation and adaptation of Proudhon’s “system” works pretty well for me across a variety of kinds of encounters. Having played with the possibilities for eight years now, I have learned to employ it in thinking about interpersonal relations, intellectual explorations, questions of large-scale association and ecological reflection. It’s extreme simplicity is, of course, regularly tested by many of these encounters, but I have found, for example, that understanding “equalized” engagements across significantly different scales is simplified considerably when I treat the individualities involved as unique in Stirner’s sense.
More importantly, when I think about what kinds of norms might be more or less taken for granted among those who have attached themselves to anarchy and anarchism, I find it hard to believe that the kinds of interactions indicated by this notion of an anarchic encounter could be very easily construed as insufficiently anarchist—at least in any sense that concerns me. I can easily imagine contexts in which they might be rejected as impractical, faulted for being insufficiently democratic, but I find it hard to imagine a context in which even those encounters with anarchists of very different sorts—and perhaps especially those encounter—would not be best approached by means of placing some fairly clear idea of anarchy right at the center of my analysis of circumstances and my response.
The same is true, I think, even of those encounters that involve those with little sympathy for anarchistic ideas. I’m not thinking here of conscious authoritarians, entryists and the like, on whom any great deal of consideration is probably wasted, but instead of those who, for reasons of temperament or socialization, are immune to the specific charms of anarchy, but probably ultimately just want to be able to get along in relative freedom. I wish that I thought anarchist ideas were universally palatable, even obviously appealing, given the right sort of introduction, but I don’t believe anything of the sort. What I do believe, however, is that enough of the basic libertarian elements are widespread in our societies, now matter how much and how curiously they are mixed with strikingly authoritarian elements, that it is at least not out of the question to consider whether something like Max Nettlau’s proposals for “mutual toleration” between anarchist and non-anarchist communities might be possible.
Nettlau explored some of the difficulties, drawing some inspiration from Paul Émile de Puydt‘s essay on “Panarchy.” There is little in his work to make us particularly hopeful. But there is an interesting thread that addresses the mixed, heterodox nature of most actual revolutionary movements, which seems important, perhaps particularly because it is a difficult insight to incorporate into existing anarchist thought, at least as I have experienced it. Perhaps this is an idea to be explored in the context of a more serious look at the possibilities of what I’ve been calling “resultant anarchy.”
In any event, we can be fairly certain that we will often be encountering individuals or groups with whom we cannot assume a great deal of common ground, so, alongside the connections with kindred spirits and the struggles with those who couldn’t be anything but enemies, there will undoubtedly be unavoidable relations in the context of which the best we can hope to do is to come to some kind of understanding. In the best of cases, it may be possible to achieve considerable freedom for all concerned, on a “live and let live basis” that will not necessarily come easily to anarchists. In other cases, I expect that we are doomed to run up against the most senseless, maddening sorts of ideological obstacles and constraints, with precious little power to remove them by ourselves.
There is obviously nothing fun about considering these limits that almost certainly face our projects. But there is little that is helpful about avoiding the question. This is one of those areas of anarchist theory where I feel the least prepared to say anything very clear, even if I have a few ideas about what resources the tradition might provide us to achieve greater clarity. My inclination is to say that perhaps acknowledging the eventual necessity of negotiating some kind of entente between anarchist and non-anarchist communities might be about all that we can do at the moment to directly address the problem. But I wonder, at the same time, if there are lessons to be learned from the various short-lived and ultimately doomed attempts at entente among anarchists, which might eventually have broader application.
I’m naturally doing quite a bit of wondering, here in the home stretch, about the way this project has played out in this first phase, about the things that haven’t been said, or haven’t been sufficiently emphasized, which might clarified things along the way. Tonight, for example, I’m not particularly in love with entente as a keyword and am wondering if my efforts might have been better invested in a concept like reciprocity—understood, naturally, according to that rather bizarre formulation of Proudhon’s: “the second law of creation and humanity, the mutual penetration of antagonistic elements, RECIPROCITY.”
There are aspects of the anarchic encounter, relating to Proudhon’s insistence that individuals are already associated, almost certainly in a wide variety of ways, that seem worth exploring, but did not naturally come up in the course of an exploration guided in part by egoist concerns. I can vaguely see the places where those exploration and the existing itinerary might be bridged and can point to portions of the “Rambles in the Fields of Anarchist Individualism” that perhaps start to do the work. But it would take us much farther afield than I think any of us want to go, particularly now, just as we are about to wrap up this particular trek.
The point of wondering at this late date, of noting the roads not taken and the questions left unanswered is simply to recognize in a public way that no single exploration is likely to do all of the work that we would like it to do. That’s been one of my premises, one of the reasons for embracing the particular concept of anarchist synthesis that I’ve woven into this account, and I don’t think there is any reason not to include it among my conclusions as well.
As for the rest of my conclusions, it may take a few days to wrestle them into shape, but if they are amenable to a bit of taming I may not wait until next week to share them.