Sunday, January 20, 2013

Proudhon's Theory of the State

I've posted some notes on Proudhon's theory of "the state" at the Two-Gun Mutualism blog [Part 1Part 2Part 3]. Like his analysis of "property," his treatment of "the state" and "the governmental principle" developed in ways that might look like he engaged in a fairly complete reversal. But as was the case with "property," the changes are mostly terminological—and I'm arguing that they were probably a very good thing, from the perspective of the overall development of Proudhon's social theory, however much our present sensibilities might be offended by the vocabulary of the argument.

Whether or not you find the mature formulation compelling, I think this is an excellent opportunity for those puzzled by the development of Proudhon's thought from the familiar slogans like "property is theft" to the more mature social theory to examine some of the details of that development.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Anarchism's Ungovernability, and What it Means to Be a Mutualist

Some time back I posted an unexpectedly controversial post on "The Ungovernability of Anarchism." My goal was to start to talk about how the things that we are in the process of learning about the early phases of the anarchist movement, together with the struggles we are currently having to determine the limits of the tradition, raise interesting and potentially troubling questions about the ways in which we can lay claim to the various aspects of "anarchism." I fully intended to "raise the bar," but what I said was taken, by a variety of folks with an interest in some sort of "governing," in pretty much the opposite sense. Although I have not returned to the subject directly on the blog, I've hardly left it in my own thinking about anarchist organizing, mutualist school-building, etc.

Let me run through the argument once more: 

The word "Anarchism" marks a variety of things, among them an elusive and contested Ideal, a historical Tradition, and a present Movement. 
  • As an Ideal, Anarchism runs on ahead of us as we chase it, constantly revealing greater freedom and unchallenged forms of authority, provided we pay close attention. The Ideal is ungovernable, and that is a good thing. We can't get too smug, and those who would settle for "liberty on the low bid," and attempt to reduce Anarchism to their level, just make it clear that they're not paying attention at all.
  • As a Tradition, Anarchism has always been more diverse than most of us can easily be comfortable with, as an attentive reading of the most uncontroversial histories of the movement quickly demonstrates. This is a fact that we should probably learn to live with. Sure, it's a little hard to know what to do with the earliest explicit expressions of anarchism, with their wild fantasies (Humanispheres, Cossack invasions, etc.) and their occasional glaring errors (antisemitic and anti-feminist elements, for example), but in attempting to cleanse the tradition of stuff that makes us uneasy, we've neglected some elements that arguably ought to please, or at least amuse us (the fact that Proudhon's feminist adversaries were also mutualist activists, Humanispheres, Cossack invasions, etc.) We can acknowledge that Bellegarrigue, who produced Anarchy: A Journal of Order, was some sort of market anarchist, and it won't be the end of the world. Our denials look too much like opportunistic history to reflect very well on us. We don't have to go there again, and Bellegarrigue probably isn't going to make a modern capitalist any happier than a modern communist. None of us claim the whole Tradition anyway.
  • As a Movement, in the realm of practical struggles and in our ideological struggles about how we will relate to the Ideal going forward, let's try to at least be practical. Internal struggle is part of our Tradition, and is probably dictated by our relentless Ideal. We constantly face new questions, and new threats, among them elements that would just love to govern Anarchism to some narrower end. When we identify with the Movement, we presumably take on a relation to the Ideal and the Tradition (even if the latter may be somewhat antagonistic), and we necessarily enter into some kind of relation of basic solidarity with others who similarly identify. We don't all have to play nice. We don't have to welcome anything that appears in opposition to the Ideal, even if it has some validation from the Tradition, but we should probably have more sense than to squander or wreck what we have inherited and presumably share. Some kinds of sectarian squabbling will arguably drive the project of Anarchism forward. Others obviously don't. Some kinds of toleration on the fringes enrich that project. Others clearly imperil it. So we need to take responsibility for the actions we take on this very field of conflict. We can't hope to govern or rule the movement, without putting ourselves in conflict with our own Tradition and Ideal, but that's not a reason to be indifferent. Quite the contrary.
These concerns have come up again recently in some discussions about defining Mutualism. Because Mutualism is, in essence, in the process of being reintroduced after a period of a relative dormancy, Mutualists find themselves in the midst of a complicated process, where we are simultaneously recovering a Tradition (which was itself in search of its Ideal), distilling our Ideal from that Tradition, and trying to build some sort of Movement. That's a lot to be tackling all at once, and it's complicated by the fact that the differences within the Tradition of Mutualism has been arguably a bit more complicated than those facing the broader anarchist movement, so that what we have in practice are several new Mutualisms, which have different understandings of the Ideal, different identifications within the Tradition, and different relations to other parts of the Anarchist Movement. So people, both inside and outside the circle of self-proclaimed "Mutualists," can find the situation pretty frustrating. Me, too... 

So, under these circumstances, what does it mean to "be a Mutualist"? Let me propose some potential criteria, based on my observations about Anarchism more generally:
  1. Our Ideal is Reciprocity of the highest order. References to the Golden Rule are a good place to start, but let's be clear: There's no treating others as we would be treated that falls much short of treating others as the unique individuals that they are. And there is nothing easy about that sort of standard. We will fail, as often as not. Hopefully, we will also learn, pick ourselves up, and do better the next time. We will try our best to approach our ideal in all sorts of practical circumstances, knowing that, as Proudhon put it, we progress "by approximations." We will build with the understanding that someday soon we'll probably be building again, better, on firmer foundations. At least we're unlikely to be bored...
  2. Our Tradition is a rich source of examples of how to apply, and how not to apply, our Ideal. And there's lots of that Tradition still to be unearthed. To "be a Mutualist" is not just to adhere some abstract ideal, but also to identify with the Tradition, diverse as it is, and to make the best possible use of what has been bequeathed to us by the individuals who struggled before us. It's a Tradition which has been appropriated and used by other traditions, often in ways which obscure or misrepresent it, and it is not always the sort of tradition that will inspire comfort for those associating with it, particularly in an era dominated by more-or-less fundamentalist politics. But it is a rich tradition, full of unexplored and unexploited resources. Those who attempt to claim the name, but obscure that wealth, should not necessarily expect to be welcomed.
  3. After all, our Movement is, in many important ways, still to come. Because of the multiple labors facing Mutualists at the moment, and because sometimes these labors feel more than a bit Herculean, it would be nice if they did not also feel Sisyphean. One of the most difficult aspect of the reluctant school-building I've taken on with regard to Mutualism has been the balancing act between making clarifying the Tradition, suggesting a somewhat different relation to the Ideal, and maintaining a sort of general solidarity with those who approach those things differently. It probably isn't obvious to many of the folks embracing the Mutualist label at this point what combination of brute force and restraint has been deployed to keep open a rhetorical space in which "Mutualism" could mean not just something fairly specific, but several fairly specific somethings, but these things don't just happen. All of these elements—including Ideals, Traditions, definitions, rhetorical gestures, gestures of inclusion or exclusion—amount to a kind of shared means of production for continuing to produce Mutualism, and if there is going to continue to be such a thing we need to practice a bit of careful stewardship with regard to our available resources. Sometimes that means nothing more than being careful when we speak for "The Movement," when we say "we" instead of "I," or "is" instead of "could be."
More—or perhaps just more explicitly—than other Anarchist schools, Mutualism is probably always going to be a little bit stuck between an Ideal that constantly outruns us and a series of practical Approximations about which we can never be too smug. While our critics think of Mutualism as the milquetoast version of Anarchism, I would challenge would-be Mutualists to think of it as a particularly demanding, high-risk approach, a very anarchistic Anarchism, refusing the archies of the community and of the market. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Individualities and Collectivities - Rights and Strengths

[This is, in some ways, a fairly advanced bit of mutualist theory, but I don't think there's any point in delaying the introduction of Proudhon's complex view of "rights." Originally posted at Two-Gun Mutualism and the Golden Rule, April 25, 2010]

In War and Peace, Proudhon defined "rights" in this way:
RIGHT, in general, is the recognition of human dignity in all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives. There are thus as many special rights as humans can raise different claims, owing to the diversity of their faculties and of their exercise. As a consequence, the genealogy of human rights will follow that of the human faculties and their manifestations.

The right of force is the simplest of all and the most basic: it is the homage rendered to man for his strength. Like every other right, it exists only under the condition of reciprocity. Just as the recognition of the superior force in no way implies the negation of the inferior, the right which belongs to the first does not destroy that of the second. If the earth is attracted by the sun, the sun is in its turn attracted by the earth and the other planets: by virtue of this double attraction, the center of the whirl is not at the center of the sun, but at a distance proportional to the power of reciprocal attraction of the sun and the planets.
This is obviously not any of the conventional theories of rights, and, ultimately, the question of "human rights" is just one aspect—though obviously a critically important one for us—of a larger question of the rights of individualities.

If that phrase—"the rights of individualities"—sounds like nonsense to you, then you face a dilemma: You can either make sense of it, on Proudhon's terms, or go find other reading material. Attempting to shoehorn one set of definitions into a system built on an entirely different set is a common enough practice, but not a particularly useful one.

For Proudhon, recall, JUSTICE meant BALANCE, and the various forms of justice formed a SERIES, starting with balances of physical strength and cunning—force and fraud, ultimately. The emergence of cunning as a balance to physical strength initiated not just a change in the criterion of justice, but an increase of complexity, a multiplication of criteria. In the bad old days, when the "equals" or 'heroes" hardly extended between the strongmen and the con-men (according to Proudhon's account), we already see the possibility of a multiplication of recognizable strengths. Division of labor—a two-edged sword, like most of Proudhon's concepts, but not the pure negative of some anti-capitalist theory—opened the possibility for the recognition of additional strengths, and thus the striking of more complex balances. Most importantly, it opened the possibility for a more complete participation by more individuals, or individualities,—all of them (all of us) "differently abled" (as they say)—in the general balancing associated with justice.

Justice was a balance—or a level—and Right (droit) was not much more than a straightedge, a means of plotting the straight or right line of individual development—whether of faculties, or human individuals, or collective individualities. For Proudhon, after all, every individual was a group, and every group with sufficient unity of action to be worthy of the name could be identified by its organizing LAW or principle. So that a concern for Right was a concern with "the recognition of human dignity in all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives"—but in a thoroughly mutualist fashion, so that the recognition could not be limited to a single scale. To say that "the state has its rights," or to focus on the level of faculties or attributes, is obviously to use a different sort of language and argument than is generally used in the debates on "human rights." As close as Proudhon gets to identifying something like "natural rights," he remains essentially descriptive in his treatment, and, of course, multiplies those potential rights—"...dignity in all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives"—in a manner that escapes easy normative judgments.

Indeed, the normative component of Proudhon's system doesn't extend far beyond the Golden Rule—the principle of RECIPROCITY—and the commitment to progress and the process of perfection-by-experiment or approximation. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (sometimes in the negative form, "don't do to others what you wouldn't want done to you")—and then do better, and better, and.... I've argued that the positive form of the injunction imposes the sort of uncertainty that forces the conscientious mutualist to "aim high," which amount to paying close attention to those "dignities" that we might miss if we're too wrapped up in our own present perceptions of what constitutes (our) dignity.

This careful regard isn't—or isn't justother-directed. The Proudhonian individual subject is a player on a variety of scales-of-being. It marks a particular intersection of the lawful unfolding of multiple individualities on these multiple scales. (We could say the individual is a product/producer of a polycentric system of natural laws—if the apparent familiarity of the language didn't pose its own problems...) If we were to take up the question of "property" in the same, mostly descriptive manner that Proudhon applied to justice, law, and rights, we're probably going to come up with a similarly complex, polycentric system, on multiple scales, where individual property may not be "private" or exclusive—or where "private property" emerges as a result of a general gift-economy. Again, Leroux's notion of "property rights in the other" or Whitman's "every atom of me as good belongs to you" are useful signposts in this realm.

[For those current readers who weren't in on the discussions of Leroux in 2008, here's a key passage: "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 appertain entirely to him, 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. In a certain point of view therefore it may be said, that his fellow beings and the world appertain also 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."]

The obvious problem of a primarily descriptive system—particularly one where "justice" describes nothing more than balance, "right" means something like "orderly expression," "property" simply describes the present extent of a given individuality, etc., is that it doesn't give us much guidance. Even the law of reciprocity seems one possible response cobbled together in a situation where no response is either imposed or adequate to the circumstances.

There's no dodging the difficulties. It seems clear that Proudhon sees ethics as something we have to build for ourselves. And a large part of his writings is an attempt to show, through social science, why taking reciprocity as a model is a smart choice. He portrays much of his argument as a historical account. It may or may not be good history, but it's a pretty good illustration of how a mutualist ethics might develop by experiment.

Proudhon starts with a world of ABSOLUTES. Individualities, including human individuals, develop in accordance with their laws, encountering one another as others, antagonistic and incommensurable. Every subject is a hammer, and every object a nail, and everything is both subject and object to every other thing willy-nilly—and, ultimately, the apparent conflict is the manifestation of an absolute law at another level, so all is merely the flux of being—except for FREEDOM. Proudhon distinguishes between "free absolutes" and all others, with the distinction being that the former are self-aware, can say "I," and can, therefore, also be other-aware. The free absolute is lifted out of the general flux into general warfare, by the ability to distinguish self and other. At the point where free absolutes recognize one another as other-selves, as other free absolutes, or fellows in some sense, then ethics becomes possible—and some form of ethics become necessary. Self-knowledge comes in large part from the encounter with the other-like-me, who is presumably another manifestation of the same general law. The problem of the differences among things that are "the same" is the opening to self-knowledge, and self-knowledge begins with the sense that perhaps everything is not fore-ordained for an individual like ourselves. As we explore our individual differences and our collective connections and similarities, we can hardly help but alter both our selves and our relationships. Physical laws still apply at their level, naturally, but their absolute grip on us loosens as we become more adept at seeing difference and possibility, and begin to manipulate them—or our position with regard to them. Much of the Economic Contradictions is an attempt to lay out a logical series by which the unknowns and apparently contradictions present at ever stage of human social development open the door to transformations of human relations. The account has a lot in common with the more deterministic sorts of "universal history," but the emphasis on "contradiction"—on antinomies—is what makes it a specifically libertarian account. For Proudhon, freedom was a quantity inherent in a given individuality, based on the complexity of its organization and the number of its connections to other individualities. Liberty was a manifestation of everything in a given organization that delayed, baffled, or resisted simple determination. If, as he claimed, "the genealogy of human rights will follow that of the human faculties and their manifestations," and, as I have been claiming for some time, the general trend is towards more and more complex "manifestations" and more and more complex recognitions (as the pool of recognized rights-bearers, or potential rights-bearers, grows), we would see, on various social scales, an increase in liberty, and, on the human scale, both an increase in liberty and a potentially alarming increase in the complexity of ethical questions—with no easy way of uncoupling the two phenomena. And this would be as true for the thoroughgoing egoist as for the altruist (though this is an issue I won't attempt to do justice in an already too-long post today...)

Friday, August 3, 2012

“We are in one sense, a poverty-stricken people"

If you look at the sidebar of the blog, you will find that I have added a section for "Mutualist Classics." Eventually, there should be a pretty good little library linked there—mutualists are not, as it turns out, an impoverished people when it comes to literature—but I want to start with a few texts that may be unfamiliar to many readers, but which strike me as particularly useful.

The first two texts I've linked are short works of fiction by Sidney H. Morse. Morse is one of the figures who seems to appear everywhere in the story of mutualist and individualist anarchism in the United States, without having drawn much attention. He was a poet, a scultor, a writer of fiction and literary criticism, a friend of Walt Whitman, and something of a mover and shaker in American transcendentalist and free-religionist circles. He was also a friend of Josiah Warren, one of his executors, and arguably his most persuasive disciple. Like a number of his contempories, Morse contributed to Benjamin R. Tucker's magazines until he ended up on the wrong side of a conflict with Tucker. But until that parting of the ways, he was a regular contributor to The Radical Review and Liberty, and his novelette "Liberty and Wealth" was serialized in the latter in 1884.

"Liberty and Wealth" is in the form of a utopian fiction, set in what appears to be an alternate version of the Owenite community of "New Harmony," where the guiding theoretical light turned out to have been a barely disguised Josiah Warren ("Joseph Warden") imbued with the real Warren's philosophy of "individual sovereignty" and "cost the limit of price," but with Morse's own rather laid-back style. I often point those interested in the practical application of Warren's philosophy to Morse's narrative (and to "Ethics of Homestead Strike," which covers complementary ground) because one of the most difficult aspects of applying individualist philosophies is often the extreme individuality of their authors. When you have witnessed two committed individualists applying the same philosophy, it is arguably many, many times easier to apply it yourself. Principles emerge from amongst the personal peculiarities in application.

But there is another reason that I like to point people to "Liberty and Wealth." Mutualists are often taken to task for, on the one hand, not being clearly opposed to a number of practices and institutions that most social anarchists have written off as necessarily oppressive, and, on the other, for not embracing any of the sets of natural rights, natural laws, non-aggression principles, a priori property norms, or other sorts of "anarchist common law" that have a lot of currency among "market anarchists," and various near- or would-be anarchists more or less on "the right." Folks on various sides look at our emphasis on "reciprocity" and things like a robust Golden Rule—and are frequently quite free with their disappointment in our lack and hard lines and firm rules....

Now, I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the feelings of disappointment, and I'm entirely sympathetic to the serious concerns about practical realities that tend to drive them. The chore that mutualists have set themselves, of building robust institutions from just a principle or two, plus a lot of experimentation, certainly has its potential pitfalls. But there's no escaping that all forms of mutualism—whether we're talking about faithful extrapolation from Proudhonian principles or a more free-form "free-market anti-capitalism"—have tended to emphasize progressive self-organization in the midst of flexible conventions. We'll have to return more than once to the specific consequences of mutualism being a principle-driven movement, with a sense of norms and institutions as necessarily imperfect and evolving "approximations," but, as a start, perhaps we can't do much better than to take part of the fictional journey through Morse's New Harmony, and let him show us at least one way in which an approach like that might manifest itself.

---------------


NEW HARMONY: LIGHT.

“The old man paused for a moment A smile of satisfaction played across his face as he glanced in the direction of the city.
“‘You will pardon me,’ he resumed, ‘if for a moment I indulge a feeling of pride. Never can I recur to the dawn of our long, bright day but the joy of that awakening moment thrills me again: rejuvenates me, so that I almost long for the divine elixir that I may become young, and live my life over again. It is so great and satisfying a pleasure to have lived and been associated with the greatest achievement the world has known. My dear sir, what can be nobler, what aim higher than that which seeks to place the whole human family on a pedestal of power, with mutual respect, a common prosperity, and liberty—that inspiration of all achievement that is great and glorious in human existence—assured to all, even the humblest!
“‘But, enough of this! Let me stick to my story.
“‘I said we were prosperously situated for the winter. Indeed, we had enough and to spare. But we were not idle. We all agreed it was best to put in at least four hours each day at what we might call work. The rest of the time we devoted to study, to pleasure, each, in fact, following his or her own inclination. One day I said to my wife: “Is it now Paradise?”
“‘“No,” she replied, “Paradise ought to mean something possible for all the world. We get along so well because we are all so well acquainted, and have passed through a common experience. Our trials have united us as one family. But let Tom, Dick, and Harry—I mean the good, bad, and indifferent of all the world—come here, and I fear the whole of us would be by the ears again.”
“‘Something like this had been the thought running through my own mind. So I said to others, as I met them: “Isn’t it about time to consider ourselves and our prospects a little further?” But it seemed to be the general opinion that we better let well enough alone. “Do the thing next needed,” said the same man who had given us the suggestion that saved us the spring before, “and don’t look ahead too far.”
“‘But it happened not long after that the thing next needed was to settle the very question wife and I had pondered. A party of twenty strangers came in upon us, and wanted to settle and live in New Harmony. We had done no advertising; no reporter had been to see us; but these people had heard of us, and came one thousand miles on faith. They wanted to see our constitution. They asked about our principles, our politics, and our religion.
“‘I ought to confess that our happy family was thrown at once into a state of excitement. The old Adam cropped out in a number of ways. The croakers began. Evil days were before us; let them go by themselves, and form a community of their own, some said. This, however, was contrary to all our better instincts, and low prudence and caution soon gave way to a determination to solve the problem of expansion then and there. We needed a spokesman. All eyes turned to Joseph Warden. “Do the thing next needed, Joseph,” I exclaimed. He invited the new comers to join us all in our public reading room. He took a seat, and we gathered about him: For a little time we sat in silence. Then Warden asked the visitors to state their purpose in coming. One of their number replied that they had understood that New Harmony was a place where the people had all things in common. It was Scripture doctrine, and they were Christians. They wanted to join a society in which private property was unknown.
“‘At this point Warden smiled and said: “Then you have made a mistake in coming here, for we have somehow felt from the beginning that private individual property was a real and a sacred thing. I don’t know that any of us ever said so before in so many words. The question has never arisen.”
“The man replied that he was somewhat astonished, in fact, much astonished, at such a declaration. But he would like to be instructed in regard to New Harmony and its institutions. He felt strongly that there must be some kind of a Providence in the journey of himself and friends. Perhaps their coming was not a mistake. If they knew just what the people of New Harmony did propose, what they believed in, they could judge the better.
“‘Wife whispered to me: “He’s the man to frame constitutions, and so on.”
“‘I smiled. Warden caught my eye, and looked himself much amused.
“‘“Well,” he said, the smile still lingering in the corners of his mouth, “we are in one sense, my friend, a poverty-stricken people. We haven’t any institutions to speak of. All we can boast are certain outgrowths of our needs, which, for the most part, have taken care of themselves. We have, perhaps, an unwritten law, or general understanding, though no one to my knowledge has tried to state it. We all seem to know it when we meet it, and, as yet, have had no dispute about it. It may be said in a general way, however, as a matter of observation, that we are believers in liberty, in justice, in equality, in fraternity, in peace, progress, and in a state of happiness here on earth for one and all. What we mean by all this defines itself as we go along. It is a practical, working belief, we have. When we find an idea won’t work, we don’t decide against it; we let it rest; perhaps, later on, it will work all right. I don’t know as there is much more to say.”
“‘The man was evidently disappointed. Warden’s talk seemed trivial to him. It gave him the impression, he said, that the people had not taken hold of the great problem of life in a serious and scientific manner.
“‘Warden replied that, if the gentleman would define what he meant by the terms serious and scientific, they would be better able to determine the matter. If he meant by serious anything sorrowful or agonizing, they would plead guilty; in that sense, they were not serious. If their life was declared not scientific in the sense that it was not cut and dried, planned, laid out in iron grooves, put into constitutions, established in set forms and ceremonies, he was right. They had neither seriousness nor science after those patterns. “But we have,” he said, “a stability of purpose born of our mutual attractions and necessities, and a scientific adjustment, we think, of all our difficulties as well as of our varied enterprises. Always respecting each other’s individuality, we apply common sense to every situation, so far as we are able.”
“‘The man responded that they were not there to question the earnestness of purpose or the practical intelligence of the citizens of New Harmony. Far otherwise. And yet, it did seem to him, so novel was their plan of organization, that it was little more than a rope of sand. There seemed to be nothing binding or stable in its character. In that respect he must say they were disappointed. But for one he should be very glad to dwell in New Harmony for a season, at least. He turned abruptly to his companions and said: “All who are with me in this, please raise your right hands.” Every hand went up.
“‘Warden smiled, and said he hoped their stay would be a common benefit.
“‘There being no public house in the place, they had been entertained at private residences since their arrival.
“‘It was the Rev. Mr. Sangerfield who had been put forward as their speaker. He was a large man with an iron cast of countenance, and spoke with great moderation and precision. Somehow we none of us quite fancied him, but then, he was in the world, as my wife said, and it was our business to be able to live on peaceable terms with all sorts of people. We couldn’t expect our seclusion to be forever respected.
“‘The reverend gentleman consulted awhile with the others, and then rose and said that he had a few questions to ask by way of information. In the first place, as they proposed to settle, for one year at least, he would like to inquire as to tenements. He had noticed several unoccupied houses; were they for rent? That was the first time the word had been used in our midst. It created quite a sensation. In fact, we all laughed. Sangerfield looked embarrassed, but Warden explained that the idea of rent was new to them. The parties who built the unoccupied houses had gone, and anybody was free to occupy them. It would be only right, though, to keep them in repair, and leave them in good condition.
“‘Sangerfield said he should suppose that property left in that way would be appropriated by the town, become public property. That was the usual custom.
“‘Warden replied with a smile that the usual custom had seldom been adopted in such matters at New Harmony. There was no public property.
“‘“Indeed!” Sangerfield exclaimed. “Whose property is this building we are in? Is it not the property of the town?”
“‘He was informed that it belonged to one Simeon Larger.
“‘“Oh! you rent it of him?” said Sangerfield.
“‘“No, not exactly;” said Warden. “He is paid for the wear and tear of the building, and for his trouble in taking care of it.”
“‘“Who pays him,” Sangerfield asked, “if not the public? How do you raise the money? Impose a tax?”
“‘“We tax ourselves voluntarily. There is no trouble in that respect. Everyone is free to contribute according to his or her means. It is one of the points we think we have scored in behalf of Liberty. And here let me say that all property in New Harmony is private property. Everything has an individual owner, and is under individual management. Everything represents so much labor. We know just what it has cost, and if the individual parts with it in any way, he is recompensed according to his sacrifice. He receives either so much other property, or a labor-note secured by property that has so much labor-value, or a note promising so much labor.”’”

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Importance of Proudhon

Anarchists can be touchy about any sort of authority, so we are frequently at pains to say that we are not followers of any particular leader or historical figure. That's good. Among other things, the historical figures we're most likely to follow were almost all pretty clear about how undesirable that would be. And there's something a little disconcerting about anarchists when they do invest perhaps a bit too much of their identity in an identification with some one of those anarchist figure, whether historical or current. 

At the same time, there's very little liberty that comes without struggle, and very little progress that does not come from at least some engagement with tradition. So we can't always just ignore the men and women who came before us in the anarchist traditions, as we try to make anarchism our own. For mutualists, who are trying to make practical tools for the present day from a tradition that suffered pretty severe interruptions over the last 150 years, the case is a little more complicated. It's not like the basic values of mutualism are "in the air" around us. Indeed, despite the tremendous and surprising resurgence of mutualism in recent years, there are still lots of folks who would at least like to think of our school of anarchism as a kind of anachronism, clearly superseded by their own approaches. And some days we don't do our cause any favors, juggling heirloom concepts we perhaps don't understand as well as we might in public, a bit drunk at times on the attention (however often negative) that mutualism gets these days. The thing is that there are plenty of potential antagonists out there for contemporary mutualists, but it may be that the most pressing fight we face is with ourselves and our key influences. 

For the "free-market anti-capitalists," there is a pressing need to show how the low-overhead revolution can work in practice. For the neo-Proudhonians and "two gun" mutualists, there is that same practical challenge, plus the battle to wrest all that is useful from our own tradition, while eliminating or rectifying what is not, and updating the whole mess for a world in pretty rapid change around us.

If the second course is yours, then there is no getting around Proudhon. He will be both your chief ally and your most formidable adversary. When he died, he left a body of work extending over more than fifty volumes, most of which has not been translated into English and much of which was never really engaged by the anarchist movement. I'm not sure that there is another individual body of theory and analysis in the anarchist tradition that contains as much valuable material as Proudhon's—or one which contains as many pitfalls to be avoided. Now, you may be able to get away with wrestling with Proudhon second-hand, through my own analyses over at Two-Gun Mutualism and the Golden Rule, or through some of the competing interpretations, but I'm not sure I can recommend that strategy. There's really no quicker way to make classical mutualism your own than that to wrestle it away from the grand old man himself—but he doesn't make it easy.

So we will talk about Proudhon—or you can just read along as wrestle with some of the fine nuances of his approach. But if we descend from time to time into the realm of Proudhonology on this blog, it will be because it is the most direct route to some key aspect of mutualist philosophy or social science. I promise.

Mutualism and "Market Anarchism"

Let's tackle a controversial question: Is mutualism a form of "market anarchism"?

It's a useful sort of question, even though the correct answer is probably "that depends...." Since mutualism has its roots in a world where the distinctions that make a label like "market anarchism" useful simply didn't exist, distinctions which may themselves run counter to the "classical" mutualist project, it's tempting to say "no." But since we're in the process of rediscovering and reimaging mutualism in a world where the question of "markets" is of real importance, we have to resist the temptation. 

For those mutualists who have rallied to the banner of "free-market anti-capitalism," and for whom mutualism is perhaps first a kind of middle ground in a highly polarized anarchist/libertarian milieu, the "market anarchist" label has been a natural. Taking cues from the individualist anarchism of folks like Benjamin R. Tucker, and emphasizing monopolistic control of key economic resources and relations as the primary thing to be overcome, it's an easy step from talk (in Proudhon, for example) about dissolving the whole political realm into the economic, to making "the market" the centerpiece of your vision of a free society. And there is no denying the absolutely critical work that has been done by anti-capitalist market anarchists to highlight the differences between "capitalism" (whether in its actually existing, historical form, or in the proposed, purer forms which still seem to depend on some form of privilege) and "commerce." It's also the case that some of the resistance to "market" relations in anarchism is a bit wrong-headed, based on the same historical narratives that tend to treat mutualism either as a sort of "infantile disorder," in which markets appear as evidence that it remains "a little bit capitalist," or to attempt to draw firm distinctions between mutualism, understood as a form of "social anarchism," and the more recent forms of market-friendly liberty movements. If we want to argue about what forms of anarchism can claim to have been in at the beginning, it's hard to exclude someone like Anselme Bellegarrigue, who, after all, characterized "The Revolution" as "purely and simply a matter of business." His "first anarchist manifesto," from the first issue of Anarchy: A Journal of Order, is generally accepted as an important early anarchist statement.

But there are perhaps some good reasons, bridging classical and contemporary concerns, for refusing the "market anarchist" label. Let me suggest three:
  1. Arguably, the analysis of markets that begins with the recognition that not all commerce is reducible to "capitalism" does not stop there. When we begin to really analyze the key concepts associated with markets—in order to separate what pertains to the capitalist "right of increase" and what does not—we find ourselves faced with not just varieties of "markets," but varieties of "profit," "competition," etc. As we incorporate the work of synthesizing classical political economy with elements of Austrian economics, which has been pioneered by Kevin Carson and others, and rediscover the ways in which figures like Josiah Warren and Proudhon already incorporated a great deal of pretty sophisticated subjective valuation in their theories, it probably isn't particularly useful to either cling to, or reject, "markets" or "the market" in a lump. So we might reject the label "market anarchist" in order to leave ourselves a free field to accept or reject market arrangements on a much more specific basis.
  2. It is also the case that saddling ourselves with the "market" label puts a special emphasis somewhere other than on the element that mutualists have traditionally considered the one really vital aspect of their approach: mutuality. While he was very critical at times of both the "communism" and the "economics" of his time, Proudhon was advocating something which "synthesized" elements of both, and the heart of his critique seems to have echoed the account of "individualism" and "socialism" given by Pierre Leroux. Like Leroux, Proudhon saw a need to balance extreme tendencies—to, in essence, establish a sort of reciprocity or mutuality between extremes—in order to avoid a constant oscillation between propertarian and communist poles in social relations. And the key to establishing that balance—the principle without which the best laid plans of reformers and revolutionists were perhaps doomed to come to naught, or even end in some opposite state—was a conscious application of the principle of mutuality. That's the ground on which our we'll build a successful, practical mutualism—and it makes sense to avoid anything that encourages us, or those around us, to imagine some other mechanism or principle is our real focus.
  3. The third reason to take a step back from "markets" is one that we could easily apply to all institutions, even to those, like the "mutual bank," which have been our signature projects. There are, after all, important senses in which mutualism is still a bit suspended between its two eras of influence, and important aspects of the classical mutualist project that we have yet to really drag into the present in any very useful form. One very important aspect of that project which we have so far just begun to wrestle with is Proudhon's theories of "collective force" and of the collective nature of individuality, a body of theory with implications for any mutualist theory of rights, but also for the mutualist analysis of institutions. Other schools of market anarchism have a variety of understandings of how markets functions as emergent orders, and sometimes as virtual, collective agents. Proudhon gives us another toolkit to explore these questions, and to shed a different sort of light on that analysis I was talking about back in the first point. There are also some general questions about the relationship between circulation—certainly a market characteristic—and concentration (as in property, capitalist accumulation, etc.) that are at least hinted at in Proudhon's work, which may give us some tools for orienting a modern mutualism within an anarchist movement arguably torn in multiple directions by our failure to clarify the nature of that relationship.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The "FAQs"

One of the basic assumptions driving this blog is that we're not really in a position for definitive answers to a lot of the most important, and frequently asked questions about mutualism. We can say a lot of true things about a lot of mutualist tendencies, but MUTUALISM as such, only has had, or will have, the sort of unity which allows us to simply explain or define it at a few moment in the past and perhaps in some more orderly future—provided we can do the work now of getting a handle on the current, rather far-flung debate. So I've been using loaded language like interventions and triage list to talk about what we might otherwise be tempted to treat in the tradition of frequently asked questions, because I don't want anyone to imagine that we're going to simply clear up in bite-sized pieces here what we're still in the process of exploring in depth elsewhere.

Hopefully, however, we'll be able to clarify what needs to be done and what's at stake in those more ambitious endeavors.

For example, I've suggested that mutualism as such is more usefully understood as a theory of interpersonal relations—an ethical theory, essentially—than as a collection of particular economic theories or practices. Let's also drag practical mutualism back to its roots in a "socialism" that was heavier on social science than it was on ideology, and tailor our expectations more to the sort we might have for any ongoing field of inquiry, rather than those we might logically expect from some ideological code. The "incompleteness" of contemporary mutualism does not, after all, just spring from diversity, confusion, or the interruption of the tradition. As a tradition that went from moribund to trending in a very short time, it suffers from all of that. But as a tradition that is at least in part a project of social science, when those other issues are dealt with it will be—and should be—a current of thought always flowing on towards more complete versions of itself.

All of that said, there are a certain number of topics which are most problematic for those who identify as mutualists, those who oppose one or another of the mutualist currents, and those who are trying to figure out what all the rest of us are going on about anyway. Unfortunately, if not surprisingly, those most central and frequently debated topics are not going to be the ones we can easily address in one blog post. There are theoretical complexities to be explained, historical developments to be traced, and present positions to be reconciled or contrasted. But let's get this thing off on the right foot by at least sketching out a few of the most obvious areas of concern that come with the label "mutualism:"
  • PROPERTY—The whole anarchist tradition is haunted by Proudhon's claim that "property is theft," and the responses to it, including his own subsequent treatment of the ways in which simple property could also contribute to liberty. Proudhon never backed down from that initial statement, and never abandoned a personal preference for the vague "possession" which appears as the alternative to private property in his early works. So it will be useful to clarify terms and trace the development of Proudhon's argument (many of the details of which I've already addressed in piece-meal fashion over at the Two-Gun Mutualism blog.)
  • COMMUNITY / COMMUNISM—Proudhon proposed a "synthesis of community and property" as the formula for liberty, while he waged war in the realm of ideas against existing forms of communism and property. Proudhon died too early to have any very useful opinions about anarchist-communism, and the responses from the anarchist-communist side have not always involved a lot of comprehension of the finer points of mutualism. So there are two connected problems for contemporary anarchists: What specifically was the "community" which Proudhon considered a key element to the creation of liberty, and how would the mutualist treatment of it differ from anarchist-communism? 
  • OCCUPANCY AND USE—As Proudhon's practical proposals for just lend-tenure systems shifted from simple possession to simple property, he never shifted from an emphasis on respect for the occupancy of those who actually labor on the land and a concern that access to the land not be withheld arbitrarily from those who desired to labor on it. Again, clarifying what we now talk about as "occupancy and use" land-tenure will require a bit of theoretical explanation of Proudhon's understanding of economic and monopoly rents, and the reasons for his rethinking of the comparative advantages of simple property and simple possession in the early 1860s. And it will also take a bit of practical talk about why mutualists wouldn't simply squat a house when the occupants go out for a quart of milk, whether there will be hotels or other sorts of rented domiciles in mutualism, etc. 
  • MUTUAL BANKING / CURRENCY REFORM—The most famous of mutualist institutions, which was designed to provide a low-cost circulating medium to its members, bears a name which is almost certain to lead contemporary students of mutualism astray at first glance, and was perhaps best adapted to conditions that no longer apply to most of us. So it will be helpful to clarify the original proposals, explore their present utility, and perhaps talk about alternatives better adapted to contemporary conditions—as well as the advantages and disadvantages of using this style of mutual currency "after the revolution."
  • MARKETS—Mutualism is frequently considered "market anarchism," and the truth is that most forms of mutualism have been open to some kinds of markets. But it will probably be useful to look at the notion of "market" a bit and clarify the differences between simply not being dead-set against such things and defining one's anarchism by it.
  • USURY / AUBAINES / THE RIGHT OF INCREASE / RENT, PROFIT, & INTEREST / ANTI-CAPITALISM—Whether we're talking about Carsonian "free-market anti-capitalism" or the neo-Proudhonian mutualisms, the hottest topic is probably that business of the relationship to capitalism. Some other social anarchists are concerned that the very acceptance of any form of market amounts to, or will lead to, capitalism. Some capitalists, whether they consider themselves anarchists or not, think that mutualism will prevent economic relations which are vital to freedom—while others wonder what the big deal is, since mutualism seems like what they call "capitalism" with weird rules about land, and funny definitions of "rent," "interest," and "profit." Arguably, beneath the divergent definitions, there really is one key issue—what we frequently refer to as "the right of increase," the general belief that having wealth gives one a right to accumulate more wealth, provided you can do so without engaging in actions recognized by those who accept the basic premise (partisans of "increase") as overt "force or fraud"—which is not recognized by social anarchists, including many if not most of those who call themselves mutualists. 
  • MUTUALITY VS. VOLUNTARITY—One of the most common responses to mutualism, particularly from the capitalist side of the debate, is that free market capitalism is already as mutual as it gets, and without people doing messy stuff like "social engineering," trying to make people into "angels," or really worrying too much about anything but whether or not there are guns aimed at heads. And there are things that no doubt need to be said about why it doesn't take "angels" to recognize the value in the Golden Rule. 
  • THE GENERAL MAGNIFICENCE OF THE MUTUALIST PROJECT: Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't spend some time clarifying the breadth, ambition, and general awesomeness of the tradition that modern mutualists have inherited. Even when addressing thorny issues like Proudhon's bad behavior towards women and Jews, the complexities of his theory of force, etc., I think most readers will find that the mutualist project, which was never entirely Proudhon's and which escaped his worst inclinations quite rapidly, shows a surprising power, diversity of participants, etc. Rather than being something cobbled together from modern scraps, it's a long-hidden gold mine for anarchism. 
If these basic issues can be clarified, then many other things are possible, perhaps even a real "FAQ" one of these days.

And if you think of other issues that seem to come up over and over again, that don't seem to be covered, please leave suggestions in the comments.