Friday, September 26, 2008

William Gillis on "The Brawl in St. Paul"

Part 1 of William Gillis' after-action analysis, "The Brawl in St. Paul," is now available at Human Iterations. It is, as you would expect, given the source, very good stuff which should be distributed widely. Two more parts are on the way.

Permission to pamphlet, sir?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The gift economy of property

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. But we live in the midst of a society and economic system which is very far from that ideal, and dream our dreams of the future and freedom while we deal with a very unfree present. On a day when we've just witnessed the largest US bank failure in history, in the context of a government-brokered market-move by JPMorgan, who also benefited from the Bear Stearns maneuver, talk about "genuinely free markets" seems a bit pipe-dreamy. But if it's going to be a long struggle to whatever freedom we manage to wrest from the corrupt bastards who are currently monkeying with our lives, we can probably take the time to get on something like the same page.

Recently, 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.

Like Fourier, Proudhon could do any with any notion of original sin, in part because, like Fourier, he associated present errors with a progressive process that led ultimately to closer and closer approximations to justice (the "pact of liberty"), through the equilibration of forces, faculties, projects, parties, federations, etc. 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. Absolutism and despotism, if allowed entirely free play, are unlikely to lead to any pact, let alone a just one. No social atomist, however, and a thinker prone to expect every force to evoke a counterforce, he wasn't content to turn that absolutist character into a secular version of innate depravity. What he did do is a bit peculiar, involving a hijacking of Leibniz in directions that anticipate folks like Gilles Deleuze. The psychological and social physics that is at the center of his mature work on liberty and justice reads like poststructuralism in places, and I will have some recourse to the vocabulary of more contemporary continental philosophy as I talk about it.

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 its encounters with its 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."

What can the man who never backed down about property being robbery say about this self which is, whatever else it is, a kind of by-product of the forces of necessity, that tends, according to him, to see itself as an absolute? What can that self say about its own position? Proudhon suggests that we have put off a certain amount of soul-searching by projecting our own absolutism outwards, onto gods and onto governments, but that this has kept us from dealing with some important stuff--and we're not fooling ourselves much anymore. If progress, as Proudhon believed, is "the justification of humanity by itself," one of the spurs for that progress has to be, for us "free absolutes," an internal tension, maybe even a suspicion that the absolutism of the individual is not so different from that of the proprietor, and for many of the same reasons. Property might be as "impossible" in the psychological realm as Proudhon believed it was in the economic.

We're talking about a "decentered" subject that claims more "identity" than might be precisely justified. (I have often joked that Derrida's claims about identity might be reduced to "property is theft.") But we're not talking about "lack." Instead, we're talking about the self as a kind of excess, a force or pressure. (It would be very easy to move here from Proudhon to, say, Georges Bataille, and certainly easy to compare either or both to the anarchistic ethics of Guyau.) We are not committing ourselves to some social organism theory; Proudhon is explicit about this. (And, again, we might reach without much straining for points of contact with the thoughts of Deleuze on organ-ization, etc.)

If we switch to the language of libertarianism, we're likely to find that Proudhon's vision of overlapping beings, and of human "free absolutes" as the foam at the top of the boiling pot of necessity, at least complicates the question of "self-ownership." Some of my friends and ALLies will naturally object to this claim, and I'm sympathetic to the basic assumptions associated with a presumed right of self-ownership--indeed, as Proudhon said, "My principle, which will appear astonishing to you, citizens, my principle is yours; it is property itself"--but it does seem to me that if the self is characterized by a radical, unresolvable antinomy, then "property" cannot, by itself, express the "natural right" implied by the nature of the individual.

Like Proudhon, I suspect that "property is theft," and following his thread, I suspect that "self-ownership" is an expression of our absolutism. Still, like Proudhon, in the end, I am for property, or at least the right to it. Which leaves the questions How? and Why? Aren't there alternatives?

It seems to me that the search for alternatives to property, the right to control the fruits of one's labor, is, like the general resistance to the notion of markets in anarchism, based in our quite natural frustration and disgust with so much of what passes for commerce under current conditions. We're in the middle of far-too-fine an example of how despotic property can be, when married to governmental power and shielded from any countervailing force, to have many illusions about the risks involved in embracing it. Mutualists, in particular, never quite get off this hook; our "greatest hit," Proudhon's What is Property? (or its most famous slogan, anyway,) is a constant reminder. It is a commonplace in social anarchist circles, and mutualists are not immune, to want to distance ourselves from the details of "getting and spending" as much as possible, and we have constructed a variety of means of putting off the hard discussions of property relations that will eventually, inevitably come.

One of those means, it seems to me, has been reference to the notion of "gift economies." Like the proponents of "the right of self-ownership," the advocates of gift economies have meant quite a variety of things by the term. In general, gift economies are differentiated from exchange economies precisely by the lack of exchanges, expectation of any remuneration or quid pro quo. Some institutionalized forms of gift exchange, like the "really, really free markets," forbid even barter. While it's clear enough to me what present desires are addressed by this alternative to capitalist commerce, this seems to be one of those practices that could always only operate on the edges of another, more organized and efficient kind of economy. That economy might well be freer in some senses than the enforced "gift economy," and it is not entirely clear to me that what is involved in that economy is "gifting" anyway.

In order to give, it is necessary to be free to give. One needs to be, in some sense at least, an owner of the gift, and the recipient cannot have an equal claim to appropriating the item. Collective property cannot be gifted within the collective, at least without changing rather substantially the meaning of "giving." Philosophical and anthropological accounts of the gift set all sorts of other conditions. The recipient of a gift may be required by custom, or by the "spirit of the gift," to some giving of his own. Gifts are notorious for the "poison" elements that they often contain. Some of the "gift economies" we know from anthropology did indeed operate without recompense in goods, but transformed material capital into prestige or cultural capital, sometimes in an extremely competitive manner. The philosophical accounts of the gift suggest that the "pure gift" is almost impossibly tied up in conflicting requirements; if one acknowledges a gift, accepts thanks in exchange for a gift, perhaps even if one knows one is giving and feels some internal compensation, then the pure gift is impossible. Gifts seem, in any event, to matter. Something other than indifference is required from us, and gaining "punk points" may not be it. Disposing of our excess stuff may just not reach the bar.

The gift economy seems to presuppose individual property, as much as it would like to subvert its absolutism, its covetous, tit-for-tat mentality. Is the gift, perhaps, related to the other half of our human antinomy?

What if it was? What, much too quickly (as I've gone on much too long), if the gift was indeed the mark of our other half. As our absolutism is necessity expressing itself in us, gratuity might well be the expression of liberty, of freedom. Perhaps "property," understood, as Proudhon understood it, as a bulwark around the individual, in the face of centralizing, collectivizing forces (which, lest we forget, have their role to play in the march to justice and the expansion of liberty), starting with "self-ownership," is the right implied by our basic human predicament, our in-progress nature, our need for space in which to experiment, err, advance.

Would such a property be compatible with a gift economy? Or does Proudhon finally leave us in a place where neither property, strictly speaking, nor the gift, ditto, can arise?

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 he can rightfully give, if even his own "property" is theft. But he 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, he 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.

My social anarchist friends may object to this yoking of absolutism and gratuity in, of all things, property. My libertarian friends will doubtless wince a bit at the notion that self-ownership is a gift (as opposed to a given.) But I think there is at least food for thought here, and that there will be more as I'm able to provide the Proudhon translations and some additional commentary.

NWALL page

Update: If you're linking to regional ALL groups, please link to the Northwest Alliance of the Libertarian Left at our (very, very) new homepage.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Northwest ALL mailing list

The Northwest Alliance of the Libertarian Left now has a discussion list, and will soon have a website. More soon.

from better mousetraps to lemonade seas (Blog recycling, part 2)

In my post "Time to free ALL the political prisoners" I announced my intention to transform The Very Idea into a group blog for counter-institutional speculation and invention. I've got some redesigning to do to finish the "recycling," but the new incarnation, retitled "from better mousetraps to lemonade seas" (the very idea, indeed!) is open for collaborative business, and I have established a discussion list as well. I'm hoping for practical results, but more than anything I am hoping to open a space for those, like me, who have more ideas than they can practically pursue, to document those things, for the use of anyone who may have the time and inclination to pursue them. I have some general guidelines that I have established for myself, based on my political commitments and the current urgencies (as I understand them), but the main guideline I have set up for the project is this:
At the moment, we probably need both better mousetraps and grander visions of the future, and a lot of practical-visionary work that hovers somewhere in the middle distance between those. What I would like to explore on the list and present on the blog, is projects, germs of projects and calls for projects, that seem to address present needs, but I would like, for a change, to unfetter the discussion a bit from a priori judgments about practicality. I expect participants and respondents to make their own judgments about which schemes are the best idea since sliced bread and which are pipe dreams. What I would like to suggest as an ethic for discussion is that we refrain from purely negative responses, that, if at all possible we try to expand, contract, remake, remodel, develop, simplify, amend one another's proposals, but always with an eye to moving forward. And those things which seem to have no forward-moving potential will be pretty quickly identified by their failure to "get a pulse." I'm suggesting more of a general ethic than hard and fast rules. I certainly don't want to discourage constructive criticism, or to encourage anyone to waste time. But radicals are pretty good at talking ourselves out of things. I would like to try to open up a different kind of discussion.
And now we see whether this proposal draws any sort of response. . .

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Putting yourself on the map

With the new ad hoc global organizing committee site up and running, and the Alliance in outreach mode, and after a bit of pestering, I've cleaned up the Frappr map that is posted on the ALL MySpace page - disabled pins without at least an alias, moved my own pin to the right part of the country, updated some other settings - so that it should be usable as a tool for tracking down and contacting other left-libertarians.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Blog recycling, Part 1

The old sister-site of this blog, From the Libertarian Library, has been pretty much forlorn and abandoned since I set up the wiki site for the Libertarian Labyrinth archive. But it has a new reason to be, as an announcement site for the new series of pamphlets that I am compiling from the Labyrinth. The series will consist of material relating to the Radical History Series at Laughing Horse Books, to the mutual school courses that will begin in 2009, and to various other projects. Pamphlets will be available in downloadable pdf format. There is some overlap of material with projects like Invisible Molotov, but the style of the releases will be rather different, so that, instead of duplication, we simply gain marketing flexibility. The first two pamphlets, a basic Voltairine de Cleyre collection and a bilingual edition of Proudhon's "Toast to the Revolution" are available now. Please let me know if you have any problems with downloading or printing from them.

New Resource: ALL ad hoc global organizing committee

And the nominees for best left-libertarian graphics are. . .

Aside from contributing one of my favorite bits of radical graphic design, Rad Geek has contributed a very important resource in the "ad hoc global organizing committee" website,, a hub specifically designed to help left-libertarians find ALLies in their area.

Link-up, and lets see what we can do to expand the alliance. It's looking like we're all going to need all the allies we can get.

"The current unintelligent tampering...with the moral order of business"

In 1873, William Batchelder Greene was asked by Ezra Heywood to explain Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's ideas on property. Greene sent along translations of the first three, and last three pages of What is Property? and a short, fascinating account of Proudhon and his ideas, based on Greene's acquaintance with Proudhon during his years in Paris, roughly 1853-1861. It is clear from the account that Greene was most familiar with Proudhon's earlier works. Some of Greene's explanation is not consistent with the works from the 1860s, and some of it is consistent, as when Greene likens property to Satan, but in ways that Greene seems unaware of. This account first appeared in The Word. Look for some interesting stuff about financial crises towards the end.


JAMAICA PLAIN, MASS.: Oct. 31, 1873.

Dear Mr. Heywood: Your message of yesterday, requesting me to explain, and in Proudhon’s own words if possible what Proudhon meant by his famous aphorism,—“PROPERTY IS ROBBERY,”—has this moment reached me, and I reply at once. I will try to give you, (page 1) a translation of the first three and the last three pages of Proudhon’s book. You will perceive that Proudhon and our friend Josiah Warren smite on substantially the same anvil.

I will first state, however, by way of preface, and for the satisfaction of the reader, that Proudhon was a stout-built, powerful man, about five feet ten inches high (perhaps less) with fair complexion, light hair, clear light eyes, giving, in his ordinary mood, no indication of the energy he had in him. He was nonetheless, of a very excitable temperament; and I knew him once in the height of discussion, and by way of emphasis, when he was at dinner to so smite the table with his fist as to make all the tumblers and wine-glasses, jump. A lady who sat next to him, said afterwards that it was like sitting alongside a volcano. He also showed his excitability, when, in 1840, he knocked down Jules Favre in the ante-chamber of the Legislative assembly. Usually, however, he was mild-mannered. I have noticed, when he was sitting in company with others, that little children, strangers to him, would go to him in preference to other ones present, and climb into his lap. Outside of his writings, there was nothing of what we Americans call “cussedness” about him. He was easily excited, easily appeased, very amiable, and perfectly reliable. He was perhaps the best husband and father I ever knew. After he began to show signs of having injured his constitution by overwork, his wife (an excellent, motherly woman, who was very proud of him, but who never read a single line of his writings in her life) had the tears come into her eyes whenever she spoke of his health.

He was absolutely incorruptible, and abhorred the practice of receiving presents. His friends, who were innumerable, and many of them in high position, waited for nothing but his consent to make him independently rich; but that consent he never gave. He could not, however, reasonably restrain his children from receiving birthday and Christmas presents; and he was obliged in consequence, to set apart a large room in which his children’s toys were piled in heaps, one on the top of another.

The main faults that I noticed in him, were these: he was too fond of vain glorious distinction and notoriety, and his amiability of character led him too often, notwithstanding the violence of his writings, to listen favorably to proposals of compromise for the sake of peace and friendship. So far was he from being perversely obstinate, that his friends had to watch him, to prevent him from making unwise concessions. I am informed that he derived exquisite pleasure in his Sunday walks, from the fact that the small tradesmen of his quarter, as they went home from church, pointed him out to their children as Antichrist! He made profession in his books (out of disgust, as I think with the prevailing hypocrisy that surrounded him) of irreconcilable hostility to the Supreme Being. He was, however, in my opinion, an extraordinarily religious man, but after a mysterious fashion of his own; and he probably spent as much time in meditations upon God and eternity, as upon the emancipation of the laboring people.

He always wrote standing, at a high desk, and composed his sentences while he was walking to and fro in his Study. He told me he never knew, when he began writing, how his work would turn our, and that the plans of his books and articles constructed themselves, without much interference on his part.

He talked Latin, and was a competent Master of Greek and Hebrew; but had little knowledge of the modern languages. He was a writer of the first rank in all matters of law. As a dialectician, he was, perhaps, in his own day and generation, without a peer. He wrote treatises on philology and metaphysics that were very remarkable; some of his treatises on law were published under other person’s name, and gave reputation and political promotion to the persons who had credit of them. L. Herminier said—I quote from memory—“some people, fire pistols out of their windows, finding that to be an infallible method for making passers by look up. To attract public attention, Proudhon did the same thing, but with the difference, however, that his book, ‘Property is robbery,’ was no pistol, but a cannon.”

Proudhon’s ten propositions, though plain enough to you, and to Josiah Warren, will inevitably appear, to the uninitiated reader, obscure—not to say, muddy. They are in fact, muddy. Why? Proudhon gives the answer when he says, that, “before HIS REASON was competent to comprehend it God had put the sentiment of justice into HIS HEART.” Proudhon wrote those ten propositions without having any practical methods of application present to his mind. It was not until several years after he wrote the book on ‘property,’ that he suspected the feasibility of transforming property into possession by the simple reform of the circulating medium—by a transfiguration of MONEY.

Proudhon’s distinction between property and possession seems to be this: a tenant under stipulated conditions is possessor; the landlord is owner. Proudhon would have the whole community, society—not the state, however, but society existing as the prior condition of the state—to be the sole landlord, owner, proprietor; and he would have all possessors to possess as tenants, not of the State, but of society. He says, therefore, “Suppress property, but without suppressing possession, and everything in laws, government, institutions, will be changed.” And again, “The highest perfection of society is the synthesis of order with anarchy.” Now anarchy is the government of each by each, self-government, to the exclusion of government ab extra; and, when he was writing these propositions, Proudhon had no receipt or formula for the organization of society.

To make the State, and not society, the sole proprietor, as some of our reformers see fit to propose, would be to reconstruct feudalism, not organise anarchy. Proudhon—always and everywhere—rejects state-ownership, whether for lands, railroads, or any other kind of property. He fights state-ownership, regarding it as the chief head devil who is always to be denied and resisted. State-ownership (according to him) begets peculation on the part of public functionaries; the habit of public plunder begets organized rascality; and organic scoundrelism hardens into feudalism. Mark the solution.

With Mutual Banks loaning money at one half of one per cent. per annum on good security (and you know the secret for creating such banks,) no man would consent to ten per cent. rent for a house, since he could borrow money at the bank, and build a house for himself, pledging the house to the bank for security, and paying to the bank a perpetual rent of one half of one per cent. on the cost of his house. [It is true that the bank would not lend to the extent of the full value of the house, and that the house would have to be kept in continual repair, so as to lose nothing of its value; but these are matters of mere detail, which you know all about, and they need not be dwelt upon here.] A house so held would be property, owned by society and held in individual possession by the tenant, through the instrumentality, not of the State, but of the bank; and the tenant living in this house, under his contract with the bank, and paying his one half of one per cent. annual interest (call it rent if you please) to the bank, would be the effectual possessor of the house. In this way, all individual property in the house would become socialized, and thus “suppressed,” so far forth as individual, and so long as the possessor should not find it for his interest to absolutely redeem his house from pledge; and the right to possess the house, and to have the enjoyment of it, would remain individualized, and therefore real and actual. The rent for the use of natural wealth, in any of its forms, is determined by the rate of interest on money: bring the rate of interest down to zero, and you bring the rate of rents down to Zero. For with the rate of interest at Zero, men will no longer hire natural wealth in any of the forms it may assume, but will borrow money, and buy and fabricate. It was not until 1848 or 1848, that Proudhon completed his theory of the currency; and his book on property was written before the year 1840. Hence the muddiness of his affirmations of the year 1839.

You ask me to write something in refutation of the Kellogism contained in the financial articles of the “Old and New” for November. Why? To what end? Was it not predetermined, from before the foundation of the world, that the old prevaricators should die in the desert? The savage principle of absolute property, which is the old serpent, and Satan, is now—through the instrumentality of successive secretaries of the Federal treasury, the president of the United States, congress, the stock-speculators, the bankers, and their like—presenting the edifying spectacle of self-strangulation. Let the whole thing smash. Let the world be turned upside down; it is high time for the exhibition of the other side. If either you or I should attempt to prevent an accomplishment of the decrees of destiny, the protesting ghost of Proudhon would rap up against us, through all the tables of South Boston and Charleston. All the direful prognostications of Proudhon are now being verified by current history. Why add perfume to the violet? The current unintelligent tampering with the currency, and with the moral order of business, is accomplishing, with effectual thoroughness, the exact work of demolition which Proudhon scientifically laid out. When the first green-back was issued, the irrevocable die was cast, and the hour for the final liquidation was sounded on the clock of fate. Revolutions never go backwards. Proudhon expressly said that his prophecies would find their first accomplishment in the United States of America; and it seems he was right.—Yours truly, W[illiam] B. G[reene].

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Translation of key material is an important priority, and translation to English is only a small part of what is ultimately needed. Rafael Hotz, who participated in the Proudhon seminar, has been making some material available in Portugese on his Enxurrada ("Flash flood," if I'm getting the sense right) blog. Translations include material by Proudhon, Gesell, Hodgskin, de Puydt, Kevin Carson, Roderick Long, and Per Bylund.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Proudhon, Liberty, Satan, and The Ladies Repository (oh, my!)

Very little of Proudhon's 6-volume work on Justice in the Revolution and in the Church has been translated, but one in/famous passage has been treated to a number of English renderings. Section XLVII, which ends Chapter 5, "Function of Liberty," which is itself the final chapter of the Eighth Study, "Conscience and Liberty" (which appears in Justice, Tome III in the Lacroix collected works) contains a passage that begins "Come, Satan, come. . . ," and which has naturally been handy for those who wanted to demonstrate what an evil dude that French socialist Proudhon was.

There is a really rather lovely translation of part of the section in The Ladies Repository for August, 1858.

SATAN BEFRIENDED. — It is not often that a good word is spoken for the father of evil. Burns, it is true, wrote an "Address to the Deil," in which he came to the charitable conclusion that even Old Nick might mend his ways and save his bacon : "But fare ye weel, auld Nickie-ben, / O wad ye tak a thought an' men'! / Te aiblins might — I dinna ken — / Still hae a stake— / I'm wae to think upo' yon den, / Ev'n for your sake!" But it has remained for Monsieur Proudhon, the noted French Socialist, to boldly embrace the cause of Satan as a friend! In his recent work, which has just been seized in France, by judicial process, he says : "Come, Satan, come, thou the calumniated of priests and of kings ! Let me embrace thee, let me press thee to my bosom ! Long is it that I have known thee, and long hast thou known me ! Thy works, 0 blessed one of my heart! not always are they beautiful and good ; but they alone give a meaning to the universe, and save it from absurdity. What would man be without thee? A beast. Thou alone animatest and fecundatest labor; thou ennoblest wealth, thou excusest power, thou puttest a stamp on virtue! Hope thou still, thou proscribed one! I have to serve thee a single pen, but it is worth millions of bulletins."

Somehow, I don't think that I could get away with "animatest and fecundatest" in my own translation, but it has a certain ring to it. There are a couple of other translations, from various periods, most of which seem to start off on the wrong foot, by translating "Viens, Satan, viens. . ." as just "come, Satan," without the lovely repetition, which seems crucial to a passage which is obviously the finale of the study, or maybe the windup to the poetic lines with which Proudhon actually ended the study.

What is the context for all of this? It actually follows directly from the last section that I posted here. Here is a rough translation of the whole section:
There it is, that revolutionary liberty, cursed for so long, because it was not understood, because its key was sought in words instead of in things; there it is, as a philosophy inspired by it alone should in the end furnish it. In revealing itself to us in its essence, it gives us, along with the reason of our religious and political institutions, the secret of our destiny.

Oh! I understand, Monseigneur, that you do not like liberty, that you have never liked it. Liberty, which you cannot deny without destroying yourself, which you cannot affirm without destroying yourself still, you dread it as the Sphinx dreaded Oedipus: it came, and the riddle of the Church was answered; Christianity is no longer anything other than an episode in the mythology of the human race. Liberty, symbolized by the story of the Temptation, is your Antichrist; liberty, for you, is the Devil.

Come, Satan, come, slandered by priests and kings! Let me embrace you, let me clutch you to my breast! I have known you for a long time, and you know me as well. Your works, oh blessed of my heart, are not always beautiful or good; but you alone give sense to the universe and prevent it from being absurd. What would justice be without you? An instinct. Reason? A routine. Man? A beast. You alone prompt labor and render it fertile; you ennoble wealth, serve as an excuse for authority, put the seal on virtue. Hope still, proscript! I have at your service only a pen, but it is worth millions of ballots. And I wish only to ask when the days sung of by the poet will return:

You crossed gothic ruins; / Our defenders pressed at your heels; / Flowers rained down, and modest virgins / Mingled their songs with the war-hymn. / All stirred, and armed themselves for the defense; / All were proud, above all the poor. / Ah! Give back to me the days of my childhood,/ Goddess of Liberty!
And who is the hymn actually addressed to? Satan? Only if you accept that view, associated with a few minor figures like, say, Milton and Blake, that personifies the active principle as the devil. Proudhon's invocation is to Liberty. But you've still got to hand it to the translators of The Ladies' Repository item, methinks.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Puzzle pieces: W. H. Channing's "The Present"

I've emphasized before the importance of William Henry Channing's The Spirit of the Age, as the closest thing we have to a mid-19th century American mutualist paper. Channing is equally important as part of the late-transcendentalist/radical Unitarian/free-religionist current with which American individualist anarchism was in constant dialogue. William B. Greene was himself a part of that current, as was Sidney H. Morse and, at least early on, Joshua King Ingalls. Tucker was influenced by it, and his Radical Review was full of contributors from it. And a great deal of attention was paid in the early issues of Liberty, to what Tucker felt was its decline. Channing's earlier paper, The Present, has also turned up at Google Books, along with a number of volumes of the Western Messenger, which he co-edited. There's some very interesting stuff in The Present, including some discussion of William B. Greene's philosophical and theological work.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Proudhon on freedom and free will

I'm working away at the translation of Proudhon's chapter (in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church) on "The Nature and Function of Liberty." It's a key piece in his overall work, and includes an explanation of the nature and function of "free will," along with some suggestions about how that explanation would scale up to the realm of social or political liberty. Remember that Proudhon was, from the earliest of his works, concerned with the "collective force" which arises from associated production and exceeds the productive power of the individuals involved outside of association. His early assaults on property rested largely on the fact that much of the "fruits of labor," over and above subsistence, were in fact the product of this collective force of a collective being, rather than the product of individuals, so that private property should be understood as private domain over essentially "public" productions. As was frequently the case, Proudhon's early intuition remained part of his mature system, but he came to understand its consequences differently. Starting from a substantially retooled version of Leibniz' monadology, Proudhon came to think of all beings (very broadly defined) as being individual only by virtue of being first a group, organized or associated according to a law of being (or perhaps of becoming). Within the group, each element would tend to act according to a particular necessity, but these necessities would not necessarily act in concert. Indeed, the contrary seemed to Proudhon to be something of a law of nature: his antinomies were the constant manifestation of counter-principles and counter-necessities, manifestations even of a species of that "immanent justice" which became one of Proudhon's guiding principles (along with individual sovereignty and federalism.) The conflict of forces and necessities was the source of the collective force of the group-as-individual, and the quantity of that force translated into a quantity of liberty. Liberty and necessity coexist, and feed one another in various ways. The play of necessities, when forceful and complex, opens spaces of freedom at one level, which manifest themselves as strong forces, driven by a necessity or absolutism of a higher order, which may in turn contribute to a higher-order liberty, and so on. . .

The connection of collective force and its products to liberty obviously change, and even raise the stakes with regard to issues like property. Proudhon came to defend property for human beings--free absolutes, capable of self-reflection, and thus of self-improvement and progress, by approximation, towards greater and greater justice--because it seemed to provide the space necessary for them to exercise their powers as ethical beings. There are lots of pieces to this puzzle, spread across Proudhon's writings, but here are a few summary paragraphs to help us get our feet wet in this stuff. Pardon the roughness of the translation, which is decidedly in-progress.
Let us summarize this theory:

1. The principle of necessity is not sufficient to explain the universe: it implies contradiction.

2. The concept of the Absolute absolute, which serves as the ground for the spinozist theory, is inadmissible: it reaches conclusions beyond those that the phenomena admit, and can be considered all the more as a metaphysical given awaiting the confirmation of experience, but which must be abandoned for fear that experience is contrary to it, which is precisely the case.

3. The pantheistic conception of the universe, or of a best possible world serving as the expression (natura naturata) of the Absolute absolute (natura naturans), is equally illegitimate: it comes to conclusions contrary to the observed relations, which, as a whole and especially in their details, show us the systems of things under an entirely different aspect.

These three fundamental negations call for a complementary principle, and open the field to a new theory, of which it is now only a question of discovering the terms.

4. Liberty, or free will, is a conception of the mind, formed in opposition to necessity, to the Absolute absolute, and to the notion of a preestablished harmony or best world, with the aim of making sense of facts not explained by the principle of necessity, assisted by the two others, and to render possible the science of nature and of humanity.

5. Now, like all the conceptions of the mind, like necessity itself, this new principle is countered [frappé: struck, afflicted] by antinomy, which means that alone it is no longer sufficient for the explanation of man and nature: it is necessary, according the law of the mind, which is the very law of creation, that this principle be balanced against its opposite, necessity, with which it forms the first antinomy, the polarity of the universe.

Thus necessity and liberty, antithetically united, are given a priori, by metaphysics and experience, as the essential condition of all existence, all movement, of every end, starting from every body of knowledge and every morality.

6. What then is liberty or free will? The power of collectivity of the individual. By it, man, who is at once matter, life and mind, frees himself from all fatality, whether physical, emotional or intellectual, subordinates things to himself, raises himself, by the sublime and the beautiful, outside the limits of reality and of thought, makes an instrument of the laws of reason as well as those of nature, sets as the aim of his activity the transformation of the world according to his ideal, and devotes himself to his own glory as an end.

7. According to that definition of liberty, one can say, reasoning by analogy, that in every organized or simply collective being, the resultant force is the liberty of the being; in such a way the more that being--crystal, plant or animal--approaches the human type, the greater the liberty in it will be, the greater the scope of its free will. Among men themselves free will shows itself more energetic as the elements which give rise to it are themselves more developed in power: philosophy, science, industry, economy, law. This is why history, reducible to a system by its fatal side, shows itself progressive, idealistic, and superior to theory, on the side of free will, the philosophy of art and of history having in common that the reason of things which serves as their criterion is nevertheless powerless to explain all of their content.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


"One's-self I Sing," by Walt Whitman

ONE’S-SELF I sing—a simple, separate Person;
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-masse.

Of Physiology from top to toe I sing;
Not physiognomy alone, nor brain alone, is worthy for the muse—I say the
Form complete is worthier far;
The Female equally with the male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful—for freest action form’d, under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Time to free ALL the political prisoners

{Immoderate thoughts on the eve of my return to the corporate retail world. . .}

Denver and the Twin Cities taught us very little we didn't already know, I suspect, but the experiences, even for those of us who only experienced them vicariously, ought to have drawn in some big, fat exclamation points and underlines on what we already knew, but had imperfectly internalized. We can predict at this moment that the next round will be moreso, in almost every way. No matter who wins the elections, there is little chance that the climate of intolerance of dissent will change, except perhaps to grow more extreme. What message will the mainstream media take away from their brushes with teargas and arrest? Will they dare to risk their relative immunity again, to get the stories up close? It may not matter, of course. The glowing, positive message from the RNC protests and its aftermath is that the independent media networks have proven themselves extraordinarily resourceful, and the expansion of Twitter networks and live cameraphone broadcast capacity (though Qik, etc.) has no doubt only just begun.

What is different about these moments, in and just after the crises and confrontations, is us, and our awareness of our situation. We can feel the police state around us, just as we can sense the crony capitalist state behind the day's bail-outs, and, honestly, I was already feeling like I had enough on my plate with impending economic doom, environmental degradation, world conflict, my own lack of insurance and satisfying, sufficient employment, not to mention the obvious launch into the lalasphere of all the social and political institutions that are presumably there to help.

Time to clean up the day's messes, and prepare for tomorrow's battles. I wonder, this time, as we're retooling, as we're raising bail and facing the music and trying to move ahead, if we couldn't - and by "we" I mean more than just the usual suspects, who are probably a little overwhelmed at this moment, one way or another, but some larger force, potentially made a little more possible by the terribly clear, overtly despotic events of the last week or so - at least try to reach further than just getting wounds treated, charges dropped or fought, broken-down doors rehung. We're learning all the time, how to organize and communicate, how to start, at least, to work beyond the sorts of barriers that so often stop our day-to-day projects dead. We have to keep at it.

It's the sort of thing you feel stupid saying out loud, but, once the bail is raised for protestors, we need to figure out how to bail each other out, of stupid jobs we hate, that only prop up a system that feeds off us. Once the pepper spray burns have been treated, we need to figure out how to provide for one another's daily health needs. After we feed the homeless, we have to tackle how we feed one another, globally, without being forced to take part in a food economy that depends of disrupting local agriculture and profiting while people starve. Once we reclaim the stolen pamphlets, we need to finish the work of making sure our written heritage is never "out of print" and beyond the reach of everyone. The things that stand between us and our own institutions would probably not withstand any sort of concerted assault, unlike the riot police lines guarding worthless functionaries and would-be despots, and they'll have to come up with new offenses if they want to beat us up for trading with one another, educating one another, supporting one another.

Despite all of the constant machinations, all the so-called "intelligence" at its disposal, all the money and power behind it, the state constant reveals itself as, well, sort of stupid, committed, with all of its force, to lying, cheating, killing, stealing, and then kidding itself about the whole bizarre, self-perpetuating routine. If there's a way off this roundabout, I would be happy to take it. I'm guessing, if you're reading this, that you would to.

There's very little reason, it seems to me, that we can't have our own economies, our own schools, libraries, media, churches if we want them, our own industries, etc., etc., and that the "us" is one that could grow and grow and grow, if once we could get off the suicidal track that most aspects of our lives are on. I must have a bright idea a day, to address some aspect of all of this, but, honestly, radical circles are pretty good at nitpicking bright ideas to death, when we don't smother them with indifference. But it's becoming clearer to me all the time that holding this stuff in does nothing but increase my indigestion (that has, of course, also often been the result of airing the ideas.) I'm contemplating remaking my old intellectual history blog, The Very Idea!, into a place for running mad, half-mad, even relatively sane and sober libertarian schemes up the proverbial flagpole. If nothing came of it but a collection of anarchist "Rube Goldberg" institutions, that wouldn't be the end of the world. So I guess I'll run that up the flagpole. There's a fine old tradition of anarchist inventors; who wants to join?

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Learning our lessons

I did not go to the DNC or RNC protests. Generally, I don't do protests. I'm pretty sure my work lies elsewhere, and I have serious questions about the efficacy of such things. But, honestly, even my level of cynicism about party politics and mainstream media hadn't quite prepared me for the degree of dead-dumbness that all the establishment factions showed with regard to the protests that took place. With the elephants and the asses jostling to be the bringers of "change," and 1968 replaying itself on the streets outside, you would have thought some bright thing could have thought of some way to coopt the whole street spectacle, either by reaching out to the protestors or by explicitly announcing the rapidly approaching end of western civilization and embracing the storm-trooper assaults. Instead, both conventions sort of cruised along in their bubbles. The RNC was, of course, more spectacularly beside-the-point, with half of the GOP dignitaries not invited or uninvited, thanks in part to the excuse of a hurricane which, Hey Folks!, did kick the shit out of some cities, even if it failed to provide whatever NOLA photo ops had been hoped for. All of the speeches and machinations that drew attention a couple of days ago are now yesterday's news, unless they are lies that will be repeated again today, and tomorrow. All of the exposures of the lies spoken a few days ago only confirmed what opponents already knew, or thought they knew, and don't seem to have the slightest chance of changing the minds of their intended audiences. The politicsmachine is either irreparably broken, or finally works perfectly, depending on where you stand on little things like truth, freedom, justice, responsibility, and other, similarly old-fashioned notions. So. . .

Our people, I would dare to say The People, to the extent that there is still a political "people" in the US, were in the street, or they were home, working at the other projects, listening to cameraphone journalism from the protest sites and dealing with the extension of misrule as usual on other streets. (In Portland, we had black helicopters (no shit!) during the urban military exercises, along with the less spectacular advent of Portland Patrol, Inc. on the central eastside, brought in by one of the lobbying "councils" to chase off the homeless displaces by the downtown "Clean and Safe." And we got a new phrase, "trespass campers," to designate (that is, further demonize) the eastside remnant, and to spice up a lot of really smarmy "journalism" about hygiene on the street. Anyway. . .) Needless to say, our people on the streets of the Twin Cities faced the one-two punch of militarized cops and media inclined to blame protestors first, and they are still facing it. There are people in jail, people whose possessions have been confiscated by the cops, people who have been injured, reports of people who have been tortured, almost certainly still people in jail in need of medical attention.

Whatever you think about "protest," we just saw a week of rampant police-state bullshit, with the "forces of law and order" not worrying much about law or order, as long as the anti-dissent message got bludgeoned in. We still don't know, and probably never will, how much of the property damage was done by infiltrators. We certainly know that there were infiltrators. Nobody is guilty by the laws of the country, when the authorities themselves throw away the whole legal playbook. So find a way to support those still in trouble. Rad Geek has put up a call for support for the St. Paul 8 and other political prisoners, as good as anything I could write here. RNC Welcoming Committee (and Alliance of the Libertarian Left) member William Gillis has promised "strategy analysis," and has already provided useful context and commentary on the events. The Uptake (see the sidebar) continues to provide useful video coverage. Indymedia sites at Portland and the Twin Cities are full of good information and good links. Do your homework, and figure out what you can do, both to help deal with the aftermath of the last two weeks and to develop the next set of responses and alternatives.

Alternatives have to be a big part of whatever happens next for radicals. This is the ground that, despite all the chatter, the "parties of change" seem finally to have abandoned completely. More on that soon. . .

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Sidney H. Morse's alternate history of equitable commerce

Tucked away in the pages of Liberty, Sidney H. Morse, Josiah Warren's literary executor, contributed an odd item, a kind of "what-if" history of Robert Owen's New Harmony, as if, at the critical moment, Josiah Warren's equitable commerce had been the model for continuing on after the failure of the original project. The story, Liberty and Wealth, may be the very best introduction I know of to Warren's thought as filtered through another individuality. There is a difficulty in dealing with Warren's writings, since he insisted that, in practice, equitable commerce must be based in a complete individualization of interests by all the participants, but much of what we have to work with, in the way of interpretations of Warren's thought, are perhaps a little too faithful to Warren's own preoccupations. Morse, who knew Warren well, seems to have made the basic ideas of equitable commerce his own, and allows us to see it in a rather different light.

I've spent parts of the last week, as I've mentioned, working my way through another file of The Boston Investigator, and my bibliography of equitable commerce material is growing again steadily. Among the items that have surfaced this time: finally, some evidence to support the claim that Warren had an interest in spiritualism. There are still mysteries, including an announced essay that never seems to have appeared in print, but fewer than before.

Radical History Series - September-October

I've just updated the Radical History Series schedule on the Laughing Horse Books site. Stop by, if you're in the Rose City.