Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Kicking off a year of Justice

2008 was a transitional year for my various projects, and some, like the English-language archiving, suffered a bit from my relocation and the various transitions that surrounded it. I hope that an equivalent service to the movement has been rendered by the translation that has taken up so much of my time. The progress seems glacial in comparison to the years where I was able to add thousands of pages of material, but, as ought to be apparent, developing the skills to dig back into the early French texts has had some very important effects on my overall thinking about anarchism, and allowed me to pull together a number of threads from my various careers and avocations. I'm having a lot of fun getting to know Proudhon, Bellegarrigue, etc. And I feel like the work of 2008 has put me in a position to focus my labors a bit more in 2009, and finish up some half-finished (or, as in some cases, 9/10-finished) and long-promised works.

I'll talk more about those as they come back into more active play, but virtually all of them will involve a continued push through Proudhon's work, and my central goal for 2009, with regard to the translating and archiving work, is to get through the first four volumes of Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, 1501 pages in the Collected Works edition, along with whatever else I can manage from the two volumes of notes, and some of the responses and criticisms, particularly from the Colinsean camp. That's a healthy chunk of work all by itself, although I have hundreds of pages in various states of preparation, and have access to some equally provisional translations from Jesse Cohn. I make no promises to complete it, as other things may well take precedent, as has happened before, and certainly might happen again in the uncertain times we're facing. But the plan is to make Proudhon's masterwork available in an English translation of sufficient quality that it can be studied, discussed and used.

So here, without further ado, begins:


Volume I



§ I. — The coming of the people to philosophy.

At the beginning of a new work, we must explain our title and our design.

Ever since humanity entered the period of civilization, for as long as anyone remembers, the people, said Paul Louis Courier, have prayed and paid.

They pray for their princes, for their magistrates, for their exploiters and parasites;

They pray, like Jesus Christ, for their executioners;

They pray for the very ones who should by rights pray for them.

Then they pay those for whom they pray;

They pay the government, the courts, the police, the church, the nobility, the crown, the revenue, the proprietor and the garnisaire, I meant the soldier;

They pay for every move they make, pay to come and to go, to buy and to sell, to eat, drink and breathe, to warm themselves in the sun, to be born and to die;

They even pay for the permission to work;

And they pray to heaven to give them enough, by blessing their labor, to always pay more.

The people have never done anything but pray and pay: we believe that the time has come to make them philosophize.

The people cannot live in skepticism, after the example of the gentlemen of the Institute et des beautiful souls of the city and the court. Indifference is unhealthy for them; they reject libertinage; they hasten to flee from that corruption which invades from on high. Besides, what they ask for themselves, they want for everyone, and make no exception for anyone. They have never claimed, for example, that the bourgeoisie must have a religion, that religion is necessary for the regulars at the Bourse, for the bohemians of the magazines and the theaters, or for that innumerable multitude living from prostitution and intrigue; but that, as for them, their robust consciences have no need of God. The people want neither to dupe nor to be duped any longer: what they call for today is a positive law, based in reason and justice, which imposes itself on all, and which nobody is allowed to mock.

Would a reform of the old religion be enough to respond to this wish of the people? No. The people have realized that religion had not been legal tender for a long time among the upper classes, while they continued to believe in it; that, even in the temples, it had lost all credit and all prestige; that it counts for absolutely nothing in politics and business; finally, that the separation of faith and law has become an axiom of government everywhere. The tolerance of the State now covers religion, which is precisely the opposite of what had taken place in the past. Thus the people have followed the movement inaugurated by their leaders; it is wary of the spiritual, and it no longer wants a religion which has been made an instrument of servitude by clerical and anticlerical Machiavellianism. Whose fault is that?

But are the people capable of philosophy?

Without hesitation we answer: Yes, as well as reading, writing and arithmetic; as well as understanding the catechism and practicing a craft. We even go as far as to think philosophy can be found in its entirety in that essential part of public education, the trade: a matter of attention and habit. Primary instruction requires three years, apprenticeship three more, for a total of six years: when philosophy, the popularization of which has become a necessity of the first order in our times, must be taken by the plebeian, in addition to the six years of primary and professional instruction to which he is condemned, an hour per week for six more years, would that be a reason to deny the philosophical capacity of the people?

The people are philosophical, because they are as weary of praying as of paying. They have had enough of the pharisee and the publican; and all it desires, and the point we have reached, is to know how to direct its ideas, and to free itself from this world of tolls and paternosters. It is to this end that we have resolved, with some friends, to consecrate our forces, certain as we are that, if sometimes this philosophy of the people spreads a bit too much from our pen, the truth, once known, will not lack abbreviators.

Colins' painful punctuation

Warning: Off-topic chatter about the process of translation.

Jean Guillaume Cesar Alexandre Hippolyte, baron de Colins was the chief theorist of Rational Socialism, and a frequent critic and intellectual rival of Proudhon. Indeed, Colins' crew were pitting the two figures against each other long after both had died. I'm planning on finishing up a translation of Adolphe Hugentobler's Dialogue of Dead Men sometime in 2009. Colins wrote a three-volume work, Justice in Science, apart from the Revolution and the Church, which begins with a 600-page attempted refutation of most of Proudhon's main theses in Justice in the Revolution and the Church. I think he's largely missing the point, but it's interesting stuff. Unfortunately, Colins had some peculiar habits in the realm of punctuation which make translation at least a little peculiar. Here's a taste of his prose:

— What is meant by absolute?

— Absolute means: independant.

— What is it that is independant?

— That which is eternal. If, the creator God exists; God alone is eternal; God alone is absolute. If, the creator God does not exist; the matter, the force, which modifies our sensibility, is eternal; is absolute. If the sensibility is a modification of matter; each sensibility is not eternal, is not absolute; but, it is: relative; temporal: dependent on modifications of matter. If, each sensibility is eternal; each sensibility is absolute. Then, there would be divisible absolute, matter; and, indivisible absolutes, the sensibilities; the immaterialities.

Obviously, some of this is difficult in precisely the same ways that Proudhon's own work is, or that any bit of specialized writing can be. But, there are also: the colons; the extra semi-colons; which, tend to make reading the stuff a little: odd. Proudhon was prone to sentences with 413 dependent clauses, which often makes clear translation a chore, but Colins raises all sorts of other problems. Ultimately, I expect I will just be leaving out two-thirds of his punctuation.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

War: What's it good for?

It turns out that Proudhon's answer to the musical question is rather interesting, and challenging. His two-volume War and Peace represents an further exploration of some of the ideas he had developed in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church. The turning point in Proudhon's philosophy came in the 1850s, between the Philosophy of Progress and Justice, when he realized that, as he later put it, "the antinomy does not resolve itself." The immediate consequence of this realization was a move from the emphasis on synthesis, which had dominated his work from the last sections of What is Property? through the System of Economic Contradictions and beyond, to a much more complex treatment of the role of ultimately irresolvable conflict in social evolution. One consequence of this change in his dialectical approach was that the historical accounts that made up such an important part of Proudhon's work had to be revisited, in order to determine if and how this other dynamic revealed itself. Another, linked, consequence, was that the philosophy of progress and the theory of collective force and collective beings had to take what we might now consider an "anti-foundationalist" turn.

For the later Proudhon, the series (taking this term with all its Fourierist implications) of approximations of Justice, the successive balancings of more-or-less free forces, was Progress (big-P), even the Revolution, and there was something relentless about its upward climb. The theory of collective persons, what contemporaries like Pierre Leroux and William B. Greene addressed (with some variations) as a "doctrine of life" and theory of Humanity, made possible the theory of "immanent justice," which posited at least the constant possibility of advance, in the form of improved approximation. But that same theory meant that there were lots of actors on the social-historical stage, lots of kinds of actors, to which individual persons had a variety of kinds of connections and in which they had various investments. Add to that the additional wrinkle that each "stage," each element in the historical series, lingers. Nothing is magically "realized and suppressed" by synthesis, and each approximation ends up resting on other approximations -- all the way down, really.

For Proudhon, Justice, despite its key-word status, is never in-itself anything more than that balance of free forces. "An eye for an eye" is justice, as is The Golden Rule: they simply occupy difference places in the Justice-series. Obviously, "higher" approximations of justice have their advantages, both for individuals and for collective beings like Humanity or a given society. But the existence of "higher" approximations does not necessarily invalidate the "lower," particularly if, in the historical series, later, higher approximations are founded on those earlier and lower.

Proudhon's War and Peace is one of those texts routinely cited as a forerunner to "fascism" (a term that requires scare-quoting, not because there is any question that fascism has existed, but because the critics tend to lump a lot of "stuff we don't approve of" into the mix.) The literature on proto-fascism is a complex one, frequently involving the defense of certain models of rationality and science, as well as the particularly political and ideological forms we associate with the term. So Bergson can be blackened with Sorel's various political indiscretions, presumably because his treatment of "intuition" is "anti-science" and "anti-rational," rather than part of a debate about what science and rationality will be. Proudhon, already an undesirable for that "property is theft" stuff, gets the "insufficient degree of separation from Sorel" treatment, and his anti-semitic notebook entries are mentioned, and who would dare argue that his War and Peace was not an irrationalist glorification of war, even if its final line is "HUMANITY WANTS NO MORE WAR." Hey, he was "a man of paradox." Right?

No. But thanks, I guess, for playing...

Proudhon does, in fact, talk about war as having an important moral function. He talks about the extent to which it has been war which has driven human beings to acts of bravery, self-sacrifice and ingenuity. If he doesn't quite get to Marinetti's "war is the world's only hygiene," he does point out that we have relied pretty heavily on war to maintain what balance of forces we have achieved. It may not be nice to say so, but it doesn't appear to be incorrect. And the critics of war don't seem to deny the basic right of force, when push comes to shove, or to class war, or General Strike, etc. What Proudhon attempts to do, in a work which is not always a comfortable read (as if we required comfort from political philosophy or history), is to demonstrate the ways in which the right of force (not a right to force, about which more a little later) has functioned in the service of Justice, has contributed to the subsequent approximations of Justice, and continues to play a narrowly delimited role in the defense of Justice.

If you want to get a taste of how Proudhon argues in War and Peace, I've translated 17 pages from the first volume, where Proudhon is explaining the "right of force." Here are Chapter XI and the Conclusion of Book Two of Volume One.

A couple of things to remember, or to consider if you haven't read my other discussions of Proudhon:

1) He uses the French word droit, which can mean either "law" or "right" in a way that is most accurately translated, as far as I can see, as "right," but which does not, or does not necessarily refer to the sort of natural or political rights we are accustomed to talking about. Every group, ensemble, being, etc., has its own "law" (loi) of organization, which determines what is "right" (appropriate, proper, logical, natural, etc) for it to do. Likewise, it participates in larger ensembles with their own laws, which condition those of the individuals. Droit remains something of a mix of what we might call natural law and/or right, as well as covering more strictly descriptive (rather than normative) grand. Just don't necessarily assume that Proudhon is trying to anything more than describe the normal functioning of presently-existing "bodies" of one sort or another.

2) This is part of an explicitly historical, progressive account. The basic argument of the book is that all of our "higher-level" rights, and really all of our more peaceful institutions, as well as all those which we have yet to create, are part of a historical series which begins with relations mediated by raw force. Peace would be the end of that series, presumably, but war would always be its origin. Peace is, in a strong sense, the end product of the process of war. And, Proudhon says, we have got ourselves into some real trouble by denying this historical fact.

3) Proudhon speaks of "right of force" and "right of war," but these, he argues, are like all true rights, equal and reciprocal. If there are, or have been, certain circumstances in which the right of the strongest has been or can be our model for justice, justice is still a restless demand for balance, and ultimately justice cannot be fulfilled at any acceptable level by silencing or excluding the weak. It is not clear that there is a "right to war," but instead a sort of protocol for dealing with the wars that occur, and which can only justly occur in circumstances of social or political imbalance or injustice. Proudhon talks about the "right of labor" to its product, and contrasts that with the "right to work."

The translation is very rough and literal. I wanted to get through enough of this to clarify for myself how it fit with the things I'm working on more seriously. I'll try to clean it up sometime, but probably not for a few months.

Note: Parts of this post were lifted directly from a discussion at the Forums of the Libertarian Left which includes more discussion and context.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Proudhon's "Kronos"

In the biographical introduction to Tucker's edition of What is Property? is a brief mention that around 1851 Proudhon's "entertained the idea of writing a universal history entitled "Chronos." This project was never fulfilled." There was probably no shortage of "universal history" in France by 1850, although an entry by Proudhon would no doubt have been novel and interesting. The Saint-Simonians and their allies, including P. J. B. Buchez, Auguste Ott, Pierre Leroux, had written volume after volume on the subject. In 1849, William B. Greene published his Remarks On The History Of Science; Followed By An Apriori Autobiography, which was greeted by Boston's radical ministers with "inextinguishable peals of laughter," but which may have been a little French for his audiences in any event. Orestes Browson took issue with the notion of an "a priori history," but he, at least, should have known where all this was coming from, as he had been instrumental in introducing Leroux to American audiences. The truth is that all of this stuff is pretty hard sledding a century and a half later. But in its time, the assumption was widespread that a science of history or a philosophy of progress could be elaborated. In the "First Letter" of his Philosophy of Progress, for example, Proudhon (not generally one of the names associated with this tradition) wrote:
If then I could once put my finger on the opposition that I put between these two ideas, to explain what I mean by Progress and what I consider Absolute, I would have given the principle, secret and key to all my polemics; you would possess the logical link of all of my ideas; and you could, with that notion alone, become for you with regard to me an infallible criterion, not only estimate the ensemble of my publications, but forecast and signal in advance the propositions that sooner or later I must affirm or deny, the doctrines of which I will have to make myself the defender or adversary; you would be able, I say, to evaluate and judge all my theses by what I have said and by what I do not know. You would know me, intus et in cute, such as I am, such as I have been all my life, and such as I would find myself in a thousand years, if I could live a thousand years: the man whose thought always advances, whose program will never be finished. And at whatever moment in my career you would come to know me, whatever conclusion you could come to regarding me, you would have always, either to absolve me in the name of Progress, or to condemn me in the name of the Absolute.
We are not far from the realm of "a priori autobiography." And this is right in the midst of Proudhon's explanation of his own driving philosophy, what he will call his "religion." If the Chronos (or Kronos) was never written, it was probably not a passing fancy. The next work that Proudhon did complete was The Philosophy of Progress, and that work led naturally to War and Peace and Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, as well as the historical accounts in The Theory of Property and various of the posthumous works.

We know a bit about Proudhon's plans, from some letters he wrote. We know that he was working with Marc-Lucien Boutteville, who was eventually the editor of Proudhon's posthumously-published Contradictions politiques, and who published in 1863 a volume entitled La morale de l'église et la morale naturelle which shows considerable Proudhonian influence. So far, I've found no evidence that the collaboration went much of anywhere, but the correspondence relating to it is interesting. Here's the key letter:
Sainte-Pélagie, December 17, 1851.

My dear Boutteville, the more I advance in my individual labors, the more I realize that the work that we make in common must be conceived and, as much as possible, written according the plan of mine, and in a manner so as to serve it as continuation and conclusion. The history of democracy is nothing other than the history of the emancipation of the human spirit in all spheres, and, and without counting the disadvantages for us to publish a book soon described as demagogic, it is clear that by taking the word democracy in a sense too close to that of jacobinism, we make quite uselessly the monograph of a hypothesis rejected for the moment, and perhaps for many years.

Thus, it is necessary to enlarge further our views and our plan, and to make ourselves more generalizing, more profound, by sacrificing something of the epic interest.

I have decided to give my book the title Kronos (or whatever you please), to match the Cosmos of A. de Humboldt.

It will include, from the origin of things, the creation, as they say, up to Luther, the moment where our history begins, and will be divided into sixteen periods.

From Luther's time until our own requires four others (twenty altogther), divided thus:

17th - From Luther to the Treaty of Westphalia (1517-l648)

18th - From the Treaty of Westphalia to the French Revolution (1648-1789)

19th - The French Revolution (1789-1848)

20th - Socialism (1848-****)

We will preserve that distribution; the last period will serve as the historic and prophetic conclusion of the nineteen preceding.

It is necessary then for you to attach to this summary all the facts relating to Christian-Muslim-European civilisation, including America (excluding China, India, Mongolia, the Asiatic archipelago, the Burmas, Siam, Japan, etc., with the exception of that which concerns the affairs of Europe), and take for a superior principle of historical direction the movement of nations towards an order of things which must realize at once liberty (individual, locale, etc.) in its highest expression, and the unityof the human race.

Thus, my work and yours will form a continuous series, without crossed purposes or repetitions. By conserving more space in the treatment of my first sixteen periods, I could give more scope, interest and evidence to the demonstration of recent times, as also, in condensing more the manner of the first part of Bossuet's Discours sur l'Histoire universelle, and including only that table of facts, citations, reflections of major interests, we will have made a work of sound philosophy, instead of a masterpiece of literature.

It is understood that in the Histoire de la Démocratie moderne, the exposition in order of dates, as I employ it in Kronos, will not be followed; in this regard, the two works, though forming a continuous whole, will differ noticeably. It will be necessary to follow the method of Poinson, du Rozier and Des Michels in their very substantial, conscientious and exact, but insufficiently philosophical summaries of the Greek, Latin and Medieval history.

In a word, let us not loose sight of the fact that we must not aim to render useless the works made before us, or those that will be made after, but to make a treatise which throws light on the whole history of humanity and establishes its philosophy.

At our next meeting, I will speak at more length of all these things, and, in making you a part of my own work, I will convince you of the ease with which I group in a single narrative, a single idea, and single general evolution, all the history for example of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which includes as you know besides:

The empire of Charlemagne and all its divisions;

The Greek empire of the Orient;

The papacy and the schism of Photios;

The Angles, Saxons, Normans, Slavs, etc.

Islam, subdivided in three or four independent caliphates and in two great parties;

The war of Spain against the Moors, etc.

All of that, and it is the whole world (minus the Far East, the evolution of which separate, but always on the same plan and by virtue of the same laws), all that, I say, so complicated moments, can only be one, absolutely one, and it is as easy to recount that universal history, by stating at once all the contemporary facts, as it is to describe a session of the Convention.

So group, research, accumulate the facts, and limit yourself to giving them the most faithful expression; do not manage the dates and the facts. We must raise a monument which overshadows Catholicism and tyranny, and which is as precious and as accessible to the ignorant as to the wise.

My firm conviction is that we can do this if we wish to, and that this double labor must cast on the destinies of the species an as yet unknown and inextinguishable light.

The Kronos alone will form two large volumes, as much as the Histoire de la Démocratie moderne. By abridging from it the whole space of time that the other includes, I will give it more lucidity, firmness and scope, and make our labor more complete, easier to make and to understand, and more conclusive. It will always be the same work, published in two forms and by two different publishers.

I hope, my dear friend, that instead of becoming impatient with my reshufflings, you understand as I do that it is not possible to make a special history or any monograph without knowing as a basis universal history, and that you will be grateful to me for contributing thus, although indirectly, to the composition of a work which, without that contribution would, I warn you, have run the risk of being only a plea for the good of the cause.

Besides, you understand that the plan that I have marked for you has no need of modifications. The large divisions and the general sense I have indicated are already the consequence of my own studies; I ask of you only more generality still, more universality, conciseness and fullness.

The century has enough literature: let us give it facts and truths. One is always eloquent enough when one is Newton, Cuvier or Jussieu; let us try to be something like those gentlemen. If they are justly admired, they are not, after all, gods.

I extend my hand to you.

P.-J. Proudhon.

Slowly but surely the shape of Proudhon's larger project emerges, and some of the key differences between his work and that of Greene seem to loom considerably less large.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Proudhon's projects

During his lifetime Proudhon was frequently accused of being primarily a critic, a destroyer, and within anarchist circles it is largely his destructive critique of property rights that we remember. In some ways, this is a curious turn of events, since so much of his work was devoted to constructing his People's Bank, his theory of Progress, his evolving theory of property, etc. When his Œuvres Complètes was assembled in the late 1860s, apparently the editors felt the need to combat that perception, and their advertisement for the series contained a passage from Théorie de la propriété, in which Proudhon responded to the charge. It's an entertaining bit, despite some awkwardness and repetition, and it really does give a sense of the extent to which Proudhon was engaged in a contructive philosophical project. Here's the catalog of things that the reader can expect to find in Proudhon:
  • "A theory of force: a metaphysics of the group (which will be demonstrated above all, along with the theory of nationalities, in a book which will be published soon);
  • A dialectical theory: formation of genera and species par by the serial method; aggrandizement of the syllogism, which is good only where the premises are accepted;
  • A theory of rights and of morals (doctrine of immanence);
  • A theory of liberty;
  • A theory of the Fall, that is, a theory of the origin of moral evil: idealism;
  • A theory of the right of force: right of war and right of peoples;
  • A theory of contract: federation, public or constitutional right;
  • A theory of nationalities, deduced from the collective force: indigénat, autonomy;
  • A theory of the division of powers, correlative of the collective force;
  • A theory of property;
  • A theory of credit: mutuality, correlative of federation;
  • A theory of literary property;
  • A theory of taxation;
  • A theory of the balance of commerce;
  • A theory of population;
  • A theory of the family and of marriage;
  • Not to mention a mass of incidental truths."
And we're really justed started at recovering all that, so there's plenty to look forward to.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Second things first

The "Second Letter" of Proudhon's The Philosophy of Progress is now available in English translation in the Libertarian Labyrinth archive. For those interested in the elements of Proudhon's philosophy involving collective persons, or those relating to the combination of conservative and progressive elements in "the Revolution," there will be some additional material here. There's also a great deal more. In the two letters that make up The Philosophy of Progress, Proudhon attempted to make his general "profession of faith," with "faith" being just one of the terms he was in the midst of transforming in his works. The result was a kind of trial run at the work he would do at much greater length in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church. It's good stuff. I'm still cleaning up my translation of the "First Letter," but the second, which focuses on the question of certainty, and the possibility of a criterion of certainty, can be read usefully without it. Here's a taste, which suggests the ambitious project Proudhon had undertaken:

When one has seen how, in the human species, the individual and society, indivisibly united, form however two distinct beings, both thinking active and progressive; how the first receives a part of its ideas from the second, and exercises in its turn an influence on it; how then the economic relations, products of individual analysis, and contradictory among them insofar as one considers them in individual, resolved into synthetic ideas in society, so that each man reasons and acts by virtue of a double self [moi], enjoys a double intelligence, speaks a double language, pursues a double interest; which, I say, one will take into account that organic dualism sensed by all religions, and which compose at once collective existence and individual existences, one will conceive more easily the resolution of the contraries in ontology and metaphysics, and the scandal of the divergence and contradiction of the philosophies will reach its end.

These philosophies will all appear true, as special analytic deductions of the universal theory of movement; but each of them will also appear false, insofar as they aspire to make a schism, and exclude their rivals. Thus, the philosophical problem being resolved, it will be true to say that the philosophical movement is accomplished: in the place of systems, starting from an arbitrary conception and leading to a fatal contradiction, we would have progressive science, the ever-greater apprehension of being, of law and of unity.

Then religious dogmatism would also receive its rational interpretation, and the political order its free constitution: every theosophy dying away in the realm of morals, every cult in education, all government in economics, all authority in contracts.

Monday, December 15, 2008

...or is there?

Well, it appears that the class action suit against Google Books is being resolved, and Google feels free to make some texts available that it has been sitting on for years. Among those newly available files are an incomplete run of The Univercoelum and Spiritual Philosopher (1848-49), one of the periodicals that merged to form The Spirit of the Age, an important part of the literature of mutualism. Joshua King Ingalls was among the contributors to The Univercoelum, and the available issues contain a number of previously hard-to-access articles, and information about several more.

It's certainly not every day that I get to read an Ingalls piece that I have not read before, and I was amused to find that one of the "new" articles was about "Competition". It's an interesting bit, subject to a few conflations of its own, but quite readable if you take notice of the fact that in it "competition" is specifically tangled up with the desire for monopoly, or at least for advantages beyond those provided by superior ability. Competition "is the term used to signify that inhuman struggle for the mastery, which characterizes all grades of business, under existing social conditions." That's clear enough, even if it isn't the only way to discuss these things. After all, the main problem with conflation is that it so often happens unconsciously, or covertly.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

"there’s nothing wrong with competition"

When Roderick Long made mention of my recent post on bookselling, a bit of back-and-forth ensued in the comments on his post. The point was raised that, if the big box bookstores benefit from state intervention, so do their customers, who get cheap books. The problem is that I'm not sure that the big box stores actually deliver there. I asked:
What *evidence* is there that a bookselling monoculture with lots of coupons and discount stickers prominently displayed actually represents lots of cheap choices for consumers?

Mass-market bookselling is notoriously wasteful of resources (to the point of destroying gazillions of mass-market paperbacks “necessary” for saturation point-of-purchase displays, but too expensive to actually ship back to a warehouse.) When the price of a major new release mass-market paperback is roughly ten bucks, you have to ask yourself how many copies you are actually paying for.

And then, in response to a question by Roderick, continued:

The industry was really transformed by changes in the inventory tax laws. All those fly-by-night remainder sales and outlet mall stores in the ’80s and ’90s were the result of inventory being sold off pennies on the pound to avoid taxation. Mass market paperback books and most magazines are all still cover-stripped and destroyed, rather than returned. And de-inking for recycling is still an expensive process, so we’re talking about a lot of waste of resources as well.

All of this influences what gets published, and the size of print runs. The model can accommodate more diversity, but only by colonizing the work of independent marketplace sellers, who can provide marginal product that Amazon’s main distributors would never touch. If independents actually went away then the big boxes and net stores would lose a substantial amount of flexibility. Instead, they have to bank on our willingness to sell through their central interface, to work for them while paying them for the privilege, for whatever we can dig out of the buyers' market they have helped to create.

My point was that the big box bookstores have to focus on particular sorts of inventory, and as their needs tend to drive the publishers and distributors (since taxes on inventory make it worse than pointless to have stock with no clear, and relatively quick, retail outlet), the whole industry tends to focus. And we end up with 6457 different vampire series and scores of lolcat books, until we have the next fad. Because online booksellers don't have to play the merchandising game, they can be considerably more flexible, but even Amazon is unable or unwilling to take on the business of dealing with small presses, so it is left to the remaining independent booksellers and a hoard of amateurs with barcode scanners to provide the depth for the online stores.

It would be interesting to see what a concerted boycott of the used book marketplaces on Amazon, et al., would do. Services like include some sellers who simply drop-ship through Amazon, but if customers learned that the real bargains were someplace else, at ABE or Bookfinder, the online market might change considerably. Loss of customer confidence, thanks to some serious mishandling, seems to have permanently limited eBay's site, although it was originally (prior to the eBay purchase) one of the most promising models around.

Anyway, when I spoke about "us" working for Amazon, et al, I was really talking about booksellers, but one of the commenters on Roderick's blog, Gabriel, took the comment in a wider sense, and objected that as a customer, providing feedback on purchases, he didn't feel he was "working for Amazon." To which I replied:

Well, customer-reviewers are what Amazon has instead of booksellers, even if it is thousands of customer-reviewers doing the work of a few sellers. By shopping at a “self-service” bookstore, you just trade lower price for lower standard of service. By volunteering expertise, you really enter the labor market in competition with conventional booksellers. There are lots of reasons not to shop at Amazon. They treat small presses pretty shabbily. For instance, if you are told by any of the big box stores or large online operations that a book is out of print, make sure you double-check, since the distinction between “out of print” and “not stocked by us” seems to be a little hard for the big corporate operations to wrap their heads around. Customer service is notoriously nonexistent at Amazon

All of this naturally looks different to a career bookseller than it does to someone looking for a good deal, and I’m not interested in condemning anyone, but just as the big box model seems to depend on particular kinds of public infrastructure, the online store model seems to depend on user participation.

And, although that wasn't where I had intended to go with my comments, there's a hard truth there that is unavoidable. If Amazon really does provide lots of good books at cheap prices, part of the way it does that is to trade the labor costs associated with booksellers for lower prices to its customers, who are also its source of expertise. You can't really opt out of helping Amazon, since the "people who bought this book also bought" stuff is generated simply by the act of purchasing. But if you volunteer information and expertise, then you're doing the same job that I do, but for (alas, only slightly) less pay.

Gabriel's response to that was: ". . . so be it. . . Ultimately there’s nothing wrong with competition - it’s the backbone of any market." And that is either untrue, or true but unhelpful, all depending, of course, on what you mean by "competition."

Why do we value competition? Is it the striving among competitors? That's certainly some of it. It hasn't been so long since I was presenting Proudhon's enthusiasm for "the clash of ideas" and Bellegarrigue's "flux of interests" as essentially revolutionary, right here on this blog. And it won't be long before I do so again. We value the information that comes from success and failure in the marketplace, since it allows individuals to allocate time, energy and resources more efficiently. But most of us probably don't value all instances of competition, under all circumstances, equally. Free competition seems to depend on the ability of new competitors to enter the market. And some of what we value when we say we value competition is probably actually variety.

A big box bookstore sets up shop across the street from an established independent, as has happened so many times, and undersells them aggressively until they can't compete any more. Is this an example of that competition about which there is "ultimately nothing wrong"? At the end of the process, do we have more choices or fewer? Is there more competition, more chance of more competition, or less? In the bookselling world, as in much of retail, the trend has been towards the reduction of active competition. In some industries, such as the grocery business, intense competition in marginal markets has not ended in monopoly or near-monopoly, but in "
food deserts," after the "winners," who had no particular local loyalties, found their winnings were too costly to hold onto. There are spreading "book deserts" as well, but we won't feel the loss as acutely in that business for awhile.

What would another sort of competition look like? We've almost forgotten, most places in the country, even in Portland, where ten years ago the thought of a book desert would have been unthinkable, how we got along before the big boxes. Portland's Hawthorne district had twice as many bookstores ten years ago as it does today, and they all benefited from their proximity to one another, although they also competed, and there was a constant flux. All of those bookstores could probably have fit in the space occupied by the big box I work in, and you could probably throw in my old Ohio store without crowding things too much. So what is the more efficient mechanism for providing books that customers want at a price customers can afford? Given all that has been done to the book market generally in the last thirty years, it might be the big box, but if the various limits created by government were removed, and publishers and distributors had a chance to reshape their operations accordingly, I'm pretty certain that the case would be very different. Hungry, competitive sellers, buying for the customers on their own street, rather than central buyers calculating national sales campaigns to fight off the other two mega-bookstore chains: that would seem to me a fair fight, and one I wouldn't hesitate to enter. And that is no light endorsement from an independent still living with the economic consequences of the last bookstore's failure.

In any event, it seems a dubious move to invoke competition as a virtue of the big boxes and online megastores, since it seems to be precisely a failure in the conditions necessary for a broader, more active competition that has made their rise possible and their ascendency, for now, inevitable.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Sounds like nonsense

There is, it turns out, more than one "conflation conflict" that we need to deal with. Before we can even begin to wrestle with the relation of the current economic situation to various understandings of "capitalism" and/or a "free (or freed) market," we apparently have to pick our way through a rhetorical minefield of widely used terms and phrases which "sound like" something no real anarchist or libertarian would (presumably) ever say. For right libertarians, the primary concern seems to be contamination by "Marxism," which embodies, apparently, pretty much everything that is or could be wrong with the world. Now, it's strangely touching to see somebody credit marxism with so much importance, at a time when most anarchists have pretty well written off the bulk of that tradition as something less than a cause for concern. I'm sure there are plenty of folks in left-libertarian circles who have read Marx and learned some things from the tradition. I certainly have. But my primary influences are all either Marx's intellectual antagonists, like Proudhon, or libertarians who worked on the margins of marxian socialism for specific historical and theoretical reasons, and drew out the most libertarian threads in marxist theory. I'm sure the folks at would be as appalled by Bataille, or by Lafargue's more libertarian work, as they are by Marx himself (assuming they have any direct knowledge of Marx's work), but, presumably at least, "Marxist" means something other, among serious debaters, than "stuff that appalls me." Presumably. Then I find Stephan Kinsella saying: "The notion of 'bargaining power' is leftist to the core."

There's plenty of debate concerning this assertion--too much, really, given the shameful sloppiness of the charge--over on Kevin Carson's blog. But it's of a very familiar sort. A libertarian who objects to the very notion of a "left" libertarianism proceeds to "read" a left-libertarian writer as if they were a Stalinist or Maoist (or what they imagine a doctrinaire Marxist of this sort would say.) In the process, they limit the field to a couple of rhetorical possibilities: their own vocabulary, which they take to be standard usage, and various forms of Diamat or its stealthy proxies. Real intellectual history is erased. Real marxist usage, in all its dizzying variety, is erased. The left anarchist tradition is erased. Indeed, most of the tradition of classical political economy is erased. The baby, the bathroom, and most of the new addition go out with the bathwater, while there are pompous declamations about what true libertarians do and do not say, etc. Bring on the right-lib Diamat. Except that it isn't clear that there is anything, except the conflations, to advance and defend.

Those who "argue" in this way, it seems to me, have to be working from a position of either extreme bad faith (the "fraud" half of what all good libertarians presumably avoid) or wilfull ignorance. Either way, this can only be a matter of preaching to the choir. So be it. People who make a big production of their commitment to truth and liberty, and then respond to others who are committed to truth and liberty with silly "sounds like" retorts and ideological name-calling trivialize some things we probably can't afford to take lightly. Sometimes it is necessary to engage with this sort of nonsense, but let's try to keep our eyes on the prize, and not waste too much time.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Happy 150th, "libertaire"

Over at the Anarchist FAQ blog, Iain has a post recognizing the sesquicentennial of the term libertaire, used in 1858 by Joseph Déjacque as the title of his journal, La Libertaire, Journal du Mouvement Social. Déjacque is generally credited with the first use of the term "libertarian" as a synonym for "anarchist." We've learned, as the digital archives grow, to be skeptical of first-use claims, but I'm happy to take a moment to recognize the importance of Déjacque's contribution. His fascinating mix of anarchism, communism, egoism, and feminism, drawing on the thought of Fourier, Proudhon, Pierre Leroux and others, is deserving of much more attention that it has generally received.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Who benefits most economically from state centralization?

The conversation surrounding Roderick Long's recent article at Cato Unbound, "Corporations versus the Market; or, Whip Conflation Now," has been pretty remarkable, starting with the fact that it began at Cato. There's been some sloppy, even, shabby stuff along the way, including some weird speculative stuff about Kevin Carson's work, and its ability to stand academic criticism. As a recovering academic, I would just like to remind folks that loose talk about whose father's theory can whip whose theory is the stuff of Wikipedia talk pages and chat rooms: scholars have to bring it if they've got it.

Anyway, one element of the conversation has revolved around the question of whether businesses in a freed market would be smaller and/or "flatter." And very early in the conversation, on the Reason Hit & Run blog, R C Dean suggested that a fine argument against Roderick's position was embodied by a subject near and dear to my own heart: bookstores.
Just to take one example of a market that is pretty free of overt government intervention of the kind listed above: Bookstores. Most "smaller, less hierarchical" local bookstores are now history, replaced by Big Box Bookstores and on-line booksellers that have huge inventories and lower prices.
I've been selling books off and on for about thirty years, and have worked in new and used bookstores, thrift stores, big and small chain stores. I currently work for one of those Big Box Bookstores. Now, I think the business about "overt government intervention" is a little off the mark, given that changes in inventory taxation laws in the '70s wrought some pretty significant changes in the way books were published and sold, increasing the cost of maintaining backlist, reducing the average size of print runs, creating a deep-discount remainder market which is still a factor in the book market, etc. But even if we waved away these historical concerns, I think there is a good case to be made that Big Box Bookstores benefit more from the intervention of the state than small independents.

We could start by talking about the relative visibility and perceived importance of small shops. There was a critical period in the last years of my own independent bookstore when access to my business, parking, utilities, etc., were in a state of constant interruption by a landlord-driven redevelopment project, while, on the outskirts of town the city was working hard to provide all the same services for a couple of big boxes. We do all drive the same streets, and we all receive the same incentives when the unobstructed streets lead to one sort of business instead of another. But let's set those concerns aside as well, as the sort of prioritizations that might take place in a freed society.

Let's ask who suffers more if the state, and public infrastructure, disappears, or becomes subject to new decentralized development and control. At my used bookstore, I had an inventory of roughly 150,000 used books, of which perhaps a third were sorted and displayed on shelves, another third were warehoused in a manner that made them easily accessible, and another third consisted on new acquisitions, old backlog, etc., that was for all intents and purposes an undiscovered country, and which gradually came into more active play as time allowed. One trained bookseller, working diligent 75-80 hours work-weeks, could handle all the retail business, maintain the inventory, and even make some fairly steady headway on the backlogged inventory (which was mostly inherited from a previous owner's era.) If you've never been self-employed, well, and 80-hour work week sounds worse than it is, but it's a lot of work. On the other hand, the paperwork burden associated with taking on employees makes the long hours preferable in many ways. (Eliminate government paperwork, and one of the big impediments to hiring help in small business evaporates.) Break my example down into a partnership, with two committed booksellers, and factor in a couple of accounts with the major book distributors, and you have a pretty efficient operation. My experience with special orders for new books was that I could almost always provide them as quickly as the Big Box Stores and that I could frequently provide them at a slight discount, and, of course, I could provide low-cost used books in many instances. And when something wasn't on the shelf, I frequently had a pretty good idea of when I had picked up a copy at a flea market in Michigan, and where that stack of bags was, and "check back with me in a couple of days..."

Now, how do the Big Box Bookstores work? Ordering is done centrally, based to some extent on past sales patterns, but booksellers have no way to input customer feedback into the system. Inventory management, sales assistance, merchandising and cashiering are separate tasks, and booksellers' knowledge of new stock is essentially accidental, with the exception of featured titles. They learn the stock as they search through it for customer requests, or as they reshelve books. Constant changes in merchandising and discounting strategies essentially pits one group of employers against another, in a battle to arrange books, with the merchandising team emphasizing table displays and the booksellers' electronic cues suggesting placement "in section," all too often the last place where books are actually found. Weird in-section merchandising theories sabotage important things like clear alphabetical order. And the folks who shelve books, or pull returns, have different basic concerns than customers or booksellers or marchandising crews. The Big Box Stores have high rents, and need to turn over large numbers of books fairly predictably, which means they tied tightly to the demand-drivers who are happy to cooperate with them. Local schools seldom give us warning about class books, but Oprah's book club titles get their own endcap. Lots of factors, including those tax concerns I mentioned earlier, have led to a marketing and stocking strategy based on bringing in enormous numbers of copies of a relatively small number of titles, for a period determined by cooperative media saturation by the publishers, bookstore chains, and media corporations. Of all the books published, a relatively minute number form the core of the Big Box Bookstores' inventory at any given time. Single titles, or series, can make or break a sales period. Currently, a handful of series (Twilight, etc) account for enormous percentages of new book sales. Now, Big Box Bookstores deliver those books extremely well, assuming the supply remains steady, though they frequently have to do so at a discount, to keep up with the competition from Costco, etc. But there's a knife edge to be walked, since it is important to maintain the appearance of having more titles on hand than the independent competition. Lose that, and the general discount stores take the bestseller business. Given that those general discount stores seem to get away with breaking street dates, the odds are sometimes stacked a bit against even the Big Box Bookstores.

It would be worth going into a full rant about the book industries degeneration into a media-driven monoculture, but here it is probably just worth noting that Big Box Bookstores can really only work effectively with big books with big discounts, so that small press titles and university press books have a tendency to fall off the map more or less. And, without disparaging my fellow Big Box Booksellers unnecessarily, let me just say that if some of us are indeed real booksellers, of the sort that might well manage a large inventory, we aren't getting paid to do that, and what we are getting paid ain't much. The system is, in any event, set up so that a "bookseller" need not be particularly well-read, and so that the division of labor necessary for a bookstore which has employees working something like 17 hours each day to keep it in a semblance of order isn't too great a problem.

The big box formula is centralized promotion of a relatively uniform product, shipped out (and often back, or destroyed, in the case of mass market paperbacks) in massive amounts, handled by cheap labor and sold at deeply discounted prices--with a big enough general inventory wrapped around this core so that people can generally find something to read, and a system of regular shipments to service the special-order trade. Everything comes through channels, generally from far away. Local publications are actually more difficult to incorporate in the supply chain. Small press titles are almost impossible to accomodate. Used and out of print books come from independent booksellers, though that is largely masked by the ordering interface, and, of course, those books are actually more expensive than they would be from the independents.

The independent model is primarily based on knowledge, either of books in general or of local taste. It generally has to depend to a much greater extent on the special order trade, or on alternate supply chains such as the buying and selling of used books. Independents have more difficulty establishing accounts with certain kinds of academic and trade publishers, but in those areas their competition is university bookstores and non-bookstores, rather than the Big Box Bookstores, who aren't great shakes in the textbook field either.

Now, if we were to take away, or even just complicate, the interstate highway system and the internet, who would be most seriously disadvantaged? At the Big Box Bookstore there is a trip to a centrally networked computer in the midst of almost every response to a customer question. And when the networks are down even good booksellers have a hard time telling you where to find a book they have never happened to shelve. (Curiously, the Big Box philosophy is to depend only on their own network's data, so that booksellers there do not under any circumstances have access to the sort of data that anyone could get by just firing up the Google.) If it was necessary to rely on local supplies of books, to mix new and used books, etc., it is unlikely that the division of labor in the big boxes could result in a workable arrangement. Something else might emerge, but it would not be the centralized model we presently have, and it would depend for success on a new blossoming of suppliers. It would probably also depend on a very different sort of division of labor and structure of cooperation between workers. I doubt that the particular culture of the Big Box Bookstores would be rational for any other sort of bookstore, assuming for the moment that it is rational at all.

So... There is nothing here conclusive. I'm just speaking about what I know of a single industry. But that industry has become increasingly centralized and the result has been a kind of retail monoculture. I experience on a daily basis the brittleness of that culture, when computers go down, when corporate allocates too few hours for the mandated tasks, or when centrally-mandated policies clash, as you might expect them to, with one another and with customer expectations, etc. States are good at centralizing, good at cutting across the barriers of individual rights and private property when it suits them, just as they are good at denying access or mobility to individuals when it suits them. Neoliberalism has been characterized by its facilitation of the flows of capital and its new barriers to the movements of individuals. If that is an accurate characterization, then it is merely an intensification of long-running processes. If we were to lose this particular centralizing force, and the particular impediments it erects, other sorts of centralization might well arise. Indeed, this was Proudhon's prediction, that complete "insolidarity" would lead to a centralization even more intense than that of the state and capital, but, explicitly, one in which no one would rule or be ruled, where no one model would be or could be imposed.

There's much more that could be said, but not tonight...

Note: Overnight, this post has blown up a bit, at least by my humble standards, thanks to a mention by Roderick at his blog (and some action in the comments section) and some Stumbleupon action. If anyone had told me I would set traffic records on this blog as a result of a comment relating to the Cato Institute I certainly would not have believed them.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

And the 104th "Great Idea" is...

...Spam, apparently. One of my other blogs just got hit with advertising comment spam from, of all places, The Center for the Study of the Great Ideas. Way to keep it current, gang...

It's official. We are all freakin' doomed.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Proudhon measures Progress

Some of the reshuffling of my scholarly priorities has revolved around my decision to go back and finish a translation of Proudhon's Philosophy of Progress, before tackling any more of Justice or going back to look at The General Idea of the Revolution. It was a work which scored low when I asked people what they would like to see in translation first, but it is one which seems particularly important to me at the moment, in part because it contains, in condensed and clear form, Proudhon's own account of what ties his various works together, an account which, despite the fact that it was written before many of the major works, still seems to me helpful and convincing. It also includes a very accessible, relaxed, often witty Proudhon, which is certainly a major part of the attraction for me. As an example, here is the end of the first of two Letters which make up the work.

If I have, unbeknownst to me, in the heat of polemic, in bad faith from party spirit, or in any other way, been in unfaithful to this doctrine [of Progress], it is a lapsus calami on my part, an argument ad hominem, a failure of mind or of heart, that I disavow and retract.

Still, this philosophical humility costs me little. The idea of progress is so universal, so flexible, so fecund, that he who has taken it for a compass almost no longer needs to know if his propositions form a body of doctrine or not: the agreement between them, the system, exists by the mere fact that they are in progress. Show me a philosophy where a similar security is to be found!... I never reread my works, and those that I wrote first I have forgotten. What does this matter, if I have moved for twelve years, and if today I still advance? What could could a few lapses, some false steps, detract from the rectitude of my faith, the goodness of my cause?... You will please me, sir, to learn for yourself what road I have traveled, and how many times I have fallen along the way. Far from blushing at so many spills, I would be tempted to boast of them, and to measure my valor by the number of my contusions.

I am, sir, etc.

Sites to support

I've recently received donation requests from both and Wendy's sites have lost one of their stable funding sources and Infoshop always needs a little to keep things rolling. It will probably be a rare individual, even among my regular readers, who gives to both, but I plan to do my little bit, one the last paycheck hits the bank.