Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Anarchic Encounter: Economic and/or Erotic?

It seemed appropriate to break off the previous post mid-encounter, if you will, in order to highlight even more emphatically the fundamentally fecund nature of the interactions I've been describing. The sort of anarchy that I have been starting to describe is not just without rulers, without any legitimate hierarchy, whether governmental or invested in other institutions, but largely without rules as well. It is not without history, if by that we mean an accumulation of experience and experiment, on the basis of which each new experiment is not a from-scratch affair, but might be assumed to take its place in a trial-and-error sort of progress. And that history may provide sufficient guidance for many, even most of our encounters, but there is probably no point in talking about anarchy if ever encounter is not also informed by the notion that, as we have put it, "another world is possible."

Another world is possible at every moment, and we should expect our commitment to an ungovernable anarchism to confront us with unforeseen possibilities on a pretty frequent basis. We will always build on a foundation composed of equal parts accumulated historical experience and consciousness of radical possibilities. At every encounter, it will be up to us to decide what sort of world it is we are building towards at that very moment.

And every moment, every association, every decision to build in a particular manner will have its consequences—its offspring. If we understand the social world as Proudhon did, as inhabited by "any number of individuals, on any number of scales and creating any number of associations," with all of the "collective individuals" brought into the world by our encounters and associations figuring in the justice-balance, then we're going to have to find the means to negotiate a new range of possibilities and responsibilities (or at least a new set of terms with which to negotiate it.)

Unfortunately, Proudhon, who has given us so much in the way of social scientific apparatus for approaching the clearly economic side of these questions, is considerably less help in tackling other aspects. As much as he has had to say about anarchistic commerce, he is not the person we would expect to enlighten us much on the subject of intercourse.

There are, of course, some approaches even to these other concerns in Proudhon's writings. In his critical phase, he was certainly not above adding some sexy bits to his analysis of "property." [See "Varieties of Proprietors: Lovers, Husbands, and Mother Hens," and the linked material, for an introduction to this side of Proudhon's discourse.] Over and over again, we find him referring to the infertile nature of proprietorship, but I have yet to find equally engaging treatments of the fecundity of the alternatives.

Fortunately, Proudhon's work is far from the only reference point I've identified for the analysis of property on the blog, and for some of the other figures I've had occasion to invoke the fecund was something of a preoccupation. Let's consider, for example, what our old friend Walt Whitman might have to add at this stage of our review.

What if we understood this economic formulation by Proudhon:
Two men meet, recognize one another's dignity, state the additional benefit that would result for both from the concert of their industries, and consequently guarantee equality, which means economy. That is the whole social system: an equation, and then a collective power.
Two families, two cities, two provinces, contract on the same footing: there is always only these two things, an equation and a collective power. It would involve a contradiction, a violation of Justice, if there were anything else.
as in many regards equivalent to this overtly erotic formulation by Walt Whitman:
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
To elaborate is no avail, learn'd and unlearn'd feel that it is so.

When we've had a chance to wrap up the review of he work thus far, this problem of integrating the economic and erotic aspects of the anarchic encounter will be one of our preoccupations.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Summary notions

With the first two issues of the Contr'un zine now available, I feel like perhaps I've reached the end of a necessary, but awkward transitional phase. Before moving forward, let me underline and elaborate on a few propositions or realizations that I consider key:
  • Anarchism is ungovernable, and anarchists should probably learn to embrace that face. It doesn't imply any sort of compromise. On the contrary, it sets the bar for all of our theories, practices, and the no-doubt necessary squabbles over boundaries very high. It ought to discourage dogmatism and complacency.
  • Not every aspiring anarchist need concern themselves with every aspect of anarchism. Some find no pleasure or utility in grappling with anarchism's history, or the vagueries of "the movement," or certain kinds of anarchist theory, and those who do will undoubtedly do so in a variety of not-always-compatible ways. But to the extent that we do engage with these things, and particularly as we engage with each other in the context of these concerns—if we mean anything by "anarchism" that we think is, has been, could or should be shared—we should probably try to learn to proceed and engage in ways that are not ultimately aimed at governing the concept, or governing each other, by governing its manifestations. There's a fine, and not always determinable line between "governing the concept" and the sorts of more-or-less internal advocacy and struggle that are necessary for the improvement of those manifestations, and the most careful of us should probably expect to cross it sometimes, just as the most engaged should expect to fall short of any really serious standard of "being an anarchist." And that's just fine: "humanity proceeds by approximations." We don't need to "call ourselves on our shit" so much as we need to make new, hopefully better mistakes the next time—and the next time, and...
  • Proudhon boiled the whole of anarchism's "social system" down to equality, collective power, and the principle of justice. On one level, then, under anarchism we simply see a particular sort of encounter acted out, over and over again: equal individuals meet, find the means to balance their individual interests, and from their association arises something else—a collective something with the potential to emerge as another individual, with interests of its own, which must then figure in the balancing of interests that is justice. In that "system," justice between equals is the ethical principle, the design principle for norms and institutions, and the criterion of judgment. Any number of encounters may take place, involving any number of individuals, on any number of scales and creating any number of associations, but the basic elements remain the same. The social field of play remains level, the status of the individuals—whether self-conscious free absolutes or various sorts of collectivities—remains equal before whatever norms and conventions we adopt, and those norms and conventions always remain subject to critique on the basis of their relationship to the most general, practical sort of equality and justice-balance.
  • Norms, conventions, rules, laws, rights—no matter what language we use to talk about the more persistent aspects of our mutual self-government, the things that that language represents can never assume any authority in and of themselves. They cannot be allowed to become archies. Arguably, that means much more than to say that they must not be backed by state or police powers, violence or the threat of violence. If we accept Proudhon's summary, it is really a question of preserving in each encounter a sort of positive lawlessness, and, in part, we may do this by acknowledging that each encounter is a new encounter, that there is no ready-made system for projecting ourselves into the future, even just a moment at a time. And yet that is what we do, moment after moment, world without end—unless, of course, the world ends. We pile up knowledge and experience in all of those moments, but nothing is certain. Along the way, we will undoubtedly accumulate some useful approximations, some developing but always revisable account of best practices, and some long, long lists of practices that really f*cking suck and that freedom-loving people will never want to see practiced again. But any anarchism worthy of the name is going to be pretty relentlessly suspect of anything that looks like permission or prohibition—both practices which demand some position of authority from which to regulate our encounters in some a priori manner.
  • Let's underline again this notion of a society without permission or prohibition, and emphasize that all of our anarchic encounters will require something more of us than just asserting our "rights" or fulfilling our "duties" with regard to one another. Every act of association will involve an act of creation, specifically the creation of some bit of some possible world, and creative acts involve some sort of erotics as much as economics. There is a lot that needs to be looked at with regard to how all this creative stuff plays out, but let's start by saying that none of the familiar language for it—society, community, market, etc.—gets us too far.
  • "Liberty is the mother, not the daughter of order," and free institutions are in some fundamental sense the issue of our social intercourse, our wayward children. They will have their own interests, and reason, which, despite their origins in our own more-or-less self-interested interactions, may well not be in line with our reason and interests. Endowed with force, but not with the means to reflect and negotiate, their interests and their reason will ultimately be our problem. They must inevitably fall under our tutelage, or else run wild, manifestations of our own irresponsibility, endowed with our own force. Whether or not we then let these feral children have their way, we certainly can't allow ourselves to be so far mistaken as to take them for our social arbitrators.
[to be continued...]

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Contr'un: the zine, etc.

I'm happy to announce that the first two issues of the Contr'un zine are now available in pdf form, and that the paper form will be making its debut at the Seattle Anarchist Book Fair. Issue 1, "Toward an Ungovernable Anarchism," collects all of the transitional posts from this blog, starting with the second essay on "the ungovernability of anarchism," and Issue 2, "Self-Government and the Citizen-State," includes the title essay, the "Notes," my translation of "The Feuding Brothers" and some short translations from Proudhon's work. I think some things will may have been hard to grasp or put together on the blog may be simpler to deal with in the collected editions.

The design of the paper edition reflects the experiments I've been making in that respect for the last year or so, while Corvus Editions has been a largely bookfair-only affair. My hope is to work from this beginning towards a stable catalog of titles that can be made available to bookstores and infoshops in the fairly near future. 

I'll be introducing a few more new titles at the bookfair, including the first two in a series of titles dealing with Russian radicalism. One of those is already available in pdf form, a reprint of Stepniak's "A Female Nihilist," an account of the life of Olga Liubatovitch, with a selection of poems and popular journalism relating to other women involved in the struggles against the Czars and their government. The popular accounts naturally made the most of the apparent contrasts between the beauty and education of those women, and the violence of their acts. 

I'll be posting more links to pdfs and updates on the relaunch of the Corvus Editions webstore as things develop.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

How does property become capitalist?

In the debates over "property," things often bog down pretty quickly around various assumptions about the relationship between "property" and "capitalism." Arguably, nearly all the most contentious elements in the debates tend to be bundled up in the competing definitions of those two terms, so a good deal of unpacking is necessary to come to grips with the most important concerns. There is, for example, a fair amount of technical stuff about "alienation" and the "commodity form" that needs to be brought into some kind of communication with narratives about "self-ownership" and "free markets," if we are to bring the more polar positions into a real debate. Folks like Kevin Carson have certainly started that work, but in general the debates don't seem to have altered much. 

Without any pretense that the sort of interventions I've been making here are likely to shift the debate in any great way, I think it may be worthwhile to pursue a small, but perhaps important, clarification of what I've been saying about "self-ownership." From a perspective rooted in Proudhon, the core of "capitalism" is the implicit right of the holders of capital to accumulate more capital, whether by appropriating the products of social labor or collective force, or by using their advantages in the market to appropriate the products of individual labor. That's the droit d'aubaine or "right of increase," which treats the products of collective force and those appropriable products of individual labor as "windfalls" which the capitalist may legitimately claim. That "right" seems to be fairly completely naturalized as a part of the bundle of "property rights," but is it necessarily so?

The familiar divisions of "property" into "simple property" and "simple possession," or "personal property" and "private property," seem to suggest that there is nothing inherent in the broader category of "property" which necessarily links it to "capitalism" (in the specific sense I'm giving the word here, but probably also in any of the other, competing senses.) "Anti-propertarians" tend to focus on the potential uses of "property" at least as much, and often much more, than on anything essential to it, and "propertarians" have often rightly objected that this is not a very useful way of distinguishing between types of "property." 

So let's take a step back, and look at that broadest sort of "property," with an eye to then examining once again the notion of "self-ownership" or "property in one's person," which seems to be at least one critical point at which the various schools of thought tend to part company. 

What is "property"? What is it, that is, when taken in its most general sense, before we attempt to establish its attendant "rights" and such? 

"Property" appears to be little more than one of the characteristics of the self or personhood, which comes into play when it is examined from the perspective of conflicts over material resources. On this reading, property is a concept similar to identity, which is a characteristic of the self or person when examined in the context of social interactions, where some distinction between actors is required. In both cases, we're dealing with useful approximations. We know, on reflection, that any stark distinction between the self and the other is likely to involve some degree of philosophical violence, some substitution (in Bataille's terms) of a limited economy for a general economy, with some necessary accursed share. The argument in favor of anarchist property would do well to address a series of potential alienations and approximations in the formation of even the most basic property, in order to determine if this is the sort of norm that is truly useful to us, particular given its practical history. But, remember, nobody seems to really be attacking property at this level. And perhaps we can point out a little more clearly just where some of those practical problems have had their source. 

If we accept that there is a broad sort of property, which simply designates what is "one's own," what is "proper to the self," without any assertion of specific rights and norms, we immediately encounter a complication, since "the self" is not a static thing. To too clearly delimit its boundaries is essentially to condemn it to death. The dynamic nature of the self is the problem that makes more concrete conceptions of property necessary, and it is that dynamic nature that introduces the first complications to the notion of "self-ownership" or "property in one's person." While critics object to the the way that those ideas seem to split the self, perhaps we have to acknowledge the extent to which the self is always splitting from itself, always redrawing the boundaries of the proper in ways that our property theories will have to account for. But different ways of accounting for this problem will have different consequences. I want to sketch out two possibilities, one roughly mutualist and the other arguably capitalist, which diverge based on their understanding of what is involved in "property in one's person."

The mutualist approach (and I take this to be roughly the model for any sort of anti-capitalist anarchist approach) is likely to emerge from some prior theory about selves and their relations, like the beefed-up version of the Golden Rule I've proposed in the past. If we are to "do unto others," then we need a means of identifying them, which seems to presuppose a theory of identity, and since we want to apply our ethic in the material realm, we're going to need to make at least some engagement with the "mine" and "thine." But that engagement can be fairly simple. If the self is something that perpetually "mixes" with the environment, with other selves, and with itself, then property emerges simply as a secondary question, when we are trying to determine how to specify those "others," and the question of rights can be largely folded back into the question of how we should treat them. Proudhon's mature model of property rights basically accounts for equal regard for individuals as they are, with its "rights of use," which amount to equal protection of "possessions," and a recognition that we are all evolving and need room to evolve, experiment, and even err, with its "rights of abuse." From that basis, all of the specific questions about real property, capital accumulation, and the disposition of labor-products are likely to find their answers in norms regarding just how much of the "mix" that individuals are a part of can be attributed to them. The introduction of elements from Proudhon's sociology, such as the theory of collective individuals and his account of the nature of liberty, will shape those norms, restricting individual property in some regards and possibly expanding it in others, while reshaping the why system in significant ways. But there doesn't seem to be any reason to believe that any right of increase is likely to be implied. There is, perhaps, a right to live and evolve which needs to be made more explicit, but that is probably something rather different. 

The alternative reading of "self-ownership," which seems to be fairly common among capitalists, presents the "splitting" within the self in what seems a significantly different way. It's surprisingly common to see the argument that the self "owns" the body, perhaps because of some original labor-mixing, although it is a little unclear how the disembodied self mixes with anything. Self-ownership is then a bit more paradoxical, or maybe just malformed, and amounts to body-ownership, or the ownership of a first capital. Now, if we imagine that the self is always already an assemblage of the capitalist+capital variety, then it's not hard to imagine that life itself is all about increase, and from there many things about our current predicament are probably a lot clearer. This sort of naturalization, which deals with alternatives by presenting a world in which there is no alternative, is familiar, of course. We can go back to 19th century arguments that the workers were proprietors because they possessed arms and legs, and therefore did not constitute a separate, antagonistic class. 

Obviously, there's a lot more to be said about these competing understandings of self-ownership and how they relate to our debates about property, but I think there is at least the beginning of a suggestive, and potentially important insight here. I think it has been very useful to shift the debate about "increase" from the practice of the various forms of "usury" to the principle of the droit d'aubaine, but that "right" is one which we have not, it seems to me, managed to situate very specifically in the larger discourse on property. I think this is a start, and that placed alongside the observations on the consequences of Locke's provisos, it gives us both some idea of the range of potential property norms which might be derived from fairly traditional sources and the potentially significant consequences of apparently small differences in the way we understand our basic premises.