Category Archives: Proudhon’s social science

Equality and Justice

Let’s take a little extra time to emphasize the flatness of Proudhon’s system. Unity-collectivities at different scales overlap, but their relationships remain horizontal. The anarchistic “State” is, Proudhon tells us, “a kind of citizen” and the principle of political equality applies to all the citizens, no matter their kind. And the collective is a kind of individual almost everywhere we look in Proudhon’s work, and equality extends across widely different scales and between individuals of radically different makeup.

The recognition of equality becomes the foundation for justice—and Proudhon’s individualities at various scale crowd the world with potential equals, whose interests must be balanced in order to establish justice. And, indeed, equality, justice and balance are all just descriptions of particular aspects of a world without hierarchy and authority. They are really all just aspects of anarchy. But if we are to bring about anarchy, naturally we need to look closely at it from all sides.

When we are focused on equality, perhaps the most pressing question becomes what individualities can be recognized as equals. In the opening study in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, Proudhon suggested broad inclusion as a principle. As we look around the world, we recognize those individuals capable of looking back at us, but, he said, “the passive does not exclude the reciprocal,” suggesting that ethical recognition at least potentially has to extend farther, perhaps to “plants and rocks, which are, like the hairs and the bones of my body, parts of the great organism.” With a modern ecological sensibility, we can certainly begin to consider some of the unity-collectivities in non-human nature that might call for recognition, along with others on a scale that includes human beings along with other elements. But the breadth of Proudhon’s conclusion will, I think, still challenge many of us:

Instead of seeking the law of my philosophy in a relation between myself, which I consider as the summit of being, and that which is the most inferior in creation and that I repute to be non-thinking, I will seek that law in a relation between myself and another self that will not be me, between man and man. For I know that every man, my fellow, is the organic manifestation of a mind, is a self; I judge equally that animals, endowed with sensibility, instinct, even intelligence, although to a lesser degree, are also selves, of a lesser dignity, it is true, and placed at a lower degree on the scale, but created according to the same plan; and as I no more know of a demarcation marked between the animals and the plants, or between those and the minerals, I ask myself if the unorganized beings are not still minds which sleep, selves in the embryonic state, or at least the members of a self of which I ignore the life and operations?

If every being is thus supposed self and non-self, what can I do better, in this ontological ambiguity, than to take for the point of departure of my philosophy the relation, not of me to myself, in the manner of Fichte, as if I wanted to make the equation of my mind, simple, indivisible, incomprehensible being; but of myself to another that is my equal and is not me, which constitutes a dualism no longer metaphysical or antinomic, but a real duality, living and sovereign?

We know the instances where Proudhon struggled to be as just to women as he presumably would be to rocks or hair and bones, but even then his failure was more a matter of fact than principle. He struggled, as we still do in other contexts, to reconcile the absolute equality of his principle with his sense of greater or less capacity or “dignity.” As I understand the work of Joseph Déjacque, the figure usually proposed as an alternative to Proudhon on questions of gender, he also wrestled with reconciling anarchistic thinking with his sense of natural hierarchies, and was perhaps a little more certain about the “place” of men and women in the universal circulus than we would be entirely comfortable with. Between them, I suspect we might have the material for a more successful attempt—but I’m fairly certain we won’t succeed without some additional wrestling of our own.

From the side of justice, it is a question of what individualities can demand (in one way or another) to be included in the balancing of interests, and, again, Proudhon concluded that those claims could come from a wide range of sources. In War and Peace, he laid out a general theory of “rights:”

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

What we have here is a scheme in which “faculties, attributes and prerogatives” seem to be among the elements that call for recognition. And every right “exists only under the condition of reciprocity.”

Reciprocity, however, is something we will have to return to in more detail.

In the meantime, the post on “” addresses some of the issues we will have to makes sense of.

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Proudhon’s Social Science

The posts in this series will consist of a fairly wide-ranging exploration of some of the principles of Proudhon’s thought and their application in the present. As it seems appropriate, I will be including or linking to posts from the Contr’un blog that seem to advance the study. [I’ll keep this post stickied until things have settled down enough to add navigation menus to the posts in the series.]

  1. All Actors Are Collective Actors: The Unity-Collectivity
  2. Equality and Justice
  3. Reciprocity
  4. Special Agent: The Free Absolute


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All Actors Are Collective Actors: The Unity-Collectivity

Every individual is a group. There are a small number of key concepts in Proudhon’s work, without which it is almost impossible to understand. The notion of the collective actor, or unity-collectivity, and that of the collective force with which it is imbued may top the list in terms of importance. Virtually everything else depends on this basic insight into the nature of unity. The logical contender for top spot would be the philosophy of progress, but it turns out that Proudhon really saw the two analyses as intertwined. While much of Proudhon’s 1853 work, The Philosophy of Progress, focused on questions of truth and certainty, we also find declarations that make it clear that those analyses were not separate from the analysis that led Proudhon to believe that “property is theft.” For example: “All that reason knows and affirms is that each being, like every idea, is a GROUP.”

There is a general principle being asserted here: unity, in whatever sphere we encounter it, is not simple, but is always a matter of converging forces and multiple elements. We’ll keep exploring aspects of this principle, and its various consequences, but for now let’s stay fairly close to the notions of property and theft.

Property, in its simplest form, is what is proper to a given individual. The notion of the proper at least potentially covers a lot of ground, from what is appropriate to the individual to what is a part of the individual or what is owned by the individual. All of the various things that can be considered my own fall within this broad sort of proper-ty. I want to insist on the individual character of property, if only to challenge the narrow range of things that we are accustomed to consider individual. If every individual is a group, then what defines individuality is not singleness, but a particular sort of relation between multiple elements. Proudhon gave that relation a number of names, each highlighting an aspect of the relationship, but perhaps it is enough to suggest that the elements of an individuality are closely enough associated to manifest a shared pattern or “law” of development (at least within some sphere of existence) and that their relationship is balanced and non-hierarchical. There is, to use one of Proudhon’s favorite keywords, a kind of justice among the elements.

We’ll come back to these concerns, but let’s see what happens when we try to map out the property of particular individuals.

Think of the work group from the first post. The 1000 workers add up to at least 1001 individuals, and the more complex their organization in the workplace the more individuals we should probably recognize. And the unity-collectivities that we recognize in the workplace are only some of the individualities that these workers will find themselves contributing elements to, with these other unity-collectivities ranging in scale from close friendships and families to universal wholes, perhaps on a larger scale than we can imagine. And the workers themselves are collectivities. Any attempt to map out the mine and thine of the situation—which is, after all, the most common use of the notion of property—is going to run into a problem: while there will be no shortage of clearly individual property, there will be very little that we can consider exclusive to any given individual. We’re quite simply going to find that, without some convention to strike some new, mutually constructed balance, the various spheres of individual property will overlap in overwhelmingly complex ways.

I will have repeated recourse to two phrases from the poetry of Walt Whitman, which seem to capture the two truths about property introduced by this notion that individuals are always groups:

“I am large, I contain multitudes.”

“I…am not contain’d between my hat and boots”

The individuality of the individual does not preclude, and in fact presupposes, the individuality of constituent elements, the “multitudes” contained by the individual. And as those constituent multitudes participate in the unity-collectivity that is our self, as the workers participate in the unity-collectivity that is the work group or firm, we participate in unity-collectivities of various sorts—including many still organized along authoritarian lines, within which the collective force to which we contribute is captured and appropriated by some usurping class of elements and used against us.

In his economic manuscripts, Proudhon took some steps toward generalizing the analysis of capitalist exploitation in What is Property? to include parallel sorts of exploitation in the realm of government. He might well have gone farther, at least to recognize the similar dynamic at work in the family. (See my post on “The Capitalist, the Prince, the Père de famille, and the Alternative” for some thoughts in that direction.) We can certainly go that far, but we should perhaps also go considerably farther. One of the intriguing possibilities of Proudhon’s social science in our own time is that it might help us to wrestle with the sorts of issues we seem unable to quite come to terms with using the tools of “identity politics,” “privilege theory,” etc. We will move slowly but surely towards that sort of application, but not before we spend a bit more time clarifying some basics.

For those who have not read it, this might be a good time for a first reading of my essay “Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: Self-Government and the Citizen-State.” If you’ve read it before, but feel like you need some clarification, another read probably wouldn’t hurt. There are really only a few key principles in Proudhon’s work, but, in part because of that relative simplicity, it takes some real work to get a firm grasp on their application.

Further Reading: The Fundamental Laws of the Universe

Next: Justice and Equality

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Property and Theft: Proudhon’s Theory of Exploitation

Part of the task here will be to explain the basics of Proudhon’s social science, the body of work that shows how his basic commitment to anti-authoritarianism and non-governmentalism played out (or didn’t, but could have played out) in a variety of contexts. The goal is to show how most of the principles he developed depend on a fairly small number of observations or assumptions, so that readers can not only make better sense of Proudhon’s work, but also acquire a toolkit that can be applied in new contexts. In the process, we’ll hopefully also debunk some familiar misreadings or misrepresentations of Proudhon.

Let’s start with the single most famous, and probably most misunderstood, of Proudhon’s claims: Property is theft.

There seems to be no end of explanations of what Proudhon meant by that phrase—or of why it must be meaningless—but very few of them seem to have much of anything to do with what he actually said in What is Property? The simplest misunderstanding, often resorted to by those who presumably should have known better, involves the assertion that “theft presupposes property,” and so Proudhon is talking contradictory nonsense. The answer is two-fold:

  • First, when we look at the discussion of property in Proudhon’s earlier work, The Celebration of Sunday, we find a conception of property that presupposes theft, rather than the other way around. If nothing else, recognizing it is a useful step outside the propertarian paradigm.
  • More importantly, however, it should be obvious that Proudhon is pointing to contradictions in the very definition of property itself. “I contend that neither labor, nor occupation, nor law, can create property; that it is an effect without a cause…” At this point, I suppose someone could make an argument that every effect has a cause, but they would pretty obviously be objecting to a metaphor, not to the arguments behind it.  And What is Property? contains argument after argument in support of its provocative thesis.

Of course, when we get stuck at this level of debate, we miss even the most obvious facts about Proudhon’s anti-property argument, starting with the fact that the heart of his argument may seem more like an analysis of remuneration than of ownership. Ultimately, the discussion of collective force and the droit d’aubaine is a bit of both, but perhaps most importantly for our purposes that discussion provides us with a description of modern society that potentially revolutionizes the way we think about a wide range of economic and sociological questions.

Consider a passage like this:

A force of one thousand men working twenty days has been paid the same wages that one would be paid for working fifty-five years; but this force of one thousand has done in twenty days what a single man could not have accomplished, though he had labored for a million centuries. Is the exchange an equitable one? Once more, no; when you have paid all the individual forces, the collective force still remains to be paid. Consequently, there remains always a right of collective property which you have not acquired, and which you enjoy unjustly.

The simplest way to understand Proudhon’s theory of capitalist exploitation is to recognize that there are not 1000 workers in this scenario, but at least 1001, with the 1001st (that “force of one thousand men” considered as a “collective being”) doing a tremendous amount of the work. When the share (however we might determine shares) of that last worker is paid out to the capitalist, that is exploitation, and since the contribution of that last worker is the product of the organized association of all the other workers, all of the workers are exploited.

Why is this is a question of “property”? The first and simplest answer is that what is proper to the 1000 workers has two sides, which we might, for now, call individual and social, while the existing property conventions only acknowledge the individual side. But we’ll have a chance to clarify that statement as we explore the theory more thoroughly. For now, however, what is important to remember is that, whatever theory of just remuneration we might come up with and however we might decide that contributions to production and the creation of property are related, there is at least one potential claimant who has not conventionally entered into the conversation—what Proudhon called a “unity-collectivity” of all the workers.

There are, it turns out, lots of these unity-collectivities. Indeed, one of Proudhon’s key principles is that every individual is a group. And once you accept that principle, lots of interesting things happen to your view of society and economy.

Next: Every Actor Is a Collective Actor

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Individualities and Collectivities – Rights and Strengths

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

In War and Peace, Proudhon defined “rights” in this way:

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

The right of force is the simplest of all and the most basic: it is the homage rendered to man for his strength. Like every other right, it exists only under the condition of reciprocity. Just as the recognition of the superior force in no way implies the negation of the inferior, the right which belongs to the first does not destroy that of the second. If the earth is attracted by the sun, the sun is in its turn attracted by the earth and the other planets: by virtue of this double attraction, the center of the whirl is not at the center of the sun, but at a distance proportional to the power of reciprocal attraction of the sun and the planets.

This is obviously not any of the conventional theories of rights, and, ultimately, the question of “human rights” is just one aspect—though obviously a critically important one for us—of a larger question of the rights of individualities.
If that phrase—”the rights of individualities”—sounds like nonsense to you, then you face a dilemma: You can either make sense of it, on Proudhon’s terms, or go find other reading material. Attempting to shoehorn one set of definitions into a system built on an entirely different set is a common enough practice, but not a particularly useful one.
For Proudhon, recall, JUSTICE meant BALANCE, and the various forms of justice formed a SERIES, starting with balances of physical strength and cunning—force and fraud, ultimately. The emergence of cunning as a balance to physical strength initiated not just a change in the criterion of justice, but an increase of complexity, a multiplication of criteria. In the bad old days, when the “equals” or ‘heroes” hardly extended between the strongmen and the con-men (according to Proudhon’s account), we already see the possibility of a multiplication of recognizable strengths. Division of labor—a two-edged sword, like most of Proudhon’s concepts, but not the pure negative of some anti-capitalist theory—opened the possibility for the recognition of additional strengths, and thus the striking of more complex balances. Most importantly, it opened the possibility for a more complete participation by more individuals, or individualities,—all of them (all of us) “differently abled” (as they say)—in the general balancing associated with justice.
Justice was a balance—or a level—and Right (droit) was not much more than a straightedge, a means of plotting the straight or right line of individual development—whether of faculties, or human individuals, or collective individualities. For Proudhon, after all, every individual was a group, and every group with sufficient unity of action to be worthy of the name could be identified by its organizing LAW or principle. So that a concern for Right was a concern with “the recognition of human dignity in all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives”—but in a thoroughly mutualist fashion, so that the recognition could not be limited to a single scale. To say that “the state has its rights,” or to focus on the level of faculties or attributes, is obviously to use a different sort of language and argument than is generally used in the debates on “human rights.” As close as Proudhon gets to identifying something like “natural rights,” he remains essentially descriptive in his treatment, and, of course, multiplies those potential rights—”…dignity in all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives”—in a manner that escapes easy normative judgments.
Indeed, the normative component of Proudhon’s system doesn’t extend far beyond the Golden Rule—the principle of RECIPROCITY—and the commitment to progress and the process of perfection-by-experiment or approximation. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (sometimes in the negative form, “don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you”)—and then do better, and better, and…. I’ve argued that the positive form of the injunction imposes the sort of uncertainty that forces the conscientious mutualist to “aim high,” which amount to paying close attention to those “dignities” that we might miss if we’re too wrapped up in our own present perceptions of what constitutes (our) dignity.
This careful regard isn’t—or isn’t justother-directed. The Proudhonian individual subject is a player on a variety of scales-of-being. It marks a particular intersection of the lawful unfolding of multiple individualities on these multiple scales. (We could say the individual is a product/producer of a polycentric system of natural laws—if the apparent familiarity of the language didn’t pose its own problems…) If we were to take up the question of “property” in the same, mostly descriptive manner that Proudhon applied to justice, law, and rights, we’re probably going to come up with a similarly complex, polycentric system, on multiple scales, where individual property may not be “private” or exclusive—or where “private property” emerges as a result of a general gift-economy. Again, Leroux’s notion of “property rights in the other” or Whitman’s “every atom of me as good belongs to you” are useful signposts in this realm.

[For those current readers who weren’t in on the discussions of Leroux in 2008, here’s a key passage: “The life of man then, and of every man, by the will of his Creator, is dependent upon an incessant communication with his fellow beings, and with the universe. That which we call his life, does not appertain entirely to him, and does not reside in him alone; it is at once within him and out of him; it resides partially, and jointly, so to speak, in his fellows and the surrounding world. In a certain point of view therefore it may be said, that his fellow beings and the world appertain also to him. For, as his life resides in them, that portion of it which he controls, and which he calls Me, has virtually a right to that other portion, which he cannot so sovereignly dispose of, and which he calls Not Me.”]

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

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

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


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