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Constructing an Anarchism: Guarantism (Theory)

from Libertarian Labyrinth

For Charles Fourier, Guarantism was one of the stages between Civilization, the undesirable present state of things, and Harmony, a state in which the harmonious expression of the passions would occur more or less naturally, thanks to lessons learned and tendencies developed along the way. Guarantism wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough that he resisted describing it too fully, lest we be tempted by its relative splendors.

Proudhon borrowed the term from Fourier, making it a near-synonym of two more familiar terms, mutualism and federalism. As we turn to questions about anarchic social organization, I want to talk about relations that will certain align with familiar understanding of those terms, but I want to start from the borrowed notion of guarantism, precisely because it is difficult for even those pretty well versed in the theory of the early 19th century to come at that term with too many preconceptions.

I also want to underline something that has been true right along, but will no doubt be increasingly so through the final weeks of this “quarter:” « my guarantism » is best understood as an appropriation of an appropriation. I am largely going to skip over the step of documenting and interpreting Proudhon’s use of the term across his works, in part because he didn’t use it a lot, but primarily because the most interesting part of that usage, for our purposes, is the connection of the three terms already noted. We need to talk in general, non-utopian terms about social organization and I really want to keep things fairly simple. We have a good idea now, I think, of the various ways that things can get complicated. But now seems like a good time to take advantage of one of the surprisingly simple model that Proudhon gave us of “the social system.”

We’ll dig a bit into the details, but try to stick to one short and already familiar passage from Justice in the Revolution and in the Church:

Two men meet, recognize their dignity, state the additional benefit that would result for both from the concert of their industries, and consequently guarantee equality, which means economy. There is the whole social system: an equation, and then a power of collectivity.

Two families, two cities, two provinces, contract on the same footing: there is always only these two things, an equation and power of collectivity. It would involve a contradiction, a violation of Justice, if there were anything else.

I’ve already suggested one clarification, recognizing that the individualities that might meet “on the same footing” need not necessarily be similar in terms of scale. If, for example, the State should be understood as “a kind of citizen,” engaging with the more easily recognizable citizens on the same footing, then we can assume a rather marvelous simplicity and strict horizontality in our model—however complicated the application may ultimately become. Each encounter always involves the same two elements: “an equation, and then a power of collectivity.”

Every time I encounter that formula—”une équation, et par suite une puissance de collectivité”—I want to translate it a little bit differently. There is quite a rabbit-hole that we could plunge ourselves into if we wanted that kind of fun, tracing Proudhon’s revision of the phrase and its echoes in other parts of the text. At one point, Proudhon is this close to refuting his own patriarchal tendencies… But what’s important to us is that he eventually settled on not just a (small) collection of necessary elements, but on a kind of process as well. In 1858, the formula is simply a list:

Voilà tout le système social : une puissance de collectivité, une équation.

In 1860, it has been revised to show a kind of process: “an equation, and then a power of collectivity.”

Let’s treat the steps in that process as active. We begin with an ecounter, as two individualities meet and (mutually) “recognize their dignity.” We wouldn’t be stretching the sense of things much to say that they see themselves in one another. And let’s acknowledge that, given the range of possible encounters we have acknowledged, that is not always going to be easy. Equation, according to the first definition in the OED, is “the action of equalling.” Let’s underline the fact that the equation in question here may be a sort of task.

The task of equation accomplished, something new emerges: une puissance de collectivité. Let’s distinguish puissance from the various other power-words, recognizing that what emerges directly from this active equation is a potency, a collective potential. And let’s note that Proudhon was prone to presenting “la puissance de collectivité ou la liberté” (the collective potential or liberty) in their own sort of equation.

That may seem like quite a bit of close reading, but we’re barely skimming the surface. We have our process of encounter and equation—a horizontal, anarchic process—which produces a collective potential. And if this potential collective then acts in a concerted manner to grasp that “additional benefit,” then perhaps, given the spartan simplicity of our “social system,” we are back to the stage of an individuality—the unity-collectivity composed in the process of concerted action—in search of a new encounter, a new equation, a new collective potential, then perhaps a new concerted effort, a new unity-collectivity, and so on…

There isn’t a lot left to account for in Proudhon’s brief description. The two individualities encounter one another, see themselves in one another, note the benefits that might be gained by concerted effort and “se garantissent en conséquence l’égalité, ce qui revient à dire, l’économie.” What remains is presented as a consequence of the other steps. Having progressed this far in their encounter, the two individualities “consequently se garantissent equality, which essentially means economy.” The near equation of equality and economy might reward some additional investigation, but we know already that the process we’re examining is the one that produces collective force, first in potential and then in actual form. So perhaps the sense of that equation is not shrouded in too much mystery. That just leaves a translation of the verb se garantir and some judgment about the sense of that “consequently.”

I initially presented the action in question as one of mutual “guarantee,” taking some cues from Proudhon’s well-known tendency to talk about anarchic association in terms of “contracts,” “pacts,” “transactions,” etc. The move, familiar from works like The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, of folding political functions into the economic realm is a useful one, but perhaps one that needs a bit of clarification in a context where “libertarian” capitalists are among anarchists most persistent rivals.

One way of thinking about the process of mutual guarantee would certainly be contractual. We can imagine the encounter of individualities, the mutual recognition and the noting of potential advantages in concerted industry, followed by some more-or-less formal sort of agreement—a contract, a pact, a transaction, etc.—that would, as a consequence, mutually guarantee the equal status of the contracting parties. And that, I think, has been a fairly common way to read Proudhon’s intent. But it is perhaps not entirely clear by what anarchistic mechanisms that mutual guarantee could function. It would seem to depend on voluntary submission to some sort of enforcement mechanism, posing problems for the kind of strictly non-governmental anarchism that I have been working toward.

However, garantir also has other senses. Apart from the uses related to insurance, collateral and formal contracts, it can also simply mean to protect or safeguard. Searching for a reading of the passage more consistent with the sort of anarchy we have been discussing here—and considering what seems to have been an emerging understanding of consequences in Proudhon’s revision of the passage—we might, I think, propose an account of the process that skips that step of explicit contractual agreement. We would start, as always, with the encounter and mutual recognition, note the advantages of concerted effort, establish a collective potential and then perhaps we could envision the mutual safeguarding of an even footing as a direct result of those previous steps.

I am not certain that we can make the jump in every instance. Equation is almost certainly not without its own costs—both as a task and as a condition with consequences—and there is probably some balancing between potential gains and potential costs likely to intervene between the potential and actual phases of collective force. But if we are to take seriously the account I have given, back just a few paragraphs ago, about the cycle of encounters and concerted actions, taking seriously the ways in which our associations complicate our interests, essentially creating the fabric of both our unique individuality and our share of society (another term that, in Proudhon’s hands, enjoys close relations with anarchy, liberty, etc.), then we might see some kind of mutual safeguard or protection as a fairly direct result of free association itself.

Guarantism, in that sense, would just be the consequence of getting mixed up with other people, with associations, with the world around us, etc. To draw on the egoist elements that we have been incorporating into this construction, we’re talking about safeguarding others because we have not just seen ourselves in them, but have joined our might (puissance) to theirs, made them in some sense « our own » — a sort of equation perhaps not so alien to Proudhon’s thought.

I think I’ll leave things there for now, having already delayed this post a few days to deal with snow-shoveling and pressing domestic tasks. I expect that there is plenty here to chew on for a day or two. But I’ll try to return fairly quickly to some thoughts on broader applications of the theory. We have covered a lot of the basic ground associated with mutualism, but not so much of that usually associated with federalism.