Constructing an Anarchism: Individualism

Regina : "Shawn, stop trying to make Proudhon happen! It's not going to happen!"

from Libertarian Labyrinth

We’re in a stage of the construction of this first anarchism where we have to focus on the ideological and practical implications of the theory of collective force and unity-collectivities we have been exploring. I had originally intended to address these questions in a different manner, focusing on the concepts of mutualism and federation, but the concerns remain much the same.

Part of the context for the emergence of Proudhon’s anarchist ideas was a period in which new isms were emerging seemingly everywhere one might look. For those unaware of the proliferation of ideologies in that period, it’s worth tracking down Arthur E. Bestor’s 1848 essay on “The Evolution of the Socialist Vocabulary,” just to get a sense of the real fervor for inventing ideologies — even if, in the end, you might be inclined to say with Proudhon that “all these isms aren’t worth a pair of boots.” This was the context in which Proudhon proposed a “system of mutuality” that would, he said, be “all-powerful” against the range of ideological extremes. Things turned out differently, but perhaps he had good reasons for his confidence at the time.

We have been wrestling with questions regarding individuals and collectives, ordinarily the ideological province of individualism and a range of potential opposites — socialism, communism, collectivism, etc. Part of the immediate background of Proudhon’s work was the work of figures like Pierre Leroux, who is generally credited with having introduced the paired notions of individualism and socialism to French political thought in the early 1830s. His “Individualism and Socialism” is one of the first things we will look at in our historical survey, precisely because of his attempt to introduce those now familiar and frequently embraced isms as undesirable extremes that would have to be balanced. When we compare the conditions under which anarchist ideas emerged in the 1840s and those under which anarchism emerged roughly forty years later, one of the most obvious contrasts is the extent to which the tendencies that Proudhon seemed intent on denying separately, and balancing, had become the core concerns of competing anarchist ideologies.

I confess that I am fairly old school in my rejection of both simple individualism—in all of its more atomistic forms—and all of the forms of “social” thought that, when push comes to shove, don’t seem to amount to much but some kind of anti-individualism. But I’ve also come to believe that there just aren’t that many really atomistic theories of the individual—at least of any seriousness—and I think that the work so far in “Constructing Anarchisms” and “Rambles in the Fields of Anarchist Individualism” backs me up.

There are, I think, still very good reasons to be concerned about the means of identifying individualities, whether it is a question of human individuals or relatively distinct social bodies, and to think clearly about their individual physiology, as well as their means of relating to one another. Part of that process clearly responds to concerns and ways of thinking about the world that we tend to associate with the various “social” ideologies, but those ideologies seem rather short on the tools necessary for delimiting and distinguishing. Most of the dogged opposition to communism as a solution to specific social problems is arguably based in somewhat underdeveloped conceptions of social relations and there is an important lesson to be learned about how our identification and examination of individualities is never complete until we have examined their larger contexts. But most communist and socialist analyses are unfortunately threadbare when it comes to tools for analyzing the communes or the society on which they focus, just as the presumably more radical forms of democracy seem to give us an even fuzzier picture of the demos involved.

My approach is explicitly synthetic—with synthesis here being a means of recovering an early anarchist perspective that would have denied any one-sided emphasis—but I often find that I have to draw my tools primarily from the individualist side of the familiar divide. As the selection from E. Armand and the pages of l’en dehors should demonstrate, there are also some real literary pleasures associated with exploring the individualist currents.

The ultimate goal, of course, is not in an way to deny the social, but to address association in consistently anarchistic terms. In the context of Proudhon’s sociology and the unity-collectivities that we have been discussing, we know that it is not just “two men” or “two families, two cities, two provinces” that might “contract on the same footing.” Proudhon’s treatment of the State as “a kind of citizen,” with interests of its own and some kind of standing in social negotiations, still encounters the other citizens “on the same footing.”

We’re moving toward a theory of anarchic encounter, taking quite seriously Proudhon’s assertion that, in the anarchic “social system,” “there are always only these two things, an equation and a collective power.” The first step in that process is to recognize the variety of individualities that might encounter one another, recognizing their variations in scale without building any hierarchies among them, and recognizing that only some of them will be what Proudhon called “free absolutes,” capable of conscious reflection.

We’ll pick up that thread next weekend, in the first of a series of posts really breaking new ground for me, as I try to suggest how Proudhon’s rudimentary “social system” might scale up from the simple interpersonal scale, while at the same time sketching some of the ways that non-governmental federation might meet the needs of anarchic societies.

The suggested readings for this week are quite short. Those with the time to take a look at Pierre Leroux’s “Individualism and Socialism” should find it interesting. The section from Charles Fourier’s The Theory of the Four Movements, describing the “pear-growers’ series,” is another dip back into so-called “utopian socialist” theory, explaining part of the dynamics of harmony, the era and condition in which human interactions all revolve around the satisfaction of our various passions. It will provide some context for next week’s discussion of guarantism, another notion that originated with Fourier.

There are 11 Comments

Anarchy, as a 19th century political philosophy, is too steeped in Western notions of humanism to be effective at addressing the issues of our time. Anarchy is more than the human.

Individualism as a corrective to notions of unity based on false premises individualism has done its work. But that work was finished long ago, and now individualism serves the dominant order by keeping us atomized and longing for belonging, if we could only buy the correct set of items to signal our presence to others of our kind. In my understanding Individualism is an outlook that assigns primacy to individual human beings such that social groupings are considered not real vis a vis the individual human beings that make them up. My issue with it is that only Human Beings get to be individuals under this philosophy. A bear or a mushroom or a river have no standing in the philosophy of Individualism, not to even mention Black Human Beings, when this was thought up, had no standing in it either.

I like anarchists and what they/we are trying to do, I just want to move away from the European Enlightenment concepts that undergird much of the philosophy we still use. To clarify, because I argue against Individualist / Individualism in no way means I am arguing for Collectivism. That's the sort of binary thinking I'm trying to move away from. What constitutes "the human" "individual" is all bound up in historical notions that are racist at the root. I am saying the entire Enlightenment project is anti-Black and anti-life at its core.

Only when we affirm their being-individuals, the individuality of the last northern white rhino for instance, do individuals encounter an experience of existential value and aesthetic appreciation. This affirmation of the individual through the destruction of the transcendental species-being attributed to them is subscendence – a reverse holism that is even more intensely anti-reductionist than holism as we usually encounter it. The whole is found to be less than the sum of its parts.

This radical individualism is an expression of anti-speciesist egoism. I affirm every living being, the unique individuals they are, as members of an anti-reductionist union of egoists that includes all living flora, fauna and mineral individuals. My desires are drawn towards the liberation of all individuals. Ecological welfare, being my welfare and my self-interest, is drawn towards the well-being of all life and the destruction of anthropological-machinery that represses their lives – and mine. This is total liberation, not as some revolutionary Humanistic Cause, but as desiring-creation/life.

As I stand on a hill and see individuals I might call buzzard, hare, oak or foxglove, my egoism.

This is from Julian Langer's recent essay, btw. The full(er) quote is--

"As I stand on a hill and see individuals I might call buzzard, hare, oak or foxglove, my egoism affirms them as being the world that is an extension of me and that I am an extension of. This is both a solitary encounter and one that is shared between us. We are all one, as individual living beings, and One, as monastically non-Separable."

Cite your sources. If you really wish to change things start with the things you can do, like citing sources. It shows respect and that one isn't just stealing shit left and right. I know, I know, stealing is the grand American tradition...

"Quotations are useful in periods of ignorance or obscurantist beliefs."- Albert Einstein

"Ideas improve. The meaning of words participates in the improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It embraces an author's phrase, makes use of his expressions, erases a false idea, and replaces it with the right idea. "- William Shakespeare

"Property is theft" - Thomas Jefferson

"Stealing is bad. Cite your sources. Do as I say." - Nettle

"Individualism as a corrective to notions of unity based on false premises individualism has done its work"

so the devil is in the details of how exactly we can come to any sort of agreement on what isn't "false premises" then, yeah?

group identity was always constructed, so when one tries to construct more legitimate group identities, they're met with a brick wall of hyper-individuated skepticism from the ones with brains enough to question or worse, stupid hostile jabbering from all the dimmer bulbs who don't even realize the false premises that couch their worldviews and identities. Or maybe hostile action.

Its actually very simple really, ever heard of solipsistic logic? Combine that with a bit of critical thinking and "voila!" , we have a pure individualist as original as the little babe at the beginning of the little journey:)

.... yes. I see plenty of solipsism around here and elsewhere in anarchist analysis too.

This seems very familiar, hmm....

But seriously, when I saw this new post from Shawn Wilbur I knew I would have to engage in one way or another. And in his opening comment he sort of says a similar thing --

"I confess that I am fairly old school in my rejection of both simple individualism—in all of its more atomistic forms—and all of the forms of “social” thought that, when push comes to shove, don’t seem to amount to much but some kind of anti-individualism. "

I have not read much of Shawn's workshop offerings, to my detriment, but I did look at the start of Pierre Leroux's essay, and wrestling with issues of here vs. the hereafter, lucre, what is moral, etc. is of course not new.
"Jesus Christ once chased the merchants from the temple: there are today no other temples than those of merchants."

So, when I said what is plagiarized above, it is said with almost 200 years of additional thought (not my own, I plagiarize too) about what "the brotherhood of man" meant and can mean given who is left out of the equation.

Hmm yes, anarchism versus humanism sorta like a wild tiger versus a nurtured laboratory chimpanzee.

There might not be much point in responding to what seem like rote criticisms of "old stuff," but part of the argument here was that if you want to avoid narrow conceptions of what counts as a meaningful individuality, you're better off focusing on very early anarchist and slightly pre-anarchist sources than on the late-19th century material associated with anarchism's emergence as a movement and ideology. Anarchism avant la lettre lends itself fairly easily to conversations and projects that recognize the widest range of actors. If we don't get it right, we can't blame the dead folks.

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