By Joseph Hunter

Shawn Wilbur has posted a piece on his blog that is probably the most complete summary of Proudhon’s theory of the state found in any of his work.

In it, Proudhon defines the state as a “power of collectivity” supervening on the agglomerations of free human beings. And to the state he ascribes rights, which individuals ignore at their own peril. This hardly seems like something an anarchist, the original anarchist, should say. But he goes on to contrast this with the mysticism of authority.

Against authority he sets liberty, and under liberty the state has rights as both a product and guarantor of liberty. Authority is not only the negation of liberty, but is the idealistic negation of the reality of the state. It is mystification of the collective power which serves the interests of individuals and institutions claiming to act on behalf of the collective. Authority is the subversion of the state.

Authority is, superficially, an attempt to formalize power. But this formalism is only partial, and thus is fundamentally deceptive and inconsistent. A modern political thinker who has recognized this inadequacy is Mencius Moldbug, who has championed a consistent authority by means of a comprehensive sort of formalism. In doing this, he pursues solution to the problem of authority by going in the exact opposite direction as Proudhon and other libertarians.

For Moldbug, the formalism of social power is a good thing, and the problem is that we don’t have enough of it. So he proposes that we formalize all existing power relationships, give everyone a certificate of ownership for what they control, and structure the political power as merely another corporation. This is not to be done on the basis of any ideology of who should own what, but only on the basis of who does own what. In this, it is unabashedly totalitarian in its aims, and it has been noted that the most elegant and efficient formalism of power is the dictatorship.

Set against this, libertarians can be characterized as anti-formalists. Which is to say that we reject the formalism of power inasmuch as power is a fundamentally dynamic relation between actors. We want formal equality, a negation of authority. This negation of authority is liberty, alternately understood as the formalization of freedom. The formal recognition of the fact that you are, first and foremost, an agent. Power is merely a consequence of the exercise of this agency, and is not itself the proper object of formalism.

The ideal formalism of Moldbug, and the semi-formalism of the existing state are both blind to the fact of human agency, and the ultimate consequences of it. It is their ultimate downfall. The formalism of Moldbug, while theoretically a more comprehensive description of power, is essentially static. It is an isolated snapshot of the dynamics of power, and one second after it is imposed, the formal description of the power structure will cease to refer. The existing state avoids this through a partial formalism, and thus makes room for the dynamic effects of human action. But the cost of this greater persistence is the catastrophic nature of the ultimate collapse and revolution.

The historical state has been nothing more than a series of waves and swells in a sea of anarchy. Anarchism, as a critical position, recognizes that there is no such thing fundamentally as “law”, nor the state as a determinate thing There are only free-actors alternately contesting or collaborating with one another. But furthermore it recognizes that this process must ultimately establish an equilibrium of human liberty, where the only state that will exist will be the de facto arrangements of free individuals

Categories: Anarchism/Anti-State

1 reply »

  1. This is a great article. I tend to take a formalist-rationalist view of law that takes into account coherence and consistency. I have never been convinced of formalism, it’s a very Chinese conceit.

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