Margins and Problems: The Bilge-Rat’s Gambit

from Libertarian Labyrinth

Onward!—to the next experiment—with Scandal as our muse and encounter as our method.

Lets establish some working assumptions for this new experiment:

If anarchism—understood as a kind of joint enterprise—is to be useful in attaining and sustaining anarchy, then we can almost certainly anticipate at least a certain kind of prefigurative character to it: involving a resistance to authoritarian dogmatization and an anarchic vitality comparable to that which we expect to find in anarchic social relations.

The theoretical exploration that we have engaged in thus far might lead us to associate anarchic vitality with a kind of productive conflict. If so, we should prefer probing questions, illuminating disagreements and the occasional good fight to lock-step, united front unity, with regard to matters of both theory and joint practice.

So we might embrace the theory of collective force, and the sociology that emerges from its application, alongside the critiques of ideology and fixed ideas, expecting those elements to be mutually reinforcing and in line with our anarchistic aspirations.

We might, in that context, also conclude that not only is it possible to “make anarchism our own” individually, without lapsing into some kind of ideological solipsism, but such an appropriation may be necessary to the anarchic vitality of anarchism (understood, again, as a joint project.)

If that is our conclusion, I think we also have to conclude—based on the present state of anarchist culture—that we have some work to do to give that shared anarchism the genuinely and anarchically vital character that it presumably needs.

So how does our idiosyncratic survey of the anarchist past serve that particular end?

This is the question I started to explore in “Halfway to Anarchism,” addressing the process of becoming an anarchist as one that had evolved over time, changing with the accumulation of what we have been calling the anarchist past. For Proudhon, it could involve a comparatively simple—or at least considerably more direct—encounter with the concept of anarchy, while subsequent generations of would-be anarchists could only really share the anarchist label by also encountering and coming to some accommodation with the emerging and evolving anarchism.

But we may now have reached a point where anarchism can only really be encountered individually and partially, as the accumulation of the anarchist past simply renders anarchism per se as something imponderable in its fullness. That leaves us to search for the methods of partial encounter that seem most likely to preserve our focus on anarchy—and perhaps give us a taste of anarchy at work in the process.

Two approaches come immediately to mind:

First, there is a practice that I expect most of us engage in already, more or less consciously. A bit like the tale of the blind men and the elephant, we develop of sense of what anarchism is based on our own contacts, experiences and individual studies, with varying degrees of awareness (or concern) just how partial and personal our conceptions might be. The variety of these conceptions can’t be much of a surprise.

This practice can be flexible or rigid when it comes to the incorporation of new and conflicting ideas—sometimes because of flexibility or rigidity inherent in the reigning conception of anarchism and sometimes just as a result of temperament. When attached to a desire for unity or synthesis, it may favor complex forms of pluralism or some variety of fundamentalism. But at its most anarchic, it seems likely to demand a good deal of flexibility, a tolerance for uncertainty and a taste for that productive sort of conflict already invoked.

It was in the service of this sort of practice that I attempted to define tradition in terms of specific elements “active” in the thought and practice of a given milieu. Rather than either invoke an imponderable anarchism or attempt to do without any accounting of the influence of the anarchist past, it has seemed possible to treat the elements of tradition in a particular anarchist milieu as, if not known and enumerated, at least generally knowable and presumably enumerable with some significant effort. If we can drag anarchist tradition even back into the realm of the ponderable, then we can begin to work on it and with it, even if we have to do so while at the same time depending upon it for at least some of our sense of being anarchists and being a part of anarchist movements and milieus.

I was thinking about this familiar problem of essentially building a theoretical edifice and renovating its foundations at the same time—something I’ve described in one narrower context as “The Mutualist’s Dilemma“—when, in the course of a debate on other anarchism and normative ethics, I ran across the notion of “Neurath’s ship.” In a 1921 work, “Anti-Spengler,” Otto Neurath, a member of the Vienna Circle, presented these observations, ending in a novel variation on the “ship of Theseus” thought-experiment:

That we always have to do with a whole network of concepts and not with concepts that can be isolated, puts any thinker into the difficult position of having unceasing regard for the whole mass of concepts that he cannot even survey all at once, and to let the new grow out of the old. Duhem has shown with special emphasis that every statement about any happening is saturated with hypotheses of all sorts and that these in the end are derived from our whole world-view. We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood, the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.

This struck me as a illustration relevant to some of those general difficulties of care and maintenance that I touched on in the post on “Vital Things.” But I was also already thinking about all of this in terms of ships and practices not at all related to maintenance, so I present it here largely as a foil for the strategy that I am going to propose.

There’s no denying the utility of anarchism as a vessel or vehicle for various projects—including that of providing ourselves with some kind of identity. At the same time, it’s hard to deny the capacity of vessels to constrain—including the capacity of even presumably libertarian ideologies to succumb to authoritarian dogmatization. So it seems worth considering the circumstances under which the project of making anarchism our own and the constraining tendencies of the given anarchist milieus come into conflict in ways that simply exhaust our skills as tinkers and bricoleurs.

It’s under those conditions that a second strategy comes to mind, which I’ll call—with a nod to the discussion in “Anarchy: Into the Maelstrom“—the Bilge-Rat’s Gambit.

The reference is to the opening of Joseph Déjacque’s The Humanisphere, where, in a rather characteristic flood of mix metaphors, he prepares readers for the works scandalous tone and revolutionary ambitions.

Being, like the cabin boy of the Salamander, unable, in my individual weakness, to strike down all those who, on the ship of the legal order, dominate and mistreat me, when my day is done at the workshop, when my watch is finished on the bridge, I descend by night to the bottom of the hold, I take possession of my solitary corner and, there, with teeth and claws, like a rat in the shadows, I scratch and gnaw at the worm-eaten walls of the old society. By day, as well, I use my hours of unemployment, I arm myself with a pen like a borer, I dip it in bile for grease, and, little by little, I open a way, each day larger, to the flood of the new; I relentlessly perforate the hull of Civilization. I, a puny proletarian, on whom the crew, the horde of exploiters, daily inflict the torment of the aggravated misery of the brutalities of exile or prison, I open up the abyss beneath the feet of my murderers, and I spread the balm of vengeance on my always-bloody scars. I have my eye on my Masters. I know that each day brings me closer to the goal; that a formidable cry—the sinister every man for himself!—will soon resound at the height of their joyous intoxication. A bilge-rat, I prepare their shipwreck; that shipwreck alone can put an end to my troubles and to those of my fellows. Come the revolution, will not the suffering have, for biscuit, ideas in reserve, and, for a life-line, socialism!

Scuttling the ship—whether it is the ship of civilization or a given anarchism understood as vessel or vehicle—is obviously a different and perhaps more desperate kind of practice than the sort of tinkering reform that would both keep the thing afloat and perhaps reshape it steadily to meet new challenges. The thought of the inrushing flood—even if it is only the anarchist past—might still inspire a bit of panic and sauve qui peut!

The ultimate life-line here, of course, is that the strategy, however drastic it may seem, is one that we can practice experimentally. We can throw things open to more or less complete reconsideration, with nothing to prevent a return to a familiar understanding of things except perhaps our recognition that we were wrong in the first place.

So we might treat this kind of radical opening to the anarchist past as a sort of practical strategy, to be used when other strategies seem to have run up against their limits. The chief difficulty is probably in distinguishing between the elements of the anarchist past and various other elements that might threaten to flood in as well. And then there is simply the matter of becoming accustomed to working with both a much more tentative conception of anarchism and a much larger pool of materials from which we might draw inspiration than we are likely to be working with at present.

Given those considerations, an exploratory survey, focused specifically on questions regarding the boundaries of anarchism, might seem as useful as it is doubtless unusual.

So let’s give this gambit a try, not because the idiosyncratic selection of texts will provide participants with some shared canon, but precisely because each of the texts we engage with closely will be chosen for its defects and the questions it raises about what can and cannot be considered as part of a clear and shareable anarchism.

This week’s second post will focus on the adaptation of the notion of an anarchic encounter as a tool in our exploration of the anarchist past.

There are 12 Comments

...Does anyone care? The worst thing that any putatively anarchist author could do is to make anarchism sound boring and elitist, but that is exactly what Shawn Wilbur does with the never-ending stream of empty verbiage that he keeps posting on this web site. Aside from the obscure or irrelevant authors such as Proudhon which he is so fond of quoting, he never seems to display any interest in, or knowledge of, contemporary or past anarchist theory and practice.

"...Does anyone care?"


Shawn P. Wilbur clearly does, and he has over 700 twitter fallowers.

"The worst thing that any putatively anarchist author could do is to make anarchism sound boring and elitist..."

What are we trying to do here, shit on someone else's popularity in favor of a more populist anarchism?! I mean, i don't always like his ramblings but sometimes i do...this one is taking the question back to individualism again which is still kinda an interesting topic to me.

"Shawn P. Wilbur clearly does, and he has over 700 twitter fallowers."

Yes, and how many followers PewDiePie has?

That's right! Numbers of followers have zero socio-demographic correlation with their intellectual qualities.

Leave Senpai out of this uwu!!!! was simply a response to this fool above, with the whole "who cares about this loser!" thing, lol.

if followers is any indicator of quality then clearly richard spencer is way smarter than shawn!

how is this elitist? who are you talking to when you ask if anyone cares? do you think that you are the arbiter of relevance? what kind of conversation are you trying to start here? are you poking at shawn to come fight you? are you lonely and need someone to interact with you on even the most shallow level?
we've seen you do better.

I only had to adopt this new pseudonym because "thecollective" blocked my old one. Everyone who comes to this site chooses what articles or posts they will or will not comment on, and Shawn Wilbur attracted my attention for several reasons:

1. The seemingly erudite, academic tone he adopts, which masks the utter inanity and vacuity of his ideas - whatever they are, which isn't very clear.

2. His complete avoidance of any references to the real world of past or present anarchist theory and practice, and his fascination with obscure or marginal authors from the distant past, such as Proudhon (and I challenge Wilbur or anyone else to explain in unambiguous terms just what value his ideas have for contemporary anarchists).

3, My strong suspicion that his personal preference is for some form of "market anarchism" - a fringe position even among anarchists. I have confronted the author about this before, but he has always refused to give a direct answer.

Didn't you agree to being blocked, provided the collective really didn't want your trolling comments on the site?

Anyway, it's pretty clearly not "elitist" to suggest that every anarchist can come to their own terms anarchist ideas or to suggest that all of us probably have something to learn from at least some other anarchists. It's not elitist to suggest that we have missed a lot of interesting and potentially useful stuff in the anarchist past—or to archive, translated or share those elements with others. You can disagree about the uses of the anarchist past—and that doesn't bother me in the slightest—but you probably need something more than your personal preferences to make this sort of aggressive, public disagreement seem something other than inane and vacuous. It's also not elitist to write in a style you don't approve of—a style which, trust me, actual academics don't seem to approve of all that often either. And writing for friends and those with common interests—and both categories exist, believe it or not—is, as social sins go, probably a pretty minor one.

The thought that I have complete avoided "the real world of past or present anarchist theory and practice" — while, of course, playing out that "fascination with obscure or marginal [anarchist] authors from the distant past" — well, the charge doesn't even make any damn sense. This is presumably not what you ordered—and now you would like to speak to the manager. (But you keep coming back for another helping...)

As for the utility of Proudhon's work, the "real world" application of anarchist ideas arguably calls for some specifically anarchistic tools for the analysis of social and material relations. We can make do with marxism and various bodies of social science better adapted to authoritarian, governmentalist systems, I suppose, but why do so when we can pretty easily recover a genuinely anarchistic alternative. YMMV.

And—once more for the people in the back—I'm a proponent of anarchist synthesis, specifically of the ongoing development of an anarchy-centered anarchism. FWIW, the question of "markets" is so badly framed by pretty much everyone focused on it that anyone really interested in "real world" applications should almost certainly be talking about much more specific norms and practices. Anyway, once we have a clear grasp on the question of exploitation—both in the economic and in the political realm—there just isn't that much more to say in general about these questions until we actually have a specific real-world problem to solve.

I'm sorry that you're not enjoying the material from "Constructing Anarchisms." But it is all very clearly marked, so you shouldn't have any trouble avoiding it in the future.

I did agree to being blocked by "thecollective" - or rather, I dared them to do it, and they did. However, I found that the opportunity to engage in conversation with fellow anarchists (or you), even if is just virtual, was too important to pass up, especially at a time when normal social interactions in our society (specifically, the US) are subject to so many authoritarian restrictions. and even if "thecollective" sometimes engages in egregious censorship.

Once again, you address your audience only in the broadest generalities, and are unable to point to even one actual current situation where Proudhon's blather about mutualism, national banks, etc. would have the slightest relevance. Your concept of "anarchist synthesis" looks very much like an attempt to sneak anarcho-capitalist - excuse me, I mean "market anarchist" - ideas into anarchist discourse through the back door. And if you don't already have a clear grasp on the question of exploitation - in both the economic and political realm - just from decades of living in this world, then most other anarchists are already way ahead of you.

You know, some people, when they are feeling lonely, look for forms of mediated human connection that don't involve heavy-handed ideological partisanship and sloppy attempts at character assassination. But if this is what you do instead of hugs, I guess we're here for ya...


"Important opportunity for conversations with anarchists"

^that's some serious delusion right there.

Impressive! You are truly mad sir!

If you really want to be there for me, Sean, then please satisfy my perverse desire for clear, non-evasive answers. I won't bother repeating the points I made in my last post, or the questions I asked - you already know what they are.

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