Desktop Regulatory State, Chapter Three: Networked, Distributed Successors to the State: Saint-Simon, Proudhon and “the Administration of Things”

[This is the sixth installment in my serialization of the first three chapters of my book-in-progress, tentatively titled Desktop Regulatory State] , and the second of two installments of Chapter Three. Two other stand-alone posts at P2P Foundation Blog are also the basis for material in this chapter: here and here. Since this is a draft manuscript, it contains placeholders for additional material.]

IX. Networked, Distributed Successors to the State: Saint-Simon, Proudhon and “the Administration of Things

In recent years it’s been “steam engine time” for theories of the evolution of the state into a stigmergic governance mechanism or support platform. But the basic idea has venerable roots.

[Comte, Saint-Simon, idea of “industrial” succeeding “militant” era, “administration of things” superseding “government of men”]

[Proudhon’s changing conception of “the state”]

In his earlier period, as quoted by Shawn Wilbur from the 1849 debates with Louis Blanc and Pierre Leroux, Proudhon treated “the State” as something to be superseded entirely by the abolition of the antagonistic social relations that made power necessary:


The State is the external constitution of the social power.


The constitution supposes, in principle, that society is a creature of the mind, destitute of spontaneity, providence, unity, needing for its action to be fictitiously represented by one or more elected or hereditary commissioners: an hypothesis the falsity of which the economic development of society and the organization of universal suffrage agree in demonstrating.


The constitution of the State supposes further, as to its object, that antagonism or a state of war is the essential and irrevocable condition of humanity, a condition which necessitates, between the weak and the strong, the intervention of a coercive power to put an end to their struggles by universal oppression We maintain that, in this respect, the mission of the State is ended; that, by the division of labor, industrial solidarity, the desire for well-being, and the equal distribution of capital and taxation, liberty and justice obtain surer guarantees than any that ever were afforded them by religion and the State.


As for utilitarian transformation of the State, we consider it as a utopia contradicted at once by governmental tradition, and the revolutionary tendency, and the spirit of the henceforth admitted economic reforms. In any case, we say that to liberty alone it would belong to reorganize power, which is equivalent at present to the complete exclusion of power.


As a result, either no social revolution, or no more government; such is our solution of the political problem.


As stated in his 1851 work General Idea of the Revolution in the XIX Century, he stated this in fairly straightforward terms as “dissolving the state in the social body” (or “in the economy”).


[Quotes from General Idea of the Revolution]


But as Proudhon’s thought matured, Wilbur argues, this took a more nuanced form—as in much else of this thought—of “uncoupling of an institution and the despotic elements which seem to dominate it.” This meant, in particular, decoupling the concept of the state from that of government.


…[T]his new clarity about the nature of social evolution was accompanied by a more sophisticated notion of how “collective force,” which was so important in his analysis of “property,” manifests itself in the form of collective beings—or rather how all beings worthy of the title are always already collectivities, organized according to a law of unity and development. That notion led him to reconsider the status of “the state,” apart from its connection to the principle of government, and to rank some sort of non-governmental state alongside families, workshops, and other collective beings which must somehow be accounted for in his sociology.


[It involved positing] this “organized collectivity” (to use Tufferd’s phrase) as a being, with its own organization, interests and reason, operating alongside human beings and other collective beings (when not itself subordinated to other interests by governmentalism)…


These assorted organized collectivities would coexist through the principle of federation, which in Proudhon’s usage sounds very much like an anticipation of David Graeber’s “horizontalism.”


And to these we should also add some elaboration of the theory of federation which would become one of Proudhon’s primary concerns in the final phase of his career: “this federation, where the city is equal to the province, the province equal to the empire, the empire equal to the continent, where all groups are politically equal…” The leveling of the playing field is the consequence of denying the governmental principle, which, unlike the manifestation of collective force in the state, seems to be primarily an artefact of our inability to recognize our own strength when it confronts us in collective form.


The result was a conception of “the non-governmental state as an individual actor,” coexisting with other collective bodies “in relations of mutuality.”


1) We have a level “field of play” where the beings we are accustomed to consider “individual” and a range of organized collectivities can actually only claim “individual” status by the same title, their status as groups organized according to an internal law which gives them unity. People, families, workshops, cities, nations and “humanity”—as well, perhaps as animals, natural systems, and even individual human capacities—occupy non-hierarchical relationship with one another, despite differences in scale and complexity, and despite the participation of individuals at one scale in collective-individualities at another. This is key, I think. Without a governmental principle to elevate any of these individuals “above the fray” in any way, mutuality becomes absolutely vital—and dizzyingly tough to come to terms with.

2) We have “rights” manifested by nothing more than the manifestation of capacities—which means we have rights that are going to conflict and clash, and which are to be balanced by some sort of (broadly defined) commutative justice.

3) We also have a theory of freedom (although I’ve neglected to introduce it directly, along with at least one other key elements, in these notes so far) which is not primarily concerned with permissions and prohibitions, but with the strength and activity (the play) of the elements that make up the individual, and the complexity of their relations. [source]


The state of Proudhon’s day had preempted its horizontal relationship to other, rightfully equal, individuals:


Proudhon presented the existing State as a usurpation of the power of a real collectivity, under the pretext that the social collectivity could not realize itself. The assumption of governmental authority by a part of society over the rest amounts to an imposture, and a not terribly convincing one at that, with the usurpers pretending to be an organ society, but somehow outside and above society as well. Now, Proudhon went on to assert that there is indeed a State, which is in some sense an organ of that society, so it does not follow from that assertion that this State could perform the role of government. This State is simply one of the various non-human “individuals,” collective absolutes, which exists on the social terrain, and which, according to the bare-bones “social system” we’re exploring, encounters other individuals as equals.


Proudhon argues for moving the state from a position of superiority to one of equality to the individual:


The Revolution, indeed, has not suppressed that occult, mystical presence, that one called the sovereign, and that we name more willingly the State; it has not reduced society to lone individuals, compromising, contracting between them, and of their free transaction making for themselves a common law, as the Social Contract of J.-J. Rousseau gave us to understand….


…The State is the power of collectivity which results, in every agglomeration of human beings, from their mutual relations, from the solidarity of their interests, from their community of action, from the practice of their opinions and passions. The State does not exist without the citizens, doubtless; it is not prior nor superior to them; but it exists for the very reason that they exist, distinguishing itself from each and all by special faculties and attributes…


The State has preserved its power, its strength, which alone renders it respectable, constitutes its credit, creates awards and prerogatives for it, but it has lost its authority. It no longer has anything but Rights, guaranteed by the rights and interests of the citizens themselves. It is itself, if we can put it this way, a species of citizen; it is a civil person, like families, commercial societies, corporations, and communes. Just as there is no sovereign, there is no longer a servant, as it has been said, that would be to remake the tyrant: he is the first among his peers [Theory of Taxation, 1861]. 


Wilbur argues that left-wing anarchists like me see the post-state society into which the state machinery has been dissolved as not simply a vulgar cash nexus, but as entailing a whole host of customary social and ethical norms coexisting with the cash nexus. In so doing, he argues, we tacitly accept something like Proudhon’s “non-governmental state” without fully addressing his analysis.


But the question remains whether this simple identification of “the Government or the State” is adequate to the analysis of the real manifestations of collective force. My strong suspicion is that many market-mutualists simply define “the market” in terms of those institutions which would remain after the governmental principle had been taken out of the equation, including some that revolve around the cash nexus, but others which do not. There would thus be “unregulated markets” in a particular sense, since governmental regulation would be eliminated more or less by definition, but also “unmarketed regulation” by other means, in the sense that economic customs and norms would not only be suspect to that cash nexus. I suspect that many market anarchists have accepted Proudhon’s non-governmental state without accepting his argument, and while clinging to an anti-statism which might well benefit from a little unpacking and clarifying along Proudhonian lines. What is uncertain is whether or not at least some market anarchists have actually transferred that “external constitution of the social power,” and the governmental principle, from “the state” (or “the gods”) to “the market.” This is a question of considerable importance, which hinges on the relationship between “individual” and “collective” reason (using those terms with the individual human being as a reference), and the way we imagine mutualistic justice—which is always essentially a question of “balance”—playing out.


Desktop Regulatory State. Excerpts to Date:

Chapter One — First. Second.

Chapter Two — First. Second.

Chapter Three — First.