How to Ground a Social Order, Composing, 10/07/2014

The grand old Peter Kropotkin.
I finished Mutual Aid last night, and found it fascinating. Kropotkin ended the book with a discussion of the rural and urban mutual aid associations that were growing in his time, particularly voluntary associations for poverty relief, the resurrection of communal gardens, farming fields, and meadows, the use of industrial equipment for agriculture, and the nascent union movement among workers in the cities of contemporary Europe and North America. But the ideas that I found most interesting of all, I described mostly in previous posts, and can’t really think of any way to elaborate them further just now.

Instead, I thought about one rhetorical point that Kropotkin made throughout the book, his rebuke to the notion that any resource held in common among a community will be destroyed. This is the tragedy of the commons, originally described by John Locke and for us, recently described again by Garrett Hardin. The analysis goes that, because each individual will take the most immediate material benefit out of any resource (like a farming meadow, pasture, or fish stock), the actions of all of them without restraint of property right or police will exhaust and destroy the resource beyond renewal. Kropotkin says it’s bunk. So do I.

I spoke yesterday about the relatively recent birth of the concept of the radically individualized person, upon which the argument for private property by the inevitably tragic nature of the commons depends. It defines self-interest to be the same as greed, and that the only person whose welfare any of us would ever really care about is ourselves. Such a social order is defined by the war of each against all, and the coercive and violent institutions that keep the peace against the inevitable dissolution of our society.

The entire argument is flawed because it is an expression of dogma. It appeals to a notion of the individual that we have all become too accustomed to thinking is true without actually testing it against the actual behaviour of people. After all, most of our associations with people around us in our everyday lives have nothing to do with accumulating personal wealth and power at their expense. We do our jobs and associate with our friends and neighbours, and are generally quite kind to each other.

Those who do act in such a way as to ruin common goods and profit at the expense and suffering of others are rare enough that we can identify them for what they are and act accordingly. Hobbes and Locke describe radically free individuals as, essentially, assholes. The vision of humanity that Kropotkin and I hold focusses more on human kindness and altruism than egoistic, self-aggrandizing behaviour.

So how do you ground an institutional social order in this circumstance? The entire Utopias project is ultimately about visions for real social orders, and eventually aims to offer explicitly what I think is the best such kind of order, as many political philosophers have done over the years. The question of law is paramount, but I’m not quite sure of how to engage with it.

Kropotkin himself has some writings on the nature of law which I briefly revisited, and some ideas in Alexandre Lefebvre’s The Image of Law go some way into a Spinozist conception of law which I think could be quite interesting. But there’s an enormous field of legal theory that I don’t know well in detail, and there’s only so much that the Utopias project can do in one shot.

The project has three parts. One is understanding the mechanistic vision of humanity that emerged from the First World War and had its essential formulation in European totalitarianism and the Futurist political philosophy of Filippo Marinetti. The second part describes a machinic vision of humanity, a more hopeful political tradition that has its ground in the metaphysical tradition of Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson, and Deleuze, the four most prominent among a variety of other thinkers who will supply the conceptual centre of the project.

And the final part will describe the core political features of this new world, essentially a self-organizing, anarchistic politics. This is the most amorphous part of the project at this point, and it’s why I’ve been reading Kropotkin again, and will explore Bakunin, Goldman, and others soon enough, along with, perhaps, a little Marx. But no project is ever truly complete, even when it’s finished.

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