Justice and the Anarchic Encounter: Synthesizing Neo-Proudhonian Social Science and Egoism

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“Another world is possible” every time equal uniques, free absolutes, meet on a terrain shaped by any number of histories but no structures of authority. --- Shawn P. Wilbur, "The Anatomy of the Encounter"

Author's Note

As has become somewhat of a theme, perhaps even a requirement, for this recent spate of better-quality postings beginning with "Vision of An Anarchist Society," instead of sitting down to Write About Something because I want to Build A System and building a system requires writing on certain subjects --- instead of, in other words, treating my blog posts as chapters in a gigantic book that I have to write to "get it out of the way" --- I've waited until I feel writing on this subject welling up inside me. Until writing on it feels natural, an act of outpouring, as if I was already going to write on this, whether I made the choice or not. I spent two days pondering what I should write about, feeling out all the different topics that have been occupying my mind in the past few months, turning them about in my hands and inspecting them carefully, like fruit, to see which was just ripe enough. I waited until this subject was on the tip of my tongue to write about it. In other words, I followed wu wei.

And so I find myself back to staring into the depths of the subject of an anarchist conception of 'justice', embodied in a particular kind of relationship, for the first time in six months and three weeks. I've tried this project twice before: once, in the fury of inspiration and shocking, icy, firey realization, which led me to produce ""Two Principles," a work so deeply flawed in so many ways, so full of both my old kinds of thinking and my new kinds, that I'm still slowly unpacking and developing everything that was good in it even now; then a second time, in a confused, contemplative, groping essay that represented me trying to really wrestle with and internalize what I'd realized through discussions with someone who was very influential to me at the time. This time, I hope to take the months of deep thinking and experience, and far-ranging reading, that I've been carrying out, and apply it to producing something clearer, cleaner, and more coherent than what I've written before on the subject.


What are the fundamental characteristic features of anarchism? I think that anarchism is fundamentally defined by a single thing --- an opposition to subordination, domination, or hierarchies of power or authority --- from which two other things flow naturally, and without which that 'single thing' would be incompletely expressed: an opposition to governmentalism (the principle which tries to govern people's actions or lives) and by extension the state, and a positive love and hope for the possibilities that human beings can create when liberated from hierarchy and government.

One crucial part of understanding anarchism, in my view, is understanding its projectual-relational dimension: understanding what relations, both singular and ongoing, between both individuals and collectivities, might look like when taking place in an essentially anarchic manner. This is something which lies at a nexus of sorts at the heart of egoist anarchism itself: an emergent anarchism that is not a prescription of certain social structures, but just what results, in all its plurality and multiplicity, from conditions of anarchism. Although it won't have much specific content --- it is almost another non-concept like 'the unique' and 'self-interest' --- this can give us some conception of what, although opposed to fixed ideas, we might still colloquially term 'justice' --- of what we are fighthing for.

For the purpose of pursuing such an understanding, I have found that using the lens of Neo-Proudhonian social science, which sees society as an eternal, ongoing process of balancing conflicting and interpenetrating forces, where the greatest liberty is found precisely at the moment where these contradictory forces are most balanced, to the egoist framework which already sees society as an eternal war between the will to power of each individual, has been extremely fruitful for me. The purpose of this essay is to share that odd synthesis, which I see every so often among other anarchists.

To make an important clarification, I am not interested in producing rules for the outcomes of justice, whether rules of thumb, or mathematical equations, or categorical imperatives, or tables of virtues and vices, or natural laws. I am interested, instead, in conditions, not conclusions --- I am interested in understanding what sorts of arrangements might naturally flow from what is already quintessentially anarchist: the anarchic encounter, a meeting of two or more equals --- Unique ones who accept neither master nor higher power nor sacred idea --- on a playing field shaped by all manner of history and circumstance, but no hierarchies, no governments, no authority, no state.

Since it is the embodiment of the anarchist commitment to eliminating archos, the anarchic encounter represents everything we fight for in the social world, and, as such, it has a direct link to what sorts of arrangements we might find 'just.' With that in mind, it is useful to ask: what sorts of arrangements between individuals could (or might tend to) arise from actual conditions free from hierarchy?

It is with reasoning substantially similar to this that Proudhon dismisses the social contract theory of property: had conditions of equality and universal consent really obtained when such a contract was formed, the result, too, would have had to be equality:

But I wish that this consent, of which so much is made, had been given, either tacitly or formally. What would have been the result? Evidently, the surrenders would have been reciprocal; no right would have been abandoned without the receipt of an equivalent in exchange. We thus come back to equality again... so that, after having justified property by universal consent, that is, by equality, we are obliged to justify the inequality of conditions by property. Never shall we extricate ourselves from this dilemma. Indeed, if, in the terms of the social compact, property has equality for its condition, at the moment when equality ceases to exist, the compact is broken and all property becomes usurpation. We gain nothing, then, by this pretended consent of mankind. --- Proudhon, What Is Property? Chapter II.2

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that if we wish to have an accurate analysis of social justice, we should, unlike Rawls, reject placing this hypothetical understanding of what free and equal people would do above the actual arrangements free people choose to make, or whether there are real relations of hierarchy and subordination warping the fabric of social reality in a given instance. To do otherwise would be just to reproduce yet another sacred idea. (Nor should we assume that society must be planned, and resources distributed, from the top down by a central committee of such psychologically impossible sock-puppets as those placed behind the veil of ignorance.)

This is how I balance the possible tension between my egoism and a concept of justice. As an egoist I am more than free to have interests regarding things other than myself, and there is no fixed concept of self-interest that must motivate me, only an attentiveness to "the feelings and thoughts that are aroused in me by [things]," and it is true that I sincerely hate living in a society which upholds structures of power over me and those I care about, that stomps us beneath its boot --- or does so to anyone, for that matter; I also know that my liberty will never be secure until the power of each is unlocked and the cathedrals of power-over-us are razed to the ground. Interests like these are all equal, whether they regard myself, those I care about, or other people whom I don't know, as long as they remain my own:

I am not altruistic so long as the goal remains my own, and instead of stooping to being the blind means of its fulfillment, I always leave it open to question. My zeal doesn’t, therefore, have to be less than the most fanatical, but at the same time I remain frosty cold against it, unbelieving, and its most implacable enemy; I remain its judge, because I am its owner. --- Max Stirner, The Unique and Its Property

So, as part of my will to power, I seek to push forward anarchism, as the sine qua non of the society I wish to live in, and, as part of that, I view justice-as-balance as a thing that is pleasing to me.

Untitled, by Wang Wei

The Anarchic Encounter and Justice-As-Balance

To return to the subject of the anarchic encounter, now that I've outlined what exactly makes it so important, let me have Wilbur speak for me here:

[bold is mine] On one level, then, under anarchism we simply see a particular sort of encounter acted out, over and over again: equal individuals meet, find the means to balance their individual interests, and from their association arises something else—a collective something with the potential to emerge as another individual, with interests of its own, which must then figure in the balancing of interests that is justice... Any number of encounters may take place, involving any number of individuals, on any number of scales and creating any number of associations, but the basic elements remain the same. The social field of play remains level, the status of the individuals—whether self-conscious free absolutes or various sorts of collectivities—remains equal before whatever norms and conventions we adopt, and those norms and conventions always remain subject to critique on the basis of their relationship to the most general, practical sort of equality and justice-balance. --- Shawn P. Wilbur, ""Summary Notions"

To understand why justice-as-balance is so crucial and why, importantly, it is not so much a normative principle as an epiphenomena that results from the interaction of Uniques, let me quote from a different essay of Wilbur's:

[bold mine] We begin with these free absolutes, these uniques. According to the first, Proudhonian designation, we are dealing with individuals, groups [in Proudhon's social science, even individual persons are regarded as groups] organized according to an unfolding law of development, but with a consciousness of their nature and a capacity for self-reflection. They may, on the one hand, be inclined to absolutism, to taking their internal law for the law of the world, but they are also capable of recognizing another like themselves, and understanding that in a world of absolutes either some must be masters of others, or there must be balance. With no criterion of certainty for their observations or judgments, beyond the apparently similarity—in this absolutist dimension—of these otherwise unique beings, with incommensurable experiences and unknowable essences, they find themselves with equality, Proudhon suggests, as the only basis on which to proceed from individual isolation to society. --- Shawn P. Wilbur, "The Anatomy of the Encounter"

In other words: when someone who refuses to bow to anyone or any thing, not even an abstract idea of justice (perhaps derived from, e.g., natural law) is faced with another such indomitable will, they have one choice: to duke it out, face each other down, and see who will ultimately be the more powerful and who will be forced to submit to the other, or to compromise. And of course, any compromise between real equals is almost always going to be a 50-50 compromise --- balance --- in some crucial way, although perhaps not in the same way each time or in an obvious dimension. Thus justice-as-balance emerges as the resultant indicator of conditions of anarchy, and gains its value not by being enforced from above, but by being the litmus test for that which we already value: a world where, in Novatore's words, the rabble have ceased to be rabble, and sprung forth in all their flowering potentiality.

This means that true justice, in the anarchist sense, is not the application of a rigid set of rules for how relations should be organized, but the resolution of conflicts in a way that treats everyone's interests as equal, arrived at through direct reconciliation between the people in conflict by reasoning together, whatever the outcome. And this is not an categorical imperative, but a flowering forth of that which I already value.

Another way of looking at this is through Stirner's lens instead of Proudhon's. While the foregoing discussion has focused on balance because at least some of the interests at play in the anarchic encounter are assumed to be at odds, that is not necessarily the case. Or, at least, it isn't something we have to focus on to the exclusion of all other kinds of association. When egoists meet and associate, it is of necessity something which must be of benefit to both. The nature of their fluid commitment to only their interests (their feelings and needs) ensures that when that association fails to be of utility to any one involved, it will dissolve:

Our relationship is one of mutuality and reciprocity. We both gain what we desire from our union, and thus are satisfied. We consume, but are also consumed... When we no longer find such an association as beneficial to ourselves we withdraw and end the union. The union only exists at the behest of our own individual power. If we find that we are working towards another’s ends, no longer enjoying oneself, or desiring a new activity—we withdraw—ending our association. --- Castanea Dentata, "The Union of Egoists"

Thus, the nature of such a union is that it must be of mutual --- in some sense equal --- benefit.

The Three Perfections, by Huang Binhong

One final note on justice-as-balance is necessary. Whether someone's interests are equally represented and equally cared about, or one interest is subordinated to another and must supplicate it on terms the dominating interest dictates, must be assessed holistically: if we look at anything but the full picture of a relation, things can get confused.

How can, for instance, we "balance the interests" of a man who wants to murder someone and the person he wants to murder? You can't half-murder someone, so what are we supposed to do, let the other man beat him up just half as much as would be necessary to kill him? Cut his throat halfway and then take him to the hospital? Not at all. The answer to this question is to repeal the hidden fallacy and widen our scope: if one man gets his way, their interests are equally represented --- both go their own ways alive and whole, living their lives as before, assuming there is no prior hierarchy to speak of --- while, if the other gets his way, one will have all his interests obliterated without any consideration whatsoever, and one will get everything he wants and go about his day. Thus, the balancing of the interests of both people is actually the denial of the interests of the would-be murderer, because to do otherwise is itself a clear instance of domination, the subordination of one man's interests to the other's, and thus balance is found in destroying this domination, and only then can the anarchic encounter emerge.

Furthermore, equality itself is a slippery thing: one can be equal or unequal along an infinitude of dimensions, so it is crucial not to pick just one dimension of equality (equal wages, or equality under the law, for instance) and ignore the others.

Justice and Rationality

In conditions of equality, where two Uniques or free absolutes who will not yield to each other meet and decided to cooperate or compromise, to find some mutually beneficial arrangement to either further their common interests or balance their opposing ones, what are the means by which they find such a mutually beneficial balance?

One tool might be, as the previous quotes from Wilbur hinted at, the application of norms, conventions, or traditions --- knowledge about what worked on previous, sufficiently similar, occasions, and common understandings of what manifestations of equality matter, or what equality even really means. But ultimately, if we're going to be talking about a seriously anarchic encounter, where no one is governed by anything and no one submits to any authority but their own, those things are at best tools; the encounter and the individuals in it cannot become the property of these traditions. To quote again:

Norms, conventions, rules, laws, rights—no matter what language we use to talk about the more persistent aspects of our mutual self-government, the things that that language represents can never assume any authority in and of themselves... Arguably, that means much more than to say that they must not be backed by state or police powers, violence or the threat of violence. If we accept Proudhon’s summary, it is really a question of preserving in each encounter a sort of positive lawlessness, and, in part, we may do this by acknowledging that each encounter is a new encounter, that there is no ready-made system for projecting ourselves into the future, even just a moment at a time... We pile up knowledge and experience in all of those moments, but nothing is certain... any anarchism worthy of the name is going to be pretty relentlessly suspect of anything that looks like permission or prohibition—both practices which demand some position of authority from which to regulate our encounters in some a priori manner. --- Shawn P. Wilbur, "Summary Notions"

If we are rejecting any notion of authority above the parties involved in the anarchic encounter itself, and are choosing traditions or other ideas as they are useful to us instead of assuming that we are bound to any of them, then a process of engaging in dialogue is necessary: the free absolutes who meet in an anarchic encounter need to come to a common understanding, and that can only be achieved through language --- communication --- and the presentation of 'reasons,' although traditional conceptions of capital-R rationality need not be the standard. Thus the outcome of any anarchic encounter is ultimately guided by a participatory, dialogical process of offering reasons, justifications, explanations, experiences, perspectives, and desires, all with the explicit purpose not of meeting any standard, but of making oneself understandable to others and finding common ground and mutual understanding.

It is through this process of reasoning together, accepting the incommensurability and equal 'legitimateness' of other perspectives and then arriving at common ground if possible anyway, that the hopeful, creative nature of the anarchic encounter is born:

Let’s underline again this notion of a society without permission or prohibition, and emphasize that all of our anarchic encounters will require something more of us than just asserting our “rights” or fulfilling our “duties” with regard to one another. Every act of association will involve an act of creation, specifically the creation of some bit of some possible world, and creative acts involve some sort of erotics as much as economics. There is a lot that needs to be looked at with regard to how all this creative stuff plays out, but let’s start by saying that none of the familiar language for it—society, community, market, etc.—gets us too far. --- Shawn P. Wilbur, "Summary Notions"

It is through this notion that a sense of justice as an (in some sense) rational process emerges from a purely egoistic notion of not being willing to subordinate oneself to anything, including normative accounts of justice or rationality itself.

Of course, this concept of justice has very little positive content --- it has as many forms and expressions as there are pairings or groupings of people in existence --- but it explicitly provides the form for an anarchic sense of interactions.

Now that I've explained the basic concept, there are a few things surrounding it that I want to explore.

Equality and Collectivity

For someone used to thinking in terms of the "greater good" or the "public good" --- that is, those poisoned by the mythology of utilitarianism, majoritarian democracy, and liberalism, this focus on treating all of the interests of all of the free absolutes (or Uniques, whichever you prefer) that take part in an anarchic encounter as equal, and focusing on the balance between them, might sound similar to the principle of utility. This leads to a possible question: each individual being equal, shouldn't the greater number of individuals weigh more in a 'just' decision than the lesser?

This is fundamentally confused for a few basic reasons.

First of all, for a free absolute to submit their will, power, and interests to the will of a greater number is still a submission, still an imposition of duty, obligation, or subordination, a creation of a hierarchy in which the collectivity has greater weight than the individual or smaller collectivity. This is merely a reproduction of the exact sort of thing the anarchic encounter rejects, and is contrary to its preconditions and the nature of the Unique one: collectivity holds no normative weight for such a one, and any attempt to subordinate or obliterate their interests in service to something else, whether it has more people or less, remains an attempt to subordinate them which they will shrug off with a laugh and defend themselves from. Why should I be subject to the interests of another, simply because they have more people backing them? I don't want to live in a world like that. I don't want to agree to that.

Second, and crucially, justice-as-balance takes place between interests, not between individuals as such. When balancing between the interests of a collectivity and an individual, there are still only two interests at play: the shared collective interest of the former and the singular, but just as real, interest of the latter. If neither side is required to submit, neither by normative dogma nor by force of arms, then the compromise between them must remain balanced. Equal. Equal consideration, compromise.

Thirdly, collectivities and individuals are different kinds of entities, even if in Proudhon's thought they are similar in some ways. Just like the set {1,1,1,1,1} would not be equivalent to the number 5, a collectivity is a kind of absolute, but it is not a Unique nor a free absolute. When there is a collectivity that has shared interests, the interests of that group do not count for more than the interests of any individual, because, instead of being rolled up into a single (somehow more "valuable") composite individual, treating it like a new entity has come into being instead of what it actually is, which is just a composition of individuals who happen to share a certain interest, each member of that group counts singly against the individual. After all, since each member of the group shares an interest, if that interest is favored over the interest of the other individual, each member of that group has also had their interest dominate at the expense of the other person's.

Bureaucrats At Work

Note that this is not a projection of what 'would' happen practically speaking, in a sort of 'state of nature' vacuum absent anarchist norms or associations or institutions, should the interests of a group come into conflict with an individual --- in such a 'realistic' case, it might be that the individual would end up just being subordinated to the collectivity, but the point is that that kind of subordination is what we are wishing to avoid, by positing the anarchic encounter as the template for interactions between free people, and so the trick is to be able to identify when what we want happens and when it doesn't, and try to build structures that resist this sort of 'state of nature' attack on the individual. Which leads me to the final section of this essay.

Conclusion: Power and Justice

Out of this picture of justice-as-balance and the continual, crossing and crisscrossing, ongoing, distributed interaction between free absolutes who compromise and engage in dialogue with each other and create overlapping yet separate collectivities for different purposes and needs, emerges a picture of the social world in which each person asserts their will to power --- their innate desire to express themselves, both in their own person, and through impressing their personality and interests on the world around them --- and expands the horizon of their property as far is it will go, until that horizon meets with the horizons of others and they stop at the limits of others' will to power, bleeding into each other and finding a mutual balance.

I think this is the nexus where many conceptions of anarchy meet: the eternal social war that Novatore spoke about, where each person is the judge of what they possess; the jovial, sociable, unscrupulous egoism of Stirner's union; Proudhon's justice-as-balance and rationality; the aristocratic value of might that Nietzsche brings to the table; and finally everyone's right to ""beautiful, radiant things" that Goldman so desires.

We can create a social world in which the anarchic encounter is made possible, and in turn gives birth to a social reality in which all of these things turn out to mean the same thing in the end, by decentralizing power as far as possible and balancing force, interests, and incentives, carefully crafting social norms and institutions that foster individuality and the will to power instead of destroying it, and egalitarian cultural habits and levelling mechanism which can maintain all that without giving into rigidity. By doing this, we can help each person seize the power to shape their future both in cooperation and contradistinction to others.

This is the ongoing project of anarchism itself.

Our goal is to take part in creating a world where the structures and norms that we take part in and perpetuate are actually in the interest of each of us, because if they are not we reject and resist them; where we have a conception of liberty that means that we are each genuinely motivated, through our own interests, to respect the boundaries of the liberty of the other, because in return we get a substantial, rich, and meaningful respect from them for our own liberty --- instead of, for instance, making liberty equivalent to property, so that some gain by this liberty and some sacrifice for it.

The task of anarchism, in other words, is to imagine --- not plan, though, because anarchy must necessarily be pluralistic --- a society that creates harmony between people by eliminating the tools and incentives for both oppression and submission. We want to do this because, as Tucker says in "Relation of the State to the Individual":

If this, then, were a question of right, it would be, according to the Anarchists, purely a question of strength. But, fortunately, it is not a question of right: it is a question of expediency, of knowledge, of science,—the science of living together, the science of society. "[A question of what sort of society I would like to live in.] The history of humanity has been largely one long and gradual discovery of the fact that the individual is the gainer by society exactly in proportion as society is free, and of the law that the condition of a permanent and harmonious society is the greatest amount of individual liberty compatible with equality of liberty.

I think a world in which respecting others leads to a truly equal and meaningful respect for one's own stands in stark contrast to the relations that we have historically found in Western history, echoes of which we face today: the ""reciprocal" relationship of, say, a feudal lord and his serf, or a capitalist and a wage slave. In each of those bargains, the interests of one with power-over comes to the direct detriment of those they subjugate, even if the bargain is reciprocal in some sense --- "you respect my property," the capitalist says, "and I'll respect your person... I won't kill you or (completely) enslave you, but allow you to beg me for scraps from the wealth I gain as a consequence of your respect.

It is through our collective respect of the property and privilege of our oppressors that they force us to eat scraps from under their table. They own our places of work, our places of play, our homes, and rule over us night and day, leeching off our labor like vampires, and we give them all this for so much less in return. They gain liberty, the liberty to dispose of all this privilege and power, all this wealth and material splendor, at cost to us: our autonomy, our freedom, our very humanity. Yes, they might give us some scraps of respect in return, maybe they promise not to murder us (outright) or give us some wages (a pittance), but the appearance of reciprocity is just that --- an appearance, and it is our sacrifice by respecting their liberties that directly leads to our oppression.

To quote Stirner:

By what then is your property secure, you creatures of preferment? — and give themselves the answer, By our refraining from interference! And so by our protection! And what do you give us for it? Kicks and disdain you give to the “common people”; police supervision, and a catechism with the chief sentence “Respect what is not yours, what belongs to others! respect others, and especially your superiors!” But we reply, “If you want our respect, buy it for a price agreeable to us. We will leave you your property, if you give a due equivalent for this leaving.”

Really, what equivalent does the general in time of peace give for the many thousands of his yearly income.? — another for the sheer hundred-thousands and millions yearly? What equivalent do you give for our chewing potatoes and looking calmly on while you swallow oysters? Only buy the oysters of us as dear as we have to buy the potatoes of you, then you may go on eating them.Or do you suppose the oysters do not belong to us as much as to you? You will make an outcry over violence if we reach out our hands and help consume them, and you are right. Without violence we do not get them, as you no less have them by doing violence to us.

Contrast this with what would necessarily result from a widespread, stalwart refusal to obey, respect, acquiesce, and a vigorous defense of ourselves and our fellows in doing so, not just civil disobedience. Consider the results of truly accepting justice-as-balance and our place as Unique ones over whom no fixed idea or authority can be acknowledged. Consider, in other words, the fruit of insurrection, the ringing shout of "No!" that justice leads us to:

Anarchistic justice cries this, and only this: do not respect anything or anyone that does not respect you in return. They have not earned it!

If it benefits you, by all means protect it, participate in it, defend it, enjoy it! Mutual aid, solidarity, norms of respecting individual possessions or commons, whatever it is...

But as soon as it stops serving you, cast it aside --- what more interest in it do you have?

The capitalists' claims to property oppress you? Break their machines, steal 'their' products, which you made, occupy their land. The law oppresses you? What is the law to you, really? Fuck it. Nothing can command you.

I say again: if a person or system does not respect your interests and your equality to it, then do not respect it either, because it has not earned that respect. Participate in what benefits you and reject what does not.

A widespread elaboration of this attitude is precisely the insurrectionary, criminal anarchism that I support, which would lead, through a world of anarchic encounters, to norms and institutions that, of necessity, benefit everyone.

A constant, ongoing battle against those who would exploit us or dominate us, that is anarchism.

Village Sunset by Li Ke Ran