Assemblage Theory and Meta-anarchy. Capacity to Value and Shlyapnikov’s Case
From DeLanda to Graeber
So, here’s this article titled Assemblage Theory and the Capacity to Value: An Archaeological Approach from Cache Cave, California, USA.
It provides a neat practical insight into Manuel DeLanda’s assemblage theory, which I’ve mentioned from time to time in various meta-anarchist publications. Besides that, it invokes David Graeber’s work, which is also evidently beloved by me.
In the context of the article, those approaches are applied to archeology. But what’s attractive about the article’s contents to me is their capacity to be utilized in conceiving meta-anarchist politics.
I’ve just employed the term ‘capacity’ specifically in the DeLandian sense. DeLanda postulates that a given assemblage has a set of ‘capacities’: part of them are virtual (potential), part of them are exercised. Note that capacities are not the same as properties. To quote the article itself:
According to DeLanda (2012), material entities have both properties and possible capacities. A capacity is latent, or virtual as he puts it, in the sense that its properties have the possibility to act in an affective manner, but the capacity may or may not be exercised. In order for a capacity to become exercised, it does so via some kind of catalyst. Usefully, DeLanda (2012, 13) differentiates between properties, virtual capacities and exercised capacities with an example of a manufactured knife with its sharp blade and an obsidian rock with a naturally sharp edge:
“… a knife has the actual property of being sharp and the virtual capacity to cut. If we imagined instead of a manufactured object a sharp obsidian stone existing before life, we could ascribe to it that same capacity to cut, a capacity it occasionally exercised on softer rocks that fell on it. But when living creature large enough to be pierced by the stone appeared on this planet the stone suddenly acquired the capacity to kill. This implies that without changing any of its properties the possibility space associated with the capacities of stone become larger.”
Later, the article introduces Graeber’s anthropological theory of value. According to Graeber,
…anthropological theory defines value as the ‘way actions become meaningful to the actors by being placed in some larger social whole, real or imaginary’. By ‘actions’, Graeber is clear that he means the capacities that become actualized between objects and people.
So, an assemblage obtains value within a social system because of its capacities, virtual and exercised, within that social system. A tool, such as a saw, is defined and therefore valued by its capacity to do useful, productive work. Entering into assemblages with humans and other productive forces, it exercises its capacities as a tool, and those capacities become more evident within the socius as a whole, thus increasing the saw’s value.
Note that a socius within than context is not necessarily something that consists exclusively of humans; it may involve a plethora of non-human actors, or even not involve humans at all.
Now, this capacity needs not to be directly related to satisfying one’s immediate physical needs (such as building a shelter using a saw); it can be primarily constructed within the socius, and relating to its symbolic systems. Fiat money, for example, is of any value because the assemblages in which it is involved (State and banking institutions) continuously produce the capacities of said money.
But how does this relate to meta-anarchism?
From what we have formulated above, we can posit that a societal assemblage can produce systems of value within itself. As much as it builds up and actualizes capacities of involved actors, a societal assemblage produces value, which then can be of interest to actors within a broader assemblage: a polity emits money, a factory upgrades its electronics, a state expands territorial influence.
But what we need to emphasize is the difference between impositionary and propositionary production of value. Impositionary production of value involves forcefully imposing systems of value onto constituent actors, depriving the latter of any capability to play an active role in the value-building process.
An example would be a hegemonic corporation overtaking an underdeveloped territory, becoming the central agentive actor within that territory, unilaterally imposing its desire and dynamics of capacity over anyone who lives there. By “imposing dynamics of capacity” I mean, for example, a situation where residents of said territory have no choice but to define themselves in some functional relation to that corporation: as employee, as unemployed, as indebted, etc. So, they have no choice but to be subject to that corporation’s system of value.
Propositionary production of value, on the other hand, increases a system’s of value characteristic as a voluntary proposition, aimed at facilitating overall agency of related actors and their involvement in determining the shape of the emergent system of value.
So, quite demonstrative is this case, dated 2014, of an anarchist Russian farmer Shlyapnikov printing his own money (“kolions”) at his village in the attempt to increase the village’s self-sufficiency. He describes himself as an agro-anarchist and a follower of Mikhail Bakunin, and he tends to his own farm.
Before the Shlyapnikov’s project, the locality was entirely reliant on external systems of value, unilaterally imposed by the State — which deprived the villagers economically, impeding their ability to produce value within the assemblage of their village.
Kolions, as a new proposition for a system of value to be voluntarily adopted by villagers, have allowed for new capacities to be actualized: e.g., capacity for food such as fruit and vegetables to be exchanged in new ways within the village’s economy.
This, of course, have attracted the attention of Russian authorities, as any new proposition is perceived as a potential threat by impositionary systems. So, Shlyapnikov was arrested and put on trial; and paper kolions declared illegal as “destabilizing the constitutional order.”
After this incident, Shlyapnikov has decided to start kolions as a local cryptocurrency; currently authorities are not completely forbidding, but nevertheless, closely monitoring the project.
Another article about the case: https://www.wsj.com/articles/russian-farmer-alters-rural-economy-with-virtual-currency-as-moscow-watches-warily-1524398400
Since its launch last year, the currency is slowly becoming a tender of choice here and in surrounding towns for transactions, from milk to tractors.
“You don’t see many rubles around here,” Mr. Shlyapnikov said outside his log home one recent day. “We have our own country here, our own currency. We do pretty well for ourselves.”
Mr. Shlyapnikov, a portly man with a grey beard who is known locally as Uncle Misha, wants to expand the use of the kolion so that residents of Kolionovo and other nearby villages can pay each other for municipal services like snow and trash removal, which are already largely performed by residents themselves.
An agro-anarchist Collage
And now let’s speculate how Shlyapnikov’s alterprise, if it weren’t for the state violently restricting it, may have evolved into a rural mini-Collage:
Say, the Kolion is continually adopted at neighboring villages. Given a certain meta-anarchist cultural ambience, people from other areas and localities may be prompted to start up their value-producing alterprises as well: perhaps, as an alternative to the somewhat private-property-oriented Shlyapnikov’s initiative, one based on communal ownership of land akin to Zapatista approach; or even based on randomly redistributing land annually between the participants.
People would voluntarily sign up for different systems of value, provided by different alterprises/assemblages. Some of those alterprises may take more of a classical “start-up” form, where an enthusiast offers a solution for the public to adopt; others may involve other methods of propositionarity, such as gathering into local rural assemblies and reaching a consensus on the desired structure of an emerging economic assemblage, and then implementing said structure into actuality. Of course, combinations of different methods are also possible.
(Shlyapnikov actually seem to have combined both of the abovementioned approaches, developing his kolions independently while simultaneously keeping in touch with local people, gathering assemblies, networking the rural community and discussing the matter overall)
And so, every assemblage would build its own inner structure of capacities, which would then be transcribed into systems of value. Kolions offer the capacity for more lively and accessible exchange; communal farming offers the capacity for mutual aid and meaningful interdependency; random redistribution of land offers the capacity to practice and publicly demonstrate one’s farming skills; etc. etc.
Because of relative agricultural self-sufficiency in this particular Collage, any given assemblage can choose the relations in which it enters with other assemblages: so, a communal farm may refuse to accept kolions within it, as it wants to maintain a certain stability of its communal characteristics.
But this refusal wouldn’t be an expression of aggressive hostility towards the kolion-accepting assemblages; it would be rather an expression of a meta-anarchist “agree to disagree” principle. In a well-balanced Collage, there’s no consistent inclination to unilaterally impose one’s systems of value on others; but such systems of value, comprised of propositionarily facilitated capacities, would be produced and maintained autonomously within any given assemblage.
That way, wildly different frameworks of value could coexist within a broader meta-anarchist socius, without having to fight for hegemony — and without being suppressed by someone else’s hegemonic framework of functionality.
Some localities could accept only vintage paper currency; some could value exclusively one’s poetic skill; others could prioritize a person’s lineage over anything else. Every such evaluation would ideally be a product of direct consensus within any locality, reducing the need for them to be imposed on each other to prove their legitimacy — and making them a result of free societal desire of all people within a given community. Once again, quoting the article I’ve linked in the beginning:
…We can, with a careful eye to capacity in its various outpourings, consider the shifting capacities within assemblages and see value itself as a desirable capacity that is emergent from knowledgeable, skilled, human creative practices. Further, by asking how these capacities inform our understanding of what people came to value in the material dimension, we move beyond a simple description of the capacities within the assemblage towards an appreciation of the human personae which valued particular capacities.
Some conflict is possible between the frameworks, indeed — but for the Collage to be sustained, the conflict’s goal mustn’t be to reach hegemony. Instead, such conflict’s function should be to propose and participatorily negotiate new boundaries and capacities of mutual interaction — as much as previous boundaries and agreements deem themselves not adequate enough. Discovering and developing ways to operationalize conflict in this manner seems to be one of the most important challenges facing the meta-anarchist project.