Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

On economy




This text is taken from the Seventh Study of General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century. Proudhon deals with the end of the government (the political organism) that is not any longer necessary because its functions have been taken over by the economic organism.

The stress given by Proudhon to the economy might appear, nowadays, a bit excessive. However, to justify that, we must take into account when those propositions have been made (middle of XIX century) and the fact that the aim of Proudhon is to show that, by the way of free economic contracts, the individuals can very well do without politics and its apparatus, the State, and nevertheless, get all the goods and services they need for living.



Absorption of Government by the Economic Organism


1. Society without Authority.


Man, The Family, Society.

An individual, sexual and social being, endowed with reason, love and conscience, capable of learning by experience, of perfecting himself by reflection, and of earning his living by work.

The problem is to so organize the powers of this being, that he may remain always at peace with himself, and may extract from Nature, which is given to him, the largest possible amount of well-being.

We know how previous generations have solved it.

They borrowed from the Family, the second component part of Humanity, the principle which is proper to it alone, Authority, and by the arbitrary use of this principle, they constructed an artificial system, varied according to periods and climates, which has been regarded as the natural order and necessary for humanity.

This system, which may be called the system of order by authority, was at first divided into spiritual and temporal authority.

After a short period in which it preponderated, and long centuries of struggle to maintain its supremacy, sacerdotalism seems at last to have given up its claim to temporal power: the Papacy, with all its soldiery, which are, briefly said, the Jesuits and those belonging to the order of Saint-Jean-de-Dieu, has been cast out and set below matters of merely human interest.

For two years past the spiritual power has been in a way to again seize supremacy. It has formed a coalition with secular power against the Revolution, and bargains with it upon a footing of equality. Both have ended by recognizing their differences arose from a misunderstanding; that their aim, their principles, their methods, their dogmas, being absolutely identical, Government should be shared by them; or rather, that they should consider themselves the complements to each other, and should form by their union a one and indivisible Authority.

Such at least might be the conclusion which Church and State would perhaps reach, if the laws of the progress of Humanity rendered such reconciliations possible; if the Revolution had not already marked their last hour.

However that may be, it is desirable, in order to convince the mind to set alongside each other the fundamental ideas of, on the one hand, the politico-religious system - philosophy, which has for so long drawn a line between the spiritual and the temporal, should no longer recognize any distinction between them; - on the other hand, the economic system.

Government, then, that is to say, Church and State indivisibly united, has for its dogmas:

1. The original perversity of human nature;

2. The inevitable inequality of fortunes;

3. The permanency of quarrels and wars;

4. The irremediability of poverty.

Whence it is deduced:

5. The necessity of government, of obedience, of resignation, and of faith.


These principles admitted, as they still are, almost universally, the forms of authority are already settled. They are:

a) The division of the people into classes or castes, subordinate to one another; graduated to form a pyramid, at the top of which appears, like the Divinity upon his altar, like the king upon his throne, Authority;

b) Administrative centralization;

c) Judicial hierarchy;

d) Police;

e) Worship.

Add to the above, in countries in which the democratic principle has become preponderant:

f) The separation of powers;

g) The intervention of the People in the Government, by way of representatives;

h) The innumerable varieties of electoral systems, from the Convocation by Estates, which prevailed in the Middle Ages, down to universal and direct suffrage;

i) The duality of legislative chambers;

j) Voting upon laws, and consent to taxes by the representatives of the nation;

k) The rule of majorities.


Such is broadly the plan of construction of Power, independently of the modifications which each of its component party may receive; as, for example, the central Power, which may be in turn monarchical, aristocratic or democratic; which once furnished publicists with a ground for classification, according to superficial traits.

It will be observed that the governmental system tends to become more and more complicated, without becoming on that account more efficient or more moral, and without offering any more guaranties to person or property. This complication springs first from legislation, which is always incomplete and insufficient; in the second place, from the multiplicity of functionaries; but most of all, from the compromise between the two antagonistic elements, the executive initiative and popular consent. It has been left to our epoch to establish unmistakably that this bargaining, which the progress of centuries renders inevitable, is the surest index of corruption, of decadence, and of the approaching dissolution of authority.

What is the aim of this organization?

To maintain order in society, by consecrating and sanctifying obedience of the citizen to the State, subordination of the poor and to the rich, of the common people to the upper class, of the worker to the idler, of the layman to the priest, of the business man to the soldier.

As far back as the memory of humanity extends, it is found to have been organized on the above system, which constitutes the political, ecclesiastical or governmental order. Every effort to give Power a more liberal appearance, more tolerant, more social, has invariably failed; such efforts have been even more fruitless when they tried to give the People a larger share in Government; as if the words, Sovereignty and People, which they endeavored to yoke together, were as naturally antagonistic as these other two words, Liberty and Despotism.

Humanity has had to live, and civilization to develop, for six thousand years, under this inexorable system, of which the first term is Despair and the last Death. What secret power has sustained it? What force has enabled it to survive? What principles, what ideas, renewed the blood that flowed forth under the poniard of authority, ecclesiastical and secular?

This mystery is now explained.

Beneath the governmental machinery, in the shadow of political institutions, out of the sight of statesmen and priests, society is producing its own organism, slowly and silently; and constructing a new order, the expression of its vitality and autonomy, and the denial of the old politics, as well as of the old religion.

This organization, which is as essential to society as it is incompatible with the present system, has the following principles:

1. The indefinite perfectibility of the individual and of the race;

2. The honorableness of work;

3. The equality of fortunes;

4. The identity of interests;

5. The end of antagonisms;

6. The universality of comfort;

7. The sovereignty of reason;

8. The absolute liberty of the man and of the citizen.


I mention below its principal forms of activity:

a) Division of labor, through which classification of the People by industries replaces classification by caste;

b) Collective power, the principle of workmen's associations, in place of armies;

c) Commerce, the concrete form of contract, which takes the place of Law;

d) Equality in exchange;

e) Competition;

f) Credit, which turns upon interests, as the governmental hierarchy turns upon Obedience;

g) The equilibrium of values and of properties.


The old system, standing on Authority and Faith, was essentially based on Divine Right. The principle of the sovereignty of the People, introduced later, did not change its nature; and it would be a mistake to-day, in the face of the conclusions of science, to maintain a distinction which does not touch underlying principles, between absolute monarchy and constitutional monarchy, or between the latter and the democratic republic. The sovereignty of the People has been, if I may say so, for a century past, but a skirmishing line for Liberty. It was either an error, or a clever scheme of our fathers to make the sovereign people in the image of the king-man: as the Revolution becomes better understood, this mythology vanishes, all traces of government disappear and follow the principle itself to dissolution.

The new system, based upon the spontaneous practice of industry, in accordance with individual and social reason, is the system of Human Right. Opposed to arbitrary command, essentially objective, it permits neither parties nor sects; it is complete in itself, and allows neither restriction nor separation.

There is no fusion possible between the political and economic systems, between the system of laws and the system of contracts; one or the other must be chosen. The ox, while it remain an ox, cannot be an eagle, nor can the bat be at the same time a snail. In the same way, while Society maintains the slightest degree of political form, it cannot become organized according to economic law. How harmonize local initiative with the preponderance of a central authority? universal suffrage with the hierarchy of officials? the principle that no one owes obedience to a law to which he has not himself consented, with the right of majorities?

If a writer who understood these contradictions should undertake to reconcile them, it would prove him, not a bold thinker, but a wretched charlatan.

This absolute incompatibility of the two systems, so often proved, still does not convince writers who, while admitting the dangers of authority, nevertheless hold to it, as the sole means of maintaining order, and see nothing beside it but empty desolation. Like the sick man in the comedy, who is told that the first thing he must do is to discharge his doctors, if he wants to get well, they persist in asking how can a man get along without a doctor, or a society without a government. They will make the government as republican, as benevolent, as equal as possible; they will set up all possible guaranties against it; they will belittle it, almost attack it, in support of the majesty of the citizens. They tell us: You are the government! You shall govern yourselves, without president, without representatives, without delegates. What have you then to complain about? But to live without government, to abolish all authority, absolutely and unreservedly, to set up pure anarchy, seems to them ridiculous and inconceivable, a plot against the Republic and against the nation. What will these people who talk of abolishing government put in place of it? they ask.

We have no trouble in answering.

It is industrial organization that we will put in place of government, as we have just shown.

In place of laws, we will put contracts.—No more laws voted by a majority, nor even unanimously; each citizen, each town, each industrial union, makes its own laws.

In place of political powers, we will put economic forces.

In place of the ancient classes of nobles, burghers, and peasants, or of business men and working men, we will put the general titles and special departments of activity: Agriculture, Industry, Commerce, etc.

In place of public force, we will put collective force.

In place of standing armies, we will put industrial associations.

In place of police, we will put identity of interests.

In place of political centralization, we will put economic centralization.

Do you see now how there can be order without functionaries, a profound and wholly intellectual unity?

You, who cannot conceive of unity without a whole apparatus of legislators, prosecutors, attorneys-general, custom house officers, policemen, you have never known what real unity is! What you call unity and centralization is nothing but perpetual chaos, serving as a basis for endless tyranny; it is the advancing of the chaotic condition of social forces as an argument for despotism — a despotism which is really the cause of the chaos.

Well, in our turn, let us ask, what need have we of government when we have made an agreement? Does not the National Bank, with its various branches, achieve centralization and unity? Does not the agreement among farm laborers for compensation, marketing, and reimbursement for farm properties create unity? From another point of view, do not the industrial associations for carrying on the large-scale industries bring about unity? And the constitution of value, that contract of contracts, as we have called it, is not that the most perfect and indissoluble unity?

And if we must show you an example in our own history in order to convince you, does not that fairest monument of the Convention, the system of weights and measures, form, for fifty years past, the corner-stone of that economic unity which is destined to replace political unity?

Never ask again then what we will put in place of government, nor what will become of society without government, for I assure you that in the future it will be easier to conceive of society without government, than of society with government.

Society, just now, is like the butterfly just out of the cocoon, which shakes its gilded wings in the sunlight before taking flight. Tell it to crawl back into the silken covering, to shun the flowers and to hide itself from the light!

But a revolution is not made with formulas. Prejudice must be attacked at the foundation, overthrown, hurled into dust, its injurious effects explained, its ridiculous and odious nature shown forth. Mankind believes only in its own tests, happy if these tests do not addle its brains and drain its blood. Let us try then by clear criticism to make the test of government so conclusive, that the absurdity of the institution will strike all minds, and Anarchy, dreaded as a scourge, will be accepted as a benefit.


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