thesis — antithesis
VOICE #1 : Well, you are a democrat?
VOICE #2 : No.
VOICE #1 : What! you would have a monarchy?
VOICE #2 : No.
VOICE #1 : A constitutionalist?
VOICE #2 : God forbid!
VOICE #1 : You are then an aristocrat.
VOICE #2 : Not at all.
VOICE #1 : You want a mixed government.
VOICE #2 : Still less.
VOICE #1 : What are you, then?
VOICE #2 : I am an anarchist.
VOICE#1 : Oh! I understand you. You speak satirically. This is a hit at the government.
VOICE #2 : By no means. I have just given you my serious and well considered profession of faith. Although a firm friend of order, I am, in full force of the term, an anarchist. Listen to me.
— from What Is Property?, Proudhon, Pierre Joseph, 1809-1865
Pierre Joseph Proudhon, another name rarely spoken, and for good reason, as you can imagine from that opening excerpt. He was an optimist who was far too hopeful that a world of justice and equality would soon prevail over oppression and slavery. Hopeful for a future where humanity would live with mutual respect and voluntary cooperation, without the need for the oversight of government. A world where the individual is self-ruled. He believed this dream would be realized in the nineteenth century. Today, almost two hundred years later, the dream is still unattained, and the promise seems far off in the future. Despite his poor prognostication, his not always perfectly clear writing, and many of his ideas not fully reconciled, he presented the world a new, unique perspective. The force of his thought comes through with vibrant energy. His criticism of the status quo and humanity’s long history of social injustice is profound; his logic penetrating. For the later reasons, especially, Proudhon is neglected. He challenges, no, demolishes the right of authority claimed by kings, Caesars, CEOs, dictators, prime ministers, presidents, chancellors, governors, chairmen, deans, rectors, provosts, wardens, captains, . . . This kind of heresy must be suppressed.
Instead of seeking the cause of the evil in his [own] mind and heart, man blames his masters, his rivals, his neighbors, and himself; nations arm themselves, and slay and exterminate each other, until equilibrium is restored by the vast depopulation, and peace again arises from the ashes of the combatants. So loath is humanity to touch the customs of its ancestors, and to change the laws framed by the founders of communities, and confirmed by the faithful observance of the ages.
That paragraph describes how we are immersed in the social conditioning learned in our schools and from conventional cultural beliefs. Instead of searching for the root cause of our conflicts, we resort to blame and violence. We seem to be locked in a feedback loop that we are either unaware of its persistence, or, when we see it, we won’t simply say, “stop,” and exit the loop. We don’t just loath the examination of customs and traditional habits, we fear that “the other” won’t follow suit if make the change first. We refuse to acknowledge our contradictions. Murder is morally wrong (a universal proscription), but we continue squandering resources on armies. Slavery is morally wrong, but we continue with less aggressive forms of slavery, e.g., underpaid wage labor (rental instead of ownership of the worker). We talk justice, yet continue to treat service workers with little respect, while we deify celebrities and rise to our feet for judges. We pretend our laws guarantee equality, while compensation is grossly discrepant, and opportunities are clearly economic driven. We continue to believe that the have-mores, who continually acquire, hoard, and consume disproportionately greater resources, actually deserve more. (Pardon the use of the collective “we.” I use it because none of us are completely innocent of these faults.)
The definition of sovereignty was derived from the definition of the law. The law, they said, is the expression of the will of the sovereign; then, under a monarchy, the law is the expression of the will of the king; in a republic, the law is the expression of the will of the people. Aside from the difference in the number of wills, the two systems are exactly identical; both share the same error, namely, that the law is the expression of a will; it ought to be the expression of a fact.
That’s an interesting perspective on the law. Whether it’s a declaration of one person’s will or any number of persons wills, it’s still flawed opinion. It needs to be, as Proudhon puts it, based on fact. Instead it’s willy-nilly, knee-jerk responses to the unpleasantries of social conflict. The law needs to be carefully constructed to actually solve the problem it means to address. Think about that for a few seconds and you’ll realize that if a law were able to solve a problem, it would negate its need. Laws, unfortunately, never solve problems. In many cases, they only perpetuate or exacerbate problems. In all cases, they are difficult to enforce (sometimes impossible), and always selectively enforced, which is neither just nor equal. If a law serves any purpose, it’s to rationalize injustice and discrimination.
Every citizen may assert: “This is true; that is just,” but his opinion controls no one but himself. That the truth which he proclaims may become a law, it must be recognized. Now, what is it to recognize a law? It is to verify a mathematical or a metaphysical calculation; it is to repeat an experiment, to observe a phenomenon, to establish a fact.
If the legislator did know the law of the possible, and disregarded it, what must be thought of his justice? If he did not know it, what must be thought of his wisdom? Either wicked or foolish, how can we recognize his authority?
If our charters and our codes are based upon an absurd hypothesis, what is taught in the law schools? What does a judgment of the Court of Appeal amount to? About what do our Chambers deliberate? What is politics? What is our definition of a statesman? Should we not rather say jurisignorance?
If all our institutions are based upon an error in calculation, does it not follow that these institutions are so many shams?
He indirectly raises another distinction : the selfishness of will and the selfishness of reason. This is a topic I’ve tried to wrestle with in other posts. I understand in my head these two, diametrically opposed, versions of selfishness, but expressing the difference in words is difficult because we don’t have precisely defined words for the distinction. The two forms of selfishness can be contrasted in this manner. Childish selfishness, “I want my way, NOW!,” without regard for the fact that one is not alone, nor self-sufficient. Contrast that to, “I want my way, however, my way may not be in my best interest now or in the future.” I am not alone, I depend on others, I need their cooperation to get my way, and I need to cooperate with others in return. This is selfish, or Selfness, but it’s considerate, thoughtful, cooperative selfness that makes my world a better place to live. The childish way is simply willful. It sets one up for retaliation, revenge. It means my world is going to be more dangerous, that I’ll have to look over my shoulder, lock my doors, install a burglar alarm. Living in fear is not in my best interest; it’s not well reasoned. In the end, it’s not truly selfish at all. It’s ignorant, shortsighted, and self-defeating. Selfness, based on reason, sorts out the various conflicts intelligently, rationally, logically, to find a better way of getting my way.
In a word, equality of rights is proved by equality of needs. Now, equality of rights, in the case of a commodity which is limited in amount, can be realized only by equality of possession.
In another word, we all need food and shelter, companionship and leisure, purpose and occupation. We all rely on countless others, they rely on us. We all need the same resources from nature—water, air, minerals, etc. Note, however, all these limited resources literally belong to the earth. We are all entitled to an equal share, because it belongs to no one, but to everyone. However, some believe that justice and equality are irrelevant. A bigger piece of pie is, in their opinion, their right—equality and justice are merely blots of ink on a page. In yet another word, the law applies only as seen fit to retain privilege, and maintain subservience. Under social inequality, the cause of conflict and crime becomes obvious. No one likes to be cheated.
Two hundred grenadiers stood the obelisk of Luxor upon its base in a few hours; do you suppose that one man could have accomplished the same task in two hundred days? Nevertheless, on the books of the capitalist, the amount of wages paid would have been the same. Well, a desert to prepare for cultivation, a house to build, a factory to run—all these are obelisks to erect, mountains to move. The smallest fortune, the most insignificant establishment, the setting in motion of the lowest industry, demand the concurrence of so many different kinds of labor and skill, that one man could not possibly execute the whole of them. It is astonishing that the economists never have called attention to this fact.
How can any one person claim the lion’s share when ultimately we are all unconditionally dependent on others for our daily survival? People doing the basic jobs allow others the time to specialize. The specialist is far less necessary for daily survival.
One of three things must be done. Either the laborer must be given a portion of the product in addition to his wages; or the employer must render the laborer an equivalent in productive service; or else he must pledge himself to employ him forever. Division of the product, reciprocity of service, or guarantee of perpetual labor,—from the adoption of one of these courses the capitalist cannot escape. But it is evident that he cannot satisfy the second and the third of these conditions—he can neither put himself at the service of the thousands of workingmen, who directly or indirectly, have aided him in establishing himself, nor employ them all forever. He has no other course left him, then, but a division of the property. But if the property is divided, all conditions will be equal—there will be no more large capitalists or large proprietors.
The civilized laborer who bakes a loaf that he may eat a slice of bread, who builds a palace that he may sleep in a stable, who weaves rich fabrics that he may dress in rags, who produces everything that he may dispense with everything—is not free. His employer, not becoming his associate in the exchange of salaries or services which takes place between them, is his enemy.
An example of the irony of workers not being able to afford the product they produce.
Give men liberty, enlighten their minds that they may know the meaning of their contracts, and you will see the most perfect equality in exchanges without regard to superiority of talent and knowledge; and you will admit that in commercial affairs, that is, in the sphere of society, the work superiority is void of sense.
The oldest form of oppression : keep the masses ignorant. Reserving literacy, withholding knowledge, limiting education, and controlling information are the first rules of domination. Freedom is often talked about, but without equal education, without fair treatment, without full understanding, there is no freedom. There are only varying degrees of slavery. There is only one way to balance the scales, and it won’t come from violent revolutions. It won’t come from bottom-up grassroots efforts. It will only come when those unfairly in power relinquish their unearned, unjust power, and share our common resources with everyone who participates and contributes. The change will be top-down. But as long as the top believes they are better off deceiving, cheating, and exploiting others, ‘justifying” their behavior with flawed rhetoric, and maintaining their position with force, the world will continue on its current course.
The artist, the savant, and the poet find their just recompense in the permission that society gives them to devote themselves exclusively to science and to art; so that in reality they do not labor for themselves, but for society, which creates them, and requires of them no other duty. Society can, if need be, do without prose and verse, music and painting, and the knowledge of the movements of the moon and stars; but it cannot live a single day without food and shelter.
Again, this reveals how the talented, the brilliant, the geniuses are supported by the ordinary people who keep the machinery of our existent running. Without this broad base, the talented wouldn’t have time to devote to their talents. That begs the question(s) : Who’s more important to survival, the farmer or the physician? Who makes our cities more livable, the lawyer or the trash collector? Who contributes more to the end result, the executive or the worker who actually produces something of value? Who’s efforts make those “high-level,” “important” jobs possible?
It is because we are neither free nor sufficiently enlightened, that we submit to be cheated in our bargains; that the laborer pays the duties levied by the prestige of power and the selfishness of talent upon the curiosity of the idle, and that we are perpetually scandalized by these monstrous inequalities which are encouraged and applauded by public opinion.
This is how the far “wrong” sell their “rights,” how the media (owned by “the prestige of power and the selfishness of talent”) follow suit, and how the average person goes along with it, agrees with it, and votes for it.
In the following quotation, portions have been the emboldened. Pay particular attention, he does not deny unequal talent or capability. We are all different. He rightly points out that these inequalities are partly by chance, partly by opportunities, and never wholly self-made. Once more, everyone of us is highly dependent on others. We are all products of our history, our environment, our genes, factors in which we have no control.
Listen, proprietor. Inequality of talent exists in fact; in right it is not admissible, it goes for nothing, it is not thought of. One Newton in a century is equal to thirty millions of men; the psychologist admires the rarity of so fine a genius, the legislator sees only the rarity of the function. Now rarity of function bestows no privilege upon the functionary; and that for several reasons, all equally forcible.
1. Rarity of genius [is not] a motive to compel society to go down on its knees before the man of superior talents, but a providential means for the performance of all functions to the greatest advantage to all.
2. Talent is a creation of society rather than a gift of Nature; it is an accumulated capital, of which the receiver is only the guardian. Without society—without education and powerful assistance which it furnishes—the finest nature would be inferior to the most ordinary capacities in the very respect in which it ought to shine. The more extensive a man’s knowledge, the more luxuriant his imagination, the more versatile his talent—the more costly has his education been, the more remarkable and numerous were his teachers and his models, and the greater is his debt. The farmer produces from the time that he leaves his cradle until he enters his grave; the fruits of art and science are late and scarce; frequently the tree dies before the fruit ripens. Society, in cultivating talent, makes a sacrifice to hope.
3. Capacities have no common standard of comparison; the conditions of development being equal, inequality of talent is simply speciality of talent.
Man would not be man were it not for society, and society is supported by the balance and harmony of the powers which compose it.
Man is born a social being—that is, he seeks equality and justice in all his relations, but he loves independence and praise. The difficulty of satisfying these various desires at the same time is the primary cause of the despotism of the will, and the appropriation which results from it. On the other hand, man always needs a market for his products; unable to compare values of different kinds, he is satisfied to judge approximately, according to his passion and caprice; and he engages in dishonest commerce, which always results in wealth and poverty. Thus, the greatest evils which man suffers arise from the misuse of his social nature, of this same justice of which he is so proud, and which he applies with such deplorable ignorance.
What sophisms, indeed, what prejudices can stand before the simplicity of the following propositions—
I. Individual possession is the condition of social life; five thousand years of property demonstrate it. Property is the suicide of society. Possession is a right; property is against right. Suppress property while maintaining possession, and by this simple modification of the principle, you will revolutionize law, government, economy, and institutions; you will drive evil from the face of the earth.
II. All having an equal right of occupancy, possession varies with the number of possessors; property cannot establish itself.
III. The effect of labor being the same for all, property is lost in the common prosperity.
IV. All human labor being the result of collective force, all property becomes, in consequence, collective and unitary. To speak more exactly, labor destroys property.
V. Every capacity for labor being, like every instrument of labor, an accumulated capital, and a collective property, inequality of wages and fortunes (on the ground of inequality of capacities) is, therefore, injustice and robbery.
VI. The necessary conditions of commerce are the liberty of the contracting parties and the equivalence of the products exchanged. Now, value being expressed by the amount of time and outlay which each product costs, and liberty being inviolable, the wages of laborers (like their rights and duties) should be equal.
VII. Products are bought only by products. Now, the condition of all exchange being equivalence of products, profit is impossible and unjust. Observe this elementary principle of economy, and pauperism, luxury, oppression, vice, crime, and hunger will disappear from our midst.
VIII. Men are associated by the physical and mathematical law of production, before they are voluntarily associated by choice. Therefore, equality of conditions is demanded by justice; that is, by strict social law; esteem, friendship, gratitude, admiration, all fall within the domain of equitable or proportional law.
IX. Free association, liberty—whose sole function is to maintain equality in the means of production and equivalence in exchanges—is the only possible, the only just, the only true from of society.
X. Politics is the science of liberty. The government of man by man (under whatever name it be disguised) is oppression. Society finds its highest perfection in the union of order with anarchy.
Now, If we imagine a society based upon these four principles—equality, law, independence, and proportionality, we find—
1. That equality, consisting only of equality of conditions, of means, and not in equality of comfort—which is the business of the laborers to achieve for themselves when provided with equal means—in no way violates justice and equality.
2. That law, resulting from the knowledge of facts, and consequently based upon necessity itself, never clashes with independence.
3. That individual independence, or the autonomy of the private reason, originating in the difference in talents and capacities, can exist without danger within the limits of the law.
4. That proportionality, being admitted only in the sphere of intelligence and sentiment, and not as regards to material objects, may be observed without violating justice or social equality.
By means of self-instruction and the acquisition of ideas, man finally acquires the idea of science—of a system of knowledge in harmony with the reality of things, and inferred from observation. He searches for the science, or the system of inanimate bodies, the system of organic bodies, the system of the human mind, the system of the universe. Why should he not also search for the system of society? But, having reached this height, he comprehends that political truth, or the science of politics, exists quite independently of the will of sovereigns, the opinion of majorities and popular beliefs—that kings, ministers, magistrates and nations, as wills, have no connection to that science, and are worthy of no consideration. He comprehends that if man is born a sociable being, the authority of his father over him ceases on the day when his mind is formed, his education finished, and he becomes the associate of his father. His true chief and his king is the demonstrated truth; that politics is a science, not a stratagem; and that the function of the legislator is reduced, in the last analysis, to the methodical search for truth.
Thus, the authority of man over man is inversely proportional to the stage of intellectual development which a society has reached; and the probable duration of that authority can be calculated from the more or less general desire for a true government. And just as the right of force and the right of artifice retreat before the steady advance of justice, and must finally be extinguished in equality, so the sovereignty of the will yields to the sovereignty of the reason, and must at last be lost in scientific socialism. Property and royalty have been crumbling to pieces ever since the world began. As man seeks justice in equality, so society seeks order in anarchy.
The more ignorant a man is, the more obedient he is, and the more absolute is his confidence in his guide.
Seems Proudhon had more to say.
After reading Proudhon’s first book, What is Property, I read his last, War and Peace (not to be confused with Tolstoy’s War and Peace). Now, if his first is an eye opener, zoowie!, the last is a hatch between the eyes. With the preface and the first couple of chapters, it’s hard to reconcile his early thoughts with the later ones. In War and Peace, he glorifies war from a bizarre point of view; he claims it is divine and god-given. That war distinguishes man from beast, because war has rules. That it’s virtuous and gallant. If there were no war, nothing would exist. It’s incomprehensible how someone so vehemently focused on justice and equality can turn into the most hawkish apologist for war. The contradictions are baffling. Whereas his religious views sneak into his early writing, now they get indirectly questioned along the way. Unfortunately, the brilliance of his penetrating thought gets trounced by a full about face. It’s madness. There’s no other explanation. As I read, I kept thinking, “I can’t take any more of this,” yet my curiosity kept me going. I had to see where he takes the reader, and if he can reason his way out of his self-made labyrinth.
His tactics are possibly a deception to lure you in, for if you read his words closely, they kindle deeper introspection. Could this be a ploy to give his argument more weight? It could, on the contrary, if the reader doesn’t invest the extra effort, if the reader only lifts the parts that supports one’s bias, easily be construed as a full-on endorsement of fascism, and as chance would have it, many have read his intentions in this fashion by throwing out the conflicts. But he keeps playing the same war cards, while mixing in the flip side. It’s a confusing game.
Proudhon’s glorification of war is presented along side a myriad of references from famous philosophers, going back as far as the ancient Greeks, of their denouncements of war. Bouncing back and forth with honoring war, from his point of view, or demonizing war, from the “authors” (his collective word for all the previous philosophers) point of view, both justifying and condemning—pages and chapters of ping-pong. Most writers when trying to persuade the reader pile up their argument with one-sided evidence, biased, incomplete, insistent. Instead, Proudhon plies us with conflicting views. I conclude this could be a method for exposing the hypocrisy of our cultural attitudes towards war. Humanity’s ambivalence and the contradictions inherent in social beliefs from ancient times through to today. How better to demonstrate this confusion than with contradiction? How better to provoke thought to examine more closely our failures. War being the greatest failure. This interpretation of War and Peace couldn’t be formed without having read Proudhon’s earlier works.
He definitely has a point about how war is central to our existence. Human history is replete with war. Our history books are focused on wars. The theater, cinema, literature, art are dominated by war themes, fighting and violence. It does, in fact, separate us from animals. War is not random fighting, little skirmishes that end before serious harm is done. War is deliberate, planned, organized, and lethal. This requires the higher function of our prefrontal cortex. He stopped short, though, of considering that the motivation for war is driven by the primitive reptilian part of our brain—an indication of the failure of our higher functions—reason, logic and forethought.
The ”right of force.” Proudhon uses this phrase, but never he never clearly defines it. He presents us with towers of evidence against it, and seems to only justify it with theological support, the myth of the church, which at other times he seems to dismiss. How can the reader resolve his contradictions? I’m wondering how his thinking transitioned from his resolute stand on anarchism, justice, equality, freedom, to become a bullhorn for authoritarian government, law, war and force? Had he lost his mind?
Then he gets into the “right of work,” “right of intelligence,” “right of love,” “the right of fill-in-the-blank.” And qualifications to these rights, and more complications, and twists and turns in his scattered thinking. It’s tiresome, convoluted, pointless, often incomprehensible.
Instead of simplifying and clarifying the concept of right, he rambles on with voluminous verbiage that obfuscates any possibility of rectifying the other authors that he’s spent a major portion of the book criticizing. Worse yet, he nullifies his own previous ground breaking work. It’s an amazing contrast that I had to read for myself to believe. I’d thought to cite some of the dozens of passages that display the incongruences, his lapses of logic, and how he bogged himself down in circular definitions, akin to “it is what it is,” but I’ll spare you. It would be an excruciating ordeal. I’ve never read any work that continuously talks out of both sides of its mouth, and with such conviction. You have to read it to believe it.
He belittles his predecessors, the “authors,” for being utilitarian, materialist, atheist, using those accusations to discredit their thoughts. He obviously didn’t realize he was making one of the classic errors of rhetoric; trying to discredit your opponent instead of his argument.
It took me to chapter 8, a third of the way through, to finally realize that Proudhon has either written an ironic sketch for an episode of Monte Python’s Flying Circus, or it’s the ravings of a psychotic. In any case, it’s far too silly to take seriously.
A few bits from War and Peace—
The appearance of man upon this earth is a divine fact. Where, indeed, does man come from? How did he get here? We do not know. The spontaneous generation to which speculation clings, is anything but an experiential fact and even if we were able to cite examples of it, it would still be unfathomable to us. If science ever gets to the heart of this mystery, the divinity of our origins will be pushed into the background and the fact of our earthly existence will cease to be divine; it will be scientific fact.
Interesting statement from a devout believer. And an example of an argument that doesn’t make clear which side it supports. It turns his views on their head, as he believes he’s supporting his preferred view, divinity. Also interesting to note, he wrote it circa 1860, just about the same time Darwin’s, On the Origin of the Species, was published (November 1859), and contemporary to Pasteur, who disproved spontaneous generation, and proved the germ theory of disease. As well read as Proudhon was, he must have missed, or ignored, these contemporary resources.
Society revolves around the feudal principle, which is nothing more than the warrior idea, the religion of force. Well then, are we going to abolish property on the grounds that it, like monarchy, has warlike, divine origins?
I’m still trying to find the words to comment on that last quotation. The absurdity seems too obvious.
In rehearsing these facts, far be it from me to succumb to any critical intention. I take society just the way it is, neither approving nor disapproving of its institutions; and I ask whether, in the light of such general, such superstitious and fanatical an idea that has been a guide to the world for the past sixty or eighty centuries; which floods society the way the light of the sun floods the surface of the planet; which introduces order and security in peoples as well as planting dissension and revolutions; an idea that is all-encompassing, all-governing: GOD, FORCE, and WAR; for it is becoming plain, as we make our way through this review, that, deep down, those three words are synonymous in the minds of the masses.
I know, I said I wasn’t going to torture you with examples of his insanity, illogic, and confusion. I lied.
And then we get a moment of clarity, and regression to his earlier ideals—
Is slavery, upon which almost the whole production among the ancients was based, not warfare? And serfdom, which replaced slavery; and wage labor, which replaced serfdom; are these not still warfare? Are customs levies not warfare? The tension between capital and labor, between supply and demand, between lender and borrower, the entitlements of authors, inventors, improvers, and the penalties imposed on counterfeiters, forgers and plagiarists, do these not all point to warfare?
Now there’s an analogy to ponder : warfare = slavery.
In war, the first casualty is truth.
The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
—Sun Tsu, The Art of War
War is an evil, in that it generates more evildoers than it sweeps away.
—attributed to an unnamed Ancient Greek by Immanuel Kant
“To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. [my emphasis] To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be place[d] under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.
—Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph (1923). . “What Is Government?” General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century. Translated by Robinson, John Beverly. London: Freedom Press. pp. 293–294.
recommended reading : Pierre-Joseph Proudhon