Jan 2012

Sorry Mr Proudhon, I’m afraid we learnt nothing

As the year moves on, another anniversary comes around. This time we pause to remember the death of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Last year at this time I published a piece about Proudhon over at Dorian Cope’s wonderful site, On This Deity, and reading it back today I’m reminded of the sense of regret I felt as I wrote it.

Pierre-Joseph ProudhonBecause like so many of the great thinkers of yesteryear, the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon seem more relevant now than perhaps they ever were. I hesitate to suggest that his ideas are “timeless”, for doing so would hint at a fatalism to which I do not wish to give voice. Instead I’d prefer to imagine a future where Proudhon’s revolutionary philosophy is no longer required; a future in which the tyranny he sought to overthrow can no longer flourish.

The ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon could only have been born in a time of oppression. And it is for that reason they feel so relevant today. It was Proudhon, the French revolutionary philosopher, who coined the word “anarchism” in the modern sense. And it was he who first self-applied that label insisting that political tyranny and economic tyranny went hand-in-hand… that one could not be overthrown without also confronting the other.

Proudhon’s most memorable line, “Property is theft”, cuts right to the heart of his philosophy. His greatest ideas were of a radical reconfiguration of the banking system as part of a peaceful overthrow of capitalism; ideas which surely came of age a long time ago. Yet still we struggle under the terrible weight of an inherently unjust system, seemingly willing to remain beholden to banks and other financial institutions whose interests do not coincide with our own. In a supposedly democratic society we allow unaccountable corporations trample us down, all the while assuming that it has to be this way. We seem unaware that we can cast off the yoke and try something new, if only we make that choice. Or if not something new, then perhaps something a century and a half old…

Manning the barricades and being involved in the fighting, Proudhon soon developed deep misgivings about the use of force to achieve political ends. “Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me,” he would write in 1849, “is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy.” And he applied that maxim to revolutionary organisations just as he did to the forces of the establishment. He sincerely believed that economic revolution without bloodshed was possible through the self-organisation of workers into local co-operatives along with the establishment of a revolutionary not-for-profit banking system which would provide interest-free credit and levy only such charges as were required to cover administration costs. He believed that capitalism would wither and die without the need for violence should such a banking system, in tandem with a widespread co-operative movement, become established.

As we fall further towards indentured servitude and watch – with mild frustration but little active resistance – our rights being increasingly sidelined, should we not consider the ideas of Proudhon? Or at the very least, consider some alternative to the madness being perpetrated in the modern corridors of political and economic power?

Posted in: Opinion