“To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated at, regulated, docketed, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, weighed, censored, ordered about, by men who have neither the right, nor the knowledge, nor the virtue …To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonoured. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.” That’s as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon has it, in his book The General Idea of Revolution, which appeared in 1851.
He was born on 15 February 1809 in Besancon into a family of peasants slowly being absorbed into the urban middle class as a consequence of economic activity within the Franche-Comte region of Eastern France. George Woodcock in Proudhon (1956) describes a voracious young reader, an autodidact in a house impoverished by crop failures, assiduously reading the heretical works of d’Holbach, and building an internal library of academic references that would result in his essay What is Property? (1840), in which Proudhon would become one of the most famous systemic thinkers to denounce the institutionalisation of property rights. The phrase “property is theft”, often attributed to Karl Marx, actually originates in this work, in which Proudhon condemns the use of property to extract value surplus to the land’s use by its proprietor. Proudhon was not a communist: in fact, he argued that usufruct rights (the right to live on one’s land and to use it to secure one’s independence from others through agriculture) were perfectly acceptable. It was the pernicious instantiation of title deeds, the ability to own multiple properties, to own the means of production, and to extract value that had not been added by the proprietor themselves through rent, that Proudhon vehemently opposed.
Proudhon is the first political theorist to attribute to himself the title “anarchist”, in an attempt to divorce it from its negative connotations associated with chaos in general parlance, and the Hobbesian state of nature (the war of all-against-all) amongst intellectual circles. He argued that “property is the exploitation of the weak by the strong. Communism is the exploitation of the strong by the weak,” which led to a very public dispute with Karl Marx, whom upon reading Proudhon’s 1846 work, The Philosophy of Poverty, responded sardonically with an essay titled The Poverty of Philosophy.
Proudhon’s principal contribution to the intellectual history of political philosophy stems from his opposition to all authority, and moreover, all externally enforced laws due to their incompatibility with reason. Proudhon’s radical move was to take the concept of “reason”, beloved by the Enlightenment thinkers, and reconstruct it as a weapon against the republican conception of freedom as living under laws prescribed by oneself. Proudhon was unequivocal in his contempt for those who seek justice within the institutional framework of government. Proudhon believed that “as man seeks justice in equality, so society seeks order in anarchy” and championed his own economic synthesis of communism and pre-industrial capitalism called mutualism, in which laborers would work either independently or in co-operatives, financed by loans dispensed by the People’s Bank, which would allow individuals to trade and exchange goods and services without endowing a capitalist class with undue profit, and without a state socialist apparatus. Proudhon’s fascination with Charles Fourier’s utopian socialism imbued him with a sense of responsibility in describing a detailed vision of a better world, as opposed to leaving his theory entrenched in abstraction. He claimed that “to name a thing is easy: the difficulty is to discern it before its appearance”: such was his task in describing the order he sought in anarchy.
Although Proudhon’s ideas went unutilized in his lifetime, a faction of mutualists were involved in the founding of the First International, a historic labour movement that later birthed the first sustained Marxist international revolutionary front, although most modern-day mutualists self-define as right-libertarians. Ultimately, Proudhon’s contempt for authority, burning sense of justice, and his economic heterodoxy establish him as one of the most unique radical political theorists. As Mikhail Bakunin would later conclude as to his place in left-libertarian history, “Proudhon is the master of us all.”