Liberty Matters

Molinari, Socialist Anarchism, and the Dissolution of the State

To be GOVERNED is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the virtue to do so. – ProudhonWhen I see a man who is called a friend of the people,  I begin by securing what I have in my pockets. – Bellegarrigue
David H.’s mention of Molinari’s enthusiasm for “working class entrepreneurs” points to an interesting parallel between Molinari’s ideas and those of another anti-state radical active in France during the same era: the socialist anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, whose vision for society was one of small-scale ownership by artisans and peasants.
The parallels between Molinari and Proudhon can easily go unnoticed, since Proudhon is widely thought of as an archenemy of private ownership; he is best known, after all, for his dictum that “property is theft” – a thesis that has led to Proudhon’s being taken to task, by critics ranging from Karl Marx to Isabel Paterson, for allegedly failing to see that the concept of theft presupposes the concept of property.[1]
But this opposition is misleading. Proudhon distinguished two forms of individual ownership, which he called property and possession, differing from one another in the details of their rules of use, acquisition, and transfer; he opposed the form he called property, but favored the form he called possession, which he saw as combining the best aspects of property and communism while avoiding the defects of each.[2] Property, the unjust form of individual ownership, he saw as a violation or “theft” of possession, the just form of individual ownership. Proudhon was a “socialist” in the sense of favoring worker control of industry; but that control was not primarily envisioned as being collective.
Proudhon’s relationship to French liberals of the Say school was complicated, as each side professed a consistent commitment to free markets while condemning the other’s commitment as inconsistent. Proudhon and Frédéric Bastiat (who as delegates to the National Assembly sat on the same, “left” side) both praised and attacked each other,[3]while Karl Marx criticized Proudhon for being too complimentary to Charles Dunoyer.[4]One of Proudhon’s first publications appeared in the Journal des Économistes, the chief liberal organ.[5]And Proudhon’s “mutual bank” proposal (whatever its merits) resembles Molinari’s “labor-exchange” proposal (whatever its merits) in being an attempt to ameliorate the condition of the working class by undermining the power of the capitalist class through voluntary association for mutual aid.
I’ve mentioned in my original essay how Molinari’s 1888 call for “the diffusion of the state within society” appears to be a deliberate echo of Proudhon’s 1851 call for “the dissolution [or sometimes “absorption”] of the state in the economic organism.” As I’ve noted elsewhere[6] this language suggests “on the one hand, that the vision of a stateless society is not one in which the services of adjudication and rights-protection have been eliminated, but rather one on which they have been assumed by voluntary economic institutions – and on the other, that the process of getting there employs economic rather than political means, a peaceful dissolution rather than a violent overthrow.” Both suggestions are corroborated by Proudhon’s writings.
As Brad Spangler has pointed out,[7]Proudhon in his 1851 General Idea of the Revolution[8]quite clearly advocates the privatization, not the elimination, of arbitration and security services, as well as an emphasis on restitution over punishment (though he does not repudiate punishment entirely):
It is industrial organization that we will put in place of government .... 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. ...[B]oth citizens and communities will have no need of the intervention of the State to carry on their business, take care of their property, build their ports, bridges, quays, canals, roads, establish markets, transact their litigation, instruct, direct, control, censor their agents, perform any acts of supervision or police, any more than they will need its aid in offering their adoration to the Most High, or in judging their criminals and putting it out of their power to do injury, supposing that the removal of motive does not bring the cessation of crime .... [T]he machinery of lawsuits then will reduce itself to a simple meeting of witnesses; no intermediary between the plaintiff and defendant, between the claimant and the debtor, will be needed except the friends whom they have asked to arbitrate ....I understand that these men who are at war with their fellows should be summoned and compelled to repair the damage they have caused, to bear the cost of the injury which they have occasioned; and, up to a certain point, to pay a fine in addition, for the reproach and insecurity of which they are one of the causes, with more or less premeditation. I understand, I say, this application of the laws of war between enemies. ... But that beyond this, these same people should be shut up, under the pretext of reforming them, in one of those dens of violence, stigmatized, put in irons, tortured in body and soul, guillotined, or, what is even worse, placed, at the expiration of their term, under the surveillance of the police, whose inevitable revelations will pursue them wherever they may have taken refuge; once again I deny, in the most absolute manner, that anything in society or in conscience or in reason can authorize such tyranny. 
Whether these suggestions owe anything to Molinari is hard to say, though Proudhon did read the Journal des Économistes and so was surely aware of “The Production of Security” from 1849; the prospect of a line of influence from 1849 Molinari to 1851 Proudhon to 1888 Molinari is tantalizing but elusive. Note, in any case, how Proudhon’s contrast between “industrial” and governmental approaches to social organization echoes the ideas of earlier liberals like Dunoyer, Comte, and Thierry (who also influenced Molinari), and parallels the similar distinction that Spencer was drawing contemporaneously in England.
Likewise Proudhon, though occasionally willing to call upon the state to help implement his program, ordinarily sees reform as arising from below, through economic rather than political means. For Proudhon, liberty is “not the daughter but the mother of order.”[9] In his 1849 essay “The State,”[10] he explains that the economic revolution consists not in “levying additional taxes on the wealthy and property-holding classes” but in “opening usurious credit to competition and thereby causing capital to lose its income,” and replacing the “whole system of existing taxes” with a single “insurance premium” – whereupon competition will grow “emulative and fruitful,” while government will become “first useless and then impossible.”
Another contemporary French thinker who merits comparison with Molinari and Proudhon is Anselme Bellegarrigue, whose 1850 Anarchy: A Journal of Order,[11]though it ran for only two issues, appears to be the first anarchist periodical to employ the term in its title. Given his embrace of the term “anarchy,” first popularized by Proudhon as a term for voluntary social order, Bellegarrigue presumably owes something to Proudhon; and he certainly shares Proudhon’s taste for paradoxical-sounding maxims (“Anarchy is order,” Bellegarrigue proclaims, while “government is civil war”). Bellegarrigue also mentions Proudhon’s journal favorably, as an exception to the rule that there is “not one French newspaper that I can read without being moved either to great pity or profound contempt for the writer”; yet the highest praise he manages to give it is that it “from time to time ... breaks with the old routine in order to cast a little light on the general interest” (Anarchy, No. 1), and – like Molinari – he frequently throws Proudhon’s name in with those of statist socialists he opposes. He is thought to have been an admirer of Thoreau, whom he apparently visited during his trip to America; and some of his egoistic language in Anarchy suggests the influence of Max Stirner. Whether he was influenced by Molinari (or perhaps vice versa?) is difficult to determine.
Like Proudhon, Bellegarrigue took the “socialist” side in the dispute between labor and capital, describing labor as “expropriated by power at bayonet point, for the benefit of capital.” (No. 1) Yet Bellegarrigue also describes his favored anarchist revolution as “a good deal for the noble, the bourgeois and the worker.” (No. 2) Bellegarrigue denies that a just social order ever requires the sacrifice of an individual’s interest to the interest of any other individual or group of individuals; since “my interest is the equal of any other’s,” he argues, “I cannot owe more than is owed to me.” (Bellegarrigue’s point here anticipates John Rawls’ charge against utilitarianism, and Robert Nozick’s charge against Rawls, of not taking seriously the “distinction between persons.”) 
For Bellegarrigue, society is simply a “vast combination of material and personal interests,” while the “collective or State interest” – for whose sake “dogma, philosophy and politics together have thus far demanded wholesale or partial forswearing of individuals and their assets” – is a “sheer figment.” He clarifies, however, that he does not “wish utterly to deny the collective interest.” Bellegarrigue explains:
Society is the inescapable consequence of the aggregation of individuals; likewise the collective interest a providential and inevitable consequence of the aggregation of personal interests. The collective interest will only be fully realised to the extent that it leaves personal interest untouched; because, if the collective interest is understood to be the interest of all, in any society it requires only trespass against the interest of one single individual for the collective interest to cease immediately from being in everyone's interest and, as a result, for it to cease to exist. ... But when the name of collective interest is bestowed upon the one in light of which they shut down my workshop, prevent me from pursuing such and such an activity, impound my newspaper or my book, trespass against my liberty, ban me from becoming a lawyer or doctor ... I declare that I cannot understand it, or rather, that I understand only too well.” [No. 1]
While a radical individualist, Bellegarrigue is no social atomist;[12]on the contrary, for Bellegarrigue it is precisely because “men are by nature social,” and our “natural condition is of itself the state of society,” that there “cannot be a social contract,” inasmuch as “society is not an artificial construct” and it is “absurd ... to try to establish by contract that which is already and inevitably constituted.” (No. 1) “[I]t is when the authority of each is equal to that of all that the social balance is inevitably achieved.” (No. 2)
Bellegarrigue too accepts the dissolution-of-the-state approach, both in the sense of favoring the privatization of the state’s protective functions and in the sense of preferring economic rather than political means to achieving this goal (though this did not deter him from admiring American political institutions, despite their monopolistic character and violent origins).
Like Molinari, Bellegarrigue regards the provision of security as a business, whose customers should be free to accept or decline. As he writes in another work, “To the Point! To Action!,”[13]published the year before Molinari’s “Production of Security” and Soirées:
If it is a profession to govern, then I demand to see the products of that profession, and if those products are not to my liking, then I proclaim that to force me to consume them is the oddest abuse of authority that one man can exercise on another. 
But unlike Molinari – the Molinari of 1849, at least – Bellegarrigue appears not to have envisioned the voluntary provision of security as involving competing firms. Instead, a bit like the Molinari of 1899, he seems to have conceived of a single security organization for a given territory, but one which would win universal voluntary consent by confining itself to the “two points ... on which the good sense of all parties converge,” namely “repression of crime against the person and against property,” and “defense of the territory.” Since the organization would be voluntary, its personnel would count as “delegates” rather than “masters.” (“To the Point!”)
Bellegarrigue firmly rejects the notion that liberation requires seizing the reins of state power, either by electoral or by revolutionary means. Arriving back in Paris from a trip to America, in the midst of the 1848 revolution, Bellegarrigue encountered an earnest young revolutionary who “boasted to him that this time the workers would not be robbed of their victory.” Bellegarrigue replied: “They have robbed you already of your victory .... Have you not named a government?”[14]Unlike some of his more pessimistic contemporaries, Bellegarrigue thinks that the collapse of the July Monarchy offered a genuine opportunity to realize a viable anarchist society in mid-19th-century France:
In the last years of the reign of Louis-Philippe, the Revolution, – and by this word I mean the development of interests, – had so undermined the government that it split on all sides, and through its numerous fissures, badly repaired with the aid of the emergency laws, was introduced in continuous jets the free flood that should have carried it away. [Anarchy, No. 2]
But the revolution failed to fulfill it liberatory potential because it relied on the wrong methods.
“I do not believe at all in the efficacy of armed revolution” (“To the Point”), Bellegarrigue writes, instead pointing to a superior mode of revolution for which “neither rifle nor barricade nor riot, nor zealotry, nor factionalism nor voting is required.” (Anarchy, No. 1) Like his 16th-century predecessor Étienne de la Boétie,[15]Bellegarrigue sees state power as resting on popular acquiescence and impossible to sustain without it; hence, again like Boétie, he calls for its overthrow by means of “the force of inertia, the denial of assistance” (“To the Point!”) – in other words, mass civil disobedience, whereby individuals shift their allegiance from the state to voluntary institutions and relationships, simply ignoring or bypassing the mechanisms of government. “Turn your backs on government and on the parties which are merely its lackeys,” he advises. “Contempt kills governments, because only strife can sustain them.” (Anarchy, No. 1) 
Bellegarrigue contrasts the “true Revolution, that of individual needs and interests,” in which “each seeks to enrich himself by labor and industry” – a revolution that calls for “the calm which multiplies transactions and constantly displaces wealth by mobilizing and developing it,” and “struggles with vigor against the nuisances and barriers of the tyrannical regulations of the governments” – with the self-styled revolutionaries, busybodies who “offer themselves as replacements in power for men already pushed aside by the force of things,” and “consolidate the governmental mastery that business was in the process of subjugating.” If the revolutionaries had “set themselves to glorifying the industrial initiative of individuals” and “taught individuals to count only on themselves,” instead of “teaching them [to] expect everything from the lame Providence of governments, then “liberty, which, whatever the sophists say, is a question of coins, and happiness which, whatever the idlers say, is a question of morality and labor, would have been universally established in France,” and “the government, forgotten in its corner, would hardly concern us.” The true Revolution is a “stranger to politics” and “simply a question of economy.” (Anarchy, No. 2)
The parallels between the “capitalist” Molinari and the “socialists” Proudhon and Bellegarrigue should serve to remind us that concern for the radically liberatory potential of unhampered markets cuts across traditional political labels.[16]
[1] [“[S]ince ‘theft’ as a forcible violation of property presupposes the existence of property, Proudhon entangled himself in all sorts of fantasies ....” Marx, Letter to J. B. Schweizer, 24 January 1865; online: <> “Perhaps the most senseless phrase ever coined even by a collectivist is that of Proudhon: ‘All property is theft.’... Theft presupposes rightful ownership. An object must be property before it can be stolen.” Paterson, God of the Machine, 1943, Ch. 17; online: <>.]
[2] Proudhon writes, for example: “[T]he man who takes possession of a field, and says, ‘This field is mine,’ will not be unjust so long as every one else has an equal right of possession; nor will he be unjust, if, wishing to change his location, he exchanges this field for an equivalent. But if, putting another in his place, he says to him, ‘Work for me while I rest,’ he then becomes unjust, unassociated, unequal. He is a proprietor. ... Individual possession is the condition of social life .... Property is the suicide of society. Possession is a right; property is against right.” Proudhon, What Is Property, 1840; online: <>. In his 1865 Theory of Property, Proudhon would later modify his views in certain respects, becoming more accommodating toward property – to a degree that I think has been exaggerated by some interpreters and understated by others. But the complicated details need not detain us here. (For those interested in complicated Proudhon details, I recommend Shawn Wilbur’s excellent blog: <> ).
[3] See the Bastiat-Proudhon Debate on Interest (1849-1850), online: <>.
[4] Marx, Letter to J. B. Schweizer, 24 January 1865, op cit.
[5] “On Competition Between Railways and Waterways,” Journal des Économistes, May 1845.
[6] Long, “The Economic Dissolution of the State”; online: <>.
[8] Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, 1851; trans. John Beverly Robinson, 1923; online: <>.
[9] Proudhon, Solution of the Social Problem, 1848; partially online: <>.
[10] Proudhon, “The State: Its Nature, Object, and Destiny,” Voice of the People, 3 December 1849; translated by Benjamin R. Tucker; online: <>.
[11] Bellegarrigue, Anarchy: A Journal of Order; no. 1, April 1850, trans. unknown; online: <>; no. 2, May 1850, trans. Shawn P. Wilbur; online: <>.
[12] Contrary to popular stereotypes, there is more often an opposition, rather than an affinity, between atomism and radical individualism. As I’ve written elsewhere, atomists “tend to see human interests as naturally conflictual, and thus do not expect social order to emerge unless it is imposed on society by coercive authority,” leading them to be suspicious of radical individualism; conversely, since radical individualists typically “see human interests as harmonious and social cooperation as natural,” they are more likely to be open to “trusting individuals to pursue their goals without coercive control.” Long, “The Classical Roots of Radical Individualism,” Social Philosophy and Policy 24, no. 2, July 2007, pp. 262-297; online: <>.
[13] Bellegarrigue, “To the Point! To Action! An Interpretation of the Democratic Idea,” 1848; trans. Shawn P. Wilbur et al.; online: <>.
[14] George Woodcock, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1962), pp. 276-78.
[15] La Boétie, Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, 1576; online: <[16] For further elaboration of this point, see Gary Chartier & Charles W. Johnson, eds., Markets Not Capitalism: Individualist Anarchism Against Bosses, Inequality, Corporate Power, and Structural Poverty (Minor Compositions, 2011); online: <>.