P.J. Proudhon on Competition (1846)

Proudhon, who was born in 1809, was a French philosopher, metaphysician, anarchist, free thinker, economist, and the father of an alternative economic Weltanschaung. Proudhon, who is highly underrated, is one of a few thinker who really influenced my Weltanschaung. Proudhon was highly intelligent, that’s one reason, next to many others more sinister, why his ideas did not succeed, many simply could not conceive his theories. Fallowing Proudhon, social and economical chaos is the only reason for the existence of government, in the dissolution of economical contradictions, the cause for the economical chaos and it’s social consequences, Proudhon saw the mean to arrive at social justice and in extension stability.

Proudhon believed in a direct relationship between reason; available intelligence in relation to the capacity to make use of it, and liberty, fallowing Proudhon, liberty may only be attained and increased in a sustainable way in harmony with reason, the amount of liberty attainable, in individual and social context, is determined by the absolute level of reason, an increase in reason connected with an increasing capacity for liberty; “summa lex summa libertas” (the fullness of liberty lies in the fullness of reason)

Proudhon was a very outspoken critic of communism, Marx wrote “The Misery of Philosophy” as answer to Proudhon’s “The Philosophy of Misery”.



Part from Proudhon’s “The Philosophy of Misery”.
by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon 1809-1865, French Philosopher, Economist

Competition represents that philosophical era in which, a semi-understanding of the antinomies of reason having given birth to the art of sophistry, the characteristics of the false and the true were confounded, and in which, instead of doctrines, they had nothing but deceptive mental tilts. Thus the industrial movement faithfully reproduces the metaphysical movement; the history of social economy is to be found entire in the writings of the philosophers. Let us study this interesting phase, whose most striking characteristic is to take away the judgment of those who believe as well as those who protest.

1. — Necessity of competition.

Is it not immediately and intuitively evident that COMPETITION DESTROYS COMPETITION? Is there a theorem in geometry more certain, more peremptory, than that? How then, upon what conditions, in what sense, can a principle which is its own denial enter into science? How can it become an organic law of society? If competition is necessary; if, as the school says, it is a postulate of production, — how does it become so devastating in its effects? And if its most certain effect is to ruin those whom it incites, how does it become useful? For the inconveniences which follow in its train, like the good which it procures, are not accidents arising from the work of man: both follow logically from the principle, and subsist by the same title and face to face.

And, in the first place, competition is as essential to labor as division, since it is division itself returning in another form, or rather, raised to its second power; division, I say, no longer, as in the first period of economic evolution, adequate to collective force, and consequently absorbing the personality of the laborer in the workshop, but giving birth to liberty by making each subdivision of labor a sort of sovereignty in which man stands in all his power and independence. Competition, in a word, is liberty in division and in all the divided parts: beginning with the most comprehensive functions, it tends toward its realization even in the inferior operations of parcellaire labor.

Here the communists raise an objection. It is necessary, they say, in all things, to distinguish between use and abuse. There is a useful, praiseworthy, moral competition, a competition which enlarges the heart and the mind, a noble and generous competition, — it is emulation; and why should not this emulation have for its object the advantage of all? There is another competition, pernicious, immoral, unsocial, a jealous competition which hates and which kills, — it is egoism.

So says communism; so expressed itself, nearly a year ago, in its social profession of faith, the journal, “La Reforme.”

Whatever reluctance I may feel to oppose men whose ideas are at bottom my own, I cannot accept such dialectics. “La Reforme,” in believing that it could reconcile everything by a distinction more grammatical than real, has made use, without suspecting it, of the golden mean, — that is, of the worst sort of diplomacy. Its argument is exactly the same as that of M. Rossi in regard to the division of labor: it consists in setting competition and morality against each other, in order to limit them by each other, as M. Rossi pretended to arrest and restrict economic inductions by morality, cutting here, lopping there, to suit the need and the occasion. I have refuted M. Rossi by asking him this simple question: How can science be in disagreement with itself, the science of wealth with the science of duty? Likewise I ask the communists: How can a principle whose development is clearly useful be at the same time pernicious?

They say: emulation is not competition. I note, in the first place, that this pretended distinction bears only on the divergent effects of the principle, which leads one to suppose that there were two principles which had been confounded. Emulation is nothing but competition itself; and, since they have thrown themselves into abstractions, I willingly plunge in also. There is no emulation without an object, just as there is no passional initiative without an object; and as the object of every passion is necessarily analogous to the passion itself, — woman to the lover, power to the ambitious, gold to the miser, a crown to the poet, — so the object of industrial emulation is necessarily profit.

No, rejoins the communist, the laborer’s object of emulation should be general utility, fraternity, love.

But society itself, since, instead of stopping at the individual man, who is in question at this moment, they wish to attend only to the collective man, — society, I say, labors only with a view to wealth; comfort, happiness, is its only object. Why, then, should that which is true of society not be true of the individual also, since, after all, society is man and entire humanity lives in each man? Why substitute for the immediate object of emulation, which in industry is personal welfare, that far-away and almost metaphysical motive called general welfare, especially when the latter is nothing without the former and can result only from the former?

Communists, in general, build up a strange illusion: fanatics on the subject of power, they expect to secure through a central force, and in the special case in question, through collective wealth, by a sort of reversion, the welfare of the laborer who has created this wealth: as if the individual came into existence after society, instead of society after the individual. For that matter, this is not the only case in which we shall see the socialists unconsciously dominated by the traditions of the regime against which they protest.

But what need of insisting? From the moment that the communist changes the name of things, vera rerum vocabala, he tacitly admits his powerlessness, and puts himself out of the question. That is why my sole reply to him shall be: In denying competition, you abandon the thesis; henceforth you have no place in the discussion. .. spare us your moralities.

Competition is necessary to the constitution of value, — that is, to the very principle of distribution, and consequently to the advent of equality. As long as a product is supplied only by a single manufacturer, its real value remains a mystery, either through the producer’s misrepresentation or through his neglect or inability to reduce the cost of production to its extreme limit. Thus the privilege of production is a real loss to society, and publicity of industry, like competition between laborers, a necessity. All the utopias ever imagined or imaginable cannot escape this law.

Certainly I do not care to deny that labor and wages can and should be guaranteed; I even entertain the hope that the time of such guarantee is not far off: but I maintain that a guarantee of wages is impossible without an exact knowledge of value, and that this value can be discovered only by competition, not at all by communistic institutions or by popular decree. For in this there is something more powerful than the will of the legislator and of citizens, — namely, the absolute impossibility that man should do his duty after finding himself relieved of all responsibility to himself: now, responsibility to self, in the matter of labor, necessarily implies competition with others. Ordain that, beginning January 1, 1847, labor and wages are guaranteed to all: immediately an immense relaxation will succeed the extreme ten sion to which industry is now subjected; real value will fall rapidly below nominal value; metallic money, in spite of its effigy and stamp, will experience the fate of the assignats; the merchant will ask more and give less; and we shall find ourselves in a still lower circle in the hell of misery inwhich competition is only the third turn. ..

The theory of selfsacrifice, like that of rewards, is a theory of rogues, subversive of society and morality; and by the very fact that you look either to sacrifice or to privilege for the maintenance of order, you create a new antagonism in society. Instead of causing the birth of harmony from the free activity of persons, you render the individual and the State strangers to each other; in commanding union, you breathe discord.

To sum up, outside of competition there remains but this alternative, — encouragement, which is a mystification, or sacrifice, which is hypocrisy.

Therefore competition, analyzed in its principle, is an inspiration of justice; and yet we shall see that competition, in its results, is unjust.

2. — Subversive effects of competition, and the destruction of liberty thereby.

The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, says the Gospel, and the violent take it by force. These words are the allegory of society. In society regulated by labor, dignity, wealth, and glory are objects of competition; they are the reward of the strong, and competition may be defined as the regime of force. The old economists did not at first perceive this contradiction: the moderns have been forced to recognize it.

“To elevate a State from the lowest degree of barbarism to the highest degree of opulence,” wrote A. Smith, “but three things are necessary, — peace, moderate taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice. All the rest is brought about by the natural course of things.” ..

Competition overturns all notions of equity and justice; it increases the real cost of production by needlessly multiplying the capital invested, causes by turns the dearness of products and their depreciation, corrupts the public conscience by putting chance in the place of right, and maintains terror and distrust everywhere.

But what! Without this atrocious characteristic, competition would lose its happiest effects; without the arbitrary element in exchange and the panics of the market, labor would not continually build factory against factory, and, not being maintained in such good working order, production would realize none of its marvels. After having caused evil to arise from the very utility of its principle, competition again finds a way to extract good from evil; destruction engenders utility, equilibrium is realized by agitation, and it may be said of competition, as Samson said of the lion which he had slain: De comedente cibus exiit, et de forti dulcedo. Is there anything, in all the spheres of human knowledge, more surprising than political economy? ..

3. — Remedies against competition.

Can competition in labor be abolished?

It would be as well worth while to ask if personality, liberty, individual responsibility can be suppressed.

Competition, in fact, is the expression of collective activity; just as wages, considered in its highest acceptation, is the expression of the merit and demerit, in a word, the responsibility, of the laborer. It is vain to declaim and revolt against these two essential forms of liberty and discipline in labor. Without a theory of wages there is no distribution, no justice; without an organization of competition there is no social guarantee, consequently no solidarity.

The socialists have confounded two essentially distinct things when, contrasting the union of the domestic hearth with industrial competition, they have asked themselves if society could not be constituted precisely like a great family all of whose members would be bound by ties of blood, and not as a sort of coalition in which each is held back by the law of his own interests.

The family is not, if I may venture to so speak, the type, the organic molecule, of society. In the family, as M. de Bonald has very well observed, there exists but one moral being, one mind, one soul, I had almost said, with the Bible, one flesh. The family is the type and the cradle of monarchy and the patriciate: in it resides and is preserved the idea of authority and sovereignty, which is being obliterated more and more in the State. ..

competition .. is not egoism, and the most deplorable error of socialism consists in having regarded it as the subversion of society.

Therefore there can be no question here of destroying competition, as impossible as to destroy liberty; the problem is to find its equilibrium, I would willingly say its police. For every force, every form of spontaneity, whether individual or collective, must receive its determination: in this respect it is the same with competition as with intelligence and liberty. How, then, will competition be harmoniously determined in society?

We have heard the reply of M. Dunoyer, speaking for political economy: Competition must be determined by itself. In other words, according to M. Dunoyer and all the economists, the remedy for the inconveniences of competition is more competition; and, since political economy is the theory of property, of the absolute right of use and abuse, it is clear that political economy has no other answer to make. Now, this is as if it should be pretended that the education of liberty is effected by liberty, the instruction of the mind by the mind, the determination of value by value, all of which propositions are evidently tautological and absurd.

And, in fact, to confine ourselves to the subject under dis-cussion, it is obvious that competition, practised for itself and with no other object than to maintain a vague and discordant independence, can end in nothing, and that its oscillations are eternal. In competition the struggling elements are capital, machinery, processes, talent, and experience, — that is, capital again; victory is assured to the heaviest battalions. If, then, competition is practised only to the advantage of private interests, and if its social effects have been neither determined by science nor reserved by the State, there will be in competition, as in democracy, a continual tendency from civil war to oligarchy, from oligarchy to despotism, and then dissolution and return to civil war, without end and without rest. That is why competition, abandoned to itself, can never arrive at its own constitution: like value, it needs a superior principle to socialize and define it. These facts are henceforth well enough established to warrant us in considering them above criticism, and to excuse us from returning to them. Political economy, so far as the police of competition is concerned, having no means but competition itself, and unable to have any other, is shown to be powerless.

To sum up:

Competition, as an economic position or phase, considered in its origin, is the necessary result of the intervention of machinery, of the establishment of the workshop, and of the theory of reduction of general costs; considered in its own significance and in its tendency, it is the mode by which collective activity manifests and exercises itself, the expression of social spontaneity, the emblem of democracy and equality, the most energetic instrument for the constitution of value, the support of association. As the essay of indivi dual forces, it is the guarantee of their liberty, the first moment of their harmony, the form of responsibility which unites them all and makes them solidary.

But competition abandoned to itself and deprived of the direction of a superior and efficacious principle is only a vague movement, an endless oscillation of industrial power ..

Socialism, while protesting, and with reason, against this anarchical competition, has as yet proposed nothing satisfactory for its regulation, as is proved by the fact that we meet everywhere, in the utopias which have seen the light, the determination or socialization of value abandoned to arbitrary control, and all reforms ending, now in hierarchical corporation, now in State monopoly, or the tyranny of communism.

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~ by metadave on February 6, 2008.

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