The Solution of the Social Problem

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excerpts from
The Solution of the Social Problem
P-J. Proudhon 1848
critique of representative or parliamentary democracyThe “ideal republic” is “an organization that leaves all opinions and all activities free. In this republic, every citizen, by doing what he wishes and only what he wishes, participates directly in legislation and government, as he participates in the production and the circulation of wealth. Here, every citizen is king; for he has plenitude of power, he reigns and governs. The ideal republic is a positive anarchy. It is neither liberty subordinated to order, as in a constitutional monarchy, nor liberty imprisoned in order. It is liberty free from all its shackles, superstitions, prejudices, sophistries, usury, authority; it is reciprocal liberty and not limited liberty; liberty not the daughter but the mother of order.

Since the beginning of the world, since human tribes began to organize themselves into monarchies and republics, oscillating between the one idea and the other like wandering planets, mixing, combining in order to organize the most diverse elements into societies, overturning tribunes and thrones as a child upsets a house of cards, we have seen, at each political upheaval, the leaders of the movement invoke in more or less explicit terms the sovereignty of the People…

The problem of the sovereignty of the People is the fundamental problem of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the first principle of social organization. Governments and peoples have had no other goal, through all the storms of revolutions and diversions of politics, than to constitute this sovereignty. Each time that they have been diverted from this goal they have fallen into slavery and shame. With this in mind the Provisional Government has convened a National Assembly named by all citizens, without distinction as to wealth and capacity: universal suffrage seems to them to be the closest approach to expressing the People’s sovereignty.

Thus it is supposed first that the People can be consulted; second, that it can respond; third, that its will can be authentically ascertained: and finally that government founded upon the manifest will of the People is the only legitimate government.

In particular, such is the pretension of DEMOCRACY, which presents itself as the form of government which best translates the sovereignty of the People.

But, if I prove that democracy, just like monarchy, only symbolizes that sovereignty, that it does not respond to any of the questions raised by this idea, that it cannot, for example, either establish the authenticity of the actions attributed to the People or state what is the final goal of society: if I prove that democracy, far from being the most perfect of governments, is the negation of the sovereignty of the People and the origin of its ruin-it will be demonstrated, in fact and in right, that democracy is nothing more than a constitutional despotism, succeeding a different constitutional despotism, that it does not possess any scientific value, and that it must be seen solely as a preparation for the REPUBLIC, one and indivisible…

Here is a president or a directory, the personification, symbol, or fabrication of national sovereignty: the first power of the State.

Here are a chamber, two chambers-one the spokesman of conservative interests, the other of the instinct for development: the second power of the State.

Here is a press, eloquent, disciplined, untiring, which each morning pours out in torrents millions of ideas which swarm in the millions of brains of the citizenry: the third power of the State.

The executive power is action, the chambers-deliberation, the press-opinion.

Which of these powers represents the people? Or else, if you say that it is the whole thing which represents the people, how is it that they do not all agree? Put royalty in place of the presidency, and it is the same thing: my criticisms apply equally to monarchy and democracy…

In principle then, I admit that the People exists, that it is sovereign, that it is predicated in the consciousness of the masses. But nothing yet has proven to me that it can perform an overt act of sovereignty, that an explicit revelation of the People is possible. For, in view of the dominance of prejudices, of the contradiction of ideas and interests, of the variability of opinion, and of the impulsiveness of the multitude, I shall always ask what establishes the authenticity and legitimacy of such a revelation-and this is what democracy cannot answer.

But, the democrats observe-not without reason-the People has never been suitably called to action. Never has it been able to demonstrate its will except for momentary flashes: the role it has played in history up to now has been completely subordinate. For the People to be able to speak its mind, it must be democratically consulted-that is, all citizens without distinction must participate, directly or indirectly, in the formation of the law. Now, this mode of democratic consultation has never been exercised in a coherent manner: the eternal conspiracy of the privileged has not permitted it. Princes, nobles and priests, military men, magistrates, teachers, scholars, artists, industrialists, merchants, financiers, proprietors, have always succeeded in breaking up the democratic Union, in changing the voice of the People into a voice of monopoly. Now that we possess the only true way of having the People speak, we shall likewise know what constitutes the authenticity and legitimacy of its word, and all your preceding objections vanish. The sincerity of the democratic regime will guarantee the solution to us…

One way or another, preponderant strength in government belongs to the men who have the preponderance of talent and fortune. From the first it has been evident that social reform will never come out of political reform, that on the contrary political reform must come out of social reform.

The illusion of democracy springs from that of constitutional monarchy’s example-claiming to organize Government by representative means. Neither the Revolution of July [1830] nor that of February [1848] has sufficed to illuminate this. What they always want is inequality of fortunes, delegation of sovereignty, and government by influential people. Instead of saying, as did Mr. Thiers, The king reigns and does not govern, democracy says, The People reigns and does not govern, which is to deny the Revolution…

Since, according to the ideology of the democrats, the People cannot govern itself and is forced to give itself to representatives who govern by delegation, while it retains the right of review, it is supposed that the People is quite capable at least of having itself represented, that it can be represented faithfully. Well! This hypothesis is utterly false; there is not and never can be legitimate representation of the People. All electoral systems are mechanisms for deceit: to know one is sufficient to pronounce the condemnation of all.

But who does not see that deputies thus elected apart from all special interests and groups, all considerations of places and persons, by dint of representing France, represent nothing; that they no longer are mandated representatives, but legislators set apart from the People; and that in place of a representative democracy we have an elective oligarchy, the middle term between democracy and royalty.

There, citizen reader, is where I want to bring you. From whatever aspect you consider democracy, you will always see it placed between two extremes each as contrary as the other to its own principle, condemned to oscillate between the absurd and the impossible, without ever being able to establish itself. Among a million equally arbitrary terms, the Provisional Government has acted like Mr. Guizot: it has preferred that which appeared to it to agree best with its democratic prejudices. Of representative truth, as of government of the People by the People, the Provisional Government has taken no account…

In order that the deputy represent his constituents, it is necessary that he represent all the ideas which have united to elect him.

But, with the electoral system, the deputy, the would-be legislator sent by the citizens to reconcile all ideas and all interests in the name of the People, always represents just one idea, one interest. The rest is excluded without pity. For who makes law in the elections? Who decides the choice of deputies? The majority, half plus one of the votes. From this it follows that half less one of the electors is not represented or is so in spite of itself, that of all the opinions that divide the citizens, one only, insofar as the deputy has an opinion, arrives at the legislature, and finally that the law, which should be the expression of the will of the People, is only the expression of half of the People.

The result is that in the theory of the democrats the problem consists of eliminating, by the mechanism of sham universal suffrage, all ideas save one which stir opinion, and to declare sovereign that which has the majority.

But, perhaps it will be said, the idea that fails in such an electoral body will triumph in another and, by this means, all ideas can be represented in the National Assembly.

When that is the case, you would have only put off the difficulty, for the question is to know how all these ideas, divergent and antagonistic, will concur on the law and be reconciled thereon.

Thus the Revolution, according to some, is only an accident, which should change nothing in the general order of society. According to others, the Revolution is social still more than political. How can such obviously incompatible claims be satisfied? How at the same time can there be given security for the bourgeoisie and guarantees for the proletariat? How will these contrary wishes and opposed inclinations come to be mixed together in a resulting community, in one universal law?

Democracy is so far from being able to resolve this difficulty that all its art, all its science is used to remove the obstacle. It makes appeals to the ballot box; the ballot box is simultaneously the level, the balance, the criterion of democracy. With the electoral ballot democracy eliminates men; with the legislative ballot, it eliminates ideas…

What! It is one vote that makes the representative, one vote that makes the law! With a question on which hangs the honour and health of the Republic, the citizens are divided into two equal factions. On the two sides they bring to bear the most serious reasoning, the weightiest authorities, the most positive facts. The nation is in doubt, the Assembly is in suspension. One representative, without discernible motive, passes from right to left and turns the balance; it is he who makes the law.

And this law, the expression of some bizarre will, is supposed to be the will of the People! It will be necessary for me to submit to it, defend it, even kill for it! By a parliamentary caprice I lose the most precious of my rights, I lose liberty! And the most sacred of my duties, the duty to resist tyranny by force, falls before the sovereign noggin of an imbecile!

Democracy is nothing but the tyranny of majorities, the most execrable tyranny of all, for it is not based on the authority of a religion, nor on a nobility of blood, nor on the prerogatives of fortune: it has number as its base, and for a mask the name of the People…

If universal suffrage, the most complete manifestation of democracy, has won so many partisans, especially among the working classes, it is because it has always been presented on the basis of an appeal to men of talent, as well as to the good sense and morality of the masses. How often have they not brought out the offensive contrast of the speculator who becomes politically influential through plunder and the man of genius whom poverty has kept far away from the stage!…

In the end, we are all electors; we can choose the most worthy.

We can do more; we can follow them step by step in their legislative acts and their votes; we shall make them transmit our arguments and our documents; we shall indicate our will to them, and when we are discontented, we shall recall and dismiss them.

The choice of abilities, imperative mandate, permanent revocability-these are the most immediate and incontestable consequences of the electoral principle. It is the inevitable program of all democracy.

Now democracy, no more than constitutional monarchy, does not sustain such a deduction from its principle.

What democracy demands, like monarchy, is silent deputies who do not discuss, but vote; who, receiving the order from the Government, crush the opposition with their heavy and heavy witted battalions. These are passive creatures, I almost say satellites, whom the danger of a revolution does not intimidate, whose reason is not too rebellious, whose conscience does not recoil before anything arbitrary, before any proscription…

In every kind of government the deputy belongs to the powerful, not to the country… [It is required] that he be master of his vote, that is, to traffic in its sale, that the mandate have a specified term, of at least a year, during which the Government, in agreement with the deputies, does what it pleases and gives strength to the law through action by its own arbitrary will…

If monarchy is the hammer which crushes the People, democracy is the axe which divides it: the one and the other equally conclude in the death of liberty…

[ Because theorists] have taught that all power has its source in national sovereignty, it has valiantly been concluded best to make all citizens vote in one way or another, and that the majority of votes thus expressed adequately constitute the will of the People. They have brought us back to the practices of barbarians who, lacking rationality, proceeded by acclamation and election. They have taken a material symbol for the true formula of sovereignty. And they have said to the proletarians: When you vote, you shall be free, you shall be rich; you shall enact capital, product and wages; you shall, as another Moses did, make thrushes and manna fall from heaven; you shall become like gods, for you shall not work, or shall work so little that if you do work it shall be as nothing.

Whatever they do and whatever they say, universal suffrage, the testimony of discord, can only produce discord. And it is with this miserable idea, I am ashamed for my native land, that for seventeen years they have agitated the poor People! It is for this that bourgeoisie and workers have sung the “Marseillaise” in chorus at seventy political banquets and, after a revolution as glorious as it was legitimate, have abandoned themselves to a sect of doctrinaires! For six months the opposition deputies, like comedians on tour, travelled through the provinces, and for the fruit of their benefit performance what have they brought back to us, what? A scheme for land redistribution! It is under this schismatic flag that we have claimed to preserve the initiative of progress, to march at the forefront of nations in the conquest of liberty, to inaugurate harmony around the world! Yesterday, we regarded with pity the peoples who did not know as we have how to raise themselves to constitutional sublimity. Today, fallen a hundred times lower, we still are sorry for them, we shall go with a hundred thousand bayonets to make them partake with us of the benefits of democratic absolutism. And we are the great nation! Oh! Be quiet, and if you do not know how to do great things, or express great ideas, at least preserve common sense for us…

In monarchy, the acts of the Government are an unfolding of authority; in democracy they constitute authority. The authority which in monarchy is the principle of governmental action is the goal of government in democracy. The result is that democracy is fatally retrograde, and that it implies contradiction.

Let us place ourselves at the point of departure for democracy, at the moment of universal suffrage.

All citizens are equal, independent. Their egalitarian combination is the point of departure for power: it is power itself, in its highest form, in its plenitude.

By virtue of democratic principle, all citizens must participate in the formation of the law, in the government of the State, in the exercise of public functions, in the discussion of the budget, in the appointment of officials. All must be consulted and give their opinions on peace and war, treaties of commerce and alliance, colonial enterprises, works of public utility, the award of compensation, the infliction of penalties. Finally, all must pay their debt to their native land, as taxpayers, jurors, judges, and soldiers.

If things could happen in this way, the ideal of democracy would be attained. It would have a normal existence, developing directly in the sense of its principle, as do all things which have life and grow. It is thus that the acorn becomes an oak, and the embryo an animal; it is thus that geometry, astronomy, chemistry are the development to infinity of a small number of elements.

It is completely otherwise in democracy, which according to the authors exists fully only at the moment of elections and for the formation of legislative power. This moment once past, democracy retreats; it withdraws into itself again, and begins its anti-democratic work. It becomes AUTHORITY. Authority was the idol of Mr. Guizot; it is also that of the democrats.

In fact it is not true, in any democracy, that all citizens participate in the formation of the law: that prerogative is reserved for the representatives.

It is not true that they deliberate on all public affairs, domestic and foreign: this is the perquisite, not even of the representatives, but of the ministers. Citizens discuss affairs, ministers alone deliberate them.

It is not true that each citizen fulfills a public function: those functions which do not produce marketable goods must be reduced as much as possible. By their nature public functions exclude the vast majority of citizens…

It is not true that citizens participate in the nomination of officials; moreover this participation is as impossible as the preceding one, since it would result in creating anarchy in the bad sense of the word. It is power which names its subordinates, sometimes according to its own arbitrary will, sometimes according to certain conditions for appointment or promotion, the order and discipline of officials and centralization requiring that it be thus…

Finally, it is not true that all citizens participate in justice and in war: as judges and officers, most are eliminated; as jurors and simple soldiers all abstain as much as they can. In a word, hierarchy in government being the primary condition of government, democracy is a chimera.

The reason that authors give for this merits our study. They say the People is outside the state because it does not know how to govern itself, and when it does know, it cannot do it.

EVERYBODY CANNOT COMMAND AND GOVERN AT THE SAME TIME; it is necessary that the authority belong solely to some who exercise it in the name of and through the delegation of all.

Ignorance or impotence, according to democratic theory the People is incapable of governing itself: democracy, like monarchy, after having posed as its principle the sovereignty of the People, ends with a declaration of the incapacity of the People!

This is what is meant by the democrats, who once in the government dream only of consolidating and strengthening the authority in their hands. Thus it was understood by the multitude, who threw themselves upon the doors of the City Hall, demanding government jobs, money, work, credit, bread! And there indeed is our nation, monarchist to its very marrow, idolizing power, deprived of individual energy and republican initiative, accustomed to expect everything from authority, to do nothing except through authority! When monarchy does not come to us from on high, as it did formerly, or on the field of battle, as in 1800, or in the folds of a charter, as in 1814 or 1830, we proclaim it in the public square, between two barricades, in electoral assembly, or at a patriotic banquet. Drink to the health of the People and the multitude will crown you!

excerpts from The Solution of the Social Problem, 1848 critique of representative or parliamentary democracy

Proudhon Oeuvres completes de P-J. Proudhon (Paris: A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven et Cie., 1867-70). VI, 1-87. Translation, pp. 35-40, 42-44, 46-58, 60, 62-67.

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