Editor in chief of the magazine Krisis and author of numerous essays, Thibault Isabel just published a work devoted to Proudhon (1809-1865). The latest news on the thinker from Besançon from the perspective of Maurrasian traditionalism.
L’Action Française 2000 – Why did you publish this book on Proudhon’s thought today? Does it carry a certain relevance in our post-modern times? What could Proudhon still tell us?
Thibault Isabel – For a century, the Marxist domination of ideas prevented us from conceiving a non-communist alternative to the hegemony of the liberal system. Whether one was in the camp of the USSR, or in the camp of the United States. Henceforth, the fall of the Berlin Wall changed the situation. But this situation left us orphaned: even those who wanted to oppose the neoliberal system didn’t truly know what intellectual corpus to mobilize. So it is salutary to return to the pre-Marxist sources of the critique of liberalism, in order to understand what we can think regarding a coherent alternative without sinking into collectivism. In addition, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon anticipated numerous central problems of our time: the stranglehold of technocratic governance over the citizen’s sovereignty, the false opposition of the left and right (which both carry out liberal policy, in a form of false alternation), the financialization of the economy, the cult of consumption, etc.
Your book is entitled “Pierre-Joseph Proudhon – Anarchy Without Disorder.” Why is anarchy not disorder? And what ends up linking it to federalism?
To be clear: Proudhon never supported violence, chaos, and moral laxity. Quite the opposite! He defended extremely rigorous ethical positions, condemning riots for their bellicosity and even accusing strikers or saboteurs of showing too much intransigence. Don’t forget that the adjective “libertaire” [Translator’s Note: referring to anarchists who reject moral boundaries] was initially coined in the framework of a polemic against Proudhon, judged to be excessively conservative. Proudhon believed in liberty, but not in individualism or moral nihilism. What he called “anarchism” corresponds to a radical form of democracy, supposed to give sovereignty to the people in the framework of a decentralized order, organized around the local sphere.
What is political federalism and economic mutualism? How are they complementary?
Proudhon was horrified by everything big and he adored everything small. He was convinced that men would only rediscover their autonomy within a human-scale order. He despised bureaucratic mega-structures, which alienate individuals and groups. From this point of view, he prefigured not only the Orwellian critique of dictatorial Stalinism, but also the critique of hyper-administered societies where the state machinery inflates to the point of absorbing everything. This observation evidently applies to modern Western nations, having become Jacobin, particularly France, as it applies supranational structures to governance like the European Union or the IMF. Federalism is a weapon against these processes of centralization. He aims to re-localize politics so that the citizens can retake control of their lives. This measure must be accompanied by economic decentralization, as the processes of bureaucratization are expressed in the private sphere as much as in the public sphere, with the development of multinational corporations which alienate the worker in the exact same way as the bureaucratic state alienates the citizen. So we should favor small tradesmen over big planetary corporations, small artisans against big de-localized factories, and the small peasants against big industrial agriculture. This occurs through mutualism, which consists of workers banding together into independent federations so that they can better resist multinational corporations. In other terms, we must implement economic federalism, in addition to political federalism, in order to protect ourselves against foreign powers while strengthening the local social fabric.
In his book Décoloniser les provinces [Translator’s Note: To Decolonize the Provinces], Michel Onfray – who prefaced your book – aligns Girondism with Proudhonian federalism. Does that seem erroneous to you?
The Girondins, under the Revolution, defended very different ideas. But overall they were driven by a visceral contempt regarding the politicians in the capital: in effect it’s this Parisian confiscation of power which then gave birth to the Terror. Proudhon shared this fear entirely, especially since he defended the provinces and their identities as well. Would you be surprised if I mention that the political and economic capital of a country is concentrated exactly within its administrative capital, in this case Paris for France? As such Proudhon could recognize his thought in Girondin provincialism. Moreover I would like to mention a point: Girondism gave birth to the French intellectual conservatism of the 19th century. Tocqueville, for example, considered today as a “right wing” author, supported ideas very similar to Proudhon. In reality, at the time, Proudhonian socialism wasn’t really a left wing ideology (in the sense of the statist, liberal, or libertarian left of the time), and conservatism was not really a right wing ideology (in the sense of the Orleanist, Bonapartist, or Legitimist right). Tocqueville, upon entering into the Assembly, even asked to be seated on the left! All our political labels have to be reviewed. From the start, anarchism and conservatism constituted two complementary branches of the same family of thought.
How is Proudhonian anarchism anti-modern? How is Proudhon a visionary critic of consumer society?
It was the process of modernization which lead to the concentration of political capital in the hands of the bureaucratic technocracy, and its this same process of modernization which lead to the concentration of economic capital in the hands of international finance. Proudhon expounded an anti-modern vision of society, certainly open to social justice and progress, but desirous to re-root culture. He also initiated the critique of consumer society in the measure where he advocated a form of “happy frugality.” He said we should free the poor from misery but we should not live with the obsession to become rich or always consume more.
Why was Proudhon favorable to patriarchy? You write: “Proudhon the anti-capitalist anarchist ended up warmly appreciating the most conservative ideas, not because he thought they were superior, but because he understood their share of legitimacy.” An adept of social progress, was not Proudhon anti-progressive in the moral and politico-cultural scheme?
Proudhon believed in the autonomy of individuals, who must exercise their sense of responsibility, but he questioned the liberal conception of the atomized individual, enclosed within himself. Though one could reject various types of communitarianism and integralism, which enclose the individual in an oppressive tradition, one mustn’t reject community solidarity or the value of heritage. The individual naturally lives among others. He doesn’t live for solitude. So this anthropological position is neither liberal, nor reactionary. It’s neutral. Nevertheless, that didn’t prevent Proudhon from being particularly backward looking in moral matters. It’s doubtlessly the aspect of his thought that is the most old-fashioned: even in Catholic Traditionalist milieus, I don’t think that many people would adopt the Proudhonian vision of wife and family, much more rigid than any vision we can see today! In any case that’s a paradox which deserves to be underlined, regarding a man who objectively was the principal founder of French socialist thought.
Proudhon was hostile to “the power of parties” and the “electoral game,” but yet he defended the institution of organic democracy? In what way was he even tempted by the royalist solution? Georges Sorel, Édouard Berth, and Les Cahiers du Cercle Proudhon (of Maurrasian origin), claimed this exact Proudhonian heritage a century ago. How did Proudhon reconcile anarchy, federalism, and monarchism?
Proudhon was not a monarchist. On the other hand, he wasn’t part of the cult of the Republic. He underlined that democracy, which he strongly believed in, could be combined with any type of regime (even dictatorship, which he abhorred). So there exists deeply democratic monarchies as there exists deeply dictatorial republics. That’s why rapprochements between certain Proudhonians and certain Maurrasians could take place in the 20th century. But their agreement was not easy, because strong ideological disagreements remained. Maurras said that “monarchy, it’s anarchy plus one.” Proudhonian federalism put the emphasis on local power instead. Bridges were possible between both doctrines, but only up until a certain point. Nevertheless, we sometimes find a common inspiration with Maurras and Proudhon, which also is found with Georges Bernanos, Charles Péguy, and the Non-Conformists of the 1930s.
You write, “Traditionalist in his mannerisms, Proudhon reconciles us with the most ancient thoughts, against foolish modernism – this strange two headed hydra that reveals itself in Adam Smith, the father of liberalism, as well as with Karl Marx, the father of communism.” Elsewhere, you qualify him as “protectionist” before his time. Do you confirm this statement?
Protectionism constitutes one of the best means to re-localize the economy! Proudhon castigated protectionist measures when they served to aid the development of big national industry against foreign industry: if Coca-Cola was a French company, would that change its detrimental effects on society? But on the other hand, the philosopher called for the establishment of federal protectionism, which simultaneously expresses itself on continental, national, and regional scales. Thus each level of power would support local production. This multifaceted protectionism would guarantee the equitable distribution of resources by preventing dumping, by which bosses – or shareholders today – put downwards pressure on wages and put the workers of every country into competition. Economic production would develop as locally as possible. We should understand that the development of globalized liberalism undermines the sustainability of concrete solidarity. Only the return to a world of independent workers can restore self-mastery. This project is less Utopian than it seems. The “uberization” of labor and the multiplication of speculative bubbles makes turbocapitalism increasingly fragile. The classical wage earner is on the way to extinction. The economy is metamorphosing. We must simply desire that the change occurs in a way favorable to human dignity. The ideas of Proudhon can help us there.
Interviewer: Arnaud Guyot-Jeannin