The Conquest of Bread/Chapter XI
Accustomed as we are by hereditary prejudices and absolutely unsound education and training to see Government, legislation and magistracy everywhere around, we have come to believe that man would tear his fellow man to pieces like a wild beast the day the police took his eye off him; that chaos would come about if authority were overthrown during a revolution. And with our eyes shut we pass by thousands and thousands of human groupings which form themselves freely, without any intervention of the law, and attain results infinitely superior to those achieved under governmental tutelage.
If you open a daily paper you find its pages are entirely devoted to Government transactions and to political jobbery. A Chinaman reading it would believe that in Europe nothing gets done save by order of some master. You find nothing in them about institutions that spring up, grow up, and develop without ministerial prescription. Nothing - or hardly nothing! Even when there is a heading- “Sundry Events "- it is because they are connected with the police. A family drama, an act of rebellion, will only be mentioned if the police have appeared on the scene.
Three hundred and fifty million Europeans love or hate one another, work, or live on their incomes; but, apart from literature, theatre, or sport, their lives remain ignored by newspapers if Governments have not intervened in some way or other. It is even so with history. We know the least details of the life of a king or of a parliament; all good and bad speeches pronounced by the politicians have been preserved. "Speeches that have never had the least influence on the vote of a single member," as an old parliamentarian said. Royal visits, good or bad humour of politicians, jokes or intrigues, are all carefully recorded for posterity. But we have the greatest difficulty to reconstitute a city of the Middle Ages, to understand the mechanism of that immense commerce that was carried on between Hanseatic cities, or to know how the city of Rouen built its cathedral. If a scholar spends his life in studying these questions, his works remain unknown, and parliamentary histories- that is to say, the defective ones, as they only treat one side of social life - multiply, are circulated, are taught in schools.
And we do not even perceive the prodigious work accomplished every day by spontaneous groups of men, which constitutes the chief work of our century.
We therefore propose to point out some of these most striking manifestations, and to prove that men, as soon as their interests do not absolutely clash, act in concert, harmoniously, and perform collective work of a very complex nature.
It is evident that in present society, based on individual property - that is to say, on plunder, and on a narrow minded and therefore foolish individualism - facts of this kind are necessarily few in number; agreements are not always perfectly free, and often have a mean, if not execrable aim.
But what concerns us is not to give examples which we could blindly follow, and which, moreover, present society could not possibly give us. What we have to do is to prove that, in spite of the authoritarian individualism which stifles us, there remains in our life, taken as a whole, a great part in which we only act by free agreement, and that it would be much easier than we think to dispense with Government.
In support of our view we have already mentioned railways, and we are about to return to them.
We know that Europe has a system of railways, 175,000 miles long, and that on this network you can nowadays travel from north to south, from east to west, from Madrid to Petersburg, and from Calais to Constantinople, without stoppages, without even changing carriages (when you travel by express). More than that: a parcel thrown into a station will find its addressee anywhere, in Turkey or in Central Asia, without more formality needed for sending it than writing its destination on a bit of paper.
This result might have been obtained in two ways. A Napoleon, a Bismarck, or some potentate having conquered Europe, would from Paris, Berlin, or Rome, draw a railway map and regulate the hours of the trains. The Russian Tsar Nicholas I dreamt of taking such action. When he was shown rough drafts of railways between Moscow and Petersburg, he seized a ruler and drew on the map of Russia a straight line between these two capitals, saying, “Here is the plan.” And the road was built in a straight line, filling in deep ravines, building bridges of a giddy height, which had to be abandoned a few years later, at a cost of about £120,000 to £150,000 per English mile.
This is one way, but happily things were managed differently. Railways were constructed piece by piece, the pieces were joined together, and the hundred divers companies, to whom these pieces belonged, came to an understanding concerning the arrival and departure of their trains, and the running of carriages on their rails, from all countries, without unloading merchandise as it passes from one network to another.
All this was done by free agreement, by exchange of letters and proposals, by congresses at which relegates met to discuss certain special subjects, but not to make laws; after the congress, the delegates returned to their companies, not with a law, but with the draft of a contract to be accepted or rejected.
There were certainly obstinate men who would not he convinced. But a common interest compelled them to agree without invoking the help of armies against the refractory members.
This immense network of railways connected together, and the enormous traffic it has given rise to, no doubt constitutes the most striking trait of our century; and it is the result of free agreement. If a man had foreseen or predicted it fifty years ago, our grandfathers would have thought him idiotic or mad. They would have said: “Never will you be able to make the shareholders of a hundred companies listen to reason! It is a Utopia, a fairy tale. A central Government, with an ‘iron’ director, can alone enforce it.”
And the most interesting thing in this organization is, that there is no European Central Government of Railways! Nothing! No minister of railways, no dictator, not even a continental parliament, not even a directing committee! Everything is done by contract.
So we ask the believers in the State, who pretend that “we can never do without a central Government, were it only for regulating the traffic,” we ask them: “But how do European railways manage without them? How do they continue to convey millions of travelers and mountains of luggage across a continent? If companies owning railways have been able to agree, why should railway workers, who would take possession of railways, not agree likewise? And if the Petersburg Warsaw Company and that of Paris Belfort can act in harmony, without giving themselves the luxury of a common commander, why, in the midst of our societies, consisting of groups of free workers, should we need a Government?"