Posts Tagged ‘John Plamenatz’

The Utopian Socialist Fourier on the Evils of the Merchants and the Banks

March 13, 2014

Fourier Pic

One of the very earliest, pioneering Socialists of the 19th century was Charles Fourier, a French shop clerk, who recommended the reform of contemporary capitalist France into a federation of phalansteries, co-operative communities, each containing about 1,600 people. Fourier believed that capitalism was not only cruel in the poverty it inflicted on so many people, but also wasteful. He stated that he was moved to develop his socialist ideas after seeing tradesmen throw away a consignment of rice on the grounds that too much of it would lead to lower prices. I found this description of Fourier’s attitude to trade in John Plamenatz’s book Man & Society II: From Montequieu to the Early Socialists, revised edition by M.E. Plamenatz and Robert Wokler (Harlow: Longman 1992):

Widely felt emotions, he tells us, are rarely mistaken, and in most countries traders have been despised. He approves Christ’s rebuke to the merchants driven from the Temple ‘You have made of my house a den of thieves.’ He concedes that the ancients went perhaps too far in their contempt for traders, but that is a better fault than to exalt them, as is done in industrial society. For there the merchant and the trader call the tune. They are the middlemen, the controllers of the market, the speculators who levy tribute on consumer and producer, and who create disorder by their manoeuvres to increase their profits. Fourier sees free competition in industrial society leading inevitably to a kind of mercantile feudalism – the dependence of the producer (both the manual worker and the manager) o0n the merchant and the banker, the real masters of society.

Fourier’s plans for the restructuring of French society were utopian. The small, co-operative communities somewhat like his, which were founded by the Robert Owen and Etienne Cabet, failed, often lasting no more than about two years. Nevertheless, I think Fourier would feel very much that his analysis of the evils of capitalism were amply confirmed today. We have had a series of governments that have consistently rewarded the bankers and the financial sector over manufacturing industry since Margaret Thatcher. The present cuts to essential services and the abolition of the welfare state are justified by a government, which claims this is necessary due to the chaos and massive debts created by the banks. In the case of the Conservative authors of Britannia Unchained, they have also tried to justify their attacks on workers’ wages and conditions by demanding that they be lowered to compete with India, China and the Developing World in line with the demands of international trade. Sometimes, despite their unworkable schemes, the Utopians made points that still remain valid.