Monday, January 18, 2016

The Conquest of Bread, by Peter Kropotkin

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) was born into the Russian noblity, but spent most of his career advocating anarchism, that is, society without government. One of his major works was The Conquest of Bread. Kropotkin's name isn't perhaps as well known as Marx or Lenin, yet his ideas are very compelling and worth a look into.

The basic economic idea outlined in The Conquest of Bread (1892) is that the upper classes remain idle and wealthy due to the industry of the poor. Not only that, they live on the shoulders of many inventors and innovators of the past. All societies, Kropotkin maintains, owe a deep debt to the labour of previous generations, who have given us the technology and infrastructure that makes our own lives so much easier. The book's economic analysis is, it must be said, quite stunning. Kropotkin explains big concepts in an easy and inviting language.

For example, in one section he gives figures for the number of Europeans doing necessary work, like baking bread, mining, etc., then gives the numbers for the rest of the population, thereby showing how much the economy is dependent on the labour of the few. Workers might do dangerous and degrading work, forming the backbone of the economy, but then there is a class, like stock brokers or speculators, who simply feed off this labour. Kropotkin is advanced enough to also include the labour of women performed in the home that goes unaccounted, also completely necessary for the running of the economy and from which many others derive economic benefit.

All of these economic structures are of course held in place by the state. The cards are stacked against the ordinary worker, whose labour will be forever subsidising the luxurious lifestyles of the rich. Kropotkin's answer to all of this is anarchism. How would it work? This is where the reader may become skeptical. He suggests that we are naturally disposed to cooperation, not chaos. For example, when a natural disaster hits, people instinctively know what to do and organise themselves into relief teams or simply offer help. Kropotkin anticipates many objections to his theory of natural cooperation and answers them quite convincingly. While overall you may remain unmoved, his reasonable arguing and real life examples may open your mind a little to his position.

Anarchism may not sound like your cup of tea, yet it may be time to reconsider. Living as we do in such a complex and heavily bureaucratic world, relying more on common sense and the instinct of cooperation might provide relief from the tyranny of form filling, box ticking and waiting in phone cues. Peter Kropotkin's argument in favour of anarchism is intelligent, often very sensible and shows great economic perspicacity. Written in an easy, accessible style, it will open your mind to other social and political possibilities.

The Conquest of Bread, by Peter Kropotkin. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780141396118  RRP: $24.99

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