The Utopia of Liberty
by Gustave de Molinari
Letters to the Socialists 1848
Translation by Roderick T. Long
(full text available at The Molinari Institute.)
Let us consider the Roman world. What do we find at the heart of this society, though it was the richest and most powerful of antiquity? On one side, a patriciate composed of a very small number of men enriched by the spoils of the universe. The life of these men, as you know, was a succession of bloody battles and foul orgies! Beside this all-powerful caste, gorging itself on the substance of an entire world as the vultures were seen to gorge themselves on the corpses of those vanquished by Marius [Online editor’s note: the Roman general Gaius Marius was said to have carried two pet vultures on his sanguinary campaigns. – RTL] – beside this engorged and satiated caste, what do we see? the impoverished multitude of proletarians and the debased multitude of slaves! You speak of the miseries of our working class; good God! as painful and pitiable as these miseries may be, you can hardly compare them with those of the Roman proletarians. At least our working class works; it does not beg! The people of our gloomy suburbs are not to be seen lining up at the gates of the splendid mansions of our moneyed aristocracy to beg alms! They are not to be seen hurling themselves like dogs upon the crumbs which the rich brush from their tables with a bored and disdainful hand! Nor yet are they to be raising daily riots to obtain free distribution of food. No! today’s worker undeniably leads a poor life; but he earns this life, he is able to earn it. The Roman proletarian was not in a position to earn his own life. The wealthy patricians had monopolised all the industries and all the soil, which they exploited by means of their slaves. Victims of this unequal competition, the proletarians’ only choice was between begging, exile, and death. They begged. And yet the lot of these degraded proletarians was still a thousand times preferable to that of the slaves. The proletarian, at least, was a man; the slave, for his part, was only one more species of beast of burden, a thing! The slave possessed nothing, not even a name. Admittedly the poor workers of our own countryside deserve our commiseration, they who pass their lives stooped to the ground, most often obtaining in exchange for their hard labour nothing better than a morsel of black bread to eat, a coarse cloth to wear, and a mud hut to sleep in; but however painful this existence, how many Roman slaves would have envied it! Recall the accounts of Pliny and Columella. [Online editor’s note: Gaius Plinius Secundus (or Pliny the Elder) and Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, Roman writers on agriculture. – RTL] At the heart of the smiling countryside of Italy were to be found, at periodic intervals, those dark and noisome dwellings which were called ergastula. These were prisons, or to speak more accurately stables, of slaves. In the morning they filed out in bands, generally chained; they spread out across the countryside, driven by overseers armed with whips, and each furrow was watered with their sweat and their blood together. In the evening they were led back to the ergastulum, where like base animals they were tied up beside their mangers. For them no family, but a filthy promiscuity! no God, but an inexorable fate which robbed them of their humanity while leaving them not even the hope of a life to come! Such, as you know, was the condition of the labouring masses in antiquity. And yet the world had not yet been subjected to the law of laissez-faire!
The Utopia of Liberty