Monday, September 15, 2008

Bourgeois solidarity

Léon Bourgeois’ pamphlet, Solidarité, first published in 1896, belongs to a genre of political pseudo-philosophy with which, for whatever reason, I feel well acquainted. I am reading the 1906 edition from gallica. Bourgeois and the political position that he embodies are enjoying something of a renaissance. See for instance the treatment on La vie des idées. Although I know some things about Bourgeois’ context and the intellectual/cultural resources on which he drew, this is the first time I’ve read him specifically. Here, mostly for my own benefit, I want to outline not so much the argument, as some of the assumptions and the formal structure of the text.

Bourgeois is, as I have read, absolutely positioning himself as the genuinely republican third way not so much between, but above the alternative of socialist collectivism and liberal individualism. Solidarité as an idea is a synthesis, an overcoming, of the dichotomy of socialism and liberalism. It is also a scientific description of the nature of reality, empirically tested and found correct. Republicanism itself does not come up very often in the text, but it is mentioned, I think significantly, at the very beginning and very end—the parts that a busy Parisian was most likely to read.

Solidarité can be said to mean the moral and legal consequences of the scientific fact that all progress and survival is the result of collective, rather than individual, effort. Individuals rely on other individuals, and therefore are indebted to them. Not only to other people in the present, but also to the past.

One of the most rhetorically striking things about this little pamphlet, for me, is that there are basically two metaphors—and they are barely that—at work in it, which I find odd next to one another. The first is organic. All organisms function only as a result of the cooperation of their individual parts. It is true that Bourgeois, caught up in the moment, goes so far as to say that gravity is essentially the solidarity of all objects with all other objects—but the central point of reference is the organism. And of course, it is obvious to him that species work in the same way as individuals. The currency of this belief (that a group of people may be treated psychologically or behaviorally as one large person) amazes me. I wonder if Vico’s suggestion (no doubt not only his) may have some value: that people in general, when faced with something they don’t understand, tend to assume that it acts like they themselves do. Although there is much that is reprehensible about the organic metaphor (though—what exactly is the organism? The nation? The race? Oddly, ‘race’ is used more often than ‘nation’ or ‘patrie’), it is unsurprising for this period. But more or less at the midpoint of the pamphlet, I think when Bourgeois is beginning to move on to law, the metaphor changes. Now, rather than an organism, society (to which, by the by, Bourgeois denies any existence other than as the sum of its parts) becomes like a business firm. We, however, are not so much laborers in the employ of the firm as stockholders. Debts are owed in all directions. All we have to do is decide by what rules we will work.

For Bourgeois, the only difference between society in general and a business is that the stockholders of a business are able to decide in advance, before they invest, the terms of their investment. We are all already here. Solidarité, however, helps us to think about how, if we were all freely able to make such a judgment, we would rationally agree to arrange things. There is a surprising similarity to the Rawlsian ‘veil of ignorance’ here, but I think that for Bourgeois science can tell us more or less what we should agree to.

It would be interesting to map out the triads and binaries that are always at the bottom of Bourgeois’ thinking. For instance, solidarité shows us that there is no contradiction between science and morality—but they remain a binary, and one that maps onto liberalism (science) and socialism (morality). As in so much other political thinking, we have the assertion that beyond human difference, there is an essential human equality. The point here is that juridical equality is absolute, even a law of nature, while physical equality (or equality of outcome) is a dangerous delusion. But what is the human? « c’est...d’être à la fois vivant, pensant et conscient. » (110) He even admits that there might, on other planets, be other beings that meet these criteria. But then we do have sharp internal differentiation—which, interestingly, is measured both chronologically and in terms of social space. So that a humble laborer today is as much advanced (thanks to his accumulated cultural capital) over the cave-man as the genius is over the laborer: “Le plus modeste travailleur de notre temps l’emporte sur le sauvage de l’âge de pierre d’une distance égale à celle qui le sépare lui-même de l’homme de génie » 117-118. I want, at any rate, to know more about the 'republican anthropology' behind all this.

There is much more to say about this little text—for instance, Leibniz, was he being taught aggressively in this period?—but the above are my sharpest impressions.

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