“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, August 17, 2007

the price of a man

Was ist eigentlich ein Mensch?
Weiß ich, was ein Mensch ist?
Weiß ich, wer das weiß?
Ich weiß nicht, was ein Mensch ist
Ich kenne nur seine Preis. - Brecht, the Measures Taken

I’ve been thinking about witnesses and testimony to that change in emotional custom I outlined in my post for Brian.

Here’s one.

In a letter in response to criticism made by his English friend, A.N.W. Nassau, to his Democracy in America, Tocqueville defended one of his phrases about England –“the good of the poor ended up being sacrified to that of the rich.’

“You attack me on this point, of which you are certainly a very competent judge. However, you will permit me to disagree with your opinion. Firstly, it seems to me that you give to the phrase “good of the poor” a very restrained interpretation that I hadn’t given it: you translate it by the word wealth which applies particularly to riches. I had wanted to speak, myself, of all the things which could concur in the well being of life – consideration, political rights, the ease of obtaining justice, the enjoyments of the mind and the thousand other things that contribute indirectly to happiness. I think, lacking a contrary proof, that in England the rich have little by little attracted to themselves almost all the advantages that the social state furnishes to men. In taking the question in your narrow way, and in admitting that the poor man gains a momentarily greater profit in cultivating the land of another’s than of his own, do you think there are no other political, moral, intellectual profits attached to the possession of land, and which compensate beyond, and principally in a permanent manner, the disadvantage that you signal?”

Nassau’s view had worldwide consequences. In a decade, it was this view that depopulated Ireland, paralyzing any relief that would save the million Irish famine victims, and actually seeing their ‘removal” as a Malthusian good. It was this view that threw up factories and routinized 15 to 16 hour days – something like 200,000 women made cloth, lace, draperies and vestments in such factories in France by the 1860s, according to a contemporary, Julie Victoire Daubie. In Dieppe, Blanqui found women making 25 centimes for a 15 hour day. In Paris, in the Balzacian days of Louis Phillipe, Louis Désiré Véron, a bon vivant, found beautiful women assuming the ‘fold’ impressed upon them by the literature of Balzac, Sand and Musset: “Boldness of thought, an elegance that was a bit cavalier, little politeness even with the best attitude, nerves without vapors, a sensibility susceptible to profound emotions, but only for positive causes and chiefly on questions of interest: such are the distinctive traits of the more or less a la mode, more or less political women of the reign of Louis-Philippe.” Also, “From 1831, the rich bourgeoisie had their choice of seats at the Opera: they replaced the great families and the great names of the restauration.”

This was going on as the system of ‘fictional commodities’ – labor, land and money – took hold absolutely in the West. This is Polanyi:

“Neither under tribal, nor feudal, nor mercantile conditions was there, as we have shown, a separate economic system in society. Nineteenth century society, in which economic activity was isolated and imputed to a distinctive economic motive, was, indeed, a singular departure.

Such an institutional pattern could not function unless society was somehow subordinated to its requirements. A market economy can exist only in a market society. We reached this conclusion on general grounds in our analysis of the market pattern. We can now specify the reasons for this assertion. A market economy must comprise all elements of industry, including labor, land, and money. (In a market economy the last also is an essential element of industrial life and its inclusion in the market mechanism has, as we will see, far-reaching institutional consequences.) But labor and land are no other than the human beings themselves of which every society consists and the natural surroundings in which it exists. To include them in the market mechanism means to subordinate the substance of society itself to the laws of the market.”

Our question is about the interior life, the dimmest thing in the universe. Astronomers may point their telescopes this way, but they wont spot anything. Except, of course, some language. John Watson, the bizarre behaviorist, once proposed that thinking resided in the larynx, and was given to ending letters to his friends by saying that he would make some larynginal perturbations about them - his way of saying, thinking of you! What we are tracking, here, ends up lodged, in the end, under our own skin. So we will use our familiarity with the period's literature. Stendhal, who spent time in France, Italy, England and Germany, is one of the more acute observers of this time, which he saw as one transitioning from glory - Napoleon's promise - to calculation. And wanting, himself, to be a philosopher whose writing and thoughts were as clear and cold as the Civil Code, he studied Bentham and human nature, as he found it. His account of the motives for an altruistic act, published as an article in the Revue de Paris in 1829, has not, I think, been translated. If I have time, I’ll translate it in an upcoming post.


Brian said...

The interesting thing is it is almost impossible for many of us to even conceptualize a society that is not "Economic" in character.

Have you seen the latest issue of Atlantic magazine. There is an interesting, but extremely polyannish, view of modern China.

Ray Davis said...

And yet life as we experience and conduct it remains at odds with both Economic rational agency and with a quest for optimal Happiness. We simply have no way to conceptualize it -- except to stir new incoherences into the brew, as with Happy Capitalist Fundamentalism or Happy Capitalist Fundamentalist Racism.

I would love to read the Stendhal, if you have time and sustain the inclination.