In describing the ‘workshop’ of the bel-esprit, La Bruyère is, unconsciously, positioning the writer, the quintessentializing writer, within the factory system. It is a rather fascinating coincidence that a decade after Fontenelle is satirized for being a mere producer, with a p.r. advance man and a bag of rhetorical tricks, we have accounts, for the first time, of how skilled labor – for instance, in the making of ships or watches – can be distributed among workmen so as to make the ships and watches more precise and the output speedier. In the light of that development, La Bruyère’s Characters already looks retrospectively obsolete. Or rather, it looks like an ideological investment in the obsolete: in a classical steady state political economy and order, founded ultimately on preserving Nemesis as the limit of growth.
Addison and Steele were exactly the kind of atelier writers that La Bruyère was warning against. They were very consciously writing for the ‘bourgeoisie’, or the commercial class; they were both involved in Whiggish commercial schemes; and they included, in the Spectator, certain remarks in defense of free trade and commerce that were the exact negation of the ideal monarchical order which underlies La Bruyère’s idea of both the writer and of the plurality of characters.
In this respect, I would like to read the remarks about the character of the bel esprit against Number 232 of the Spectator, which appeared on November 26, 1711. It is still a scholarly puzzle as to who exactly wrote this number – although nobody disputes that the ideas behind it belonged to Richard Steele’s friend, Henry Martyn, one of the obscure who issued a pamphlet defending the East India trade in terms that would have done Adam Smith proud. In other words, one of those figures who always seem to precede more important figures, as though a different sun ruled the sphere of intelligence, where shadows precede substance.
Henry Martyn made plainer the connection between free trade and the increased productivity that comes from well ordered manufacture – or what Smith was to call division of labour – in his pamphlet on the East Indian trade, but it is likely that many more people, even at the time, read his argument – if not his genuine writing of it – in the Spectator. That the signature of an essay about the dispersion of worker responsibility in the assembling of a product is, even now, in dispute is one of those mysterious communications between logical levels that Derrida loved so much. The text is attributed to a fictional character – Sir Andrew Freeport – who combines the leisure of the nobility in his weekend rural retreat with the commerce of the City, as a merchant. The essay gives voice to Freeport after a scene in which his unnamed companion and Freeport are ‘assaulted’ by beggars as they are going from the city to the country,and buy them off with alms. It is the state of the poor that quickly brings us to the state of the nation:
“But of all Men living, we Merchants, who live by Buying and Selling, ought never to encourage Beggars. The Goods which we export are indeed the Product of the lands, but much the greatest Part of their Value is the Labour of the People: but how much of these People's Labour shall we export whilst we hire them to sit still? The very Alms they receive from us, are the Wages of Idleness. I have often thought that no Man should be permitted to take Relief from the Parish, or to ask it in the Street, till he has first purchased as much as possible of his own Livelihood by the Labour of his own Hands; and then the Publick ought only to be taxed to make good the Deficiency. If this Rule was strictly observed, we should see every where such a Multitude of new Labourers, as would in all probability reduce the Prices of all our Manufactures. It is the very Life of Merchandise to buy cheap and sell dear. The Merchant ought to make his Outset as cheap as possible, that he may find the greater Profit upon his Returns; and nothing will enable him to do this like the Reduction of the Price of Labour upon all our Manufactures.”
Andrew Freeport evidently sees things in terms of a system. The system – capitalism – will accomplish things that are accounted as miracles under the old system: giving the unemployed employment; raising wages while diminishing the cost of labor; and encouraging world trade as a means of exploiting the even cheaper labor available elsewhere to make the nation prosperous. His companion shows some astonishment at these propositions, but Freeport has read his William Petty:
“It may seem, says he, a Paradox, that the Price of Labour should be reduced without an Abatement of Wages, or that Wages can be abated without any Inconvenience to the Labourer, and yet nothing is more certain than that both those Things may happen. The Wages of the Labourers make the greatest Part of the Price of every Thing that is useful; and if in Proportion with the Wages the Prices of all other Things should be abated, every Labourer with less Wages would be still able to purchase as many Necessaries of Life; where then would be the Inconvenience? But the Price of Labour may be reduced by the Addition of more Hands to a Manufacture, and yet the Wages of Persons remain as high as ever. The admirable Sir William Petty2 has given Examples of this in some of his Writings: One of them, as I remember, is that of a Watch, which I shall endeavour to explain so as shall suit my present Purpose. It is certain that a single Watch could not be made so cheap in Proportion by one only Man, as a hundred Watches by a hundred; for as there is vast Variety in the Work, no one Person could equally suit himself to all the Parts of it; the Manufacture would be tedious, and at last but clumsily performed: But if an hundred Watches were to be made by a hundred Men, the Cases may be assigned to one, the Dials to another, the Wheels to another, the Springs to another, and every other Part to a proper Artist; as there would be no need of perplexing any one Person with too much Variety, every one would be able to perform his single Part with greater Skill and Expedition; and the hundred Watches would be finished in one fourth Part of the Time of the first one, and every one of them at one fourth Part of the Cost, tho' the Wages of every Man were equal. The Reduction of the Price of the Manufacture would increase the Demand of it, all the same Hands would be still employed and as well paid. The same Rule will hold in the Clothing, the Shipping, and all the other Trades whatsoever. And thus an Addition of Hands to our Manufactures will only reduce the Price of them; the Labourer will still have as much Wages, and will consequently be enabled to purchase more Conveniencies of Life; so that every Interest in the Nation would receive a Benefit from the Increase of our Working People.”
The watchmaker and the shipbuilder and, indeed, implicitly the writer all fall under this beneficent rule. Technology, which one thinks of as a matter of individual invention, is here given a structure. Although it may seem odd to think of the bel-esprit in correspondence to this vision of the ultimate meta-technology, in fact it is historically accurate.