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THE PLEBEAN EXPERIENCE *

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By Martin Breaugh

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The Montréal Review, January 2014

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"The Plebeian Experience: A Discontinuous History of Political Freedom" by Martin Breaugh (Columbia University Press, 2013)

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"The Plebeian Experience is a rich, discontinuous history of plebeian uprisings from the founding of republican Rome to the present. Martin Breaugh writes vividly of these holidays of the oppressed in ancient Rome, Renaissance Italy, and modern Europe as seen through the eyes of Livy, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Marx, Thompson, Soboul, and Abensour. Those who follow the Occupy or the Aboriginal Idle No More Movements will obtain fresh insight and exhilaration from Breaugh’s highly readable account of these spontaneous struggles for dignity."

— Ed Andrew, University of Toronto

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The meaning of politics is freedom.

—Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics

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“The plebs” is the name of an experience, that of achieving human dignity through political agency. The plebs designates neither a social category nor an identity but rather a fundamental political event: the passage from a subpolitical status to one of a full-fledged political subject. The plebeian experience signifies the metamorphosis of animal laborans into zoon politikon. (1) The term animal laborans must be understood here in a way that goes beyond the figures of the worker, the laborer, or the proletarian; it refers to those whose existence remains subjected to the order of biology, to the imperatives of the human body. Their subpolitical status results from their being denied public speech (logos) and reduced to the basic animal expression of pleasure and pain (phoné).

To forestall any attempt to equate the plebs with an objectively constituted actor proceeding from the “for-itself ” to the “in-itself,” this study is centered on the notion of “experience.” Georges Bataille provides a valuable description of the concept of experience as it will be used here:

 I call experience a voyage to the end of the possible of man. Anyone may not embark on this voyage, but if he does embark on it, this supposes the negation of the authorities, the existing values which limit the possible. By virtue of the fact that it is negation of other values, other authorities, experience, having a positive existence, becomes itself positively value and authority. (2)

Thus, the plebeian experience refers to a disposition that refuses the limits of the possible present of the dominant order and whose goal is to bring about a collective existence other than that which holds sway in a specific political community.

The refusal to submit to political domination is the impulse at the core of the plebeian experience, and it opens onto the expression of a desire for liberty. “Liberty” must be comprehended here in its political sense, that is, the possibility for all to take part in the life of the city. Plebeian struggles are aimed at breathing life into political freedom through an assault on the monolithic rule of domination.

This study of the plebeian experience is situated within the Machiavellian constellation. It testifies to what the Florentine Secretary calls the division of “humors” between the desire to dominate of the “nobles” and the desire not to be dominated, that is, the desire for freedom of the “people” (or “plebs”). According to Machiavelli, the division of the humors is both universal, because it is found in all political communities, and impossible to transcend, because it remains a primal fact of the human political condition. (3) At the same time, Machiavelli uses the division of the humors to classify regimes. (4) We thus find ourselves endowed with a new form of political intelligibility since the nature of a political community is revealed through the manner in which the conflict between the humors is played out.

For Machiavelli, thinker of the “effective truth,” an understanding of political phenomena must necessarily derive from an analysis of the effects or consequences of political action. In other words, there is nothing to be gained from dwelling on first principles or the intentions guiding political action; all that matters are their effects. Hence, Machiavelli contends, the public expression of the division of the dispositions between the nobles and the people entails fundamental political consequences for freedom. In book 1, chapter 4 of the Discourses on Livy, titled “That the disunion of the Plebs and the Roman Senate made that Republic free and powerful,” Machiavelli writes, “I say that to me it appears that those who damn the tumults between the nobles and the plebs blame those things that were the first cause of keeping Rome free, they consider the noises and the cries that would arise in such tumults more than the good effects that they engendered.” (5) Order can emerge from disorder. (6) This, above all, is why one must not condemn the disturbances and conflicts in Rome. The surface effects resulting from these political struggles are not worthy of attention; only their political consequence matters. For Machiavelli, conflict enables a broadening of freedom within the political community:

That in every republic are two diverse humors, that of the people and that of the great, and that all the laws that are made in favour of freedom arise from their disunion. . . . Nor can one in any mode, with reason, call a republic disordered where there are so many examples of virtue; for good examples arise from good education, good education from good laws, and good laws from those tumults that many inconsiderately damn. For whoever examines their end well will find that they have engendered not any exile or violence unfavourable to the common good, but laws and orders in benefit of public freedom. (7)

Machiavelli perceives the opposition of the two dispositions of the city to be at the root of “good laws.” Whereas the nobles seek to gratify their libido dominandi , the plebs strive to express their desire not to be subjected to this domination. The plebeian experience is thus the affirmation of a desire for liberty
that ultimately engenders the conflict necessary for the broadening of political freedom. In asserting themselves, the plebs declare their full participation in the human political condition. In a word, they become political subjects.

The plebeian desire for political freedom, however, is not immune to a relapse into domination since, paradoxical as this may seem, the desire for freedom can turn into its opposite: the desire for servitude. Indeed, a genuine political comprehension of the plebeian experience cannot dispense with an inquiry into the enigma of “voluntary servitude” as elaborated by Étienne de La Boétie in The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. The hypothesis of voluntary servitude, a veritable “nuclear weapon” of political thought, must not lead to an unequivocal reduction of politics to domination. On the contrary, it obliges us to incorporate a new element of complexity—the desire for servitude—in our understanding of the relationship between politics and freedom. Especially as there exists no “ironclad law” of freedom that would make servitude an unavoidable outcome. For La Boétie, the “voluntary servitude” hypothesis is rooted in an elementary yet disturbing question: Why do people accept the rule of a single individual who holds power only because they have granted it to him? (8) Framed this way, the terms of the traditional understanding of political domination are reversed. Henceforward, the origins of domination must be sought among the dominated and not only among the masters. Furthermore, neither the fear of death (“cowardice”) nor even habit (or “custom”) can account for voluntary servitude. (9) It is caused, rather, by an enchantment brought about “by the name of one man alone.” And it is precisely this enchantment that denatures people by distancing them from liberty. (10) In the context of the plebeian experience it is therefore necessary to take heed of the phenomena that turn struggles for emancipation into struggles for servitude.

In sum, the plebeian experience is a passage from a subpolitical to a political status and represents an experiment in the transgression of the political order of domination whose initial impulse is born of a desire for freedom. Yet any mollifying, one-dimensional vision of the plebeian experience must be dismissed at the outset since the desire for freedom does not preclude the potential for a return to domination by virtue of the desire for servitude. Still, while the overall scope of this experience comes into sharper focus, its name nevertheless continues to raise questions: Why the “plebs”? What does the term refer to?

The choice of “plebs” to designate these struggles for freedom is based essentially on two lines of reasoning. First, it seems possible to write a dual history of the politics of the “people” or, to use a more neutral expression, the “many.” This possibility derives from a simple but significant observation: whenever one names or mentions the many, a twofold linguistic resource is available in the form of paired terms. A great deal can be learned from examining the names given to the many at three crucial democratic moments in Western political history: Athenian democracy, the Roman Republic, and the modern revolutions. At the birth of democracy in Greece there were two terms for the many: demosand hoi polloi. Similarly, the Latin words populus and plebs served to identify the many during the Roman Republic. Finally, at the dawn of the modern revolutions the terms used were “people” and “multitude” (or “populace”). However, even though these terms all refer to the many, their effects are not the same since the connotations of “hoi polloi,” “plebs,” and “multitude” are rather more pejorative than those of “demos,” “populus,” and “people.” And it is precisely at this level that the dual history of the many can be delineated. The history of the political advent of the demos, the populus, and the people can generally be said to involve a series of institutional reforms designed to integrate gradually the political demands of social categories excluded from political decision making. In Athens, for example, the demos came to power thanks to political reforms initiated by aristocrats (Draco, Solon, Cleisthenes, et al.), who were motivated by the common good and desirous of freeing Athens from the perpetual conflicts between the old dominant families and the demos. This history contrasts sharply with the political emergence of the hoi polloi, the plebs, and the multitude, which came about as part of a movement more revolutionary than reformist, more “insurgent” than institutional, and which has certainly remained a more hidden and unfamiliar history. Thus, the choice of the term plebs results from a desire to understand the many through the lens of this second history, whose high points and defining features need to be brought to light.

More importantly, the term plebs refers directly to the Roman Republic, an all too neglected period in the history of freedom. At the heart of this book is the idea that the plebeian experience was born precisely at the time of the Roman plebs’ first secession in 494 BCE. With that first secession a recurrent political configuration was introduced, for when the plebs seceded in Rome they inaugurated a discontinuous tradition of political freedom whose traces can be perceived at various epochs of Western history. This does not mean that the plebeian secession was merely “repeated” but rather that the plebs deployed political strategies that are helpful for a better understanding of various struggles for freedom and emancipation. The task, therefore, is to examine the political experience of the Roman plebs as a “founding” or “paradigmatic” moment, or even an “inaugural scene" (11) of an underground and little-known tradition of the politics of the many. But before detailing more fully the features or particulars of this founding moment, it may be useful to provide a political and historical outline of the first plebeian secession in Rome. And to do this, we must turn to the account given by Livy in book 2 of his History of Rome.

It is worth noting at the outset that in ancient Rome, “plebs” referred to individuals who had neither names nor the right to speak in public. They were people “deprived of both symbolic inscription and the power of speech," (12) whose existence was subhuman because they could not take part in the life of the city. The first years of the Roman Republic witnessed political disturbances sparked by the economic situation of the plebs. (13) Crushed by debt, the plebeians were at risk of being reduced to slavery because of insolvency. The oppression was further aggravated by the plebeians’ obligation to defend the Republic as conscripts in the army. The plebs thus found themselves in the paradoxical situation of having to defend Rome’s freedom abroad while being threatened with subjugation at home. This, according to Livy, engendered ever-increasing “discontent” between patricians and plebeians out of which a major conflict of the orders in the Republic developed and culminated when the plebs withdrew to the Aventine Hill. (14) There they formed a camp “without any officer to direct them," (15) but they did not launch an assault against Rome nor undergo one at the hands of the patricians. The secession created enormous difficulties for the patricians because the labor shortage undermined the Eternal City and exposed it to barbarian invasions.

To overcome the plebeian insurrection, the Senate dispatched Menenius Agrippa to the Aventine Hill. His mission was to restore the unity of the Republic by bringing the plebs back to Rome, and to achieve this, Agrippa, addressing them directly, recounted the fable of the belly and the parts. The parable describes a conflict between the various parts of the human body and the belly. The parts rebel against the idea of having to supply food to the belly, “with nothing to do but enjoy the pleasant things they gave it.” (16) To protest against this inequity, the parts secede and refuse to feed the belly. The problem with this action is that it weakens not only the belly but the parts as well since the belly cannot be separated from the parts. For Agrippa, the patricians personified the belly of Rome, its vital principle, and the plebeians, its parts or members. Consequently, a secession of the plebs penalizes the plebs as well. For society to function smoothly, the orders must cooperate. The fable of the belly and the parts ensured the success of Agrippa’s mission: the plebeians agreed to abandon their camp “without any officer to direct them” and returned to Rome.

Two noteworthy features emerge from this first plebeian insurrection: the political nature of the conflict and the affirmation of a radical equality. Although the primary root of the secession was the economic situation, the dispute was resolved through a political mission and on the basis of a political integration. To put it another way, having acted from economic discontent, the plebs gained political status, thereby advancing from a subpolitical position to that of a full-fledged political subject. Furthermore, the political events in Rome involved a singular phenomenon. As previously mentioned, Livy notes that the plebeian military camp on the Aventine Hill was formed without anofficer to direct them. (18)  This amounted to rejecting the division between the “few” and the “many,” in other words, between those who dominate and those subjected to domination. By the same token, the plebs’ refusal to reproduce this hierarchy affirmed a radical equality among political subjects.

To grasp the genuine political meaning of the plebeian experience, it would also be useful to examine Jacques Rancière’s discussion of an interpretation articulated by the nineteenth-century philosopher Pierre-Simon Ballanche. According to Rancière, the originality of Ballanche’s interpretation lies in his “restaging of the conflict in which the entire issue at stake involves finding out whether there exists a common stage where plebeians and patricians can debate anything.”(19) Whereas Livy attributes no particular meaning to Menenius Agrippa’s mission, Ballanche ascribes to it a great deal of symbolic weight, pointing out that from the patrician viewpoint the plebs had no voice. There could be no common ground between patricians and plebs. The plebeian was deprived of speech because he lacked both a name and a filiation, leaving him indeed “without a name, deprived of logos . . . , of symbolic enrollment in the city.” (20) Consequently, the plebs were relegated to subhuman status, incapable of expressing anything but noise ( phoné ), that is, the manifestation of pleasure and pain, thereby substantiating the idea that the Roman plebs were reduced to the order of biology. Yet during his mission to the Aventine Hill, Agrippa committed an error with disastrous repercussions for patrician domination. In telling his tale, he postulated the ability of the plebs to understand and to speak, thus opening a gap in the reign of the few. The effect was to ruin an order of domination that “recognizes no logos capable of being articulated by beings deprived of logos, no speech capable of being proffered by nameless beings." (21)

On top of Aventine Hill, the plebeians constituted an order uniquely their own. Refusing to accept subhuman status, they seized the opportunity to gain symbolic enrollment in the city by acting as though they bore proper names. To quote Rancière’s reading of Ballanche, the plebeians “thereby execute a series of speech acts that mimic those of the patricians: they pronounce imprecations and apotheoses; they delegate one of their number to go and consult their oracles; they give themselves representatives by rebaptizing them.” (22) Through this transgression of the order of domination the plebeians appropriated the right to speak beyond merely grunting. And it is Agrippa who bears responsibility for having opened up an egalitarian political space: his address to the plebeians presupposed their capacity to rise above the imperatives of the biological order.

This “inaugural scene” of the plebeian experience displays three major features that are specific to this little-known, underground, and discontinuous history of the politics of the many, which this study proposes to extract from the Western political tradition. The progression from a subpolitical to a political status was at the outset the product of the plebs’ will to emancipate themselves. They sought to assert their own desire for freedom without being compelled to act by a tutelary power intent on bending them to its aims of political domination. To put it another way, the plebeian experience shares in a “communalist” or “councilist” revolutionary tradition, that is, an approach based on the direct agency of subjects in action. While it may seem somewhat anachronistic to identify an event of the ancient world as “communalist,” (23) the term helps distinguish between revolutions “from above” and those “from below.” Moreover, the actions of the Roman plebeians can justifiably be viewed to quote Oskar Anweiler, a historian of the Soviets, as “the first historical instance of the council idea.” (24) Anweiler establishes three criteria for determining whether or not a revolution can be considered councilist or communalist, in sum, a revolution “from below”: “1. its connection with a particular dependent or oppressed social stratum; 2. radical democracy as its form; 3. a revolutionary origin.” 25 As an “inaugural scene” of a discontinuous tradition of political freedom, the first plebeian secession enacted a will to self-emancipation that meets Anweiler’s three criteria. The plebeians were dominated by the Roman patricians; they set up an egalitarian political space on the Aventine Hill; and they seceded, that is, withdrew altogether “illegally” (26) from the Roman order. In addition, the plebeian experience testifi es to the persistence of a genuine “politics of the people,” (27) taken in the sense of the direct action of the many.

Anweiler also affirms that “the tendency of such councils . . . is the striving toward the most direct, far-reaching, and unrestricted participation of the individual in public life.” (28) Given that the plebeian experience shares this political aspiration, its second defining feature can therefore be identified as its participation in an “agoraphilic” political tradition. The notions of “agoraphilia” and its opposite, agoraphobia,” have been developed by the political scientist Francis Dupuis-Déri to draw a fundamental distinction between different political institutions and practices. (29) Dupuis-Déri borrows from the lexicon of psychology in order to map out two possible attitudes toward the idea of a politically active people, both of which underpin modern as well as ancient political institutions and practices. He explains that “agoraphobia [is] the distrust of people governing themselves, without having their wishes filtered through representatives. [The agoraphobe] fears the ‘chaos’ or ‘tyranny of the majority’ of direct
democracy. Political agoraphobia is the fear of seeing the people in power as well as contempt for the political capacities of the people.” (30) Conversely, “agoraphilia” is displayed by a political regime or practice that enables the many to participate in political life. Politics then becomes decidedly democratic because it is instituted in and through the political action of the many. The plebeian experience, as inaugurated by the first Roman secession, fully partakes of the agoraphilic tradition inasmuch as it emerged through the political affirmation of an actor long banned from the stage of Roman politics, an affi rmation that brought political freedom to life in the face of domination.

In addition to communalism and agoraphilia, there is a final characteristic of the plebeian experience relating to the temporal specificity of plebeian action. Plebeian temporality can generally be understood in terms of what Hannah Arendt refers to as the “gap,” that is, an irruptive event that temporarily fractures the order of domination. The plebeian experience per se cannot be sustained for any length of time. Nevertheless, while this “gap” in the history of domination is destined to be sealed up, it cannot be regarded as an inheritance with “no testament.” (31) For in spite of its relative brevity, the plebeian experience leaves traces. In the words of the historian Boris Porchnev, “The repercussions of each plebeian uprising extended not only through space but through time as well; . . . a movement never disappears without leaving traces: it continues to live for many years in the minds of the masses and guides their future behavior.” (32) Oskar Negt furthermore points out that the revolutionary impact of popular movements “derives mainly from the memory of the original democratic equality and self-government being put into living practice, even though the actors are aware . . . of their foreseeable failure.” Negt adds, “This collective memory is not restricted to certain ancient historical regimes. . . . In this case, the collective memory is at the same time a memory of the history of individual domination.” (33) It is precisely the temporality of the gap and its subsequent traces that explain why the plebeian experience inaugurates a “discontinuous” history of political freedom. While its impermanence accounts for the discontinuity of this experience, its traces have made it detectable at various moments in Western history.

To recapitulate: The plebeian experience, that transition from a subpolitical to a political status, remains an experiment in the transgression of the order of political domination, a transgression born of a desire for liberty that may incorporate a desire for servitude. As for the name “plebeian,” it alludes to a little-known, occulted history of the political affirmation of the many. But the use of the term “plebs” also, and even more significantly, points to the foundational or inaugural nature of the first plebeian secession in Rome. The criterion for determining whether something constitutes a plebeian experience is the observation of three defining features: communalism, agoraphilia, and a temporality of the gap that leaves traces.

What still needs to be articulated is how this analysis of the plebs’ political action can be carried out. For one of this study’s ambitions is to demonstrate that the plebeian experience opens onto a new political understanding that brings to light a tradition whereby collective existence is centered on freedom rather than domination. To gain access to this “plebeian experience,” a threepronged historical corpus will serve to blaze a trail: the Parisian sans-culottes during the French Revolution (years II and III), the English Jacobins during the making of the English working class (1792–1799), and the communards during the insurrection of the Paris Commune in 1871. Two major questions will guide this analysis: What form of political organization did the plebeians establish? What is the nature of the human bonds engendered through these political experiences? The aim will be to show that it is possible to read these events so as to illuminate the plebeian contribution to a discontinuous history of political freedom.

Before undertaking such a demonstration, however, two prior questions need to be addressed. On the one hand, is it possible to write a political history of the plebs? This implies that an attempt must be made to identify within various historical episodes (the Ciompi of Florence; the carnival of Romans, France; the Neapolitan revolt of Masaniello; and so on) the construction of a “plebeian principle” through the political affirmation of the plebs. On the other hand, is it possible to extract from the history of political thought a “theory of the plebs”? Through the works of Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Vico, Ballanche, De Leon, Foucault, and Rancière, can one observe the philosophical inception of the “plebeian principle,” that is to say, a heterogeneous approach that casts the plebs in a predominant, even salutary, role in political affairs?

For it is in the light of such an analysis that we can assess the relevance of the plebeian experience to our understanding of politics. This said, there are already grounds for asserting that the value of such an investigation will depend as well on the enactment of a practice of political philosophy that today has
been forsaken or at least marginalized. Our goal will be to carry out “an exercise in political thought” (Arendt), to show in actu that political thought need not be inescapably reduced to a necessary history of ideas and doctrines but, with its categories and concepts, can provide a space where the social-historical can be interpreted and made intelligible.

Translated by Lazer Lederhendler

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* Excerpted from The Plebeian Experience by Martin Breaugh. Copyright © 2014 Martin Breaugh. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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Martin Breaugh was educated at the University of Paris VII-Denis-Diderot and is associate professor of political theory at York University (Toronto). His research focuses on the theory and practice of emancipatory politics and radical democracy. Lazer Lederhendler is a full-time freelance literary translator. His translations of contemporary Québécois fiction have earned various distinctions in Canada and abroad.

Breaugh and Lederhendler live in Montreal, Quebec. 

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