Interval and Interruption: the Power of the Plebe.
Martin Breaugh, L’Expérience Plébéienne, Payot, Paris, 2007. 405 pp., 25 € pb., 978 2 228 90260 1 Published five years ago in the important collection « Critique de la Politique » directed by Miguel Abensour, Martin Breaugh’s book L’Expérience Plébéienne: Une Histoire Discontinue de la Liberté Politique [The Plebeian Experience: A Discontinuous History of Political Freedom] didn’t receive, then, all the attention it deserved or, better said, that could be expected, given the theoretical ground it covers, which is that of the collective subject of emancipatory politics. The fact that Breaugh, professor of political theory at York University, in Toronto, writes in French, may be at the root of the somewhat discrete reception of a book that represents an original contribution to the political debates that have marked the philosophical landscape (at least in the so-called continental philosophy) in the last years. It is expected that the translation into English and its publication, due to happen in 2013 by Columbia University Press, will change that situation. It may even be said that the greater attention that a translation into English will hopefully bring to this book occurs at the right time, and this is so because Breaugh’s conception of what constitutes an emancipatory collective action, and of who might be the subject of such an action, are particularly in tune with some of today’s struggles, namely with the indignant and the occupy movements. The rhetoric that accompanies such struggles is mostly framed in a language of the plebe, much more than it is, for example, in the Marxist language of class. Social, economic and political demands are vented in a discourse of moral outrage, of which the
Such access to dignity rests on a demand. Breaugh attempts to ground his conception of politics in a non-objectivist way. Such experience rests in a double movement. in the guise of the equal participation of each and all in the determinations of the community’s destiny. by the many. and the equality of all is asserted. Refusing any substantialization of the plebe. a demand that is..e. emancipatory politics is always a “politics of the many”.quantitative metaphor of the “99% against the 1%” is perhaps the clearest example. to political self-determination. i. and outside of which it doesn’t exist. by which the domination of the few is refused. at the same time. a question of the access of the great number to a political dignity whose denial by the power-holding elite is the situation in which most of humanity lives most of the time. by the plebe itself. to affirm their capacity for self-government. ethnic groups or any other category stemming from a recognisable social identity. with the plebe occupying a determinate position in its overall structural arrangement. The “plebe” is not an identity classification because it does not rest in a division of the social whole. as an egalitarian affirmation that cannot be reduced to the expression of the interests of certain social groups. which would result in its identification as a social identity and not. such as classes. in L’Expérience Plébéienne. status or interest groups. For Breaugh the quantitative determination of the subject of politics is also essential: throughout the various case studies carefully analysed in the book. “Plebe” or “plebeian” rather designates an historical experience. and to affirm the collective right. an attempt to shake off the domination by the few. an experience through which the subject of a “politics of the many” is constituted. as the author conceives it. objectively identifiable. as the
. In tandem with the dominant theoretical voices in the contemporary thought of politics. of recognition. Politics is understood.
i. Pierre-Simon Ballanche. Discontinuous because politics. ending with Jacques Rancière. whether in the analysis of Roman history or in theorizations of the menu peuple. in which the plebe of the Roman republic fled from the city to a self-governed encampment in the Mount Aventine (an occasion recurrently evoked throughout the book. according to Breaugh. in several moments in the history of political though. serving as an inaugural scene for the history of the plebeian experience) to the Ciompi revolt in Florence. The temporality of the plebe is that of the interruption. One of the interesting features of the book is precisely the way that the author sets himself to analyse the plebeian principle in the moments of his concrete verification. as for Alain Badiou or Jacques Rancière.instantiation of a trans-historical principle of political action. in the rare historical occasions in which it manifested itself. and not that of the institution. Breaugh follows the philosophical emergence and development of the emancipatory principle of the plebe in philosophy. Vico. is necessarily rare – an event that negates the status quo in a given social order and affirms a collective will for justice and equality. This philosophical course rests on an explicit reference to the plebe as a name for a political subject. the carnival in the French village of Romans and the Neapolitan revolt of Masaniello. The movement of philosophical thought of the plebe starts. for Breaugh. the access of the great number to political equality was theorized. the mode through which. therefore the analysis of the historical genesis of the plebeian principle corresponds to the presentation of the moments of occurrence of such egalitarian and radically democratic interruption of a continuous order of domination: from the first plebeian secession. with Machiavelli and proceeds with Montesquieu.e. In what regards the genesis of
. After tracing the historical genesis.. Daniel De Leon and Michel Foucault. Breaugh makes of the “plebe” the guiding principle of political action. tracing what he calls “a discontinuous history of political freedom”.
together with Jacques Rancière. the philosophical and the historical series are not treated in a similar way. in order to withdraw from the events of the past the political lessons for future use in emancipatory politics.
. of what constitutes politics itself: Rancière and Lefort. as could be expected. the main theoretical horizons inside which Breaugh’s effort must be understood. namely. In a book that constitutes itself an intervention in the contemporary panorama of political thought. namely the conception of politics as interval and interruption in a continuous order of domination. and the distance the latter adopts towards them. the equanimity with which the several historical moments lend themselves to the cool eye of the analyst. There are two authors.Breaugh’s own theoretical framework. Hanna Arendt and Claude Lefort. to which both the theoretical framework and the historical analysis of concrete situations lend an almost necessary character. both outside and inside the movements themselves. the London Corresponding Society in the context of English Jacobinism and the Paris Commune. perhaps. constitute. whose influence is decisive in Breaugh’s understanding of what political freedom and equality may be. The internal divisions and debates around organizational issues are explored in order to highlight the tensions inherent in the plebeian movements. and is somehow a dominant trend of post-socialist politics (and. But. and identify the barriers to the implementation of the plebeian principle. the book returns to the analysis of concrete historical situations. such distance finds no counterpart in the way the several theoretical contributions are dissected by Breaugh. with a thick analysis of the specific organizational forms adopted in three events of contemporary history: the action of the Sans-Culottes in the French Revolution. In its third part. This filiation goes also a long way to explain some of th e books’ shortcomings. Although this shortcoming is not an exclusive of Breaugh’s thought. indeed.
borrowing from Oliver Marchart. lasting. the principle in which domination rests (independently of the ideological operation that tends to subsume such division to a unity supposed more fundamental: the nation. of course. Thus. a presupposition that the framework of domination is an unsurpassable horizon of human collective life. the affirmation of the Lefortian principle of an irreducible division of the social. but this constituted. and which presupposes. since for him the division of the social is an original ontological condition. in itself. which was defended by the few to their own interests (there were a few historical instances where plebeian movements ceded to the temptation of unity. in fact. throughout the book. the social body. a common recognition of the equal condition and capacity of all to determine the collective destiny and. in Breaugh’s view. of conceiving the event of egalitarian affirmation as also a moment of institution of a more egalitarian. and a corresponding resistance to any possibility of thinking a just society. of post-foundationalist philosophy of politics) there is. etc. whose acceptance is necessarily constitutive of every democratic politics. Lefort’s thought looms large here. and not merely a sociological counting of the parts. on the other side. for Breaugh. be it in classes. in favour of the status quo). What the book lefts unconsidered is that the principle of social division. or simply in groups endowed with different degrees of power is. – an operation that works. in our view to Breaugh’s incondicional defence of pluralism and his mistrust of any form of unity as an horizon for politics. Such resistance is related. a threat to plebeian politics. during the brief moments of its existence. against the principle of unity. order. a unity which is the necessary stage for equality. the politics of the plebe was. a unity that is merely the operator of consensus that attempts to provide a common ground for hierarchical unequal relations?
. on the one side. Should not the concept of unity be split in two? Into. inside the plebeian movement itself).
In this framework it comes as perfectly natural that freedom. as a concept. to another. however. hopefully more just. When the former. plurality must itself. for Breaugh. in an egalitarian political scene (i. but equal standing positions. different positions that depart from a common presupposition of the equal capacity of all) and a pluralism that is merely transitive to the hierarchical order of different interests. from the purpose to form a united subject who then constitutes a threat to the necessary recognition of the divided character of the social. However. in Rancierean terms.e.
. Once again. even when equality is understood. Here. Interests that necessarily persist after the event which inaugurates an emancipatory political sequence. the threat to plebeian politics comes. But that problem only arises when we consider the possibility of changing from a social order resting on growing inequalities and oppressions. as a goal of political action. now can plurality be handled when it brings with it also the desire for the hierarchically divided order? Can an emancipatory project respect the desire for a society that rests on inequality? The problem here may be that Breaugh takes the plurality of interests at face value. disregarding the way such plurality of political positions may in itself be grounded in the unjust division of the social. as presupposition. as for example in the French Revolution. between the different. and not as an objective and quantifiable goal to be achieved. is taken as an ontologically necessary background. In historical situations where the purpose of political unity comes into clash with the existence of political plurality. be split. it is the problem of transition that is at stake. transition is a problem that doesn’t need to be considered.. and the latter can only be experienced in short and transitory periods. is privileged above equality.