Author's Roundtable I: Roberto Dainotto's Europe (in Theory)

Response: Work Makes You Free

Thursday, September 18, 2008

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Emanuel Rota, Italian

In his latest book, Roberto Dainotto argues that, with the rise of modernity, European identity, hegemonized by French authors, acquires a Northern/Southern opposition, next to the traditional Orient/Occident opposition. Inspired by Gramsci, Dainotto uses his sharp philological tools to identify the emergence of such a tradition, convincingly showing that this new narrative, and a few counternarratives, take shape in the French Enlightenment and become part of the ideological debate of the 19th century. Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws and its theory of climates were, in Dainotto’s convincing account, the original formulation of this new Northern disdain for the South of Europe. In my response, thinking with professor Dainotto’s excellent book, I argue that labor and the new work discipline required by the emerging capitalist production constitute one of the central subtexts of this North/South opposition.

Montesquieu's elaborate theory of climate is a logical necessity of his philosophical construction. He believed in natural laws, monogenesis, and on an idea of Europe based on the notion of the Ius Publicum Europaeum. These three elements could on ly work together thanks to his theory of climate. Monogenesis, which Montesquieu inherited from the biblical tradition, asserts that human nature is one and the same everywhere. Natural laws were supposed to be laws that stemmed directly from nature and existed in an extra-juridical space, independent from the sovereign's will and as natural as the laws of physics. The Ius Publicum Europaeum was the specific form that natural laws had acquired in the European territory and that governed the inter-European international relations despite the absence of a European sovereign. Why, if human beings were the same everywhere and natural laws came from nature, was the Ius Publicum Europaeum European and not worldwide? Montesquieu's answer was that human nature did not change, but natural climates did, hence climates were responsible for the differences.

This weak argumentation, which would be attacked, within the borders of liberal ideology, by racists--human nature change--and by legal positivism--might makes right--serves the ideological purpose of limiting the power of the sovereign without putting the existence of the state at risk. Laws are natural; they exist above the king, who becomes a despot if he wants an absolute power, and also above the multitude, who becomes an unruly mob and gives birth to ochlocratic governments if it does not respect natural laws (including private property, of course).

Thus, Montesquieu’s book always serves two purposes: challenge absolutism while keeping a watchful eye on the multitudes and its desire for democracy. With this in mind, we can try to interpret the emergence of a Southern narrative as brilliantly highlighted by Dainotto. The Occident/Orient binary opposition perfectly serves the purpose of attacking absolutism as Oriental despotism, but what about the North/South distinction?

Let’s hear from the French Enlightenment. Here is Montesquieu (most relevant parts in Bold, a summary of the points at the end of the quotes):

In Europe there is a kind of balance between the southern and northern nations. The first have every convenience of life, and few of its wants: the last have many wants, and few conveniences. To one nature has given much, and they demand little from nature; to the other she has given but little, and they demand a great deal. The equilibrium is maintained by the laziness of the southern nations, and by the industry and activity which she has given to those in the north. The latter are obliged to undergo much labour, without which they would want everything, and degenerate into barbarians. This has naturalized slavery to the people of the south: as they can easily dispense with riches, they can more easily dispense with liberty. But the people of the north have need of liberty, for this can best procure them the means of satisfying all those wants which they have received from nature. The people of the north, then, are in a forced state, if they are not either free or barbarians. Almost all the people of the south are, in some measure, in a state of violence, if they are not slaves.
Here is Voltaire:

The Oriental climate, nearer to the South, obtains everything from nature; while we, in our northern West, we owe everything to time, to commerce and to a belated industry.
And here is Rousseau’s Social Contract:

Luxury in clothes shows similar differences. In climates in which the changes of season are prompt and violent, men have better and simpler clothes; where they clothe themselves only for adornment, what is striking is more thought of than what is useful; clothes themselves are then a luxury. At Naples, you may see daily walking in the Pausilippeum men in gold-embroidered upper garments and nothing else. It is the same with buildings; magnificence is the sole consideration where there is nothing to fear from the air. In Paris and London, you desire to be lodged warmly and comfortably; in Madrid, you have superb salons, but
not a window that closes, and you go to bed in a mere hole...
To all these points may be added another, which at once depends on and strengthens them. Hot countries need inhabitants less than cold countries, and can support more of them. There is thus a double surplus, which is all to the advantage of despotism.
If you did not have the patience to read the quotes, here is what they all say: Northern people have to work because nature does not give much; Southern people don’t have to work because nature is generous there. Only necessity makes people work, whereas abundance makes them lazy. Lazy people are prone to despotism, hard working people, instead, are good for the rule of laws. Abundance leads to despotism, scarcity of resources leads to good citizens.

Really? Were people in Southern Europe, not just the aristocrats, everybody, so rich that they did not have to work? Fortunately, what the French philosophes managed to obscure with their elaborate constructions, is readily revealed by English sources: (don’t skip this one):

The industry of the people was considered extraordinary, their peculiarity of life remarkable. They lived like the inhabitants of Spain, or after the custom of the Orientals. Three or four o'clock in the morning found them at work. At noon they rested; many enjoyed their siesta; others spent their time in the workshops eating and drinking, these places being often turned into taprooms and the apprentices into pot boys; others again enjoyed themselves at marbles or in the skittle alley. Three or four hours were thus devoted to play; and then came work again till eight or nine, and sometimes ten, the whole year through.

Birmingham Journal, 26 Sept. I855, “Hints for a History of Birmingham”
The Birmingham Journal uses 18th century sources to describe the life of the Birmingham workers who, thanks to the abundance created by their successful work, have the freedom to organize their time according to their desire: they work and they play, they take siestas, like the inhabitants of Spain, or after the custom of the Orientals. Abundance creates a non European space.

Here is another, even more revealing quotation: (Hutton, An History of Birmingham (I78I), p. 69)

The men... [are] regulated by the expense of their families, and their necessities; it is very well known that they will not go further than necessity prompts them, many of them.

As economic historians have pointed out, workers, in the early stage of the capitalist reorganization of production, refused to work more than they needed to support their standard of life. They preferred lower pays and more leisure time than higher pay and no free time. Montesquieu and the other philosophes provided a philosophical justification for the predatory instincts of the early capitalist owners: abundance will make you lazy and slaves: work all day long to earn the bare necessity and you will be free. The European South, with its preindustrial life style had to be racialized and moralized so that the Northern European workers could be threatened with the early stage of a racial division of Europe: overexploit the workers because necessity is Northern Europe, whereas abundance is the degenerate South. Learn this work discipline because exploitation and work will make you free. From the early stages of the original accumulation of power and capital, one can almost imagine a world where in all the factories of Europe one cold write: Work Makes You Free.


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Rob Rushing said...

The phrase "philosophical justification for predatory instincts" may have been my favorite part of the evening--I thought this was a particularly nice way of tying the rhetorical/philological argument back to the material and political, and the analysis isn't complete without both of them.