Thursday, January 30, 2014

Martin Breaugh's "The Plebeian Experience"

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.

Breaugh applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Plebeian Experience: A Discontinuous History of Political Freedom, and reported the following:
This is a book about the 99%. Because of the first plebeian secession in Rome (494 BCE), I call them the plebs.

The Plebeian Experience proceeds from a very simple question: what happens when the 99% that are excluded from political life take it upon themselves to become political? The answer is to be sought in history and philosophy. From history, I explain what was accomplished by the plebs and I emphasize how it was carried out. In a nutshell: when the many appear on the stage of history, they bring forth a form of political conflict that broadens freedom within the community. In philosophical terms, I located, in the history of political thought, a “counter-tradition” that understands the politics of the many as more than just “mob rule”, as we will see below. From the death of Socrates by a democratic tribunal to today, our tradition of political thought has not done justice to the 99%.

This is where the page 99 test comes in. On page 99, I offer a synopsis of the political theory of the 99% that gives, I hope, an accurate indication of “the quality of the whole” (Ford Madox Ford). On page 99, I write:
Machiavelli has left us with a body of thought where the plebs are regarded as a political subject that animates the body politic with a desire for liberty by ensuring the presence of conflict through its “implacable” opposition to the grandees. Following a line of thought close to that of the Florentine Secretary but formulated in his own terms, Montesquieu, in his Considérations, extols the virtues of division, stating that the plebs are defined by their rejection of tranquility in favor of the disturbances required by the dissonance of liberty. Thus, according to Montesquieu, the plebs ensure the conflictual unity of free political communities. Vico, agreeing with Machiavelli and Montesquieu that the plebs are the vehicle of conflict and freedom, nevertheless argues that they prove incapable of assuming that very freedom over the long term. For Pierre-Simon Ballanche, the plebs, due to their struggle against the stationary, patrician forces, are endowed with humanity, being a political subject that makes humankind’s achievement of progress and emancipation possible. In another vein, Daniel De Leon believes that the history of the Roman plebs should remind the many, invested with political capacity, of the need for self- emancipation. On the other hand, what makes the work of Michel Foucault interesting is his revival of the plebeian question within contemporary debates, rather than his equivocal theorization of it. Finally, in Jacques Rancière’s work “plebeian thought” achieves a certain theoretical culmination, since it proves to be central to his thinking. Based on his exploration of Ballanche’s findings with respect to the first plebeian secession, Rancière argues that the secession illustrates the founding conflict of the political, which bears on the existence of a common political stage. By exposing the wrong attributable to the “police- based” distribution of titles and functions, the plebs institute a common space where equality can be verified. They thereby set up a process of subjectivization that extricates them from the “naturalness” of their place and enables the passage from the status of animal laborans to that of zoon politikon.
Learn more about The Plebeian Experience at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue