The Plebeian Experience

The Plebeian Experience: A Discontinuous History of Political Freedom

MARTIN BREAUGH
TRANSLATED BY LAZER LEDERHENDLER
Copyright Date: 2013
DOI: 10.7312/brea15618
Pages: 344
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/brea15618
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  • Book Info
    The Plebeian Experience
    Book Description:

    How do people excluded from political life achieve political agency? Through a series of historical events that have been mostly overlooked by political theorists, Martin Breaugh identifies fleeting yet decisive instances of emancipation in which people took it upon themselves to become political subjects. Emerging during the Roman plebs's first secession in 494 BCE, theplebeian experienceconsists of an underground or unexplored configuration of political strategies to obtain political freedom. The people reject domination through political praxis and concerted action, therefore establishing an alternative form of power.

    Breaugh's study concludes in the nineteenth century and integrates ideas from sociology, philosophy, history, and political science. Organized around diverse case studies, his work undertakes exercises in political theory to show how concepts provide a different understanding of the meaning of historical events and our political present.The Plebeian Experiencedescribes a recurring phenomenon that clarifies struggles for emancipation throughout history, expanding research into the political agency of the many and shedding light on the richness of radical democratic struggles from ancient Rome to Occupy Wall Street and beyond.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52081-2
    Subjects: Philosophy, Political Science, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-X)
  3. FOREWORD
    (pp. XI-XIV)
    DICK HOWARD

    IN OCTOBER 2012, THE CONSERVATIVE PARTY CHIEF WHIP, Andrew Mitchell, was forced to resign because he apparently called a Downing Street policeman a “plebeian.” The uproar was surprising, as was the usage. Those upper-class British who traditionally studied Roman history seem to have forgotten that the distinctive nature of the plebs was not their economic class but the fact that they were denied political rights. But the spontaneous public reaction to the disdainful put-down shows that the public understood instinctively the antidemocratic weight of that slur. It was as if the trace of an inherited memory had been awakened, activated,...

  4. PREFACE
    (pp. XV-XXIV)
  5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. XXV-XXVIII)
  6. PART I: WHAT IS “THE PLEBS”?
    • 1 HISTORICAL GENESIS OF THE PLEBEIAN PRINCIPLE
      (pp. 3-43)

      WHAT DO THE TERMS “PLEBS” AND “PLEBEIANS” SIGNIFY? THE choice of a term specific to Roman antiquity may in some ways appear anachronistic or even quaint, especially when one seeks, as we do, to characterize a modern political actor. Yet it is possible to delineate a “political history of the plebs” from the Roman Republic to nineteenth-century Europe that coincides with those moments when revolt and freedom manifested themselves. The political history of the West thus includes events where the plebs demonstrated its strength and political capacities in order to transform the dominant political order. A “plebeian principle” has thus...

    • 2 PHILOSOPHICAL GENESIS OF THE PLEBEIAN PRINCIPLE
      (pp. 44-102)

      THROUGH THE GREAT POLITICAL AND DEMOCRATIC STRUGGLES they have waged, the plebs have refuted the widespread prejudice that they are subjugated to their vital needs and consequently incapable of political action. To make plebeian political action intelligible, we have thus far relied on concepts drawn from contemporary political thought. This has enabled us to assess the significance of the plebeian principle for our understanding of politics and democracy. But since political thought has helped us better comprehend the plebs, would it not be appropriate to map out the place that the plebs occupy within that tradition? This would involve locating...

  7. PART II: THE QUESTION OF THE FORMS OF POLITICAL ORGANIZATION
    • PROLOGUE: ON THE DOMINANT POLITICAL CONFIGURATION OF MODERNITY
      (pp. 105-111)

      TO UNDERSTAND THE “FORMS OF POLITICAL ORGANIZATION” OF the plebeian experience, the more general question of the “forms” of political organization of democratic modernity must be examined briefly. At the end of the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, while the political practices of the plebs were developing, a “political configuration” was established, one that would dominate modernity. This “dominant political configuration” involved three phenomena: (1) the introduction of representative government, (2) the creation of the system of political parties, and (3) the emergence of large bureaucracies. The latter, of course, were not consolidated but existed embryonically during the...

    • 3 SECTIONAL SOCIETIES AND THE SANS-CULOTTES OF PARIS
      (pp. 112-141)

      ORIGINALLY PEJORATIVE, THE TERMSANS-CULOTTEWAS COINED by antirevolutionary publicists to denigrate the poor of Paris. The emphasis on the lack of breeches was intended to point up the indigence, ignorance, vulgarity, and animality of ordinary people as perceived by the breeches-wearing supporters of the aristocratic order. When the Revolution entered a more radical stage, the term became a “title of glory”1 (along withcanaille, i.e., the “rabble”) designating the people or the revolutionary throng at the heart of the revolutionary movement up until Thermidor.

      Beyond their dress code, the sans-culottes can be defi ned from three different perspectives: historical,...

    • 4 THE LONDON CORRESPONDING SOCIETY AND THE ENGLISH JACOBINS
      (pp. 142-172)

      E. P. THOMPSON’S MAGNUM OPUS,THE MAKING OF THE ENGLISH Working Class, constitutes a genuine work of political thought that illuminates the inventiveness and richness of the English plebs’ political practices, especially as regards English Jacobinism in the late eighteenth century. Indeed, he attributes the transformation of social relationships that occurred during the Industrial Revolution as much to the collective action of the plebs as to the structural transformations of the economy, the international situation, or the various religious movements. Thompson maintains that the politically and economically excluded members of society had their own values and political practices. As a...

    • 5 THE PARIS COMMUNE OF 1871 AND THE COMMUNARDS
      (pp. 173-198)

      IN CONTRAST TO THE PREVIOUS CHAPTERS, OUR ANALYSIS OF THE political experience in Paris in 1871 focuses not on a particular form of organization but on a series of political forms that contributed to the advent or the historical deployment of the Commune. Through a host of political bodies, the Paris Commune of 1871 marked the establishment of a political form intended to put an end to state power, that is, power based on coercion, in order to institute a power constructed through the concerted action of the citizens. The Paris Commune stands as a refutation in practice of a...

  8. PART III: THE NATURE OF THE HUMAN BOND
    • PROLOGUE: SOCIAL BOND, POLITICAL BOND, AND MODERNITY
      (pp. 201-204)

      THE QUESTION OF THE FORMS OF POLITICAL ORGANIZATION established during plebeian experiences relates to a particular conceptualization of the notion of “power.” In the case of the sectional societies, the London Corresponding Society, and the numerous clubs and associations at the root of the communalist movement of 1871, the “power” of the plebs did not rest upon the “monopoly of the legitimate use of violence” (M. Weber). Quite the contrary, in each of those experiences, the plebs’ forms of organization foughtagainstthe wielder of the “monopoly of the legitimate use of violence,” the state. Instead, these plebeian organizations suggest...

    • 6 THE SANS-CULOTTES: A POLITICAL BOND OF FRATERNITY
      (pp. 205-217)

      YEAR III OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION MARKED THE END OF THE plebeian political practices of the sans-culottes. Aside from Babeuf’s conspiracy in the year IV,¹ the main political contribution of the sans-culottes came to an end with the repression of the Prairial insurrection and the political fallout of that defeat, that is, the attack against the popular movement and the concomitant suppression of the right to insurrection in the Constitution of 1795. However, it was the revolutionary bourgeoisie’s liquidation of the sectional societies in the year II that signaled the end of the sans-culottes’ political experiment: “Seeing their aspirations flouted,...

    • 7 THE ENGLISH JACOBINS: A POLITICAL BOND OF PLURALITY
      (pp. 218-229)

      WHEREAS THE POLITICAL BOND OF THE SANS-CULOTTES WAS forged through the disappearance of the ancien régime and the attendant advent of democracy at the time of the French Revolution, the human bond of the English Jacobins was created largely within the context of the Industrial Revolution, which left a deep imprint on the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century in Europe. The “Industrial Revolution” refers to the passage from small-scale production to the large-scale manufacturing made possible by the introduction of mechanized factories requiring an abundant, unskilled labor force. For Karl Polanyi, this “great transformation” represents the establishment of...

    • 8 THE COMMUNARDS: A POLITICAL BOND OF ASSOCIATION
      (pp. 230-240)

      UNLIKE THE GENERAL CIRCUMSTANCES SURROUNDING THE English Jacobins, the context of the Commune was marked by a series of political rather than economic events. Those events started, roughly speaking, during the final months of the Second Empire and ended when the Commune was proclaimed. Between those two moments a war and a change of regime took place, followed by a siege and the beginnings of a civil war. A host of incidents led to the establishment of “Paris libre 1871” (J. Rougerie). A review of the sequence of events is necessary precisely because the existing human bond did not emerge...

  9. CONCLUSION
    (pp. 241-244)

    OUR PURPOSE IN THESE PAGES HAS BEEN TO RECONSTITUTE A little-known, or even occulted, experience of our political history: the plebeian experience. It arises when people excluded from theres publicatransform themselves into political subjects able to act in concert. Hence, from the first secession of the Roman plebs through to the Paris Commune of 1871, the plebeian experience attests to the abiding presence of a communalist politics of the people, that is, politics based on the direct action of the many. It also attests to a desire for freedom, as opposed to the desire for domination characteristic of...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 245-282)
  11. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 283-300)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 301-316)