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Urbanization avant la lettre

Bourgeois economists
on town and country

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Image: Sir David Wilkie, The Parliament Close
and Public Characters 50 Years Since (1796)
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François Quesnay, Tableau Économique (1758)

“[It is important] that the children of farmers are settled in the countryside, so that there are always husbandmen there; for if they are harassed into abandoning the countryside and withdrawing to the towns, they take their fathers’ wealth which used to be employed in cultivation.”

James Steuart, An Inquiry into the Principle of Political Economy (1766)

Chapter 9

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“When the earth is not in common to those who live upon her spontaneous fruits, but is appropriated by a few, there either slavery or industry must be introduced among those who consume the surplus of the proprietors; because these will expect either service or work in return for their superfluity. In this case, the residence of the inhabitants will depend upon the circumstances we are going to consider; and the object of agriculture in countries where the surface of the earth is not broken up, being solely directed towards the gathering in of fruits, will determine the residence of those only who are necessary for that purpose: consequently it will follow, that in climates where the earth produces spontaneously, and in vast abundance, there may be found large cities; because the number of those who are necessary for gathering in the fruits is small in proportion to the quantity of them; whereas in other countries, where the earth’s productions are scanty, and where the climate refuses those of the copious and luxuriant kind, there will hardly be found any considerable town, because the number of those who are necessary for collecting the subsistence, bears a great proportion to the fruits themselves. I do not say, that in the first case there must be large towns, or that in the other there can be none; but I say that, in the first case, those who may be gathered into towns, bear a great proportion to the whole society; and that, in the second, they bear a small one.”

“I now proceed to the other class of inhabitants; the free hands who live upon the surplus of the farmers.

These I must subdivide into two conditions. The first, those to whom this surplus directly belongs, or who, with a revenue in money already acquired, can purchase it. The second, those who purchase it with their daily labor [proto-proletarians] or personal service.

Those of the first condition may live where they please; those of the second, must live where they can. The residence of the consumers determines, in many cases, that of the suppliers. In proportion, therefore, as those who live where they please choose to live together, in this proportion must the others follow them. And in proportion as the state thinks fit to place the administration of government in one place, in the same proportion must the administrators, and every one depending upon them, be gathered together. These I take to be principles which influence the swelling of the bulk of capitals, and smaller cities. Continue reading

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“Safe” spaces

Making the world “safe”
for continued capitalism

Introduction

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Left Unity, making the world “safe” for the perpetuation of capitalist social relations without serious political opposition.

Policies like these seem to me the rhetorical equivalent of a panic room, a ridiculously oversecure place where small groups of people go to hide from the “evils” of society that lurk somewhere outside. As in a panic room, there are all sorts of procedures, protocols, and safeguards meant to ensure that the security perimeter is not breached.

Unfortunately, these problems originate in the world at large, and cannot be dealt with at the level of “rules of conduct” for bureaucratic enclaves supposedly resisting capitalism. This article by Paul Demarty on Left Unity’s recent “safe spaces” initiative originally appeared on the CPGB’s Weekly Worker website.

Safe spaces

Paul Demarty

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There was once an exchange on an internet discussion list run by the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), a left student front associated with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

During a particularly hot-headed intervention, a comrade made mention of the word “cunt” to describe an allegedly disreputable individual. Inevitably, a sea of complaints came forth. A feminist angrily denounced the allegedly sexist use of the word “cunt”; after all, a vagina is a beautiful thing, which should not be degraded by comparisons with an individual all were agreed was a bad egg.

Immediately, a trans woman took to her keyboard to decry the implicit association of womanhood with the possession of the full, double-X chromosome plumbing. Finally, the original poster argued that censoring the word “cunt” was oppressive to those from Scotland, where, apparently, it means something different (not that different, I suspect). Continue reading

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Criticism after utopian politics

Zoltan “Pac” Pobric
The Brooklyn Rail
May 3rd, 2013
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Following up on yesterday’s “advice to critics,” I thought it would be appropriate to include a reflection on the state of criticism today. This short article was written by my friend Zoltan “Pac” Pobric, an editor of the Platypus Review. A few other pieces on the subject have been written lately that I’d recommend, such as Ben Davis’ “Crisis and criticism” and Laurie Rojas’ “Confronting the ‘death’ of art criticism.” Pac’s piece is posted here for its exceptional clarity and concision, qualities lacking in much of what passes for “criticism” in the present.

Originally published on The Brooklyn Rail‘s website. The image is Charles Baudelaire photographed in 1855.

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There has been no lack of talk, for the past ten or so years, of some kind of “crisis” in art criticism. James Elkins, Arthur Danto, Katy Siegel, Hal Foster, et al.; everyone seems to have some stake in the failure or ineptitude or impossibility of critical thought. Elkins says that judgment should return; Danto says it’s unnecessary. Siegel says critics have little, if any, real power, and Foster, when pressed, seems to conclude that contemporary criticism is too confused to pin down, which of course is true. Yet all the hand wringing has little to do with criticism per se. The deeper problem, no doubt, is political, and all the anxiety about whether or not we understand contemporary art and culture is misplaced from a deeper distress: do we even understand the world we live in? What’s unclear is not only how we got to our present historical condition, but also, by default, what progress beyond it would look like.

Jacques-Louis David, Death of Marat, 1793. Oil on canvas, 63 3/4 × 50 3/8". Royaux des Beaux-Arts/Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten, Brussels.

Jacques-Louis David, Death of Marat, 1793. Oil on canvas,
63 3/4 × 50 3/8″. Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels.

Nor does culture seem to offer any directive past the impasse, although the problem isn’t the lack of excellent contemporary art. There is good art today, as there always has been. The deeper problem is that no one seems to be able to recognize it. Art, of course, relies on a receptive audience, and the fundamental question is whether or not one exists today. If even art, like politics, does not seem to be on the verge of a major breakthrough, that may simply be because we cannot imagine what that breakthrough might be.

Our historical moment is a peculiar one. We exist in a quite different universe from the political environments that produced Diderot, writing about the Salon on the eve of the French Revolution; or Baudelaire on Courbet in the wake of the Revolutions of 1848; or even Greenberg, writing about Abstract Expressionism at a time when Trotskyism was still a serious, if increasingly untenable, political position. Our climate is more pessimistic, and progress is more elusive. Revolutionary change is nowhere on the horizon today, as it was for the best critics of the past. Continue reading

The Art Critic 1919-20 by Raoul Hausmann 1886-1971

Advice for critics

Walter Benjamin, Virginia
Woolf, & Roland Barthes

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Image: Raoul Hausmann,
The Art Critic (1919-1920),

Walter Benjamin

“The critic’s technique in thirteen theses” (1928)

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I. The critic is the strategist in the literary battle.
II. He who cannot take sides should keep silent.
III. The critic has nothing in common with the interpreter of past cultural epochs.
IV. Criticism must talk the language of artists. For the terms of the cenacle are slogans. And only in slogans is the battle-cry heard.
V. “Objectivity” must always be sacrificed to partisanship, if the cause fought for merits this.
VI. Criticism is a moral question. If Goethe misjudged Hölder­lin and Kleist, Beethoven, and Jean Paul, his morality and not his artistic discernment was at fault. [One can hear echoes of Kant’s Critique of Judgment in this passage].
VII. For the critic his colleagues are the higher authority. Not the public. Still less posterity.
VIII. Posterity forgets or acclaims. Only the critic judges in face of the author.
IX. Polemics mean to destroy a book in a few of its sentences. The less it has been studied the better. Only he who can destroy can criticize.
X. Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby.
XI. Artistic enthusiasm is alien to the critic. In his hand the artwork is the shining sword in the battle of minds.
XII. The art of the critic in a nutshell: to coin slogans without betraying ideas. The slogans of an inadequate criticism peddle ideas to fashion.
XIII. The public must always be proved wrong, yet always feel represented by the critic.

Man Ray, photo portrait of Virginia Woolf (1935)

Man Ray, Photo portrait of Virginia Woolf (1935)

Virginia Woolf

“The decay of essay-writing” (1905)

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The spread of education and the necessity which haunts us to impart what we have acquired have led, and will lead still further, to some startling results. We read of the over-burdened British Museum — how even its appetite for printed matter flags, and the monster pleads that it can swallow no more. This public crisis has long been familiar in private houses. One member of the household is almost officially deputed to stand at the hall door with flaming sword and do battle with the invading armies. Tracts, pamphlets, advertisements, gratuitous copies of magazines, and the literary productions of friends come by post, by van, by messenger — come at all hours of the day and fall in the night, so that the morning breakfast table is fairly snowed up with them. Continue reading

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Heidegger’s Nazism

A review of Victor Farías’
Heidegger and Nazism (1987)

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This one’s from the archives. I stumbled across it today while trying to dig up another file. Upon rereading it, I was surprised to see that I still agree with most of the sentiments it conveys. Of course, there are some bits that annoy me that I’d like to change, but I’m going to post it as is. Don’t be too hard on me; it’s from 2006.

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Very little can be written concerning Victor Farías’ polemical Heidegger and Nazism which has not already been extensively discussed. Since its release in French translation in 1987, the book has been the subject of furious criticism, defended by an army of staunch advocates while simultaneously decried by a host of equally resolute detractors. For both extremes this work merely provided a pretext for debate. The battle lines had for the most part already been drawn: the response on either side to its publication was generally automatic. More judicious commentators have since been able to appreciate the truly groundbreaking revelations of Farías’ study, at the same time recognizing its severe limitations. The question of an author’s reasons for conducting this sort of investigation must inevitably arise, after all, given the controversial nature of the issues at stake. This was no small undertaking on his part. The painstaking archival process by which Farías gathered his data was carried out systematically over the course of several years. This no doubt casts some suspicion on his motives. Moreover, the striking lack of ambiguity in his results (which invariably implicate Heidegger as a loyal Nazi all along), combined with a number of questionable arguments and characterizations he makes, only serves to damage the integrity of his otherwise impressive research. So what might then be salvaged from Farías’ contentious analysis? The reader might proceed with cautious reservation, acknowledging the disturbing discoveries it relates while sifting out its more dubious insinuations.

Brief memorandum circulated by Heidegger addressing the students at Freiburg, 1934

Brief memorandum circulated by Heidegger
addressing the students at Freiburg, 1933

We shall begin by examining the general methodology of the text. The technique Farías employs throughout in assessing Heidegger’s thought is primarily external. That is to say, the book does not look to excogitate the subtle nuances and abstractions of Heidegger’s philosophy from within. Instead, Farías devotes most of his attention to relatively minor documents (memos, speech transcripts, personal correspondences, etc.). Continue reading

Self-Portrait - Man with Pipe by Gustave Courbet, 1848-1849a

The antinomy of art and politics

A critique of art as cultural resistance

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Image: Gustave Courbet, Self-Portrait:
Man Smoking a Pipe (c. 1848-1849)

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Introduction

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This article first appeared in September 2011, the same month that Occupy Wall Street officially began its reclamation of public space. It was written by Chris Mansour, a good friend and member of the Platypus Affiliated Society, the organization to which I formerly belonged. My reasons for republishing it here are several: the two-year anniversary of the movement recently came and went to little fanfare, my ongoing interrogation of the relationship between architecture and politics, and my reposting yesterday of an article by the German-French Marxist and architecture critic Claude Schnaidt on “Architecture and Political Commitment.” In that reposting, I recommended Adorno’s essay on “Commitment” as supplementary reading. Chris draws upon this article in the course of his own exposition. A good piece that is worthy of reflection.

Platypus Review № 39, editorial introduction: At the 2011 Left Forum, held at Pace University between March 18–21, Platypus hosted a conversation on the theme of “aesthetics in protests.” Panelists Stephen Duncombe (Reclaim the Streets), Marc Herbst (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), Chris Mansour (Platypus), Laurel Whitney (The Yes Men), were asked to consider: “What are the historical roots that contribute to the use of current aesthetic interventions in political protests? In what ways do they expand or limit the possibilities for protests to transform the social order? How does experimenting with aesthetic and artistic sensibilities influence our political consciousness and practice?” The same theme was the subject of another event held at the New School in NYC on May 23, which featured Marc Herbst (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), Chris Mansour (Platypus), A.K. Burns (W.A.G.E.), and Beka Economopoulos (Not An Alternative). A full recording of the discussion at the Left Forum can be found online. The article that follows is a modified version of the opening remarks made by Chris Mansour of Platypus at both events.

The antinomy of art and politics

by Chris Mansour

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The very notion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political position.

— George Orwell

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There is an interesting passage in Herbert Marcuse’s short book, Counterrevolution and Revolt, which aims to flesh out how art relates to politics. In reflecting on art’s role in revolutionary struggle, Marcuse writes,

In its practice, art does not abandon its own exigencies and does not quit its own dimension: it remains non-operational. In art, the political goal appears only in the transfiguration which is the aesthetic form. The revolution may well be absent from the oeuvre even while the artist himself is “engaged,” is a revolutionary.[1]

Marcuse cites the example of Courbet, whose paintings signal the birth of modernity, and who founded a socialist club in 1848 and was later a member of the governing council of the Paris Commune in 1871. Yet, counterintuitive though it is, Marcuse remarks that “[there is] no direct testimony of the revolution in his paintings…[they contain] no political content.”[2] The “weight and sensuality” of Courbet’s still lifes — which were painted shortly after the collapse of the Commune — are far more “powerful” than any “political painting” could ever be.[3] Writing these statements in 1972 — four years after the failed “revolutions” of 1968 — it was becoming clearer to Marcuse that the politics of the New Left were losing their grip and its revolutionary energy was deflating. Likewise, the situation that Courbet found himself in after 1848 or 1871 was probably similar to, if not more tragic than, 1968.

Gustave Courbet, Still Life: Fruit, c.1871-1872. Oil on canvas, 23 1/8" × 28 1/4" (59 × 72 cm)

Gustave Courbet, Still Life: Fruit (c. 1871). Oil on canvas, 59 × 72 cm.

The separation between art and political activity that Marcuse was pointing to in Courbet may appear a bit strange to self-proclaimed cultural radicals or art-activists today. From Marcuse’s point of view, art remains autonomous from any exterior motives other than itself, and art cannot — and should not — act merely as a functional device for putting forth political aims. [4]  Continue reading

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Architecture: Theory, history, politics

So I’ve started a group called Architecture: Theory, history, politics on Facebook to act as a kind of decantation chamber for some of the discussions I’ve been involved in lately. Its main areas of focus are architectural theory, the history of architecture, and the relation of architecture to politics. We’ll see where it goes.

The group’s tentative description runs as follows:

This group aims to serve as a space for dialogue, discussion, and debate on the theoretical, historical, and political dimensions of architecture. Related fields — such as engineering, urbanism, and design — are also included under this rubric (though this itself is open to contention).

So long as posts pertain to these subjects and themes, all sorts of sources, input, and materials are welcome. A few additional guidelines might be appended in order to prevent spam and keep comment threads from being derailed, but these should be minimal.

Otherwise, membership is open.

Feel free to join if you’re interested, invite people who you think might be, or share it elsewhere. You can check it out by clicking the link above.

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Architecture and political commitment

by Claude Schnaidt

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Image: Claude Schnaidt standing in the
middle at ULM during the 1960s

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The following lecture by Claude Schnaidt provides an interesting glimpse into his Marxist approach to the question of architecture and politics’ interrelation. It shows that peculiar mixture of nascent New Leftism rooted in Old Left intellectual inspirations that was characteristic of his thought. “Commitment” was not Schnaidt’s invention. Sartre introduced the idea of a politically “committed” literature to the older idea of literature as an autonomous practice or end-in-itself. Good supplementary material might include Theodor Adorno’s essay critiquing “commitment” in Sartre and Brecht.

Lecture at the Academy of Fine Arts

Hamburg (March 2, 1967)

In the days when the pioneers of modern architecture were still young they thought like William Morris that architecture should be an “art of the people for the people.” Instead of pandering to the tastes of the privileged few, they wanted to satisfy the requirements of the community. They wanted to build dwellings matched to human needs, to erect a Cité radieuse. But they had reckoned without the commercial instincts of the bourgeoisie who lost no time in arrogating their theories to themselves and pressing them into their service for the purpose of money­making. Utility quickly became synonymous with profitability. Anti-academic forms became the new decor of the ruling class. The rational dwelling was transformed into the minimum dwelling, the Cité radieuse into the urban conglomeration, and austerity of line into poverty of form. The architects of the trade unions, cooperatives and socialist municipalities were enlisted in the service of the whisky distillers, detergent manufacturers, bankers and the Vatican. Modern architecture, which wanted to play its part in the liberation of mankind by creating an new environment to live in, was transformed into a giant enterprise for the degradation of the human habitat. Modern architecture which proclaimed the end of formalism became itself a pastime for those who like to toy with forms. Modern architecture which began by aspiring to set man free so that he could enjoy the good things of life ended up by enslaving and alienating him. Admittedly there is something very odd about this transformation of a great movement into its opposite. What has happened? Was this development inevitable? What can be done to reverse it?

Ever since the first industrial revolution it has been the job of the architect not to build for a privileged few but to satisfy the needs of a constantly growing population. The problems of the architect and the city-planner have become social problems, i.e. problems which are propounded to society by society. This fact is no longer disputed. Yet there are very few who are ready to look squarely at a consequence that flows from it, viz. that no one can bring influence to bear on social and economic realities without becoming politically involved. Those 19th century thinkers like Owen, Cabet, Fourier, and Morris, the fathers of modern city-planning, were very much alive to this fact. Their proposals as urbanists were inseparable from an all-out criticism of capitalist society.

Soviet construction workers marching with models of modernist housing units mounted on poles, 1931

Soviet construction workers marching with models of
modernist housing units mounted on poles, 1931

When World War I came to an end one hundred years later, this committed view of city-planning was much less current than before. Nevertheless it was revitalized by the revolutionary wave that swept over Europe. The Russian Revolution engendered high hopes of an entirely new order in which everything was set fair for the creation of the city of the future. In Germany people hoped that once the monarchy had been swept away the time had come for drastic social reforms which would provide the population with the houses and cities of a new age. It was felt everywhere that the international settlement of political, economic and social problems and a change in social attitudes would mark the beginning of a new era. And people were determined that a material framework should be created for this new society. The dream was short-lived. The economic crisis brought a rude awakening. Then order was restored. But it was not the order people had dreamed about; it was the order imposed by capitalism, which was beginning to find its feet again. And then came Adolf Hitler with his own version of the “new order.” With him the dream became a nightmare that ended in World War II. There followed the cold war and finally neo-capitalism [Neokapitalismus] with its consumer society, another nightmare but this time fully air-conditioned. Continue reading

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The architecture of slums

A few ideas and a debate

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Image: UGO’s award-winning project for
a concentrated slum in Dharavi (2013)

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The following are some introductory notes by Leopold Lambert of the Funambulist blog, followed by a transcript of the debate:

Last week, an interesting architectural debate occurred on Ethel Baraona Pohls facebook about an award-winning project that proposed a hypothetical architectural project to relocate the population of the largest slum in Asia, Dharavi in Mumbai. The online comments, including the one on facebook, are not known to be the most appropriate place for deep discussions; however, this time, an interesting debate occurred between a dozen of people (some of them like Ethel, Fosco Lucarelli, Cesar Reyes, and Nick Axel are well-known from this blog’s readers), who could be said to all agree about the symptoms that can be detected in this project yet, who do not necessarily agree on what should be an architectural role in the defense of the victims of globalized capitalism. Since then, Ethel and Cesar wrote a synthesis on dpr-barcelona‘s blog, and I decided to add to it a few thoughts in addition than the entire transcript of the debate, in order to give it a form of archival (see at the end of this note).

This debate comes at a moment where I wonder what is this recent tendency from architects to draw things that they did not design. I explored similar considerations in a year old article entitled provocatively Why Do Architects Dream of a World Without Them?and I would like to continue such reflection here. Whether we talk of Gezi Park’s temporary structures built by the occupiers, the various standard elements of Chinese cities, or the now well-known Torre David (see past article) in Caracas, there seems to be a common need for architects to appropriate, in their own language, the eminent characteristics of these “architectures without architects.” Is it a strange unconscious means from them to retroactively claim an architecture that they did not design? Or rather, is it a way for them to understand the logic of construction/function of these spaces by interpreting them through a language that they are familiar with? This second hypothesis has the merit of a form of humility, recognizing that the role of the architect in his or her transcendental version, is not necessarily something that these structures lack. Continue reading

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Entretien avec Domenico Losurdo sur le liberalisme

A propos d’une contre-
histoire du libéralisme

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Image: Italian theorist and Marxist
philosopher Domenico Losurdo

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Le 17 mars 2012 Ross Wolfe et Pam Nogales de la Platypus Affiliated Society ont interrogé Domenico Losurdo sur son récent ouvrage Contre Histoire du libéralisme.

Ross Wolfe: Comment caractérisez-vous la contradiction  entre émancipation et désémancipation dans l’idéologie libérale? Et d’où vient précisément cette logique?

Domenico Losurdo: Je pense que la dialectique entre émancipation et désémancipation est un élément clé pour comprendre l’histoire du libéralisme. La lutte des classes dont parle Marx est précisément l’objet d’une confrontation entre ces forces.  Ce que je souligne c’est que parfois émancipation et désémancipation sont étroitement connectées l’un à l’autre. Evidemment on peut voir dans l’histoire du libéralisme un aspect d’émancipation. Par exemple, Locke polémique contre le pouvoir absolu du roi. Il défend la nécessité de la liberté des citoyens contre le pouvoir absolu de la monarchie. Mais d’un autre côté Locke est le champion en ce qui concerne la défense de l’esclavage. Et dans ce cas, il agit comme un représentant de la désémancipation. Dans mon livre je développe une comparaison entre Locke d’un côté et Bodin de l’autre. Bodin est, quant à lui, un défenseur de la monarchie absolue, mais en même temps un critique de l’esclavage et du colonialisme.

Esclavage photos de 1880

Esclavage photos de 1880

RW: Le contre-exemple de Bodin est intéressant. Il en appelle à l’église et à la monarchie, le premier et le second Etat, dans sa défense de l’humanité des esclaves contre le «pouvoir arbitraire de vie et de mort» que Locke défend pour le propriétaire, le maitre, sur son esclave.

DL: Oui, chez Locke nous voyons l’inverse. Alors qu’il critique la monarchie absolue, Locke représente l’émancipation, mais lorsqu’il célèbre ou légitime l’esclavage, Locke devient alors un représentant de la désémancipation. En menant le combat contre le contrôle de la monarchie absolue, Locke affirme en réalité le pouvoir total des propriétaires sur leur propriété, et cela inclus les esclaves. Dans ce cas on peut clairement voir l’enchevêtrement entre émancipation et désémancipation. Le propriétaire devient plus libre, mais sa plus grande liberté signifie une dégradation des conditions de l’esclavage en général. Continue reading