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The Order of the City

Jacques Ranciere ` Translated by John Drury, Corinne Oster, and Andrew Parker

Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004) From The Philosopher and His Poor by Jacques Ranciere ` Used with permission. 2004 Duke University Press.

In the beginning there would be four persons. Maybe five. Just about as many as the needs of the body. A farmer for food, a mason for housing, a weaver for clothing. To these let us add a shoemaker and some other worker to provide for material necessities.

That is how Plato’s republic presents itself. Without a deity or founding legend. With individuals, needs, and the means to satisfy them. A masterpiece of economy — with its four or five workers Plato founds not only a city but a future science, sociology. Our nineteenth century will be grateful to him.

His own century had a different judgment of it. His disciple and critic Aristotle put it succinctly: a city is not simply a concentration of needs and a division of the means of production. Right from the start something else is needed—justice, the power of what is better over what is less good. There are greater or less noble tasks, jobs that are more or less degrading, natures appropriate for one group or for another, and all these must be distinguished. Even in a republic of four or five citizens, there must be someone to represent and ensure respect for the common good that defines the aim [la fin] of the city above and beyond the satisfaction of needs. How else could justice ever come about from simply gathering together equally indispensable workers?

There must be a misunderstanding somewhere. Or a trick. For justice is, precisely, the subject of Plato’s dialogue, and in order to define it he constructs his society as a magnifying glass. So justice must already be there in his egalitarian gathering of workers, or else it will never turn up at all. It is up to us to look for it.

The Fifth Man

A first clue might be a slight fluctuation concerning the number of equals. Four or five, we do not know exactly. But whether the number is even or odd ought to have some consequence for a philosopher infatuated with mathematics. Later on he will subject even the couplings of his warriors to the golden number, but for the moment he seems indifferent to the details of his inventory. In the city of necessity he leaves open the possibility that there is one person too many.

That may be a first reply to our question and to Aristotle’s objection. No one among the equals is superior, but one of them could be less indispensable than the others. Could it be the fifth man, whose essential function is not spelled out any further? Or could it be the shoemaker? Is a specialist in footwear really needed when a single worker suffices to handle all aspects of building houses? It is no big deal to provide Attic peasants with footwear, and Plato himself tells us later on that they will carry on their work in summer “for the most part unclad and unshod.” If so, should one-fourth of this primitive labor force be assigned to that office? Or should we assume, rather, that the shoemaker is also there for something else? The fact is that at every strategic point in the dialogue—whenever it becomes necessary to think about the division of labor, to establish difference in natures and aptitudes, or to define justice itself—the shoemaker will be there in the front line of the argument. As if he were doing double duty behind the scenes. As if this worker who is not to judge anything but footwear retained some usefulness for the philosopher that goes far beyond the products of his trade: the marginal and at first glance paradoxical function of allowing a doubt to hover about the actual utility of useful workers.

And yet our shoemaker and his fellow tradesmen are there to teach us a fundamental principle: a person can do only one thing at a time. It would be inconvenient for the farmer to stop his labor in the fields and devote three-fourths of his time to repairing his roof, making his clothes, and cutting out his shoe leather. The division of labor will take care of that problem. It will assign a specialist exclusively to each activity, and all will be for the best: “More things are produced, and better and more easily, when one man performs only one task according to his nature, at the right moment, and is excused from all other occupations” (R, 370c).

Many things in such few words. First, a question: It is true that more will be produced under this system, but why is it necessary to produce so much? Apparently these people are already living within a market economy, even if this market is quite limited. And one need not have read Adam Smith to realize that such a division of labor will quickly produce unexchangeable surpluses. Starting with shoes, of course. With such a limited population and such limited needs, the division of labor is an absurdity. It may not be more convenient for the shoemaker to cultivate a plot of ground, but it is certainly a safer bet for him to do so.

So argues the economy of Adam Smith. Plato’s economy differs in that the needs of the first members of his society are not restricted—indeed, at the beginning they are infinite. He tells us at the start that these men need many things. Later he will tell us that these workers need many tools. From the very outset it is necessary to make more, and, for that, time is lacking. It is not that the worker must work all the time, but he must always be available to do his work at the right moment, and that is why he must have only one job. An observation then occurs to Socrates just in the nick of time: experience shows that nature provided for this necessity by distributing diverse aptitudes to different individuals. These aptitudes will be suited in turn to various occupations and everything will run smoothly.

Though not very clearly. The argument about time is itself already not so simple. If it is true that the job does not wait for the worker, the converse is not true as well. Nature may have given the farmer exactly the right dispositions for working in the fields, but it has also given vegetables their growing cycles. And it has made the seasons, which put unequal demands on the exercise of these agricultural dispositions. Is the farmer really supposed to spend the whole off-season and bad-weather days waiting for the right moment to turn over the soil? Isn’t there a right moment for him to cultivate his field and another moment, just as right, for him to make his clothes and those of others? That is what many farmers still will think in the very midst of the Industrial Revolution, without agriculture or industry having anything to complain about—except wages. But that is a different matter.

Would a philosopher so expert at describing for purposes of comparison the operations of artisans be so ignorant of the conditions surroundingtheir exercise? That is highly unlikely. If he pretends not to know whether nature leaves the farmer and the mason with sufficient leisure, and whether society does the same for their fellow workers, it is because he has decided that they should not have all the time that circumstances, sometimes too generously, have given them. The very principle of a social nature shaping temperaments to functions could be the price of this omission. Behind the apparent paradoxes of this economy another game is being played, slightly askew, as four terms arrange themselves into a pattern: countless needs, time in short supply, workers who are more or less indispensable, and aptitudes among which we do not know how to distinguish. For while we readily admit that nature gives individuals different aptitudes and tastes, and that it forms some bodies better suited to work in the open air and others to the workshop’s shade, how are we ever to differentiate a weaver-nature from a shoemaker-nature except through that absence of time that, combined with the urgency of the tasks at hand, never allows the one worker to be found in the other’s place?

And so the argument moves ahead on its two lame legs. The difference in natures comes to rescue the poorly demonstrated impossibility of performing two separate functions. And that impossibility, in turn, evades the questions posed by the same enigmatic difference that would shape in advance the division of labor. If this economically improbable division can be expressed in the natural evidence of social utility, the reason is that this is where the arbitrariness of nature and the conventionality of the social order exchange their powers. The agent of this exchange is a notion too trivial to engage much attention: time.

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