Vital Minimum: Need, Science, and Politics in Modern France

Vital Minimum: Need, Science, and Politics in Modern France

by Dana Simmons


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Vital Minimum: Need, Science, and Politics in Modern France by Dana Simmons

What constitutes a need? Who gets to decide what people do or do not need? In modern France, scientists, both amateur and professional, were engaged in defining and measuring human needs. These scientists did not trust in a providential economy to distribute the fruits of labor and uphold the social order. Rather, they believed that social organization should be actively directed according to scientific principles. They grounded their study of human needs on quantifiable foundations: agricultural and physiological experiments, demographic studies, and statistics.

The result was the concept of the "vital minimum"—the living wage, a measure of physical and social needs. In this book, Dana Simmons traces the history of this concept, revealing the intersections between technologies of measurement, such as calorimeters and social surveys, and technologies of wages and welfare, such as minimum wages, poor aid, and welfare programs. In looking at how we define and measure need, Vital Minimum raises profound questions about the authority of nature and the nature of inequality.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226251561
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/13/2015
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Dana Simmons is associate professor of history at the University of California, Riverside.

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Vital Minimum

Need, Science, and Politics in Modern France

By Dana Simmons

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-25173-8



"The fantastic part of a global recession," wrote one observer in early 2009, "is that it makes us realize what we need, what we want and what we have already. In reflection, we can begin to understand the way in which our 'needs' and 'wants' influence our quality of life and our impact on the environment." In the wake of the Great Recession of 2008–9, many commentators wondered, "What do we really need?" Pay cuts and layoffs forced Western consumers to spend less, and some saw an opportunity for us to reconsider what we buy and use. Proponents of "smaller living" stressed the pleasures of relationships and experiences over the fleeting satisfactions of material goods. "I think many of these changes are permanent changes," mused an economics expert. "I think people are realizing they don't need what they had." Cured of consumerism, we might discover our true selves and our "real needs."

What is a need; what is a want, a desire, a luxury? To posit a need is always a political act. It means defining what is universal and law-like, and what is contingent; what is common to all people or all animals, and what is relative to different genders, classes, cultures, or races. The right to a minimal standard of living is a basic tenet of welfare and international human rights law. But needs also serve to reinforce social difference. The so-called nature of sex or race, one group's inferior needs, has justified lower wages and nutritional standards for women and colonial populations.

The politics of human need were central to the rise of the European welfare state. Europeans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries experienced radical transformations in the state, economy, and family. Through measures of need, people from all walks of life disputed the conditions of wage labor and the modern social order. Scientific experts presented themselves as political authorities and claimed that the laws of society should strive to reflect those of nature. In the wake of the French Revolution, the logic of customary law and divine right no longer sufficed to explain social inequality. Social institutions were judged by the extent to which they fulfilled or violated essential human needs.

To imagine life in terms of needs is to imagine the parameters of human possibility. Needs express a set of ideas about life and its limits. Needs also refer to material things, food, clothing, housing, and other consumer goods. Needs mobilize technologies of measurement — scale balances, calorimeters, social surveys, statistics; and technologies of wages and welfare — minimum wages, family allowances, poor- aid and welfare programs. This book is about the technopolitics of human need.

* * *

On November 17, 1790, as the tricolor Revolutionary flag rose on public buildings across Paris, Antoine Lavoisier presented a "Memoir on Animal Respiration" to the French Academy of Science. Lavoisier owed much to the Old Regime, notably the fortune he had accrued as a guarantor of the royal tax collection. He had much to lose when the Assemblée Constituante abolished the feudal order and the institution of tax farming, from which he drew his income. Yet Lavoisier was deeply imbued with an Enlightenment spirit of scientific rationality and public service. He joined those who sought a new logic of social organization, grounded in nature and reason rather than in privilege and power. His memoir on respiration was a seminal document in the history of modern chemistry; it was also a manifesto for a new society.

Animals, Lavoisier suggested to the Academy of Science, were "combustible bodies" like a lighted candle or an oil lamp. Just as a lamp slowly burns up its fuel, animals "burn and consume themselves" in the process of respiration. Animals' fuel came from their own bodies in the form of digested food. Lavoisier himself had burned many candles in his experiments on the chemistry of heat. He understood combustion as an exchange of matter, which could be observed and measured. These experiments then became a model for his thinking about animals. Candle wax and oil provided "nourishment" for combustion in the same way that food gave substance to animal respiration. Both were subject to a delicate balance. Animals must constantly replenish the matter that they burn or, like a flame, they expire.

Lavoisier claimed that his research would uncover "almost every part of the animal economy." Animals, he explained, were in continuous exchange with their environment. They absorbed matter through ingestion and inhalation, and they released heat and air in return. The flow of matter through the animal system, like a chemical reaction or an economic transaction, should result in a perfect equation. All that goes out must be replaced. This was Lavoisier's principle of the balance, which regulated all his activities both worldly and scientific. As a tax collector and a chemist he employed one of the most precise scale balances available at the time. He expressed his scientific ideas in the form of numerical equations. He deeply believed that all things, even moral and social things, were commensurable. Animals, people, and objects could be measured in terms of inputs and outputs. Essential life processes, nutrition and respiration, were the basis of Lavoisier's animal economy.

Nourishment and economy were hardly academic questions in 1790. Food — bread — was the rallying point of the Revolutionary Days of October 1789, which forced Louis XVI to submit to the authority of the Assemblée Nationale. In these early days of the Revolution, legislators and protesters imagined that Old Regime charity would give way to a new regime of economic rights for poor citizens. A faction of the Assembly submitted that a universal "right to subsistence" be included in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Lavoisier confronted the political implications of his theory head-on. Just as he had inferred the workings of the animal economy from close observation of a candle, he applied his scientific method to society. Much of Lavoisier's speech to the Académie sounded less like a scientific report than like a political tract. He exposed a fundamental tension between human needs and social inequality.

As long as we consider respiration only in terms of air consumption, rich and poor share the same fate; air belongs to everyone and costs nothing. ... But now that experience has taught us that respiration is truly a combustion that consumes a portion of the individual's substance at every moment ... [and] that this consumption increases proportionally when an individual leads a more active and laborious life, a whole set of moral considerations emerge from these physical results. ... By what fate does the poor man, who lives by his hands' work and must use all of the force that nature has given him to earn his subsistence, consume more than the idle man, who needs less to repair himself? Why, in a shocking contrast, does the rich man enjoy an abundance that he does not physically need, when this abundance would seem intended for the working man?

Lavoisier's respiratory experiments led him to identify a disjunction between nature's balance, wherein men consume what they need, and existing social inequality. He shared the Enlightenment belief that in the absence of social impediments, the forces of nature would find their optimal equilibrium. Yet his conclusions pointed to a schism between physiological needs and the social allocation of goods.

Lavoisier's memoir set out the problem of human need, at the intersection of science and politics. The Revolution gave this question urgency. The events of 1789 appeared to evacuate the authority of custom, monarchy, and divine right. Citizenship overtook subjecthood; individual rights overturned collective customs. The new society required a foundation in universal reason and human nature. For Lavoisier and others imbued in the liberal values of the Enlightenment, social institutions should be deduced from nature's first principles. In place of the traditional modes of structuring the self and society, they turned to science. As Lavoisier put it, "A whole set of moral considerations emerge from [science's] physical results." In his memoir, scientific knowledge appeared as a standard by which to measure and guide the social order. Natural knowledge made social injustice apparent.

The imbalance that troubled Lavoisier would haunt the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His speech to the Académie des Sciences offers a window into the central problematics that I will develop in the following chapters.

* * *

At the dawn of the Long Depression of the nineteenth century, a common figure emerged in France, Germany, Great Britain and the United States: minimum vital, Existenzminimum, living wage. Each of those terms signified a measure of life, below which the working classes could and should not fall. For American and European labor movements, this minimum represented a strategy to deal with the inexorable spread of wage labor. Instead of denouncing wages as "slavery," workers claimed a living wage sufficient to preserve their dignity and their rights. "The first thing ... trade societies should settle is a minimum," wrote British radical Hugh Lloyd Jones in 1874, "which they should regard as a point below which they should never go. ... Not a miserable allowance to starve on, but living wages." The notion of a "vital minimum," a living or "necessary" wage, drew from a scientific and political history going back to Lavoisier's age. It emerged from an intersection of socialism, political economy, physiology, hygiene, and population politics. In this book I am interested in the meaning and function of "life" in living wage, the "vital" in vital minimum.

My argument is that a science of human needs undergirded the modern wage economy and the welfare state. A significant current of modern French human sciences — which engaged agronomists, chemists, doctors, anthropologists, economists, sociologists, amateur data gatherers, and trade unions — sought to measure human needs. These actors by and large did not trust in a providential economy to guarantee the reproduction of labor and the social order. Instead they believed that social organization, and particularly the circulation of goods, should be directed according to scientific principles. They came to this position from a variety of ideological standpoints, from reactionary conservative to revolutionary socialist. They had in common an antiliberal, bureaucratic orientation. Through measures of human need, scientists, workers, and others articulated a politics of life itself.

Economies of need appeared to govern all biological and social processes. Anatomists believed that an animal's physical structure could be derived from its basic needs. Physiological features corresponded to needs; each organ allowed an animal to meet a specific need. Ethnographers measured a people's level of civilization along a scale of "primitive" and "advanced" human needs. Continental political economists "placed at the center of their analyses the question of human needs and their satisfaction."

Above all, needs forced people to work. Economists and socialists alike argued that workers were compelled to labor in order to fulfill their needs. Pierre Proudhon put it succinctly: "The need for subsistence drives us to industry and work." This formula, labor as a necessary means to subsistence, may be considered "the fundamental legitimating ideology of the capitalist social formation as a whole." Wage work appeared natural, in accordance with the laws of physiology and human nature.

The scientific problem of subsistence, as Lavoisier and many others saw it, was how to convert workers' wages into life. The modern sciences of subsistence — including biochemistry, physiology, nutrition, and social surveys — were implicitly sciences of wage setting. These sciences employed a transactional model. They studied isolated individual subjects, not large groups or populations. They measured exchanges, the circulation of matter and goods, between individuals and their environments. They employed techniques of financial accounting, precisely recording flows of inputs and outputs and often converting their measurements into monetary terms. Life, in this view, was a transaction between an individual and his environment.

Scientists of subsistence studied the conversion of inputs into outputs, work into needs, needs into work. They sought to establish an equation of work and life. Most of these studies were directed toward governments and employers; despite this, many workers read them and responded. Workers' journals and unions complained that scientific studies of family budgets and nutrition masked social inequality. If we view subsistence as an individual transaction, they complained, then we cannot perceive the conditions that distribute wealth and well-being unjustly and unequally. Workers argued that only statistics and social surveys of family budgets could capture needs as they expanded over time. The notion of a vital minimum grew out of exchanges between scientists of subsistence and labor activists.

The "life" in living wage was a pure bios, what we might call an abstract life. The measure of needs, in a living wage, defined the cost of labor power. "Life" did not refer to any one existing person and was not an individual prescription in a medical sense. (In fact, French doctors had relatively little to do with measuring needs.) This was the same kind of life that occupied standardized, uniform rental housing units and performed rationalized tasks under the division of labor. Perhaps it may have been the same kind of life for which geographers and demographers later claimed "living space," Lebensraum, or espace vital in the colonies.

In another sense, however, the living wage was very concrete. It described the goods that workers made and purchased for themselves. As the list of commonly accepted basic needs grew over time, the market for new products grew alongside it. Needs standards tracked the supply and demand for consumer goods. The living wage set a horizon for workers' desires, aspirations, and quality of life.

This form of life, the "vital" in vital minimum, was a very peculiar kind of life. The inverse of the life in living wage was not death. Eighteenth- century political economists Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo may have imagined such an opposition between wages and death. They posited that wage levels would bottom out at a socially necessary level when the working population began to starve and have fewer children. In practice the living wage had little to do with that kind of mechanical and morbid view, which for Ricardo in any case was purely theoretical. Minimum standards of need never measured the limit between life and death. This was not the "bare life," the "life exposed to death" that Giorgio Agamben describes as the "originary political element."

The opposite of the "vital" in vital minimum was not death but unproductivity. To live, in this sense, was to be useful, to function, to produce and reproduce. A body's functions, the composition and work of its organs, responded to its needs. Needs defined what was necessary to do. A living wage produced use value. It supplied the means for labor to reproduce, that is, for work to start again the next day and the next year. For many, the vital minimum included two elements: one to repair a worker's exhausted body and another to allow families to raise children to take over their parents' work. Those who did not contribute toward this use value (by working for wages or having children) did not deserve the vital minimum. Those people were, in the words of Parisians under siege during the Prussian War, "useless mouths." The "life" in living wage was not an antonym of death. Life meant the ability to produce and reproduce.

In this book I follow this form of life as it traverses frontiers of discipline, class, gender, race, and power. I draw inspiration from historians of science who pursue keywords, foundational terms of modern existence, with a willful disregard for the fraught and useless opposition of "science" and "society." François Vatin did so for "work," Anson Rabinbach for "fatigue," Margaret Schabas and Timothy Mitchell for "economy," John Tresch for "machine," Ludmilla Jordanova and Michelle Murphy for "reproduction." Here I pursue the historical construction of the minimum wage, or, more abstractly, the equation of life and need.


Excerpted from Vital Minimum by Dana Simmons. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

1          Introduction

2          Subsistence
Pigs on a balance
Bread and meat
Recycling and reproduction

3          Social Reform
Scale balances
Air rations
Maintenance rations

4          Family, Race, Type
Welfare and comparative zoology
Family and race
Socialism and statistics

5          Citizens
Useless mouths, get out!
Meat or bread

6          Vital Wages
Socialism, statistics, and the iron law
The fever of needs
Vital wages

7          Science of Man
Biosocial economics
The vital minimum wage
The science of man after 1945

8          Human Persons
Incompressible needs and the SMIG
Human persons
An impossible standard

9          Need, Nature, and Society

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