A Fragment on Saint-Simon

First post in a long time. This is an excerpt from a paper I am currently working on.

While any effort to sharply mark the beginnings of the notion of modernization are bound to be reductive, it seems reasonable to begin with the figure of Henri Saint-Simon, the declassed aristocrat who synthesized and advocated ideas drawn from Bacon, the Scottish Enlightenment, the French philosophes and ideologues, the Catholic theocratic philosophers, and various other contemporary sources.

Saint-Simon was not unique in his utopianism, nor was he especially influential during his time, but he is deserving of note because of the considerable influence his ideas had following his death. Among the most important of these are: the remaking of society on the basis of a meritocracy that would neutralize class struggles in the name of “organic” and “systemic” unity, the establishment of a “monistic” positivist social science on the model of Newton’s physics, the establishment of rationalized religion for purposes of education and social harmony, and the enthusiastic pursual of the development of science, technology, and manufacturing in the name of the progress of humanity. As Frank Manuel describes his vision of progress:

Talleyrand’s image of the national workshop survives in Saint-Simon’s writings, where the goal of the new society is maximum production through maximum utilization of individual capacities. In Saint-Simon’s vision of the golden age of plenty, the emphasis is placed upon ever more production and creation, rather than upon consumption and distribution. The banquet spread before mankind is so sumptuous that dwelling upon material rewards, so characteristic of a world of scarcity, seems to be beside the point (302).

Saint-Simon’s class allegiances shifted over his career as an intellectual along with the vagaries of national and personal politics, from the ideologues of the Directorate who wished to establish the rule of scientists, to capitalists of Restoration-era France, and later to the increasingly immiserated proletariat who were joined with capitalists and scientists under the label of “industrials,” and who were destined to overthrow the class of aristocratic and religious “idlers” who held back social progress in a peaceful revolution (Manuel 255). Because of the variation of his allegiances and the ironically chaotic nature of his writings Saint-Simon has been read as a supporter of both capitalism and socialism – of “free markets” and centralized social regulation. Prior to his intellectual career he was a financial speculator, and in his final days he was something closer to a socialist. He dreamed of great projects, and “[h]is new world society was to undertake great public works through ‘association,’ building highways and canals, founding credit institutions, developing techniques to increase the yield of agriculture and the output of industry, multiplying the discoveries of scientists” (312). An advocate of both social planning and private ownership of the means of production, this turbulent if not contradictory figure became in his final years an advocate of a “New Christianity,” and was taken up as a prophet by his small group of followers, who subsequently spread their beliefs through Saint-Simonian cults among the students of the elite École Polytechnique, many of whom became passionate modernisers after the failure of the 1848 Revolution and the establishment of the Second Empire.

It would be overstating our case to argue that Saint-Simon can be seen as the father of modernity, but it seems fair to argue that in his strange figure there took place a kind of ideal convergence that prefigured the explosive changes that were to follow. This convergence did not form a unity, but rather a seething mass of contradictions which would seize the globe as a material force, and whose complex dynamics of attraction and repulsion remain far from resolved today. If there is any thematic unity to be found in Saint-Simon’s legacy at all, it is most likely to be seen in the radical change in humanity’s relation to nature. As a prophet of productivism and planning Saint-Simon called for the restoration of the organic unities of medieval society lost through the traumatic transition to capitalism through the subjugation of all of existence to rational fiat. Modern reason was not only a structuring force, but a teleological one as well – it demanded the actualization of all potentialities in a moment of total rational unity. While in the works of Bacon and Saint-Simon this demand appears as one of human mastery over nature, this aspiration, no matter how efficient its motivational character, was illusory. The actual process that began in this period was of the predominance of the rational totality over all its momentary aspects, for the modern relation to nature was not constituted by the independence of humanity from nature,1 but rather the increasing dependence of nature upon humanity, a relationship that could only be maintained through the infinite expansion of rational elaborations. The dependency of both nature and humanity on this expanding mass of rational elaborations has acquired its own inertia, so that while the character of the relation to nature has changed, humanity is in fact no more or less free from nature than it was in the first place. In fact, any such change was always a logical impossibility. Yet whereas in the past nature’s power appeared as an inscrutable alien force, it now takes the guise of a reflex of humanity’s own alienated reason. Historically, our arrival at this perspective has been realized through the development of the sciences of government, medicine, demography, economics, information, and most significantly ecology. It has entered into conventional understanding with the declaration of the anthropocene. Yet a description of this process at such a high level of abstraction can afford only an impoverished and idealist understanding of its development which can be enriched through a historical analysis of the history of planning, on which we will now embark.

1Indeed, this independence was always impossible to achieve, because as Marx understood, the human relationship to nature is a metabolic one.

EDIT: I replaced the word “libidinal” with “motivational” because while the drive to mastery over nature had a very deep affective character, it was not so deep that I believe we can classify it as instinctual.

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One response to “A Fragment on Saint-Simon

  1. Very interesting. I look forward to the next installment and am learning a lot from your posts. Thank you.

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