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Poets/Trump/Philosophers: Reflections on Richard Rorty’s Liberalism, Ten Years after His Death

Starting with a prescient 1998 quote on the impending decline of US liberal democracy into right-wing, strong-man-based demagogy, this paper outlines Richard Rorty’s political philosophy, which I believe can help us understand perplexing political trends in today’s political reality well beyond the US alone. Specifically, I tackle three key-terms encapsulating the thrust of Rorty’s political philosophy, i.e. “liberalism of fear”, “bourgeois” and “postmodernism”. Also, I address a contraposition that explains how Rorty would approach and attempt to defend liberal democracy from contemporary right-wing, strong-man-based degenerations, namely the priority of “poetry” over “philosophy”. Essentially, if one wishes to win in the political arena, she must be armed with the most effective rhetorical weaponry, however good, solid and well-argued her political views may be. Finally, some remarks are offered on the role that “philosophy” can still play within the same arena.


Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty (1931–2007) was probably the most famous American philosopher at the end of the last century. As I pen this introduction, ten years after his death, his name has re-appeared on the pages of many newspapers, at least in the Anglophone press, and some aspects of his political thought are going ‘viral’ across the world-wide-web. We live in the age of Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter, after all. Various passages of his 1998 book, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press), have been ‘unearthed’ and variously circulated. Among them we read what follows:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized and unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else… At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots… Once the strongman takes office, no one can predict what will happen. [However, o]ne thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion… All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet… [e.g. in] socially accepted sadism… directed toward people such as gays and lesbians[.] (ibid., 81ff)

To past European generations and probably most modern historians, a socio-political picture like the one portrayed above is likely to recall the rise of autocratic demagogues such as Napoleon III or Benito Mussolini. Today, however, this passage sounds like an eerily accurate prediction of the bitter conclusion of triumphant post-Cold-War globalisation and its ‘inevitable’ sacrifices, epitomised by the rise of Donald Trump. And so it has been taken by media outlets and opinion-makers, e.g. Stephen Metcalf’s 10th January 2017 “cultural comment” for The New Yorker, entitled “Richard Rorty’s Philosophical Argument for National Pride” and discussing also the media attention received by the passage above.


Donald Trump

Fresh US President and long-time billionaire, Mr Trump won in 2016 a harsh electoral campaign against a seasoned politician, Ms Hillary Clinton, who, it should be noted, was the publicly vocal and politically proactive US First Lady when Rorty’s book was published qua, inter alia, scathing critique of the increasingly right-wing, free-market policies promoted by the Democratic Party, which Rorty regarded as his own party of choice in the US. Whilst describing the leading 20th-century Democrats, from F.D. Roosevelt to L.B. Johnson, as outright social-democrats, Rorty did not approve of several decisions taken by the Clinton’s administration, such as the controversial 1994 NAFTA agreement with Canada and Mexico and the 1999 repealing of the long-lived Glass-Stegall Act, a child of the Great Depression and a piece of legislation that had limited the systemic threat of unbridled finance (cf. Richard Rorty, “Una filosofia tra conversazione e politica”, interview by Giorgio Baruchello, Iride, 11(25), 1998, 457–84; translation mine). Those of us who remember the roots and the fruits of the 2008 financial collapse, namely the Great Moderation at one end and the Great Recession at the other, should not find it difficult to realise what momentous consequences the Clintons’ friendliness toward Wall Street has been outpouring. It is in fact in a climate of unresolved under- and un-employment, globalisation-induced economic insecurity, and increasingly strong anti-immigration and anti-establishment feelings that Donald Trump came to prominence qua political leader.

Prominent, if not brazen or simply unusual, were his language and many of his declared stances throughout the electoral campaign of 2016. As recorded and frequently criticised by mainstream media, Mr Trump often: (1) uttered racist, sexist and homophobic slurs; (2) fashioned himself qua anti-establishment champion of the impoverished, economically insecure, and primarily white working class of his country; (3) paraded his willingness to cooperate with foreign dictators and political leaders whose human-rights record is far from spotless; and (4) insouciantly condoned words and concepts that make violence, torture included, seemingly acceptable in the public sphere, both domestically and internationally. Evidence of all this is not hard to find. Trump’s electoral speeches are archived and available online (cf. also a selection of his statements by The Telegraph). In power for only few weeks at the time of writing, Trump has already started delivering on his electoral agenda, at least as regards tightening immigration rules in the US, though it is far too soon to pass any trenchant judgment yet. Cruelty, in the shape of “socially accepted sadism” or worse (e.g. extensive warfare), might regain the front stage as a major ingredient in the political life of the world’s sole nuclear super-power, whose 500 and more military sites outside US borders and territories span across most continents, and a fortiori in the political life of all countries at large. I write “front stage” because Trump’s predecessor did not halt, say, police violence in the US or the bombing of the populations of foreign countries by US drones (e.g. Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen), but he never spoke publicly of such issues in as cavalier a manner (concerning the US military foreign sites, cf. Department of Defense, Base Structure Report – Fiscal Year 2015 Baseline). Bombs may have been dropped throughout the two-term Obama administration, but not verbal ones.

For all we know, the new US presidency might prove less prone to endorse the highly destructive forms of legally termed humanitarian intervention and politically proclaimed promotion of Western-style democratic institutions seen, say, in 21st-century Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan under George W. Bush and Barak Obama (e.g. military occupation, air raids and killings by remote-controlled drones). On the domestic front, Trump himself might succeed in becoming an effective tribune of the common people, or at least of a large segment of it. Chronically disenfranchised blue-collar Americans might end up enjoying more and better jobs than they have over the previous three decades. Who knows? They might even witness the end of the gross – when not grotesque – imbalance in incomes and influence between Wall Street and Main Street that Ronald Reagan’s economic policies kick-started in the 1980s, and that Bill Clinton’s aforementioned abolition of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act definitively entrenched. Rather than christening involuntarily a shantytown, as some of his predecessors did (i.e. post-1929 “Hooverville” and post-2008 “Bushville”), the name of a flamboyant US billionaire might go down in history for reverting the forceful re-affirmation of patrimonial capitalism that has been occurring in most countries on Earth since the days of Thatcherism. Unlike Obama, Trump might not “stand between [the bankers] and the pitchforks” (Lindsay Ellerson, “Obama to Bankers: I’m Standing ‘Between You and the Pitchforks’“, ABC News, 7th April 2009). Alternatively, as Rorty suggests in the same foreboding pages of Achieving Our Country, the elected “strongman” will just “make peace” with “the international super-rich” and appease the masses via jingoistic militarism and charismatic posturing. Time, as always, will tell. Cruelty, whether in the shape of petty humiliation of minorities or military extermination of scores of people, is never too far away.



Cruelty matters a lot, at least for Richard Rorty, who championed one specific school of political thought that, in the late 20th century, made this notion central to the understanding of social and political life, claiming that Western liberalism is characterised by a unique abhorrence of cruelty in the public sphere. Called “liberalism of fear”, this school of thought was a theoretical creation of Harvard political scientist Judith Shklar (1928–1992), but it is commonly recalled today in connection with Richard Rorty, who was and still is far more famous than Judith Shklar. The quintessence of their political stance is simple to express: “liberals… think that cruelty is the worst thing we do” (Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, 73). Therefore, they draw a clear distinction “between cruel military and moral repression and violence, and a self-restraining tolerance that fences in the powerful to protect the freedom and safety of every citizen” (Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices, Cambridge: Belknap, 1984, 237). Liberals opt for the latter option and defend all those institutions (e.g. parliaments, constitutions, human rights, judiciary independence, freedom of the press, etc.) that foster peaceful coexistence over violent oppression, debate over force, individual liberty over State control, and people’s safety over their systemic endangerment.

Rhetoric also matters a lot for Rorty. Ironically, it is of the essence. According to Rorty: “The principal backup [for liberals] is not philosophy but the arts, which serve to develop and modify a group’s self-image by, for example, apotheosizing its heroes, diabolizing its enemies, mounting dialogues among its members, and refocusing its attention” (“Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism”, The Journal of Philosophy, 80(10), 1983, 587). The art of rhetoric must be understood in a catholic manner here. In his texts, Rorty would normally speak of “arts”, “narrative”, “poetry” or “literature”. What he means, however, is that he does not trust traditional philosophical argument and repeated appeals to reason to do the job. Reason matters, of course. Rigour too. But relevance vis-à-vis the context and the audience is the actual key, hence the ability to persuade that one can attain by reaching people’s hearts as well as their minds, especially when fundamental social values are at issue, rather than the day-to-day activities of tribunals or elected councils. Only in this manner can liberals hope to achieve any progressive aim. Truth does not imply per se any victory whatsoever in the public arena; nor does it matter much, in the end. Speaking and writing well in favour of liberal principles and institutions do, instead; they are much more crucial, even if we may not be able to demonstrate once and for all why we should prefer liberalism to Nazism or Social Darwinism. As Rorty writes: “Whereas the liberal metaphysician thinks that the good liberal knows certain crucial propositions to be true, the liberal ironist thinks the good liberal has a certain kind of know-how. Whereas he thinks of the high culture of liberalism as centering around theory, she thinks of it as centering around literature (in the older and narrower sense of that term – plays, poems, and, especially, novels)” (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 93).

Rorty did actually speak of “rhetoric” as well, but only occasionally. Nonetheless, it has been argued that, as far as the 20th-century American academic community is concerned, the ancient art of rhetoric regained ground primarily thanks to him, pace Kenneth Burke’s (1897–1993) efforts in this sense since the 1930s. First came the 1979 publication of Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press), by now a widely acknowledged modern classic, which excavated the metaphorical roots of all objectivist, rigorous, scientific and pseudo-scientific terminologies. Then, a series of conferences were held in the mid-1980s at Iowa and Temple Universities, out of which was launched the “Project on the Rhetoric of Inquiry” (POROI). Richard Rorty participated in them and another participant, Herbert W. Simons, credits him with coining at one of the meetings the now-popular slogan “the rhetorical turn” (The Rhetorical Turn: Invention and Persuasion in the Conduct of Inquiry, Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1990, vii).

Interested in persuading wide audiences rather than producing bullet-proof arguments for academic circles, Rorty declares himself to be candidly partial to “the Hegelian attempt to defend the institutions and practices of the rich North Atlantic democracies… [i.e.] ‘postmodernist bourgeois liberalism’.” (“Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism”, 585). As he writes: “I call it ‘bourgeois’ to emphasize that most of the people I am talking about would have no quarrel with the Marxist claim that a lot of those institutions and practices are possible and justifiable only in certain historical, and especially economic, conditions.” (ibid.) Money matters too, then. Liberal institutions, high and low, depend upon appropriate material conditions. This is the fundamental insight and theoretical legacy of Marxism, according to Rorty. We must take the “structure” seriously into account, if we wish to make sense of the “superstructure”, even if we consider the latter to be partially independent from the former and not fully determined by it, i.e. a sort of mere epiphenomenon. That is why economic insecurity and inequality matter so much in liberal polities, as Donald Trump’s election has further confirmed.

Rorty’s acknowledment that material conditions are important does not mean that he subscribed to Marxism, Chicago-style liberalism, Randian Objectivism or any fundamental claim about the nature of the human soul and human societies. According to Rorty: “There is no answer to the question ‘Why not be cruel?’ – no noncircular theoretical backup for the belief that cruelty is horrible … Anybody who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question – algorithms for resolving moral dilemmas of this sort – is still, in his heart, a theologian or a metaphysician.” (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, xv-i). A self-declared champion of American neo-pragmatism, Rorty followed this tradition in believing that “morality is a matter of… ‘we-intentions’… the core meaning of ‘immoral action’ [being] ‘the sort of thing we don’t do’.” (ibid., 59) There is no grand narrative; no ultimate vocabulary as Kenneth Burke understood this term, i.e. a theory or discourse capable of ordering all relevant conceptual elements, including apparently conflicting ones, into one synthetic vision, account or system. As Rorty explains: “I use ‘postmodernist’ in a sense given to this term by Jean-Francois Lyotard, who says that the postmodern attitude is that of ‘distrust of metanarratives,’ narratives which describe or predict the activities of such entities as the noumenal self or the Absolute Spirit or the Proletariat. These meta-narratives are stories which purport to justify loyalty to, or breaks with, certain contemporary communities, but which are neither historical narratives about what these or other communities have done in the past nor scenarios about what they might do in the future.” (“Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism”, 585)

Let me add that, according to Rorty, postmodernism is not relativism: “Relativism certainly is self-refuting, but there is a difference between saying that every community is as good as every other and saying that we have to work out from the networks we are, from the communities with which we presently identify. Post-modernism is no more relativistic than Hilary Putnam’s suggestion that we stop trying for a ‘God’s-eye view’ and realize that ‘We can only hope to produce a more rational conception of rationality or a better conception of morality if we operate from within our tradition’.” (ibid., 589) One thing is to say that we can, in theory, set all moral or political options beside one another and state that they all have the same value. Another thing is to say that we cannot do it, because we can only and must operate from within one option at the time, building or burning bridges with the others. The latter being Rorty’s stance on the matter.



We are philosophers, scientists, academics. Rational argumentation is our bread and butter. Yet, it is ours. It is probably also the judges’, the lawyers, the engineers’ and some others’. It is not theirs, though, i.e. ‘common’ human beings’ at large. Talk to your relatives; your neighbours; the ‘man of the street’; have a conversation in a bar, shop, or parish hall. Arguments matter, generally, but only to a point. Sometimes, it is plainly futile to even present one and expect it to be listened to, not to mention being taken so seriously as to change the listener’s beliefs. Let us ask ourselves, why do we engage in rational debate? Because we expect it to bear fruit. In other words, we do so under two major assumptions: (1) we can find reasons; and (2) reasons matter. As Rorty once stated: “To take the philosophical ideal of redemptive truth seriously one must believe both that the life that cannot be successfully argued for is not worth living, and that persistent argument will lead all inquirers to the same set of beliefs” (“The Decline of Redemptive Truth and the Rise of a Literary Culture“, 2000).

Perhaps we can find some reasons. Perhaps even good reasons. No final, ultimate reasons can be found, though, according to Rorty, who claims chimeric any conclusive philosophical grounds of agreement that correspond to a universal and unchanging human nature, the essence of things, pure rationality, the hidden structure of historical dialectics, God’s plan for the universe, etc. According to Rorty, when we look deep and hard into ourselves, the most profound things that we can get a glimpse of are the most entrenched prejudices of our own culture, our ethnos or, as quoted above, “our tradition”. But this is not everything. Even if there were any such deeper, ultimate reasons, who would listen to them? Some people would. Perhaps a fair amount. Not most human beings, however. Religion, politics, marketing, economic history, psychology and many ordinary experiences bear witness to the limits of human rationality. Albeit not irrational, people are frequently unreasonable, impervious to logical thinking, biased in many ways, and unwilling to reconsider their basic, often deeply engrained and sometimes blissfully unaware assumptions. If this is a plausibly correct assessment of humankind under contemporary democracy, how can liberals win in the public arena? Rorty’s answer is patent: a “turn against theory and toward narrative” (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, xvi). In other words, rhetoric is needed. A good one, of course, in both content and form.

As regards the content, Rorty’s own political plans and works show what it should be: the principles and institutions of liberalism. To them, he then adds specific projects that liberals should focus upon (e.g. universal healthcare; cf. “Una filosofia tra conversazione e politica”). As regards the form, that is where “poets” excel or, as Rorty also calls them, successful “agents of love” (i.e. ‘missionaries’ reaching non-liberals) and “justice” (i.e. enforcers of liberal principles within liberal ethnoi; “On Ethnocentrism”, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth – Philosophical Papers vol. I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991[1981], 206). Let us learn from them: read good books; watch good films; read good books; practice your communication skills; read good books; engage in your own ethnos’ ongoing moral and political conversation (e.g. by joining a political party, charitable organisation or a trade union); and, to top it all, read good books. There are no ideal Platonic philosopher-kings here; poets are the kingmakers. “Poets” too must be understood in a catholic manner, though. They can be priests, film-makers, propagandists, teachers, political leaders, etc. They may not be able to produce a definitive demonstration of why liberalism is to be preferred and pursued; however, at least for us children of liberal institutions, it is not a serious issue. What really matters is to keep them going; and that is what poets can help us with. What is left for us as philosophers? I have three suggestions:

(A) We can and, perhaps, should join the ranks of the “agents of love” and “justice”. Become better at speaking and writing well, and use your skills to fight the good fight—the liberal fight, according to Rorty. Be an engaged intellectual. Be a promoter of democracy in the schools, as the US pragmatist John Dewey (1859–1952) had already tried to do and let American teachers do. If you cannot be a leader, help one to emerge. Rorty himself regarded his work as making room for, or paving the road to, greater minds, such as Jacques Derrida (1930–2004; cf. “Una conversazione tra filosofia e politica”).

(B) As Rorty never denied, there are people, a minority of course, who do respond to philosophical arguments; philosophers can still be useful in finding ways “of making political liberalism look good to persons with philosophical tastes” (“On Ethnocentrism”, 211).

(C) My personal contribution is that philosophers can provide ideas, social legitimacy and psychological encouragement to poets. In our culture, pace Rorty’s “turn against theory”, poets are not expected to give us rational arguments and axiological foundations, whereas philosophers still are. Then, even if such an aim is ultimately utopian and as long as this division of intellectual labour holds in our culture, poets can find things to say and work upon. The rhetorician’s inventio and topoi can unfold in close contact with the texts by philosophers that they admire and may decide to rely upon. Dante Alighieri had Thomas Aquinas, Ugo Foscolo Condorcet, George Bernard Shaw Friedrich Nietzsche, Luigi Pirandello Henri Bergson, Mahatma Gandhi Lev Tolstoy, James Joyce Giambattista Vico, and Zeitgeist’s Peter Joseph John McMurtry. Through their association with established philosophers and philosophies, moreover, the same poets can obtain a higher degree of social acceptance, insofar as their ethnos still acknowledges the special status of philosophers as those members of society who grasp ‘deeper’ or ‘higher’ things. Poets themselves may be reassured and sustained in their fights by the knowledge that there are thinkers who, in more analytical and articulate ways, agree with them.

(A)–(C) may not seem much, prima facie, especially if one recalls the Platonic ideal of philosopher-kings; but they are more than enough for a meaningful existence, both personal and professional, in a contemporary liberal ethnos, which political leaders like Donald Trump would seem to endanger and, at the same time, reveal to us all – as sceptical and blasé as some of us may have become – as awfully valuable.

The principle of solidarity between sentiment and reason: a reflection starting from L. Bourgeois’ solidarism.

It is not easy to find a unique meaning of the term solidarity. The term can indicate several meanings at the same time: it can indicate a legal term – the legal obligatory condition of a relationship with several debtors or with several creditors; it can indicate a feeling of fraternity that arises from a common belonging and leads us to behaviours of mutual help and altruism; it can indicate an ethical concept that leads us to share purposes and responsibilities with others. A polysemous term, therefore. But this plurality must not overshadow the complex theoretical and practical elaboration that its development presupposed, particularly within the theory of solidarists. To address the issue of solidarity, without missing this complexity, let me take Leon Bourgeois’ La Solidarité, published in 1896,[1] as starting point for my reflection. This text could be considered as manifesto of solidarism.

Léon Bourgeois (1851-1925) is not very well known outside of France. He formulated the doctrine of solidarism which he tried to implement by making solidarity the basis of society. A jurist, radical politician, and theoretician of solidarity under the Third French Republic, he also served numerous influential roles as a politician and diplomat. He was nine times minister (Public Education, Labour, Foreign Affairs, etc.), Prime Minister in 1895, President of the Senate (1920 -1923). His short-lived cabinet in 1895, was overthrown for tabling a bill creating an income tax, as Member of Parliament, then senator he played an important role in the voting of the first social protection laws (industrial accidents, pensions…). He was member of many social reform associations and was among the founders of the League of Nations, and its first president.  He also led the French delegation to the League of Nations until his death. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920 for this work.

At first glance, the purpose of addressing this seemingly outdated solidarist idea might be questionable. The idea of founding a “just republic”, to develop a third way between liberal individualism, and socialism or collectivism[2], is no longer relevant in this current day. Yet, I believe returning to Bourgeois’ reflections could help us clarify the current use and abuse of the term solidarity, as it often carries the risk of being lost in the empty banality of rhetoric.

The term Solidarity occurs more than twenty times in the body of treaties of the European Union reformed in Lisbon in 2007[3]. In this tally we did not account for the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, where an entire body of articles (27 – 38), indicated with chapter IV, is titled “solidarity” which thus becomes part of the fundamental values of the Union.

But the difference between the official text of treaties and the reality of its implementation is further evident when we consider the growing forms of inequalities that undermine social cohesion both in Europe, in the United States of America and other Western countries. To cite just one study: Ipsos’ 2020 research on the Social Cohesion Index (ISCI) finds that nearly twice as many global citizens are “weak” rather than “solid” in their sense of social cohesion and concludes that social cohesion is under attack globally.[4]

And if, as Durkheim affirmed, solidarity is equivalent to the set of values, practices and norms that ensure cohesion in society, we cannot say that the use, even excessive, of the term solidarity in the European Treaties, has produced its implementation in effective public policies. So, it seems that the term solidarity has lost its propositional force. Precisely for this reason, it could be interesting to return to one of the first elaborations from when the term was a key idea capable of generating actions.

Genealogy of a polysemic term: from juridical meaning to feeling and bond

Solidarity is a fairly recent term. The terminus technicus of Roman law, “in solidum teneri” and “in solidum obligari” became in French “solidarité” without losing its original legal meaning. That is, it indicates an obligation for which various debtors undertake to pay for each other and each for all an amount borrowed or otherwise owed. In this juridical meaning of responsibility in solidum the word solidaire is already registered in the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française of 1694.[5] Still, in the first edition of 1751 of the Encyclopédie by Diderot and d’Alembert, “solidarité” is legally defined as the quality of an obligation. This is a legal definition that we also find in, in the 1835 edition of Dictionnaire de l’Académie française. Although the lemma of the 1835 edition ends by stating that “It is sometimes said, in everyday language, of the mutual responsibility that is established between two or more people”.[6]

The dictionaries attests that the term solidarity begins to come into use in its modern meaning in the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1840 the philosopher Pierre Leroux indicated in the “the mutual solidarity of all human beings”[7]  the most authentic expression of charity, and in 1842 Hyppolyte Renaud published under the title of Solidarité[8]  the presentation of Charles Fourier’s social views and proposals.

The modern meaning of the term becomes increasingly popular, so much so that in the mid-nineteenth century it’s imported to England, although not without changes in meaning that are still current. In fact, as Alain Supiot mentions, reporting the testimony of Guy Braibant, during the drafting of the Constitutional Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the British delegate argued that the English word solidarity did not have the same meaning as the respective translations into the continental languages, and thusly the notion of solidarity in the continental sense had no equivalent in English.[9]

A complex term, therefore, which in any case was used in France as early as the 1830s and 1840s, in the meaning of social bond by the founding fathers of sociology, Auguste Comte and Émile Durkheim.

In Discours sur esprit positif (1844) A. Comte talks about social solidarity as an “intimate feeling” of “the bond of each to all… extended to all times and all places” [10], a feeling that new positive philosophy must make “involontairement familier”[11]  Unwillingly and subconsciously familiar.

And it is to A. Comte that Léon Bougeois explicitly links himself when he places the idea of debt at the basis of his quasi-contract: “the human being is born a debtor of human association”.[12] But the affirmed “the bond of each to all” the bond of solidarity is defined by Bourgeois not with reference to Comte, but to Kant to the concept of organism expressed in the third critique already announced three years previous in the writing “Über den Gebrauch teleologischer Principien in der Philosophie“, where Kant proposes a teleological perspective, which, although it does not make known anything more than what is already known, allows us to think, and therefore understand both the organism and  nature as a whole.,:

“The concept of an organized being already implies that it is a matter in which everything is reciprocally related to each of its parts as an end and a means”[13]

Bourgeois takes Kant almost literally: “According to Kant, it is precisely this “reciprocity between the parts” which constitutes the organism, where everything is both “end and means.”[14]

What does this reference to Kant imply? Firstly, the distancing from the idea that the organic whole is a closed and self-centred totality where the good of the whole comes before the parts of which it is composed. At the same time, the assertion that imagining society on the model of this organic whole, where the parts are expendable for the good of the whole, is outdated. The reference to Kant’s concept of organism reveals in addition that this concept is assumed as a guiding idea in the research of facts, in analogy and not in identity with the idea of solidarity[15]

Bourgeois’ solidarity: Reciprocity

The relationship of reciprocity is fundamental both inside the organism, and outside in the relationship of organisms with their environment:

“These relationships of reciprocal dependence between the parts of living beings, exist between the beings themselves too and, also between all of these beings and the environment in which they are placed”[16]

The whole depends on the parts, as well as the parts on the whole: each part is an end and a means. The purely instrumental relationship of the part to the whole is outdated because each individual must be considered by the others as an end.

Thanks to the Kantian reference, Bourgeois can therefore rethink the relationship between the individual and society in a biological imaginary which, as has been said,[17]  is in radical discontinuity with two traditions: the tradition that makes individual interests prevail excessively over collective ones and the tradition that affirms the logical and axiological primacy of the collective over the individual.

“The human being is no longer an end for himself and for the world: he is both an end and a means. He is a unit, and he is part of a whole. He is a being having his own life and having the right to preserve and develop this life.”[18]

This is how Bourgeois responds to the question of whether there is a contradiction between the law of solidarity and the law of free development of the individual. There is no contradiction because:

“The actions of the two laws are coordinated—and there is a necessary and sufficient condition for this coordination: the cooperation of individuals in the common action”.[19]

In this new biological imaginary, the parts, he says, are individuals who “develop, and yet their development contributes to the development of the organism they compose; they evolve, and their evolution is a function of collective evolution. They are, in a word, associated, and their association contributes not only to the development of the whole that they form, but also to the development of each of them.”[20]

The bond of reciprocal dependence is not always positive for the individual, as the biological model inspired by Pasteur’s theories highlights: “his (the human being’s) health is constantly threatened by the illnesses of other human beings whose life is in turn threatened by the illnesses he/she will contract himself”[21]

The contagious disease model shows the risk every individual is exposed: relationships of “natural solidarity” left to themselves can be deadly.

Solidarists do not attach any value to social theories derived from Darwinism, indeed when they speak of it, it is to denounce its moral errors.

Bourgeois knew well how the struggle for existence discovered by the natural science in the second half of the nineteenth century, made the concept of competition the central value in sociology. The mechanism of natural selection of the «fittest» brought to the individualist thesis the most powerful arguments to justify the laws of social competition.[22]

For Bourgeois, the lesson of microbiological pathology shows how “vital” competition is ambiguous: it is good for the individual if it is the strongest, and therefore it is a means of fixing the qualities useful for the species, bad for the individual itself if it is the weak and therefore necessarily succumbs. If we want to develop social relationships that defend the existence and safety of all individuals, we need to pay attention to the weakest.

Despite solidarists use the biological imaginary, it is very clear to them that human society cannot be assimilated to the community of living organisms:

“Human society is not an organism similar to the animal organism; it does not constitute a living being where the parts are, as in the biological aggregate, materially united to one another”[23]

In other words, the order of societies isn’t self-regulated.

Even if solidarists affirm a factual solidarity, they don’t derive the normative sense of solidarity from this fact: Bourgeois himself states it very clearly “Solidarity as fact, solidarity as duty: never confuse the one with the other” “Solidarité fait, solidarité devoir: ne confondons jamais l’une et l’autre”[24]

This is why the individuals shaping an association must respond to the risks of natural and factual solidarity with a consciously pursued solidarity, if they want to keep the individual in a state “of prosperity, security, even existence” [25].

However, a key problem appears: how to implement this conscious solidarity, and therefore responsibly respond to the risk which vital competition exposes us to? We must correct the “negative solidarity”: the forms of social solidarity must be thought in discontinuity with the natural ones. For this reason, according to Bourgeois, the individuals who shape the association must recognize the duty of justice. The question is how delineating “a specific rule of the rights and duties of each person, in the common action of all” [26]

To do this, Bourgeois refers once more to Kant, to the Kantian notion of duty. The duty of obeying the law for respect of law, however, is immediately understood through the Swiss philosopher Charles Secretan, and his affirmation that the knowledge of the good that the conscience prescribes is the work of reason, but reason develops historically. And, not secondarily, the Kantian foundation of the moral law, the Kantian universalism is further enriched with a classical reference. The reference is to Cicero’s De legibus: where Cicero “affirms the existence” of a law that is common to all human beings, which commands virtue and forbids injustice “.[27]

Let me mention that in the De legibus Cicero expresses the intimate need for a moral transformation of Roman society and its ruling class. This renewal must be carried out through the implementation of a political-cultural program. The practice of conscious solidarity requires a political-cultural reform, in which the development of institutions and moral development go together.

Debt and the quasi-contract

What form can the rule of justice take? To answer this question Bourgeois developed a new theory of the social pact which, as has been said, is the foundation of social right[28]. As already mentioned, Bourgeois developed his argument from Auguste Comte’s idea that the social bond is the bond of all human beings, dead, living now and in the future. The law of reciprocal physical and moral dependence binds everyone to everything: biologically as we have seen; economically, in the mutual profit of the work indispensable for the satisfaction of the needs; in thinking: “the human being thinks, and each of his thoughts reflects the thought of his fellows in whose brains it will be reflected and reproduced in turn”; in feeling “He is happy or he suffers, he hates or he loves, and all his feelings are the effects or the causes of congruent or contrary feelings which stir at the same time all these other men with whom he is in a relationship of perpetual exchange”. [29]

This bond is not only about the present, it binds us to the past and the future. Coming into the world is not a simple biological fact. Coming into the world means sharing a world already humanized by language, culture, technology, institutions. It also means changing this humanized world, as a legacy for future generations.

“Human being is born debtor of human association”.[30]  “(The debt) is a legacy of all the past to all of the future” [31]

Every human being receives an inheritance by birth. Every human being is therefore born with a load of cultural, material, and scientific debt that they must recognize. This heritage is not the same for everyone: physical, mental, social, national, historical differences make the distribution of the human heritage unequal. Hence the duty to correct the injustice of those who receive a negative legacy.

How to decide what is the sum to be paid by whoever is in debt? How to determine this in solidum obligatio, whereby whoever is in debt undertakes to pay what he has received in usufruct? Bourgeois himself asks: “Who then will set this account of profits and losses, benefits and charges?”[32]

This obligation is based on the quasi-contract of association, which is a way of proceeding to reach consensus on the conditions of the association that “distributes fairly the advantages and charges among all and (the distribution) will be those which the partners would have adopted if they had previously been free, and equally free, to discuss among themselves, with equal morality, the conditions of their agreements.”[33]

The use of the term quasi-contract should be emphasized: let me clarify meaning: the quasi-contract is a juridical concept of obligation of Justinian code. It includes all those obligations deriving from a lawful relationship that had affinity with a specific type of contract but based on an informal agreement. The term derives, in fact, from the expression obligatio quasi ex contractu, ‘obligation as per contract’. The quasi-contract category has reached the Code Napoléon which places them among the “commitments without treaty ” and defines them in art. 1371 “The quasi-contracts are the purely voluntary facts of human beings, which result in any obligation towards a third party, sometimes a reciprocal obligation of the two parties”[34]

By using the term quasi-contract, Bourgeois wants to detach himself from the classical theory of the contract. This defines once and for all the question of the division of power, establishing a “prior agreement” as he expressly says in a critical note on Rousseau. He wants to define obligations in the absence of a treaty and therefore to express that the solution of the socio-political problem of solidarity it is always provisional.

The quasi-contract is “an interpretation and representation of the agreement which should have been established in advance between them (human beings) if they had been able to be fairly and freely consulted: it will therefore be the presumption of the consent which their equal and free wills would have given which will be the only basis of right” [35]

According to Marie-Claude Blais, Bourgeois’ quasi-contract concept was, in a different way, re-launched by John Rawls, with the original position playing a central role in formulating a theory of justice. The function seems the same: the quasi-contract places the associates “in a sort of” original position “of equivalence.” Whatever the inequalities of condition, the quasi-social contract presupposes an “equality of value” among all individuals.[36] As human beings each has the same equal right as all others.

However, the equality of solidarity is not an abstract form of egalitarianism: we have seen in the citations the insistence on the term fairly. By means of fairness, the unequal distribution of social burdens, due to birth, historical contingencies, biological conditions, are thus corrected with attention to concrete situations.

Solidarity: A possible social principle instead of competition?

We saw how Bourgeois took position against the theses of economists (individualists) who, on the basis of the science of evolution, explained the laws of social competition as a natural factor and thus made economic competition one of the natural forms of vital competition. [37] Quoting the conference of 1895 “Les Préjugés socialistes” by Yves Guyot, Bourgeois mentions that for classical liberalism competition is the very condition of life, and society must not intervene to modify and reduce the inequality of its members [38].

Bourgeois does not respond to classical liberalism’s anthropological naturalism with another, but, and the Kantian reference reveals it, he proposes a counter-image based on reciprocity. The Kantian counter-image moves away from the purely instrumental reading of relationships and has a strong ethical significance.

As such, reciprocal relationships are not a simple natural fact. In other words, the order of society does not regulate itself, but requires an implementation by a political rationality whose guiding principle becomes solidarity. In this way solidarity could take the place of competition in the current formation of a new social subjectivity.

To clarify this point, I will refer to the analyses that M. Foucault developed in the courses held between 1977-79 at the Collège de France on that new form of liberal political rationality which he himself called neoliberalism.[39]As we know Foucault tackles the issue through the reading of two distinct currents of economic thought that have in common the criticism of the dirigiste economy: the Neoliberal School of Freiburg, and the libertarianism of the United States , which finds its purest expression in Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Gary Becker, Milton Friedman and many economists of the Chicago school. Foucault talks about the invention of a “reason of the least state”[40] (« raison du moindre Etat ») which claims that the state is ” under the supervision of the market rather than a market supervised by the states” [41]

Foucault clearly warns us: we must not confuse classical liberalism with this new form of political rationality:

“For we should not be under any illusion that today’s neo-liberalism is, as is too often said, the resurgence* or recurrence of old forms of liberal economics which were formulated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and are now being reactivated by capitalism”[42].

What then is the specific of this further form of liberalism? Foucault explains this clearly: “Here, laissez-faire is turned into a do-not-laisser-faire government, in the name of a law of the market which will enable each of its activities to be measured and assessed.” [43]

In other words, for neoliberalism, public policy no longer has the task of correcting any negative effects of the market, on the contrary it is the market with its operating mechanisms that corrects public and social policies. The market takes on the task of verifying what is true and what is false, and of promoting a human model based on the principles of economic processes.

At the centre of this new function of the market there is no longer free trade, but competition which in turn becomes the regulating principle of social, public, and private, behaviour. The role of the state becomes to promote competition conceived as an idea to be implemented and to make society and its members able to face the competition.

“When you deduce the principle of laissez-faire from the market economy, basically you are still in the grip of what could be called a “naive naturalism,” that is to say, whether you define the market by exchange or by competition you are thinking of it as a sort of given of nature, something produced spontaneously which the state must respect precisely inasmuch as it is a natural datum. But…what in fact is competition? It is absolutely not a given of nature…competition is not the result of a natural interplay of appetites, instincts, behaviour, and so on…Competition is an essence. Competition is an eidos. Competition is a principle of formalization… competition as an essential economic logic will only appear and produce its effects under certain conditions which have to be carefully and artificially constructed… Pure competition must and can only be an objective, an objective thus presupposing an indefinitely active policy.[44]

Competition is not thought of as a natural fact whose development can be sustained by eliminating obstacles and correcting their deviations. Competition according to Foucault is a principle of formalization, that is to say it is the abstract syntax that supports a procedure with which the new system of symbols is built; in other words, it is an idea to be implemented with a continuous action at all levels, both public and private. The state must ensure that its members acquire the ability to compete, even by competing with each other.

To fine-tune this new anthropological model, the American neoliberalism will develop the notion of “human capital”. By human capital the US- neoliberalists mean the individual who transforms himself into an enterprise-unit. Individual turns itself into an entrepreneur of himself, who agonistically relates to the market in the same way as an entrepreneur with his business. In this way, the neoliberal biopolitical government makes the enterprise as “a model of social relations and of existence itself, a form of relationship of the individual to himself” [45].

The life of the individual, in its entirety, is absorbed by the market, where the principle of competition reigns. Therefore, any kind of human behaviour must be oriented towards profitability, and the individual is thus directed towards a new form of subjectivity. At the core of this social and anthropological model is the principle of competition, whose engine is inequality.

The market mechanism must include all subjects to function[46], and it is here that the model presents an ambiguity, just mentioned by Foucault, who however does not examine the question in depth. This is the ambiguity highlighted by Wilhem Röpke when he states that competition is the central principle of the market economy, but it cannot be the principle on which to build the whole society, since it is a dissolving principle.[47]

Competition mentions Foucault is a “formal game between inequalities”. This is why it is a principle that splits, rather than binds individuals together. In a society where the competitive individual is its fundamental anthropological model, the action of the state to keep the market in optimal conditions must prevent exclusion, understood as the primary factor that places social subjects out of competition.

However, the new needs of competitiveness ultimately bring out two forms of human capital; the “strong” one who have acquired high skills, knowledge, professional skills, social and relational skills, and therefore are favoured, and those who do not have all this, and therefore, are easily excluded. Today, social exclusion is a huge, if not growing problem.[48] This raises the problem of the validity of the social and anthropological generalization of the enterprise model and presents the need to develop a new model.

If competitiveness is not a natural given, but is the product of a specific governmental form, historically identifiable, it is conceivable being able to modify it. That is, it is conceivable to set another objective that presupposes another policy. It is conceivable that a different governmental form whose principle is solidarity based on interdependence, in function of fighting inequalities. For this reason, Bourgeois’s principle of solidarity is of great interest as an alternative principle to competition, and as regulating principle of social behaviour. Reciprocity concretely brings the individual into social relations and prevents that the individual is conceived metaphysically as an abstract entity, since individual is constantly evolving in relation to others.

This relationship involves risks: disease, damage, death. Solidarity is the principle that regulates social behaviour and defends against risks: we join together because everyone’s activity is useful for the survival and well-being of each and every one.

Starting from the emotional bases of sociality, solidarity – as a feeling already identified by Comte – is expressed as a feeling of reciprocity, of mutual support between free and equal, but not identical, individuals. Through the “quasi-contract” solidarity is objectified and is transferred from the sphere of sentiment to that of law and politics, without the different being excluded. In this way, the role of the state becomes that of executing the quasi-contract that we have seen implies the recognition of the debt that each individual has towards the other. The role of the state therefore becomes to make subjects capable of sharing the debt and of standing surety for it.

“It is only indirectly, by obtaining, so to speak beforehand, from each of the human beings, the payment of the social debt, not towards a particular partner, but towards all, that it will be possible to place the contracting parties in a state of equality where their freedom can henceforth be exercised without injustice. Let human beings agree to organize among themselves truly mutual institutions, supported by all and open to all.[49]

Solidarity can thus become the new regulating principle of social relations.

“…this prior solidarity of social duties and forces which would allow human beings to then exchange fairly the products of their personal activity,”[50] it becomes reasoned project ability that organizes “Truly mutual institutions, supported by all and open to all, having for their object to assure to all human beings as widely as possible the support of the common force, and to warrant them, as  exactly as possible, against the risks of the common life ibidem in a word becomes political rationality”.[51] Thus solidarity becomes political rationality.

To conclude. The solidarity of Léon Bourgeois invites us to reflect on problems that we have begun to glimpse today: the ethical-juridical problems of the quality of our coexistence. Bourgeois’ declared aim was to overcome the dichotomy between liberal “laissez faire” and socialist collectivism: an apparently antiquated problematics, if – as it has been masterfully analysed by Foucault- at the centre of the new liberalism and its new function of the market there is no more free trade, but competition which in turn becomes the regulating principle of social, public, and private behaviour. But competition breaks the bonds of interdependence which, according to Durkheim’s theory, were at the basis of social cohesion. Competition implies a logic of separation that leads, for example, economic, ethnic, or religious groups to turn in on themselves to defend, defend their cultural values or their chances of survival. This is why in a competitive society the lack of social cohesion becomes the problem of problems. Then the thought of the solidarists which, as has been said is complex, subtle, and fragile, can still be captivating. These antiquated solidarists reflected on the articulation of solidarity in relation to the much later idea of the intergenerational pact, the agreement between freedom and justice, and the role of the state and law in a competitive economic world. They propose a path in which solidarity develops from being a moral feeling to a principle that must be implemented consciously and voluntarily, through institutions and regulations, aiming to make solidarity a regulating principle of living together.


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[1] Bourgeois, Leon. La solidarité, Armand Colin et Cie, Paris 1896, p. 116 hereinafter referred to as La solidarité, all quotes from the French text are my translations.

[2] See.  Gide, Charles., Rist, Charles, Histoire des doctrines économiques (1829), Paris 1920.

[3] see. de la Rosa, Stephane : La transversalité de la solidarité dans les politiques matérielles de l’Union, in Boutayeb, Chahira, (ed. by), La solidarité dans l’Union européenne. Éléments constitutionnels et matériels, Paris, Dalloz, 2011, pp. 165 ss., quoted by Giubboni, Stefano : Solidarietà, in Politica Del Diritto / a. XLIII, n. 4, dicembre 2012. p. 526,

[4] See: https://www.ipsos.com/en/social-cohesion-pandemic-age-global-perspective (viewed 02.06.2022)

[5] Le dictionnaire de l’Académie françoise, dédié au Roy. T. 2. L-Z  Vve J. B. Coignard et J. B. Coignard, Paris,1694, p. 485.

[6] Dictionnaire de l’Académie française. Tome 2, Firmin-Didot frères, Paris, 1835, p. 754

[7] Leroux, Pierre : De l’humanité, de son principe et de son avenir : où se trouve exposée la vraie définition de la religion, et où l’on explique le sens, la suite et l’enchaînement du mosaïsme et du christianisme. Tome 1   Perrotin, Paris, 1840, p. 179

[8] Renaud, Hippolyte SolidaritéVue synthétique sur la doctrine de Charles Fourier, Paris 1842

[9] Supiot, Alain : Sur le principe de solidarité,  Rechtsgeschichte – Legal History , January 2005 (06), p. 67

[10] Comte, Auguste : Discours sur l’esprit positif, Carilian-Goeury et V. Dalmont, Paris, 1844, p. 74-75

[11] Ibidem

[12] La solidarité, p. 116

[13]  Kant, Immanuel: Kant’s gesammelte Schriften. Band 8 / herausgegeben von der Königlich Preußilchen Akademie der Wissenschaften, G. Reimer (Berlin) and W. De Gruyter (Berlin), 1910-1983 b.VIII, p. 179

[14] La solidarité, p.44

[15] See Vincent Gilbert : Ethos protestant, éthique de la solidarité. I. L’héritage kantien. Reprises et transformations. In: Revue d’histoire et de philosophie religieuses, 82e année n°3, Juillet-Septembre 2002. P. 321

doi : https://doi.org/10.3406/rhpr.2002.984 , https://www.persee.fr/doc/rhpr_0035-2403_2002_num_82_3_984

[16] La solidarité. p.45

[17] See Vincent, Gilbert : L’ethique de la solidarité : l’apport des solidaristes in La solidarité : exigence morale ou obligation publique?, ed. Soulet, Marc-Henry academic press Fribourg, Fribourg, 2004, p. 57

[18] La solidarité, p. 84

[19] Ibid., p. 53

[20] Ibid., p.54-55

[21] Ibid. p. 47

[22] See ibid. p. 39

[23] Ibid. 60

[24] Quoted by G. Vincent (2004) op.cit p.68.

[25] La solidarité, p. 62

[26] Ibid.p.72

[27] Ibid.p.74-75

[28] See: Ewald, François :L’État providence, Paris 1986, p. 367

[29] La solidarité p. 48

[30] Ibid.p.116

[31] Ibid.p.124

[32] Ibid. p.108

[33] Ibid. p.93

[34] Code Napoléon, édition originale et seule officielle Imp. impériale (Paris), 1807, p.355

[35] La solidarité op.cit. p.133.

[36]  See Blais Marie-Claire : La solidarité.  Histoire d’une idée Gallimard, Paris 2007, p. 39

[37] See. La solidarité op. cit. p. 41.

[38] See. La solidarité op.cit. p. 142

[39] See Foucault,Michel: Cours au Collège de France 1977-78, Gallimard, Paris, 2004, for references; while quotes in English translation are taken from: Foucault,Michel: The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979 . Edited by Senellart, Michel. Translated by Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008)

[40] Foucault, Lectures, p. 30

[41] Ibid. 116

[42] Ibid. p.117

[43] Ibid p. 247

[44] Ibid. p. 120

[45] Ibid. p. 242

[46] See ibid. p.207

[47] See Röpke, Wilhelm: The Social Crisis of Our Times, Part II, c. 2, p. 236: quoted by Foucault, Lectures p. 243.

[48] In 2021 in Europe, more than one in 5 people are at risk of poverty or social exclusion. This is 21.7% of the population. See https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/ddn-20220915-1.

[49] Rapport de M. Léon Bourgeois au Congrès D’ Éducation Sociale en 1900 in, Bourgeois, Leon – Solidarité, 3e éd., Armand Colin, 1902, p. 180

[50] idem

[51] idem