Today’s welfare mothers are not strategically positioned in exactly the same way as the Nazis’ concentration camp inmates; nor are they subjected to totalistic domination like the slave woman or Carrie Buck. They can, and they do, engage in political organizing; they have a few—albeit far too few
—allies in civil society, Congress, state legislatures, and local governments; and they are exercising their right to self-determination against very steep odds. To return to Agamben, what precisely is the relationship between human reproduction and governance? Introducing Aristotle’s distinction between the life of the citizen and bare life, Agamben deploys a distinctly liberal democratic topographic metaphor: “In the classical world . . . simple natural life is excluded from the polis in the strict sense, and remains confined—as merely reproductive life—to the sphere of the oikos, home.” The concept of confining a particular social practice to a distinct spatial region, like a “sphere,” seems to be at odds with the ancients’ organicism. To be sure, Agamben refers in particular to Aristotle’s rejection of the argument that governing the polis amounted to nothing more than the continuation of the sort of governing required in the household on a grander scale. But Agamben’s introductory passage on Aristotle continues to muddy the water even further. At one moment he is referring to distinct “spheres” of governance—the political versus the reproductive—in which different types of leadership take different fields of human activity as their proper object. At the next, he discusses Aristotle’s hierarchy of moral ends: man is “born with regard to life, but exist[s] essentially with regard to the good life.” In fact, the organicism that was proper to the ancients had a very specific character. The Greek citizen’s household was not a distinct “sphere” of human intersubjectivity in the modern sense; household relations had a great deal of bearing upon the good of the community and the ability of the polis to facilitate the pursuit of the good life. Ideally, the male citizen conducts himself ethically when he acts as the head of the household, for he enters into relations with other citizens from the most felicitous position when he does so, and the good of the polis depends upon the ethical performance of social roles in every nook and cranny of the citizens’ world. It is also best for the citizen to manage his economic affairs properly—that is, to achieve a subsistence standard of living and to generate the small surplus necessary for honoring virtuous friends with appropriate gifts. Ultimately, however, these domestic matters ought to be determined by a set of ethical principles that are unique; the guiding principles for household management cannot be derived from the ones that are proper to political deliberation. This is not because the household was located in a separate domestic sphere, however. In the ideal polis, the citizen rules and is ruled by other citizens in turn. In the household, the patriarch is directing subjects who allegedly do not meet the male citizen’s standard of rationality, namely women, children, and slaves.
- Fall '19
- negative income tax, Guaranteed minimum income, Basic Income Earth Network