Corporations in the Ancien Régime

This is how Arendt approaches the ‘body politic’: sovereignty is in the realm of human affairs the equivalent of mastership in world of things. Both activities, because they are collective and therefore do not die with the individual’s death, provide a kind of immortality to our presence on earth, and set aside the mortality and dereliction of lone bodily needs. The leading principle of the collective body, its symbolic head, might not need to be a person: it can be a common productive goal, whether we are dealing with the corporative production of goods or the more political production of The Good.

Therefore collective bodies are partly an antithesis of the individual body, a negation of it. The spirit of the corps de métier is an overtaking of individual vulnerability, a lowering of animal fear, an avoidance of painful striving for survival. Corporations can be seen as a disembodiment of the individual, a spiritualization indeed if by spirit we mean a sustainable realm extracted from the mortal and suffering process of life (some members of the guild might die but the corps as an abstraction can survive if new apprentices enlist and if the goal, rights and rules are maintained). Competition shifts from the numerous human persons to be displayed and if possible ordered between less numerous corporations.

We now understand why the corps de métier also were:

units of pervasive and enduring solidarity as well as hierarchical, punitive, and jealously particularistic privileged institutions. Nor was there anything paradoxical, in the culture and society of the old regime, about this combination of hierarchy, surveillance, particularism, and solidarity. The very word ‘corps’, or body, which was used to designate a bewildering variety of institutions in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, necessarily implied all of these characteristics. All bodies were composed of a variety of organs and members, which were hierarchically arranged and were placed under the command of the head. Each body was distinct from every other, with its own will, its own interests, its own internal order, and its own esprit de corps.[1]

[1] William H. Sewell, Jr., Work and Revolution in France, p. 36.

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