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Reviewed by:
  • La liberté du pauvre: Crime et pauvreté au XIXe siècle québécois
  • Dominique Marshall
La liberté du pauvre: Crime et pauvreté au XIXe siècle québécois. Jean-Marie Fecteau. Montreal: VLB Éditeur, 2004. Pp. 460, $29.95

How did the liberal revolutions of the eighteenth century, which gave prominence to the individual, change ideas about the dispossessed and the delinquent? In what forms did these ideas survive the nineteenth century? How did philosophers and politicians, theologians and priests, economists and journalists, civil servants and philanthropists, understand the notion of 'freedom' when it came to be that 'of the poor'? [End Page 111]

Jean-Marie Fecteau starts with the belief that representations need to be examined in the long term, not only through the texts conveying them, but also as they shaped institutions and conventions and, later, when the results of their 'confrontations on the ground' returned to worry their original adherents. Tracking this process, he suggests, is identifying the very movement that carries societies from one moment to another. And to study the tension between 'freedom and social order,' the author revises his own use of 'social control' as a category of analysis.

In this original review of the recent historiography of liberal values and practices, Fecteau favours a study of institutions, norms, 'personal ethics,' and 'political projects' that is dynamic, attentive to transformations, criticisms, ruptures, and contradictions, and respectful of the inner coherence of representations. His understanding of political relations encompasses representative, executive, and judicial institutions, and he contrasts this 'public' realm to a rich 'private' realm, that comprises intimacy, trade, and civil society. His identification of the important debates of each period is convincing, and his recognition of the changing meanings of the same institutions and practices is judicious. Finally, his attention to what was considered to be a political question at a given time is refreshing. In the mid-nineteenth century, for instance, the abandonment of philanthropic, collective, and reformative ideals was accompanied by a relegation of the poor and the criminal to a 'pre-political' world from which the earlier, more optimistic version of liberalism had rescued them half a century before.

Reflections on the criminals and the dispossessed, as they stood at the margins of what was normal, revealed much about the 'fragility' of liberal thought and the tensions inherent to the 'construction of the social order' of modern democracy. Similarly, discussions of children exposed the limits of liberal thought, since the notions of freedom and of premeditation of actions did not apply equally to them.

Seen this way, the history of the 'freedom of the poor' occurred in three periods. At the point of departure, in Europe as in the New World, was a 'feudal logic of regulation,' based on status and community integration, and driven locally. This order became overwhelmed by the misery and the crime that arose from wars, epidemics, and the rise of markets. An initial call for freedom occurred, at the end of the eighteenth century. In the eyes of the liberals of this 'utopian' period, poverty appeared as an obstacle to freedom. With the idea of individual freedom came that of the liberty to do ill, which also changed ideas about criminals. The solution to the problems caused to liberal thought by poverty and delinquency was to reform the masses, a project that took different practical directions – philanthropic, Malthusian, Christian, or communalist – but that always relied on collective endeavours. [End Page 112]

Ideals of the Enlightenment gave way, half a century later, to a second version of liberalism, pessimistic and reduced this time, carried by the 'hegemonic bourgeoisie' of the mid-nineteenth century. A conservative period started, when mainstream thinkers, having to face the persistence of poverty, turned from the ideal of reforming masses to that of countering the worst effects of liberal changes. Conceiving of a 'political society derived from the laws of the market,' they drew a new 'social geography,' which distinguished between 'natural poverty' – a by-product of social climbing – and 'pathological poverty.' The former explained that charity should be temporary; the latter that jails could act again as disincentives. The social problem of poverty became political, and...


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