Dana Simmons‘s marvelous and thoughtful new book takes on a question that many of us likely take for granted: “What is a need; what...

Dana Simmons‘s marvelous and thoughtful new book takes on a question that many of us likely take for granted: “What is a need; what is a want, a desire, a luxury?” Vital Minimum: Need, Science, and Politics in Modern France (University of Chicago Press, 2015) offers an answer that emerges from and is embedded in the particular historical context of nineteenth century France, but has consequences that range well beyond modern French history. Early in this fascinating study, Simmons articulates an argument that threads through the book: “a science of human needs undergirded the modern wage economy and the welfare state.” That science was collaboratively built by a diverse community of agronomists, chemists, doctors, anthropologists, economists, sociologists, amateur data gatherers, trade unions, and others who collectively attempted to define and then measure human needs for the sake of better social organization. How to do this was not at all self-evident, and fierce debates were waged that challenged participants to rethink the most basic elements of a notion of society: What were the “needs” that must be fulfilled in order to keep persons productive? Were those needs physical and/or psychological? What were the characteristics of a model “person,” anyway? The chapters of the book narrate the traces that these debates left on the bodies of workers, the pages of history, and the basic notions (like “minimum wage,” like “citizen”) that make up modern conceptions of civil society. Highly recommended!

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