Hugo and Economics

Part I:  Physical and Intellectual Property


Geoffrey Barto


The below is from a dissertation in process.  It is copyright Geoffrey Barto, 2000-2002


Discussions of Hugo’s politics often highlight – as we have noted – his move from the right to the left.  But as Graham Robb warns, given the extent to which parental influence shaped Hugo’s stated political outlook early in life, it is necessary to avoid “interpretations which impose a grid of simplistic antitheses on Hugo and all his work” (47).  If Hugo was a socialist, it was only in an etymological sense:  he sought to address the “social problem” of poverty, suffering, etc., not to engage in class warfare, which he deemed ruinous to all (Politique 171).

Hugo’s approach to the problems of the working class mirror his at least partial indifference to governmental form – he favored systems and politics alike for their results, not their theory.  We have already highlighted Hugo’s elitism where governance was concerned – he favored aristocracy in its etymological sense (government by the best), and viewed republicanism and democracy not as worthy in and of themselves but as ultimate goals because their success – even viability – relied upon spreading the light of knowledge and reason among the general populace.  In other words, Hugo didn’t believe the people were automatically worthy of self-rule – he felt it should be the aim of society to form a populace that was, making republicanism a far-off utopia to be brought about by social evolution, not simply a form of government to be implemented by revolutionary force.  In the next two chapters, we will see that Hugo approached questions of property and wealth and the position of workers in society in a similar vein:  if Hugo believed that all should be afforded dignity and respect and minimal standards of living, the means of achieving this would again have to be through societal advancement, not political force.  Citizens were not automatically to be afforded dignity – or even a living wage.  To the contrary, the economy and society were to be restructured such that all would be able to gain access to property while workers could earn – as distinct from merely collecting – a living wage, and be given the opportunity to distinguish themselves – as opposed to merely being declared worthy at the outset.

This chapter takes as its starting point speeches given at the Chambre de pairs in 1846 on the need for expanded patent rights; the next chapter will consider Hugo’s much more famous speech in the Assemblée Nationale on the need to rework the Ateliers Nationaux.  In both cases, Hugo saw the value of labor and the value of human dignity, but in both cases he recognized that dignity as a product not of existence but of action.

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In Graham Robb’s biography lurk questions about Hugo as a monarchist, given the extent to which family squabbles dictated his earliest political views.  Robb tells us that in Hugo’s first poems in favor of the monarchy “The need to adopt a clear vision is obvious, but also the attempt to convince himself that his monarchist mother had been right all along and that the confusion was over” (46).  If Hugo’s monarchist tendencies were rooted in his allegiance to his mother, his socialism is equally in question, for it does not adhere to our use of the word today.  Rather, it corresponds to a phase in his narrative of redemption – only for society rather than individuals – which is at least partially divorced from politics and which precludes the easy top-down solutions associated with the authoritarian state needed to enforce a functioning and efficient (if not effective) socialist government.

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To understand Hugo vis-à-vis property, we begin with economics and assumptions about economics.  However, we learn about Hugo’s economic views less from concrete economics treatise than from the approaches he took to economic questions, both in his pursuit of political agendas and in his literature.  In so doing, it helps to remember that economics is, in its etymological sense, the organization of the household:  we are interested not in abstruse formulae or charts and graphs, but in the ways in which society creates and acquires resources and the ways in which they are put to use to better our lot.  Economics, like politics, is a means of ordering society.  And the ways in which politicians and public people conceive of this order reveals concretely their understanding of how the world actually works, i.e. their ideology.  In the present exploration, we shall consider Hugo’s understanding of value, and its creation.  The question is essential, for communism, socialism and capitalism are all founded in an understanding of how value is created and how it ought to be allocated.  In reading Hugo alongside Marx, we shall see the contrast between their conceptions of value and industry and the ways in which this contrast separates Hugo from the socialist and the communist.

In 1846, Hugo took the floor at the Chambre des pairs to endorse maintaining the strongest possible patent and trademark rights.  Hugo wondered why it was that for his assembly of words in a book, he was granted special privileges and protections when an artisan who had created, say, a China pattern, also showing ingenuity and original insight, was left less protected:

Un jour viendra, n’en doutez pas, où beaucoup de ces œuvres que vous  traitez de simples produits de l’industrie… prendront place dans les musées….  Les vases étrusques, qu’est-ce autre chose (336) ?

Citing as well the creations of Michelangelo and Raphael, Hugo worried that such treasures would not be created if they were not protected, and thus asked that their protections remain in place as long as possible, that they be granted la durée:

[T]outes les fois que vous voulez que de grands artistes fassent de grandes oeuvres, donnez-leur le temps, donnez-leur la durée, assurez-leur le respect de leur pensée et de leur propriété…(336).

This view is distinctly un-socialist – Hugo did not ask that individual creations be made universally available for the public good.  He did not question the generosity or public spirit of those who wished extra compensation for the time, effort and insight they put into their creations. He did not see the agglomeration of workers as a united force that mutually benefited by its combined labor.  To the contrary, he asked that individuals be compensated, just as he was, for their individual creations.

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With his support for patents and trademarks, Hugo was sanctioning one aspect of entrepreneurialism, a quality apart from the three factors of production enumerated by Marx and other socialists of the day.  For Marx, these are materials, labor and, of course, capital.  Today we refer to the first two as natural and human resources.  Throughout Capital, Marx refers to examples of economic processes to demonstrate his conception of economics and argue for the idea that the worker is exploited; among these is the construction and sale of a coat.  Marx argues that because one can sell a coat for more than the cost of materials and machine maintenance plus the average wage paid for each coat produced, the worker has been exploited:  his labor added more value than he was compensated for adding.  Anticipating the capitalist’s justifications, Marx proposes this argument:

‘Can the worker produce commodities out of nothing, merely by using his arms and legs?  Did I not provide him with the materials through which, and in which alone, his labour could be embodied?…  But has the worker not performed an equivalent service in return, by changing his cotton and spindle into yarn?  (299)

Marx goes on to contemplate “surplus value,” the difference between what a coat, pair of boots or ball of yarn costs to make and what it sells for.  In chapter after chapter, Marx plays out the same argument, ending always with the notion that the capitalist received more than he invested, without truly answering the capitalist’s question:  Did I not provide the worker with means to create this value, and do I not deserve recompense for so doing?  In advocating patents, Hugo didn’t necessarily speak for the capitalist, but he did speak for the idea of surplus value.  After all, royalties could not be paid to an inventor unless the price charged exceeded the cost of the raw materials, human labor and wear and tear on machines.  And like the capitalist, the inventor does not necessarily exert one ounce of labor on the actual finished good.

It is curious that Marx doesn’t assume that it is the consumer who is exploited, being charged more than the true worth of the coat.  But even Marx seemed to understand that in at least some markets, the value of an object was what one could sell it for.  Hence, Marx looked for the one place where markets did not seem to have set the price and settled on labor.  What Marx missed, however, that modern economists do not, is entrepreneurialism – the value added to a product by the insight and ingenuity needed to plan, design, organize, direct or envision a combination of land, labor and capital in a manner that adds up to the most value.  Just as good materials, skilled workers and proper equipment are necessary for production, so is the selection and design of products and their modes of distribution, et cetera.  Consider a profitable bakeshop.  Do its owners exploit because they earn more on a loaf of bread than their overall expenses?  Marx would say yes.  But the modern economist generally recognizes that that the added value in our loaf of bread derives from the fact that the gestalt of a loaf of bread is more valuable in a particular market than the sum parts of labor, capital and materials needed for its creation, the added measure being its existence as a loaf of bread and not those separate parts waiting to be combined to form its essence.  The person who adds this value is the entrepreneur whose labor is thinking, planning and organizing.  Simply put, when one goes to the baker’s, one does not desire to take home a sack of flour, an oven and a worker; one simply wants the loaf of bread.  The people who have the idea to make and sell the loaf of bread – the person who risks capital in investing, the person who finds a better way to make the bread, the person who develops a particularly pleasing combination of flours - are compensated for their entrepreneurialism – their ideas – with the profits.  The last two of these fall under the rubric of patents and trademarks.  Similarly, if a person is willing to pay more for a plate with a pretty flower pattern on it, the idea of the flower design – and not merely the price of the paint – is a part of the value of the plate.  Hugo’s support for compensating those who came up with these ideas indicates a belief in industry and innovation as worthy things from which their creators should profit – not products that should be given over to the whole of the public for the common good they might foster, or over to the workers for their efforts in replicating others’ ideas.  In fact, it is Jean Valjean’s innovation that enables him to become M. Madeleine, a respectable and upstanding citizen.  A classic socialist might argue that Jean Valjean would not have suffered all he suffered in a socialist world and would not have needed to gain by his innovation, but the self-proclaimed socialist, Victor Hugo, saw the opportunity to gain by innovation as important for Valjean’s redemption and necessary for according to workers the fullest measure of dignity they had earned.  In effect, Hugo’s 1847 speech has behind it an ideal that relies on social policy not to uplift workers but to allow them to uplift themselves, accruing dignity and respect to themselves for the insight and ingenuity they brought to their labors. 

While Hugo seeks compensation for the worker for ingenuity, he stands resolutely against the apportionment of money and respect by political fiat, on the assumption that all are worthy and seeks a more abstract and longer-term project for social betterment than, for example, the government workshops of 1848, which are considered in the next chapter.  The longer-term nature of Hugo’s project is both explicitly told and reflected in the events of Les Misérables.  Profiting by ingenuity not only marked one of several steps in the redemption of the outcast Valjean, but its effect flowed outward, first giving him the wealth to survive, but then also the position to rescue Fantine, a fellow outcast, and to take care of Cosette.  When Valjean meets the Thénardier, it is in offering charity, and while the plot line that follows is divorced from the subject of charitable giving, one is left to at least momentarily think of those genuinely suffering that Valjean might have helped.  In raising himself up, Valjean found the means to do the same for others.  In pushing for patent rights, Hugo was making the as yet unwritten Les Misérables possible, opening up new avenues for the Jean Valjeans of the future to make their own paths toward prosperity and personal betterment.  And yet the supposedly socialist Victor Hugo effected this not by direct governmental action – certainly contemplated and debated by the time Les Misérables was finished; the possibility can’t simply be dismissed as unthinkinkable – but by the indirect route of opening up a world in which the low could raise themselves higher (the verb is active, individual, not passive) if only their efforts were properly recognized and honored.  Moving from the individual to the abstract, we find in Les Misérables a digression in which Hugo succinctly explains the flaw in socialism:

[La] répartition tue la production.  Le partage égal abolit l’émulation.  Et par conséquent le travail.  C’est une répartition fait par le boucher, qui tue ce qu’il partage.  Il est donc impossible de s’arrêter à ces prétendues solutions.  Tuer la richesse, ce n’est pas la répartir (407).

Earlier, Hugo indicates the central problem faced by socialism:  equal and equitable distribution are not the same thing (406). 


Hugo’s support for patent rights is particularly interesting because his focus was initially on maximizing the duration of patents.  Generally, discussions of patents focus on how one can minimize their duration while ensuring that it remains in an inventor’s interest to record rather than obscure the functioning of his or her technology.  Patents in the United States, for example, are limited to 20 years.  Their reason is not to protect innovators but to guarantee them sufficient monopoly power in the short run by which they can profit that they won’t hide, disguise or mask their innovations, such that the inventions are lost when the creator dies:

All intellectual property laws in the United States are based on Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which allows Congress to pass laws "To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."

Simply stated, the constitutional purpose of intellectual property is NOT to make anyone rich, but to promote the growth of science and industry. Right there in black and sort-of-yellowish-brown, the constitution states its intention of promoting progress, which benefits consumers, in a way that incidentally benefits producers as well (Landley).

That is to say, the genesis of patent law is in its own way a socialist enterprise, an estate tax on intellectual property whose blandishment go only far enough to discourage the hiding or dilution of said estate.  Hugo, however, was as concerned about protecting an artist’s rights as he was entering new ideas into the public record.  While he appealed to the need to ensure that great works of industry, if not art, would continue (336), asking that older legislation be allowed to stand with longer-term protections in lieu of a new law being passed that would shorten the life of the marque de fabrique to 15 years (n. on 335).

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                The observations above have as their focus Hugo’s thoughts on the patent and its implications for the perception of the idea of private property and the like.  In the following chapter, Hugo’s attitude vis-à-vis the worker will be considered, particularly in light of an address to the Assemblée Nationale in 1847.  However, before passing on to property, it is necessary to consider a text in which Hugo spoke more directly to the idea of property.  The text in question is a chapter entitled “L’Avenir,” the opening chapter of Paris.  In this text, Hugo lays out a vision of the world to come, foreseeing all manner of progress.  Among the greatest indications of progress that Hugo highlights is the spread of private property.  In thus directing his focus, Hugo is plainly following in the footsteps of Locke and Jefferson with a conception of liberty that is again centered on the individual and on the liberation of society one person at a time.  As we will see in the following chapter, Hugo rejects the idea of liberating the poor by robbing the rich.  In “L’Avenir,” Hugo makes a rather bold statement about the evolution of the world toward a better age (incidentally, in forecasting an entity not unlike the European Union as well as the formation of the global village):

[L]a propriété, ce grand droit humain, cette suprême liberté, cette maîtrise de l’esprit sur la matière, cette souveraineté de l’homme interdite à la bête, loin d’être supprimée, sera démocratisée et universalisée (5).

The expression of this thought is important for two reasons, first because it comes in 1867, showing a 20-year span in which property and the liberal understanding of economics persist, and second because it follows what Hugo was suggesting about the evolution of democracy in the political arena in 1830 – that like the right to vote, the ownership of property would grow and be democratized, in time allowing everyone their place in society.  Far from the Marxist conception of universal ownership assuring everyone equal rights, Hugo sees individual ownership as one of the keys to allowing us to move beyond the nation state and more parochial interests to claim our place in humanity.  In this, his thoughts more closely mirror Ford Motor’s profit-sharing program than any of the societies spawned by the ideologies associated with the socialists of an earlier day.