For a number of years now, I’ve been reading and writing about republicanism. Not the republicanism of the Republican party, but rather republican political thought. In particular, the neo-Roman republican tradition being researched so extensively by the intellectual historian Quentin Skinner and the political philosopher Philip Pettit. I can’t quite recall why or how I first got on to the subject, but I suppose I have always found the republican ideal attractive.
At the same time, however, there is something troubling and dissatisfying about the republican tradition. Numerous critics have highlighted the problems associated with classical republicanism’s reverence for a martial culture. Bourgeois critics have critiqued the classical republican disdain for ‘commercial society’ (a disdain that I partly share). The neo-Roman tradition of republicanism is presented as a viable modern alternative to liberalism by many of its proponents (such as Pettit, Viroli and Maynor). Eschewing the problems associated with the ‘positive liberty’ said to be characteristic of the classical republican tradition, neo-Roman republicanism offers a more robust notion of negative liberty characterised not as the ‘non-interference’ popularised by Isaiah Berlin, but as a kind of independence from the arbitrary wills of others. This so-called ‘non-domination’ approach to conceptualising liberty forms the basis of Pettit’s ‘third way’ between liberalism and communitarianism.
The idea of liberty as a form of non-domination is attractive. But in the hands of its contemporary proponents, it fails to take into account the specific problems of social class in a modern capitalist society. As far as I can tell, there are two aspects to this deficiency. The first has to do with the historical contexts within which republicanism developed as a tradition of political theorizing, and the influence these contexts had on what constituted ‘domination’. The second relates to the coherence of non-domination as a concept that guides political analysis — both explanatory and prescriptive. I’ll start with the first point.
Republicanism developed in pre-capitalist societies characterised by various forms of dependent labour. The most important being that of slavery. Contemporary republican theorists like Skinner and Pettit continuously make the point that republican liberty was articulated in opposition to slavery. To be a slave meant that one was ‘dominated’ by another (i.e., the slave master). As Aristotle pointed out in the Politics, slavery was a despotic relationship between unequal parties. The slave existed merely as the property of the dominus, and as such, was subject to his arbitrary will.
The important point here is that the notion of domination presupposes the relegation of individuals to the status of property. Under such conditions, the economic exploitation of the slave coincides with his political subjection. Economic inequality and unfreedom presuppose political inequality and unfreedom. But what happens when the relationship between the political and the economic change? Capitalism, whether one likes it or not, has coincided with the juridical freedom of the producing classes. This juridical freedom was the result of the abolition of serfdom and slavery and the proliferation of ‘free’ wage labour. People have ceased to be conceptualised as property; instead, it is the labour power of the worker that is now commodified.
Yet, economic exploitation persists under capitalism. The economic exploitation of free wage labour under capitalism does not presuppose the formal subjection of the worker (as was the case of the slave and the serf under previous forms of socio-economic organisation). If workers are no longer property, they can no longer be dominated in the way dependent labourers of the pre-capitalist era could be. The problem facing workers in a capitalist society is not domination, but exploitation.
Quentin Skinner has admitted that republicans in the seventeenth century had little to say about the power relations embedded in the emerging labour ‘market’ of the time (let alone the gender relations of the patriarchal family). Republicanism was solely concerned with political forms of domination, not economic forms of exploitation. The problem here is that workers can be subjected to the arbitrary powers of employers in ways that are entirely compatible with the rule of law deemed so important for republican liberty. Republicanism increasingly appears anachronistic.
The second problem is related to the first. Liberty as non-domination is a concept that is coherent only at a level of abstraction that obfuscates the way class relations manifest themselves as impediments to liberty. To put it another way: neo-Roman republicanism is coherent as a political doctrine only insofar as class is expunged from its politics and replaced by the generic construct of ‘the people’. The republicanism of Cicero — one of the founders of the Roman republican tradition — typifies this tension. Cicero wants to have a popular government — or respublica — in the context of gross political and economic inequalities. Vast disparities of wealth and an unequal distribution of political rights and offices are to be mitigated by the juridical equality of citizens — their libertas — that differentiate them from the growing number of slaves in Roman society. Roman liberty is therefore intended to obfuscate the class differences of the citizenry (comprised of obscenely wealthy nobiles and impoverished proletarii) and exaggerate the gulf between the lower classes and the slaves.
To my knowledge, these problems are not adequately acknowledged or addressed by contemporary republicans. In addition to this, contemporary republicans fail to appreciate that liberty as non-domination or independence is a fiercely contested concept that can lead to wildly divergent politics, all conducted within a republican discourse. The study of republicanism needs to start taking into account the significance of class.