Domination and Dependence: Republicanism and the Market

In a previous post, I discussed republicanism’s problematic obfuscation of class. The point I tried to make was that republicanism’s core concept – that liberty is a form of non-domination or independence from the will’s of others – attains its coherence only at a level of abstraction that obscures the class realities that comprise any socio-historical context. Here, I would like to build on some of those insights and focus more on the problem facing republicanism once it seeks to apply itself to a capitalist social context intrinsically characterized by the interdependence of the social division of labour and the arbitrariness of market activity.
In Liberty Before Liberalism, Quentin Skinner identifies what he calls a ‘neo-Roman’ conception of liberty that is neither ‘positive’ nor ‘negative’ and is rooted in the Roman republicanism that was transmitted to the English context by way of Machiavellianism.[1]  This republican conception of liberty stresses the importance of independence as a core component of liberty, in contrast to the Hobbesian discourse of negative liberty and the possessive individualism of C. B. Macpherson.  To be free, the neo-Roman writers argue, is not merely to be free from constraints or interference in the Hobbesian fashion; rather, to be free means to be independent of the will of others.  A constraint is not characterized merely in terms of coercion, but also in terms of a persistent condition dependence.
Building on this historical interpretation of neo-Roman liberty, Philip Pettit has attempted to develop republicanism into a systematic contemporary theory of freedom and government. Tracing a line of descent from Cicero to Machiavelli, to the English Republicans and Commonwealthmen, to the American Founding Fathers, Pettit constructs a common ideal of liberty as a form of non-domination. This ideal is built on the persistence, within classical republicanism, of a liberty-slavery antagonism in which liberty is defined as the absence of slavery. Echoing the work of Skinner, Pettit differentiates liberty as non-domination from that of liberty as a form of non-interference: 
Domination, as I understand it here, is exemplified by the relationship of master to slave or master to servant. Such a relationship means, at the limit, that the dominating party can interfere on an arbitrary basis with the choices of the dominated: can interfere, in particular, on the basis of an interest or an opinion that need not be shared by the person affected. The dominating party can practise interference, then, at will and with impunity: they do not have to seek anyone’s leave and they do not have to incur any scrutiny or penalty. Without going further into the analysis of domination or indeed interference—we turn to that task in the next chapter—a little reflection should make clear that domination and interference are intuitively different evils.[3]

Liberty as non-domination is characterized by the freedom from dependence on the will of others where the latter possess the capacity to interfere in the affairs of another in an arbitrary way. Instructive here is Pettit’s idea of the arbitrary, yet non-interfering master, versus the non-arbitrary interference of state governing in accordance with the rule of law. From the perspective of republicanism, the former is a clear violation of liberty—tantamount to a condition of slavery even in the absence of any real interference—whereas the latter is merely a condition of liberty before or under the law.
This ideal of republican liberty is not merely a re-packaging of the positive forms of liberty characteristic of communitarian and democratic theory. Republicanism views democracy as merely an instrumental good that maintains republican forms of liberty.  There is nothing intrinsically significant about democratic forms of politics either in representative or participatory forms.[4]‘Democratic control’, argues Pettit, ‘is certainly important in the tradition, but its importance comes, not from any definitional connection with liberty, but from the fact that it is a means of furthering liberty.[5] In this sense, republican liberty is not the same as the democratic ideal of liberty as a form of ‘self-mastery’.  

In Republicanism, Maurizio Viroli largely re-iterates the arguments of Skinner and Pettit, but stresses the importance of Machiavelli in revitalizing the tradition of Roman republicanism in the early modern period. For Viroli, the classical republican tradition comprises a notion of liberty that includes not only the freedom from interference, but also freedom from constraints imposed on the individual by virtue of a condition of dependence. This emphasis on non-domination provides republicanism with a more substantive conception of liberty that makes it superior to the largely negative conceptions of liberty proposed by liberalism. At the same time, the unwillingness of classical republicanism to jettison the negative conception of liberty prized by liberalism for some coercive notion of positive liberty espoused by communitarians and democrats[6] means that republicanism is not a deviation from liberalism, but rather that liberalism is a one-sided derivative from classical republicanism.
Republicanism is thus a ‘noble tradition’ that is able to form the basis of a ‘new, or rediscovered, utopia of political liberty.’[7] To make this argument, Viroli relies on the work of Machiavelli and Rousseau to demonstrate the intrinsic relationship between political equality on the one hand, and the absence of dependence on the other.  As to the first condition, Viroli argues that Machiavelli believed that ‘poverty should not translate into either exclusion from public honors or a loss of repute.’[8]  Thus, Machiavellian republicanism ensures that the opportunity to participate in public affairs—such as voting or running for political office—is not limited on the basis of property ownership or a general lack of means.  This kind of general political equality that he claims is part of the republican tradition is supplemented by Rousseau’s claim that no one should be so rich as to be able to buy someone else’s person, and no one should be so poor as to have to sell themselves to another.  This argument for social equality—or at least a significant diminution of social inequalities—ensures that personal independence is not compromised by a condition of poverty.[9] Republican equality then, represents a more substantive form of equality than that of liberalism precisely because it espouses a form of citizenship that seeks to overcome the social constraints of class inequality. This conception of republican liberty thus represents a fusion of the formal equality characteristic of liberalism with the substantive equality of communitarianism, without sacrificing one to the other. Thus, from within this classical republican tradition, Viroli finds the means to challenge liberal and communitarian conceptions of liberty and equality. 


From Classical to Contemporary Republicanism

All these variants of republicanism share the belief that liberty assumes the form of non-domination or independence from the wills of others.  In order for neo-Roman or republican liberty to have any contemporary relevance, however, its historical limits need to be acknowledged in order that its remit may be extended to areas of social life that were either excluded or neglected by republican thinkers. Thus the task of reintroducing classical republicanism into a contemporary context in ways that make it relevant to the problems facing modern society entails the extension of the notion of liberty as non-domination into what we would today refer to as the private sphere. Skinner points out, for example, that neo-roman theorists ‘have little to say about the dimensions of freedom and oppression inherent in such institutions as the family or the labour market’; rather, they ‘concern themselves almost exclusively with the relationship between the freedom of subjects and the powers of the state.’[10]  To put it another way, English republicans writing in the mid- to late seventeenth century were exclusively concerned with the problems of Royal Absolutism—not with colonial slavery, with wage-labour, or with gendered forms of patriarchy. Pettit also recognizes the fact that classical republicans only considered the notion of liberty as non-domination to be applicable for ‘an élite of propertied, mainstream males’,[11] thereby excluding the relations of domination that exist within the labour market and the patriarchal household. Acknowledgement of the elite orientation of classical republicanism, however, has not deterred contemporary republican theorists from adhering to the belief that republicanism can not only be re-appropriated and reintroduced ‘as a universal ideal for the members of a contemporary society’, but that it is desirable so to do, and that such a project will have progressive results in extending the terrain of liberty as non-domination.[12]
In particular, liberty as non-domination must then incorporate relations of gender (as a critique of patriarchy both in the household and in the workplace) as well as class for it to adequately address contemporary social and political problems in modern societies. In this sense, Pettit and Viroli are the most explicit in their attempt to modernize classical republicanism.[13]Viroli argues that classical republicanism can ‘emancipate women from the domination of men’ and ‘emancipate workers from the arbitrary power of employers’ through the imposition of laws that ‘interfere’ with the freedom of choice of both men and employers.[14] Doing so is entirely consistent with the neo-republican conception of liberty as non-domination because freedom from domination often entails non-arbitrary forms of interference in the affairs of the powerful. In a similar vein, Pettit writes:

It is the grievance expressed by the wife who finds herself in a position where her husband can beat her at will, and without any possibility of redress; by the employee who dare not raise a complaint against an employer, and who is vulnerable to any of a range of abuses, some petty, some serious, that the employer may choose to perpetrate; by the debtor who has to depend on the grace of the moneylender, or the bank official, for avoiding utter destitution and ruin; and by the welfare dependent who finds that they are vulnerable to the caprice of a counter clerk for whether or not their children will receive meal vouchers.[15]

On the issue of wage-labour—or ‘wage slavery’ as he prefers to call it—Pettit believes that socialists should subscribe to his conception of republican liberty as a condition of non-domination. Socialists indicted capitalism, argues Pettit, because employers—as masters—could arbitrarily exploit their workers, subjecting them to petty harassment as well as to ‘capricious’ hire and fire policies. As a result, workers ‘lived under permanent exposure to interference, in particular to arbitrary interference.’[16] In general, argues Pettit, socialists ‘saw individual employer-employee contracts as a form of the very slave contract which republicans had always repudiated, and they railed against the domination which was realized under the terms of such contracts.’[17]The right to strike, according to Pettit, can thus be legitimized on grounds that it is an expression of republican liberty:

The ideal of freedom as non-interference has always been invoked, usually in the context of free contracts of employment, to make a case against collective industrial action by workers. Such action is a form of interference, of course, since it involves coercion or active obstruction … The ideal of freedom as non-domination gives us a very different cast to collective action … The resort to collective action, in such a situation, may represent the only hope of winning freedom as non-domination for those who are employed. It may be the only way of giving the workers sufficient power to enable them to be able to stand up, individually, to their employer.[18]
At the same time, the extension of liberty as non-domination into the labour market and the workplace is characterized as a form of ‘structural egalitarianism’ as opposed to the more radical (and for Pettit, undesirable) forms of ‘material’ egalitarianism proposed by republicans like Rousseau.[19]

Republicanism and the Market

What is largely absent from the attempts to modernize republicanism, however, is a substantive discussion of the specific ways in which capitalist social relations constitute the social context of modern, liberal democracies. In general, classical republicanism privileges the political, defined as a community of citizens, over and against private forms of association, such as the patriarchal household and the despotic relationship between master and slave. Indeed, much of the attraction of classical republicanism resides in the very fact that it exalts the ‘public’ in ways that liberalism is either unwilling or unable to do. The idea of reconstituting forms of citizenship that view the modern subject as a ‘political animal’ rather than a utility maximizing homo oeconomicus has a certain attraction in the context of the erosion of the public sphere, the privatization of the state, and declining levels of civic engagement and voter participation.  This was partly the point of J.G.A. Pocock’s civic humanist interpretation fo the republican tradition expressed in The Machiavellian Moment.  
The privileging of the political over the economic results in the subordination of the oikos to that of the polis. In theoretical terms, this definition of the political subsumes the economic and is largely characterized by an absence of a distinctive sphere of economic activity that is self-governing and autonomous from political concerns. It is no suprise that republicanism was first articulated in pre-capitalist societies characterized by forms of formally dependent labour (most notably, slavery).  For Aristotle, the oikos was a private sphere of activity that was characterized by despotic, paternal and patriarchal relationships — all of which were considered to be non-political. In contrast to this, the public sphere, or polis, was the sphere of life in which citizens took turns ruling and being ruled. It is difficult for us moderns to conceive of the idea that the private sphere is the realm of coercion whereas the public sphere is the realm of freedom, but that indeed was a common understanding in antiquity.
The point here is that in the pre-capitalist societies in which republican ideals of liberty were first articulated, the private sphere was characterized by overt forms of domination. The latin term for slave owner, after all, was dominus, and domination literally meant owning a person as a form of private property. This changes with the advent of capitalism, characterized as it is by free wage labour. Along with free wage labour, capitalism is also characterized by an increasingly differentiated social division of labour characterized by forms of interdependence. The specificity of capitalism as a form of socio-economic organization or mode of production is that this form of interdependence is riven by a dualism:  the formal equality of the direct producers masks their concrete inequality vis-a-vis the propertied classes. Marx referred to this as alientation or estranged labour.

For classical republicans, domination as a form of arbitrary power becomes conflated with the Marxian notion of exploitation, such that the arbitrary powers of command that the capitalist enjoys over the employment of his workers is equated with non-economic forms of coercion such as abuse and harassment. What is striking about Pettit’s characterization of the socialist conception of wage-labour is the absence of Marx’s significant differentiation of wage-labour from pre-capitalist forms of dependent labour—including serfdom and slavery. The point that Marx was making was that wage-labour represented a new form of dependence that precluded the need for political and juridical forms of inequality and domination. Marx’s notion of capitalist exploitation rested on the juridical and political ‘freedom’ of the ‘free’ wage-labourer, and thus the term ‘wage-slavery’ was merely a metaphor—not a concept that delineated a real social relationship or status. For Marx, the arbitrary economic forms of exploitation characteristic of capitalism existed alongside—yet distinct from—a ‘liberated’ public sphere and received sanction from the law itself. The problem posed to republicans then resides in the possibility that arbitrary forms of interference—characterized as ‘domination’ by republicans—may exist within the parameters of the non-arbitrary functioning of the law itself; and on top of that, these arbitrary forms of interference and command may be considered, by the bulk of the population, as ‘natural’ insofar as they are relegated to an autonomous ‘economic’ sphere of social life, dictated by the impersonal forces of the market.

It is striking that the most prominent contemporary republicans neglect to address the most significant issue concerning classical republicans:  the debate over the nature of ‘commercial society’ in the eighteenth century. Those within the Roman tradition neglect this entirely and focus almost exclusively on Paley’s and Bentham’s articulation of negative freedom. Others focus on the notion of corruption. But to adequately address this issue, we need to appreciate the analysis put forward by the republican that the neo-Roman scholars dismiss as an ‘aberration’ in the republican tradition:  Rousseau.

Rousseau rejected commercial society not only because it was ‘corrupt’, but also because it undermined the social basis for liberty characterized as independence. Commercial society was characterized by the kind of interdependence that Rousseau’s contemporary, Adam Smith, celebrated as the basis of liberty and the engine of progress. In contrast, Rousseau lamented that commercial society would create the kinds of inequalities that enabled a man to buy the labour of another, and compelled others to sell themselves to the rich. In other words, Rousseau recognized the kinds of concrete inequalities that existed within the social division of labour characteristic of commercial society; and he recognized the impact it had on the liberty of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
Extending the classical republican notion of non-domination to the economic sphere is thus not as easy a task as it may at first appear. Indeed, it requires a greater sensitivity to the socio-historical context of political theory than contemporary republican theorists—be they political philosophers or historians of political thought—are willing to entertain. One of the reasons for the difficulty of ‘universalizing’ republican liberty is that classical republicans had no conception of an ‘economy’ that represented a sphere of social activity that was distinct from—and autonomous from—the sphere of politics.[20] The republican discovery of the ‘economy’ came relatively late in the development of political thought—namely, in the American context around the time of the revolution by way of Locke’s political and economic thought.[21] Indeed, one of the reasons for the general lack of interest in republican thought until the revisionism of the post-war period may be due to the fact that classical republicans did not—indeed, in many cases, could not—address a sphere of social activity that would become of utmost significance with the development of capitalist societies.

[1] Skinner, Liberty.

[2] For a more recent presentation of this thesis, see Quentin Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

[3] Pettit 1997, 22.
[4] In this sense, Pettit characterizes Rousseau as an exception within the republican tradition due to his insistence on the link between direct participation in the General Will and the maintenance of liberty. Rousseau’s exceptionalism, however, can only be accepted if we define republicanism in neo-Roman terms. Indeed, the relationship of Rousseau to the neo-republican project is somewhat ambiguous. See Viroli’s inconsistent attempts to include Rousseau in the republican tradition. Viroli, Republicanism.
[5] Pettit 1997, 30. We can certainly take issue with the claim that democracy was important for the neo-Roman republican tradition. Skinner acknowledges that, with only a few exceptions, writers working within the neo-Roman tradition were less than accommodating to the demands of democracy. Within the context of early modern England, theorists such as Milton were indeed hostile to what he called the ‘promiscuous mob’.
[6]According to Viroli, democrats and communitarians claim that law must conform to the individual will of an agent.
[7] Viroli 2002, p. 35.
[8] Viroli 2002, p. 66.
[9]Viroli’s position may be at odds with Pettit’s insistence that republican requires only a form of ‘structural egalitarianism’ as opposed to more radical forms of ‘material egalitarianism’. In this sense it is instructive that Rousseau’s figures into Pettit’s republicanism as an exception or aberration from the larger republican tradition while in Viroli’s work he is included in some aspects of the development of republicanism, but then excluded when the limits of his republicanism conflict with the neo-republican project.
[10] Skinner 1998, p. 17.
[11] Pettit 1996, p.6.
[12] Pettit 1997, p. 6.
[13]Primarily concerned with the history of ideas, and given the methodological importance he places on the intentions of political theorists, Skinner is more reluctant to engage in contemporary debates in political philosophy pertaining to the contemporary relevance of classical republicanism.
[14] Viroli 2002, p. 11-12.
[15]Pettit 1997, p. 5.
[16] Pettit 1997, p. 141.
[17] Pettit 1997, p. 142.
[18] Pettit 1997, p. 142.

[19] The republican treatment of Rousseau is
[20]This is not the same thing as saying that republicans had no conception of a private sphere distinct from that of the public.
[21]On the relationship between Locke’s ideas and the development of agrarian capitalism, see Neal Wood, John Locke and Agrarian Capitalism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Although he presents a qualitatively different interpretation of Locke’s ideas—particularly in relationship to property—Richard Ashcraft’s discussion of Locke in relationship to the absence of any differentiation between an economic and political sphere in Filmer’s work is insightful. See Richard Ashcraft, Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.


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