Republicanism and wage-labour

august7In a previous post, I presented a criticism of republicanism’s inability to adequately address the problems of power exerted in the modern capitalist economy. This should come as no surprise really, given that the republican notion of liberty as ‘non-domination’ was articulated within the context of pre-capitalist economies characterized by the employment of dependent forms of labour, ranging from slavery, serfdom and paternalistic forms of apprenticeship. If wage labour did exist in these societies, it was either considered to be a transitionary condition, and therefore temporary, or it was considered to be the most demeaning form of livelihood – at least from the perspective of ‘republican’ writers – that could be exercised by ‘free men’.

In Roman terms, to be ‘dominated’ was to be the property of a dominus. In Greek terms, it required subjection to despotic power characterized by the slave-master and highlighted by Aristotle in his hierarchy of non-political forms of association. One of the problems I have with republicanism is that it seems ill-suited to adequately address the kinds of power relations that are constitutive of a capitalist society in which slavery has been abolished. In this case, my interest is the place that wage-labour plays in the contemporary republican tradition.

Contemporary republicans are, to some degree, aware of this problem. As I pointed out in the previous post, Quentin Skinner notes that republican 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.’ Philip 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’, thereby excluding the relations of domination that exist within the labour market and the patriarchal household.

Contemporary republican liberty thus needs to address these silences within the republican tradition. The question remains how to do so. Pettit and Viroli are the most explicit in their attempt to modernize classical republicanism. Viroli argues:

‘To emancipate women from the domination of men, a republic must impose laws that interfere with men’s freedom of choice. To emancipate workers from the arbitrary power of employers, a republic must impose laws that restrict the employers’ freedom of choice.’

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.’

I have highlighted the passages referring to class and labour not because I think the other forms of social relationships are not significant, but because they need to be addressed as separate issues.

Back to the issues of wage labour:  Pettit believes that socialists should subscribe to his conception of republican liberty as a condition of non-domination because it can sufficiently deal with the problems of ‘wage slavery’ (to use words). 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.’ 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.’ 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.’

Now, there is a significant problem with Pettit’s characterization of ‘wage slavery’. And this is not a matter of splitting hairs; or of simply evoking Marx’s notion of alienation to ‘prove’ Pettit and republicans like him wrong. Rather, the way republicans characterize wage-labour has significant implications for republican politics. Pettit characterizes the power relationship between worker and employer solely in terms of a personal relationship between the individual worker and the individual employer. There are two important points about this characterization. First, the problem of ‘domination’ faced by the worker is confined to the workplace. To put it another way, the arbitrary power of the employer is limited to the power he can exert over his workforce at the point of production (or retail, etc.). Secondly, the relation of domination is characterized as an intentional, and particularized form of abuse or aberrant behaviour. The fact that Pettit and Viroli lump together the labour-capital relationship with that of the patriarchal relationship between an abusive husband and his abused wife, or the paternalistic relationship between abusive parents and their abused children, is instructive. Both theorists characterize them as essentially similar social relationships.

It is important to remind readers that republicans like Pettit and Viroli legitimize interference in the employer-employee relationship on the grounds of ensuring non-domination. And it is important to remember that they do this on the grounds that their conception of liberty as non-domination is sufficiently distinct from the liberal notion of liberty as non-interference. To put it another way, the conceptual differences between the way they identify what is liberty versus what is coercion leads them to a politics that is fundamentally different from that of liberalism. Or so they claim.

The problem here is that, as I have also argued in a previous post, there are fewer differences between the republican conception of liberty proposed by Pettit and Viroli, and the liberal conception of liberty as non-interference—once we bring Hayek into the conversation. For example, in the opening pages of The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek clearly defines interference in terms of arbitrary power and defines liberty as ‘independence’ from that arbitrary power:

‘The freedom of the free may have differed widely, but only in the degree of an independence which the slave did not possess at all. It meant always the possibility of a person’s acting according to his own decisions and plans, in contrast to the position of one who was irrevocably subject to the will of another, who by arbitrary decision could coerce him to act or not to act in specific ways. The time-honored phrase by which this freedom has often been described is therefore “independence of the arbitrary will of another.’

The notable example of the unfree subject here, like in the republican literature, is the slave whose unfreedom is characterized as a form of dependence.  Unlike Isaiah Berlin, against whom all republicans have defined themselves, Hayek places primary emphasis on the significance of ‘independence’ from the ‘arbitrary will of another’ as the basis of liberty as non-interference.

The similarities, however, do not end here. Like Pettit, Hayek characterizes interference as a form of coercion, and like Pettit, coercion requires the conscious intention of the agent doing to coercing. ‘Coercion’, writes Hayek, ‘occurs when one man’s actions are made to serve another man’s will, not for his own but for the other’s purpose.’ Similarly, this idea of coercion ‘implies both the threat of inflicting harm and the intention thereby to bring about certain conduct.’  Both Hayek and Pettit, therefore, characterize arbitrary interference as a form of intentional coercion. In fact, this puts Pettit closer to Hayek than it does Hayek to Berlin, who wrote, in the Two Essays, ‘[t]he criterion of oppression is the part that I believe to be played by other human beings, directly or indirectly, with or without the intention of doing so, in frustrating my wishes.’

Similarly, both Pettit and Hayek argue that coercive interference is not limited to physical interference:  just as Pettit speaks of ‘coercion of the will’, Hayek speaks of fraud and manipulation. For Pettit, interference also includes ‘manipulation’, which ‘may take the form of agenda-fixing, the deceptive or non-rational shaping of people’s beliefs or desires, or the rigging of the consequences of people’s actions.’ Likewise for Hayek, deception can be considered a form of coercion because it is ‘a form of manipulating the data on which a person counts, in order to make him do what the deceiver wants him to do … Though we have no single word to cover both, all we have said of coercion applies equally to fraud and deception.’

At an abstract level then, it is difficult to see the differences between Pettit’s conceptualization of liberty as non-domination and Hayek’s conceptualization of liberty as non-interference. Both share a common definition of coercion, one that emphasizes the intention to arbitrarily interfere in the life plans of another; and both argue that to be free means that one is independent of the arbitrary will of others.

How does this relate to the relationship between employer and employee? First of all, because the republican conception of liberty does not seem to be distinct from that of Hayek’s, there is nothing intrinsic to Hayek’s conception of liberty that prevents it from protecting workers from abuse in the workplace in the way advocated by republicans. Both Hayek and republicans characterize coercion in the workplace as an intentional form of abuse that is not an essential component of the employer/employee relationship.

Here’s Hayek:

‘To do the bidding of others is for the employed the condition of achieving his purpose. Yet, though he may find this at times highly irksome, in normal conditions he is not unfree in the sense of being coerced. True, the risk or sacrifice involved in giving up his job may often be so great as to make him continue in it, even though he intensely dislikes it. But this may be true of almost any other occupation to which a man has committed himself—certainly of many independent positions.’

And again:

‘The essential fact is that in a competitive society the employed is not at the mercy of a particular employer, except in periods if extensive unemployment. The law wisely does not recognize contracts for the permanent sale of a person’s labor and, in general, does not even enforce contracts for specific performance. Nobody can be coerced to continue to work under a particular boss, even if he has contracted to do so; and, in a normally operating competitive society, alternative employment will be available, even though it may often be less remunerative.’

Because republicans essentially define liberty and domination in the same way as Hayek, they characterize the ‘domination’ in the relationship between employer and employee in the same way as does Hayek:  as an aberrant form of coercion. As a result, they really have no way of responding to the point Hayek is making in the passages cited above:  that if the worker is coerced in the workplace, he is always free to leave, because in a capitalist society, there will always be alternative forms of employment, even if they do not pay as well.

It is unclear to me how republicans can respond to Hayek on the grounds of liberty, even if they employ the notion of non-domination. To do so, I think, they would have to expand their conception of domination in ways that recognizes the impersonal forces of the capitalist labour market. This would require them to take up an argument similar to that of GA Cohen’s argument:  that, while personally free, wage-labourers in a capitalist economy are ‘collectively unfree’ regardless of the conscious intentions of their employer. Accepting this, put forward in ‘The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom,’ would of course require republicans to embrace aspects of Marxism.


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