Freedom Yet to Come

The Labor Republicans offer ways to help us talk about how work makes us unfree

Work makes us unfree. Many of us feel this in our bones. But the radical left isn’t great at articulating these feelings: we aren’t particular savvy in using the language of freedom — whether in making sense of our experiences of work or talking about the economy more generally. The same can’t be said of much of the right. They are well-practiced in discussing freedom in confident tones, however hollow their claims might sound to us. Eric MacGilvray is correct to say that “the widespread and growing influence of market ideology depends in part on its ability to speak in the language and with the authority of freedom.”1 How can we on the left do better?

My suggestion is that we can learn a lot by looking back to an almost-forgotten American workers’ movement of the nineteenth century: the labor republicans. This might seem quixotic – but the labor republicans were remarkably successful in framing capitalist labour markets and workplaces as threats to our freedom. The aim of this essay is show where their ideas came from and what they can teach us about freedom. But we can start closer to home with what workers in the UK today have to say about their jobs.

Here is what people in London told the Angry Workers of the World about their workplaces. A temp at a supermarket distribution centre says their shifts get cancelled at short notice with little compensation, and that management can get temps to work faster by means of an “arbitrary” hiring process for the “carrot of a permanent job”. In a shambolic 3D-printer manufacturing company, an employee complains about “arbitrary management decisions”, including unplanned sackings and hasty changes to working time and pay. A west London careworker describes how casualisation has led to greater precarity for their colleagues, such that “current support workers are dependent on the good will of their employer”.

There is nothing unusual about any of this. We are all-too-familiar with the fact that employers have a great deal of power to hire and fire employees, to alter their hours, supress their wages, control the speed of their work, shape the working environment, and demand a certain emotional demeanour of their staff. But what is striking about the testimony that the Angry Workers of the World collected is the way that workers unselfconsciously complain about the arbitrariness of the power over them and the way that they are dependent on the sheer good will of their bosses. This aversion to arbitrary power is at the core of a longstanding ‘civic republican’ way of thinking about freedom that stretches right back to the ancient world.

The civic republican tradition contrasts freedom with domination — slavery being the most obvious example of a dominating relationship. The slave was dominated because they were subject to the will of their master. This usually resulted in forced labour, but actual compulsion was not strictly necessary for domination. If a slave had a kindly master who could work them to death in the fields or down the mines but who currently chose to leave them alone, then they remained a slave all the same. In this vein, Cicero tells us that the most miserable aspect of slavery is that “even if the master happens not to be oppressive, he can be so should he wish.” The slave is unfree because their fate is dependent on the arbitrary power of another person; everything hinges on the master’s arbitrium or judgement. Slaves who had a comfortable life in their master’s service – as some Roman slaves did – could still not claim to be free, since at any time the rug could be pulled from under them at someone else’s whim.

Freedom depends upon being secure against the arbitrary will of the powerful. This civic republican commitment animated their revulsion for tyranny as well as a forceful diagnosis of it. The unconstrained power of tyrants reduces their subjects to slaves — even when they promise to use this power for good. This understanding of freedom was not confined to the ancient republics of Greece and Rome but was later taken up by others fighting for their liberty. It inspired the parliamentarians in the English Civil War who objected to the arbitrary power of the king, whose head they had smitten from his body. Likewise, it underpinned critiques of Britain’s unaccountable power over its American colonies, which culminated in the American Revolutionary War.

But how far can this republican understanding of freedom be pushed? Can the west London workers fed up with the arbitrary power of their bosses claim to be fighting for their republican liberty? Many in the age-old civic republican tradition would have said no. Take the seventeenth century republican Algernon Sidney, whose manuscripts helped get him executed during the English Restoration (“to write is to act” said the judge at his trial). He makes a compelling attack on the arbitrary power of princes and magistrates, no matter how wisely it is used:

The weight of chains, number of stripes, hardness of labour, and other effects of a master’s cruelty, may make one servitude more miserable than another: but he is a slave who serves the best and gentlest man in the world, as well as he who serves the worst; and he does serve him if he must obey his commands, and depends upon his will. 2

But Sidney is clear that none of this extends to employment relationships. He tells us:

If there be a contest between me and my servant concerning my service, I only am to decide it: He must serve me in my own way, or be gone if I think fit, tho he serve me never so well; and I do him no wrong in putting him away.3

Don’t come to Sidney complaining about the power of your boss then; his response is ‘tough shit’.

All this can seem to confirm the suspicion that appeals to freedom throughout history are relentlessly conservative. The praise for freedom in classical antiquity was for the liberty of the male citizen, which presupposed the subordination of slaves and women. When slaves revolted, they fought for their own emancipation, and had no interest in abolishing slavery as such. In the modern era, no-one should have been surprised when the inalienable right to liberty announced in the Declaration of Independence was not extended to chattel slaves labouring on the plantations. Likewise, Sidney’s earlier republican contempt for absolute monarchy was compatible with an autocratic disregard for the servants in his household. And we all instinctively grasp that the more recent libertarian defence of individual freedom in the marketplace shores up conditions for subordination in the workplace. Must then the freedom of some rest on the unfreedom of others? Are liberty and equality always at odds?

No. This was the conclusion that the labor republicans reached, and which underpinned their efforts to universalise republican liberty. Alex Gourevitch’s truly brilliant study of nineteenth-century labor republicanism (which I draw on heavily here) shows how they fought for a freedom that would not depend on the enslavement and subjection of others. Specifically, unlike Sidney, they extended the republican analysis of domination to the economic sphere, using it to develop a searing critique of the power of employers and the system of industrial capitalism which led workers to be structurally dependent on them. Their aim was “to abolish as rapidly as possible, the wage system, substituting co-operation therefore.” To achieve this, they founded the Knights of Labor in 1869. The Knights not only gave leadership positions to women but were also the first nationwide labour association where black and white workers organised together on a relatively equal basis for a sustained period. At their height, they could boast of thousands of consumer or producer cooperatives, employing tens of thousands, and which they hoped to grow into an “industrial state”, in contrast to the separatist tendencies of communities modelled on Owenite utopian socialism.

The Knights were acutely sensitive to the ways in which workers were deprived of freedom. In particular, they insisted “it must not be supposed that the proclamation of emancipation liberated mankind from slavery.”4 Servitude had survived the end of chattel slavery – both for the former slaves themselves and the rest of the working classes. “Something of slavery still remains,” as the labor republican Ira Steward remarked – but the possibility of abolishing waged labour and replacing it with cooperative production held out the hope that “something of freedom is yet to come”.5

A freedom yet to come would not be possible without a fight. The labor republicans realised this required not only social organisation and material infrastructure but winning people around to their ideas. They knew independent Owenite communities would barely make a dent in the wider economy – not to mention involving an unhealthy dependence on wealthy philanthropists like Owen. Freedom for the labouring classes as a whole would require forms of self-emancipation achievable on a mass basis – ones which could be scaled up rather than remaining local and thereby fragile shelters for workers. Fundamental to that ideological effort was seizing the language of freedom back from their enemies: the defenders of free contract and untrammelled market exchange. They knew – perhaps more keenly than we do today – that they could not cede the idea and rhetoric of freedom to their opponents and instead champion their cause merely on the basis of equality or justice alone.

The first step would be to dispel the “false idea of liberty” founded on freedom of contract. Labor republicans argued that the voluntariness of a labour contract was not enough to ensure it was made freely. Furthermore, a prominent member of the Knights, George McNeill, tells us,

The fact is, there is no such thing as liberty of contract between a wage worker and an employer. A starving man cannot contract with a man of wealth; a man that is compelled to sell his labor or starve can not make a contract.6

Workers in this position “assent but they do not consent, they submit but do not agree”.

The problem that the labor republicans identified was not the need to work but that “the worker cannot produce without giving himself a boss or master” (as the Knights’ Journal of United Labor put it)7. This leads Gourevitch to claim the labor republicans recognised a form of ‘structural domination’, whereby the background structure of property ownership compelled workers to subordinate themselves to the authority of some employer or other, even if there was no specific individual that they could be forced to work for. The structural domination of workers then funnelled them into relationships of personal domination once they had entered the workplace. In this spirit, the Journal asks: “Is there a workshop where obedience is not demanded – not to the difficulties or qualities of the labor to be performed – but to the caprice of he who pays the wages of his servants?”8 Here we see how the familiar republican antipathy towards arbitrary power came to be directed at bosses, whose sweeping discretionary powers leave workers at their beck and call. When the Knights asked themselves, “What is it to be a SLAVE?” then they answered, “It is to be a person consciously capable of self-government, and to be, at the same time, subject to the will of another person.”9 The waged worker with no plausible option but to sell their labour-power to a capitalist fits the bill.

Lest we think that the arbitrary power of employers is a thing of the past, Gourevitch reminds us of some of the reasons employers have fired workers in recent years: “for comments they made on Facebook, their sexual orientation, for being too sexually appealing, or for not being appealing enough, for trying to organize or support unionization, for being ‘disloyal,’ or for some other kind of perceived disobedience.”10 Elizabeth Anderson gives even more examples of the powers that employers have chosen to exercise lately: prohibiting the ‘time theft’ of casual chatting, subjecting retail employees to after-work inspections on their own unpaid time, preventing workers from using the toilet, and administering suspicionless drug screening. She adds that while we know how to talk about wages, “we don’t have good ways to talk about the way bosses rule workers’ lives.11 This is among the most important lessons of labor republicanism: we need to understand and discuss domination at work no less than exploitation.

Anderson is following in the footsteps of those labor republicans who denied that politics ended at the entrance to the workshop, household, or farm. They repudiated Sidney’s limited republicanism, which concerned itself chiefly with government by the state, and instead condemned the failure to “engraft republican principles into our industrial system”.12 Likewise, Anderson calls for us to “recognise that government is everywhere that we find authority being exercised”. This includes not only the firm but also the family, where even more intractable forms of power govern the distribution of unwaged reproductive work, which falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women.

Freedom in work is not the only labor republican goal though. The freedom from work is also crucial: that is, “to secure to the workers sufficient leisure in which to develop their intellectual, moral and social faculties”.13 Likewise, those who cannot work must not be abandoned or allowed no opportunity to cultivate themselves. Time for self-development was especially important in a machine age of routinised work which could have a stultifying effect on workers. A recognition of the new realities of industrial work didn’t prompt a rejection of modern technology but rather a claim to a “proportionate share of the leisure which the inventions of the age permit.”14 This demand for the freedom from work necessary for self-development ought to be resurrected today, when there is an urgent need to socialise the gains of increasing automation rather than have them entrench private power.

We might suspect, however, that a labor republican analysis drawn from late nineteenth-century American industrial workers will be woefully outdated for thinking through other aspects of the workplace and labour market in the early twenty-first century. Yet, there are some striking resonances with the New Economics being explored by the Labour Party. We find echoes of the labor republican emphasis on free time in Selina Todd’s recent calls for “the start of a new phase in the labour movement’s commitment to leisure.” Furthermore, both John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn have come out strongly in support of cooperatives — the primary economic institution promoted by the labor republicans. McDonnell has also said that Labour ambitions for public ownership “should not try to recreate the nationalised industries of the past […] whose management was often too distant, too bureaucratic and too removed from the reality of those at the forefront of delivering services.” If the model of ‘participatory public ownership’ he favours did place managerial power in the hands of workers, then that should go some way to checking unaccountable authority over them. But neither Todd nor McDonnell has yet taken the opportunity to present these proposals explicitly as a boost to the freedom of those workers.

Of course, labor republicanism cannot yet provide us with a blueprint for transforming the economy – whatever echoes of labor republican themes we can find in current Labour policymaking discussions. Despite the Labour leadership’s enthusiasm for co-ops, there are grounds to be sceptical about how transformative they can currently be within the bounds of a mixed economy in which market discipline still cannot be bucked. However, the more fundamental lessons of labor republicanism are not institutional but strategic and conceptual.

We can’t let the right monopolise the language of freedom in the economy or elsewhere. This means challenging attempts to identify liberty with unimpeded action in the marketplace by showing how this leads to domination in the workplace. The ideological task of ensuring that a politically progressive conception of freedom becomes hegemonic should be informed by a theoretical undertaking to determine what new forms of domination have emerged, and how, given a clear-eyed view of the tools available to us, we can best combat them. The republican conception of liberty must be at the heart of any such efforts.

  1. Eric MacGilvray, The Invention of Market Freedom, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 2. 

  2. Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, Liberty Fund, 1996 [1698], III.21. 

  3. Sidney, Discourses, III.41. 

  4. ‘Industrial Ideas Chapter II’, Journal of United Labor VII:4, June 25, 1886, p. 2098. 

  5. Ira Steward, ‘Poverty’, Fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of Statistics of Labor, Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor (ed.) 173, Boston, Wright & Potter, 1873, p. 412. 

  6. Report of the Industrial Commission on the Relations and Conditions of Capital and Labor Employed in Manufactures and General Business, Including Testimony So Far as Taken November 1, 1900, and Digest of Testimony Vol. 7, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1901, p. 115. 

  7. ‘Industrial Ideas Chapter II’, Journal of United Labor VII: 4, June 25, 1886, p. 2098. 

  8. ‘Chapters on Labor: Chapter VIII (Continued)’, Journal of United Labor, December 25, 1885, p. 1153. 

  9. ‘What Is It to Be a Slave?’, Labor Leaf I:47, September 30, 1885. 

  10. Alex Gourevitch, From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 176. 

  11. Elizabeth Anderson, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It), Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2017, p. xx. 

  12. George McNeill, The Labor Movement: The Problem of To-Day, New York, The M. W. Hazen Co, 1892, p. 456. 

  13. Terence Powderly (ed.) ‘Knights of Labor Platform’, Labor: Its Rights and Wrongs, Washington, The Labor Publishing Company, 1886, p. 30. 

  14. The Master Workman of L A 1573, ‘An Essay on the Evils Resulting From Long Hours and Exhaustive Toil’, Journal of United Labor 2:5-6, October 15, 1881, pp. 159–160.