Pragmatic Utopia #34: Market Domination and Republican Liberty

This week, I have an essay discussing three books that analyze economic affairs from the perspective of neo-republican political philosophy, which is concerned above all with independence from arbitrary power. The books are: a provocative argument that workplaces are dictatorships, a history of 19th century labor reformers who came to roughly the same conclusion, and a reinterpretation of Marx’s Capital that emphasizes its republican features. All three writers–Elizabeth Anderson, Alexander Gourevitch, and William Clare Roberts–cite each other approvingly and seem to be part of a nascent academic movement to build a case for socialism on neo-republican terms. I should apologize to anyone who knows this material for failing to include Philip Pettit much in my discussion; he has been a key (and I think one of the first?) proponent of this republican socialist view, and all three authors build on his arguments. I should have read one of his books, but as is often the case I seem to have stumbled on this topic out of order and will have to absorb the classics by osmosis.

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The Map of Hell by Botticelli, depicting the rings of Hell in Dante’s (and perhaps also Marx’s) Inferno

A lot of academic types I know were very eager for the recent release of Elizabeth Anderson’s new book: Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It). The premise seemed to offer what many of the best non-fiction books do–a new way of looking at an old topic, so obvious in retrospect that you can’t imagine how we ever saw it differently. In this case, the idea is to think about employers in the same terms we think about governments. That is, as paternalistic authorities that can do much good for us but who run the risk of infringing on our liberties.

Anderson charges the modern workplace with being a “communist dictatorship”: “The economic system of the modern workplace is communist, because the government—that is, the establishment—owns all the assets,and the top of the establishment hierarchy designs the production plan, which subordinates execute. ­There are no internal markets in the modern workplace. Indeed, the boundary of the firm is defined as the point at which markets end and authoritarian centralized planning and direction begin.” For many readers, it may seem inappropriate to apply terms like “communist” and “dictatorship” or even “government” to the private realm. These are terms we use exclusively for states, right?

Anderson recognizes this, and so she builds her argument on top of an effort to undermine the historical and philosophical distinctions between public and private, state and economy. She concludes that a government is “private” with respect to a subject if it can order the subject around while ignoring the subject’s preferences in how it (the government) should operate. What makes something public, conversely, has nothing to do with “the state” but rather with the presence of deliberative, inclusive decision-making. The historical support for this argument involves looking back to the British Levellers (17th century egalitarian movement during the English Civil War), Adam Smith, and Thomas Paine, all of whom conceived of liberty in terms of dismantling social hierarchy. These early modern thinkers were excited about market exchange not as an alternative to government regulation (as modern libertarians might tell you) but rather as an alternative to non-market forms of private privilege: hereditary land ownership, the House of Lords, the state-backed Church, and state-sponsored monopolies. This conception of liberty–as freedom from social hierarchy and the domination it enables–is known as republican liberty. Part of what brought me to Anderson’s book was my growing interest in republican liberty as a potentially useful basis for critiquing economic inequality and the concentration of economic power in our contemporary situation.


Around the time I found Anderson’s book, I came across two other recent books on the history of republican critiques of market society. Anderson’s groundbreaking argument, it turns out, is 150 years old. The original source may well be–what else–Marx’s Capital. This is the argument of William Clare Roberts’s fascinating reinterpretation of CapitalMarx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital. But around the same time, in the United States, workingmen’s groups were arguing that the legacy of chattel slavery remained present in “wage slavery,” and that the private employment contract was not truly free. These 19th century “labor republicans” are the subject of Alexander Gourevitch’s book, From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century. I must admit that this post would have a better symmetry if I had read one more book, something about Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and his coterie of republican socialists. This is because the labor republicans’ ideas resemble Proudhon’s more than they do Marx’s. In ascending order of radical republicanism, then, I’ll briefly discuss the labor republicans before working up to Marx.

Gourevitch’s project began as an effort to critique the history of republican thought from a Marxist standpoint. Republicanism, after all, emerged from aristocratic origins in Greek and Roman political philosophy. Gourevitch surveys the literature on slaveholding ideology in Athens and Rome and concludes that republican-style independence for some always depended on slavery for others. Landed independence for peasant-citizens was only tolerable if wealthy citizens had access to slave labor (see Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology for more on Greece and Rome as slave societies, and on longstanding historiographic neglect of this fact). The same relationship between independence and slavery crops up again in the American South, see for example George Fitzhugh (pro-slavery advocate and, sadly, America’s first sociologist) writing, “To become independent is to be able to make other people support you, without being obliged to labor for them. Now, what man in society is not seeking to attain that situation? He who attains it is a slaveowner.”

Proponents of an egalitarian republicanism can’t be satisfied with these origins! Now, contemporary republicans like Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit claim that republicanism overcame its aristocratic, propertied origins. But when? Gourevitch set out to poke a hole in their history, but ended up filling it in himself. He suggests that a coalition of American workingmen’s associations, most prominently the Knights of Labor, undertook a radicalization of the republican tradition by extending the accusation of “domination” to the workplace.

The labor republicans’ signature phrase was “wage slavery,” and it was carefully chosen. They understood slavery as a situation of being so economically vulnerable as to be coerced into work, and to have the proceeds of that labor taken away. Before the Civil War, they continually pestered William Lloyd Garrison to add materials on wage slavery to his abolitionist agenda in The Liberator. Even though they were committed abolitionists, this feels a bit like the 19th century version of “All Lives Matter,” and it’s easy to understand why Garrison ignored their requests. After abolition, it was easier for the crusade against wage slavery to take center stage on the “Radical Republican” (i.e. the political party, not the political philosophy) agenda.

Labor republicans argued that workers were coerced or dominated at three stages. First, they were coerced into seeking work, because they lacked the independence of personal land or property. As one prominent labor republican wrote, “If laborers were sufficiently free to make contracts…they would be too free to need contracts.” The second stage, then, was labor contracts written on the employer’s terms. The third stage, most important to the republican critique, was domination inside the workplace within the contract’s inevitably ambiguous terms. The point here is that labor (or more precisely labor power, in Marx’s terms) is a unique commodity. The basic logic of most contracts involves the seller giving over complete ownership and control of the commodity to the buyer. But in a labor contract, the commodity is pure human capacity. So, the labor republicans concluded, the labor contract was necessarily an agreement to give up control over one’s will for the duration of the working day.

Elizabeth Anderson builds much of her argument on this same observation about the broad scope of employer prerogative within contracts, and provides many examples of things modern workers are forced to do because of the power imbalance: have their possessions searched, refrain from using the bathroom during the workday, endure sexual harassment, and so on. Unfortunately, she commingles these aforementioned examples (which I believe to be both serious and widespread) with examples of abuses that seem more anecdotal and peripheral: workers fired for their comments on Facebook or for espousing political positions contrary to the employer’s. It would have been helpful to give some sense of the relative prevalence of these abuses. Private Government includes a series of responses by prominent academics (the book and the responses were originally delivered as a Tanner Lecture series), and it is only in response to Tyler Cowen’s skepticism that Anderson really sharpens her focus on the most serious examples of workplace domination. Cowen suggests that when firms fire people for insensitive Facebook comments, they are usually trying to protect other workers, and more broadly suggests that there is less conflict between firms and workers than Anderson thinks, and more conflict among workers themselves. In general, he thinks workplaces compete on hospitality to attract employees and doubts that work is nearly as tyrannical as Anderson says. Anderson gets the last word, accusing Cowen of being out of touch with the world of low-wage work (e.g. slaughterhouses, home health aides) and generalizing from his highly-educated social circles.

Ultimately I don’t think either Anderson or Cowen presents the most useful evidence on what work is really like these day. I’d suggest an ethnography like Vanesa Ribas’ On the Line: Slaughterhouse Lives and the Making of the New South (slaughterhouse workers) or Seth Holmes’s Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (farmworkers) or the old classic, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (clerks, maids, waitresses, health aides) for the reality of low-wage work, low-control work.

Cowen’s other main critique is that Anderson should have given more space to evaluating alternatives to “private government.” Anderson names worker-owned cooperatives (which are public, in her terms) as a preferable alternative to employer-controlled private government, but her book is not the place for a full exploration of the pro’s and con’s of the cooperative form. The labor republicans were also deeply committed to the idea of cooperatives. For them, the cooperative ideal was not just an institutional solution but a manifestation of their highest ideal, solidarity, which they defined as a synthesis of self-interest and virtue, or, alternatively, as the habits required to act collectively for common good. Classical republicanism had generally held that property owners were the most likely people to act virtuously; they had the luxury to do so. The labor republicans flipped this thinking on its head, inventing a “political theory of the dependent classes” that held up propertyless workers as the vanguard of solidaristic virtue. The dependent classes, after all, would have to work together even in pursuit of self-interest.

The idea of worker-owned cooperatives has a long history on the political left. It was the signature recommendation of Proudhon, of the labor republicans, and now of critics like Anderson. The challenge since Marx, however, has been to explain why a cooperative facing the same market pressures and production technologies as a capitalist firm wouldn’t exploit its workers just the same. As William Clare Roberts summarizes Marx’s view, “The [cooperative] separatists replicate the founding gesture of capital, the fantasy that there is some part of the world that can be appropriated a novo without expropriating another.” The labor republicans were aware that a few islands of cooperation in a sea of capitalism would not long endure. The Knights of Labor advocated for a suite of society-wide institutions necessary to support a cooperative system: the nationalization of public utilities, a public bank making cheap credit available to cooperatives, and a nationwide system of labor legislation (e.g. minimum wage, maximum hours). This is all well and good, but it makes you wonder whether we’re still talking about cooperatives and voluntaristic reform or about a socialist political revolution.


So as I’ve indicated at multiple points, Marx had a critique of the employer-employee relationship that is complementary to yet deeper than the one found in other republicans concerned with domination at work. Ordinarily I would leave discussion of Capital for another day–it’s a big enough subject in its own right–but Marx’s Inferno fits too nicely into today’s labor republicanism theme. I found this to be an extraordinary book, the most difficult but most rewarding of the ones I’ve mentioned today. Capital is one of those works that has spawned literally tens of thousands of responses, analyses, and exegeses, and while I haven’t read the vast majority of those, I get the sense (in part from David Harvey, who has) that Roberts is really saying something new.

More than one thing, actually. Roberts makes two main claims in situating Capital. First, the structure of Capital is closely modeled on Dante’s Inferno. There are the same number of chapters, grouped into Parts which correspond to progressively deeper rings of Dante’s Hell. The metaphor of capitalism as a “social Hell” was actually quite common in socialist writings of Marx’s time; his choice of the Dantean structure was not just a clever Easter egg (although it is that too) but also a move to appropriate common socialist imagery for his own purposes. And indeed those purposes differed from his socialist interlocutors. Whereas usually capitalism itself was held to be the social Hell, for Marx it is bourgeois political economy; i.e., Hell is other people’s analysis of capitalism. It’s a pretty devastating metaphor when you think about it. It’s why the subtitle of Capital is “Critique of Political Economy.”

And this brings us to Roberts’s second main intervention. Capital is often read as a rebuttal to “classical” British political economy, or the work of Smith, Malthus, and Ricardo. But Roberts argues that it is really a conversation with Marx’s rival socialists: Saint-Simon, Fourier, and especially Proudhon. With the social Hell metaphor and again throughout the book, Marx takes up the socialists’ key terms to use against them. I found this context very helpful for making better sense of Capital than I had before. Marx spends long sections reconstructing arguments that he ultimately disagrees with, so it can be pretty confusing if you don’t have some familiarity with the version of contemporary socialism he’s trying to improve upon.

For Marx, the prevailing socialist analysis of what it meant for workers to be exploited was far too narrow. Socialists identified most of the exploitation occurring prior to any labor contract; poor workers lacking property were forced to seek work. Recall: “If laborers were sufficiently free to make contracts…they would be too free to need contracts.” The ultimate origin of this unfairness was whatever process of “primitive accumulation” led some people to have property and others not. If property ownership were equalized, the wrong of primitive accumulation would be righted, free exchange between equal parties could commence, workers would be paid a fair wage (e.g. determined by the labor theory of value), and all would be well. Not so fast, thought Marx.

To show the true problems with markets–and why the socialist approach wouldn’t solve them–Marx leads us into the first level of his social Hell, the sphere of exchange. This level corresponds to the region of Dante’s Hell associated with sins of incontinence, or lack of self-control: the circles of Lust, Gluttony, Greed, and Wrath. The question this level raises is: why do markets seem to make people behave badly? Roberts observes that early socialism inherited a Christianized version of classical moralism about the sinfulness of market exchange, but also a tradition of republican thought where lack of self-control is a consequence of domination rather than its cause and justification. What Marx wants to do in this section is strip away all moralizing and show why participating in markets robs people of self-control.

The basic argument is that for producers, being sensitive to prices (or to what the market wants) undermines the possibility of deliberate action. Here Roberts reinterprets the famous concept of ‘commodity fetishism,’ which is usually seen as a problem of mis-perception, mistaking social relationships between people as economic relationships between money and things. Roberts thinks commodity fetishism should be understood mostly as a problem of domination rather than false consciousness. In other words, people’s behavior is coordinated and imposed by the market–which is really just an aggregation of everyone else’s voices, weighted by their market power–rather than by a deliberative process where everyone’s voice is equal. Of course, this collective process of coercion is further obscured by the commodity relationship, but in Roberts’s emphasis, the power dynamic is the more important part than the means of its deception.

This argument so far is meant to explain why markets sap the agency of producers. But you’re probably wondering: isn’t Marx supposed to be showing why capitalism is bad for workers? In the next Part of Capital, Marx leads the reader deeper into social Hell–into the sphere of production, which mirrors Dante’s descent into lower Hell, and specifically the circle of violence. Recall that other socialists had located the violence of capitalism occurringbefore exchange, in whatever primitive accumulation put the landless at a permanent bargaining disadvantage. Marx sets up the more challenging goal of criticizing “cleanly generated capitalism,” or the employment of a consenting worker for a fair wage. This is where he defines the exploitation of labor power, by which he means the exploitation of human potentiality. When a worker is hired for a fixed period, Marx says, the capitalist will naturally want to use as much of the worker’s energy, skill, and capacity as possible. Roberts notes that modern concepts like emotional labor or affective labor build off this same insight that the capitalist will eventually use every piece of the worker, physical and psychological. But ultimately, manipulating human nature by force is not the end of the story for Marx. Rather, he concludes that exploitation of labor power is wrong because it sins against the proper nature of labor, which is to produce something of some use or enjoyment rather than surplus value (or honestly, just call it profit) for the employer.

The next section of Capital corresponds to Dante’s sphere of fraud. Here Marx accuses the defenders of capitalism of offering a bait-and-switch on their promise that technology and productivity growth will improve people’s standard of living over time. I suspect much of this section is misguided, but the interesting part where Roberts focuses is Marx’s accusation that Proudhon’s promised cooperation is fraudulent. Proudhon was enchanted by an idea of “collective force,” a sort of increasing returns to scale for which individual wages did not adequately compensate the collective body of workers. As I mentioned earlier, Proudhon’s ideal society would be one of many worker-owned cooperatives, each governed by his principle of mutuality, a sort of social contract for groups larger than a family and smaller than a state. Marx argued in response that workers cannot cooperate without being employed by the same capital. Workers are employed not just by bosses but by the conditions of labor itself, especially machines which demand a certain pace of work, and moreover by the market for which they produce commodities. This is where Marx’s prior analysis of market exchange comes in handy; it suggests that workers can no sooner cooperate than become enslaved to the market, and consequently to enslave one another.

The final section of Capital, which discusses primitive accumulation, corresponds to Dante’s sphere of treachery. In brief summary, Marx minimizes the traditional socialist story that capitalism arose when the first capitalists usurped monopoly ownership of land from their feudal predecessors. In Marx’s cursory historical account, capitalists did not replace landlords so much as crop up between them and landless workers, making both parties dependent on the middleman (the one for cultivation of the soil, the other for a paycheck).

The upshot of this account is that you can’t explain away capitalism as mere violence, as the traditional primitive accumulation story tends to do. It was the landlords who amassed the modern proletariat through plundering land; all the capitalists did was invite both parties to engage in peaceful exchange. This argument was tailor-made to frustrate Marx’s socialist contemporaries, who tended to frame capitalists as malicious actors. Marx wants none of that moralizing. As I understand it, the crux of Marx’s critique of capitalism is found in the early chapters on exchange, commodity fetishism, and the ways in which people lose their agency to the collective domination of the market. The rest is critique of political economy.

I hope that my discussion of Marx’s Inferno, coupled with my earlier discussion of republicanism, makes clear why this book is framed as a political interpretation of Marx. Roberts sees Marx radicalizing the republican tradition by pointing out a new form of domination: domination by other people, mediated by the market. This critique of domination lines up nicely with Elizabeth Anderson’s definition of private situations. Both might be remedied by restructuring relationships of power as relationships of association. Roberts argues that Marx was more appreciate of deliberative, democratic methods of association than he is usually given credit for. Now, what a deliberative economy might look like is a challenging question; Roberts says Marx would not have approved of central planning, nor market socialism either. The only option that seems plausible (according to Marx’s preferences, not necessarily in any other terms…) would be democratic deliberation over all production decisions. One place you can explore a vision roughly consistent with this is a working paper by Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi, “An Outline of Cognitive Democracy.” In the age of Democracy for Realists, this may seem a more than optimistic pursuit.

1. Minnesota magpie
I enjoyed Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech immensely. He walks you through four of his literary influences–the blues music tradition, Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the Odyssey–sharing the words, phrases, and sounds that stuck in his mind and filtered into his lyrics. It felt like an English class lecture that could get anyone inspired to start reading those books. Then I learned that he appears to have cribbed many of the passages he quoted from Sparknotes, many of which weren’t even in the actual books in the first place. But then also Dylan has been copying and repurposing material without attribution for decades? It’s kind of his process? So I’m not sure exactly how to feel.  

2. The China trap
Withering, scathing takedown of a prominent book arguing that the U.S. and China are doomed to fall into the ‘Thucydides trap’ where a rising power strikes fear into an established power and the two cannot escape going to war. The author shows how there was no such trap in the original Thucydides and why it’s dangerous to adopt this fear with respect to China. Appeasing China in lots of minor confrontations out of such fear is likely to lead to greater trouble down the road. I don’t know enough to weigh in on his China conclusion, but this is worth it for the schooling in ancient Greek history alone.

3. Automation and global labor supply
Excellent Lant Pritchett essay on automation in the context of developing countries already struggling with massive youth unemployment (h/t Alexander Berger). I do not expect to be surprised by people’s takes on this subject, but by taking the international perspective Pritchett made me see it in new light. Much follows from the massive wage multiples between U.S. and, say, Ugandan or Indian workers.  “None of the usual economist platitudes or models about technology and job creation and destruction that use local prices apply in the face of massive distortions to global markets. It is an economically inefficient—not to mention inequitable—use of resources to use the world’s scarce technological and entrepreneurial talent to displace workers who are globally abundant.”

4. Still don’t think BuzzFeed is serious?
This BuzzFeed News investigation on the widespread practice of Russian-backed assassinations in the U.K. is mind-blowing. Assassins connected to Russian intelligence and mafia are routinely killing expats and their British associates who have become enemies of Putin…and the British police are ignoring the obvious evidence and ruling them all suicides. According to anonymous American and British intelligence officials, the British are afraid of starting a fight with Russia and eager to keep the spree of Russian investment in London real estate flowing. Based on my memory of how normal countries function, people should resign over this story. It is a pathetic abdication of the most basic function of sovereignty.

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