Radical Virtues

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Is there a radical politics of virtue? One that can say anything useful to our own society? Yes, and it comes from an unexpected source.

Alex Gourevitch
10 July 2013

In today’s commercial republics, the “commercial” and the “republican” seem to be at odds. Commerce generates vast inequalities of wealth; the labor market generates overwork, underemployment, and precariousness; citizens are subject to myriad forms of coercion, surveillance and discipline. Yet a republic is supposed to uphold the freedom and equality of its citizens. Worse yet, the tradition of ‘republican’ political thinking seems to have only extreme answers available to it. In the name of protecting the virtue of its citizens, republicanism has often been hostile to the very idea of commerce. The production and accumulation of wealth, the enjoyment of luxury and leisure, are seen as corrupting private pursuits, drawing citizens away from public life and fracturing any sense of shared commitment to equality and the common good. The only solution is radical regulation. Impose severe restrictions on the production and consumption of wealth, eliminate wealth and poverty, and impose relative uniformity in economic activity. This was the classical republican solution, and neo-republicans have not done much to dislodge this view. As Jessica Kimpell put it in a previous post, “it would seem that contemporary thinkers would be even more vulnerable to this problem than classical republicans.”

The sticking point here is how to think about the republican concept of virtue. Not only does it seem that modern industry is at odds with classical virtue, but the classical idea of a virtuous citizenry seems to fit uneasily with modern ideas about the equality of persons. Classically, it was not just that one needed to own property to be considered adequately independent to exercise one’s own political judgment, but there was a hierarchy of occupations. Wage-workers, propertyless peasants, domestics, and poor artisans were assumed to be too dependent to participate fully in politics; small farmers and artisans deserved political rights but should defer to their betters in most political decisions – the truly virtuous wealthy landowners. The latter had not just the wealth but the time to participate in political life. What could possibly be attractive about this steeply hierarchical vision of political citizenship?

Nothing – until it was appropriated by radical workers in the nineteenth century. Where the language of virtue had once hinged on social assumptions regarding stability, inequality, economic stagnation, and modesty, it was gradually transformed into a language of social protest and democratic transformation. I have written about the egalitarian social vision, including collective control over property and work, in an earlier post for OpenDemocracy. What interests us here is the way in which the language of virtue was used not just to criticize economic injustice but to argue that those who suffered from it were the most promising agents of change.

I know the American example best, though others have pointed to similar developments on the continent. Beginning with the American revolution, artisans and then wage-laborers began to invert the familiar story about virtue. It was not the already independent, property-owning class that was the most virtuous, but rather the dependent class. The reason was that those who lived off the profits of ownership were in fact living off other people’s labor. The wealthy therefore had an interest in maintaining workers in a condition of economic dependence, by depriving them of access to land, tools and credit. As William Manning, a small farmer activated by the usurpations of the Federalists in the 1780s and 90s, put it the few are always trying to keep “farmers, mechanicks, & labourers” in “a state of dependance on the few.” Since the propertied had an interest in preserving and extending the existing inequalities of wealth, not just income, “the few are ever hankering & striving after Monerca and Aristocracy.” Their economic interests made them tend towards aristocratic rather than republican attitudes and policies. The wealthy were thus least likely to exercise the virtues of public concern and equal respect that a republic required. Indeed, as a leading figure in the workingmen’s parties of the 1820s and 30s put it, “history does not furnish an instance wherein the depository of power voluntarily abrogated its prerogative, or the oppressor relinquished his advantages in favour of the oppressed.”

On the other hand, the poor, dependent classes who suffered from inequality and economic domination had a self-interest in republican equality. If everyone possessed some control over property and their own labor, then each could enjoy independence without needing to exploit anyone else. It was therefore the economically dependent who were most likely to develop republican virtues, and be the agents for realizing a cooperative commonwealth. William Heighton, founder of the Philadelphia Working Man’s Party in 1828, said that workers “are beginning to discover, that from themselves alone, all their help must come.” This thought recurred throughout the century, as we find it sixty years later in the Knights of Labor’s central paper: ““the workers can hope for nothing favorable at the hands of governments, nor of politicians, nor of statesmen. They must take their own affairs into their own hands and emancipate themselves.” As they developed their ideas about how to become the agents of their own emancipation, they transformed republican thinking about virtue itself.

For instance, classically, it was the role of the state to coercively inculcate virtue. But labor republicans rejected this idea on the grounds that the actually existing state was itself corrupt and untrustworthy. They even had doubts about the sufficiency of public education and a formally free press. Public education was, on its own, inadequate, and a formally free press was easily influenced by the wealthy. The natural tendency of existing sources of information and education was to “foster prejudices rather than cultivate intelligence.” Instead, labor republicans sought to create their own parallel institutions, like lecture circuits, reading rooms, and educational programs, as well as their own intellectual and cultural products, like labor presses, pamphlets, books, and public speeches. As one prominent mid-century labor republican put it, “We must erect our own halls wherein we can establish our own libraries, reading- and lecture-rooms, under the control and management of our own men; and we must have time to use them.” Labor republicans, in other words, began from the concrete fact of actual injustice – of social domination and exploitation – and looked to self-education, rather than the corrupt state, as a way of inculcating virtues.

Moreover, the relevant virtues were those required to engage in collective struggle. It began with a critique of stunted desires, or those formed by long hours, limited horizons, and regular subjection to others. Ira Steward, for instance, argued that struggle began by awakening a desire for more, especially for higher wages and shorter hours. He asked workers to see themselves as equal to their employers and then compare their living standards – their inadequate housing, poor clothing, bad food, and lack of amenities: “to see is to desire…to desire is to struggle.” Awakening new desires was linked to struggle because dependent laborers would soon learn that society was not organized in a way that allowed them to satisfy those desires. As workers developed a desire for better material circumstances, they would come to demand a change in the very way they produced and distributed wealth.

If the relevant virtues began with developing the desires of a self-respecting worker, they were further linked to the conception of citizen competence. The classical republican citizen was one who had adequate knowledge of public affairs and ability to make considered judgments about the common good. Here, that idea took on the color of becoming educated in political economy and acquiring accurate knowledge of one’s own social position. Terence Powderly, leader of the Knights of Labor, noted with pride “the establishment of workingmen’s lyceums and reading-rooms”and thought they showed “laboring men” that they “had the same right to study social, economic, and political questions that their employers had.” Labor papers ran articles on cooperation and political economy; lecturers discussed “working-people’s rights” and debated “the hours of labor;” reading rooms carried the works of enemies, like Malthus and Smith, as well as friends, like Henry George, JS Mill and Lasalle. With this knowledge, dependent laborers would realize they could only achieve the cooperative commonwealth through collective action. That is to say, their own interest in independence was most permanently and reliably achievable through commitment to a common cause. Virtue, here, became identical to a kind of class consciousness.

These ideas culminated in the thought that the full development and exercise of virtue could only take place if workers organized themselves into their own social and political organizations. From the workingmen’s parties of the 1820s and 30s, to the trade union and reform movements of the 1840s through 60s, culminating in the Knights of Labor of the 1870s through 90s, the self-organization of workers was the prime expression of this labor republican conception of citizenship. Groups like the Knights were not always clear how this collective agency was best expressed – in political activity or in the formation of producer and consumer cooperatives, against political parties or outside them, in educational and reform agitation or in strikes and boycotts. Many of these happened at once. But the lasting idea was one of universal solidarity among all dependent workers, skilled or unskilled, since ultimately none could hope to achieve equal independence unless all did. Powderly articulated the Knights’ rejection of craft-based organizing, in favor of universal labor solidarity, by saying “the condition of one part of our class can not be improved permanently unless all are improved together.”

If there is something to learn from this radical republican experience, it is that the concept of virtue is not inherently hostile to economic activity, nor is it intrinsically bound up with a defense of existing hierarchies and cultural exclusion. The labor republicans sought to create producer cooperatives, believing these to be more productive and that they afforded workers more leisure than the natural workings of the labor market. This was no classical distrust of the production of wealth. More important yet, labor republicans showed how the language of virtue can be turned into a politics of transformation. This politics emphasizes that those who suffer from injustice must be their own agents; it defines the virtues as those qualities required to sustain solidaristic social and political action; and it emphasizes the formation of separate cultural, social and political organizations. This is not a conception of virtue that is hostile to the self-interest of citizens, but it does remind us that any actual politics of struggle cannot avoid the question of virtue itself. A future, more egalitarian society might be in the interest of each of its members, but to see it realised will require sacrifices and commitment to a common project.

This piece is part of the Democratic Wealth series, hosted by OurKingdom in partnership with Politics in Spires.



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