What do today's republicans have to say about work?

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Historically, republicanism has failed to reconcile the principle of non-domination with the realities of economic life. What do contemporary republican thinkers have to say about work and domination?

Vincent Bourdeau
25 January 2013

Part Two of a two-part piece on the history of republicanism and work. See Part One: Revolutionary France and the social republic that never was.

Based on a longer article originally published in French at Implications Philosophiques; translated by Nadia Hilliard. 

 “The ‘malaise’ of democracy must be countered with a ‘political economy of citizenship' ”. So argues Michael Sandel, perhaps the most influential contemporary scholar of republican political economy, in his book Democracys Discontent. Sandel devotes an entire chapter to the opposition between ‘free labor’ and ‘wage labor’. Here, he questions the economic roots of the American republican model in a way that is similar to Etienne Vacherot’s arguments regarding the French Republican model after 1848.

Sandel sets out to show that Thomas Jefferson, in late 18th century America, had attempted to modernise the classical republican model according to which “liberty depended on a virtuous, independent, property-owning citizenry, which depended in turn on a predominantly agricultural economy”. By the 1810s Jefferson had accepted a republic based partly on manufacturing, but he did so without abandoning proper republican self-reflection about “economic arrangements […] most suitable for self-government”.  The abandonment of this civic ideal for the economy, the real turning point, took place later according to Sandel, in the second half of the 19th century, when a “political economy of citizenship [turned in]to a political economy of economic growth and distributive justice, from a republican public philosophy to the version of liberalism that informs the procedural republic”. 

Thomas Jefferson, portrait

Thomas Jefferson

In this perspective, the question of accepting wage labour or not was particularly crucial. Jeffersonian republicans, at best, supported wage labour only on the condition that it be considered one stage of life – limited in time – of an individual. Only its instrumental character could justify it, and it could only be accepted because it enabled the acquisition of economic independence (through savings from earnings). In no case could wage labour be considered the permanent state of the individual. However, in the context of the US Civil War in which the abolition of slavery was a burning issue, and with the expansion of industrial activity, wage labour rapidly became a gauge of liberty in contrast to the model of slavery, even when Abraham Lincoln himself refused this equation (wage labour = the opposite of slavery = liberty). 

As Alex Gourevitch has discussed in his earlier article in this series, the Knights of Labor temporarily offered an alternative vision of a co-operative-based economy in the 1890s. However, this lost credibility as wage earners began to get or develop protections – as we saw in Part 1 of this article, this was precisely the strategy advocated by Henri Cernuschi, against co-operativism, in France in the 1860s. Wage labour, supported by appropriate legislation and by the emergence of trade unionism, appeared as the best guarantee of the workers’ interests. However, as Sandel maintains, the co-operative formula and the type of distribution of powers and of economic property that it permits, remains in principle better adapted to the republican ideal. 

William Simon: social-republican property

This is the point of view adopted by the contemporary law professor William H. Simon in his article, ‘Social-Republican Property’ [1]. Simon here defines and elaborates a specific form of property right which he terms 'social-republican property': 

“Social-republican property can be distinguished from the more conventional notion of capital ownership, which might be called ‘liberal private’ property, by two features: first, transfer or alienation restraints that confine control of the property to active or potentially active participants in a community constituted by the property, and second, accumulation restraints designed to limit inequality among members of such a community. These core features of social-republican property operate as restraints on the commodification and capitalisation of relationships. They restrict the ability of the owner/citizen to fully monetize or liquidate her interest or to convert anticipated future benefits into present lump sums. They thus encourage the owner to view her interest as a stake in a particular long-term relationship.”

Prime examples include some kinds of worker co-operatives (e.g., on the famous Mondragon model) and housing co-ops. But many other institutions and policies have some features in common with social-republican property without being anything like pure expressions (e.g., rent control and job security regulations). 

Suma is a contemporary example of a workers' co-op

Suma is a contemporary example of a workers' co-op

Simon imagines that co-operative enterprises must be animated by the enthusiasm and will of the participants. He thus excludes a generalised co-operative model (at least initially) imposed from above by the state, such as in the former Yugoslavia. But he does not reject incentivising mechanisms, e.g., through the tax system, to encourage co-operatives.  

Contemporary republican theorists such as Simon are well aware of the main critiques of co-operatives. In particular, a workers' co-op promises a reorganisation of work and of the distribution of power within a specific site of production. But this does not directly address the work question as posed to those outside of the co-operative sector. This raises once again the traditional criticism of republicanism: of producing a closed and elitist universe in which the category of citizenship concerns only a relatively limited club. 

One response to this critique would be to seek the development of a fully co-operative economy. But this is not the only response, and certainly not the most convincing. Rather, it underscores a new problem: that of the general place occupied by work in a republican society, as well as the nature of this work. 

An answer to these two challenges could be to consider the kind of collective project that could integrate the following parameters: the time devoted to work, the type of work contemplated, and the imagined compensation according to the difficulty of the work, all without contradicting the definition of a more general economic framework in the republic as a whole. This would provide the structures that would permit the integration of individuals in the sphere of work, and would try to keep them in their rightful place in the general functioning of republican society [2]. But the economic efficiency of such a project, designed for all levels of society (from the workshop to the Assembly), could be challenged.  

In sum, it will be objected that the ‘republicanisation’ of the economy as a whole has an economic cost that makes it incompatible with economic requirements. This would be even truer if, as is the case in the co-operative scheme, republicanism takes the redistribution of property as a goal, and tries to prevent the growth of large concentrations of the means of production, concentrations on which capitalist dynamics seem to depend.

In his article ‘Neorepublicanism and the Civic Economy’, Richard Dagger underscores what he sees as the internal coherence of different proposed conceptions of contemporary republican economy, in which he includes the 'property-owning democracy' advocated by John Rawls (discussed by Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson in their article in this series) [3]. This coherence rests on the primacy given to the main republican principles – in particular, the public nature of debate and the promotion of self-government – over all economic considerations. The whole problem is summed up here, in which the question of work is only one part: a republican economy cannot fit into the capitalist economy without fundamentally transforming the mainsprings of the latter.

An interim conclusion to a continuing debate

In this article, I have begun a brief analysis of a properly republican evaluation of work with both historical and contemporary ramifications. I have suggested that a republican characterisation of work should emphasise the phenomena of domination that we associate with it, given that the theoretical core of republicanism consists in an understanding and promotion of liberty understood as non-domination. At the outset we noted three relevant forms of domination:

(1) the phenomena of personal domination linked to the distribution of power in the place of work;

(2) work as the instrument of domination in itself (through the difficulty of labour, and by influencing individuals with time and in the organisation of time, etc.); 

(3) work as the primary value in life, precluding the possibility of any alternative value from individual experience.

Historically, republicanism is the carrier of an ideal of individual self-realisation that unfolds outside the sphere of work. Even when it takes work into account, it is therefore readily inclined to relegate work to a secondary concern, refusing in any case to make it the primary value. But what would put it in a critical position towards the cultural domination of work is also what seems to have caused republicanism – by the slightly aristocratic impulse that it has retained – to give insufficient attention to what we can call the ‘techniques of work’. The dominating dimension of work, as manifest in its contemporary forms in advanced capitalism, seems to have been neglected. The fecund power of work in modern society – notably through the form of wages, the true gateway to all social universes outside of work (health, recreation, etc), the strength of which we perceive whenever it is questioned – has passed and still often passes unseen in front of our eyes. 

Republicanism is linked above all to the first dimension of domination - personal domination by an agent holding a power of arbitrary interference over one in the workplace. It is naturally this dimension that surfaces the moment that the republican tradition is reactivated. Republican thinking on work can contribute to specific analyses of the developments that have affected work itself, and how these changes contribute to all human activity. However to do so it must establish a close and fruitful dialogue, as it has attempted to do in the past, with the social sciences (the sociology of work, psychology of work, history of work, but also sociology of science and technology). Only then can we unpick the question of work-based domination that republicanism, throughout its history, has had a tendency to hide [4]. 

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



[1] Simon W.H., 'Social-Republican Property', UCLA Law Review, 38, N°6, 1990-1991, pp.1335-1414.

[2] Another path consists in creating the republican conditions of autonomy within the labour market itself. This is suggested by Stuart White when he proposes the institution of a ‘civic minimum’. See S. White, The Civic Minimum. On the Rights and Obligations of Economic Citizenship, Oxford, OUP, 2003.  But still, the same type of critique – the absence of economic efficiency – could be levelled. On White’s work, see Marie Garrau, ‘Promouvoir l’autonomie par la justice economique et sociale’, part One and part Two, at Implications Philosophiques, published 24 and 25 April 2012.

[3] Dagger R., 'Neorepublicanism and the Civic Economy', art. cit.; J. Rawls, La Justice comme équité. Une reformulation de Théorie de la Justice, La Découverte, 2008[2001]. Dagger unfortunately does not directly discuss the co-operative model, and does not address Simon’s thesis.  

[4] For a first attempt to place the question of work in a larger economic context, we find promising leads in Stuart White’s The Civic Minimum, op. cit., 2003, but also in the issue of Philosophy, Politics & Economics, already cited in note 21 of the first article.

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