Labor Republicanism and the Transformation of Work

Date01 August 2013
Published date01 August 2013
Subject MatterSymposium: The Republican Inheritance Reconsidered
PTX485370.indd 485370PTX41410.1177/0090591713485370Political TheoryGourevitch
Symposium: The Republican Inheritance Reconsidered
Political Theory
41(4) 591 –617
Labor Republicanism
© 2013 SAGE Publications
Reprints and permissions:
and the Transformation
DOI: 10.1177/0090591713485370
of Work
Alex Gourevitch1
In the nineteenth century a group of “labor republicans” argued that the
system of wage-labor should be replaced by a system of cooperative
production. This system of cooperative production would realize republican
liberty in economic, not just political, life. Today, neo-republicans argue that
the republican theory of liberty only requires a universal basic income. A
non-dominated ability to exit is sufficient to guarantee free labor. This essay
reconstructs the more radical, labor republican view and defends it against
the prevailing the neo-republican one. It argues that neorepublicanism lacks
an adequate conception of structural domination, which leaves it without
theoretical resources to address certain forms of economic domination.
The concept of structural domination allows us to comprehend the
coherence of the nineteenth century, labor republican view and identify its
relevance to modern labor markets. Labor republicanism takes us beyond
a universal basic income to a concern with control over productive assets
and workplace organization. As such, it shows us how the republican theory
of liberty can support an argument for the transformation of work, not just
the escape from it.
republicanism, republican liberty, work, freedom, non-domination, labor
1Brown University
Corresponding Author:
Alex Gourevitch, Political Science Department, Brown University, Box 1844, 36 Prospect
Street, Providence, RI 02912.

Political Theory 41(4)
Recent protests on Wall Street and elsewhere might be viewed as contests
over the distribution of income. Protesters blame the 1 percent for possessing
too much, and for using their wealth to secure the passage of laws that safe-
guard their unjust accumulation. Some of the most well-known signs, dis-
playing vivid graphics of increasing inequality and declining social mobility,
express this claim about social injustice.1 However, there is another set of
signs floating around the protests that is rooted in a different concern. These
signs express a desire for a “transformed work.”2
The demand for “transformed work” or control over work activity is dif-
ferent from a call for a just distribution of income and wealth. It is an aspira-
tion for a kind of freedom that a higher income or more access to basic goods
like health care, education and housing cannot supply. In political theory, the
demand to transform work is most commonly associated with the Marxist
theory of alienation, or with New Left theories of self-realization. However,
there is another source for the demand to transform work: the republican
commitment to liberty.
That the republican theory of liberty can articulate concerns about unfree-
dom at work might seem counterintuitive. Such a view runs counter to those
critics, such as John McCormick and Daniel Kapust, who attack the republi-
can tradition as inegalitarian and aristocratic,3 as concerned primarily with
the defense of private property,4 and as historically committed to slavery.5
My claim might also surprise neo-republicans such as Philip Pettit, Quentin
Skinner, and Maurizio Viroli,6 who often elide economic issues. On the few
occasions when neo-republicans do address economic life they keep well
short of arguing for anything like transformed work.7 In fact, both critics and
neo-republicans have missed the full implications of the republican theory.
As I will show in this essay, the republican theory of liberty delivers a power-
ful critique of economic domination, and leads to arguments for various kinds
of democratic control over work. These arguments emerge most forcefully
from republicanism when we appreciate the need for a conceptual evolution
in the republican theory of liberty itself. In particular, I will show that the
republican theory can and does comprise a theory of not just personal but
structural domination. It is this theory that leads to arguments for transform-
ing work.
In making these arguments I distinguish myself from those sympathetic
critics of neo-republicanism, such as Patchen Markell and Sharon Krause,
who argue that the neo-republican theory is insufficient and who seek to
“reconstruct a political and theoretical vocabulary . . . that could thereby
serve as a supplement to the overstretched ideal of non-domination.”8 Instead,
I show that the republican theory of freedom is more expansive and demand-
ing than its most prominent defenders acknowledge. A contemporary account

of republican liberty should include a critique of various kinds of economic
domination and thus extend to a normative concern with access to productive
resources and control over work.
I call this approach “labor republican” after a group of late nineteenth-
century American labor reformers who made the argument against structural
domination central to their demand to transform work. In the first section, I
reconstruct the labor republican argument against wage-labor and for a sys-
tem of co-operative production. This historical reconstruction gives us reason
to think that contemporary republican theory can incorporate a conception of
structural domination within its overall framework. In the second section, I
develop a more fully worked out labor republican theory and contrast it with
current, neo-republican accounts of economic non-domination. Where neo-
republicans argue that eliminating economic domination requires a basic
income, labor republicans require that we transform control over productive
assets and work activity.
Labor Republicanism in History
Why the Nineteenth Century?
The success of the republican revival has also been a limitation. Most schol-
arship has focused on the period beginning with the fifteenth-century Italian
city-states through and the transmission of Italian republicanism to seven-
teenth- and eighteenth-century Anglo-American thinkers.9 This archaeologi-
cal exercise has transformed our understanding of the development of modern
political thought10 and has inspired the theoretical rehabilitation of republi-
can political theory.11 Unfortunately, the richness of this scholarship sanc-
tions the view that the meaningful developments in republicanism end with
the Age of Revolutions and that we learn nothing conceptually relevant about
the republican theory of liberty if we extend our understanding into the nine-
teenth century.12
This is a mistake. It means that the curtain falls just before a key set of
actors take the stage: working-class appropriators of republican ideals. Like
their predecessors, these historical actors applied inherited concepts to new
situations, thereby illuminating and resolving problems of meaning and inter-
pretation that went unnoticed in prior eras.
For instance, it is only in the early modern context that republicanism
became explicitly anti-monarchical, and a “republic” exclusively identified
with self-government.13 This conceptual development was a result of parlia-
mentarians appropriating republicanism in a way that sharpened an ambiguity—
whether republican liberty was consistent with any rule under law or with

Political Theory 41(4)
self-government only.14 Likewise, as we shall see, working-class appropria-
tors of republican ideals in the nineteenth century produced their own moment
of conceptual intensification when they turned to questions of economic
order rather than political form. In so doing, they drew attention to ambigui-
ties in the theory of domination and developed new ways of thinking about
republican liberty in an industrial setting. Let us turn to these new actors.
The Labor Republicans
Labor republicanism developed out of farmers’ and urban artisans’ reaction
to the rise of capitalism. Initially a response of small farmers and petty pro-
prietors to indebtedness, concentrated wealth, and financial crisis,15 over the
course of the nineteenth century it came to identify permanent wage-labor
and loss of control over productive property as the central concern.16 Of
course, as far back as Cicero, it was common to say “all those workers who
are paid for their labour and not for their skill have servile and demeaning
employment; for in their case the very wage is a contract to servitude.”17 But
such cast-off thoughts never held much significance for republicanism until
wage-laborers took hold of them in the nineteenth century. The full history of
that ideological appropriation has been told elsewhere.18 The relevant histori-
cal point here is that, while some form of “agrarianism” rooted in the indi-
vidualist, petty-proprietor tradition remained the predominant expression of
the republican critique of capitalism up through the Civil War,19 the critique
of “wage-slavery”20 gradually developed into a republican argument for the
transformation of industrial relations. This labor republican view took root in
a group of late nineteenth-century editors, reformers, and activists, concen-
trated mainly around the Knights of Labor. It is on the shoulders of this group
that this essay stands.
The Knights of Labor was the first major national political organization of
labor that, unlike its...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT