A Republican Critique of Wage-Slavery? An Interview with Alex Gourevitch

by Joe Clement on March 16, 2013

The following is an edited transcript of an interview aired on the March 11, 2013 episode of the Old Mole Variety Hour, a program of social and political commentary from a socialist-feminist point of view, on KBOO Community radio, Portland, Oregon. The embedded audio file includes an extended version of the interview.

Joe Clement: Good morning, I’m Joe Clement and I’m joined here with Alex Gourevitch, who teaches political science currently at McMaster University — he’ll be moving to Brown soon, also to teach political science. He recently wrote a very interesting article in Jacobin magazine — which we have featured some selections from before on the Old Mole — this time about wage slavery and the republican critique of it, or the republican notion of liberty that was brought to critique it. We’re going to be talking about early American ideals surrounding independence and the way that that changed with industrialization in the 19th century. Thanks for join us Alex.

Alex Gourevitch: Thank you for having me.

J.C.: So, what does republicanism mean in the context of political theory in early American history?

A.G.: Well, republicanism has come to mean a number of different things. What I take it to mean is a particular theory of liberty which says we are free if we are not subject to the arbitrary will of someone else — and that’s not my definition; I have to say I’ve taken it from some very famous scholars of republicanism, like Quentin Skinner. It’s called the republican theory of liberty because it takes its inspiration from Roman law, where the central distinction was between free person and slave, and the free person was understood to be under his own power, or sui juris, while the slave was unfree because he was under the power of someone else, alieni juris. This was a legal status; the master had the power to do whatever he liked with the slave.

This is thought to be a distinct way of thinking about freedom, from maybe a more conventional liberal view, because on the liberal view, we are free so long as someone doesn’t interfere with us. So the republican argument goes: I can be unfree even if at the moment nobody is interfering with me, because someone can just have the power to interfere arbitrarily with my activity. That was true of some slaves in Rome, for instance; they had quite benevolent masters who allowed them to do quite a few things that were more self-developing than many free Roman citizens. But at any moment the masters still had the power to interfere with their actions — to whip them, beat them, make them do all kinds of things that they wanted them do. And so that’s the reason this was given the distinct name “the republican theory of liberty,” and it kind of comes to modern political thinking through some important British thinkers of the 17th century who are critical of monarchy, and then is taken over by the American colonists and made one of the most important discourses in the struggle against the British.

And so originally the republican theory of liberty is used to criticize political slavery, to criticize either people subject to a king or colonists who didn’t have representation or power in the metropole. So, for instance, you’ll find writings from Jefferson or Adams during the revolutionary period where they say we are slaves because we are dependent upon the will of the English parliament; they can do whatever they like, they can pass whatever laws they like. This was also how colonists used to view the governors in the various states, the colonies, because they were generally appointed by the British. And so originally the republican theory of liberty is at least one discourse that is used to argue that the condition of either being under a monarch, or of being under an empire is one of servitude.

J.C.: But what you and scholars are saying is that this is an active kind of rhetorical appeal that the founders or the pre-revolutionary colonists would make — as well as, I guess, in other countries like France with the republican revolution there.

A.G.: Absolutely, yes. It’s one of the languages of modern revolution, at least early modern revolution — the claim to freedom against oppression — and there’s all kinds of interesting work on how these ideas get deployed in various countries (e.g. England, France, the United States). What I’ve worked on mostly is the United States and what I’ve been most interested in is the way in which this language of liberty gets seized, even in the revolutionary period, by various artisans, and by the 1790s starts to develop into its own language for criticizing economic dependence rather than political dependence. Because this is the point at which various groups that the original republican revolutionaries had essentially ignored start to take on this revolutionary language and use it for their own purposes — to expand and universalize it. And here I should just say I’m not the first to notice this by any stretch; there is a really excellent and well-developed body of labor historiography in particular that has looked at the role of republican ideas in the formation of working class consciousness.

J.C.: So how was republican language different between the founders and the American revolutionaries, and the artisans and the workers who you say eventually appropriated it? What was different and what was still the same?

A.G.: What was the same between Jefferson and the early artisan republicans was that they all recognized that there were certain economic foundations for a republic. So, if you were going to have a society that was ruled by free and equal citizens, those citizens needed to be independent, and the dispute was really over what counted as the condition of economic independence and who deserved that independence.

So, for instance, Jefferson quite famously felt that the thing he was most proud of having done in his life was having abolished primogeniture and entail in the Virginian constitution, because he thought that permanent and institutionalized landed monopolies undermined the economic independence of free citizens and also led to kind of idle and not very virtuous rentier class. So there is even in Jefferson quite famously a kind of radical agrarianism, which says that all free citizens need to be economically independent, and to be economically independent they should all be land-owners. But Jefferson was quite suspicious of urban workers — and it wasn’t just Jefferson; it was also Madison and some of the others. He was afraid that if these free workers had political rights they might use their power as republican citizens to redistribute land, to abolish debts, to threaten the property rights of those who have acquired their property legitimately, not simply those who have acquired it by inheriting it through primogeniture.

Jefferson and the kind of first generation of revolutionaries’ way of solving this problem was to say “yes, we’ll have free and equal citizens who are property owners, and there will not be any suffrage — at least, for anyone who is not a property owner — and the lion’s share of the work will be done by slaves.” So, the argument was that slavery was kind of a necessary evil in a republic, because if you have just free wage laborers, they are too unstable and dangerous a class to have.

This is obviously a problem as more and more wage laborers appear in the country, and as industry develops. And you really get a bifurcation in the republican argument. There’s some who stop saying that slavery is a necessary evil, and instead just say that it is a positive good, because it’s what allows actual republican citizens to enjoy their freedom — that was the argument of many southern slave-holders but also some northerners.

But the flip side is when certain poor farmers, artisans, and wage workers, start arguing, “no, slavery is incompatible with the recognition of the equality of free laborers; it creates a kind of idle class that is always trying to establish new privileges for itself, and therefore undermines the equality that a republic requires.” So what they tried to do was universalize republican liberty; they start arguing “no, we should have no slavery, because the institution is a threat to a republic, and instead redistribute control over land and other means of production so that all adults can be economically independent.”

And that really takes force as an argument — people disagree, but I would say in the 1830s — and one of the most interesting early representatives of that argument is the Workingmen’s Parties of the 1820s and 1830s, with figures like Thomas Skidmore, William Heighton, and George Henry Evans, who argue for the use of political parties and the state to redistribute property so that all individuals can control some share of the means of production. And so that’s the beginning of this other idea which, on the one hand claims itself to be Jeffersonian — Skidmore said that he was being Jefferson and going beyond him, taking inspiration from Thomas Paine as well — but they also understood it to be a kind of radicalization, because it meant that both chattel slavery and wage slavery had to be abolished and a new way of organizing labor introduced, in which everyone was able to control some share of the means of production.

J.C.: So how were they able to, if not fend off, to not succumb — and in particular their constituencies, because these are parties we are talking about — how did they delegitimize, as fulfilling as it might be, the yeoman ideal that had been the anchor for earlier republicanism?

A.G.: They never really rejected that idea outright, at least not in the early period. Instead they just tried to decenter it, I guess you could say. So they would always argue against land speculation and land monopolies and argue that the only legitimate use of public lands would be to distribute it to individual producers, if that’s what they like. But they also argued that land shouldn’t be the only form of property that we’re concerned with. As I said, that’s an uneven argument; some people just didn’t bother with that, but when it really got going and developing, they also argued for control of the factories, control of the workshops, control over tools, bridges, various things. So, for instance, Thomas Skidmore, who was the founder of the Workingmen’s Party of New York in 1829, argued that there should be a state convention in which all of the real and personal property is subject to a sort of a census, and then all adults should get some share of the property. And the way to think about this share, he said, was in terms of value, so everybody would get X amount of dollars, which they could then pool with others in order to kind of bid for control of a workshop — or if they wanted to get some land they could get some land.

J.C.: Who would they be buying it from?

A.G.: Well, he wasn’t entirely clear how this would work, but it would be sort of like a state auction, and the further important point from him was that this was the amount of value everybody (from the age maturity, which maybe he saw as 18) would get some share. This was the kind of proposal he took over from Paine, but then sort of developed and tweaked. The idea was that the reason for giving people their claim in terms of value, rather than in terms of a specific form of property was that he recognized that land wasn’t the only relevant form of property, and he also recognized that there were certain types of property that could only be worked in an association of free producers. This was also the era in which the idea of cooperation — which was originally sort of developed by Robert Owen in England and by the Ricardian socialists — became quite popular in the US, and it acquired a variety of meanings. One of the meanings was simply the idea that there are certain kinds of work that can only be done cooperatively, so that had to be done by co-owners and controllers of that process. They didn’t reject the Jeffersonian ideal; they certainly didn’t yet think of agriculture as industrialized — that’s only a late 19th century idea — but they started moving from a particular kind of productive property to the idea of controlling some productive property or another.

J.C.: I was wondering whether you can suggest for us where this history should be directing our attention to current labor struggles — current struggles over the language of liberty and of ownership.

A.G.: The reason I think this tradition is really important is precisely because it was based in a certain universal language of liberty. I think the left has generally sort of given up on the language of liberty. I think that was a complicated process. One important moment was, I think, the Reagan era, which was the period in which somehow or another liberty got associated with, in the minds of certain elements of the left, white working class reaction. The very republican or American idea of freedom was seen to be so irredeemably racist, so connected to white privilege that it wasn’t even worth fighting for. I think that’s a real danger and a loss, a weakening of the way the left thinks about freedom.

So the reason I think that the republican idea of liberty is important to return to and recover and to look at these movements for the Workingmen’s Party, the National Reform Association, and the Knights of Labor is because we can see that it did have this very exclusionary and inegalitarian tendency on the one hand, but it also had this incredible universal power at its best. And that is a universal way of thinking about freedom, that is worth fighting for. It’s worth fighting for precisely because it was able to forge links across many different kinds of work, many different national and ethnic origins, across genders. And especially in a society like ours, which is so easily fragmented along different identities; different struggles can seem isolated from each other.

I think the idea that freedom is a form of social cooperation in which everyone exercises relatively equal control over some process and means of work is still something that is worth fighting for, and it’s not something that we have to view as some strange and external import into American society. It’s organically connected to a certain kind of aspiration, that has its basis in a long and rich history.


Thumbnail image of George Henry Evans.

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