Egalitarianism and Markets

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

The text for the next part of this series is Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk About It). The book consists of two lectures by Anderson, four responses by others, and Anderson’s replies.

Anderson considers herself to be in the philosophical tradition of Pragmatism, the subject of several posts in this series. Pragmatism is a method with which she studies egalitarianism, which is the main theme of this book. In the first posts in this series we looked closely at her ideas of freedom and equality, which are the substrate for her justifications for egalitarianism. As a pragmatist, she does not try to create an overarching theory, as we might see in other philosophic traditions. Her analysis begins with her values, as we all should. This book examines how those values are expressed in our contemporary economy, and how they might be better implemented.

In the first lecture, Anderson gives us a short history of egalitarianism in action, beginning in the 1600s. Society was almost completely hierarchical, organized under the Church of England and the Monarchy/Aristocracy structure. Most people owed obedience to both, with no say in the matter, and were forced to support both through tithes and taxes. Gradually a number of people became “masterless men”, free of obligations to one or both. Many were criminals or vagabonds, others were impoverished, but many were artisans, small shopkeepers or yeoman farmers*. These found themselves free of domination and began to see themselves as a group, not quite a class, but separate. They formed the core of Cromwell’s army in the English Civil War, 1646-51. One faction was called the Levellers. The Levellers had a number of progressive ideas, including an elected monarchy, and abolishing the House of Lords. Some even argued for the rights of women! The movement was short-lived, ending in 1651, when the rich and powerful killed them and imprisoned their surviving leaders with impunity.

The ideas of the Levellers were egalitarian in the sense Anderson uses the term: they wanted to get rid of social hierarchies of birth, church, aristocracy, land-holdings, and perhaps even the patriarchy, and they wanted institutions that did not dominate or humiliate them because of their own birth status or employment.

Anderson says that one of their concerns was opening up monopolies granted by the Crown to aristocratic cronies, and allowing everyone to enter into any trade or business, free from interference by the Crown, the rich, and their courts. This was an attack on both royal prerogatives and the remains of the Guild system. It amounted to an attack of the prerogatives of the Church of England, which had its own courts, levied tithes, and had certain powers to discipline people.

Anderson draws from this demand the idea that people who own and manage their own capital and their own skills can meet as equals in the marketplace. It gives meaning to Adam Smith’s theory that a nation of artisans, yeoman farmers, and small retailers would be more productive and innovative than the careless and inattentive aristocracy of rich landlords and monopolists who dominated the economy. The increase in production would benefit every member of society.

In the US, Thomas Paine held similar views. There was plenty of land, so anyone could take up farming. Apprentices would become journeymen and accumulate sufficient capital to open their own businesses and eventually take on apprentices. There were no aristocracies or powerful churches in the US, so the biggest danger to this ideal was government. Anderson sees Paine as libertarian; she says that Paine’s views match those of the non-Trump conservatives.

The ideal of the US as a nation of small farms and businesses operated by self-reliant families was taken up by the Republican Party, and was embraced by Abraham Lincoln. Anderson quotes part of Lincoln’s 1859 speech to the Wisconsin Agricultural Society in which he lays out this idea. Lincoln is responding to a speech by a South Carolina Senator, James Hammond. Hammond, a wealthy plantation owner, argued that society can only advance if there are classes of people whose only role is performing menial labor, just as a house cannot stand without a mudsill, a foundation. Lincoln explains that labor is the “source by which human wants are mainly supplied”. He says that one group argues that capital is primary, that productive work is not done unless people with capital use workers to do it, and the only question is whether they hire workers or buy slaves. Others, says Lincoln

… hold that labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed — that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence they hold that labor is the superior — greatly the superior — of capital.

In [the] Free States, a large majority are neither hirers or hired. Men, with their families — wives, sons and daughters — work for themselves, on their farms, in their houses and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand, nor of hirelings or slaves on the other. … Again, as has already been said, the opponents of the “mud-sill” theory insist that there is not, of necessity, any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. There is demonstration for saying this. Many independent men, in this assembly, doubtless a few years ago were hired laborers. And their case is almost if not quite the general rule.

The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This, say its advocates, is free labor — the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all — gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all. If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune.*

Lincoln describes two competing theories of the role of capital in society: the mud-sill theory, and the Free Labor system. Anderson asks why the egalitarian vision of Free Labor died out in practice, although not in the imagination of the defenders of capital and their PR flacks. I ask why the mudsill ideology became dominant.

*In the first response, the historian Ann Hughes provides needed context on this point, as well as a more nuanced view of the Levellers and other dissidents of their time.

*The next paragraph is pure Lincoln, the reason we love him:

By the “mud-sill” theory it is assumed that labor and education are incompatible; and any practical combination of them impossible. According to that theory, a blind horse upon a tread-mill, is a perfect illustration of what a laborer should be — all the better for being blind, that he could not tread out of place, or kick understandingly. According to that theory, the education of laborers, is not only useless, but pernicious, and dangerous. In fact, it is, in some sort, deemed a misfortune that laborers should have heads at all. Those same heads are regarded as explosive materials, only to be safely kept in damp places, as far as possible from that peculiar sort of fire which ignites them. A Yankee who could invent strong handed man without a head would receive the everlasting gratitude of the “mud-sill” advocates.

13 replies
  1. BobCon says:

    “According to that theory, the education of laborers, is not only useless, but pernicious, and dangerous. In fact, it is, in some sort, deemed a misfortune that laborers should have heads at all. ”

    The theory that Lincoln references has echoes in the kooky phrenology worshipped today by pseudo-intellectuals on the right, such as Quillette writers. They slobber over the idea that there is some kind of genetic basis for discrimination based on outdated ideas of race, with a permanent segregation between races fit for labor and the race fit for thought and power (whites, of course).

    You’ll get a parallel track on the right insisting that men are intellectually superior to women, again butressed by crazed intellectual constructs. They are just too stupid to know how stupid they are.

  2. jaango says:

    When it comes to the European-Oriented Aspect and as this Pragmatism pertains to my Indigenous Hemisphere and the obvious encroachment of my 100,000-year history, and obviously ignored by the European mindset, this being Sunday, and a few days prior to the next Hollow-Weenie celebration, humor is a required mindset on my part.

    Take, for example, the Hollowed-halls of Academia must, first address the ‘naming’ of the Indigenous Creator, and the obvious is missing, when nothing that Pragmatists address as “Decency Personified”? Thus, the European-American ‘translation’ that cannot be discussed or tolerated, seems quite apparent since I am a voracious reader of both history and public policy applied.

    Unfortunately, in this age and era of the Internet, knowledge continues to be readily dismissed, albeit, since Pragmatism doesn’t sell books anymore. And Pragmatism doesn’t counter the pending Demographics. Thus, today’s Pragmatism is now readily outdated.

    Therefore, the notional of Indigenous “pragmatism” does exist and will become quite rampant in our attention that will be given to ‘demographic-oriented’ public policy during the next few years.

    And where do we start?

  3. Ken Muldrew says:

    Ever since humans entered the social cage of civilization, way back around the time of Sargon, there has been an essential need for cooperative work. That is to say that a bunch of people work on various tasks that have nothing to do with their particular subsistence and they are directed in this work by other people who’s work consists of coordination. Despite this rather obvious need, people throughout all of antiquity refused to countenance the notion of a free human working under the direction of another human (except for apprenticeships and the like). So we get slavery as a necessary evil or labouring subhumans with a “dependent nature that prefers [servitude]”.
    It almost seems as if people will go to any length to avoid recognizing the fact of the social cage; the fact of utter dependency. They make a cult of individuality and pretend that their success (such as it is) as a microscopic cog in an immense industrial society is self-made. The delusion is as bizarre for its nonsensical basis as for its lack of any practical use.

    • Mickquinas says:

      FWIW, not “utter dependency” but instead interdependency is the nature of our existence as social creatures and has been ever thus. “Civilization” may have exponentially expanded the complexity of our webs of mutuality, but even long before Sargon the identity of a human disconnected from social interaction for any extended time was most likely to be “deceased”. Arguably, we only develop an individual identity through the process of differentiating ourselves from others.

      As far as “antiquity” goes, the idea of a subhuman human or resistance to taking direction may be more associated with a particular and exploitative template for “civilization”.

      But indeed, the cult of individuality is as divorced from reality as it is perniciously widespread in North American culture. In so many ways it has become aggressively counter to human thriving, and even to our survival as a species.

  4. joejoejoe says:

    Lincoln’s use of “A Yankee who could invent strong handed man without a head” gives me an excuse to share one of my favorite Ulysses Grant lines from his memoir. It must have been a thing to use figures from the Northeast (Connecticut / Yankees) as stand-ins for a certain kind of thoughtless intellectualism.

    Grant, from his memoirs: “there was a Mr. Ralston living within a few miles of the village, who owned a colt which I very much wanted. My father had offered twenty dollars for it, but Ralston wanted twenty-five. I was so anxious to have the colt, that after the owner left, I begged to be allowed to take him at the price demanded. My father yielded, but said twenty dollars was all the horse was worth, and told me to offer that price; if it was not accepted I was to offer twenty-two and a half, and if that would not get him, to give the twenty-five. I at once mounted a horse and went for the colt. When I got to Mr. Ralston’s house, I said to him: “Papa says I may offer you twenty dollars for the colt, but if you won’t take that, I am to offer twenty-two and a half, and if you won’t take that, to give you twenty-five.” It would not require a Connecticut man to guess the price finally agreed upon.”

  5. skua says:

    Thanks for this thread.
    Seeing capital and labor being discussed by Lincoln, and so them having a historical life outside of Marxist texts, has recontextualised for me capital, labor and Marx.

    • ejf says:

      I wish I could remember the book Marx wrote about American slavery. (I think it was called “The Civil War in the United States”, which contained a series of essays from 1861-62)
      But Marx took the civil war, the mud-sill arguments of the Confederacy, and argued for the value of labor as capital. Lincoln’s radical ideas of getting rid of slavery and breaking with the Whigs were extreme. It does seem though that the rights to acquire capital comes from the barrel of a gun, from the Civil War itself to Ulysses Grant’s grab of the Black Hills in South Dakota. Never mind the acquisition of the Western territories and eventual states from the hands of all them “savages”.

  6. Dysnomia says:

    This ideal of a society of free, self-sufficient yeoman farmers and artisan producers, owning and cultivating/using their own land and tools, and relating to each other as equals, I think is not a “conservative” ideal at all. It’s a leftist, even socialist, ideal, albeit an individualist one.

    If we’re talking about a society where the workers (peasant farmers and artisans) own their own means of production, fully control/manage their own work, and own the full product of their labor, where there is no separation between the owners and users of capital (no capitalists exploiting workers via wage labor), that’s socialism, specifically an individualist vision of libertarian socialism. This is the kind of society (not exactly, but something like it) that the Shaysites of Shays’ Rebellion were trying to protect from encroaching state-enforced capitalism, and I think the world would be a better place today if they had succeeded.

    Taken to its logical conclusion, this ideal constitutes individualist anarchism (along the lines of the views of Benjamin Tucker). It’s not the kind of society “conservatives” want to create, and certainly not the kind of society modern right-libertarians want to create.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I really appreciate it when people read my posts carefully, as you have done. You are quite right, and it’s Anderson’s argument, which I now see I did not make clear. Thanks for pointing that out.

      The right wing version is smoke blown by PR hacks and neoliberal ideologues. How many of us can actually live that life in this economy? And who would want to do without the vast array of things that can only be produced by lots of people cooperating in organized groups? This is a real tension, one that leftists need to think about. I have some initial thoughts which I will lay out in this series.

  7. d4v1d says:

    just noting that i am following this series, and i have nothing to add to or subtract from your excellent contribution.

  8. Marek says:

    we can always chose left or right but not the one we would like to. As it appears it has been the case last 6000 years. Once heard a really good joke: If the election could change anything it would have been abolished a long time ago. We are still following the Roman legal system – divide and rule.
    Recently a great programme on Allatra TV came out with participation of Igor Michajlovich Danilov about the 9th circle of satan. One needs to be strong to hear it.

  9. jaango says:

    Ed Walker, your initiation and contribution to this ongoing discussion on Pragmatism, is both timely and most appropriate. As such, my many thanks as well as my Tip of the Hat to you.

    Starting next January, I will commence my 21st year of political writing and dedicated in the direction of military vets, thus, Chicanos and Native Americans. And of these many years, my critics suggest that I am in the ‘long reach’ for becoming famous. Not so, of course, but then, the fun that comes from challenging the “elitism” or the “status quo” that perpetuates the lack of addressing “pragmatism” that will assault me over the next twenty years or so, and Anglos become the new “minority” as per measured by demographics, brings forth, a challenge to Howard Zinn’s latest book and which sold over 2 million copies.

    Today, El Trumpudo’s stagnant slant on his view for “America’s helleva place to live” continues apace, but when his front page of history, has been replaced, in the next several years, the Chicano’s continuing attempt to establish our effort for the National Museum of Criminal Stupidity, will be front and center and solidified by Three Circles of Cowardice, as well as his preposterous Acolytes, will come full circle.

    Take, for example, our government’s “kidnapping” of over 5,000 migrant kids from their parents, is symptomatic for Pragmatism, and especially when compared to African Americans experiencing the six percent of the hate practiced by hiring authorities opposed to this desiring and seeking out opportunities of employment. And this too is just another form of Pragmatism, practiced on a daily basis.

    Now, I am going be ‘taxed to death’ unless I successfully attack the ingrained Reparations that include the $31 trillion in National Debt. Therefore, how do I exempt myself from this Pragmatism that is categorized as Reparations, from visiting my wallet.?

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