Republican Liberty Then and Now: A Reply to Corey Robin

Corey Robin, a political science professor at Brooklyn College, recently made the case in a New York Times op-ed piece that capitalism makes us unfree and the attraction of socialism is freedom.

Under capitalism, we’re forced to enter the market just to live. The libertarian sees the market as synonymous with freedom. But socialists hear “the market” and think of the anxious parent, desperate not to offend the insurance representative on the phone, lest he decree that the policy she paid for doesn’t cover her child’s appendectomy. Under capitalism, we’re forced to submit to the boss. Terrified of getting on his bad side, we bow and scrape, flatter and flirt, or worse — just to get that raise or make sure we don’t get fired.

The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.

I’ll consider the claim that socialism might expected to improve on the conditions Robin lays at the feet of market capitalism in a subsequent post. First, however, an item of note is how modern socialists echo an older, conservative — even reactionary — criticism of the market.

There are different streams of this conservative criticism. The European stream, unsurprisingly, tended to be romantic and paternalistic. It stressed the erosion of communal bonds between aristocrat and commoner. The American version of this criticism, outside of apologists for the plantation system, was usually much more individualistic.

The ideal of the Jeffersonian yeoman emphasized not simply freedom from government authority, but freedom from any sort of dependence on other people. Prior to the period historians call the “market revolution” in the U.S. (starting roughly around 1815, and extending at least through 1855, if not through the 1880s or later), work for wages was largely frowned upon as a form of unmanly dependence upon others. The agrarian ideal pictured the farm family providing for its own needs, dependent on no other humans. The “market” subsisted on the very edge of the yeoman’s life. It was something discretionary, something that occurred on a specific day of the week and was, at most, a place to trade a bit of surplus produce for a few discretionary goods the family could not easily make for itself. Artisans were included in this ideal, if imperfectly, as independent entrepreneurs. Work for wages was, at best, tolerated only as a necessary stepping stone to acquiring one’s own homestead or establishing oneself as an independent artisan.

As the rhetoric sharpened against the transformations wrought by the market revolution, critics decried the “wage slavery” of men (and, increasingly, women) who needed, and expected, to work for others their entire lives just to provide for their needs.

Interestingly, the rise of the free labor ideology and the Republican Party in the 1850s catalyzed a fundamental shift in how we think about liberty. Instead of freedom being centrally viewed as providing for oneself and one’s family without the need for dependence on other people, the central metaphor for freedom became the contract, an intrinsically social economic relationship.

The agrarian yeoman would not at all resonate with Robin’s socialist freedom. More on that anon. Nonetheless, while the commercial life certainly had adherents at the founding, many of the founders, including those most lauded on the right today, would have recoiled from lives intimately shaped by and for markets as fundamentally inconsistent with republican liberty.