Hierarchy and Domination
March 31, 2012

Hierarchy, order, control, domination.

Hierarchy, order, control, domination. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shawn Gude and I had an interesting Twitter debate the other day with Corey Robin, regarding the relative merits of classical liberalism and small-r republicanism’s differing conceptions of liberty. Before I get to my disagreement with Corey, here, by way of background, is my most recent gloss of the liberal/republican disagreement, using Philip Pettit’s framework for republicanism. In Pettit’s account, republicans want to maximize freedom from domination (carefully defined), whereas liberals want to maximize freedom from interference.

Corey’s understanding of the republican tradition differs from Pettit’s. Over Twitter, he criticized republicanism for abandoning liberalism’s conception of liberty without offering a sufficiently comprehensive alternative. Classic republicanism, he argued, is mainly concerned with the eradication of social hierarchy; as a result, it is defenseless against attacks on freedom that don’t exploit those hierarchies.

Here, with the breaks between tweets eliminated, is the thought experiment he used to demonstrate his point:

Imagine one co-worker, equally situated, pestering another co-worker. Just bothering them, preventing them from getting their work done, preventing from doing what they want to do. Not to dominate or create a hierarchical relationship, but to interfere and get in their way. Seems important to hold onto that as an abridgment of freedom.

It’s entirely possible that the republican tradition as embodied by Milton, Machiavelli, Skinner, etc., (but excluding Pettit) has no satisfactory response to Corey’s challenge. He’s the one with a Ph.D. in political theory, and my own dealings with those theorists is both scant and second-hand. But I will note that, under Pettit’s definition, the pestering employee is definitively dominating his co-worker, and therefore restricting his liberty. That is to say, the pestering employee is interfering in his co-workers affairs 1.) on an arbitrary basis (he’s just bugging this one guy, and seemingly without provocation), 2.) without reference to the interests of the co-worker (who would clearly be better off if he wasn’t being pestered), and 3.) without allowing the co-worker recourse to any means of contesting the pestering (we’re assuming that the co-worker already asked him to stop, and was ignored). Dominating interference is any form of interference that satisfies at least one of those conditions — the pest’s interference satisfies all three.

So at the very least, Pettit’s gloss of republicanism includes an adequate response to Corey’s challenge. It could be that Pettit is the only republican with an adequate response, but I can’t rule one way or another on that without learning more about how both Corey and non-Pettit republicans use the term “social hierarchy.” Corey would likely concede that some forms of workplace pestering and bullying (such as racist remarks and sexual harassment) are contingent on the presence of social hierarchy, but he also maintains that bullying can exist in the complete absence of hierarchy. I’m not so sure — I think we could construct an account of hierarchy that maps roughly onto Pettit’s “domination” framework, and also allows that any instance of bullying is an a priori example of a small-scale, informal hierarchy.

In the meantime, as it stands, I have yet to hear an adequate liberal response to the republican master-slave thought experiment.

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Liberty and Pity-Charity
March 15, 2012

Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller...

John Locke, via Wikipedia

I’m working my way through Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy right now. It’s been slow going, but I’ve managed to claw my way all the way up to the Enlightenment, where I was struck by this quote from John Locke (emphasis mine):

I can as certainly no this proposition to be true as that a triangle has three angles equal to two right ones. Again: ‘No government allows absolute liberty:’ the idea of government being the establishment of society upon certain rules or laws, which require conformity to them; and the idea of absolute liberty being for any one to do whatever he pleases: I am as capable of being certain of the truth of this proposition as of any in the mathematics.

In Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Philip Pettit defines the classical liberal position as being that liberty equals freedom from interference. That’s not exactly what Locke, the father of liberalism, says here. Instead, he offers up what would seem like a fairly commonsense definition of liberty as the freedom to do whatever you’d like. (Russell writes repeatedly that Locke championed common sense at the expense of a lot of other philosophical virtues.)

But as blandly intuitive as Locke’s definition might seem, the small-r republican must take exception. I think the classic republican master-slave thought experiment can help us understand why Locke’s definition is lacking. As an added bonus, contrasting the republican definition of liberty with the Lockean understanding might shed some light on the philosophical roots of certain modern policy disagreements.

Republicanism, as I’ve previously explained at length, takes liberty to mean freedom from domination, not interference. To illustrate what he means, he makes frequent reference to the case of the master and the slave (a recurrent theme in republican writings going all the way back to the days of Rome). The question we should be attending to is, what makes a slave unfree? (more…)

Conditioned Freedom
April 19, 2011

Cover of "Republicanism: A Theory of Free...

Cover via Amazon

I finished Republicanism last night, so now I feel fully qualified to sing its praises like I’ve been itching to. Liberty as non-domination (which I explain a bit here) makes a lot of intuitive sense to me, and the theory of government which philosopher Philip Pettit builds off of that appeals not only to my squishy leftism, but also to my fondness for republican Rome and the American founders.

If you can get your hands on a copy of the book but you’re not the sort of person who reads 300-page analytic philosophical treatises for fun, I recommend at least skimming the afterword, called Republicanism: Once More With Hindsight. It includes a pretty good quick rundown of the rest of the book, including a couple revealing passages which underscore some of the more radical implications of Pettit’s argument. In particular I wanted to highlight this paragraph:

I argue that not only should the republic seek to remove domination from people’s lives — not only should it try to reduce such compromises of people’s freedom — it should also seek to increase the range and ease with which people enjoy undominated choice. It should seek to reduce the influence of factors like handicap and poverty and ignorance that condition people’s freedom as non-domination, even if they don’t actually compromise it. Otherwise put, it should promote people’s effective freedom as non-domination, not just their formal freedom as non-domination.

That argument is one of the major points where Pettit breaks from classical republicanism, and the argument he makes for that break is as complicated and esoteric as it is persuasive. I won’t get into it here — I’ll just note that this is another reason why I think the contemporary left could benefit from borrowing some of Pettit’s concepts. Liberals endorse a lot of the policy ends implied by what Pettit says above, but justified by the need for equality instead of unconditioned non-domination. “Equality” is sort of a mushier concept from a philosophical standpoint, and from a rhetorical standpoint it’s a term the right has gotten pretty good at demonizing. And anyway, I suggest that when most on the left talk about equality, freedom is what they’re really talking about. Skimming Pettit can help clarify those terms.

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April 15, 2011

Pettit really only addresses it tangentially, but I like what he has to say about free will in Republicanism:

Whatever existentialists may have thought, individual autonomy or self-rule cannot conceivably require that people should have considered and endorsed each of their particular beliefs and desires in a historical process of self-construction; if it did, then no one would be autonomous. What it requires, more plausibly, is that people are capable of exposing each of their beliefs and desires to appropriate tests, especially in the event of problems arising, and that whether or not they maintain such a commitment depends on how it fares in the tests.

This is something he evidently explores in more detail in a couple essays co-written with Michael Smith, called “Backgrounding Desire” and “Freedom in Thought and Action.” I’ll have to read both of those before making a final ruling, but my initial response is to say that both Pettit and the existentialists are correct: the existentialists have the correct standard for full and true autonomy, but Pettit is right to call this an unachievable ideal and craft a more reasonable alternative.

That said, meeting Pettit’s criteria of autonomy still seems pretty damn hard. I’m not sure if he would make this argument, but I think you could fairly contend that one of the greatest threats to the version of autonomy outlined above is what Heidegger would call “failling”: the ever-present urge to just do what you do and believe what you believe reflexively, without ever self-consciously challenging it. To make full use of Pettit’s version of self-rule — which is to say, to expose each of your beliefs and desires to “appropriate tests” — demands constant vigilance and a willingness to self-criticize without mercy. I’d argue that it’s everyone’s obligation to at least make the effort, but I also acknowledge that it’s a total bitch and I fail at it myself pretty regularly.

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Pity-Charity Liberalism and Non-Domination
April 13, 2011

Cover of "Republicanism: A Theory of Free...

Cover via Amazon

Freddie DeBoer — whose blog is an absolutely indispensable critique of the left from the further left — is now blogging over at Balloon Juice. His first post over there summarizes a crucial component of that critique:

There’s a troubling form of liberalism that is increasingly found in the wonky, think-tank-and-establishment-media blogosphere that is so influential these days. I’ve called it, in the past, globalize/grow/give progressivism. Mike Konczal of Rortybomb has referred to it as pity charity liberalism. (I hope you all are turned on to Rortybomb; it’s essential reading.) Whatever you want to call it, this vision of the liberal project defines itself through the social safety net. Its orientation is towards expanding and protecting a redistributive social welfare system. Meanwhile, it is at best uninterested in (and often downright hostile towards) worker organization, unions, regulation, and other attempts to empower workers in relation to capital and poor people in relation to the rich. The idea is that, if you get the economy going well enough, you can redistribute enough money to the poor that they’ll be alright, even while you’ve undermined their ability to collectively bargain, raise the value of their labor, and exercise power.


Even if you could guarantee a certain minimal welfare state, the idea of poor and working people depending on the largesse of the rich and powerful is obscene. Sometimes, people have to live under the charity of others. But nobody wants to in perpetuity, because they then are not in control of their own lives, and because having to do so leaves many feeling robbed of personal dignity. As long as economic security is a gift of those at the top, it can be taken away. And if the last several decades have shown us anything, it’s that for the richest, what they already have will never be enough. No matter how income inequality spirals out of control, no matter how absurd the gap between those on top and everybody else grows, they’ll look to take more. And the more that you make the people on the bottom dependent on charity, the less they’re able to protect their own interests.

Freddie asks us to “forgive the Marxian cant,” but this part sounds less like Marxism to me than republicanism. As I mentioned a couple posts back, I’m currently working my way through Philip Pettit’s Republicanism, a work of political philosophy which imagines a state dedicated to maximizing freedom through non-domination. Domination, Pettit argues is not the same as interference: domination is no less than the capacity to interfere in another’s affairs on an arbitrary basis, which is to say on a basis that has nothing to do with whether the other consents or objects.

Pettit describes the policy implications of his vision as being generally left-leaning, but he would clearly agree with Freddie and Mike about pity-charity liberalism. As long as political power remains concentrated at the top, he would argue, the rich will continue to dominate the poor.

I’m not all the way through Republicanism just yet, but I’m finding a lot to like in it so far. I’d encourage Freddie and other left-wing skeptics pity-charity liberalism to go check it out.

By the way, one last thing about the book that might interest fellow lefties from an organizing/messaging perspective: Marxian cant or no, Pettit identifies his vision of liberty as non-domination very closely with the American founders. I try to stay out of arguments that involve an appeal to authority, but someone more interested in that sort of thing could make the argument that his vision of maximizing non-domination is more in tune with traditional American values than the Tea Party is.

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