Interview with Bru Laín Escandell
Maciej Szlinder: You worked a lot on the topic of American republicanism, especially on the role of Jefferson. What is his most important contribution to the republican thinking?
Jefferson modernized the republican thought at the end of 18th century, although he kept a strong classical pastoralism ideal. He adapted the ancient republican thought to a new society living on (and creating) the new world. They were creating a new country, but also a new way of thinking. Jefferson concentrated on two main points: 1) the natural sovereign of individuals, and 2) the relation between the republican understanding of property with the idea of fiduciary government. He never considered property as something separated from the forms of government. When he was advocating for “republic of small republics” he meant the form of government consisting in the government of the Union, the 13 state republics, and the sovereign citizens at the bottom. Both these three elements were necessary to think about a real republic.
This structure of government was deeply influenced by his thinking on property that, for him, was not a natural right, but a civil one. “Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society”, he stated in 1813. In other words, in the fiduciary relationship, the principal is the people in itself, the only natural proprietor of all the wealth. “We the people” are the fundamental words in the Declaration of Independence stating that idea. So that, it is only such a people the only one entitled to allocate national wealth and resources. The private owner, therefore, becomes just the agent, the usufructuary of the principal’s wealth. The yeoman, the small farmer who possesses the land is not an absolute proprietor of the land, he’s rather a tenant. In sum, according to Jefferson’s view on property, private property is an act of private appropriation of resources by means of a public fideicommissum shaped by a fiduciary relationship of the principal (the sovereign people who retains the right of alienation) and its agent (State or private owners, who just use it as usufruct).
What does it mean?
To usufruct means not to have the absolute dominium nor possession of a particular resource. It’s a right to use and get benefit from the land you’re working on. If you usufruct the land you’re not the last proprietor of it, since the land belongs to the whole society, the people. So that, private owner is nothing but a trustee of public or sovereign property. “Who plants a field” Jefferson defended in 1814, “keeps possession till he has gathered the produce, after which one has a right as another to occupy it […] Till then the property is in the body of the nation, and they or their chief as their trustee, must grant them to individuals”. This is the core idea of the fiduciary relationship on property. The important thing is that the same relation occurs in the government. The people is the sovereign, the principal. The representatives (first the King and after the senators and counsellors and public officers alike) are nothing but its agent, secretaries entrusted by the nation as a whole.In the US there are no Ministries, like in Spain, but Secretaries. The difference corresponds to a difference in the way of perceiving their role. For the Americans, their representatives just exercise some political function on behalf of the people and hence, subject to its trust. Put it in this way: why the French and the Americans republicans started their revolutions? Because both kings (French and English) betrayed the fiduciary relationship with the people. By nature, the principal always retains the right to take away its trust from its agent when it pleases. In 1792 Maximilien Robespierre clearly illustrated this point: “The source of all of our evils is the absolute independence of the representatives. They were nothing but the people’s agents, and they made themselves sovereigns, despots. For despotism is nothing else than the usurpation of the sovereign power.”
The conflict about taxes between the UK and American colonies was the very beginning of the revolution. Jefferson said that government imposing taxes without a voice in the government was nothing but a tyranny, an act of “despotism” or “usurpation of the sovereign power” in Robespierre’s terms. Those taxes were unacceptable, because they were not an effect of the voluntary decision of Americans, but something imposed by the king unilaterally. The right to decide about ourselves, taxes, the division of land etc. – belongs to the people. While English Parliament gave no voice to its colonies, the only authorized agent as the King. And, in doing so he betrayed the “English citizens” in the Americas.
What is the difference between Jeffersonian republicanism and the one of Robespierre?
For Robespierre the principal was everyone, all of the French population (including waged workers, women, child and slaves). For Jefferson, just white owners, yeoman, and small and independent farmers. Women and slaves were excluded alike. Democracy, in Robespierre’s mind, included the whole nation, while by Jefferson, it extinguished in the front door of the yeoman’s farm.
There were, of course, some crucial ideological differences. In the sense of social ontology all republicans are similar: they assume the existence of social classes, power relations, conflicts. The ideological difference, on the other hand, was to which extent does the democratic republican citizenry (the free or sui iuris individuals) must be extended, namely, which individuals must be free and therefore citizens, and which others must remain excluded from this republican civil society. Most of such ideological differences were due to different economic and political context. Initially, in the American colonies, there were no feudal relations, nor feudal property regime. So, no feudal lords were expected, and so, neither private dominiums. Unlike the Old world, Americans didn’t have this tradition and didn’t have this structure to overcome. They were creating a new world. That’s why the “liberation” of land was so important for Jefferson who defended the classical republican requirement of material independence by means of “40 acres and a mule”. Having a piece of land meant to be independent, meant to be a free citizen. And the only way to achieve independence was through private property of small pieces of land.
Was it different for the Jacobins?
Yes, that was not exactly the case in France. Jacobins didn’t stick only to the private property. They also claimed for the use the public, state tenure of land (the state decides how it would be divided) and common land as well. The communes before the French Revolution were very important and, in fact, they were the primary source of the jacqueries (the peasant revolts promoting the French revolution). Peasant were organised along common property, woods, land, animals, etc. They were dispossessed during 17502 by the Quesnay’s and Turgot’s phisiocratic reforms, a dispossession that continued during the first period of the French revolution by the Liberal policies passed by the new landlords of the Third Estate. The promise of the second (Jacobin) part of the French revolution was that these lands had to be returned to the commons to be used by peasantry.
So, while the American republican freedom was mainly based on the independent-private properties (the freehold), the French republican freedom was based on at least 3 different kinds of properties: small private property, public property (belonging to the state) and communal property. Americans would have never accepted the idea that the state possesses all the land. Seeing the European despotic kingdoms, for the Americans State represented the idea of imperium (the threat to the republican freedom from above public institutions). So, the government was always a second-best option; we need it not to live in chaos. Instead, for the French, the civil government was an achievement since they created it by replacing the feudal kingdom.
What about republicanism after those two revolutions? How it transformed in the face of industrial revolution?
Jefferson died in 1826 and he didn’t face the effects of the industrial revolution. The French already were witnessing the rise of the industrial world. In the US in the second part of the 19th century there was an important group called the Knights of Labor who were partially the heirs of Jeffersonian republican thought. They have updated the republican way of thinking in the world of industrial capitalism with the dominant wage-labour relationship (the new private dominiums). And that meant claiming democracy within the factories, mainly creating cooperatives. The capitalist-wage-labourer relation is unacceptable from this point of view, it’s against republican freedom. The republicanism of the Knights of Labor is still based on material independence but now it’s a collective one, not individual, not farming but working in the factory. A cooperative is a coordination and collaboration between independent workers who are the equal owners of the factory.
Talking about cooperatives. As you are a member of the basic income movement, do you think that BI can strengthen the cooperativist movement?
Yes, it creates the possibility to establish a cooperative based on the joined money got through basic income and can also make it easier for the existing cooperatives to survive.
What do you think about the concept of property-owning democracy?
Many people used this term in different meanings, even Margaret Thatcher presented herself as a supporter of a property-owning democracy. Nevertheless, the most progressive and interesting framing of POD was held by the Novel prize-awarded, James Meade in his influential work: Efficiency, Equality, and the Ownership of Property (1964). His proposal included a) a radical reform of death duties turning it in a progressive tax on inheritance, b) to apply it on inter vivos gifts, c) the creation of a public budget surplus (provided by these taxes revenues and wealth taxes) to reduce national debt and to invest in new forms of public properties, and d) to make institutional reforms (profit sharing schemes, purchase municipal houses by their tenants, investment trusts) which would make easier the accumulation of small properties. All of these measures would promote that “the ownership of property could be equally distributed over all the citizens in the community”. In that case, every citizen possesses some significant share of the national assets, so even in case of some losing a job he or she can easily subsist him/herself. In Alaska model the idea is similar, but obviously that dividend is to small fluctuating around 2,000 dollars per year and comes from oil, not from tax revenues on wealth and inheritance. As far as you are the owner of these national assets you will never lose your economic capacity. Of course, Meade showed we can apart from making a dividend do other things with these national assets – invest them or convert them into common property organised by municipalities.
The moral and economic justification of Basic Income is that the wealth in a country belongs to everyone, insofar is the output of a collective effort (which is appropriated and accumulated unequally), and thus, it must be spread to everyone in equal part. As we, the government, decides which part of the revenues goes to public schools or health service, we can also decide a part of these collective revenues going to fund a Basic Income.
You have written some articles about collaborative economy. How we should analyse it and what political stakes are connected with it?
There is huge misunderstanding with the so called “collaborative economy”. In fact, capitalist markets in themselves are the most collaborative systems ever, since they cannot exist without collaboration. Of course it’s not a democratic collaboration. We must be quite careful in using the term “collaborative economy”. For now the most collaborative platforms in our society are the labour market and the social security system. There are millions of people collaborating in them, people working, others getting unemployment benefits, and more than 6 million people receiving pensions. Uber is nothing in comparison to that. There is no collaboration there. There are people working for the owners. The only thing is that you can get in touch with your taxi driver directly, you don’t have to ask a taxi by talking to the central. This is the only collaborating element that Uber represents.
Another example, Airbnb, is supposedly to be the most collaborative platform, since connects the landlords with the tenants all around the world. But, we have been doing this for a long time without it. The only difference is that they have a huge capital to invest in advertising. The only difference is that I can upload your advertisement on their site that gives you the chance to get in contact with a lot of people. Airbnb is a private company who extracts its surplus not from the wage labour of their peers, but from what you possess –your house– and your daily activity –web connection–. This whole model is just the way of profit-making –using not your work, but your assets (your house, car, daily activities, and even more, also the collective ones like the city in itself). It is far beyond the classical exploitation relationship; it’s not the labour time that is the basis of exploitation but the leisure time. So, all of my life, not only work time, is a part of the alienation. There is nothing democratic about this.
So there are 2 main problems: First, that it’s overwhelmingly taking all of our time. And second that it is not democratic. Peter Frase concentrates on that second feature. He thinks that just destroying Uber or Airbnb is not the best idea. It would be better to take them over and democratise, to change it into cooperative. You can still use some of the technological and organisational tools but you completely change the property relations. Every Uber driver would be a cooperator having his own equal share in the firm. What do you think about that?
There are already taxi cooperatives, very old ones here in Barcelona. You can get in touch with a particular driver if you like. In that sense it’s the same service that Uber provides. In case of people renting their flats or rooms – would it be a good idea to create a cooperative of them? It’s easier to have a cooperative of landlords. But what about the problems connected with excessive tourism? What about gentrification? What about housing bubble? At some point we need the state or municipality intervention to correct or to fix negative externalities of “collaborative” activity, whereas it may be public-communitarian or private-parasitize. In any case, the house market has to be regulated. Even with taxis – it’s one of the most regulated sectors; they need licences, pay high taxes, obligatory assurances, etc. That’s why these people are complaining on Uber – they don’t follow those rules. Collaborative economy is not a problem if it is not avoiding taxes, regulations and not eroding the state and really collaborative affords. If there is, in other word, a possibility to unionise and the labour rights are respected. Otherwise it’s the savage and unregulated capitalism.
Bru Laín Escandell is PhD in Sociology at the University of Barcelona where teaches Sociology, Sociology of Knowledge and Introduction to Economics. His research is mainly on the topic of property and related issues like the common property, fiduciary theories, natural right, basic income, distribution and pre-distribution, among other. His main interests are on Political Philosophy, Political Economy and History of Political Ideas. He is the Secretary of Spanish Basic Income Network and advisor of the Barcelona City Council on the B-MINCOME pilot testing cash transfers benefits when combining with public active policies in reducing inequalities.
The interviewer received funding for preparation of PhD thesis from Polish National Science Centre as part of PhD scholarship decision DEC-2015/16/T/HS1/00295.
Interview with David Casassas
Maciej Szlinder: In your book you’ve analysed the thought of very known philosopher and classical economist Adam Smith. Being a leftist what have you found interesting in this icon of free-market and contemporary liberal thinkers?
David Casassas: One thing you can do if you want to think in emancipatory terms is to try to defend your allegedly own values and goals such as community, equality etc. This is very important. But there has been a huge mistake inside the emancipatory thinking since the twentieth century of giving a present made by very important values in our tradition to the conservative right. For instance, freedom seems to be liberal, individual seems to be bourgeois, the private sphere seems to be something that can be only dominated by the few. It is very important to go into these values and concepts and try to make sense of them. If that is your goal you should go to some classical thinkers that have been kidnapped by the liberal hermeneutics which has given an interpretation of them that has nothing to do with the kind of world they were aspiring to. I’m thinking of such political philosophers as, for instance, Locke, Kant, Robespierre or Adam Smith. They all have been related to the liberal tradition by liberals, and sometimes also by some Marxists for whom they were all liberal and bourgeois people. In my opinion this is completely false. Adam Smith and other representatives of the Scottish Enlightenment thought about manufacture and commerce in a way that has nothing to do with features of the really existing capitalism. Capitalism is incompatible with free market as it was defined by Smith.
So you propose some kind of strategy of diversion, re-capturing or regaining the notions that have been appropriated by the right? A kind of Trojan strategy?
You can say that. But the important thing is to go in depth into the works of these authors, see “the text and the context”, to put it in Skinner terms, and realise that there were an emancipatory project of abolishing serfdom, of creating undominated social relations. In fact it is stronly connected with long republican tradition which was still very important in the seventeenth and eighteenth century in Scotland, England, France, North America etc. I think it is important to recover these authors from the claws of the liberal interpretation.
One of the ways to recover Adam Smith is to fully understand and present his vision of social ontology. What was his view of the individual, the collective and power relations and how it differs from the liberal point of view?
If you are a liberal, you tend to think that the world is made of psychological relations. I sign a contract with you, because I prefer what you have and you prefer what I have, so we make an exchange. Sometimes the thing that you have is labour force and what you prefer is to work for me. This is all a matter of preferences. A republican social ontology shows a world which is criss-crossed by all kinds of (materially-based) power relations. And it is very clearly present in the works of Adam Smith. In a long passage in the Wealth of Nations about the fixation of wages he describes a world which is completely pervaded by strong power relations, in which workers are very likely to lose a lot in an interaction that is defined by a very dissimilar access to resources. There is a very nice image, when he says: “In the long run, the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.” (WN 42) In other words, workers needs capitalists (or the money from them) right now, because the other option is dying from starvation, capitalists also need workers, but on the long run. In this conflictive interaction capitalists have many more opportunities to win and to build social relations that respect their wishes and whims and that are extremely exploitative for others. You can find this presence of power relations all along the work of Adam Smith, as well as in Aristotle, Kant, the Levellers, the Diggers, Robespierre, Jefferson and all the republican tradition.
Ok, so what about the probably most known Smithian metaphor of “the invisible hand” which is used by the liberals against any regulation of the market? What is the significance and place of it in the whole theoretical construction of Adam Smith?
Firstly, it is important to know that this metaphor appears seriously only twice in his works (and once as a joke in the History on Astronomy): once in the Theory of Moral Sentiments and once in the Wealth of Nations. But the liberal hermeneutics has turned it into the main idea of Adam Smith. Secondly, let’s take the metaphor seriously. What is Adam Smith telling us? He is telling that he believes in a world in which we have decentralised exchanges of goods and services without having to ask for permission in every case to guilds or the state. When these decentralised exchanges happen societies tend to achieve higher degrees of efficiency, freedom, happiness and self-realisation. Adam Smith is one of the main theorists of alienation and self-realisation. 1844 Marx picks up Adam Smith’s views. For these decentralised exchanges to take place in a free way that respects everyone’s wishes, preferences, undominated life plans etc. it is extremely important that state intervenes in order to cut bonds of dependence and to create these spheres where you and I can meet and look, how Philip Pettit would put it, “at each others’ eyes without having to turn head down,” because it means that I depend on you. There is something like “the invisible hand” but it is something to be constituted by the public powers. You don’t have “invisible hand” without state intervention. So we can say that Adam Smith’s thought is a thinking towards the political institution of the invisible hand. All markets are of course politically constituted and Adam Smith is very clear about that.
In one of your articles you say even a little bit more, namely, that all markets are a result of state intervention saying at the same time that markets have always existed. Therefore how do you understand the notion of state?
I understand it as political institutions created by men and women, mainly man, in order to organise social life. Of course as Polanyi teaches us, as well as Goody and others, markets exist since the Bronze Age or even before. So you can’t say that the markets are a result of capitalism or of the modern state. What it seems to me is that it is a cultural/political decision, the one that defines in which way we exchanged these goods and services. I’m saying that all markets are politically constituted because they all are the result of the sedimentation of many layers of implicit or explicit rules of what to commodify and how to commodify it. Of course making of these rules depends on a certain correlation of forces. Markets are not metaphysical entities, they don’t fall from heaven. They are a way of decentralised exchange according to certain rules. Does the left intervene in the markets? Yes and I think it should more. Does the right constitute the market? Of course yes, it’s a myth it doesn’t. Markets are the result of layers of legislation. And when I use the term “legislation” I do it in a broad sense, as any kind of regulation, from the civil code to the “moral economy of the multitude,” as E.P. Thompson would say. These kind of markets are the defeated markets by capitalist modernity.
In what sense capitalist markets are not free markets? You say that they are against competition and other values defended by Adam Smith.
There are two things to say in this respect: one related to workers and the other connected with the Adam Smith’s idea of a free producer, which, I believe, should be central in our world. The problem with capitalist markets, which were very well known by Adam Smith, is that they rest on a massive process of dispossession of the vast majority which forces the commodification of the labour force of this majority. Markets, including labour markets, are something that you should be able to access when you want it. When I say ‚you’ I mean every individual and the whole society. Forced commodification is a problem from the republican point of view, the Adam Smith’s point of view. Another problem is that capitalism creates very harsh entry barriers: monopolies, oligopolies, predatory price fixation, dumping, advertisement. These are many forms of expelling from the markets potential producers that might want to access it. I think it’s very important not to see market as the devil, but as a space where part of the externalisation of our capacities can occur. For this to happen markets should be something that we, as a society choose to use in certain moments, scenarios and contexts. We should have the possibility to say ‚no’ to markets in order to think about free markets. This is like in a relation with a partner – it is only free and interesting when you can choose to leave it and you decide not to leave it and nourish it. But we need the right to divorce. And capitalism denies us the right to divorce from this kind of social relationship. We need the real possibility of choice. I can’t say that all spheres of life should be certainly decommodified but all of them should be at least decommodifiable. And capitalism denies that.
One of the measures you propose that enables us to say “no”, is basic income. What do you mean by that?
I think that if we try to present basic income itself as a sufficient way to build power to leave markets, to decommodify the labour force we would make a mistake. But we can present it as a part of a project of contradicting the dispossessing nature of capitalism by creating, as a right, a set of material resources that could guarantee an existence in dignity. And this right to decent existence which is guaranteed by rights to basic income, health care, education, care policies etc. would give you this kind of bargaining power that you lose when you are dispossessed. Basic income plays a crucial role in this context because it can help to consolidate sets of resources hat could give us this bargaining power to say ‚no’ to what we don’t want to do, but not in order to build an atomised life without social relations but to build an interdependence (which is unavoidable) that is based on autonomous decisions by all parties. So it shouldn’t be a unique measure but a part of a package of measures. But because of its unconditional, universal and individual nature it is a best example of this kind of counter-dispossession policies we should endeavour in present times.
How this possibility of having an exit option and this rise in bargaining position that basic income could help to give us is related to the amount of it?
This is very relevant – it only works when these set of resources allow you to cover your basic needs. A partial basic income could be important in terms of fostering your well-being but not in terms of fostering your freedom. Having 200 Euros every month unconditionally allows you to buy some food or books, but if you want to be free, what you need to have is a basic income at the level of poverty line and a package of measures that guarantee that you have your basic needs fully covered. If you’re not above this threshold the freedom enhancing potential of these measures vanishes. Without that you don’t have the exit option and the bargaining position and therefore you don’t have a republican, effective freedom that we need.
How this republican freedom-based defence of basic income differs from other, based on freedom, justifications of this proposal, for instance libertarian one (including Philippe Van Parijs’ “real libertarianism”)?
Philippe Van Parijs’ attitude towards basic income is very interesting from an abstract point of view, but I think it is quite vague in sociological terms or when it comes to assessing the material conditions for this kind of freedom to emerge. Having the capacity to do whatever you might want to do is something that I buy, but I think that we need to go down in terms of level of abstraction and analyse the economic institutions that really promote this capacity. The republican tradition gives you this kind of sociological awareness of these institutions. Another thing which is absent in Van Parijs’ approach is the importance of bargaining power, you won’t find it at any point of his works. It’s a problem of social ontology, if you still operate with ontology related to neoclassical economics you don’t need to think about power relations. But if you acknowledge the world is criss-crossed by many form of power relations you should get into deep, institutional approach. In general terms, libertarian thinking is far from these concerns and is highly problematic, especially in the context of contemporary capitalism. Another thing is that left-libertarians think that the world was owned in common, there was an unfair appropriation because it left many people without resources but this lead them only into a reparation rationale. I think that in reality the reparation rationale and the republican rationale might tend to converge but it is not necessary. If this is only a question of reparations, you might forget plenty of situations in which we can’t identify that it was a violation of these property rights and we are not just ex ante distributing to everybody this package of measures I was mentioning before. I think that the predistribution debate we are witnessing nowadays thanks to Stuart White or Martin O’Neil, which is related to a classical, republican approach to freedom, is broader and in some way guarantee that all of us will have access to this sets of resources. If you limit yourself to a mere reparations of the violation of the property rights you might end up leaving people without that socio-economic empowerment I’m talking about.
In one of your articles you use the notion of political economy of democracy – what is that?
Only if you’re a liberal you would deny that democracy requires material conditions. Freedom and democracy as stated by all the republican tradition is something that only occurs when there are some social and economical conditions that have been implemented that make us more free in terms of co-determining how we live in common etc. So there’s a long history of republican thinking about freedom and democracy (when republicans thought about democracy, some of them don’t do that). Democracy is connected to these collective projects of self-determination. In order to participate in these projects with real voice and capacity to codetermine them you need to be empowered, you need to have material independence in order to make a really democratic politics emerge.
And what do you mean by saying that republicanism is in itself a political economy?
I’m concerned very much about romanticised approach to republicanism as a tradition. You can find this in the nineteenth century, as well as, in the works of Hannah Arendt, Michael Sandel or Richard Dagger. In some way they all say that republicanism is liking very much public sphere, fostering warm ties with others, fostering vita activa, as Hannah Arendt would say, without considering the material conditions of it. This is highly problematic for conceptual reasons but also from the hermeneutical point of view. If you go to the classics of republicanism from Aristotle to Marx, you very easily realise that all these people define civil society as a normative concept that has to do with creating a public space where we all have been empowered in order to build undominated interdependence. Republicanism does two things: the first is a descriptive analysis of social power relations (with their material and cultural conditions), and second, in a normative dimension, it suggests and struggles for measures of many sorts in order to promote undominated social relations. To the extent that republicanism does this we can’t say that it is a vague political theory, but it is a political economy. The classical political economist, from Adam Smith to Marx were doing exactly those two things.
What are those measures that republicanism as a political economy suggests?
Firstly, there’s a need of an economic floor, which is basic income and a package of measures similar to those presented in the Precariat’s Charter by Guy Standing. It rethinks the welfarist measures in a truly universal and unconditional way. Secondly, there’s an economic ceiling. Even if you are empowered ex ante with some basic and relevant resources, if you want to enter an economic sphere as a free producer, as Adam Smith would put it, but it occurs that there are some big fishes, big oligarchs that can prevent you from getting into it you have a big problem in terms of freedom. We may want to develop a productive project but if we can’t access the space where production, distribution and exchange occurs because there are 3 or 4 guys that control it we are not really free. Therefore thinking about freedom and democracy requires also thinking about an economic ceiling. There are two strategies to achieve it. First is the Rousseaunian strategy which is very close to the ideas of Pizzigati who claims that we should directly and actively cut inequalities by, for instance, reducing the top salaries. The second strategy is the Rooseveltian one which is connected to the progressive part of the American self-understanding, that you accept people with a lot of money but you can restrain their set of opportunities related to that. They should be prevented from making others more difficult to get into the social-economic spheres as a free actors.
Which of these to approaches is, in your opinion, a better one?
I don’t want to be creationist, as Toni Domènech would say, and say what every particular society needs. But I also have the Rousseaunian intuition, that an ex ante measure avoiding huge inequalities is preferable to an ex post restrain of the opportunities of the most powerful actors. At the same time I would like to add that I like diverse societies, so societies in which people have very different outcomes, even in material terms. It is not necessarily unfair or unjust. If we take the Marx criterion “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” we might have an unequal outcome. So the problem is not that there are any economic inequalities, but that they are so big and that they prevent all of us from developing our own life plans.
So we have economic floor, economic ceiling and…
To enable both of them, and that’s the third thing, we need a state intervention that is democratically controlled. This is very present both in the republican tradition and in its part, which is the socialist tradition. If we want to create workers assemblies, control the most powerful actors, introduce a basic income etc. we shouldn’t delegate these tasks in a blind way but rather inhabit and co-do these kind of arrangements and control them and deliberate about making of all of them. I think there us a need of a contestatory approach to these institutions that help us turn them into our institutions. In the end we are constructing an apparatus that has a very important role to do and we should make sure that this apparatus does these tasks and not other things. Because nowadays they are working for the few. As you can see we need vita activa, as Hannah Arendt would say, but need it for correct running of the state that has to do all this kind of things, as Arendt would not say.
If we have these three things, the floor, the ceiling and the democratic control over this state intervention, what do people do? People live free lives. What does it mean? It means enjoying the collective control over the means of production.
If the republican freedom should be something granted individually and it is based on the property, how you reconcile it with the collective control over the means of production? Do you wish to abolish the private property?
Not necessarily all of it. I think private property is something we should also reconquest from the right. I don’t think that the fact that you build something productive on your own is necessarily problematic. It can be a problem if it is related to the processes that force all of us to do wage-earning work for you and you have the power to limit our access to economic space as producers. It is very important that the package of measures is enjoyed individually in order to try to abolish all kinds of power relations. But does not deny the fact that we are social animals. The problem is that the current interdependence is ruled by the wishes of the few. The thing we will tend to do and we have already tended to do is to produce with others, material and immaterial goods. The question is how to do it and how we can create productive spaces that respect everyone’s freedom and autonomy. I think that these kind of measures can help a lot. And one of the things we can do with them is to decommodify our labour force, because as Aristotle and Marx said, wage-earning work is incompatible with freedom, in order to create productive units, private or common in which we can collectively control the many ways in which it runs. And I think it is the contemporary way of interpreting the old motto of the collective control over the means of production. “Collective control” means that we are all entitled to participate in the democratic decision-making of what and how we produce, how we allocate the tasks, how we avoid the social division of labour, how we distribute etc. And “means of production” signify all the material and immaterial assets that we are using in this production process. I know it is abstract, but I want to leave it open to different social interpretation about proper cooperatives, soviets etc.
Which of contemporary struggles are fighting for the goals that you present?
I think that all social movements that have appeared after the rupture of the post-war social deal in some way are claiming to recover what the left had renounced around 1945 with these deal. If you go to 15 Movement, Occupy, and many other social movements in Europe or Latin America they are concerned about collective economic sovereignty under neoliberal capitalism. Parts of these movements as well develop projects, and sometimes they put them into practice, of social, cooperative and solidarity economy. They have plenty of interesting suggestions and proposals, but cooperatives, self-management are still a very partial reality. I think there is a need to empower all individuals with public policies to help them make all kind of undominated decisions such as nourishing these cooperative economics or self-management projects etc. At the same time these movements ask for true citizens rescue plans understanding that we need a better footing in order to start with all these projects of our own.
How these demands are related to the neoliberal dismantling of the welfare state and the current crisis of neoliberal form of capitalism?
The post-war consensus was a very clear arrangement in which we, the working population, renounce to the control over production. Some people remind us that it was a big mistake. I don’t know if it was but the fact is that we did it. On the other side of the table capitalists agreed on something that they really didn’t like, which is guaranteeing to all of us certain degrees of social-economic security of the welfare-state measures. Most of them were conditioned of course. I think this was a very imperfect arrangement, but still it has reformed capitalism for many years. What we are witnessing now is very well explained in the article by Marco Revelli, the Italian social theorist, named ???. It mentions the painting on a wall of Instituto Politecnico de Torino saying: “You’ve taken too much from us, now we want it all.” So we have renounced to the most important thing from the republican/socialist point of view which is the control over production and with the emergence of neoliberalism, by a unilateral move they (oligarchs, capitalist) broke the deal. Therefore it is extremely legitimate that we don’t limit ourselves to defend this partial goals included in the former agreement, but we go back to the original situation which is the point, in which we were still aiming at controlling production. So I think that basic income, package of measures, the ceiling and the democratic control over these institutions are a very clear way to say: let’s put on the table again, using 21st century terms the project of control over production.
Your vision of “our” struggle for basic income against “them” (capitalists, oligarchs) stands in contradiction with the strategy of convincing “them” that it can be good for both sides by using, for instance, Milton Friedman’s arguments while discussing with his neoliberal followers. So clearly your position is in this point different from, for example, Guy Standing’s approach.
I think this is very contextual, Standing’s strategy might make sense in some societies in certain moments. And I know that this view is widespread in the basic income movement all over the world, but I strongly disagree with it. In this view the goal is too have a basic income which means a certain amount of money every month which enables capitalists to pay lower salaries, therefore we can achieve a win-win situation (with maintaining welfare state, because without that it couldn’t even pretend to be a win-win scenario). But this approach has a very limited political and social ambition. For me and other guys like Daniel Raventós, Antoni Domènech and others associated with SinPermiso the aim is to create a world in which you can decommodify the labour force. It doesn’t necessarily mean you become an individual or collective entrepreneur. It leads to a more diverse world with many economic projects. Only with the capacity to decommodify the labour force for all, things such as entrepreneurship and private investment can be perceived as positive. At this point I don’t think we can convince capitalists. And I don’t think they will easily agree to giving us a very relevant levels of bargaining power to determine the share of the product, what and how we produce or if I want to produce it for them. And this is the goal of putting the basic income in a broader project which is essentially anti-capitalist one. So it is much more important to build coalition with those that are aiming at contradicting the dispossessing nature of capitalism and then we’ll see what we’ll do with basic income and other specific measures. It’s better than trying to build a coalition with every follower of basic income in order to build a world that from a republican/socialist perspective might not be desirable, forcing us to part-time slaves, as Aristotle would say, and prevent us from entering into market as free producers. I think Guy Standing is a really progressive thinker but I don’t agree with him in this particular point about shaking hands with those that want us to remain being forced to sell our labour force to them.
The interviewer received funding for preparation of PhD thesis from Polish National Science Centre as part of PhD scholarship decision DEC-2015/16/T/HS1/00295.