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.