Remarks on Jack Ross’s Labor and Liberty

Read as comments in reply to Jack Ross's presentation at the second annual meeting of the Molinari Society (28 December 2005), during the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division conference in New York City.

Jack Ross challenges libertarians to rethink their attitude towards labor unionism, in history and in theory, and suggests that the history of the 19th century labor movement offers mostly untapped resources for 21st century libertarians. He reminds us that 19th century radical libertarians, such as Benjamin Tucker and Henry George, hardly shared the 20th century libertarians’ visceral hostility towards organized labor; indeed, while describing their position as the most radical and consistent form of economic laissez-faire, they also directly allied themselves with labor unionism and, in the case of Tucker and his circle at Liberty, explicitly defined themselves as socialists. Ross argues that a pro-labor thick libertarianism can revive the tradition of liberty for labor, and organized labor as a force for liberty rather than the foremen of the managerial State. (¶ 1)

There are important, standing theoretical questions about the compatibility of unionism and libertarianism that Ross doesn’t broach, but which would be illuminating in our efforts to reconsider labor history as Ross wants us to consider it. To play boss’s advocate for a moment, I might ask: how easily are central union tactics, such as collective strikes, sit-downs, and other forms of work stoppage reconciled with libertarian emphasis on property rights and contracts? What of the standard capitalist charges that unions, even if non-coercive, represent a cartel in the supply of labor, and so, even if formally compatible with libertarian principle, still ought to be rejected as inefficient roadblocks to commerce — for the same reason that any other monopoly or cartel ought to be rejected? I raise both of these questions, not because I think either is unanswerable or even, in the end, particularly challenging, but rather because I hope the answers might help bridge some conceptual gaps for those who would be likely to ask them in propia voce. (¶ 2)

Turning to my own questions and priorities, though, I find Ross’s call for a reconsideration of labor history from a libertarian perspective refreshing and much needed. Still, I find myself in precisely the same position in which Ross finds himself towards Murray Rothbard’s Left and Right: while I fully accept as fundamentally sound the essential thesis, that a thick libertarianism can and should be historically and theoretically connected with anti-statist traditions within organized labor, I find myself scratching my head over points of detail. Since Ross’s focus is historical, these largely amount to quibbles, cavils, and serious differences over points of historical interpretation; but since labor history is hardly my field and I think there are some important conceptual questions to explore, what I’d like to do here is mention a few points of historical detail that seem to connect to further conceptual questions about libertarianism, labor, and the debate between thick and thin. (¶ 3)

Ross is exactly right to point out that many libertarians seem to talk about unions as if they first came into existence with the Wagner Act in 1935 — when workers built the modern American labor movement over some six and a half decades without the smothering patronage of the State and, in fact, often in the face of unrelenting government violence against organizers and strikers. He is also right that we need to reexamine the views of the pre-Wagner labor movement, and to reclaim the genuine core of opposition to state capitalism in it. While I share his enthusiasm for the anti-statist tradition of Tucker and George, I am not nearly so sure of his identification of the American Federation of Labor in general, or Samuel Gompers in particular, as the historical standard-bearers of that tradition. There is a historical point of difference here, but I think that it can cast light on some conceptual and theoretical points as well. There are clear general grounds — some of which I’ve mentioned in my previous comments — for accepting that libertarianism should be integrated into a thicker set of social and cultural programs; but those general grounds don’t settle the question of which commitments those should be. Proposed candidates have included any number of different, and mutually exclusive bundles of social and cultural values, including feminism, antiracism, unionism, anti-unionism and cultural celebration of heroic bosses, the philosophy of Objectivism, traditionalist Christianity, secular humanism, etc. etc. etc. Ross offers some important historical reasons for including unionism, and the cause of labor broadly, among the bundle of commitments that thick libertarians should ally with libertarian principles. But there are lots of different ways to go about unionizing besides the way that Gompers and his allies went about it: once it’s stipulated that labor organizing cannot be statist, it can still either be centralized or decentralized; can either invest many or few powers in the cadre of union officials; can organize either by trade, by shop, by industry, or by region; can aim for negotiated peace between bosses and unionized workers, or for unions as a replacement for bosses; can either allow for or avoid a permanent leadership class within the locals, unions, and union federations; can either accomodate or resist exclusionary practices (e.g. racial or gender segregation) in member unions and in the broader culture; etc. Granted that each of these options can be implemented in unions consistently with libertarian principle, it remains worth asking which, if any, of the alternatives is preferable from the standpoint of pro-labor anti-statism. We have to ask which sorts of unionism are best for workers, and also ask which sorts of unionism are most likely to successfully resist the efforts of the government to undermine or co-opt organized labor. And the radical opposition that Gompers battled was not limited to electoral socialists on the one hand and revolutionary state socialists on the other; there were also anarchists and syndicalists who rejected the coercive apparatus of the state as such. (It seems odd, frankly, that Ross points to Gompers’ early radicalism — which Gompers himself claimed to have set aside in favor of a more conservative and allegedly pragmatic approach — and singles out the apparently syndicalist implications of his ideas for his praise, but does not mention the IWW and its explicit support for explicitly anti-statist, syndicalist labor organizing.) (¶ 4)

This brings us to the Wagner Act and the labor relations bureaucracy of the New Deal and Cold War era. Ross is exactly right to point out that the short-term benefits to unions organized on the AFL model were purchased at the price of co-optation and tight control of the newly official unions by the coercive State. How was the AFL captured into the state capitalist system of central planning, and converted into a captive base for the Democratic Party? Ross mentions Roosevelt’s demagoguery, but it’s worth asking whether he thinks that was a sufficient condition or only a contributing factor; whether there were any deeper structural facts about the AFL’s model of labor organizing that made them more susceptible to co-optation and attractive for the smothering patronage of the managerial state than they might otherwise have been. If there are, what are the alternatives that should have been favored, and how should this affect our historical appraisal of the AFL and Gompers’ leadership of it? What about our historical appraisal of Gompers’ critics within the labor movement? If we should get what we want, and witness a revival of wildcat unionism free of the interference of the State, how similar to, and how different from, the modern labor movement could we expect it to look? How similar to, and how different from, the AFL of the late 19th and early 20th centuries should we want it to look? (I also wonder, and would be interested to hear more about, whether there are parallels between the situation of the labor unions since their co-optation by the National Labor Relations Board system, and the situation of the guilds -- which, as I understand it, became more rigidly controlled by the growing power of the monarchs as the Middle Ages ended and the early modern period began.) (¶ 5)

There are, further, important conceptual questions about the meaning of pure and simple trade unionism that are raised by the practices of Gompers and the AFL. Given the instrumental role that Gompers and his allies enthusiastically played in the agitation for Chinese Exclusion and so-called protective labor legislation to exclude women from many shops, or Gompers’ personal participation in the Wilson administration’s wartime central planning bureaucracy, it’s hard to see how far pure and simple trade unionism really opposed active participation in, and attempts to control, the machinery of the State. But even if these be set aside as aberrations, or violations of principle, the doctrine remains ambiguous. Ross suggests early on that Gompers’ doctrine was formulated to articulate radical action and organization independent of the state or of loftier utopian goals. Independent of the state sounds good from the standpoint of anti-statism, but I think it’s important to recognize that there are two importantly different senses in which action and organization might be independent of the state: that could mean a lack of interference with the State apparatus, or it could mean lack of deference to the State apparatus. Should action independent of the state withdraw not only from endorsing or manipulating, but also from challenging, the political status quo? Or should it simply proceed by ignoring State demands and resisting attempts to enforce them? Depoliticizing unionism and making unionism effectively anti-statist are two different goals, and can in specific instances lead to mutually exclusive policies. Does Ross identify Gompers pure and simple trade unionism with non-interference or with non-deference? If the former, how far is it an asset to libertarian anti-statism? If the latter, how is this to be reconciled with Gompers’ own political actions on behalf of nativist immigration policy and economic regimentation, and his willingness to accomodate rather than challenging (for example) the segregationist politics of the Jim Crow South? (¶ 6)

The claim of pure and simple trade unionism to be independent of loftier utopian goals seems also ambiguous, and problematic. It could mean that the labor movement is worth pursuing in its own right, and should not be thought of as subordinate to, or a mere auxiliary of, the latest sweeping theory of how the world ought to be. On the other hand, it could be taken to mean that the labor movement should simply be indifferent to, and accomodate, whatever the social and cultural status quo happens to be on questions other than labor relations. If it’s the former, then independence from loftier goals is both necessary and proper for serious labor organizing — and also probably also for the labor movement to avoid the trap of statism. If it’s the latter, though, independence from loftier goals seems to be of dubious value at best for three reasons: from a libertarian standpoint, the loftier goals may be important parts of a thick anti-statism no less than labor organizing; the loftier goals may be worth supporting in their own right; and from the standpoint of labor, it may be that support for loftier goals is necessary for genuine organization of the working class. There’s good reason to think that Gompers’ accomodation of segregationist unions, his willingness to pander to racism, nativism, and sexism in his advocacy, and his explicit identifications of labor (as he defended it) with white American manhood, hurt both specific workers (for example, workers who weren’t white, or weren’t American, or weren’t male) and the organized labor movement as a whole, by sapping its resources and aligning it with the traditional order of authority in sex, race, and nationality (thus positioning it on the Right in Rothbard’s sense, and — if Rothbard was right about the Right — buying short-term influence at the price of long-term decay). One way to think about it is this: my understanding of Gompers actions is that they seem to indicate that pure and simple trade unionism meant, among other things, not just the autonomy of the cause of labor, but also a distinctly thin vision of that cause, i.e. for labor unionism to be pursued narrowly, without reference to, or perhaps even at the expense of, other social and cultural movements. But if there are good reasons for libertarianism to be thick, along some or all of the dimensions that I’ve already mentioned, then doesn’t it seem likely that there are just as good reasons for the labor movement to be thick along some or all of those dimensions? Does pure and simple trade unionism, on Ross’s view, commit us to a thin labor movement? If so, is there a tension between the reasons given for a thick libertarianism, and the reasons given for a thin labor movement to be allied with it? If not, then what does pure and simple trade unionism tell us about the proper relationship between the labor movement and other movements against oppression? (¶ 7)

Finally, while I’m sympathetic with Ross’s case for a thick libertarianism, I must say that I’m puzzled by Ross’s use of the term thin libertarianism, which is variously identified with Locke, the English Whigs, the Jacobins, and with utopian reformers. Whatever the value of Murray Rothbard’s later criticism of Puritanism, the Whiggish view of history, and so-called liberal imperialism — and I am more dubious of Rothbard’s brief against them than Ross seems to be — it seems clear to me that the distinctions Rothbard wanted to make cut across the thin - thick divide, as it is traditionally drawn. Certainly the Jacobins, for one, had quite specific recommendations for the sort of social and cultural values that they felt were necessary for a free republic to flourish; and broadly speaking it’s hard for me to see how those who can be criticized for attaching their libertarianism to this or that millenial utopian program could also be criticized for a thin conception of libertarianism. Perhaps what’s needed here is just some clarification on how Ross is using the term, and what features he takes to be shared by, and peculiar to, the folks he identifies as thin libertarians. (¶ 8)

I should hope that these comments are taken as friendly notes and questions for clarification. At an important level, Ross is right. The supposedly obvious and unbridgeable opposition between liberty and labor is, like many other supposed left-libertarian oppositions, the result of terminological difficulties and shifting political alliances over the course of the 20th century rather than any deep or principled gulf. The best way to see this is with more engaged discussion: fewer polemics, more history, more earnest questioning, and more listening. We stand, as Ross notes, at the brink of both a crisis and an opportunity: the flagship of establishment unionism, the AFL-CIO, has suffered a massive, public, and devastating split; mainline unions, from the TWU Local 100 to the UAW to the Northwest machinists, are effectively fighting for their lives against public indifference and active hostility from the newsmedia and commentariat; and meanwhile one the biggest labor victories in years was achieved this year by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’s victory in the Taco Bell boycott — a victory won by a non-traditional labor union that organizes farmworkers without government recognition or alliances to the union establishment. Changes are coming and if those changes mean that a revival of the state-free tradition of organized labor, then that will be best both for labor and for libertarianism. Labor needs liberty, and libertarianism needs labor, if we intend to dump both the bosses and the bureacrats off our back. (¶ 9)

I hope the conversation continues to move forward, and admire Ross’s contribution, both on its own merits and as a provocation to further discussion. (¶ 10)