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Those Inalienable Rights And Your Job

Did you even wonder what “inalienable rights” was about in the Declaration of Independence? WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...” Here is a history of those rights and a segue into what the “gig economy” really is. This is powerful. It comes from a piece in The Straddler by David Ellerman, entitled “Against the Renting of Persons”.

Introductory excerpt: “David Ellerman, philosopher, mathematician, economist, and political theorist, is highly critical of the intellectual underpinnings of the current employment system, which he says institutionalize “the renting of persons” on dubious philosophical grounds. Describing his position as “neo-abolitionist,” he notes that modern liberal thought simplistically locates chattel’s slavery illegitimacy in its being a coercive institution. According to Ellerman, this wholly ignores a long and neglected tradition of liberal thought that viewed voluntary slavery as legitimate. This more sophisticated defense of slavery is itself illegitimate, but its tenets survive today and underlie the renting of persons in our own employment system. While working at Wal-Mart or Starbucks is a categorically different experience than chattel slavery, Ellerman’s efforts to recover the tradition of inalienable rights, which informed the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence as well as the abolitionists of the nineteenth century, seek to provide an analysis of the institutions of modern employment, which he claims structurally maintain an essential denial of human agency.”

So it may be a useful exercise to read Ellerman’s piece and apply what he says about human agency to one’s own job or to employment in general today. Do you work in a ‘gig” job like Uber with a take-it-or-leave-it contract making you a rental? Or do you work for a corporation where you are salaried but voting for those who are in top management is reserved for the shareholders, leaving you with questionable agency? In either case, did you alienate your rights in order to work? Or have you delegated them to your employer? It makes a difference as you will see in Ellerman’s writing.

About Dick Conoboy

Writer • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

Comments by Readers

David Camp

Jan 12, 2017

Thought-provoking article. Yes, the majority of workers in a corporate environment (non-exempt employees) are wage-slaves. However, management (exempt employees) have degrees of agency and control that in my (probably privileged) experience, represent what Ellerman calls contracts of delegation, not of alienation as are those of the wage slaves. I think he ignores the complexity that most large corporations are effectively management clubs. and his prescriptions for workplace democracy as a result are unrealistic. He advocates for a worker democracy that is one man one vote, the recipe for chaos without recognition of leadership’s role. Epsecially considering that in Europe, particularly in France, Netherlands, and Germany, all employees are under contract, and there are well-developed mechanisms of worker involvement mandated by law. For example, workers are mandated representation on the management committee. I’ve observed these arrangements myself from a visiting management perspective and worker concerns and ideas are respected - this is a serious thing and it is effective.

Unheard of in North America, however - it’s considered the commie camel sticking his nose in the tent!

I think he also does not recognize that Uber and the “sharing economy” represent peer-to-peer arrangements mediated by what is in effect an electronic hiring hall that takes a cut. He considers it the equivalent of sharecropping - voluntary slavery - but it looks more to me like a market arrangement between willing buyer and seller of service.

Yes well harumph!

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Peter Stokoe

Feb 11, 2017

@David Camp
Yes, “leadership’s role” is often important, but then the key question is: To whom are the leaders and managers accountable?  In a democratic firm (i.e. worker cooperative), the leaders and managers are accountable to the people who work in the firm.  A “contract of delegation” occurs when the members of an organization (e.g. workers in a democratic firm) delegate some of their self-government rights/responsibilities to one or more of the members (e.g. the leaders or managers), but can revoke these rights/responsibilities at any time.  This is in contrast to a “contract of alienation” where the members of the organization alienate (i.e. relinquish and permanently transfer or assign) their rights/responsibilities to the leaders or managers.


“The form of association, however, which if mankind continue to improve, must be expected in the end to predominate, is not that which can exist between a capitalist as chief, and workpeople without a voice in the management, but the association of the labourers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers elected and removable by themselves” (John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, Book IV, Chapter VII).

There is an increasing number of such businesses in a variety of industries across the United States, see e.g.
https://usworker.coop/member-directory/


Regarding Uber, there is also a trend toward driver-owned taxi cooperatives in an increasing number of cities, and some of these offer their own e-hailing apps, so there is no need to have Uber or Lyft skimming off the top. There is a growing number of such “platform cooperatives” in other fields too:
http://www.shareable.net/blog/11-platform-cooperatives-creating-a-real-sharing-economy

 

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David Camp

Feb 12, 2017

@Peter - I agree that cooperatives are, in that they are formed to benefit all member-owners, a preferable form of organization to hierarchical corporations with all formal power in the hands of a small number of owners. I’m personally a member of at least seven cooperatives.

My objection to the author’s argument is that his analysis is simplistic and IMHO poorly-informed, which diminishes the power of his conclusions, which I think are also simplistic and impractical. In the corporate world, he assumes all employee contracts are of alienation - which they clearly are not. POwer relationships, formal and informal, are far more complex than the author credits.

We shall see what the long-term prospects for Uber are - at present they do not have a profitable model - despite recently reducing driver pay by increasing Uber’s cut. Their model seems to be based on the idea that they will be able to charge monopoly prices once they have eliminated the competition - it is not at all clear this is possible. Certainly not desirable.

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Peter Stokoe

Feb 12, 2017

@David - I am glad to hear that you are a member of several cooperatives.
All employment contracts are contracts of alienation in the sense defined in my previous message.  Under all employment contracts, the employee works as part of an organization under the terms of the employment contract in return for a compensation package.  In that sense, the employee becomes an input into the production process (with a cost equal to the compensation package), just like other inputs to production (e.g. raw materials or machines), INSTEAD of being recognized as a joint producer of the product with the right, together with fellow joint producers, to decide democratically inter alia how the surplus from the production process (value of outputs net of value of inputs) will be distributed. The latter approach occurs only in democratic firms such as a worker cooperatives.

 

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Peter Stokoe

Feb 12, 2017

This documentary film might be of interest on this topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfaFriFAz1k

 

 

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David Camp

Feb 14, 2017

@Peter - thanks for the link. You say “All employment contracts are contracts of alienation” - and I think you mean in capitalist enterprises - and in an absolute sense you are quite right. My point is that we live in a decidedly non-absolute world - absolutes only exist in our intellectual systems - where human social arrangements and interactions, formal and informal, are more varied and allow for worker autonomy and self-supervision within a capitalist model. In Germany, for example, the capitalist organizing model is the norm, yet workers are represented in management meetings and worker contracts are uniform and fair. And Germany is the manufacturing powerhouse of Europe, with a huge trade advantage due to exports.

Further, an absolutist position allows for no improvements of degree in the capitalist order, as it rejects categorically this order. All I can say, in the reality of a global capitalist system, is good luck with that.

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Peter Stokoe

Feb 14, 2017

Thanks David. I encourage all efforts at improving working conditions, including the “codetermination” in
Germany (and some other European countries) that you mention, but I especially commend democratic enterprises, such as worker cooperatives, for showing the possibility of a system without “the renting of persons”. I hope for and support all such developments leading eventually to the abolition of human rentals.  I am encouraged in this by the histories of the previous abolitions of chattel slavery, the coverture marriage contract and the pactum subjectionis.
“The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of a universally stigmatized injustice and tyranny.” - John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, 1863

 

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David Camp

Feb 15, 2017

@Peter - thank you! I’d be happy if German-style respect for workers (uniform contracts; worker reps on management committte; full benefits for part-time work (it’s amazing how many people in Europe work 60% or 40% of full time and still have medical and pension benefits)) were implemented in the USA. The disrespect the US system has for workers, especially non-exempt workers, is appalling - it smacks of slavery - it’s imhumane and unworthy of a society so rich that half the population is driven into expendable poverty.

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Peter Stokoe

Feb 15, 2017

David,
Yes, I would regard the development of “codetermination” in Germany (and some other European countries) as somewhat like the evolution of parliamentary democracy in England.  In feudal England, there were the lords, gentry and serfs.  Then, a Parliament was established with a House of Lords (the landed aristocracy) and a House of Commons (gentry).  Over time, the authority of the House of Commons grew, and that of the House of Lords declined, so that today the House of Commons is preeminent and the House of Lords has at best a minor advisory role.  Beginning in the 19th century, the franchise for electing the House of Commons was also expanded in stages so that today it is the entire adult population.  The whole course of this evolution contributed gradually to greater freedom and equality, and better living standards, for a large part of the population.

Codetermination in Germany seems to me to be somewhat like the middle stage in England (roughly the 19th century) when the authority of the House of Commons started to become more equal to that of the House of Lords (as between employees and the employer in codetermination), and the franchise was expanded.  As such, it has already helped improve working conditions.  Perhaps this process will continue to evolve, as with political democracy in England, toward more fully democratic enterprises.

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