Tuesday, January 18, 2011


At home or abroad, whether it's students marching against fees or Tunisians overthrowing a dictatorship, when a crowd of angry people gathers and protests, we hear the same threats and accusations:

To speak of them, as the Times has done, as an organised rabble, easily beaten by the soldiers; and to say, that it may be desirable that the spirit should break out in all places at once, so that the trouble of subduing it may be the sooner over; to talk in this light and swaggering manner is calculated to swell disconent into rage and despair [... They can find no agitators. It is a movement of the people's own.

Twas ever thus. This is William Cobbett writing in 1812. Attitudes towards those who, dissatisfied with what their rulers offer them, come together to challenge them have altered little. Unions of whatever kind - but especially of workers - are viewed as conspiracies, as though a spontaneous and widespread desire for justice is simply impossible. The people (or so our politicians and commentators opine) would never wish for such things of their own accord: there must be somebody stirring them up.

Cobbett came to the conclusion that forming trade unions was not only necessary, but perfectly consistent with the ideology (then, as now) of economic individualism. This ideology rests upon the sanctity of private property. The liberty that allows a person to do what s/he will with that property reflects individual freedom in the broadest sense.

The principle upon which all property exists is this: that a man has a right to do with it that which he pleases. That he has a right to sell it, or to keep it. That he has a right to refuse to part with it at all; or, if he chooses to sell it, to insist upon any price that he chooses to demand: if this be not the case, a man has no property.

Anticipating Marx, Cobbett argues that the only property which workers possess is their own (capacity to) labour, and that this should, therefore, be subject to the same rights as other property.

That the law failed - and still fails - to apply property rights to labour is a contradiction, but a necessary one, for it papers over the central ideological and economic contradiction of the system. The law in an economically individualist - neoliberal, entrepreneurial, call it what you will - society cannot permit workers who own no property but their labour to unite in order to demand their price. Any argument about whether workers, when choosing whether or not to go on strike, should obey the law is based on a fallacy. They are, a priori, outside of the law, and must act accordingly.


Anonymous A Worker said...

Thank you for the great quotes. What is the citation/source for the Cobbett quotes on property? I'm having a heck of a time finding the specific publication.

"Any argument about whether workers, when choosing whether or not to go on strike, should obey the law is based on a fallacy."

Well, striking is one thing, but striking under the protection of the state (prohibiting employers hiring replacements for striking workers) is a violation of property rights under color of law. There can be no claim to a right that negates another right, and that is exactly what happens when strikers cannot be replaced.

"They are, a priori, outside of the law, and must act accordingly."

If that is true, then there is no law that anyone is bound to obey, for at one time or another, we are all workers. Or are you referring to a special, legally defined and privileged class of 'worker'?

Further, strikers cannot rationally claim to have the right to act outside the law (as you suggest), then, in the same breath, claim legal protection for their strike under color of law.

4:06 PM  

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