Another Kind of Virtue: Labor and Civic Republicanism
49 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 3 Sep 2009
Date Written: 2009
Contemporary debates about civic virtue and its role in political life presuppose that the central normative concern is about the boundaries of legitimate state coercion. That is because to speak of civic virtue is always to speak about its cultivation, and it is why neo-republicans see their account of civic virtue as a challenge to liberalism. The defense of civic virtue as an appropriate goal for the state to pursue requires abandoning liberal neutrality, or other liberal rules for delimiting the legitimate uses of state coercion. The aim of this paper is to critique this reading of the republican tradition but from a different angle than contemporary liberal counter-arguments. Instead, I will show that the debate between republicans and liberals is too narrow. It overlooks a key way of thinking about virtue, and of theorizing the cultivation of virtue. The nature of civic virtue, and the processes by which it develops, are not inherently matters for the legitimate coercion of the state, and it is a theoretical mistake to assimilate ‘politics’ into state coercion. In harmony with the methods of the republican revival, the paper’s approach will be historical. However, instead of reinterpreting a few great thinkers, this paper shall look at how republican thought was appropriated by a less well-known group of thinkers called the ‘labor republicans.’ In seeking to develop their ideas of how to awaken the political agency of the laboring classes, the labor republicans invented a new way of thinking about civic virtue and its cultivation. Facing not only an unequal society but what they perceived as a corrupt state, they reinvented the requisite dispositions that compose ‘civic virtue,’ and they theorized the process of cultivating virtue as essentially a matter of self-education and organization. That is to say, they turned the cultivation of virtue into a social activity, or a political process occurring entirely outside the purview of the state. As such, labor republican thinking about virtue presents us with an alternative theoretical model for thinking about the role of virtue in a political theory, and it pushes past the assumption that organizes contemporary theoretical debates.
Keywords: republicanism, liberalism, virtue, equality, labor, civic virtue
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