Posts Tagged ‘freedom’


Is the labor movement anti-freedom?

January 20, 2011

Today’s entertainment was a panel discussion entitled “Employer Reaction to Union Organizing,” in which a professor of labor policy, a labor and industrial relations historian at the University of Minnesota’s business school (of all places), the regional NLRB director, and an attorney representing management interests in collective bargaining all talked about the future of the Wagner Act and U.S. unions in general. I’m afraid that I don’t have a coherent set of thoughts to present about this panel, in part because it wasn’t the most coherent panel ever – but it was still fascinating and there are some tidbits to share and ponder over.

The most interesting recurring theme, albeit one that was more of an undercurrent than an explicitly discussed idea, was that of collective good versus individual rights. In one of the few times this was made explicit, the NLRB regional director mentioned that infighting among Democrats and Republicans within NLRB often revolved around rhetorical/ideological conceptions of whether or not collective bargaining infringes unnecessarily on the rights of individual workers.

In State of the Union, Nelson Lichtenstein discusses how the rise an individual rights-based set of employment protections, which grew out of the civil rights movement, the second wave of feminism, and all the legislation from that time period dealing with discrimination, workplace safety and so on, has actually undermined the concept of collective action. By giving primacy to individual rights, the idea of collective action, in which a greater good takes precedence over individual freedom, can be painted as restrictive and frankly “un-American.” (Lichtenstein is careful to note that he is not denigrating all the achievements of these movements and pieces of legislation, but believes that it is important to note the trade-offs that were made, consciously or otherwise.)

I wondered whether it would behoove pro-labor folks to try to skirt this frame: instead of labor as a collective entity under which individual rights are subsumed, talking about it as a broad, inclusive social movement for the empowerment and betterment of the majority of people. The most interesting comment on this invoked the fact that labor and management alike were in favor of some form of collective bargaining in the Great Depression, when the problems of the U.S. economy were fundamentally seen as stemming from underconsumption. Giving workers higher wages and more buying power was seen as a solution to the problem of underconsumption, and a necessary precondition for the revival of the economy. Perhaps if labor today can be reframed as a movement aimed at increasing the buying power of the poor and the middle class and thus addressing growing inequality and many of our current economic woes, this might go some way towards fighting the perception of “big labor” as a parochial special interest (“unions are businesses,” the management attorney insisted) rather than a working people’s movement.

As I said, a somewhat incoherent set of thoughts and ideas, none of which are original, but something to chew on nonetheless. My background in labor history and philosophy is rather thin, and I’m very much enjoying putting in the effort to beef it up a little.

ADDENDUM: One neat thing I learned was that the local labor newspaper, the Minneapolis Labor Review, has a complete online archive of all of its issues since 1907 in searchable PDF form. Awesome!

Flying Whale


Rephrasing my critique of Sen

October 27, 2010

My previous post was a bit stream-of-consciousness, and I think I have a more comprehensible version somewhere in my brain. In a nutshell: I think Sen is too individual-oriented. His theory has no room for the fact that individual freedoms do not exist in a vacuum: they often conflict with each other. Given the nature of resource and power inequality in our world, if we were to try to magically give everyone freedom of self-determination, those with more resources and power would quickly infringe of the freedoms of those with less.

Or, to borrow an idea from a classmate, Sen seems to view freedom as a sort of public good, non-rivalrous and non-excludable. But any structural or power analysis would lead to the conclusion that freedom acts more like a private good: consumption of the good does reduce its availability for others. To believe otherwise would indicate either an extraordinarily optimistic view of human nature or a complete blindness to systems and structures.

Why does this matter in practice? Because changing what we measure from income to freedoms (or, to put it into indicator-ese, from GDP to HDI [for example]) isn’t enough. It’s a step in the right direction. But the world of development indicators and development practice needs an additional level of analysis, one that considers unequal power relationships and offers methods for mitigating or minimizing them.

Flying Whale


What’s missing from Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach

October 19, 2010

I first read Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom in undergrad 8 years ago or so. I thought it was brilliant, and I was never presented with any coherent critiques of Sen’s “capabilities approach”: that we should be looking at various kinds of freedom (not just political freedom and civil rights, but also freedom to make an adequate living, freedom to avoid premature death, etc), not just economic measures, as indicators for development. On its own, Development as Freedom is a cogent and well-argued plea for a more inclusive approach to development.

Rereading parts of it now, I can see what the critiques are (and a quick Google search of the literature largely confirmed my suspicions). I still think that Sen’s sophisticated reframing of the means and ends of development to focus on a vast array of human freedoms is incredibly useful. In his book, Sen doesn’t really provide any framework for action, but I do think that his redefinition what it is we should be measuring is a significant step forward. The capabilities approach seems much more holistic and humane than any traditional approach based solely on economic indicators.

That said, the step Sen doesn’t take is as important as the one he does. Sen offers no critique of the systems that have resulted in the unfreedoms he makes such a passionate case for fixing. In emphasizing individual agency and capabilities as the necessary unit of change, he seems to leave out any analysis of the structures that have caused underdevelopment and unfreedom. How are we to give people the freedoms they deserve without looking first at the systems, structures and institutions that perpetuate their unfreedom?

This is not to minimize the magnitude of Sen’s contribution to development thought – but I do think that it is necessary to expand the capabilities approach such that it does not merely look at agency in a vacuum, but also addresses larger macro-level concerns.