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By Mike Leung
Inalienable rights are universal non-transferable rights that arise from intrinsic human properties and are independent of the laws, beliefs, and customs of a society. Arrangements seeking to violate inalienable rights are thereby invalid, as those arrangements would treat people as less than human. The application of inalienable rights arguments transforms the standard discussion of worker rights.
For example, when it comes to preventing worker abuse, both workplace democracy and worker ownership have been demonstrated to be effective solutions. Worker ownership and workplace democracy not only give rise to benefits such as better compensation, improved working conditions, greater job security, and the ability to foster individual empowerment and growth, but these business structures also lay the foundation to address the broader social concerns of economic disparity and environmental sustainability, among others. While there is some talk about the barriers and policy prescriptions needed to implement workplace democracy and worker ownership more widely in practice, what is rarely questioned is whether there is anything fundamentally wrong with the typical employer-employee relationship. Today the standard employment relationship is the human rental, or more precisely the voluntary self rental in exchange for a salary or wage. The routine renting of humans is the most significant impediment to worker ownership and workplace democracy. Can anything be said about workplace democracy and worker ownership in terms of intrinsic workers' rights?
Within the standard framework we can only ask which policies are most effective, and hope the best solution wins. No choices can be forbidden, only disfavored at a certain point in time. This framework must be discarded.
The correct question is the validity of the standard employment contract, which is a self rental contract in return for a salary or wage. This is by far the most common and pervasive employment arrangement. The underlying issue involves inalienable rights, the key anti-slavery argument, which has continued application today. It renders the standard dialogue about jobs and unemployment merely a diversion.
There is a time to address the effects of various policy decisions, but we must first ask whether the economic relationships under consideration are consistent with workers being human. A political governance analogy is perhaps better understood. Are there some governing arrangements that are inconsistent with citizens being people? And should those be banned regardless of the efficiency or potential benefits of that system? For example, a benevolent dictatorship is now understood to be incompatible with personal sovereignty and thus is outlawed as a choice in a political democracy. A democracy may be messy and inefficient and even fail at times to fulfill its basic governing functions, but few today would use those arguments in favor of a dictatorship that might provide tangible benefits for the population. Certain choices such as selling (or renting) one's vote are banned because those transactions violate peoples' inalienable rights. Citizens are not allowed to transfer governing authority in a democracy, even with consent. Governing authority can only be delegated, a crucial distinction.
Returning to the issue of workers' rights, is there something particular about human labor that differentiates it from land, capital, and machines? And are there certain economic relationships that are acceptable for things but not people?
Slavery is a useful historical analogy. What is wrong with the ownership of people? Is it merely that slavery is coercive and brutal, or is there something inherently wrong with slavery such that it should be banned regardless of the circumstances, even with a benevolent master? A common anti-slavery argument is that the working conditions of slaves are typically unacceptable. But inalienable rights provide a different answer: slavery under any conditions is wrong. The framework of the debate was whether people were better off owned (as slaves) since they were treated as a valuable investment, or rented (employed) where they were overworked, abused, and discarded. Inalienable rights arguments destroyed that framework. The voluntary self sale into slavery is banned today, despite potentially positive benefits such as food, shelter, and safety to the seller. Even in the presence of homelessness and starvation, slavery is still prohibited. Inalienable rights remove the issue of coercion or consent as the criteria for legitimacy.
Like slavery, the application of inalienable rights arguments equally undermines the rental of humans. Today it would be outrageous to consider slavery a form of productive employment. Similar views are required for human rentals as well. The issue is not one of compensation, collective bargaining rights, or working conditions. It applies equally to overly compensated CEOs of large corporations as well as mistreated sweatshop laborers. The ideological framework in which the rental of humans qualifies as jobs or employment must be superseded by a discussion about inalienable rights.
We can easily state the reason for abolishing human rentals: it is incompatible with workers being human. Specifically, the rental of humans seeks to alienate the responsibility of workers for their actions, by transferring financial gains and losses to a different party. And it seeks to alienate workers' decision making power on the job. Workers have inalienable rights to both workplace democracy and worker ownership (bearing profits or losses). Workers cannot alienate their decision making power on the job or resign themselves to being ordered to produce. Governing power can only be delegated, never alienated, even at work. Any boss or management in a firm must be beholden to the workers' decision making authority. Workers cannot alienate responsibility for their collective actions, financial or otherwise. The structure that incorporates workplace democracy and worker ownership is the worker cooperative, whose members decide how the business is run and own the enterprise. It is the manifestation of being jointly self-employed.
The argument is not that slavery or human rentals do not exist in practice. The argument is that the human sale or human rental contract fails to negate the personhood of the slave or employee. Whatever abuse or treatment they suffer, they are still human. People can only agree to cooperate in a given activity (even under compulsion) since humans cannot vacate responsibility for their action. Society and the judicial system may pretend that people's cooperation (productive actions) qualifies as the transfer of their responsibility and authority at work, thus fulfilling the human sales/rental contract. But contracts seeking to transfer inalienable rights can never actually be fulfilled since the personhood of humans cannot be turned off as required. The actions of production and transfer of money are incorrectly taken to show that alienation has occurred to fulfill the contract, something which is in fact impossible. The inconsistency and contradiction is between what is actually taking place and the legal and social view of events.
Discussion about the relative productivity of a human renting business versus a worker owned and democratically managed business is simply a diversion supported by the respective ideological framework. Inalienable rights are not affected by efficiency concerns, and instead maintain that human rentals are always illegitimate. Questioning the readiness of employees for democracy at work is merely a tactic for delay and complacency. By analogy, some claimed slaves were never ready to be freed since they didn't have the skills to fend for themselves. It was better for slaves to be protected by remaining under their current status, or so the reasoning went. However, inalienable rights arguments supported the immediate abolition of slavery.
The structure of the argument matters. Inalienable rights determine whether various contracts and relationships are consistent with being human. The standard framework compares various alternatives, whose legitimacy is derived entirely from the achievement of some desired result. Since different people have different preferences about what is desirable, and fluctuating circumstances can change which policies best achieve those desires, the standard framework is theoretically devoid of any absolute prohibitions.
Stepping outside the doctrinal framework is never an easy task and is frequently an uncomfortable and jarring experience. Once this is achieved, one is faced with an unpleasant choice. One is either a hypocrite by purchasing from and thus supporting human renting businesses, or a pariah for living in accordance with one's views by opposing the rental of humans. The practical need for income also adds a level of difficulty for those under a self rental contract. There is thus tremendous pressure to reject inalienable rights, accept the diversion, or quickly forget certain inconvenient facts and ideas. Those are the standard means of escape to conformity. Despite the adversity, the inquiry must be encouraged, for these are the essential ideas upon which real social progress depends.
There is currently renewed openness to critiques of economic relationships and a growing worker cooperative movement where people are actively producing as joint owners, managers, and laborers, providing real protection for the human rights to workplace democracy and worker ownership. These opportunities to further the abolition of human rentals by engaging public opinion and transforming working relationships must not be passed up.
More information can be found at the Abolish Human Rentals website.
Mike Leung has a BS in Engineering Physics from U.C. Berkeley (2000), and a PhD in Physics from Princeton University (2006). He is currently organizing a credit union to finance worker cooperatives in collaboration with the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives, and North American Students of Cooperation. Mike is also the founder of AbolishHumanRentals.org.
When citing this article, please use the following format: Mike Leung (2010). Abolish Human Rentals: Inalienable Rights Revived. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter, Volume II, Issue 6, http://geo.coop/node/582