Not one but two republican traditions

In fact, there are two republican traditions – democratic republicanism and oligarchic republicanism. The democratic republican tradition had its deepest roots in the eastern shores of the ancient Mediterranean world. Rome, apart from a brief experience of plebeian constitutional reform in the third century BC, was not democratic. In some Greek poleis and, in particular, Athens after 461 BC, the revolutionary democratic programme of the classical world triumphed with 1) gea anasdesmos (land redistribution); 2) kreon apokope (abolition of debt slavery); and 3) universal (male) suffrage with satisfactory remuneration (misthon) for those elected to public office. For the Greeks, democracy meant government of the poor (free men) (1) and it was the result of extending republican freedom to all citizens whether they were rich (the “few”) or poor (the “many”). Athenian democracy went so far with this that, after 461 BC, even women and slaves enjoyed in the agora equal rights of speaking (isegoria), which scandalised such distinguished intellectuals as Plato, Aristophanes and even the always robustly level-headed Aristotle. (2)

Twenty-three centuries before Robespierre made republican fraternity a slogan of modern revolutionary democracy in his famous speech to the National Assembly on 5 December 1790, Aspasia, Pericles’ consort and leader of the Thetes party (of poor free citizens), would introduce the metaphor into this plebeian democratic world for the very first time :

" But we and our citizens are brethren, the children all of one mother, and we do not think it right to be one another’s masters or servants; but the natural equality of birth compels us to seek for legal equality, and to recognize no superiority except in the reputation of virtue and wisdom." (3)

In turn, the antidemocratic republican tradition (as expressed, for example, in Aristotle’s defence of the politeya, or the antidemocratic programme outlined in Cicero’s De Officiis) took the same idea of freedom as material independence and then, for different reasons, balked at universalising it.(4) It is clear, then, that if Basic Income is compatible with the republican tradition, it can only be so with the democratic variant, where the aim was to universalise republican freedom to all of those who had been excluded, since time immemorial, by antidemocratic republicanism: poor freemen, women and after 1793, once the French First Republic was founded, slaves who were then emancipated and expressly included as well.(5)

Freedom and property : historical republicanism and academic neo-republicanism

Present-day republican academics appeal more to the non-democratic tradition than to the democratic one (Rome rather than Athens).(6) Moreover, for a good number of defenders of academic neo-republicanism, the connection that is so essential for historical republicanism between property and republican freedom, and hence the basic tension between democracy and property, seems to have been eclipsed.(7)

But if this connection is blurred, it is impossible to understand the famous rejoinder of the anti-democratic Henry Ireton to the democratic republican Thomas Rainborough when, during the English Revolution of 1649, he proposed founding the right of universal suffrage in natural law :

"(…) by that same right of nature (whatever it be) that you pretend, by which you can say, one man hath an equal right with another to the choosing of him that shall govern him – by the same right of nature, he hath the same (equal) right in any goods he sees – meat, drink, clothes – to take and use them for his sustenance. He hath a freedom to the land, (to take) the ground, to exercise it, till it; he hath the (same) freedom to anything that any one doth account himself to have any propriety in."(8)

And neither can the deeply antidemocratic nature of the republicanism of Alexander Hamilton, the true institutional architect of the United States of America, be properly apprehended when he asserts that,

"(…) all communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are rich and well born; the other, the mass of the people (...) The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government." (9)

Then again, at the opposite pole, is Marx’s idea that an alternative to the "pauperising, and despotic system of the subordination of labour to capita" is "the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers" that appropriate the means of production in common. (10)

Republicanism, Basic Income and institutional design

Another difficulty of the possible relationship between Basic Income and the republican tradition lies in the fact that the bulk of present-day arguments in favour of Basic Income depart from ideal normative theories,(11) theories that voluntarily abstract from the problem of the motivations of agents and their capacity for observing norms,(12) thereby more or less tacitly renouncing any inquiry into normative problems of institutional design and feasibility.

In the republican political tradition (and, in this case, neo-republicanism, too) the issue of the capacity of agents for observing norms (it is sufficient to think of the centrality of the idea of “civic virtue”) and that of institutional design (recall the aforementioned institution of the misthon that was introduced by the Athenian democrats and, in the inverse sense, the lithurgeia that were conceived by Aristotle as a way of institutionally obliging the rich not to abandon the domain of politics to the poor, the aporoi) are fundamental normative questions.

It is true: it might well be said that this tension between the more usual “ideal” ways of justifying Basic Income and republicanism as a “non-ideal” conception is not very problematic because republicanism might contribute significant elements for a normative justification of Basic Income in terms of feasibility and institutional design.(13)

However, unlike historical republicanism, academic neo-republicanism would seem to be blind to the problems of socio-institutional dynamics (class struggle included). Social institutions have historical-causal trajectories and hierarchical relations among them. For example, the traditional European extended family that predated the Industrial Revolution (the oikus, or the domus, or the family of the ancien régime where, with all their huge differences, the activities of production and reproduction tended to come together under the tutelage of the “pater” (father) and “patronus” (boss)) is by no means the same as the two institutions into which it subsequently split: the modern family, torn away from production and basically subject to the orders of a father in the reproduction of social life and the modern capitalist company now cut off from the reproduction of social life, and, at the orders of a boss, concerned with production. Again, a stamp club, say, or an association campaigning for the rights of domestic animals does not have the same influence in the shaping of social life as the big capitalist company or the modern family. The neo-republicanism of our days has inherited from American academic liberalism, not its concept of “negative” freedom but rather the notion of what we might call static “institutional pluralism”, or the tendency to see institutional complexes as agglomerations of institutions shorn of any historical-causal dynamics.(14) The most striking example, as we have remarked, is the neglect of historical republicanism’s essential link between freedom and property.

One exception might be the work done by Ackerman and Alstott on what they call the “stakeholder society”. They explicitly state that their aim is “to revitalise a very old republican tradition that links property and citizenship into an indissoluble whole”.(15) Their proposal of providing all individuals with “basic capital” or a “stake” inevitably brings to mind Jefferson’s project of founding the American Republic on the universalisation of the smallholder. It is nonetheless astonishing that this charmant proposal of basic capital for all should appear in a political period of capitalist counterreform marked by levels of concentration of property in the hands of the very few and the dispossession, root and branch, of the very many(16) that makes Marx’s description of the pitiless processes of expropriation of "primitive capitalist accumulation" look naïve.

It seems that heeding the freedom-property connection is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for understanding institutional dynamics. It is interesting, in turn, that the institutional dynamics of an expropriating economic culture arise from the selfsame origins of the idea of Basic Income and in close connection with European plebeian democratic republicanism.

The European democratic-republican origins of the idea of Basic Income

The first person to formulate the “right of existence” was Robespierre in a renowned speech – one of his last – in 1794, expressing the idea that society should guarantee to all its members, as the first and foremost right, that of existing materially and socially. Thomas Paine spoke shortly afterwards in a no-less famous text – Agrarian Justice (1796) – of the need and the justice of creating a “national fund” by means of taxing private landed property so as to introduce a pension of "the sum of ten pounds per annum… to every person now living, of the age of fifty years" :

"Cultivation is at least one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention. It has given to created earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with it has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss, and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before. In advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for."

It is evident that Paine had taken note of the tremendous impact of what Marx would come to describe half a century later as the voraciously expropriating process of “primitive capitalist accumulation” or what, well into the twentieth century, Karl Polyani – after William Blake – called the “satanic mill”17, in other words the destruction of ancestral natural and simple exchange economies in Europe by the accelerated advance of the capitalist market and economic culture in the 18th century. Robespierre, who had also taken this into account, more specifically and with more political acumen and historical consciousness of the times in which he was living, succinctly referred to the advance of a dispossessing “tyrannical political economy”, in opposition to which he proposed a democratic programme of a “popular political economy” that would be capable of guaranteeing the right of existence of the dispossessed.

There was nothing like this among the democratic-republican revolutionaries on the other, northern side of the Atlantic. Of course Jefferson shared with Paine and Robespierre the idea of republican freedom and also, but much less radically, the democratic idea of universalising this freedom by incorporating the poor into the Republic. However, well away from the breakneck speed of the processes of dispossession that were occurring in Europe (and ignoring the dispossession of Native Americans, not to mention his own 187 slaves), Jefferson continued to seek the social base of the American Republic in the universalisation of individual rural smallholdings.

The specifically European democratic-republican origins of the idea of universally guaranteeing the bases of material existence as a right that is historically derived from the dispossession that people have suffered as a result of a tyrannical, expropriating economic system have been largely forgotten except as the occasional object of erudite curiosity.

It is therefore significant that this old idea should have quite forcefully reappeared in the last three decades, coinciding with the crushing advance of “globalisation”, the highly euphemistic name given to an all-encompassing, and in every way political, process of capitalist counter-reform in the shape of a huge, new, rapidly burgeoning process of dispossession on a world-wide scale. A dispossession of hard-won social rights that were conquered by six generations of workers around the world, especially in Europe and the United States. A dispossession that goes with the auctioning off everywhere of all the public goods and services that were attained thanks to the sacrifices and thrift of several generations of working populations. A neo-colonial dispossession that entails private appropriation of water, fossil fuels, forests, the whole natural heritage (including genetic codes of vegetable and animal species) of the peoples of the South. A dispossession that goes so far as to include the capitalisation of forms and whole worlds of traditional or ancestral social life.


(1) Aristotle, Politics, 1279b 39 – 1280a 1-3 ; 1291b 8-13.

(2) The sober and normally moderate Aristotle considered that a radical plebeian democracy such as that of Athens subverted the domestic order, giving power to women and creating thus a gyneicokratia (Politics, 1313b; 1319b).

(3) Plato, Menexenus, 238e.

(4) For a detailed discussion of the two republican traditions and modern socialism as heir of the democratic tradition, see Antoni Domènech, El eclipse de la fraternidad, Barcelona, 2004.

(5) Robespierre’s battle cry of périssent les colonies plutot que les principes! that so terrified the Girondist slave-owning bourgeoisie literally cost him his head. Mary Wollstonecraft echoed the demands of the Jacobin Society of Revolutionary Republican Women (like Claire Lacombe) for the extension of republican freedom to women.

(6) See, for example, Quentin Skinner and the historiographic work of J. G. A. Pocock.

(7) Philip Pettit, in his major work Republicanism (Oxford, 1997) intelligently reconstructs republican freedom as a dispositional concept, in contrast with the negative idea of liberal freedom as pure non-interference. Republican freedom would thus be the absence of domination and of arbitrary interference by other parties (or the State). For historical republicanism, however, the prime source of vulnerability and arbitrary interference is the absence of material independence. (It is no accident that the word "domination" comes from dominium, which in classical Latin meant precisely both property and the ability to make entirely free use of this property, including slaves.) If this basic institutional root of "dominate" is overlooked, then "domination" is denatured and de-institutionalised to the extent that it is stretched so far as to cover aspects of human relations that historical republicanism would never have seen as politically relevant. To give just one example, the white lie could be seen as a form of "domination" because the person who utters it can arbitrarily interfere in the life of the person being thus deceived.

(8) Cited in C. L. R. James, "Cromwell and the Levellers", Fourth International, Vol.10, No. 5, May 1949, p.146.

(9) Cited in Thomas P. Govan, “The Rich, the Well-born, and Alexander Hamilton”, The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Mar., 1950), p. 675.

(10) Marx, MEW, Vol. 16, p. 195.

(11) See the seminal work of Philippe van Parijs, Real Freedom for All, Oxford, 1995.

(12) See Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Oxford, 1971, §§ 2, 25, 39.

(13)This is the line taken in Daniel Raventós’ book Basic Income. The Material Conditions of Freedom, Pluto Press, 2007.

(14) It is sufficient to recall here the interminable arguments that have arisen from the fuzziness of the Rawlsian concept of “basic structure”. Cf. María Julia Bertomeu and A. Domènech, “La crisis del rawlsismo metodológico”, Isegoría, 233 (2005), pp. 51-77.

(15) Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott, The Stakeholder Society, Yale University Press, 1999, p. 11.

(16) See David Harvey, The New Imperialism, Oxford, 2003.

(17) The Great Transformation, Boston 1944.