Abolishing Human Rentals and the Neo-Abolitionist Movement

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* Book: Neo-Abolitionism: Abolishing Human Rentals in Favor of Workplace Democracy (2021) by David Ellerman



Ownership Matters:

"The most problematic institution in the economic system throughout most of the world is not the market or private property but the employer-employee relationship.

Thus begins the new book by David Ellerman, an independent scholar whose career has combined academic teaching (he has degrees in philosophy, math and economics) with writing speeches at the World Bank for Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz. The collection of ideas in his new book are not easy to summarize but they are provocative — in the best sense.

Ellerman’s critique of our economic order — especially the exploitation of labor — is grounded in a vision of workplace democracy rather than conventional political labels. One of his goals here is to demolish the benign view of the workplace found in modern business culture, as a kind of neutral space where employers and employees freely bargain with each other and undertake production according to employment contracts. According to this view, between the power of the free market and free institutions like collective bargaining, somehow the right price for our labor will emerge.

As the quote above suggests, the author is not a skeptic about markets or about private property. Where he is almost startling is in his idea — captured in his evocation of the abolition of human slavery — that there is a connection between the brutal 19th-century institution and our modern workplace in which people can be rented by other people. He terms it “human rentiership.” (His long-time friend Noam Chomsky also speaks of “renting yourself” in the gig economy, a concept he acknowledges he picked up from Ellerman years ago.)

Ellerman does not believe that however consensual we may be in taking an exploitative job — if you look closely at the legal and philosophical history of our system — the contract is in important ways similar to those utilized under chattel slavery. To make this point, the author reviews the history of ideas around contract, property, and governance to demonstrate their relevance to his argument for abolishing the current labor system.

He further argues that our system for the voluntary renting of human beings has allowed the complete corruption and debasement of the original idea of the corporation. But blaming corporations (i.e., the legal form) for the ills of the current system of renting human beings is “like blaming glass bottles for alcoholism.”

“The important idea,” he explains, “is to preserve the original and ancient idea of a corporation as a group of natural persons engaged in certain joint activities.” The concept of the corporation began with groups of men related to each other by the place in which they lived and the things they did — whether in forming a monastery, a town, a guild, or a university, with the main point being the grouping of people, not the aggregation of assets.

A fan of Mondragon, Ellerman concludes: “. . . Hence the neo-abolitionist call for the abolition of that human rental institution in favor of all corporations being democratic associations of the people carrying out the activities of the corporations.” He does not provide a road map to this end but he is surely pointing us toward the right road."