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Workers face a common dilemma when exercising their right to strike. For the worst-off workers to go on strike with some reasonable chance of success, they must use coercive strike tactics like mass pickets and sit-downs. These tactics violate some basic liberties, such as contract, association, and private property, and the laws that protect those liberties. Which has priority, the right to strike or the basic liberties strikers might violate? The answer depends on why the right to strike is justified. In contrast to liberal and social democratic arguments, on the radical view defended here, the right to strike is a right to resist oppression. This oppression is partly a product of the legal protection of basic economic liberties, which explains why the right to strike has priority over these liberties. The radical view thus best explains why workers may use some coercive, even lawbreaking, strike tactics.

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Socialists know that they ought to defend strikes, but why? The best argument is that strikes are acts of self-emancipation. The ideal of self-emancipation lies at the heart of socialist political theory. It is up to workers to emancipate themselves, not just because it takes class power to overthrow capitalism, but because there is an intrinsic connection between class struggle and socialist freedom. Workers can only possess and exercise the freedoms they are denied, but ought to enjoy, if they demand that freedom for themselves, through their own, collective activity. Strikes are an essential way of both winning and exercising those denied freedoms. They are therefore a path to, and partial realization of, the ideal of self-emancipation to which socialists are, or ought to be, committed.

Strikes, Civil Rights and Radical Disobedience: From King to Debs and Back

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Recent scholarship has insisted on a more historically attentive approach to civil disobedience. This article follows their lead by arguing that the dominant understanding of civil disobedience relies on a conceptual confusion and a historical mistake. Conceptually, the literature fails to distinguish between violating a law and defying the authority of a legal order. Historically, the literature misreads the exemplary case of Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham, Alabama. When read in its proper context, we can see King was not just a civil disobedient, violating the law in a way that shows fidelity to the law. He was a radical disobedient, challenging the authority of the legal order. As such, he was part of a long tradition of radical disobedience, extending back through militant strikes of the labor movement. The character of this disobedience was evident, both to its main protagonists, like King and Eugene V. Debs, and to its major opponents, especially the courts. In reconstructing these historical cases, I revise the civil disobedience literature and demonstrate the distinctiveness of the radical disobedience concept.


The strike is the oldest form of resistance to domination in the republican tradition. Yet, throughout the tradition’s long history, most republicans have attempted to suppress this fact. The plebeian secessions ought to interest us because they were the major way plebs won a measure of liberty in an oligarchic republic where political inequality blended almost seamlessly with private domination. The case for the right to strike I make here is based on a more democratic reading of republican politics than the one to which we are accustomed. By democratic, I mean the exercise of popular power under conditions of domination. That is to say, I speak of the kind of insurgent exercise of power against uncontrolled rule, rather than of an ideal theory of the institutions that would guarantee everyone political equality and self-rule. That was how the plebs used the strike and it is how modern workers have often used it. The strike is one version of this insurgent exercise of power in the name of human liberty.


The right to strike is everywhere recognized but appears unjustifiable. Strikers refuse to work but they claim a right to the job. This sounds like illiberal privilege, or at least it cannot be a coercively enforceable claim. I argue, however, that the right to strike is justified as a way of resisting intertwined forms of structural and personal domination associated with the modern labor market. Workers are structurally dominated insofar as being forced to make a contract with some employer or another leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. They are personally dominated insofar as they are required to submit to the arbitrary authority of managers in the workplace, which deepens their potential exploitation. Strikes contest this domination by reversing the relationship of power. Workers can formally quit the job but they can’t quit work, so strikers quit working but don’t quit the job.

Domination, Free Labor and Emancipation (forthcoming)

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Contemporary republicans diagnose a wrong of economic domination. They typically respond with institutional proposals that would resolve that domination. But there is a tension. The normative proposals tend to assume a ‘we’ prepared to act to realize a free republic, which contradicts the diagnosis of a society divided among dominators and the dominated. What is missing is a third term between domination and freedom: emancipation. A theory of self-emancipation links the diagnosis of domination to a theory of how the dominated might overcome the predictable resistance of dominators, while discovering in themselves a capacity to win and realize new freedoms. I argue that strikes are a necessary part of any such emancipatory theory, when it comes to worker domination, for instrumental and intrinsic reasons. Instrumentally: strikes are self-emancipatory because they are effective forms of social power, whose effectiveness depends upon participation by workers. Intrinsically: strikes also involve the creation of new forms of self-governing freedoms in the very act of striking, which can become ends in themselves.

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