Chard Whitlow

Odd how it can work. I’m doing a lot of reading on the topic of the rule of law, considered as not only a liberal but potentially a radical ideal; this is in connection with the paper I outlined here (and mentioned I was stuck on here). So naturally I read Edward Thompson’s afterword to Whigs and Hunters (featuring the famous assertion that the rule of law can be called “an unqualified human good”) and Douglas Hay’s “Property, authority and the criminal law”, the opening chapter of Albion’s Fatal Tree.  Naturally I agreed with the first, finding the second equally challenging and confusing (I’m hoping I can make something productive out of my confusion). A quick Google found me a withering critique of Hay’s essay, John Langbein’s “Albion‘s Fatal Flaws” (you see what he did there); it seemed pretty convincing. I was curious as to how Hay’s thought had developed in the last 40 years – “Property” etc was excerpted from his doctoral dissertation, for which alone much respect is due – and got hold of the 2011 Verso reissue. Hay’s contribution to the 2011 Introduction led me to Peter Linebaugh’s superb response to Langbein, which left his critique in tatters (albeit on the basis of a fairly generous reading of Hay; Linebaugh’s Hay seemed more persuasive and more coherent than the original had done). Hay also cited work by Peter King, John Beattie and Alan Hyde, all of which I duly tracked down.

In the Introduction and elsewhere, Hay engaged more extensively with some critics than others; Hyde in particular he dismissed rather breezily (“Hyde (in the face of daily evidence from his own government, as well as our historical sources) seemed to think legitimation appeals made by elites were figments of our imagination.”). Being a cross-grained sort, I was intrigued by this and tracked the paper down. Hyde’s paper – “The concept of legitimation in the sociology of law” – is a critique of the Weberian concept of legitimation, arguing that it’s not necessary to explain either law-compliant behaviour or law-making, and hence that explanations of these phenomena which rely on it should be re-examined. Whether Hay was working in a Weberian framework is a moot point; I’m inclined to infer from the references to ideology and ruling-class hegemony – and from Linebaugh’s characterisation of his and Hay’s shared project as “(Marxist) social history” – that his background assumptions were Marxist and specifically Gramscian. However, this may make little difference; Hyde doesn’t mention Gramsci, but he does suggest that the Marxist framework of material base and ideological superstructure is vulnerable to very similar criticisms. Which is to say, both answer variants of the same question – “why do people do things to which they’re not motivated by habit, goal-seeking self-interest or prudence?” – and, Hyde suggests, this may not be a question worth asking. To find law-compliant behaviour solely (and hence incontrovertibly) motivated by a belief in legitimacy, one would need to pass a new (and recognisably novel) law, with a direct effect on individual behaviour, but with no benefit in compliance, no social pressure for conformity and no sanction for non-compliance; it’s difficult to imagine what this might be, let alone to speculate on whether everyone (or anyone) would comply. Identifying behaviour solely motivated by investment in ruling-class ideology is even harder: laws can change overnight, but – outside the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four – ideologies generally change slowly, making it very difficult to disentangle the effects of habit and prudential conformity from those of the ideology itself.

I don’t go all the way with Hyde; I don’t think anyone with an interest in protest and political disorder can afford to discard the concept of legitimacy. David Friedrichs’ 1986 response to Hyde is a useful corrective, arguing that we can distinguish constructively between the belief in substantive legitimacy and its withdrawal (“they have no right to rule us”), the belief in procedural legitimacy and its withdrawal (“they had no right to pass that law/detain those people/kill that man”) and the fact of popular legitimacy and its loss (“they don’t speak for us”). Tracing interactions between the three is left as an exercise for the reader. But legitimacy in this sense is an attribute of subjects’ relationship with any particular regime or class, rather than a social fact in itself; if anything it’s a kind of meta-textual attribute of ideological beliefs, its absence serving as a signal that a certain ideology no longer holds sway or should hold sway. And, to the extent that we are materialists, we can’t really argue that ideological change and stability are autonomous phenomena operating on their own ideological plane, let alone that they’re produced through changes to the material basis of society carried out to perpetuate a given ideology. To say that a particular regime is legitimate – or that a particular class is hegemonic – is a sociological statement of fact. But hegemony and legitimacy are attributes of a state of affairs with material bases. To speak of a regime actively preserving its legitimacy, or even a class actively maintaining its hegemony, may be to put the superstructural cart before the material horse.

Hay put forward the case that “the criminal law, more than any other social institution, made it possible to govern eighteenth-century England without a police force and without a large army”. On inspection the word ‘govern’ is equivocal: granted all that AFT tells us about disputes over property rights and use rights, we are not talking about the governance of a rebellious people, the continual repression of myriad local revolts. The question Hay is answering is not how revolt was repressed, but why it didn’t occur: why people very largely obeyed the law, continued to believe in the law and continued to believe their government to be legitimate. And here, I think, a purely ideological answer, based on the introjection of ruling-class norms (including the norms of law and justice), cannot be satisfactory.

This materialist argument finds support from a surprising source – and one which itself draws support from a surprising quarter. Hyde:

Unlike the labor law of earlier eras, contemporary labor law is rarely the weapon of choice of a strong employer class against a weak worker class. Rather, labor legislation in contemporary capitalism is almost always a concession made to troublesome or insurgent workers’ movements. For example, following the wave of wildcat strikes in Western Europe between 1968 and 1971, every affected country made fundamental revisions in its system of labor law, all involving concessions to organized unions in an attempt to solidify the unions’ organizational positions in the plant, on work councils, on corporate boards, etc. In many cases the concessions merely adopted as public policy what had been true defacto. The precise content of the concession varied from country to country depending on union political demands, but the variation seems almost irrelevant next to the fact that there were such concessions to the unions.

If this explanation is correct, it is possible to conclude that labor law has enormous symbolic importance, that workers can achieve changes in labor law, but that employers and governments retain considerable choice over the range of possible concessions. What the above story does not permit one to conclude is that this post-1968 legislation had any particular effect on working people, and in particular did or did not “legitimate” the system for them or render disobedience or revolt more or less likely.

The argument here is that the state of labour law at any one time reflects the balance of power between the bosses and the workers (and their representatives). More generally, law is an outcome of class struggle, or the absence of class struggle; it conditions the way class conflict plays out, but it is also conditioned by it – and cannot itself repress it.

I found this argument particularly congenial because of something I was writing a few years ago, before I ever considered the law as a field of study. Take it away, Edwards (2009, p11, references omitted):

From 1969 onwards the increasing political salience of the new movements prompted a resurgence in activity by the unions. Wage levels across Italian industry were set through three-year contracts between unions and employers’ organisations, which were due for renewal in 1969. CGIL organisers worked to integrate the more innovative forms of industrial action into contractual campaigns. As Franco Berardi of Potere Operaio recalled, ‘again and again, autonomous organisations organised strikes in a single section of a factory, after which the union came in, asked all the workers what their demand was, and used it to regain control of a struggle which had completely got out of their hands’.

The contracts signed in December 1969 were highly favourable. Wage rises outstripped inflation; working hours were to be reduced in stages, with a 40-hour week promised within three years; parity between clerical and manual workers, a central workerist demand, was conceded in principle. December 1969 also saw the passage of the Statuto dei Lavoratori (‘Workers’ Statute’). This became law the following May, together with a general amnesty for those who had been charged with offences relating to industrial action: disorderly and violent acts committed by factory activists ceased to have been criminal offences. Feeling that the government and the employers had been forced to back down, some groups began campaigning on new or modified demands: abolition of piecework, mass regrading, an immediate 40-hour week. However, many workers saw the contracts as a result with which they could be content. This view was encouraged by the unions, whose own position within the workplace had been greatly enhanced; for instance, the Statute entitled them to hold meetings in work time.

I make it four parties rather than two – the unions, movements like Potere Operaio, the workers whose support was contested and the bosses – but it turns out that I was telling a similar story at this early point in my book. Although I was writing a work of political sociology set among the Italian social movements of the 1970s, I’d already recognised the law as a significant terrain of struggle, where norms and meanings could be made and unmade – note those fascinated italics (“ceased to have been criminal offences”). Law as “an arena for class struggle, within which alternative notions of law were fought out”, to quote Thompson again (this time from his anti-Althusserian polemic The Poverty of Theory); but notions worth fighting out, in the form of law.

Nice to realise I’ve been on the right lines (or at least the same lines!) all along. We shall not cease from exploring, eh? And this time last year I was fifty-three.


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