The everyday experience of working people, economic policies of governments, bargaining priorities of trade unions and theoretical models of economists refute the idealistic maxim that labor is not a commodity.
An early rationale for the proposition was given in 1834 by William Longson of Stockport in his evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers:
- …every other commodity when brought to market, if you cannot get the price intended, it may be taken out of the market, and taken home, and brought and sold another day; but if a day's labour is offered on any day, and is not sold on that day, that day's labour is lost to the labourer and to the whole community…
Longson concluded from these observations of labor's peculiarities that, "I can only say I should be as ready to call a verb a substantive as any longer to call labour a commodity."
Karl Marx was emphatic about the peculiar historical nature of labor – or, more precisely, labor-power – as a commodity. Rather than reject the label outright, though, he chose to examine it more closely. Marx observed that for labor-power to appear on the market as a commodity, the sellers must first be free to dispose of it (but only for a definite period) and also must be obliged to offer labor-power for sale because they are not in a position to sell commodities in which their labor is embodied.
Connecting Longson's observation to Marx's, it would seem as though, aside from moral strictures, one of the qualities that most distinguishes labor-power from other commodities – its absolute and immediate perishability – is what compels its seller to submit unconditionally to the vagaries of demand. To paraphrase Joan Robinson, the misery of being regarded as a commodity is nothing compared to the misery of not being regarded at all.
So if labor-power is not a commodity, or is only one due to peculiar and rather disagreeable circumstances, what is it, then? Consider the idea of labor-power as a common-pool resource. Labor-power can be distinguished from labor as the mental and physical capacity to work and produce use-values, notwithstanding whether that labor-power is employed. Labor, then, is what is actually performed as a consequence of the employment of a quantity of labor-power.
Human mental and physical capacities to work have elastic but definite natural limits. Those capacities must be continuously restored and enhanced through nourishment, rest and social interaction. "When we speak of capacity for labour," as Marx put it, "we do not abstract from the necessary means of subsistence." It is the combination of definite limits and of the need for continuous recuperation and replacement that gives labor-power the characteristics of a common-pool resource. As Paul Burkett explains, Marx regarded labor power not merely as a marketable asset of private individuals but as the "reserve fund for the regeneration of the vital force of nations". "From the standpoint of the reproduction and development of society," Burkett elaborates, "labor power is a common pool resource – one with definite (albeit elastic) natural limits."
"Common pool resource" is not the terminology Marx used; Burkett has adopted it from Elinor Ostrom's research. For Ostrom, common pool resources are goods that don't fit tidily into the categories of either private or public property. Some obvious examples are forests, fisheries, aquifers and the atmosphere. Relating the concept to labor is especially apt in that it illuminates, as Burkett points out, "the parallel between capital's extension of work time beyond the limits of human recuperative abilities [including social vitality], and capital's overstretching of the regenerative powers of the land." That parallel debunks the hoary jobs vs. the environment myth.
The basic idea behind common-pool resources has a venerable place in the history of neoclassical economic thought. It can't be dismissed as some socialistic or radical environmentalist heresy. In the second edition of his Principles of Political Economy, Henry Sidgwick observed that "private enterprise may sometimes be socially uneconomical because the undertaker is able to appropriate not less but more than the whole net gain of his enterprise to the community." In fact, from the perspective of the profit-seeking firm, there is no difference between introducing a new, more efficient production process and simply shifting a portion of their costs or risks onto someone else, society or the environment. The opportunities for the latter may be more readily available.
One example Sidgwick used to illustrate this was "the case of certain fisheries, where it is clearly for the general interest that the fish should not be caught at certain times, or in certain places, or with certain instruments; because the increase of actual supply obtained by such captures is much overbalanced by the detriment it causes to prospective supply." Sidgwick admitted that many fishermen may voluntarily agree to limit their catch but even in this circumstance, "the larger the number that thus voluntarily abstain, the stronger inducement is offered to the remaining few to pursue their fishing in the objectionable times, places, and ways, so long as they are under no legal coercion to abstain."
In the case of labor-power, "fishing in the objectionable times, places and ways" manifests itself in the standard practice of employers considering labor as a "variable cost." From the perspective of society as a whole, maintaining labor-power in good stead is an overhead cost. The point is not to preach that firms ought to treat the subsistence of their workforce as an overhead cost. That would no doubt be as effectual as proclaiming that labor is not a commodity. As with Sidgwick's fishery, a greater advantage would accrue to firms that didn't conform to the socially-responsible policy.
Ostrom explained the differences between various kinds of goods by calling attention to two features: whether enjoyment of the good subtracts from the total supply still available for consumption and the difficulty of restricting access to the good. Private goods are typically easy to restrict access to and their use subtracts from total available supply. Public goods are more difficult to restrict access to and their use doesn't subtract from what is available for others. Common-pool goods are similar to private goods in that there use subtracts from the total supply but they are like public goods in that it is more difficult to restrict access to them.
If it were merely a matter of selling to employers, then labor-power would have the uncomplicated characteristics of a private good. Working for one employer at a given time precludes working for another. Hypothetically, the worker can refuse to work for any particular employer thereby restricting access. But here we need also to contend with that peculiarity of labor-power noted by the silk weaver, William Longson that a day's labor not sold on the day it is offered is "lost to the labourer and to the whole community."
"If his capacity for labour remains unsold," Marx concurred, "the labourer derives no benefit from it, but rather he will feel it to be a cruel nature-imposed necessity that this capacity has cost for its production a definite amount of the means of subsistence and that it will continue to do so for its reproduction." This contingency and urgency of employment effectively undermines the worker's option of refusing work, so that in practice labor-power has the features of a common-pool good rather than of a private one. Collectively, the choice of refusing work is further weakened by competition from incrementally more desperate job seekers – a population Marx called "the industrial reserve army."
So is labor a commodity or is it not? The arch, paradoxical answer would be "both." Examined more closely, the capacity for labor – labor-power – reveals itself as a peculiar commodity that exhibits the characteristics of a common-pool resource rather than a private good. An actual Charter of Industrial Freedom must address these peculiar characteristics rather than bask contentedly in the utopian platitude that labor is not a commodity.