The Disjoint Recognition of Markets in Britain
The example of "labor" strikingly shows how even the most abstract categories . . . are a product of historical conditions and retain their validity only for and within the framework of these conditions.
Karl Marx, Zur Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie
What method of inquiry will allow us to account for the historical emergence of contrasting specifications of labor as a commodity in Germany and in Britain? Pairing German with late-developing British textile mills offered a synchronic comparison for the sake of highlighting the operation of an intelligible cultural logic. The riddle of beginnings remains: how did the contrasting concepts of labor as a ware originate? Formulating a response to this question requires a shift away from the local industrial setting. Looking at the whole spectrum of textile factories within each country, we can see that the distinctive British and German assumptions about labor prevailed in mills that developed under somewhat different regional circumstances. For example, in Britain similar definitions of labor organized practices in early-developing Lancashire and in late-developing Yorkshire. The German specification of labor appeared both in Silesian towns of the east and in the Wupper Valley of the west. The broad distribution of similar ideas about the commodity form of labor in each country suggests that concepts of labor were decisively influenced by the national historical context, not just by local conditions of production.
At the level of the countries as wholes, however, development took such different paths in Germany and Britain that a comparison of these two cases alone is ill suited for discovering and singling out the motivating conditions for divergent impressions of labor. I will proceed by examining these primary cases on their own grounds in order to identify the unique combinations of commercial liberty, feudal authority, and urban corporate institutions that guided their passage to a formal market in wage labor. Then, to confirm the consistent influence of these conditions upon the form of labor as a commodity, I will consider how the same elements interlocked
in France and, in a more summary presentation, northern Italy. These cases illustrate differing timings of similar changes entailed by the European path of capitalist development.
Since the concept of labor as an economic resource appears to have a manifest referent—the performance of work—one might suppose that it arises spontaneously in every society, as a natural reflection of activity in the shop, mine, or farmstead. Yet societies have developed sophisticated networks of trade and techniques for managing the use of labor without generating the idea of labor as a general source of economic value. The ancient Greeks, for example, in their philosophical speculations and political treatises recognized only diverse kinds of concrete work, which they did not compare to uncover labor as a separate, unifying element. Jean-Pierre Vernant demonstrated that the Greeks did not believe the various kinds of artisanal trades shared anything by virtue of carrying out the function of production. Neither Greek nor Latin evolved terms to express "the general notion of 'labor'" for the sake of an economic output. Is this cause for wonder? The ancient world also lacked an extensive, unified market in "formally free" wage labor. Could not the absence of such a market have deprived the ancients of an historical requisite for the concept of labor to emerge as an underlying source of value in popular and scholarly reflections?
The experience of Renaissance Italy reveals that the appearance of labor as a separate element of economic discourse coincided with a reliance on free artisanal labor to produce for a dynamic export trade. The Italian peninsula led Europe in dismantling feudal labor dues and in developing an extensive trade in the products of a growing population of urban free persons. As early as the 1470s, Italian administrators who wrote on government policy identified labor as the primary source of a state's wealth. A century later, the noted economist Giovanni Botero reaffirmed the centrality of labor when he said that neither the gold mines of the New World nor the landed estates of the Old produced so much wealth as "the industrie of men and the multitude of Artes." But these early Italian commentators still did not analyze labor as a commodity. They did not theorize its price either as it was transmitted from workers to employers or as it was exchanged among independent traders. This task was first conceived by British thinkers who experienced the consolidation of a liberal commercial order in the seventeenth century. They founded the school of classical political economy that blossomed with Adam Smith. Dare we claim that the formal essays of these economic thinkers, who gave clear expression to new perceptions of commercial development, also depict the process by which the concept of labor as a commodity assumed a central role in organizing manufacturing practice?
Among the enduring analysts of capitalist production, Marx alone considered it essential to uncover the genesis of the concepts he inherited and revised. His Theories of Surplus Value , although unpublished in his lifetime, offers a monumental survey of the development of economic theory in Britain, home to perhaps the most influential commercial ideas of his time. Yet in his account economic categories have an equivocal status: sometimes they represent popular forms of social consciousness, sometimes they are analytic devices that capture the true movement of economic forces. By way of illustration, Marx asserts that the notion of labor as a general productive factor emerged when the free circulation of laborers between occupations made the worker's vocation incidental to the universal function of produc-
ing something for exchange. This category of abstract labor represented a form of consciousness bound up with historically specific conditions of social life. Marx believed that he refashioned this popular category to arrive at his own concept of the commodity "labor power," his scientific appreciation of the unique form in which human labor was appropriated in capitalist society. In historicizing economic categories, or at least the ones he revised, Marx set up a realm of mechanical development and one of unprescribed invention: the economic ideas that prevail in everyday life are generated involuntarily by the immediate processes of production and exchange; the elaborations of science, or at least his theory of the valorization of Arbeitskraft , may represent original fabrications of the solitary intellect. The underdetermination of his own formal economic innovations and the over-determination, so to speak, of popular economic notions comprise flip sides of an unresolved problem, that of recovering the historical unity of discursive and manufacturing practice. Part Two of this work shows that by misconceiving this problem in his analyses, Marx cast himself as an actor in a history of ideas that was made behind his back. Not that his ideas were "wrong," as so many have prided themselves in complaining. Rather, Marx's discoveries in the field of economics are pivotal for the understanding of capitalist practices, but for reasons upon which he proved unable to reflect.
The Codification of a Market in Products
As in the commercially advanced Italian cities, so in Britain the rise of trade in the products of wage labor coincided with the first reflections on labor as a source of wealth. Clement Armstrong, writing in 1535, concluded in the language of his day that "artificialites"—that is, products manufactured by artisans—provided the mainstay of Britain's foreign-exchange earnings. "Suerly the common weale of England muste rise out of the workes of the common people," he said; " . . . the workes of artificialite encressith plenty of money." Although human industry had emerged as a focus of attention for Armstrong, it did not appear to him as something conveyable as a com-
modity or as an ingredient that determined the relative prices of goods. When the revolution initiated in 1640 swept away restrictions on internal trade, labor time emerged as a national resource with a metric and as the standard of the value of transmittable goods.
Britain drifted into the waters of a formally free market by default. In the course of the revolution, the executive government lost its arbitrary powers over local authorities. The dismantling of the prerogative courts made economic regulation a matter for Parliament. But Parliament, in contrast to the Privy Council, proved too unwieldy a body to pass significant bills of regulation for the country as a whole. The tortuous history of legislation after the Restoration shows that corporate regulation ended not because of a growing allegiance to laissez-faire but as a result of the deadlock between diverse commercial interests.
Britain's unintended transition to a formally free commercial regime was fundamentally different from the more abrupt entry experienced on the Continent. There the passage to a new order could be debated in some measure and decreed. In France the revolutionary legislation of 1791, which abolished provincial and urban guild restrictions on trade, may not have transformed business mentality overnight; nonetheless, these laws marked
a dramatic break in the comprehension of commercial intercourse. In Prussia the bold edicts of 1810 serve as a signpost for the shift to a formal market society. The experience of discontinuity on the Continent versus a prolonged transition in Britain also points to a conjunctural difference in the institutional settings under which tradespeople came to envision the conveyance of labor as a commodity.
The Compass of the Commodity
The launching of the new market society in England was a work of blindness, an interpretation of the sale of labor that followed one of imagination. William Petty was perhaps the first British economist to combine a focus on labor as a creator of wealth with a systematic account of the determination of a commodity's exchange value. All too often his ideas appear as precursors to more refined theories of labor rather than as signals of abiding features of British commercial thinking. In A Treatise of Taxes and Contributions , published in 1662, Petty judged that both land and labor served as "natural denominations" of the value of all goods: "that is, we ought to say, a Ship or garment is worth such a measure of Land, with such another measure of Labour." The dual standards of land and labor remain a part of his thinking even when he focuses upon the more specific question of the principles that determine the relative prices of commodities:
Suppose a man could with his own hands plant a certain scope of Land with Corn, that is, could Digg, or Plough, Harrow, Weed, Reap, Carry home, Thresh, and Winnow so much as the Husbandry of this Land requires; and had withal Seed wherewith to sowe the same. I say, that when this man hath subducted his seed out of the proceed of his Harvest, and also, what himself hath both eaten and given to others in exchange for Clothes, and other Natural necessaries; that the remainder of Corn is the natural and true Rent of Land for that year. . . . But a further, though collateral question may be, how much English money this Corn or Rent is worth? I answer, so much as the money, which another single man can save, within the same time, over and above his expence, if he imployed himself wholly to produce and make it; viz. Let another man go travel into a Countrey where is Silver, there Dig it, Refine it, bring it to the
same place where the other man planted his Corn; Coyne it &c the same person, all the while of his working for Silver, gathering also food for his necessary livelihood, and procuring himself covering, &c. I say, the Silver of the one, must be esteemed of equal value with the Corn of the other.
Commentators unable to divest themselves of prior acquaintance with Marx are wont to assume that Petty anticipates Marx's premise that goods produced with equal amounts of labor have matching values. But Petty asserts only that the value of one commodity, corn, equals the value of another, silver, if the time spent producing them is equal, after deducting the expense, in labor and seed, of their production. He adds, "The neat proceed of the Silver is the price of the whole neat proceed of the Corn." There is no assurance that the prior expenses of the corn farm and the silver business are equal or that the labor expended by the producers for subsistence is on average equal. In fact, Petty's descriptions make this improbable, because the land makes an independent addition to the subsistence of the husbandman. Petty does not offer a theory in which the value of a product can be determined by adding up the costs of its components. He contends that the value of the product is determined by the surplus land and labor devoted to its production—a tracer for identifying original features of the British concept of labor as a commodity.
Most wage earners and petty commodity producers in seventeenth-century Britain derived part of their subsistence from farming their own parcels, as did Petty's father, who combined agriculture with weaving. Analysts of early industrialization and the putting-out system have long observed that laborers in these situations do not receive equal returns on the time they spend on subsistence farming and that spent on manufacture for exchange. Depending on the sufficiency of their holdings, they can earn far more or far less per unit of time devoted to manufacture than to agriculture at home. Adam Smith commented upon one side of the anomaly: where cottagers derived their subsistence from their own agriculture, he said, their manufacture "comes frequently cheaper to market than would otherwise be suitable to its nature." The price of the product need not cover the labor invested in it, because it does not cover the workers' subsistence. Marx, too, observed that production was not governed by the laws of exchange value if independent workers directly produced their own means of subsistence. What seemed an incidental exception in Smith's century and Marx's was still a frequent occurrence in Petty's. Rather than formulate a "law" of value that was anything but, Petty's examples assume that laborers may have an independent means of subsistence outside the market.
The manufacturer of silver in Petty's excerpted paragraph is not a wage earner but an independent producer who covers the expenses of his undertaking. He has the capital on hand for maintaining himself, lays out the capital needed for the production process, and manages the transport of the goods. By comparison, Petty banished the propertyless wage-earner from the liberal commercial order.
It is observed by Clothiers, and others, who employ great numbers of poor people, that when corn is extremely plentiful, that the Labour of the poor is proportionably dear; And scarce to be had at all (so licentious are they who labour only to eat, or rather to drink). Wherefore when so many Acres sown with Corn, as do usually produce a sufficient store for the Nation, shall produce perhaps double to what is expected or necessary; it seems not unreasonable that this common blessing of God, should be applied to the common good of all people . . . than the same should be abused, by the vile and brutish part of mankind.
Petty dismissed wage labor as something inferior, which ought not be treated as a market commodity at all. He recommended instead that the government fix wage rates by law. "The Law that appoints such Wages," he concluded, "should allow the Labourer but just wherewithall to live." From Petty's standpoint, what an outsider might call labor power has no price set by the market.
In fine, Petty's text marks the emergence of a concept of labor as a commodity restricted to surplus labor traded freely in a market, embodied in a product, and vended by independent commodity producers. Petty was not alone among seventeenth-century writers in assuming that labor as a marketable commodity was traded between self-employed workers. Nicholas Barbon, a successful building contractor, is remembered for picturing trade
as "nothing else but an exchange of one mans labour for another." Barbon assumed that this trade took place between independent tradespeople, such as butchers, bakers, and drapers. In the confused succession of oppositional religious and political ideas of the seventeenth century, labor acquired diverse meanings. But the critics of the old order, from worldly critics of idle monks to the Puritan theorists, were united in one supposition: when they contrived explanations for the dignity of labor, they sanctified only the free craftspeople. Their formulations, which amounted to crude versions of a labor theory of value, rested upon the proprietorship of one's person and capacities that the dependent wage laborers, by contrast, had in the popular opinion forfeited once and for all.
These writers may have occupied themselves with general principles, but they did not try to establish a systematic science. Most of the economic thinkers per se were entrepreneurs who wanted to enrich themselves by convincing others of the advantages of adopting certain policies. Petty may have written his most notable work, A Treatise of Taxes and Contributions , in the hope of advancing his fortune as surveyor general in Ireland. Petty and the clever marketers of the time drew upon premises that they expected others to understand easily. They did not create, but expressed, the assump-
tions of their age. Their ideas about labor corresponded to those held by many common people, as is confirmed in the popular sentiments that came to the surface following the crisis of 1640.
The Levellers, the most inventive publishers of democratic tracts during the revolutionary period, were united by aspirations for change rather than by a coherent program. Nonetheless, the statements of the Levellers about the franchise reveal that for the common people of Britain, the divide between the sale of wage labor and of products made with labor was fraught with significance. As C. B. Macpherson perceptively observed, the Levellers supposed that the capacity to labor was a form of property "not metaphorically but essentially." People who sold their labor power for a wage lost their birthright and claim to freedom, as if they had permanently alienated a piece of land. They no longer had the right to exclude others from the use and enjoyment of their labor power, and so they had forfeited their property in it altogether. Macpherson adduces evidence that prominent spokespersons for the Levellers used this reasoning to deny the franchise to wage earners. By the same logic, independent artisans, however penurious, sold only the products of their labor and thereby retained a claim to freedom and voice in government.
The outlook of the Levellers, C. B. Macpherson has suggested, reflected their experience of freedom and competition in the market. Among their ranks were many small craftsmen who lacked freehold land or membership in a chartered trading corporation. They learned all too well that workers retained their liberty and self-direction only on condition that they protected their status as independent producers. The semi-servile position of wage earners influenced the vision of the most revolutionary segment of the Levellers' movement. Gerrard Winstanley, a leader of the Diggers, declared it iniquitous for people to work for wages. "We can as well live under a foreign enemy working for day wages," he said, "as under our own brethren." He recommended that the law forbid the institution of wage labor altogether.
When political advisers, merchants, and poor artisans converged upon the view that the only kind of labor sold with a proper commercial value was that of the independent producer, all did so for the same reason: the institutions of work in Britain appeared to reveal labor as a commodity only under this guise. By 1690, according to Gregory King's appraisal, the total of la-
boring people and out-servants had reached one-quarter of the population. This group did not on average earn enough, he thought, to cover the price of their subsistence. Latter-day research confirms the dismal view that people who depended only on wages could not maintain themselves. How they survived remains as much a riddle for modern economists as it was for contemporaries. Roger North complained that the clothiers of their day kept dependent laborers "but just alive," so that the desperate employees resorted to theft or escaped starvation only by receiving poor relief. Wage earners were called, not "workers," but "the poor," those in need of benefactory employment or handouts.
The low remuneration for wage earners could not help but shape the development of notions of labor as a commodity. People viewed wage labor not as a means of supporting themselves but as a supplement to a primary source of sustenance such as a smallholding. One retrospective calculation of the incomes of the common people found that a licensed beggar in the seventeenth century could expect higher proceeds than the average wage-
earner. Wage laborers as such could not survive as market actors. People in trade and industry who pictured the emerging commercial society saw labor as the wellspring of prosperity, but under these historical circumstances the sale of labor power was ill suited to serve as a model for the exchange of labor as a commodity in general.
The depressed level of wages in England represented a work of political art. The process of enclosing land, which continued through the seventeenth century, deprived people of their livelihood in the countryside faster than new possibilities opened up in urban or rural industry. Where a balance between the labor supply and need for labor did reappear, the employing class used the machinery of local government to restrain any wage increases. The Statute of Apprentices, dating from Elizabeth's reign, gave justices of the peace the responsibility for fixing wage rates for common occupations. These officials were supposed to set minimum levels of remuneration in times of need. In practice, during the seventeenth century they generally confined their efforts to setting maximum rates. Employers who violated the standards by paying a higher wage were subject to fines. The justices set wages at low levels with the expectation that wage earners would find additional support as agricultural tenants or as beneficiaries of poor
relief. In some instances, local officials did not simply block pay increases; they specified a new standard that fell below the previous average. Alice Clark, after comparing the cost of food with the legislated wages, concluded, "The Justices would like to have exterminated wage earners, who were an undesirable class in the community."
Especially in the fledgling textile industries, employers used the statutory restrictions on wages to impede the development of a market in wage labor. In 1673 the justices of Lancashire supported the employers by republishing maximum legal wage rates in the textile trade "to the end that masters and mistresses of families shall not soe frequently tempte a good servante to leave his service by offering more or greater wages than the law permits." Magistrates responded to employers' reports of workers' dickering over wages by ordering strict enforcement of the maximum rates, which covered men and women regardless of the form of wage. In the textile regions justices issued and revised wage assessments most frequently, and in greatest detail, in areas such as Wiltshire, where the small independent clothier was fast disappearing and the divide between master and journeyman had grown widest. Exactly
in the regions where the first groups of people dependent on only their wages emerged, there statutory restrictions ensured that labor power was not treated or conceived of as a market commodity. The mass of rural laborers were "brutally repressed," in Walzer's words, but "they were not integrated into a modern economic system."
The reflections of Rice Vaughan brilliantly illustrate how people of the era segregated labor power from market commodities. In one of the earliest analyses of monetary value, published in 1655, Vaughan sought to measure changes in the worth of money due to changes in its supply over more than a century. The prices of commodities—"Cloth, Linnen, Leather, and the like," he said—varied in response to the oscillations of fashion, the supply of raw materials, and improvements in manufacturing technology. On these grounds, fluctuations in the cost of buying these ordinary goods could not measure changes in the purchasing power of money. Vaughan reckoned that labor was unique because its real price was untouched by supply and demand. The "Wisdom of the Statute" fixed wages at the bare level needed for the necessaries of life. So "there is only one thing, from whence we may certainly track out prices," he concluded, "and that is the price of Labourers and Servants Wages, especially those of the meaner sort." Vaughan reversed the modern technique of consumer price indexing. Instead of recording changes in prices to calculate the real purchasing power of wages, he used adjustments in the money wages of labor over decades to chart the shifting value of money. Labor power served as the only orienting point,
because it comprised the only money good excluded from market fluctuations. Until the early eighteenth century, not only people of genius like Vaughan and Petty but almost everyone who speculated about the proper determination of wages endorsed stringent regulation.
By the laws of preindustrial England, persons not lawfully retained, apprenticed, or claiming an agricultural holding were compelled to serve any farmer or tradesman needing labor. Especially if a temporary scarcity of labor arose, the local authorities forced unoccupied men and women into useful occupations. The economic compulsion of a market economy did not suffice for the procurement of labor; extra-economic sanctions made work a legal obligation. Accordingly, Sir William Blackstone, in his famous Commentaries on English law, published from 1765 through 1769, treated the relation between the employer and the laborer as one based not on contract but on status. The labor transaction, Blackstone averred, was "founded in convenience, whereby a man is directed to call in the assistance of others, where his own skill and labour will not be sufficient to answer the cares incumbent upon him." Here, as in the remainder of his discussion of the labor transaction, Blackstone fails to specify whether the subordinate satisfying this "call" for aid does so by consent. To the contrary, Blackstone's treatment of the matter, the definitive codification of mid-eighteenth-
century legal thought, created a category of "permanent" servants, a label which referred not to the length of their employment for a particular master but to an inherent condition in their person which compelled them to work for others. According to Blackstone, custom set some standard hours of work, but an employer could require his laborers to do his bidding at any moment, night or day, as if they were serfs with no time unconditionally their own. In practice as in the collective imagination, only independent producers could treat their labor as if it were freely alienable, individual property; otherwise, labor could be commanded.
At least the group of workers coerced by the local justices to work for an employer had one protection denied those who fell into their jobs by other means. If the workers had been drafted into service by statute, local justices who fixed the wage rates had clear authority to issue orders forcing employers to disburse the wages owed to workers. Otherwise, legal remedies were uncertain and numerous masters fell weeks—even months—behind in paying their subordinates. Some masters forced their workpeople to take promissory notes in lieu of wages. Yet there was more to the legal subservience of labor. When an employer accused his workers of having neglected their duty, claiming that they had left their employment or performed unsatisfactorily, the alleged misdeed was classified not as a breach of a civil contract but as criminal misbehavior. If the obligation to serve arose from
workers' status rather than by agreement, it was only consistent to enforce the obligation to serve through the mechanism of criminal law. Offenders were incarcerated for weeks or months. The alternative of paying money damages to an employer allegedly injured by a worker's absence, as if the labor power withheld were a commodity like any other, was proscribed. The law denied labor power the status of a simple ware.
Meanwhile the sale of manufactures took place in a comparatively unrestricted market. To be sure, foreign commerce remained the monopoly of government-chartered companies until 1689. But competition in domestic trade, despite the ancient licensing of trading corporations, was opened to almost all challengers during the seventeenth century. During this period, the powerful London merchants succeeded in breaking down provincial barriers against traders from distant cities who wished to contract for work in the countryside. Thus the London merchants expanded to include the whole of the country in their commercial web. This provided the stuff for writers to envision society as a network of market exchanges. "The free circulation of trade among the common people," wrote T. Tryon in 1698, "hath made England exceed all here Neighboring Nations in Riches." Catchpenny reasoning was threaded into all layers of the social fabric. "Facts relating to Commerce," opined a commentator in 1680, "branch into almost
as many parts as there are humane Actions." The term market price no longer referred to the tangible location at which merchandise changed hands, but to the determination of value by abstract forces operating independently of the wills of individuals. In Britain (but not in Germany or France) the development of market thinking followed a separate chronology from the commercialization of labor power.
The views of labor as a commodity invented concurrently with the rise of liberal commercialism in Britain retained their essential form during the eighteenth century. Until the monumental work of Adam Smith appeared, the economist most celebrated by intellectual and financial speculators was Sir James Steuart. Steuart divided the agents of production into two groups: slaves, under either feudal or colonial orders, and workmen. Workmen labored as independent commodity producers. "Those who want to consume," Steuart wrote in his treatise of 1767, "send the merchant, in a manner, to the workman for his labour, and do not go themselves; the workman sells to this interposed person and does not look for a consumer." In Steuart's analysis, the workman covers the entire production expense of the finished ware he sells to the merchant, including tools and materials. This autonomous artisan ordinarily turns a profit for his products above their "prime cost"—that is, beyond the labor and material invested. The laborer who is dependent upon a wage contract is conspicuously absent in this theory. Steuart's division of producers into feudal slaves and masterless workmen illustrates the prevailing assumption that labor entered the market as a free
commodity only when it was incorporated into a finished good and vended by independent manufacturers.
The Institutionalization of a Market in Labor
The restrictions on the level of wages which had proven so useful to British employers during the genesis of capitalist relations of production were thrown aside but a few generations later. To be sure, the statutory rates of wages could restrain pay increases. Under altered circumstances, however, they also limited wage reductions. Since the employment relation did not arise through free contract, masters could be required to support dependent laborers both when there was work to be done and when there was not. The employing class that had once welcomed legal intrusions to bind and discipline workers came to find the limitations on their purchase of labor power odious. "The Statutes for regulating wages and the price of labour," wrote Dean Tucker in 1757, "are another absurdity and a very great hurt to trade. Absurd and preposterous it must surely appear for a third person to attempt to fix the price between buyer and seller without their own consents. . . . How can any stated regulations be so contrived as to make due and reasonable allowance for plenty or scarcity of work, cheapness or dearness of provisions, difference of living in town or country?" By the time Tucker and others, including textile entrepreneurs, had formulated their criticisms, however, regulation was becoming superfluous. As the landholdings of wage earners shrank, they became increasingly dependent on wage labor for their subsistence and unable to withhold their labor from the marketplace. To curb wages, manufacturers could rely on the coercive power of the market alone.
The statutory rating of wages had weakened in some trades when the eighteenth century commenced; by the middle of the century it was moribund in many branches, though not forgotten. The system, Sir John Clapham judged, "died harder than historians used to think—and the memory of it did not die." In the textile trade, as ever the leading department of manufacture, the assessment of wages by the justices became ever more difficult as the varieties of weaving proliferated in response to market enticements. The surviving records do not let investigators date the demise of wage assessments for cloth production with precision. In the West Riding of Yorkshire the steady enforcement of assessments faded after 1732. In Gloucestershire, the clothiers generally ignored the rating of wages issued in 1728. With the slow disappearance of assessments to guarantee minimum earnings, the judicial rationale for compel-
ling idle laborers to work for any farmer or tradesperson needing help also faded.
The changes in the institutional framework for determining the price of labor established the background for a momentous change in the appreciation of labor as a marketable ware. During the first century of liberal commercialism in Britain, the belief persisted that workers delivered their labor only under the compulsions of law and hunger. Many enterprises in pottery, mining, and textiles bound their laborers by servile terms of indenture that held them to the same employer for terms of one to twenty years. After the middle of the eighteenth century, employers began to rely upon cash rather than coercive stipulations to secure labor. The opinion slowly and tentatively took hold that workers could be stimulated to work harder by the promise of higher earnings. It required several decades for this viewpoint to become general. By 1776 Adam Smith was able to draw upon it confidently. "Where wages are high," Smith observed, "accordingly, we shall always find the workmen more active, diligent, and expeditious, than where they are low." Indeed, some eighteenth-century employers came to worry that if laborers were remunerated according to the quantity of their output, they would overexert themselves and ruin their constitutions. By the time Smith set down his thoughts, the Statutes of Elizabeth that had mandated terms of apprenticeship as a requisite for legal exercise of ancient craft occupations were dead letters. Labor power was belatedly christened as a commodity.
But under what name? The employment of wage labor was assimilated to the prior notion of labor sold as it was embodied in the product of an independent artisan. Strange to say, this continuity is illustrated most vividly in what may otherwise appear to be an historical rupture: the issuance of Smith's Wealth of Nations. Smith's formulations about the efficiency of the market may have recast the field of high theory, but his portrayal of labor rested upon the appropriation of simple, long-standing ideas from social practice.
Adam Smith's Substance
Smith establishes a foundation for the relative prices of different commodities by extending to the contemporary setting the principles he finds effective in a simplified, archetypal kind of exchange. He seeks the determinants of the values of goods in a situation that "precedes both the appropriation of land and the accumulation of stock." In this original state, where capital investments do not enter into the cost of production, Smith adduces that
the proportion between the quantities of labor necessary for acquiring different objects seems to be the only circumstance which can afford any rule for exchanging them one for another. If among a nation of hunters, for example, it usually costs twice the labour to kill a beaver which it does to kill a deer, one beaver should naturally exchange for or be worth two deer.
This hypothetical construction lets Smith introduce a set of paired suppositions: the labor the worker applies to the product equals and determines the product's exchange value; and people do not trade their living labor—or, to introduce an anachronism in this context, "labor power"—directly for goods, but instead receive their dues by exchanging the product of their labor for other products. Smith also refers at moments to such a society of independent producers as if it were a current reality. In an opulent, well-governed society, he claims, "Every workman has a great quantity of his own work to dispose of beyond what he himself has occasion for; and every other workman being in exactly the same situation, he is enabled to ex-
change a great quantity of his own goods for a great quantity, or, what comes to the same thing, for the price of a great quantity of theirs."
Smith, however, recognized at other moments that not all those who sold their labor in the market did so as independent producers. He commented upon the decay in the statutory restrictions on wages and concluded that people had themselves become wares in the marketplace. "The demand for men, like that for any other commodity," he observed, "necessarily regulates the production of men, quickens it when it goes on too slowly, and stops it when it advances too fast." Whereas Petty and Steuart excluded wage labor from their theory of the market, Smith tries to explain the contribution of labor to the value of goods when the owner of stock invests capital in an enterprise and hires workers for a wage. "In this state of things," Smith reasons, "the whole produce of labor does not always belong to the labourer. He must in most cases share it with the owner of the stock which employs him." When he takes up the question of the source of the capitalist's profit, it seems that Smith alters his initial definition of the determinants of a product's value:
Neither is the quantity of labour commonly employed in acquiring or producing any commodity, the only circumstance which can regulate the quantity of which it ought commonly to purchase, command, or exchange for. An additional quantity, it is evident, must be due for the profits of the stock which advanced the wages and furnished the materials of that labour.
On the face of it, this passage contradicts Smith's ground premise that labor alone is the source of value. Now the amount of capital applied in the production of the good comprises an independent part of its price. Yet he also contends that the worth of the good can still be translated, by another means, into the universal equivalent, labor, because the finished product has the value of the labor for which it can be exchanged. He makes an unacknowledged shift here in the definition of the value of goods between the two cases, from the quantity of labor the goods contain to the quantity of labor that can be gotten in exchange for them.
Smith's identification of labor with the delivery of a product permits him to elide this shift in his definition of value while moving from the principles that regulated transactions in the archetypal "nation of hunters" to the conditions when capital has accumulated. In fact, it provides the first occasion for this slippage between the determination of value by the amount of labor a product contains and the determination of value by the amount of labor for which it can be exchanged. A man's fortune is greater or less, Smith says, precisely in proportion to "the quantity either of other men's labour, or, what is the same thing , of the produce of other men's labour, which it enables him to purchase." Here Smith equates the employment of wage labor with the purchase of a product, an equation he repeats when he discusses the value of an article produced in capitalist society: "In exchanging the complete manufacture either for money, for labour, or for other goods , over and above what may be sufficient to pay the price of the materials, and the wages of the workmen, something must be given for the profits of the undertaker of work, who hazards his stock in this adventure." To lay out the circuit of reasoning here: Smith supposes that if the hiring of a person's labor is the same as buying that person's product, then the owners of goods end up receiving the same amount of labor whether they exchange it for labor in the employment relation or on the market for other products. In the second case, exchanges of merchandise, the value of the owners' goods equals the quantity of materialized labor they contain. In the first case, exchanges in the employment relation, the value of the owners' goods equals the quantity of living labor for which they will exchange. If labor as a commodity is exchanged only via its products, however, these two cases become equivalent.
The import of these equations becomes apparent if we pose the question that Marx did: in capitalist society, do we know whether the quantity of labor in the goods that the worker gets back in the form of wages equals the quantity of labor the worker gives to the employer? To be sure, the restricted
conditions of the archetypal situation prior to the accumulation of capital permit a comparison between the value of the worker's living labor and the value of the "objectified labor" in the commodities for which it trades. In this restrictive situation, where the worker keeps the whole of his produce, the quantity of labor he invests in the product equals the labor he gets by exchanging it. In the actual situation, however, the wage laborer, as Smith says, cannot keep the whole of the produce. How do we decide what the worker ought to keep? In retrospect it appears that Smith's shift to the determination of value by the amount of labor for which a product will exchange makes it impossible to allocate shares to labor and capital based on the value of what they contribute to production. The value of the labor cannot be separated from the capital, because it has a value only when the mixture of the two is conveyed in the market. Smith satisfies himself with the observation that "the real value of all the different components of price . . . is measured by the quantity of labor which they can, each of them, purchase or command." Yet viewing the employment relation as the delivery of labor in the form of a product allows him to assume that it falls under the ethical rules that governed the exchange of products in the archetypal situation. He sees the employer of labor as giving the worker a certain quantity of goods (in the form of wages) in exchange for another quantity of goods (the produce of labor). Even after the accumulation of stock, the product belongs initially only to the laborers who created it, even if they must in the end share portions of it with the owners of capital as a "deduction."
Smith's Wealth of Nations reveals the intellectual reproduction of the assumptions about labor as a commodity that originated during the genesis of liberal commercialism in Britain. Abstract human labor was recognized as a transferable ware only as it was incorporated into a product that circulated in the sphere of exchange. This understanding of labor did not sur-
vive in the minds of armchair readers alone. It was sustained in social relations through everyday practice on the shop floor. When journeymen weavers of the eighteenth century worked in the shop of a master rather than on their own account, their payment was often reckoned as "the third part of the cloth"—that is, one-third of the price the material fetched when the master sold it to the merchant clothier. The labor was remunerated by its concretization in cloth brought to market. The concept of labor as a commodity that prevailed in British economic theory did not "reflect" material practices; it was born incarnate in their overall consistencies.
Other circumstances provided suitable material for sustaining the assumption that the commodity of labor resided in a substance. In many trades, artisans' remuneration followed customary piece rates fixed by custom that reached as far back as workers could recollect. A woolen weaver from the West Country testified in 1802 that the rate for a certain cloth had not changed in his lifetime, "nor yet in my father's memory." When stocking makers struck for higher wages in 1814, they asserted that their rates had changed only twice in two hundred years. The stability in quoted rates veiled the operation of the shifting market, for in times of labor scarcity employers supplemented the rates with perquisites such as a share of the produce or of the work materials. In all events, the compensation did not appear in the form of a simple wage for labor power. Rather, the major, identifiable part of the compensation was fixed in products that had been
assigned a certain value for decades, as though an established quantity of materialized labor had a self-evident value.
The small instrumentalities of quotidian experience reproduced a specification of labor as a commodity that evolved from the broader context of market development in Britain. The commercialization of artisanal production in Britain since the seventeenth century led to the growth of extensive subcontracting networks and to the separation of master employers, who coordinated the collection of products, from the shops where the manual work was executed. "The employer's role was to initiate the process of production and market the finished goods. What came between," as Clive Behagg recently summed up, "was properly the province of labor." The carpet weavers of Kidderminster expressed this assumption during a long strike in 1828. They collectively sought a new "employer" by advertising in the local press for investors willing to put capital in a weaving undertaking with the strikers as both laborers and, effectively, organizers of the firm. Of course, the decentralized putting-out networks were not sufficient for the genesis of the cultural definition of labor as a commodity in Britain. Otherwise, the same understanding would have prevailed everywhere in Europe. The structure of the networks could only reproduce the specification of labor that originated in the broader market context, due to the staggered emergence of formally free markets in products and in labor power itself.
Autobiographies from hand workers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shed additional light on workers' own perception of the wage relationship in these putting-out networks. They emphasize that the employer was rarely to be seen. The typical work group in the eighteenth
century consisted of adults of equal rank, with a young helper or two. The organization of production was left to the discretion of workers, who, with the commercialization of the trade, came to see that they were delivering not just tangible products but the commodity of labor materialized in a good. Recent studies of production in early nineteenth-century Britain show that even after industrialization began in earnest and the golden age of Smith's idealized artisans had passed, workers in small shops continued to claim the right to organize the labor process and to control the output until it was delivered to the employer. For example, the workers in a rule shop in Birmingham during the 1840s remained so confident of their control on the shop floor that when their employer tried to spy on them they scared him off by "shying at him rotten potatoes, stale bread, and . . . on occasions, things of a worse description."
Let no one suppose, however, that the permanence of small-scale units of production or the unbroken transmittal of artisanal culture accounts for the formation of the distinct British concept of labor as a commodity. Whereas a superficial continuity appears in the organizational form of production, the cultural code inscribed in work practices changed with the commodification of labor. Even in ancient societies workers sold their products; only in the unique epoch of liberal commercialism could the producers also come to see those products as vessels for the exchange of abstract labor time. Early mercantile businessmen had accepted the delivery of goods from subcontractors at erratic intervals; they had not set down schedules for
delivery that protected their claim to the workers' labor per se. In this blessed era, weavers could work for more than one trader at a time. When traders imposed delivery schedules on workers who depended upon a single contractor for their sustenance, the transaction acquired a new definition: workers delivered, not merely crafts work, but the timed life activity materialized in it, that is, embodied labor. Eighteenth-century legislation compelled male and female domestic workers to meet production deadlines or face prosecution. In parallel fashion, masters at artisanal shops who did not calibrate the hours of attendance still expected each worker to meet delivery quotas. Larger concerns in iron working and in the pottery trades in the eighteenth century also began to insist on the regular delivery of labor products. Long before the installation of powered machinery, they introduced codes that required workers who had once sauntered in and out of workplaces as they pleased to appear instead at fixed intervals on the shop floor.
Labor's progressive envelopment in a commodity form can be traced with flawless clarity in discursive practices as well. Although Petty in the seventeenth century had made labor a standard of value, he had also viewed it as a kind of natural substance, not unlike the raw materials delivered from the land. He observed, for instance, that a calf could increase in value if it grazed unattended. What, he asked, is the general par between the value generated by the land and that created by labor? For him they appeared as equivalent, irreducible sources of wealth. Smith, by contrast, did not suppose that labor created value by making substances equivalent to nature. Human labor represented the sole, independent, and socially generated source of value. Smith made labor constitutive of social relations in high theory at the same time the form of labor as a commodity became a central, organizing principle of micro-practices on the shop floor.
The Transmission of Labor in the Age of the Factory
On the clock of the artisanal world, Smith formulated his ideas at the eleventh hour, when the development of a market in labor itself had become inescapably obvious but the commencement of the industrial revolution was as yet perceived only dimly. With the founding of the Ricardian school of economics at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the most widespread form of considered reflection on the economy in Britain moved to an explicitly industrial view of society. Ricardo envisioned a social order with three classes: owners of capital, owners of land, and wage earners in the owners' employ. He saw all workers as dependent laborers, and he
took the mechanization of production for granted. If political economy moved smoothly in the wake of economic change, reflecting and generalizing upon it, would not British thinkers come to discard the notion that wage laborers sold materialized labor? Smith had already found it difficult to reduce the wage contract to the exchange of products. Would not the sale of labor in the form of a product appear increasingly anachronistic in the age of the factory? For social investigators coming after Marx, it may seem more "accurate" to encode labor in the form of "labor power." But this partiality reduces culture to a reflection of social organization. When Ricardo set out to clarify the role of labor in economic life, he did not reject but reinvigorated older suppositions about labor as a commodity.
In his Principles of Political Economy , composed more than forty years after Smith's Wealth of Nations , Ricardo identified some of the major confusions in his predecessor's work. Ricardo uncovered the surreptitious moves Smith made between two specifications of how labor determines the value of commodities: as Ricardo summarized the difference, sometimes by "the quantity of labour bestowed on the production" of the commodity, sometimes by "the quantity of labour which that commodity would purchase." To set the matter straight, Ricardo declared that only with the first definition could an invariant measure of value be obtained. He reached this conclusion by observing that the value of labor in exchange varied—that is, the quantity of labor in the goods that the worker could buy in return for selling his own labor fluctuated with market conditions. By comparison, Ricardo believed that the quantity of labor the worker bestowed on a product provided a fixed standard for comparing the value of goods in the face of apparent shifts in exchange values. Ricardo reasoned that if a commodity suddenly required a lesser quantity of labor for its production due to technological improvement, that commodity would be exchanged for a lesser quantity of embodied labor.
Given the initial trajectory of his thinking, Ricardo might well have arrived at the view that the owner purchased labor as if it were a potential rather than as if it were already materialized in a product. After all, the very first line of his book, by which he definitely announced his entry onto the front stage of the British intellectual drama, sent him on a straightforward path: "The value of a commodity . . . depends on the relative quantity of labour which is necessary for its production, and not on the greater or lesser compensation which is paid for that labor." He could not have chosen a more auspicious starting point for considering discrepancies between labor costs and labor quantities. His emphasis on the quantity of labor might have led him to consider how employers derive varying quantities of labor from their workers' potential. Yet he retained the idea that labor was delivered in the form of a product even under penalty of introducing inconsistency into his system.
Whereas Smith resorted to his second definition of value in exchange when he observed that with the advent of reliance upon accumulated stock in production the wage of the worker is no longer equal to the entire value of the products created, Ricardo's approach assumes that the transition to capitalist conditions of production in no way compromises Smith's first definition of value, based on the labor materialized in a product. If the relative prices of commodities are determined by the quantities of labor they contain, this remains true no matter how much of this quantity of labor is reimbursed to the workers as a wage. So Ricardo thinks only Smith's
first formulation of value, based on the labor bestowed on a commodity, is accurate: "If the reward of the labourer were always in proportion to what he produced, the quantity of labour bestowed on a commodity, and the quantity of labour which that commodity would purchase, would be equal, and either might accurately measure the variations of other things: but they are not equal." If we impose on this formulation a set of categories alien to Ricardo, we can say that the two quantities represent forms of the same thing, labor, but materialized versus living labor. If the difference between them is only a matter of form, why should they not be equals in exchange? With the help of Marx's tradition, we can pose the question. Ricardo could not. For him they were equal because they were the same. When he observed the inequality he saw, not two different forms of labor, but labor products delivered with the help of capital versus labor traded against labor.
Although Ricardo professes to make a theoretical choice in favor of the quantity of labor bestowed on a good as the measure of value, his analysis actually uses the cost of labor as that measure. The most obvious evidence for this slippage lies in his arithmetical examples throughout the Principles. Ricardo expects the reader to understand that if two owners pay the same amount in wages, they receive the same quantity of labor. If Ricardo identifies the cost of labor with the quantity received, he omits the employer's utilization of the labor as a step that decides how much labor the employer actually receives. Did he ignore this process as a simplifying assumption? Could he not have thought that the variations among employers in the quantity of labor actually extracted from the worker for a certain wage averages out for the economy as a whole? And then, in the aggregate, why could he not equate quantity received with cost? Ricardo's use of the famous "wages fund" theory rules out this interpretation. This doctrine starts from the assumption that capitalists in a society "advance" wages to the workers out of their total
stock of capital. The capitalists decide in advance what amount of this stock to allocate for the maintenance of productive labor and what part to consume themselves, that is, their budgeting determines the amount of capital "destined" for the payment of wages. Ricardo assumes that if the amount of capital allocated for the payment of wages in a society declines, then, all else being equal, the quantity of labor purchased by employers declines in the same proportion. They cannot use the falling demand for labor to get the real unit cost of labor to decline. (As Marx pointed out, by treating the length of the workday as fixed and irrelevant, Ricardo ignored the process of using labor power itself.) Therefore the reduction of the quantity of labor to its cost does not just represent an averaging out of the use that capitalists can make of labor at the same point in time. It means that even in different circumstances the capitalists cannot make better "use" of or extract more work out of the labor they buy—they purchase it as if it were already embodied.
The second implication of Ricardo's reduction of the quantity of labor to its cost is that it can make his argument appear circular. Samuel Bailey, an early and vociferous critic of Ricardo, called attention to this in 1825:
Mr. Ricardo, ingeniously enough, avoids a difficulty, which on a first view, threatens to encumber his doctrine, that value depends on the quantity of labour employed in production. If this principle is rigidly adhered to, it follows, that the value of labour depends on the quantity of labour employed in producing it—which is evidently absurd. By a dextrous turn, therefore, Mr. Ricardo makes the value of labour depend on the quantity of labour required to produce wages, or, to give him the benefit of his own language, he maintains, that the value of labour is to be estimated by the quantity of labour required to produce wages, by which he means, the quantity of labour required to produce the money or commodities given to the labourer. This is similar to saying, that the value of cloth is to be estimated, not by the quantity of labour bestowed on its production, but by the quantity of labour bestowed on the production of the silver, for which the cloth is exchanged.
Even if Bailey misrepresents Ricardo's argument, he insistently identifies labor with its product at moments when he might well have considered labor power itself as a ware. Read literally, Bailey appears correct in saying that "the value of labour depends on the quantity of labour employed in producing it" is nonsensical. As a declaration in which "labor" actually refers to "labor power," however, the words follow perfect logic and anticipate Marx's conceptual shift. A habitual process of interpretation in Britain reduced "labor" to its exchangeable product and rendered a potentially insightful formulation "evidently absurd."
As is well known, Ricardo's formulation of the labor theory of value became the dominant form of economic reasoning both among specialized theorists and among popularizers of political economy. One of Ricardo's earliest followers, James Mill, imagined the factory worker as the owner of the finished product who negotiated with his employers over how much of his realized output he would yield. Mill classified the wage as a form of payment in advance because the worker received it before the product had actually been disposed of in the market. In Elements of Political Economy , Mill wrote that:
the commodity, when produced, belongs in certain proportions to both [capitalist and laborers]. It may happen, however, that one of these parties has purchased the share of the other, before production
is completed. . . . In point of fact, it does happen, that the capitalist, as often as he employs labourers, by the payment of wages, purchases the share of the labourers. When the labourers receive wages for their labour, without waiting to be paid by a share of the commodity produced, it is evident that they sell their title to that share. The capitalist is then the owner, not of the capital only, but of the labour also.
Here the capitalist cannot even be said to have purchased any labor until he buys a completed product. Mill transformed the transaction between the capitalist and the worker into an ordinary exchange between commodity owners, both of whom trade labor already embodied in products—materialized labor.
The postulate that employers purchased only materialized labor became a standard assumption in British political economy. Peter Gaskell, in his celebrated book on The Manufacturing Population of England , suggested that labor had no exchange value until it entered the sphere of circulation as a finished product. "Of itself it [labor] is nothing . . .," he said,"—it must be stamped or moulded to bring it into a state fit for useful exchange." John Stuart Mill, perhaps the most famous purveyor of the nineteenth century's common sense, supposed that wage laborers received loans from their employers, for they were paid before the finished products which they gave their employer had been disposed of in the market. Were employees
to wait for payment of a wage until their labor products were resold on the market, they would become capitalists like their employers: investment in products for resale, not authority over labor power, defines the capitalist's role in the employment relation.
The conception of the transmission of labor presented in high theory coincided with that presented in the journals of the factory workers' insurgency during the 1830s. When the factory workers' press theorized the employment relation as a kind of economic exchange, it described the purchase of labor as concretized in a ware. For example, The Poor Man's Advocate said in 1832 that the mill owner who purchased a "stipulated quantity of labor" from workers was comparable to a customer who bought finished cloth in a store.
The course of development of British political economy poses a genuine riddle when one recalls how the accepted definition of value, the quantity of labor embodied, might have caused economists to consider the actual determinants of the quantity of labor delivered. If Adam Smith confused the hiring of labor with the purchase of its product, this might be attributed to the ambiguities that often accompany the founding of a new science. But if Ricardo and his followers, conscious of the need for revision, confused labor with its product, their failure identifies the restricted ways in which the British could imagine abstract labor as an economic factor at all. Of course, British commentators were perfectly capable of describing labor not as a product but as a force. The class of workers supplies "a given quantity of power for the production of commodities," E. S. Cayley wrote in 1830. But remarks such as this define labor as a resource at large. They do not retain this formulation when they analyze the mechanisms by which labor is conveyed in a commercial transaction.
In the analysis of the social mechanisms of capitalism, the signifier labor served two functions in classical British political economy. First, it establishes the medium for expressing prices, the framework within which prices can mean something. In its second function, labor generates the particular messages that the general medium transmits: it specifies the particular values and the movement of values among commodities. In The Principles Ricardo moves back and forth without distinction between these two symbolic functions. Thus, when he says that labor "determines" prices, this can mean either that it fixes prices or, at other places, that it lets one ascertain prices. Ricardo conflates these two functions by using the words regulate and measure interchangeably. In the end, abstract labor came into sight for the British only in the process of exchange. They could not compare labor as a capacity in production or as an activity, only via the finished goods that were traded against each other. The generalizing of labor occurred at the completion of the production process. Nassau Senior, for example, excluded economically productive actions from the category of "labour" unless people performed them for the purpose of exchange.
An emblematic contradiction between form and content runs through the Wealth of Nations: the argument makes labor the fount of value, preparatory to sale, whereas the language of analysis treats the labor activity—production—as itself a vending transaction. Smith declares, "Labour was the first price, the original purchase money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or silver, but by labour, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased." As the German commentator Theodor Bernhardi remarked in 1847, Smith here equates the original process of production—the creation of a good through the labor activity—with the socially organized way of acquiring goods through monetary exchange. When Smith discusses the determination of the level of wages, he transforms the labor of the isolated worker into a system of trade. "The produce of labour," he
asserts, "constitutes the natural recompence or wages of labour." He frequently uses phrases such as the "labour commonly employed in acquiring or producing any commodity," another expression which makes production analogous to acquisition by exchange. Every person who sells his labor, Smith says, "becomes in some measure a merchant," a turn of speech that places the laborer and the tradesman (who merely deals with finished goods) in similar roles.
No wonder Smith's usage makes no distinction between commerce and industry. He assimilated the process of production to that of exchange. Spokespersons for the common people of Britain in the nineteenth century expressed the same point of view. When they criticized the capitalists' abuse of their power, they defined the capitalists not by their position in production but by their position as manipulative peddlers in the market. The holders of capital, William Heighton explained to trade union members in 1827, "effect exchanges by proxy, without working at all themselves and accumulate the wealth which other people's labour has created through the medium of profit."
The British identification of the commodity of labor in the sphere of circulation left its impression upon the English language. The British, but not the Germans, felt the need to emphasize a single word as the signifier of production undertaken for the sake of exchange. History kindly provided an Anglo-German mediator who noticed this long ago. Friedrich Engels called it to the attention of both German and British readers in translations and annotated editions of Kapital. As Engels discovered, the English language in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came to rely upon work to refer to the qualitative activity of making use values; whereas labor , the only word that indicated diverse activities as serving a general productive function, became the marker for the activity considered as an abstract creator and quantitative measure of exchange value. Certainly
Smith testified to this usage when he argued that "there may be more labour in an hours hard work than in two hours easy business."
The difference in meanings between work and labor in economic discourse did not lie in them as a potential waiting to come to life with the historical development of wage labor; people strove to create the distinction in the course of the eighteenth century. Sir James Steuart, for example, had put forward the same conceptual distinction before Smith but had marked it with another arbitrary pairing of terms, that of simple labor , production for use, versus industry , production for exchange. Steuart's writings show that the need to mark the difference in perspectives on the work activity—the need the terms work and labor happened later to fulfill—preceded the actual semantic differentiation. Therefore we cannot attribute this differentiation to the stock of words that English, as opposed to German, fortuitously had at its disposal. The Germans had equivalent lexical options available to them. The English term work derives from the same source as the German verbs werken and wirken and, before the rise of liberal commercialism, had a parallel range of meanings. Likewise, the Germans had at their disposal the verb arbeiten to correspond to labor , inasmuch as the German term, too, was originally associated with the Latin concept of
painful exertion or molestia. The Germans did not consecrate the words available to them to differentiate between production for use and production for exchange, although werken survived into the first half of the nineteenth century as a verb referring to productive activity. We can conclude that the divergence reflects a difference in the concepts with which people apprehended economic activity, given the original similarity in lexical resources but the final difference between German and British usage. As components of popular languages, these terms and the conceptual operations to which they corresponded were the property in common of economic agents in each country, not the preserve of speculative intellectuals.
The Insincerity of the Historical Process
Social theorists of capitalist development have long characterized Britain as the pioneer society of a liberal market order. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it certainly led Europe in building a nationally penetrating network of trade. In addition, historical analysts of diverse allegiances, from Barrington Moore to Jürgen Kuczynski, have highlighted Britain's early reliance upon market mechanisms rather than upon seigneurial coercion for the extraction of surplus from the agricultural work force. In manufacturing, the separate processes of developing markets in goods and of relaxing administrative controls for the compulsory delivery of labor
occurred very early in Britain in world-historical time, but they were staggered far apart in the country's own developmental time. The elimination of guild monopolies on the exchange of wares and of internal barriers to trade, as well as the attachment of the countryside to merchant enterprise in London, were nearing completion by the mid-seventeenth century. The cessation of the requisitioning of labor and of community controls on wages required in some important regions of the country up to a century more.
In terms of its own developmental sequence, then, Britain is distinguished by the relatively late emergence of a formal market in wage labor, given the advanced commercialization of the finished-goods sector. To appreciate this lag one need only compare Sir William Blackstone's definition of the employment relation with that of the Code Napoleon in France. In France the creation of a unified national market in goods occurred later than in Britain, but its definitive recognition coincided with the annihilation of the guilds and, during 1790 and 1791, the formal abolition of corporate controls on the marketing of labor. The Civil Code of Napoleon, promulgated just after the dawning of a liberal market regime in France, recognized "services for rent"—labor power—as a commodity freely exchangeable on the basis of individual contract alone. By contrast, Blackstone, we have seen, treated the engagement of labor power as a transaction founded on the ascribed inferiority of the worker—on status rather than compact. Until 1867, British law treated the worker either as an inferior, subject to imprisonment merely for failure to deliver labor, or as an independent contractor who delivered products. This archaic disjuncture in British law betrayed
the legacy of the country's early focus upon the enforced delivery of labor power or the contractual delivery of labor as it was embodied in products.
German commentators found it anomalous that even in the twentieth century the British continued to model the contractual elements of the employment relation upon the delivery of goods. In 1904 Otto von Zwiedineck-Südenhorst compared the German and the British legal classifications:
With the modern labor contract the full commitment of the labor power of an individual for a certain time through the employment relation ensues, even if the measurement of compensation proceeds according to labor output. The interpretation of this matter seems to differ in England, as emerges from the Labor Department's report on standard piece-rate wages and sliding scales of 1900 (page ten). There the viewpoint is expressed that only the completion of a certain work forms the content of the piece-rate agreement; in other words, that an agreement for a contractor's work, as understood in our civil law, is present.
The British terms for the conveyance of labor might seem less demanding of the worker, but they scarcely derived from the "liberal" British past.
Historical development in Britain cunningly disguised the origins of the commodity form assumed by labor. The concept of labor as a commodity in Britain resembled the exchange of materialized labor between independent petty-commodity producers, or, in more ennobling terms, between freeborn tradespeople. This ideal was sustained in production but did not truthfully reflect its circumstances. Only a fraction of artisans were truly autonomous producers, as Adam Smith himself acknowledged. The toilsome research of modern historians has revealed that even in London, the hub of the artisanal trades, by 1800 only 5 or 6 percent of workers were genuinely self-employed. The understanding of the labor transaction in Britain as the transfer of materialized labor emerged, not from a preponderance of free
artisans, but from the protracted subjection of labor power itself to social regulation that denied its sellers the contractual and political rights of free, market agents during the economic and cultural formation of a commercial society. Only as it was objectified in products did labor at this critical step of development receive its commodity form. History succeeded in perpetrating a ruse, because coercion itself gave rise to an apparition of freedom: the repressive yoking of wage labor in this era of transition shifted the commercial model to the independent producer as the celebrated, mythologized seller of labor products, the only free vendor of labor in a precociously founded market regime.