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.