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.