France: A Suggestive Extension
The French case illustrates the construction of labor as a commodity under circumstances that display two initial contrasts to those prevailing in Britain. First, the institutional frameworks for the formally free exchange of manufactures and of labor power were created simultaneously in France during the Great Revolution, not disjointly as in Britain. Second, France began the transition to a capitalist labor market with a legacy of feudal relations of work in agriculture. Both these conditions approximately paralleled the conditions obtaining in Germany during the same process of transition. But development in France diverged from that in Germany: during the initial transition to a formally free labor market, the guilds in France were not just stripped of their lawful monopolies over the marketing of
goods; they were eliminated altogether. In contrast to development in Germany, urban craftwork in France adapted to commercial liberalism without significant protection and could therefore serve as an institutional locus for the cultural definition of labor as a commodity. The major currents of economic thinking in France in the early nineteenth century gave expression to a distinctive specification of labor as a commodity which was eventually installed on the factory shop floor.
In the decades before the revolution of 1789, the constraints on trade and on the exercise of an occupation eroded in France, but they were not replaced by a formally free market regime in products or labor power. Louis XV's government declared in 1762 that manufacture in the countryside could proceed independently of the guilds, which were centered in the cities. Despite this newly confirmed liberty, exchange in the rural outlands developed under a hodgepodge of shifting local ordinances. At least until 1779, many intendants in the provinces enforced requirements that rural textile makers produce only approved varieties of cloth. In the north of France, by order of the intendant , inspectors from the textile guilds of Lille tramped through the backwoods districts to seize fabrics that deviated from approved patterns. The surveillance of rural output and the fines levied on aberrant weavers did not halt the rise of outland manufacture, but they helped to attach a portion of that production to the regulated trade of the cities. Urban brokers sometimes retained a statutory monopoly on the marketing of certain lines of fabrics created in nearby villages. In some regions, rural
spinners and weavers were still required to sell their goods in an approved marketplace, to prevent unlicensed dealers from poaching on the business of the guild brokers. Amid this forest of regulation, the abolition of guild jurisdiction over labor in the countryside represented only a partial clearing.
Within the walls of the municipalities, officials upheld their right to control manufacture. In principle, magistrates in the textile towns remained the "natural judges" of economic activity. They could allocate yarn to various branches of weaving, authorize brokers to serve as intermediaries between producers and merchants, set up appropriate prices to be paid to both male and female workers for products, and decide whether new branches of enterprise should be established. Finally, of course, the urban corporations used their royal charters and judicial rights to buttress their manufacturing privileges and to control the circulation of labor. Guild masters were officially forbidden to compete with colleagues to at-
tract journeymen by offering better terms of work. The corporations' fetters on the exercise of an occupation came under increasing criticism from the reform-minded philosophes in the last decades of the old monarchy. Indeed, Turgot suspended the corporations for several months in 1776 after he began his brief tenure as controler-general. But his edict was never enforced. The guilds were swiftly restored and consolidated between 1776 and 1780. As a well-ordered hierarchy of associations subordinate to the monarch, they seemed indispensable to uphold the organization of society. Even when, in the eighteenth century, the de jure monopolies of the guilds became less effective, the model of constitutory corporations remained dominant in popular conceptions of the social order.
The revolution of course swiftly initiated the transition to liberal commercialism. Internal customs and tolls on the transport of goods disappeared in 1790. The Constituent Assembly moved almost immediately to create a formally free market in labor power as well. In the period of the revolution from February to September, 1791, the assembly passed three decrees that demolished the old framework of corporate production. It first eliminated the guild associations of masters and workers. By contrast with the path of reform in Prussia, in France the guilds lost their function as official corporate sponsors of the employment of artisans. They were suppressed as associations for the training of workers, certification of masters, and cultivation of the trade. Then, in June, the Le Chapelier law put an end to all trade associations, including workers' collective organizations. The law provided instead for the establishment of wages by "freely contracted agreements between individual and individual." Finally, in September of that year the
assembly set aside the regulations that had prescribed the execution of labor: it dismantled all offices for inspecting the quality and specifications of manufactures. Of course, no perfectly liberated bazaar in articles of commerce or in labor power appeared in France (or elsewhere) that would satisfy the economist's shining ideal of an unbridled play of market forces. But there is a world of difference between community-supported, culturally prominent, foundational restrictions on trade and narrow exemptions from competition or implicit market imperfections such as de facto labor immobility. The revolution brought France across this divide. At one stroke, the outlines of an integrated national market in both products and labor came into view.
The dramatic change in governing economic principle did not allow the concept of labor as a commodity to spring ready-made out of the market stalls and workshops. The current of ideas that surfaced among the sans-culottes during the ensuing months of popular organization and insurrection verify that labor's commodity form had not yet taken shape. The sans-culottes founded their outlook upon the social contribution of concrete labor itself. As William Sewell's study of the language of labor reminds us, the common people of Paris sanctified those who worked with their hands. In their eyes, manual effort provided the moral foundation of the new French republic. When the radical sans-culottes articulated their demands for bread on the morrow or their hopes for greater social equality in times to come, they did not reason from the commercial value of their labor. The dependent artisans and journeymen, Albert Soboul noticed, "did not go so far as to establish a relation between the amount of work and the amount of the wage." They asserted only that their labor made them deserving members of the community and gave them title to a share of its wealth. When they advanced their claims, "wages were not
The fashioning of labor's commodity form in France during the first half of the nineteenth century relied upon the understanding of labor services that was inherited from the old regime. Feudal legacies in the countryside and corporate traditions in the towns encouraged French employers and workers to envision the employer's purchase of labor as his requisitioning of the worker's labor activity. The urban corporations of the ancien régime not only ordered French business and industry, but they formed the constituent units of society and were to serve as a model of social relations in France's early commercial society. Their charters and internal organization were similar to those for the universities and learned professions, grouping trade guilds with other associations as upholders of the arts rather than as organizations defined as providers of productive or manual labor per se. "Labor" was recognized as a contributor to social welfare if it was governed by artistic and intellectual discipline. Urban producers supposed that well-ordered activity, not the exchange of materialized labor, bonded society together.
Present-day historians can no longer romanticize the self-consciously corporate organization of the French urban trades by supposing that it ensured stable, communal relations in the workshops. The arduous research of Michael Sonenscher has demonstrated that artisanal manufacture in eighteenth-century France was characterized by rapid turnover in the work force and by reliance on far-flung chains of subcontractors. In these flexible and dynamic networks, however, relations between outworkers and merchants were officially governed by an extensive code that
prescribed the legitimate exercise of the craft. The British model of independent, self-determining small producers exchanging their wares had little resonance against the background of corporate organization in eighteenth-century France. Instead, the rhetoric of the corporate order portrayed production as the execution of an art which was certified, controlled, and protected by the monarch. Despite their revolutionary sentiments, the sans-culottes carried some elements of this outlook forward. They focused on labor executed for the welfare of the community, not on the exchange of contributions produced by autonomous commodity producers. Even as the laws of the corporate order inherited from the ancien régime disappeared, the sans-culottes emphasized mutual devotion to the labor activity rather than the exchange among independent manufacturers of products as vessels of materialized labor.
The ancien régime's definition of feudal work relations in the countryside, where by far the greater part of the population toiled, supplemented the emphasis on the delivery of labor services that prevailed in the towns. The feudal legacy in the countryside could play an important role in defining the labor transaction because the urban crafts under the old regime did not define the transfer of labor from dependent worker to employer. In the cities, no term for employer , such as patron , had yet become current. Most craft masters employed only one or two assistants—or, very often, none. Agriculture offered an important model for large-scale requisitioning of laborers.
Feudal agriculture in eighteenth-century France sustained a view of the transfer of labor as the obligatory delivery of a service. To be sure, the landed elite in France, compared to privileged landowners in German territory east of the Elbe, put scant economic reliance on the receipt of obligatory dues in labor. In the last days of the old regime, dependent peasants by and large tendered no more than twelve days annually of unpaid corvée labor to their landowners. Yet, as in German territory west of the Elbe, these labor serv-
ices were nonetheless essential in France in defining the relation of the laboring peasantry to persons of rural property. The tribute showed that title to the land conferred a claim not only to rents but to service and to authority over the activity of subordinates. This connotation became explicit in an incident narrated by the abbé Clerget: he claimed that a seigneur at the Parlement of Franche-Comté asserted the right to impose a new corvée on the peasantry in exchange for relinquishing ancient rights over vassals to receive oblations and "lead them in the hunt." Not that the corvée had become purely symbolic: peasants from the village of Haute-Marche in the district of Creuse complained in 1790 that they still sacrificed at least one day weekly to discharge their labor obligations. In the last years of the old regime a few seigneurs tried to reimpose labor tributes that rivaled those of prior centuries. Small wonder that the peasants included the corvées among their humiliating burdens when they compiled lists of grievances on the eve of the revolution.
Memory of the corvées survived well into the nineteenth century. When the reins of power passed again to the Bourbons, the peasants associated the restoration of old political principles with the return of ancient relations in economic life. They feared the resuscitation of the unpaid days of labor. As
late as 1840 the procurator-general in Bordeaux attributed to the influence of "socialists" the widespread apprehension on the Dordogne about reimposition of the tithes and corvées. The autobiography of the Parisian turner Jacques-Etienne Bédé shows that urban workers, too, used the corvée as a point of comparison. Bédé and his fellow workers on piece rates went on strike in 1819 to protest the unremunerated time they were obliged to spend waiting at the workshop. Their goal, they said, was to abolish "corvées," the supply of unpaid labor.
As employers and workers developed an understanding of the capitalist employment relation in the nineteenth century, they viewed the labor transaction as the offering of a service capacity, paralleling the model of days of service delivered in agriculture. In keeping with the late abolition of feudal relations of work in their respective countries, French workers frequently used corvée and German workers applied Frondienst to characterize the capitalist employment relation. The English and Italian languages, by comparison, did not retain catchwords referring to the delivery of unpaid dues in labor. Language testified to the fundamental forces at work on the route to the creation of a capitalist labor market.
The vernacular discloses how the specifications of labor as a commodity that prevailed in nineteenth-century France and Germany shared important similarities due to their legacies of feudal relations of work; yet there were also important differences between the countries, which were attributable to the annihilation of the guilds in France. The works of political economists reflect both the parallels and the contrasts in cultural outcomes. Elite economists in France believed that labor was sold as a resource. For example, Jean-Baptiste Say, a former textile manager and one of the earliest economists to draw on French sources to counter some of Adam Smith's proposi-
tions, grouped the "industrial services" of workers alongside land and capital in a list of the productive capacities of a nation. He added, "When I hire a laborer by the day, he does not sell me his fund of productive skills; he sells me only the services his capacity can give in the course of a day." Say thereby intended to indicate that renting out any "productive fund," be it capital or labor, equaled the vending of a service.
Say's comment implied that workers were contributing a resource to the production process that had the same status as the contributions of landowners and capitalists. The French concept of labor as a commodity resembled that of the British insofar as both treated the exchange as one that occurred among market equals without necessarily referring to relations of supervision in production itself. But Say's analysis and those of the French economists who followed him differed from those of the British in making a distinction between labor sold as a service and the product of that labor.
The French classical economists highlighted the entrepreneurial function of combining diverse resources to create a product that had a value greater than the sum of its parts. From this perspective, of course, the worker could sell, not a product, but only a resource to be complemented by the employer. To combine the factors of production employers needed only to put tools at the disposal of the workers; they did not require control over the immediate process of production. Pellegrino Rossi, who succeeded Say to the most prestigious chair of economics in France, said that people who put cloth out to tailors to be finished by the tailors' labor bought not a product but a potential. "What do they buy?" he asked in his economics course of 1836–1837. "They buy a force, a means that will produce results whatever
the risks and hazards." Workers sold their potential, but its use was not necessarily under the immediate command of employers and did not form part of the understanding of how the exchange of labor was effected.
Still, the French concept of labor resembled the German concept insofar as it made a contrast between labor and labor power. As in Germany, vocabulary offers a suggestive, if preliminary, indicator of the concepts in operation. In the first half of the nineteenth century, French economists used labor power (puissance de travail) as well as industrial services to refer to labor as a commodity. Rossi recognized that what the worker sold was the capacity to work, but he felt uneasy about this monetization of the laborers' life process. In his course on political economy, published in 1842, he said, "To conceive of labor power while abstracting it from the means of subsistence of the laborers during the process of production is to conceive of a phantom. Whoever says labor, whoever says labor power, means simultaneously workers and the means of subsistence, the laborer and the salary." In this passage Rossi attempted to shift the emphasis from the sale of living labor to the provision of necessities of life. His discomfort resulted from the perception that workers in a capitalist regime seemed to be selling themselves, an unpleasantry that British economists avoided by focusing on the sale of labor materialized in a product.
If treating the workers themselves as commodities repelled the French economists, why did they not instead take up the British view of labor as a commodity? Where authors can gain a tactical advantage from altering their concept of labor but let the opportunity pass, the constraint laid by
an underlying assumption comes to the surface. A significant example appears in Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's System of Economic Contradictions , published in 1846. In the middle of this work's chapter on value, Proudhon wrote as if he were caught between two goals: he wanted to insist, against the prevailing skepticism in France, that embodied labor served as a measure of value; and he wanted to take the moral high ground by refusing to treat the workers themselves as marketable wares. He did not adopt the convenient escape of imagining that the commodity of labor was sold as materialized in a product. Instead, he presented a weak alternative:
Labor is said to have value , not as merchandise itself, but in view of the values supposed to be contained in it potentially. The value of labor is a figurative expression, an anticipation of effect from cause. It is a fiction by the same title as the productivity of capital. Labor produces, capital has value: and when, by a sort of ellipsis, we say "the value of labor," we make an enjambment which is not at all contrary to the rules of language, but which theorists ought to guard against mistaking for a reality.
With this maneuver Proudhon sacrificed a chance to offer a coherent explanation of how labor determined prices in the contemporary marketplace. He could not compare the value of one person's labor power to another's. Yet he retained the assumption that labor was sold as a potential even as he avoided setting a price tag on the workers themselves.
The French concept of labor as a commodity was embodied not only in words but in legal and economic practice. How to define an employment contract was a difficult question for nineteenth-century French courts. Should home weavers who sold their products to middlemen be considered employees covered by labor law, or were they artisans in charge of an enterprise? Did it make a difference if they supplied their own materials and owned their own tools? The rulings of the French authorities emphasized the character of the market relation rather than the employer's immediate authority over the use of the labor.
The employment relation in France received legal clarification when the courts ruled as early as 1836 that wage earners remunerated by piece rates were employees, not entrepreneurial contractors. The courts found that the criterion for identifying an employee was the worker's "state of dependence and subordination," not the mode of payment. Was the laborer who worked at home in such a "state of dependence"? The response that crystallized in France in the nineteenth century was distinctive. French officials defined domestic artisans as employees if they sold their products to one buyer at a time rather than offering them to the general public. Home workers who sold products to a single buyer had the legal status of employees because they entered into an ongoing relation in which they cooperated to deliver labor on a regular basis, rather than formulating a separate contract for each piece of work. When German officials in the nineteenth century were asked to decide the question, they did not see domestic artisans who sold products to a single buyer as dependent employees under the general business code, because they emphasized that these workers labored without supervision, off the premises. True, the Prussian
ministry of trade allowed home textile workers as early as 1856 to enroll as "factory workers" in the municipal funds for insurance against sickness that were administered for mill employees. Despite this administrative ruling to provide social welfare, however, officials noted that home workers, including those who worked for a single contractor without tools or materials of their own, did not stand in a "dependent relation of employment" since they labored "outside the workshop."
In France, by contrast, whether the laborer worked at home rather than under the employer's eye made no difference "from the moment that a certain continuity in the relationship between the parties exists." What defined the exchange of labor in business employment was not the employer's immediate exploitation of the use value of the labor, as in Germany, but the dedication, via the market, of the worker's labor potential to a single person. The definition of business employment in France focused on the offering of a potential but imagined that the employer consumed this potential through market exchanges rather than through immediate relations of domination, as in Germany.
This difference between the commodity form of labor in France and that in Germany derived in large measure from the isolation of German artisanal work from the development of commercial liberalism. As we have seen, even after the revolution of 1848 many German guilds continued their efforts to reacquire trade monopolies, and they blocked the intrusion of liberal commercial thought into the urban artisanal economy. By the wiles of historical process, the very survival of the guilds in Germany placed their
ideas at the periphery of the cultural development of capitalism. In France, by contrast, the annihilation of the guilds meant that some of their collective premises were passed on in new guises, for the urban specialty trades were centrally involved in the development of liberal commercialism and helped shape its course.
Unlike some of their German contemporaries, the small producers in early nineteenth-century France rarely supposed that a refurbished guild system could be reinstated. The corporate idiom inherited from the old regime nonetheless contributed to workers' early visions of an economy founded on association rather than proprietary individualism. As might be expected on the basis of their corporate legacy, French workers in the first half of the nineteenth century sometimes viewed labor as a collective resource rather than as something alienated at a calculable loss or profit to the individual. The journal La Fraternité gave expression to this outlook in 1846. "Labor," it philosophized, "is a social act that gives value to the thing processed." This extrapolation from the cooperation of people of diverse talents for the manufacture of a single product bore implications for the claims to compensation that could be pressed by the laborers: "The true claim issuing from labor is the collective force. . . . None of the [individual] men employed on this piece of work can claim proprietorship of this piece, considering that it was made only by uniting his effort with those of others and that it issues only from the union and combination of heads and arms." This emphasis on labor as a collective power could
counter the conclusions offered by those who treated labor as a commodity like any other. Yet the collective assumptions were retained when workers went on to describe, as they had to, the reality of their employment as individuals. They maintained that if the social resource of labor was alienated in practice by the individual, no natural price could be attached to it.
The commodity form of labor in France supported the development of industrial practices that differed from those of both Germany and Britain. To be sure, French textile factory organization in the early nineteenth century superficially resembled that of Britain in several respects. For example, some French employers who made the transition from hand-powered spinning equipment to steam-driven machinery imposed weekly steam fees upon the workers in charge of the new, more productive equipment. The weekly fee held workers responsible for covering the greater capital and operating costs of the powered machines in return for enjoying swifter output and correlatively greater returns from piece rates. This practice lent support to the notion that workers—sometimes called entrepreneurs d'ouvrage by the employers—were autonomous renters of the machines, who organized use of the apparatus and delivered finished products to the factory owner. If the French workers were seen as deliverers of products, however, this superficial similarity enables us to ask more precisely what it means to say that labor has taken on a "commodity form."
To place the new form of labor in definitive perspective, let us not forget that even in ancient Mediterranean society, free laborers received payment
for their products from regular buyers. But they did not thereby imagine that they were conveying abstract labor time. Likewise, the rich evidence of William Reddy suggests that French textile workers at the start of the nineteenth century believed that they transferred items pure and simple, not that their products were the vessels for abstract labor. (As Reddy hints, the very term product may be ill-chosen for this period, since the word designates an article as the "produce" of labor rather than as a mere object suitable for exchange.) This represents a major difference from Britain, where textile workers who saw themselves in part as renters of machinery rather than as employees per se also viewed the products they furnished as signs for abstract labor. French textile workers of the 1830s seem not to have referred to their earnings as wages or to have described themselves as deliverers of "labor." The employers at a spinning mill near Colmar showed that as late as 1842 they could take nothing for granted. They had to remind spinners that workers could not make products of their own choosing in the mill, reiterating in their factory ordinance that the decision as to what type of yarn to spin belonged to the employer. Until labor practices in France embodied labor's commodity form, French factory workers presumed that they should receive the same piece rate for yarn whether it came from an old, short spinning mule or a newer, longer, and more productive one. They overlooked the difference in embodied labor times. After all, from the standpoint of a trader, the goods from the old machine did not differ from the product of the new. The commodity form of labor in France was embodied in factory practice only when workers were conceived of as the sellers of labor services.
With the benefit of a cross-national outlook we can ascertain the unique cultural mode by which labor power was sold in France. As in Britain and Germany, so in France the construction of the piece-rate scales for weavers exemplifies the specification of labor as a commodity. In France, as in Germany and parts of Britain, the mechanization of weaving was undertaken in
earnest only in the mid-nineteenth century. In the north, which became by far the most important center for mechanized textile production, the weavers in the earliest factories were paid flat day wages. By 1870, however, piece-rate scales applicable to several towns had emerged. Early examples of district piece-rate scales for handweavers set workers' remuneration for a fixed length of cloth. But the schedules, unlike those in Britain during the same period, fail to reveal a linear relation between the increases in the density of the fabric and increases in remuneration.
With the completion of mechanization in weaving during the second half of the nineteenth century, the French made equal use of scales that paid workers per thousand shots inserted in the cloth and of scales that remunerated workers for a fixed length of cloth. But when they used pay per shot, too, they failed to find a linear relation between the density produced and payment for movement of the shuttle, as did German producers. Through the pre–World War One period, the great majority of French lists display irregular rather than linear increases in pay as the density of the fabric increases. Figure 11 plots onto a graph a schedule for merinos from the north of France. The slopes of the French scales, which indicate the rate at which remuneration rises as the density of the cloth increases, change erratically in woolens as in cottons, in moistened linen as in dry.
French piece-rate scales based on length of cloth delivered lacked the linear increases of the British scales because French producers did not view the product as the vessel of abstract labor incorporated in the material. Of course, by the second half of the nineteenth century, the fabric delivered may have represented "labor" effort in the eyes of the French producers. But that labor was not conceived of as a social substance, materialized in the product in standard fashion, capable of providing a detectable metric for the value of the good. Without the notion of an underlying substance corresponding to the physical dimensions of the cloth, the different sectors of the piece-rate scales were not unified in a linear system. Nor were those French
piece-rate scales that were founded on the unit of one thousand shots unified by linear relations between density and pay, as in Germany. For the French view of labor as a commodity did not include the employers' appropriation of labor's use value, the supervised use of a concrete activity, which allows one to valorize each motion delivered to the employer. Instead, piece-rates for varying densities of cloth in France followed the vagaries of pricing for each traditional fabric "type" in well-established markets, the nonlinear tensile strengths of the manipulated yarn, and the readiness of heads of households to exploit the labor of family members as assistants in producing certain ranges of better-remunerated cloth densities. If the French
producers had managed perfectly well without resorting to linear gradations, the design of their scales might seem insignificant, attributable to simple lack of challenges requiring greater regularity. But in fact linearity was not invoked as a natural principle even when it could have helped employers and workers in their efforts to agree upon schedules.
The piece-rate scales held only a nominal status in the eyes of nineteenth-century French textile employers and their workers. Weavers and spinners saw them as an initial element in determining their remuneration, not as a critical measure of labor delivered and an essential yardstick for payment. Handweavers in the first half of the nineteenth century attempted to renegotiate the piece rate when they turned in the completed fabric, based on unforeseen difficulties encountered in the weaving process. Even in the mature factory system it was not unheard-of for weavers to receive a fixed time wage provided they met a production minimum. In some instances workers and employers saw the piece-rate scales as temporary conventions, to be adjusted as necessary to yield a target daily wage. When strikers demanded higher earnings, on occasion they presented employers with alternatives: either the owners could dispense with fines on damaged fabric, or they could revise the piece-rate scales upward. This open-ended request shows that workers looked at the scales as perfunctory contrivances influencing their earnings, not as definitive mechanisms designed to gauge the appropriation of a real substance, labor.
Workers' appreciation of labor as a commodity in France guided the formulation of strike demands. In contrast to their counterparts in Germany and Britain, French weavers on strike for higher piece rates focused their demands on particular densities of cloth, not on the overall construc-
tion of the schedules. Even when they lodged complaints about particular densities of many different types of cloth, they concentrated on isolated positions in the overall table. In a strike at Avesnes in 1886, weavers asked for minute adjustments in ten different kinds of cloth rather than calling for an across-the-board revision.
The French specification of labor as a commodity may have influenced not only the conduct of strikes on the ground but the economic theory propounded in the intellectual circles attached to the workers' movement. The chief economists who wrote for the French Workers' Party, a Marxist group supported by Engels, consistently misread Marx's economic theory. For example, Paul Lafargue, the country's most influential expert in Marxist analysis, penned a defense of Marx's theory of surplus value in 1884. Lafargue assumed that production for exchange, including that of domestic workers, gave birth to capital and exploited labor. In his eyes, anyone producing goods for profit in a market (and not only a middleman) became a capitalist. Engels rebuked Lafargue for failing to realize that capitalism was distinguished by the social relations of production, in which ownership of the means of production allowed a proprietor to purchase and supervise another person's labor power. Yet Lafargue's analysis reflected perfectly well the French understanding of labor as a commodity, in which the immediate relations of domination were absent from the concept of purchasing another person's labor activity. Marx's analysis of the extraction of surplus under capitalism resonated with the presumption
in France that employers purchased a labor activity, but the French assumed that the exploitation of this activity was effected in the market.