I am reading through Richard Biernacki’s article “Labor is an Imaginary Commodity.” These are some rough notes. More to follow.
The introduction discusses in brief recent disputes in Marxist circles regarding the notion of value. Biernacki wants to argue that abstract labor as a concept is not something that is ‘absolute’, but that is given within specific regional or historical discourses, and is used in determining methods of production and resistance.
Part One: The Emergence of “Labor” in Britain versus Germany
In Britain, the rate of wages were fixed; hence, early political economists — British ones anyway — proceeded from the assumption that worker’s wages ought to be fixed. In fact, those who sold their labor as waged-laborers were broadly seen, before Adam Smith, as subjugated; it was the independent producer of commodities who was seen as a free laborer. During the 17th century, with the dissolution of the statutes that governed wages, and with the gradual erosion of the base of free producers, wage-laborers began to be seen as ‘free’ themselves.
During this time though, Biernacki notes,
the labor conceived through the engagement of wage workers was still conceived as a general social substance only as it was embodied in a product… As is well known, Smith developed his theory of how labor accounts for the prices of commodities by reasoning from an archetypal “nation of hunters” prior to the accumulation of capital. These independent producers exchange only the produce of their labor for the produce of others. With this simplification Smith inferred that “the proportion between the quantities of labor necessary for acquiring different objects seems to be only the circumstance which can afford any rule for exchanging them one for another.” In the contemporary capitalist setting, Smith saw that dependent wage workers are hired by the owner of materials and stock. Yet he adhered all the same to the assumption that such workers transfer their manufactures rather than their labor power to the employer. For Smith envisioned that the capitalist employer receives “complete merchandise” from the worker, and then exchanges it again “either for money, for labour, or for other goods” — all three of which represented to Smith’s mind receipt of the same quantity of labor, as if employing labor were identical to purchasing its output. (177)
Note that previously it was known that only producers of commodities were ‘free’; Smith simply assumed that labor-power itself was a commodity, and that it worked according to equal exchange. At any rate, the view that laborers were selling their work as a “good” continued throughout the nineteenth century.
In Germany economists saw that it was the expenditure of labor that granted value, not the value of wages. Biernacki quotes Ludwig Jakob on 178 to that effect. This distinction, between the value of the good produced versus the value of the capacity to produce it, lead to the formulation of the distinction between labor and labor-power.
While in Britain the market for goods existed before that of labor-power — wages there were maintained by statutes even when commodity markets operated — in Germany the market for goods and the market for labor power came into existence at the same time. Hence, in Germany, Biernacki argues, the dominance of capitalists was felt to be the result of free exchange, while in Britain there was the residual understanding that waged-laborers were little more than slaves.
Biernacki goes on to argue that
the differences in the concept of labor in the mature theories of political economy in Germany and Britain cannot help but suggest a daring hypothesis: the everyday practices by which labor was conveyed as a commodity and consumed in capitalist manufacture must have had correspondingly different structures in Germany and Britain. Each of the nationally distinctive theories of how labor power appears a quantifiable, reified social substance would then be “true” in its own locale: each would be enacted in its own land in what Marx called the “hidden abode of production.” (179)