As Common as Ditchwater

I would like to draw the readers’ attention to an item I posted yesterday and say a few words about the significance of the discovery mentioned in it. The mock “theory of the Lump of Labour” was invented in 1891 by David Frederick Schloss in an article titled “Why Working-Men Dislike Piece Work.” The Oxford Dictionary cites Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) as an early published instance of “lump labour,” referring to a form of labor subcontracting that was common on the docks and persisted in the building trades.

John Mills’s 1843 novel, The Stage Coach, or the Road of Life predates Mayhew by more than half a decade, it employs the exact phrase, “lump o’ labour” rather than a close approximation and, most importantly, it provides a substantial context that illustrates what the characters meant by the phrase. From that context, it is clear that the lump of labor refers to a given expenditure of effort and is related to the expectation of a proportionate reward for that effort. Jack Hogg’s father ruminates, “we ought to be well satisfied when we get moderate profits to a lump o’ labour or pain.”

Evidence that the phrase is consistent with working-class London patois from the period is found in the expression “lump o’ lead,” which is Cockney rhyming slang for head. The Lump or “lump hotel” is a slang term for the workhouse. Mills’s lump o’ labour thus had a concrete reference and is not an abstraction contemplating change — or lack of it — in the macro-economy. The theory of the lump of labor is strictly Schloss’s fiction. More precisely, the kind of fiction Schloss engaged in was caricature, based on social class, that presumed the superiority of the classes from which the readers of The Economic Review were drawn. Such derisive caricature — frequently based on ethnic, racial and gender stereotyping — was rampant in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Schloss’s caricature of “theory” was relatively mild — condescending rather than overtly hostile and defamatory. But that should not obscure the fact that it patently wasn’t an attempt to explain or understand what workers thought. Rather it was a routine maneuver in the construction of otherness — so standard as to be a cliche. Schloss’s “certain fixed amount of work to be done” hearkened back more than a century to Dorning Rasbotham’s “certain quantity of labour to be performed” by way of half a dozen or so intervening slight paraphrases and reiterations.

It is almost as if the Schloss/Rasbotham fixation on fixedness is trying to tell us something about their own discourse. In “The Other Question,” Homi Bhabha described the “dependence on the concept of ‘fixity’ in the ideological construction of otherness” in colonial discourse:

Fixity, as the sign of cultural/historical/racial difference in the discourse of colonialism, is a paradoxical mode of representation: it connotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy and daemonic repetition. Likewise the stereotype, which is its major discursive strategy, is a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what is always ‘in place’, already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated… as if the essential duplicity of the Asiatic or the bestial sexual license of the African that needs no proof, can never really, in discourse, be proved.

To state it plainly, the lump-of-labor fallacy myth is colonial discourse in which the worker is the colonized other — the “idiot Luddites” Larry Summers was taught as an undergraduate at M.I,T, to dismiss as “a bunch of goofballs.” That was way back in the 1970s. Just the other day, in a point/counterpoint with Dean Baker (Point: Shorter Workweeks Will Defeat the Robots), Omar al-Ubaydli (Counterpoint: Shorter Workweeks Will Increase Unemployment) trotted out the old formula:

A glaring red flag is how simple the proposed solution seems to be: Proponents of work-sharing believe an economy requires a fixed amount of work to be performed by a limited number of people.

That tired old colonial discourse. Shame.