Labour power as a common-pool resource

Labour power as a common-pool resource: in memory of Paul Burkett

Human mental and physical capacities to work have elastic but definite natural limits. Those capacities must be continuously restored and enhanced through nourishment, rest, and social interaction. Over the longer term that capacity for labour also has to be replenished by a new generation of young people, reared by the previous generation.

It is this combination of definite limits and of the need for continuous recuperation and replacement that, according to Paul Burkett, gives labour-power the characteristics of a common-pool resource. As Burkett explained, Karl Marx also regarded labour power not merely as a marketable asset of private individuals but as a “reserve fund for the regeneration of the vital force of nations.” “From the standpoint of the reproduction and development of society,” Burkett elaborated, “labor power is a common-pool resource – one with definite (albeit elastic) natural limits.”

Common-pool resource is a category of goods introduced by Elinor Ostrom in work for which she was awarded the Swedish Bank Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009. For Ostrom, common-pool resources are goods that don’t fit tidily into the categories of either private or public goods. They are like private goods in that their use by one consumer subtracts from how much is available for others. But they are like public goods in that it is difficult to exclude people from access to them. Some obvious examples are forests, fisheries, aquifers and the atmosphere. Ostrom distinguished between common-pool resources that are unregulated and “the commons,” which is collectively self-managed. From this distinction came her criticism of Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons,” which assumed an unmanaged common-pool resource rather than a collectively self-managed common.

In the 19th century, labour was conventionally regarded as a private good by both classical political economists and conservative thinkers such as Edmund Burke, who argued, “labour is a commodity like every other, and rises and falls according to the demand.” The counterpoint to that view is that labour (power) is not a commodity because it has characteristics that no other commodity has. Labour economist Robert Prasch summarized these characteristics as: “(1) Labor cannot be separated from its providers. (2) Labor cannot be stored. (3) Labor embodies the quality of self-consciousness. (4) Labor is the one “factor of production” that most of us wish, in the end, to see well compensated.” An early rationale for the rebuttal was outlined in 1834 by silk weaver William Longson in his evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers:

“…every other commodity when brought to market, if you cannot get the price intended, it may be taken out of the market, and taken home, and brought and sold another day; but if a day’s labour is offered on any day, and is not sold on that day, that day’s labour is lost to the labourer and to the whole community…”

Longson concluded from these observations of labour’s peculiarities that, “I can only say I should be as ready to call a verb a substantive as any longer to call labour a commodity.” Another formidable challenge to the notion of labour as a commodity had been articulated nine years earlier by Thomas Hodgskin in his “Labour Defended Against the Claims of Capital.” Hodgskin pointed out that the most important operation for the production of wealth, “the rearing of youth and teaching them skilled labour, or some wealth-creating art.” As Hodgskin continued, “this most important operation is performed… without any circulating capital whatever,” that is to say, without compensation in either money or goods. Instead, child rearing is performed, “under the strong influence of natural affection and parental love… through all the long period of the infancy and childhood of their offspring.”

In both Longson’s and Hodgskin’s arguments, the unstated distinction between labour and labour power was crucial. No actual labour was performed in Longson’s example. What the labourer offered on the market but was unable to sell was his or her capacity to work on that particular day. Similarly, what parents give to their children by bringing them up and teaching them skills is a capacity to labour, provided the opportunity arises to exercise that capacity. Wage labour per se only comes into existence after the capacity to labour has been purchased and combined by the employer with facilities, equipment, raw materials, direction, and most importantly with other people’s capacity to labour — cooperation.

The counter claim was officially endorsed in Section 6 of the U.S. Clayton Antitrust Act, passed by Congress in 1915. Hailed by American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers as a “Charter of Industrial Freedom,” Section 6 proclaimed that “the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce.” Nearly identical wording was incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 as a guiding principle for the establishment of the International Labour Organization and reaffirmed as a first principle of the I.L.O. in 1944.

The economic policies of governments, bargaining priorities of trade unions, and theoretical models of economists, however, would seem to conform more to the commodity model than the aspirational but nebulous proclamations of the Clayton Act and the Treaty of Versailles. Ordinary working people resign themselves to the seemingly eternal verity of commodified labour. But employers are not fooled by the notion that the wage “rises and falls according to the demand” for labour.

Capitals’ demand for labour (power) is not determined by its price but by its capacity to generate a surplus. It is the unique characteristic of capitalism that it subordinates the performance of the labour necessary for the worker’s subsistence to the production of surplus value. In its drive to create as much surplus labour as possible and “to reduce necessary labour to a minimum,” capital also has a tendency “to increase the labouring population, as well as constantly to posit a part of it as surplus population – population which is useless until such time as capital can utilize it.”

But regardless of whether one works for a wage or is unemployed, the capacity to perform labour is the outcome of an intrinsically social, co-operative activity. As such, this capacity can best be understood as a “common-pool resource” in that it may most effectively be engaged, valued, enjoyed and protected as a collectively-shared asset rather than as a fragmented assortment of individualized units, which is the current model of labour-as-a-commodity. Relating the concept of a common-pool good to labour is especially apt in that it illuminates, as Paul Burkett pointed out, “the parallel between capital’s extension of work time beyond the limits of human recuperative abilities [including social vitality], and capital’s overstretching of the regenerative powers of the land.”

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