A Free Labour Market is Oxymoronic

The concept of a free labour market, or even markets freed from the grips of wage labour in some significant manner, is conceptualised in much left-libertarian thinking as the development of truly freed markets. Writers such as Kevin Carson[1] and Eugene Holland[2] posit a postcapitalist concept of markets that have distinctively non-Polanyian features (i.e. removing labour, money and land from circuits of exchange), instead having sets of independent producers engaging in voluntaryistic commerce along the lines of selling their wares on the market for simple profit. “In a society where most people own the roofs over their heads and can meet a major part of their subsistence needs through home production, workers who own the tools of their trade can afford to ride out periods of slow business, and to be somewhat choosy in waiting to contract out to the projects most suited to their preference”[3]. Throughout much of Feudal Europe such a conception held sway for long periods as much of the peasantry had access to lands and tools that allowed them to self-provision in a very simple division of labour. However even during this period it was subject to strong regulatory forces through forms of serfdom, land tenure and labour provisioning that limited peasant movement. While certainly not fully akin to capitalist wage labour, these shared obligations were contractual (in a loose sense) and required the limitation of full freedom as posited in left-libertarian ideologies.

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Despite this, Carson develops a postcapitalist understanding in The Homebrew Industrial Revolution of independent producers/labourers removed from hierarchical auspices existing in social and market relations that allow for self-provisioning through 3D printing and the use of machine tools for basic white goods and even potentially more complex technologies (computers, cars and houses). When they do go to market, producers needn’t worry about failure and/or creative destruction as the capital requirements for market entry would be extremely low (due to the proliferation of money forms and capital bases when freed from banking regulations and state money monopolies), and can concentrate on variable product lines and JIT supply lines. There are strong degrees of truth to this picture. One need only look at the rates of loans to small businesses and individuals since the passing of stronger regulatory provisions to limit speculative credit crises (Dodd-Frank Bill, capital requirements for banks, reliance on credit scores for risk security, etc.) which limit capital and lead to further reliance on payday loans and riskier lines of credit.

However, Carson’s imagery here paints a simplistic picture of what markets actually potentiate. As Carson himself has said, the institutional requirements for these markets mean that complex forms of transportation and logistics would be unnecessary for large swathes of goods (if not all goods) as the proliferation of capital, internet technologies and cheap machine tools would make them obsolete. Further, the fiscal crises of modern states and corporations mean that without their large subsidies and planned obsolescence competition favours the lean firm. The latter I find extremely agreeable (if not downright obvious: lean firms always have advantages due to their adaptive nature and ability to scale variably onto circuits of production and supply, finding niches and exploiting bottlenecks. Larger firms inevitably get bogged down in knowledge-distributional problems, and get around these by either decentralising operations inwards into company divisions with significant autonomy, or outwards toward those niche firms). But the former raises two interrelated questions: (1) what happens to the complex social division of labour that informs modern production and supply networks? This social division of labour has been pivotal for the development of innovatory technology and resourcing in the first place. (2) is the de-hierarchisation of labour/production actually possible in the picture Carson paints?

Eugene Holland addresses the social division of labour by noting it is actually a social multiplicity, an institutionalised set of relations that are to some degree extra-market and metagovernmental. It places labour in the Polanyian form of an institution that while certainly fundamental to capitalist circuits of exchange is also beyond it. In precapitalist forms it metastasised as contractual serfdom or outright slavery, thus situated in forms of hierarchy before capitalist developments. Thus in answering the second question, hierarchical forms of labour did predate capitalist exchange. And in the modes that Carson describes, there’s no actual provision to prevent hierarchisation. Mary Parker Follett in her work on business and management organisation goes some way to describing why the flattening of hierarchies and management structures would be better for general innovation and business development, but there is a significant difference between flattening and outright obsolescence. Follett herself paints a picture of collaborative relations between labour and management, where related difference (i.e. the different contextual experiences of each group and individual) are brought to negotiating strategies, shop floor management and the development of company plans. Hierarchy is still fundamental, as differentiation is part of the process of coordination and cooperation. In the situation of independent contractors negotiating strategies in marketplaces, similar hierarchies may well develop. Hierarchies of status, expertise or leadership as those with greater knowledge dominate proceedings and develop quasi-wage labour relations in their own firms. A micro social division of labour, where differential negotiation occurs, would easily build in such conditions. Exit may well be greater, but the human conditions of crowding and leadership dynamics would not disappear except in institutional situations where their disappearance was mandated (thus raising further questions of who authorises this mandate, and thus making the oxymoronic nature of a leaderless market free of wage labour contractualisation even more obvious).

This extra-market institutionalisation leads to considerations beyond simple wage demand and labour supply, as questions of work-life balance and the social importance of one’s work come into the mix. In the social division of labour this has greater importance as the facets of production over continental scales are brought together by logistical flows beyond human speeds. The vision of Carson is that of a static marketplace, of some winners and losers but with great degrees of ambivalence toward larger projects. It harks to a quasi-mythical conception of a free labour market where the ability to self-provision removes oneself from hierarchies. It ignores human urgencies for convenience, for time management and differential work-life balances that the social division of labour brings. It also raises questions of technological innovation as Carson himself admits a great degree of ambiguity toward international means of production and supply. With the slowing of Moore’s law[4] and the developments in AI and quantum computing, the question of whether the tinkerers and craftsman can actually compete on this front becomes more pressing. Certainly they are part of the process, as the history of computing and the internet show. But so are the divisions of corporations and the use of state funding for technological innovation. One cannot be divorced from the other, as state coercion has its part to play in funding innovatory practice and integrating itself into the social multiplicities. This then raises other questions regarding the necessitation of a free labour market as Carson and Holland conceptualise. The development of JIT production lines, flexible production and variable forms of labour are already developing in modern forms of exchange. Transposing these things away from situations where international production with logistical capabilities and resource extraction prevail seems to be a case of taking the good without the bad.

Further, labour as related to work has extra-market characteristics that require forms of institutionalisation to maintain wages or to provide meaning in work (i.e. the maintenance of a consumption dynamic and the varied desires of people. Not everyone can or will be the micro-entrepreneurs assumed by Carson). Take job satisfaction as an example. Here we see a complex set of multivariate explanations as to what informs job satisfaction[5]. It notes that job satisfaction is generally correlated with organisational movement across time (whether through seniority or wholesale change in organisational surrounding) and the pay structures in place. This compares well with Piore and Sabel’s analysis of shop floor management which attempt to emplace autonomous working, organisational movement and pay scales based around skill/seniority into the mix of negotiated strategies between workforce and management. What this generally shows is that while autonomous work is important, it doesn’t fully encompass what is desired within labour. Again, referencing Piore and Sabel, the various alternative manufacturing and production hubs they wrote of didn’t contain a static labour market, but involved hierarchical firms and a largely interrelated set of labour divisions. This shows that even in alternative production forms, there can develop situations where hierarchies within workplaces concatenate and necessitate negotiated strategies for the run of production and the governance of the shop floor. As a parallel situation to the free labour market, the developments of Bitcoin have shown the potentials for crowding effects around particular miners[6] and the inability for economic exchange to separate from social institutionalisation[7] as recent proposals tend to move the language of cryptocurrency from exchange to projects of societalisation[8]. A free labour market is oxymoronic in the sense that Piore & Sabel noted in the Second Industrial Divide, as all forms of labour and work exist in circuits of exchange. Even the freest examples of the craft workers of the Third Italy exist in capitalist circuits of exchange that belie a wider social division of labour (as do the modern examples of business parks and innovation hubs like Silicon Valley that Piore and Sabel also analyse), that social multiplicity that is semi-controlled through logistical flows beyond one divisions control and that hierarchise (as well as flatten) in various manners. The management of the shop floor, and by extension the multiplicity of production units and their control through differentiation and central direction, is always required with rising social complexity.

The central issue raised by this concept of a free labour market is that the search for alterity is partially part of the growing developments of modern capitalism, suggesting that rather than a revolutionary or insurrectionary turn we see different varieties of capitalism, further raising the issue Gibson-Graham presented of capitalism’s overdetermined nature. As capitalism subsumes various societalisation projects and forms, the question of its innate identity becomes increasingly muddied and blurred. The labour market of left-libertarian thought seems largely mythical. The guilds and obligations of the Feudal age largely regulated labour, and the circuitous forms of exchange largely govern labour in today’s capitalist markets. Interestingly, the examples of non or anti-capitalist labour forms that Carson and Holland use are largely by-products of capitalistic governance forms. The Shenzhen economy of knock offs and replicas is built in the factory infrastructure used in the day for international capitalist production networks. The internet technologies and machine tools that are lauded have just as much potential to hierarchise as other production methods have (with Bitcoin and blockchain being but one example), and were developed as much by corporate-state networks as they were by small producers.

This isn’t to say that conceptions of alterity are not important or are unnecessary. Instead it is to live in the real world as that is the world we are talking about when we develop alternative methods for the production of goods and their labour. By mythologising the work of independent contractors and craftsmen as an idyllic whole, we start from premises of utopia that were already unattainable. Going back to the examples of  Carson and Holland, what they show is the ability to develop (at least temporarily) degrees of autonomy within the circuits of exchange that prevail. They present a patchwork of experimental forms that may well develop a competitive ethos and scale upwards, integrating into the multiplicity of the social division of labour. But that social division of labour, with its interrelatedness and differentiation, will not simply disappear as the individuation of labour takes place. Circuits necessitate flows, and the logistical flows of trade and production provide realms of experimentation for lean firms and contractors already (as I’ve noted previously here[9] and here[10]). The aim should not be to further economise these developments, as Polanyi has already noted the practical impossibility of doing so when work and labour are so tied in the cultural and social facets of individual and collective life.

The idyllic free market for labour is an oxymoronic non-sequitur, as it starts from nowhere and doesn’t take us very far from there. It also ignores the potentials already there in the largesse of corporate reality. For example, retail as a sector across the board has fallen in terms of market share and/or operating margins and inventories[11] due to dropping footfall in traditional retailers and the proliferation of user-based platforms for business sales (thus taking on giants like Tesco and Amazon). Here imperfect competition (the actual order of the day) still has the ability to punish gargantuan sloth. In developing alterity then, it is better to bend the curve of accelerative forces further, smoothing the striations as denumerable and non-denumerable sets that develop from capitalist exchange and axiomatisation increase[12]. Left libertarian prescriptions are certainly part of the patches, but can they really go further than the capitalist forefront they develop from. What do they say to those already employed in logistics, manufacturing, resource extraction and other parts of the social division of labour. Will an independent entrepreneurialism previously unfound suddenly blossom in revolutionised conditions in these sectors. These are questions generally left unanswered as fabled markets are instead idealised.

The Carsonian market appears to be a static form, of constant margins and limited price movement. But the reality of crises inducing capitalism suggests experimentality of much greater types, as even monopolistic giants fall and sway. Rather than limiting creative destruction and creating a mythical market of autonomous individuals that is removed from  actual evolutionary and governmental dynamics, it would be better to exploit the bottlenecks already there and reform the institutionalisation either through subversion, heterarchical organisation, movements for competition and anti-trust laws, or all in the hierarchies and patches of modern production circuits. Rising social complexity and accelerative decay mean that unitary models will fall by the wayside.

[1] https://c4ss.org/content/29849

[2] E.W. Holland, Nomad Citizenship

[3] https://c4ss.org/content/29849

[4] http://files.shareholder.com/downloads/INTC/867590276x0xS50863-16-105/50863/filing.pdf


[6] https://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/networks/why-the-biggest-bitcoin-mines-are-in-china

[7] http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/bitcoin-is-money-bitcoin-is-bubble.html

[8] https://medium.com/age-of-awareness/the-bitcoin-constitution-32d49a235be1

[9] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/rethinking-markets-anarchism-capitalism-and-the-state/

[10] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2017/06/12/constructing-the-household-economy/

[11] http://purelytheoreticalresearch.com/upload/Death-of-retail.pdf

[12] E.W. Holland, Nomad Citizenship


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