To better explain what it means to regard labour power as a common-pool resource, it is helpful to first take a step backward to the more conventional notion that labour is a commodity, the price of which “rises and falls according to the demand.” as Edmund Burke claimed over two centuries ago.
Midway between that assertion and the concept of labour power as a common-pool resource is the refutation that labour is not a commodity. That negative claim was officially endorsed in Section 6 of the U.S. Clayton Antitrust Act. 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 everyday experience of working people, economic policies of governments, bargaining priorities of trade unions and theoretical models of economists would seem to conform more to the commodity model than the idealistic but nebulous proclamations of the Clayton Act and the Treaty of Versailles. But 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,” is conducted without remuneration, “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 distinction between labour and labour power is 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 and direction.
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 youth, reared by the previous generation.
It is this combination of definite limits and of the need for continuous recuperation and replacement that gives labour-power the characteristics of a common-pool resource. As Paul Burkett explained, 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 not terminology Marx had used; Burkett adopted it from Elinor Ostrom’s research on governing the commons. 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.
Regardless of whether work is paid or unpaid, the capacity to perform it 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 Burkett points 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.”
The basic idea behind common-pool resources also has a venerable place in the history of classical political economy and neoclassical economic thought. In the second edition of his Principles of Political Economy, Henry Sidgwick observed that “private enterprise may sometimes be socially uneconomical because the undertaker is able to appropriate not less but more than the whole net gain of his enterprise to the community.” From the perspective of the profit-seeking firm, there is no difference between introducing a new, more efficient production process and simply shifting a portion of the costs or risks onto someone else, society or the environment. In fact, the opportunities for the latter may be more readily available.
One example Sidgwick used to illustrate this was “the case of certain fisheries, where it is clearly for the general interest that the fish should not be caught at certain times, or in certain places, or with certain instruments; because the increase of actual supply obtained by such captures is much overbalanced by the detriment it causes to prospective supply.” Sidgwick admitted that many fishermen may voluntarily agree to limit their catch but even in this circumstance, “the larger the number that thus voluntarily abstain, the stronger inducement is offered to the remaining few to pursue their fishing in the objectionable times, places, and ways, so long as they are under no legal coercion to abstain.”
Applying the same principle to the context of labour-power, “fishing in the objectionable times, places and ways” manifests itself in the standard practice of employers considering labour as a “variable cost.” From the standpoint of society as a whole, unemployment is simply a way of shifting the overhead cost of labour onto society as a whole.
Ostrom explained the differences between various kinds of goods by calling attention to two features: whether enjoyment of the good subtracts from the total supply still available for consumption and the difficulty of restricting access to the good. Private goods are typically easy to restrict access to and their use subtracts from total available supply. Public goods are more difficult to restrict access to and their use doesn’t subtract from what is available for others. As mentioned earlier, common-pool goods are similar to private goods in that their use subtracts from the total supply but they are like public goods in that it is more difficult to restrict access to them.
Superficially, it might seem that the individual worker can deny access to an employer offering unsuitable terms. But it is here we need to factor in that peculiarity of labour-power noted by the silk weaver, William Longson that a day’s labour not sold on the day it is offered is “lost to the labourer and to the whole community [emphasis added].” “If his capacity for labour remains unsold,” Marx concurred, “the labourer derives no benefit from it, but rather he will feel it to be a cruel nature-imposed necessity that this capacity has cost for its production a definite amount of the means of subsistence and that it will continue to do so for its reproduction.”
This contingency and urgency of employment effectively undermines the worker’s option of refusing work. The option of refusing work at unsuitable wages or conditions is further undermined by competition from incrementally more desperate job seekers – a population Marx famously referred to as “an industrial reserve army.”
The pervasiveness of unemployment from the paid labour force also stigmatizes and marginalizes unpaid work. For example, “welfare to work” schemes require single parents of young children to take low-paid work that often forces them to depend on unsuitable child care arrangements. Such rules discount the social value of parenting work but are enforced on the grounds that public assistance recipients are employable.
There are no barriers to entry to unpaid work and relatively few credentials awarded for doing it. Thus mobility from unpaid care work to paid employment is impeded. Work done outside the paid labour force rarely counts as work experience. Instead, the time away from paid labour depreciates accumulated skills and experience.
Regarding labour power as a common-pool resource does not automatically result in governing work as a commons. It is instead an important preliminary step that offers a rich conceptual framework for guiding the development of concrete policy proposals, research agendas, strategies and experiments. Such strategies and proposals can borrow from and combine experience in the governance of resources such as fisheries, forests and watersheds alongside lessons from trade union movements of the past and present and from feminist struggles for recognition and valuing of caregiving work.
Innovations that result from synthesizing such diverse experiences may seem disturbingly unfamiliar from the traditional perspective of viewing labour as a commodity. That is why it is important to not only foster an understanding of labour as a common-pool resource but in the process to not lose sight of what the traditional perspective entails and what is the relationship between the two views.