A matter of discretion : an essay on the US labour market

A. Korver

    Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


    <TT>This a study on the labour market. More in particular it is a study on the supply of labour, the modes of its formation and its internal structure and dynamics. The avowed goal of the study is to elucidate a concept of labour power in which its commodity-status is played down and its status of submission highlighted. In consequence, next to market forces as such, the quality of citizenship, the legal codification of the employee status, and the nature of the labour contract are treated as key variables in the description of the labour market.</TT><p><TT>Economic theory often displays a somewhat apologetic attitude concerning the labour market. It is not hard to guess why, for although the demand for labour can be explained within the rationality parameters of firms, branches, and even whole economic systems, the supply of labour is not so easily classifiable. A host of contingencies -traditionalism of labour, the imperfect mobility of labour as a factor of production, provisions of the welfare state, and in general the inverse supply curve of labour are some of the better known instanceshave been brought to the fore to save the systemic concept of a market for labour and to acknowledge the peculiar behaviour of the supply of labour at the same time. The present study of course respects the idea of the market, if only for the rather obvious reason that labour does have a price or, for that matter, that the employment of labour depends primarily on economic parameters. But what is denied is that the supply of labour can best be approached in the systemic language of the market.</TT><p><TT>The sociology of labour markets has been more sensitive to the difficulties of analyzing the supply of labour in the systemic concepts of market society. On the whole, however, it has tended to accept the economic framework as a datum of the problem and has, in so doing, been stronger in stressing the social and historical problems and impediments associated with the full institutionalization of the labour market than in questioning the concept of the labour market itself. Labour market sociology has upheld the fiction of labour as a peculiar commodity, where the present study shares with Karl Polanyi the conviction of the reality of labour as a fictitious commodity.</TT><p><TT>The labour market is in this study approached as an area of discretionary action. The concept of the employer's recruitment discretion is one of its dimensions, and, although not commonly used, quite compatible with the existing body of knowledge on the functioning of labour markets. The situation is different with what I have called the 'mobility discretion' on the part of the worker. There is no ready equivalent for this expression in the literature. Of course, that labour may move from job to job, or even refuse to work at all, is nowhere denied. It is in fact one corroary of its status as a commodity: the freedom to enter into a contractual relation or to decline to do so. Changing employers is one way of improving one's situation; it is also the one sanction that each individual worker has at his disposal to express dissatisfaction with existing conditions. Just like the purchaser of a commodity can change brands the supplier of labour power can vote with his feet and add a little to the statistics on labour turnover.</TT><p><TT>Labour turnover and career mobility are internal to the economics of the labour market. Assimilable as well are switches from wage employment to an independent professional or entrepreneurial status, for these still are within the orbit of monetary accounts, calculations, and rationality. When subsistence -the economic relevance of non-economic institutions- comes in, however, the economic approach is getting into dire straits. Subsistence may mean a non-monetary arrangement men have created to take care of their material needs. The self-sufficient farming family-unit is the standard and remarkably dated textbook example. Subsistence today is rarely self-sufficiency independent from market and money transactions. But it is not absent. The formation of labour-power, insofar as this takes place in the family, is one important instance of subsistence. Migrating back and forth between country and town, agriculture and industry, autonomy and wage-dependency, may signal the force of subsistence as well. And even the so-called informal economy, tapping the potential of what Illich calls 'useful unemployment', may be seen as an index of the persistence of subsistence.</TT><p><TT>The concept of the mobility discretion is intended to include the push and pull of subsistence. It serves a two-fold function in that respect. First, I argue that the presence of lavish options for subsistence beyond the labour market creates not just a shortage of labour but an enormous problem of order in capitalist enterprise as well. Second, I argue that the disappearance of subsistence as a viable option beyond the labour market does not reduce its importance for describing the labour market. Its function of course has changed. The economy as system, as much as it is constantly at war with subsistence just as constantly reproduces it. where options for autonomous subsistence are available recruitment of wage workers is mainly limited to persons whose citizenship status forbids them the freedom to move about autonomously: women, children, and prisoners are the reputed historical examples. Where options for subsistence have been destroyed or have become sources of poverty rather than plenty the persons with weak citizenship status are no longer the first recruits. Instead they tend to be displaced to the outer ring of the labour market. The transformation of subsistence from autonomy into poverty and relations of direct personal dependence is but the other side of the development that transformed weak citizenship from a primary source of recruitment to an index of subsistence and marginal labour market position.</TT><TT></TT><p><TT>This argument, although important in itself, is not pursued in depth. The main emphasis of the study is on the establishment of the employee status as such and I have chosen to 'bracket' where possible differences in citizenship status in order to highlight the shortcomings of the commodity metaphor for labour especially in the case of identical citizenship statuses. This, it must be emphasized, has been methodological convenience more than conceptual rigour and every once in a while I have felt compelled to reintroduce differential citizenship statuses as part of the argument.</TT><p><TT>If one takes the idea of labour power as a commodity seriously one should expect on the one hand a clear concept of alienable property in labour power and on the other a defensible notion of freedom of contract. Both are lacking. One needs the concept of property, for without it there is preciously little to sell. But then, what is sold in the exchange creating the bond between worker and employer? It is, obviously, not a 'good'. Nor is it a 'service', for a service creates a relationship between an agent and a client. The employer, however grateful he may be, is not a client. Sold is not even a 'promise', for promises are tradeable objects and allow for very detailed specification indeed. At most we find in the labour contract the 'promise' to accept and work according to the instructions and the command of an employer. A very peculiar promise' thus, the peculiarity of which does not stem from its promising perspective but simply from the submissiveness it embodies. If one wants to stick to the notion of exchange one is forced to admit that the exchange involves the acceptance of authority for the payment of wages.</TT><p><TT>Authority is not marketable, however. Like most things it may command a price. Like the supply of labour power its production function escapes reliable quantification. Moreover it cannot itself be the object of exchange between employer and worker. The worker must agree with the authority of the employer, the employer cannot give up his authority title, it be then that both the statuses of employee and employer are rejected. In any other case the rule is that, preceding the freedom of contract, the statuses of employer and employee must already have been codified. Labour power, apparently, cannot complete the journey from status to contract. Why, to put it somewhat rhetorically, involves the sale of labour power the person of the labourer where for all other commodities one cannot expect more than a sample of a type? If I call for the plumber I am not sure whether the plumber will come or his helper. The helper, however, cannot send his brother, not to his employer and not to me, although the helper's brother may possess all the required qualifications.</TT><p><TT>The larger part of this book is about the USA. This flows from the assumptions just stated. The USA is an excellently suitable country for the study of industrial order, since in the early days of its capitalist expansion it suffered from a shortage of labour occasioned by the one and only original American dream of the 'frontier'. The USA was not burdened with a history of feudal relations. In consequence, what status elements were introduced in the labour contract were not due to survivals from an unmastered past, but to the necessities of creating and maintaining an employment relationship as such. Of course, the reliance on the labour of women, children, and prisoners does show that the American economic history shares at least some common experiences with the early capitalist development in the countries of Europe or, for that matter, Japan. But unique in the USA was the rather widespread and early distribution of full citizenship rights to the male, adult, and white population, immigrants not excepted and on average irrespective of requirements of property or literacy. If the conditions for the free labour contract and a meaningful notion of property in labour power were to hold, the USA had to be their material realization.</TT><p><TT>The conditions did not hold and politics and the law were among the reasons it didn't. They were not the only reasons of course. Economic developments cannot be dismissed so easily. These developments, I have trimmed them down in the main to three interdependent groups. The first of these is the development of the productive process, its organization, and the skill demands that flow from it. The second group is the development and the standardization of worker qualifications through the educational system and its branches. And the third is the labour market in the more restricted meaning of the word: demand and supply, the constraints relating to public and private law and the changes therein over time. The description of economic developments is far from complete therefore. Only those aspects have been selected that have a rather direct bearing on the labour market.</TT><p><TT>The architecture of the study is circular. It starts and ends with a critique of labour markets as integral elements in the system of the economy. The first part of the book discusses the difficulties in dealing with the supply of labour as an economic variable. The second part of the book focuses on the developments in the USA between, roughly, 1880 and 1938. This is the long period of the large scale introduction of standardization in the American economy, notably represented by Taylorism and Fordism, of the so-called new immigration, its interruption and demise since World War I, of the New Deal codification of the status of labour power in public law, and the effects on the freedom of contract the rise of public law entailed. The third part, finally, explores the notion of the labour market as the closure of the economic system, first, by looking at the contribution of sociologically minded economists such as Smith and Marx, second, by criticizing the very explicit attempt of Luhmann to clarify the ins and outs of the economy as a system, and third by taking to task some of the more outspoken recent contributions to the theory of social closure.</TT><p><TT></TT>
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Mok, A.L., Promotor, External person
    Award date23 May 1989
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789072015235
    Publication statusPublished - 1989


    • labour
    • labour economics
    • employment
    • work
    • organization of work
    • work study
    • USA

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