Sticky Wicket

Labor is “sticky,” the economists say. That’s another way of putting Polanyi’s insight that labor is a fictitious commodity—for a market economy, it is essential that labor be treated as a commodity (i.e., liquified) but also inevitable that it cannot be produced for the market in accordance with demand.

This is why at the moment there’s a telling ambiguity in market theory, manifest in the notion that workers are entrepreneurs selling their skills. This idea attempts to sublimate the labor commodity problem, kicking the can down the road by pretending that the worker has unfettered access to a malleable skill set the way an owner has access to capital equipment (as if such equipment itself does not need to be produced for sale by somebody somewhere).

There are all sorts of far-reaching implications of this impasse, some of which bedevil Marxism no less than they do market theory. But the one that interests me is that labor is not only in structural conflict with capital; it is also in conflict with itself. It cannot be what it must be without externalizing the conditions of its possibility. Nor can the problem be attenuated by means of organization, since the conflict is internal to labor qua labor—or the worker qua worker—rather than to the class as a whole.

One can see this in the dilemmas faced by unions during NAFTA negotiations, where it took the mundane form of a “conflict of interests” between various trades (e.g., textile workers vs. auto workers,  etc.) Forced to choose which jobs to save, unions could—and did—rightly blame multinational corporations or globalization, but this would account for only part of the problem.

Simply put, if workers could behave the way market theory requires, such tradeoffs would not be necessary. Instead, the dilemma would assume the form of straightforward wage (price) pressure, impelling domestic workers to change the skills they offer for sale. Protection would be superfluous; instead, it would suffice to defray the marginal cost of the shift.  But this is precisely the path foreclosed by/as “stickiness.” Some workers can be retrained, but most cannot. Some can relocate, but most cannot. And the transition requires the formation of new market sectors that the transition itself impedes.

What does all this mean? Among other things, it means taking seriously the formation of the labor commodity outside of the economy proper. It’s crucial to see that this is an essential, formal feature of any economic scheme whatsoever, and not merely a “contradiction” within capitalism. Even a system that exempts labor from the rules of exchange will inevitably confront it. This is what it means to say that “all labor is social.” The innovation of commodifying labor vastly amplifies the forces of production, but it neither creates nor can overcome the immanent impasse of “stickiness.” Yet by the same token, organizing labor in unions or revolutionary parties likewise cannot overcome this impasse.

The reason is that it is the form of any economic system as such: the unity of the distinction between economy and its environment by definition includes the “expulsion” of productive capacity (“labor”) into the environment (qua resource). Labor is what an economy cannot produce.


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