I just started Robert Steinfeld’s book The Invention of Free Labor. It’s good so far. Here’s what I take from it at this point. I’ll be putting my notes here as I read, updating this post.

Depending on the definition of terms, voluntarily contracting for the sale of labor does not have to mean that labor is free. Steinfeld defines “free labor” as voluntarily contracted and with no state sanction for failure to perform the labor. Free labor means no criminal penalities for leaving the job – the state doesn’t intervene in this directly. Capitalism does not have to involve free labor in Steinfeld’s sense. Capitalism is (historically, was) compatible with indentured servants – voluntarily entered into contracted labor – as well as slavery. It’s common to associate indenture with slavery nowadays (I know I do). Indentured service was not always associated with unfreedom or slavery, though it was in Steinfeld’s terms unfree. It was only after the US Civil War that indentured servitude became strongly linked with slavery in a strong sense culurally. As I’ve argued before, capitalist enterprises can use slaves while still being slaves. Whether or not capitalism as a mode of production could exist with the only or primary form of labor as enslaved labor I’m not sure about and don’t have an opinion right now. I am convinced that capitalism can exist without labor being free or with the predominant form of labor not being free in Steinfeld’s sense of free labor, and that early capitalism was characterized primarily by unfree labor.

I’d have to check to be sure but I believe Marx’s discussion of labor in v1 of Capital as free labor, I think Marx is referring primarily to the voluntary nature of the contract to sell labor power, I don’t think he spends much time on the sort of distinction that Steinfeld makes – the role of the state in enforcing fulfilment of labor contracts or not enforcing labor contracts.

I don’t think Steinfeld has made this point yet but I’ve read this *about* Steinfeld, perhaps by him talking about his work – the transition to the predominance of free labor in Steinfeld’s sense involved a retraction of state power. Where the state used to act to enforce labor contracts, it stopped doing so. The dominance of free labor involved a step back of state power, even though the state remained crucial in upholding capitalism – regulating the labor movement, the combination acts and so forth and the state was integral to creating capitalism, as in Marx’s discussion of primitive accumulation. With regard to primitive accumulation, enclosure and so forth created a pool of people who needed to live by the sale of their labor but as Steinfeld argues (without reference to enclosure so far) there’s no inherent reason why the sale of labor has to be free in his sense of free labor.