By ‘anything’ I mean ‘my work,’ actually. I’m halfway through the Steinfeld. It’s gotten better but is still pretty slow going. It feels very much like a pretty far remove from a lot of what I’m doing. It’s in the same ballpark I guess but not a work that speaks directly to my project.

Here’s some of how it does relate to what I’m doing. Steinfeld talks about the sale of labor power, in so many words. More specifically, Steinfeld talks about how the sale of labor power was conceptualized in laws. In a way that’s part of what I’m doing, for a later time period and in relation to injury as well.

Employment is partially the sale of labor power and partially the consumption of labor power sold. This has an economic component – the exchange of money for a commodity – and a legal component – a contract, among other things. That breaking down into two components is a fiction, though. Law and economy are not identical, but employment is all at once a legal and an economic relationship. Law shapes the conditions and ramifications of the sale of labor power, and the sale of labor power is part of the social terrain that law has to deal with. The state and economy relationship is part of what I’m on about.

I’m also on about what counts as work. Say I get paid ten bucks an hour to make building materials for construction. I don’t necessarily work the whole time I’m on the clock. I may – or rather one might, me I’m not likely to – but I may not. Some of the time I’ll be swinging a hammer and so on as per my job. Some of the time my boss might make me get him a coke from the vending machine or make me listen to a dumb story he wants to tell. The former is value productive, in that my activity contributes to the company financially (at least potentially). The latter activities are in a sense required – my boss gives me an order, I’m expected to follow it – but are not productive. Steinfeld doesn’t use the terms quite this way, but this could map onto the distinction Steinfeld makes between governance of persons – employers’ rights over the persons of employees – and property in the labor of others. The company benefits from its use of its (temporary) property in my labor when it puts to me to work. My supervisor uses his (and it’s usually his) authority over me as governing me to make me get him a coke, listen to his stories, etc. That’s not good for the bottom line but the boss has that power.

In regard to what counts as work … as I do my job I use up my body. I get tired over the course of the day. I may develop an occupational illness over time because of exposure or the wear and tear of the work on my body. The stuff I do to produce value for my employer and arguably the stuff I do to follow orders from my supervisor is clearly work. I think it’s work to get up in the morning, put clothes on, and commute to work, but my boss isn’t going to agree. I think I should be paid for that time, my boss won’t think so. Likewise with lunch and bathroom breaks. Employers and employees disagree about workers compensation and part of the disagreement was over whether or not the consumption of workers bodies rapidly and unexpectedly should be remunerated. I don’t think anyone saw it as work – it was accidental, in a way – but some people definitely thought it should be paid. In a sense, then, the disagreement was over whether or not that consumption of labor power ought to be required to entail a purchase of labor power as well. And in this case, it was pretty clear that the consumption included the consumption of workers’ bodies.



I’ve finished The Invention of Free Labor now, and started Steinfeld’s second book (Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century). First, an aside. Paolo Virno is among recent Italian post-marxist thinkers to write about why they called the multitude. The idea is pretty nebulous – it’s a family resemblance term, really, which is not a problem, though to my mind the idea is of little use. Among the elements making up the family resemblance is mobility. I think this is one of the more interesting aspects of multitude-talk among theorists, it calls attention to mobility as a quality of the working class. Steinfeld can speak to this. (Additional aside: Steinfeld describes how agricultural production left employers vulnerable at certain times of the year – though he doesn’t used the term, we can see crops as involving a sort of just in time production which on the one hand placed demands on workers that they be flexible to the demands of production and which on the other hand they could use to disrupt production by withholding their labor in demanding times. 111.)

Steinfeld repeatedly discusses efforts to limit workers’ mobility (for instance, 146, 150, 158-163). Some of the measures involved monetary controls – restrictions on back wages, for instance, or paying higher wages – and others involved nonmonetary force such as beatings and the use of criminal law. Workers’ mobility was one structuring element of labor markets: workers left for higher paying jobs when they could, which caused problems for employers. The class composition of the early to mid 19th century among non-enslaved workers was characterized by mobility. (Mobility was a key aspect of the class composition of enslaved workers too, though in different ways – mobility was coerced a fair amount and was coercively limited as well, the latter continued well after formal emancipation.) Steinfeld also suggests that mobility is a way to understand not only taking and leaving jobs, but any other actions of withdrawing labor power, the most classic form being the strike. This implies that employment as such could be thought of as a relationship of managed mobility.

Steinfeld argues that there was nothing inherent to contract labor or to waged labor that predisposed them to being considered free or unfree. He shows how the understanding of each changed over time and according to different groups. What’s more, there was no economic interest on the part of employers (and, implicitly, no dynamic inherent to capitalism) to eliminate legal penalties on labor or to encourage free labor. What’s more, waged labor contained a fair bit of coercion despite the growing restrictions on some of masters’ powers (such as the right to beat employees) and the gradual move away from departure from work being considered a crime (the growing unwillingness of the state to intervene in what was coded as a private and equal relationship between an employee and an employer).


Over time legal limits on workers mobility generally tended to be lifted, as the result of workers’ struggles. This left employers with measures that it’s easy to think of as more narrowly or more properly economic. Steinfeld argues in his later book, I think quite convincingly, that while we probably need that distinction between legal and economic measures, the relationship between the two is not simple. In many respects, law constitutes the economy:

“Economic coercion always has its source in a set of legal rights, privileges, and powers that place one person in a position to force another person to choose between labor and some more disagreeable alternative to the labor, just as so-called legal compulsion does.” (Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century, 19.)

“So-called economic coercion is an artifact of law, not of a nature. Organized markets and economic coercion within markets have their origins in an an act of the state to restrict liberty, the liberty to use and consume resources by establishing the law of private property.” (20.)

“Law pervasively conditions the universe of possibilities that determine the degree of economic compulsion individuals confront in all market societies.” (23.) Steinfeld notes that with regard to labor markets, this includes state restriction and permission on employer and employee tactics (in the US, for instance, secondary boycotts are illegal, limiting the utility of one tactic from workers’ organizations). (24.) Steinfeld takes pains to stress that there are multiple ways that different labor types can be constructed in law, part of the point in his earlier book as well.

Steinfeld also argues that free vs unfree labor is not as illuminating an understanding as seeing a spectrum of coercion, with coercion including both monetary and nonmonetary elements.

Another aside re: Virno et al – another theme in that work is the idea of the general intellect, a term used in Marx’s notes to indicate the role of scientific knowledge in production. Italian commentators have interpreted the term to include the role of workers’ knowledge as well. Steinfeld has a brief mention of workers’ knowhow which relates to this. He details how American entrepeneurs in the mid-1800s imported skilled British factory workers because the employers wanted to set up industry to compete with Britain’s advanced industries. (30.) The knowhow of those workers was a valuable resource to antebellum capitalists. This also fits with Steinfeld’s argument against seeing changes in labor relations as tied to more or less advanced industries or technologies: the American manufacturers and the British factory workers who immigrated to the US were involved in the most technologically advanced of labor processes and yet engaged in what some historians have seen as a backward type of labor relations, indentured servitude.