Irrational Choice? on Freedom, Coercion and the Labour Contract

By Scott, Alan | Capital & Class, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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Irrational Choice? on Freedom, Coercion and the Labour Contract


Scott, Alan, Capital & Class


While recognizing the new freedoms' of the labour contract, Marx and Marxist historians and theorists have emphasized its coercive origins and implications. In contrast, Weber and Simmel are struck by the extent to which rural labourers appear to opt for the labour contract even where this is not in their material interest. The article examines this debate and its continued significance for understanding contemporary changes in the nature of work and employment contracts. It argues that the significance of personal' freedom has to be acknowledged in analysing these changes.

"Capitalism in all its brutality was stalking the land, convincing of its liberating role those who wished to be convinced." (Hill 1996: 40). Christopher Hill's observation in Liberty Against the Law does not refer, though well it may, to Britain in the closing decades of the twentieth century, but to the seventeenth century. The sentence that follows is hardly less resonant: `propagandists were upset by the failure of the poor to understand that it was in their interests to quit the relative security of the village in order to work for others elsewhere.' It is, of course, no longer the security of our villages but of our jobs that we are being exhorted to leave, but the argument of Hill's 'propagandists' has remained constant: capitalism equals liberation (for which now read `freedom of choice'). Hill's work, like that of other British Marxist historians, takes its cue from the chapters on primitive accumulation in Volume One of CapitaL Not choice, but force is the key to understanding the processes by which wage labour was created; not freedom, but a new more efficient form of exploitation its outcome. Hill's emphasis upon the destruction of traditional rights and customs carries on the historical research programme initiated by Marx, and, as for Marx, historical analysis serves a philosophical end: the critique of the notions of freedom, choice and liberation which, were they allowed to stand, would sustain a neo-liberal interpretation of both the origins and the nature of capitalism. The philosophical purpose underlying Marx's historical analysis, and those inspired by it, has in its turn been systematically set out by G.A. Cohen ( 1981 ) who is surely right to argue that it is only through this combination of historical and philosophical argument that we can hope to counter the claims made on capitalism's behalf.

Yet there are grounds for being uneasy with the thought that this historical/philosophical critique of personal freedom clinches the matter. One source of this unease is already apparent in Hill's observation. Why should anyone have wished to be convinced? Or rather, why should anyone who did not have a realistic expectation that they would be among the winners have had such a wish? And yet the efforts of the propagandists have not always been directed at the obvious winners, where such efforts would perhaps have been best rewarded but least needed. The unease is evident too in the awkwardness with which the answer to this question has sometimes been formulated, namely through notions of `false consciousness', 'ideology' or `false needs'. Such formulations have run into all kinds of trouble which I shall not spell out here (but see Rosen 1996). That they were necessary at all is evidence that somewhere the power of the propagandists' argument was recognized and had to be explained, or explained away.

My concern then is with the need to understand the inner workings of this 'propaganda' with all its (at least rhetorical) power and its hold on the imagination of those who wish to be convinced. I want to suggest that critique-even in historicalphilosophical tandem-does not bring us so far inside the freedom argument that we can fully appreciate both the appeal and the historical significance of these notions of 'freedom', 'liberation' and 'choice'. Immanent understanding must precede immanent critique; the challenge being to achieve the former without thereby forgetting the latter.

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