The Fictitious Commodity: A Study of the U.S. Labor Market, 1880-1940

The Fictitious Commodity: A Study of the U.S. Labor Market, 1880-1940

The Fictitious Commodity: A Study of the U.S. Labor Market, 1880-1940

The Fictitious Commodity: A Study of the U.S. Labor Market, 1880-1940

Synopsis

Covering the development of the American labor market from 1880 to 1946 Korver's volume stresses relations of authority (versus power) in employment. Deemphasizing concepts of market and contract, it focuses on employer/employee and demonstrates the inadequacy of conventional economic discourse on labor market analysis. Stressing the importance of unskilled labor--an oft forgotten category--Korver demonstrates that new immigration coupled unskilled labor with the novel option of citizenship and made it part of the "emerging world of mass production."

Excerpt

A study of the American record in the history and development of labor markets is a challenging enterprise. It is also a hazardous affair, and it seems best to start with the hazards and the ways and means employed in this study to cope with them. the difficulties and uncertainties connected with the study of labor markets reside in the poverty of the dominant theoretical and conceptual instruments. Partly, this is due to the lazy habit of using heuristic and sensitizing concepts as theoretical ones. the concept of power especially seems prey to this faulty procedure. Partly, we have to blame the insufficiency of the ruling concepts of markets and contracts. Although one finds ample recognition of the fact that labor is, indeed, an odd commodity, only rarely is the very concept of labor as a commodity put to the test. Instead, it is asserted that labor is a peculiar member of the series of commodities-- peculiar, but a member all the same.

The issues are connected. Markets and purposive contracts can be analyzed in terms of power and its unequal distribution and vice versa. Markets, contracts, and power, however, are not up to the major task in the analysis of the labor market, the labor contract, and the respective powers of demand and supply. This major task is the explanation not of relations of power but of relations of authority. the law is explicit on the matter: the labor contract establishes above all the legal authority of the employer to direct and command the employee. in reverse, the employee does not sell capacities and even less his powers. He sells, in the celebrated words of J. R. Commons, "his promise to obey commands" (Commons, 1924:284). Accepting authority, then, is of the essence in the labor contract, and this state of affairs defeats the usual discourse on markets and contracts. Also, the legal definition is, for excellent reasons, silent on matters of power. Power is, on any microlevel . . .

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