“Labour is not a commodity”. Mapping out assumptions on ‘labour’ in the co-operative movement

I’m approaching co-operative higher education in terms of ‘labour, property, and pedagogy‘ (a revised, refereed journal paper should be published early next year). With this in mind, I’ve been thinking about a recent Call for Papers for a conference on ‘Co-operatives and the world of work‘ (2015) and recalled the World Declaration on Worker Co-operatives (2005), which references the International Co-operative Alliance’s (ICA) Statement on the Co-operative Identity (1995) and the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) 2002 recommendation on the Promotion of Co-operatives (see also the ILO’s recently published guide).

The ILO recommendation begins by recalling one of its basic principles: “Labour is not a commodity”.

This is an interesting statement, completely contrary to Marx’s theory of labour power (the capacity or potential to labour) being the essential, value-creating commodity in capitalist society. So where does the statement come from? Is it theoretically grounded or an aspiration?

The ILO recommendation on the Promotion of Co-operatives refers to the Declaration of Philadelphia (1944), which reveals that “Labour is not a commodity” is not just any old principle, but the first principle of the ILO. Wikipedia tells us that the 1944 Declaration reconstituted the ILO to become the first specialised agency of the UN, so the first agency of the UN was founded on the first principle that “labour is not a commodity”. The history of the ILO and the background to the demands of the 1944 Declaration lie, unsurprisingly, in the growth of the international labour movement itself, starting with the International Working Men’s Association in 1864.

The specific origins of the phrase “labour is not a commodity” has been explored by Paul O’Higgins (1997). He traces the phrase back to the political economist, John Kells Ingram, who gave a speech at the TUC Congress in Dublin (1880). Here’s the relevant section:

“Our views of the office of the workman must also be transformed and elevated. The way in which his position is habitually contemplated by the economists, and indeed by the public, is a very narrow, and therefore a false, one. Labour is spoken of as if it were an independent entity, separable from the personality of a workman. It is treated as a commodity, like corn or cotton-the human agent, his human needs, human nature, and human feelings, being kept almost completely out of view. Now there are, no doubt, if we carry our abstractions far enough certain resemblances between the contract of employer and employed and the sale of a commodity. But by fixing exclusive, or even predominant, attention on these, we miss the deepest and truly characteristic features of the relation of master and workman-a relation with which moral conditions are inseparably associated… By viewing labour as a commodity, we at once get rid of the moral basis on which the relation of employer and employed should stand, and make the so-called law of the market the sole regulator of that relation.”

Influenced by Ingram’s address in 1880, the American Trade Union leader, Samuel Gompers, later included the assertion in the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 (‘The labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce.’) and again when Gompers worked on the drafting of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles (article 427, ‘labour should not be regarded merely as a commodity or article of commerce.’), which first established the ILO. O’Higgins documents (see pp. 229-230) how Gompers worked with Edward J. Phelan on the Treaty of Versailles. Phelan worked at the newly formed ILO from 1919 and between 1941-48 was its Director General, during which time he helped draft the Declaration of Philadelphia in 1944, ensuring that the first principle of the ILO’s new foundational document was that “labour is not a commodity”.

O’Higgins concludes his article with a neat summary which indicates the continuing power and purpose of the statement:

“I think it must be recognised that the principle that ‘Labour is not a Commodity’ represents one of the most fundamental principles of international labour law. It was first formulated by the Irishman, John Kells Ingram; first given judicial content by another Irishman, Henry Bournes Higgins, and it was preserved as part of the Constitution of the reconstituted International Labour Organisation as the result of the efforts of another Irishman, Edward J. Phelan, at Philadelphia in 1944. It can, therefore, be claimed with some justification as a major Irish contribution to international labour law. Its significance is not merely historical but remains today of vital importance. Today, the International Labour Organisation is under considerable pressure to accept the doctrine that market forces are the prime means of improving the economic lot of working people, despite all the historical evidence to the contrary. As long as the ILO does not amend the Declaration of Philadelphia, it is constitutionally committed to an opposite and contradictory doctrine. The principle that ‘Labour is not a Commodity’ is readily available for progressive use by both English courts and by the European Court of Justice.”

So, it seems clear that the principle of “labour is not a commodity” is based on Ingram’s moral assertion which was itself a reaction to the prevailing theories of political economy that placed an emphasis on the role of the market in determining the value of labour.  This was during a period of increasing growth and influence of the international labour movement and the formal recognition of trade unions as labour’s legal representation and counterpart to the incorporation of capital.  It was an attempt to humanise an understanding of labour which had been abstracted in theory and in law. It seems that Ingram wasn’t offering an alternative theory of labour, but appealing to a moral vision of the capital-relation that was not solely regulated by the ‘market’ (i.e. the production of value).

It is, as Postone would say, an assertion from the standpoint of labour, rather than a critical theory of labour.

What I find interesting though, is that despite these origins which focus on the conditions of labour rather than fundamentally question the form labour takes in capitalism, worker co-operatives do offer a self-conscious form of association that tackles both wage work and private property head on. Worker co-ops (this is not an argument for consumer co-operatives) in the UK can do this through the creation of a social or collective form of property that is neither public nor privately owned, and by drawing from the (variable) surplus they make rather than being paid a fixed wage. Although similar to wage labour or collective self-employment, worker co-ops are progressive in that their constitution attempts to dissolve the capital-labour relation within the confines of the collectively owned and democratically managed firm itself, while remaining subject to the capital-labour relation in the market.

From a Marxist perspective, worker co-ops do not overcome the dual form that capitalist labour takes (concrete and abstract labour), because they operate within the social world of capital in which individual, divided labour is reduced to a qualitatively homogenous social form. But in dialectical terms, they do represent a form and means of association between people (i.e. the working class) that is against the capital-labour relation. Not surprisingly, worker co-ops struggle to sustain themselves as safe spaces from the subsumption of capital, the wage-relation and private property, but as Egan has argued, “The potential for degeneration [of worker co-ops into capitalist firms] must be seen to lie not within the cooperative form of organisation itself, but in the contradiction between it and its capitalist environment. Degeneration is not, however, determined by this contradiction.” (82) That is, the historical specificity of capitalism might constrain worker co-ops but does not determine them. (75) The dialectic is not simply a methodological position but the movement of history itself, “being in a fluid state, in motion”. (Capital, Vol. 1, 103) Worker co-ops are a form of the negation of capital and “its inevitable destruction”. (ibid)

Worker co-operatives that operate without wage labour and private property offer an organisational form which establishes in practice that “labour is not a commodity” in a way that is more grounded than the moral basis of Ingram’s views. Of course, they do not entirely transcend capitalism but, as Marx recognised, have arisen dialectically out of the contradictions of capitalism, demonstrating that “hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form”. (Marx, 1864)

Although the World Declaration on Worker Co-operatives refers to the ILO’s recommendation which has as its first principle that “labour is not a commodity”, the Declaration asserts something much more radical: a statement on a form of labour that seeks to undermine the capital-labour relation rather than establish an improved moral understanding between capitalist and worker.

Leave a Reply