Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Wondering About Wage Labor

August 19, 2010 By: Mel Category: Anarchism

I generally stay away from economics, as I’m still doing my 101.  But I’ve been pondering some things and hope you might share your wisdom with me.

If you read my post on How I Became an Anarchist, you know that it was facing the corrupting influence of organizational hierarchies that finally pushed me to anarchism.  Naturally, when I read people who talk about an anarchist future that includes employment, I go a little googly eyed.  I know a lot of anarchists.  And while most of us suck it up and take the paycheck, I can’t think of a person who would do that if they had any other option.

That isn’t to say that anarchists are lazy.  Many are working full time, volunteering, writing, protesting, and spending pretty much every waking hour trying to make the world better.  “Work” is not the problem.  Employment is.  Being an employee means being under the control of someone else.  That’s not my definition.  It comes straight from the IRS.

As someone who works in HR, I have to determine whether or not we can legitimately hire someone as a contractor or if we need them to be an employee.  The question that I must ask when making that determination is, whether or not we will have control over their work.  If we have control, they are an employee.  If we give them a project and let them do it however they want, they might be a contractor.

Contractors work the hours they want, not the hours an employer tells them.  They take however much vacation they want.  They often own the means of production (ie. a carpenter who owns her tools or a programmer who owns her computer).  They are free to contract with other organizations.  They don’t get told how to dress or what they can say on twitter.  They are free.  Employees are not free.

So when someone claims that there will be an anarchist future and it will include employer/employee relationships, I wonder what the hell kind of anarchist would agree to submit to the control of an employer.  And I think back to the central conflict that made me an anarchist in the first place and wonder what kind of anarchy can exist with that kind of power imbalance.  The answer, to my mind, is none.

Sometimes, when reading the arguments of anarcho-capitalists or market anarchists, I get the impression that they are just deluding themselves into thinking that there will always be someone willing to change grandma’s diapers for $7 an hour.  I don’t see any need to argue.  Once all those caregivers become anarchists, they’ll figure out that won’t be the case.  But more often I get the impression that they are really describing a relationship that is a lot more like a contractor.

It would be a gross exaggeration to say that disagreements about labor come down to semantics.  There are central issues of property and currency, for example, which can’t really be separated out from employment.  But I do sometimes think that what a “market anarchist” envisions for his future is more of a contractor/artisan life than that of a captain of industry.

For me, the ideal would be to live in a gift economy.  That said, I am skeptical that we will ever again see a world where most communities operate on that basis.  And even if most of the world lived within gift economy communities, the likelihood of that gift economy extending between communities seems slim.  I don’t think it’s impossible, we have open source and couchsurfing, which you could argue is a gift economy between communities.  Then again, you could also argue that the internet creates new communities of people who gift to one another.  Those communities just aren’t based on geography.

So I guess what I’m wondering is:  Do you market anarchist types envision a world full of artisans trading labor with one another or actual employment relationships?  Do the majority of anarchists, who don’t subscribe to capitalist or market ideologies, envision a world based entirely on a gift economy?  (A New Yorker goes to Hong Kong and has immediate access to what she needs to meet her needs?)  Do you object to any sort of trading of labor for stuff?

Feel free to point me in the direction of further reading on the subject.