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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Friday, August 19, 2005

Contract Feudalism Update

Larry Gambone already mentioned, on the VCM's discussion list, an NLRB ruling that permitted employers to prohibit employees from hanging out off the job. Here, from Confined Space, is the gist of it from a Harold Meyerson piece at the Washington Post:

On June 7 the three Republican appointees on the five-member board that regulates employer-employee relations in the United States handed down a remarkable ruling that expands the rights of employers to muck around in their workers' lives when they're off the job. They upheld the legality of a regulation for uniformed employees at Guardsmark, a security guard company, that reads, "[Y]ou must NOT . . . fraternize on duty or off duty, date or become overly friendly with the client's employees or with co-employees."

Meyerson invokes the specter of contract feudalism, without mentioning the word:

The brave new world that emerges from this ruling looks a lot like the bad old world where earls and dukes had the power to control the lives of their serfs -- not just when the serfs were out tilling the fields but when they retired in the evening to the comfort of their hovels.

And of course, the motivation is pretty clear: it's a lot harder to get an organizing committee going when workers are forbidden to get together and talk union off the job. Just like you need a policy against workers comparing their hourly wage. Same reason plantation owners forbade slaves to own drums, if you've ever read Roots. Nothing good ever comes of letting workers talk to each other.

My reaction on first seeing the story, as a market anarchist, was that employers were technically within their rights to make such demands. And no doubt somebody's ready to blurt out "but they're not forced to work there--if they don't like it, they can go somewhere else." As Lionel Hutz would say, that's the best kind of true: technically true. As the vulgar libertarians at ASI and The Freeman never tire of reminding us, people work in shit conditions because it's their "best available option."

The problem, from my standpoint, was that the bargaining power of labor in the present labor market lets them get away with it. And the more I've thought about it in recent days, the more it's occurred to me that this deserves some comment--not so much on the legal issue of whether the state should "allow" employers to exercise this kind of control, but on the question of what kind of allegedly free marketplace would allow it.

The question is, just how godawful do the other "options" have to be before somebody's fucking desperate enough to take a job under such conditions? How do things get to the point where people are lined up to compete for jobs where they can be forbidden to associate with coworkers away from work, where even people in shitty retail jobs are expected to be on-call 24/7, where they can't attend political meetings without keeping an eye out for an informer, where they can't blog under their own names without living in fear that they're a Google away from termination?

I'm not a friend of federal labor regulations. We shouldn't need federal regulations to stop this sort of thing from happening. In a free market where land and capital weren't artificially scarce and expensive compared to labor, jobs should be competing for workers. What's remarkable is not that the NLRB would issue such a ruling, but that the job market is so abysmal that something like this could become an issue in the first place.

A few decades ago, this wouldn't have even become an issue in the average blue collar job, because no self-respecting person would consider taking a job where the employer claimed such intrusive authority over his employees' private lives.

The only area of the job market where such things were expected, before the 1970s, was the white collar salariat of "professional" employees. (I'm leaving out anomalies like Southern sharecroppers and workers in company towns, where employees were considered to be "property" of the employer to a large extent; but by the middle of the 20th century, that was looked on as a relic of the past, not the wave of the future--as it's becoming now). For a good fictional example, take a look at Darren Stevens on the TV series Bewitched. He was a white collar "professional" in the advertising industry. Most of the comic situations on the show hinged on frequent "visits" to Darren's house by his boss, Larry Tate, a partner in the advertising firm, and Darren's need to entertain clients at home. Darren was constantly having to explain his unusual lifestyle to Larry, who obviously felt entitled to an explanation. And that intrusion in itself wasn't meant to be viewed as comical by the audience; it was just a set-up for all the wacky comic situations resulting from Samantha's witchcraft. The background itself was just based on a common understanding of what life was like for the "organization man."

And as a comedy of "how the other half lives," it was especially comical to the blue-collar manufacturing worker just because it was so unlike his own way of life. Imagine a master machinist in the IAM tolerating constant drop-in visits from a foreman, who felt entitled to demand explanations for this or that odd thing going on in the machinist's home! Such demands, to put it mildly, would likely have been met with corporal rebuke.

But except for a very small and shrinking remnant of unionized manufacturing workers, "we're all organization men now." The ethos of white collar "professionalism" has contaminated a major part of wage labor. It even extends to unskilled retail work, as indicated by the recent example of Wal-Mart.

Workers who have had regular shifts at the store for years now have to commit to being available for any shift from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. If they can’t make the commitment by the end of this week, they’ll be fired.

“It shouldn’t cause any problem, if they [store employees] are concerned about their customers,” Knuckles said.

The unskilled service worker is expected to make the welfare of the customer the focus of his life, on and off the job, to an extent that only a small proportion of white collar professionals did four decades ago. The average wage-worker, in an increasing number of service jobs, is expected to define himself by his job in a way that only a small number of organization men did back then.

Things didn't just "get" this way. They had help. The reduced bargaining power of labor, and the resulting "contract feudalism"--i.e., the erosion of the traditional boundaries between work and private life, and increasing management control even of time off the clock--are the result of concerted political efforts over the past thirty years.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


have you ever written about the basic income guarantee movement as a way to break the back of capital?

August 19, 2005 3:32 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

I've referenced it and linked to others' defenses of it (see the Carnival of the Uncapitalists I hosted July 18), but never advocated it myself. I will say, though, that if I had to go along with Georgist "community collection of site rent," then I'd prefer to return it as a citizens' dividend and fund public services with user fees.

August 19, 2005 4:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always think it's worth pointing out when people get it wrong about what feudalism was and did. It did not give privileges all one way, and serfs were not obliged to live their lives that way (unless the system was breaking down). That sort of thing was as unworkable as officers strolling into a sergeants' or even ORs' mess uninvited (unless in the course of duty). On the basic income thing, there are two kinds of problem: transitional (including sometimes the amount of money circulating); and that it is unworkable when set at levels that actually do provide enough to live on (it works only when the equilibrium is not enough but allows everybody to price themselves into work at otherwise inadequate typical wages). An

August 20, 2005 2:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And, as I was about to add when I was so rudely truncated by the software, a basic income has inefficiencies and perils from being churned through a controlling government too.

August 20, 2005 3:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What concerted political effort has there been to destroy unions? To me, it looks like unions just aren't terribly helpful to information workers like they are in an industrial workers. God knows, when I was a computer programmer, I would have laughed off the idea of joining a union, paying dues, and wasting my time at (more) meetings. I still would.

OBTopic: Whether or not there's an evil capitalist conspiracy (and I doubt there is), this company has the right to set whatever fraternisation conditions it likes. No government has any power to tell them they cannot.

August 20, 2005 10:16 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


I guess I should start including a standard stipulation, when I use the term "feudalism," that I refer to the common understanding associated with late medieval/early modern times--and not to the relatively benign and decaying system of the high middle ages. Arguably the enclosures and capitalist transformation of land tenure laws were carried out (in what Immanuel Wallerstein calls "the long sixteenth century") as a ruling class response to the increasing peasant-proprietor character of society in the high middle ages.

Josh, concerning what the company has a right to do, I believe I explicitly agreed with you in my post. Organized capital has the legal and moral *right* to do a lot of stuff, that it couldn't get away with doing nearly as much of if it were controlled by a free market--which is pretty much the point of my post.

On union busting, the potential was there from the beginning of Taft-Hartley. It just wasn't used until the ruling class consensus decided corporate liberalism wasn't working any more. Liberal NLRB attitudes toward what employers can do (like the most recent one), coupled with increasingly restrictive interpretations of Taft-Hartley regulation of organizing activity, together create an anti-labor framework. By way of analogy, I'd say employers were within their rights to blacklist workers who demanded fair treatment in the early industrial period. But when this "right" was exercised in a context where Combination laws were enforced against workers, but not employers, the overall effect was clearly statist conspiracy against labor.

August 21, 2005 9:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So why do people accept crappy working conditions?

Kevin proposes that state-enforced obstacles eliminate viable alternatives, and has provided numerous examples of these obstacles. Unfortunately, other explanations are given for why people accept crappy working conditions, some of which are insulting to any humanitarian.

Specifically, I'm thinking of the proposal that low-wage workers are stupid and lazy and they accept crappy work conditions because they are incapable of any self-motivated or self-directed work. They demand instant-gratification so they can't undertake any sort of long-term projects, and they don't have the knowledge or concentration to plan projects that will take months or even years to yield benefits.

Unfortunately, I have to admit that most Americans (and apparently most Europeans, and most humans in most countries) do seem to be stupid and lazy. Many champions of unrestrained, elitist capitalism appeal to such sentiments.

Anyway, I need to wrap this up without writing everything I wanted to write...

To counter this, I think we need to examine a few issues. First, how much does this matter? Is the typical person really so stupid and lazy that he can't make it on his own, or are artificial barriers placed so high that only the most industrious and inventive individuals can get over them?

Second, and of even greater interest, how much stupidity and laziness is the result of capitalist economic structures and/or just cultural leftovers from primitive societies. It seems that many people can learn from an early age that taking the initiative is a good way to get into trouble, and that one can only act with permission from "the man". Also, in a hyper-competitive (i.e., capitalist) society, there can be social pressure to avoid achievement, since one's own success generally comes at the expense of one's peers.

I plan to delve into the psychological research to see what I can find about this, but I don't expect it to be a quick process.

August 21, 2005 6:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

KC, I know what you refer to when you put "feudalism". I only want to resist this usage for the same reason that "free trade" shouldn't be used of what happens today - it obstructs access to understanding and tapping into the real thing rather than the substitute. Expressions like "contract feudalism" hinder people from understanding the real manorial and feudal systems that formed a source of inspiration to the likes of Chesterton and Belloc. While not wholly applicable in a modern context, abusing the language produces the Orwellian newspeak effect of not being able to access the concepts. The true feudal system was far more anarchist in nature than people realise nowadays; its defects related to human nature and assymetrical boun

August 22, 2005 2:14 AM  
Blogger Vache Folle said...

One way to deal with abuses of this nature would be to avoid trading with companies that offend our notions of fairness. Wal-Mart will never get another dime from me. Publicizing such abuses and shaming the companies would be appropriate responses.

August 22, 2005 6:20 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


I think the educational system inculates the drive for the kind of "success" that involve climbing within the corporate system, while teaching passivity in regard to all goals outside the corporation. The schools teach people to do whatever is necessary to please an authority figure to get that gold star on their paper or another line on the resume, but to view self-teaching and independently-determined goals as worthless.


I understand what you're saying. I take that attitude toward rehabilitating "free market" because the term is identified with an existing political agenda. So there's some use in challenging both the neoliberals' appropriation of the term, and the statist left's acceptance of that usage. But no political movement is cloaking itself in feudal symbolism or claiming it as a slogan for themselves ("that's the way our great American feudalist system works"). I'm attempting to take back "free market" from the vulgar libertarians and neoliberals precisely because a real free market would promote desirable ends and undermine the power of those currently abusing the term.

On the other hand, the term "contract feudalism" is quite useful in creating a mental picture in the general public.

I will, however, probably start accompanying use of the term with a link to your caveat, and a note that it's not a historically accurate notion of actual feudalism.

Vache Folle,

I've got a sticker on my truck that says "Wal-Mart free since 1996: Kick the Habit." There's a picture of a dead yellow smiley face with a bleeding hole in its forehead.

August 22, 2005 11:18 AM  

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