Thursday, April 08, 2010

Freedom to Work

The following is from Jon Elster’s Making Sense of Marx (1985):

“Both the freedom to change employer and the freedom to become an employer oneself give rise to ideological illusions that embody the fallacy of composition. The first is the inference from the fact that a given worker is independent of any specific employer to the conclusion that he is free from all employers, that is independent of capital as such, to the conclusion that all workers can achieve such independence. It might look as if the conclusion of the first inference follows validly from the premise of the second, but this is due merely to the word ‘can’ being employed in two different senses. The freedom of the worker to change employer depends, for its realization, mainly on his decision to do so. He ‘can’ do it, having the real ability to do so should he want to. The freedom to move into the capitalist class, by contrast, only can be realized by the worker who is [to quote Marx] an ‘exceedingly clever and shrewd fellow.’ Any worker ‘can’ do it, in the sense of having the formal freedom to do so, but only a few are really able to.

Hence the worker possesses the least important of the two freedoms—namely the freedom to change employer—in the strongest sense of these two senses of freedom. He can actually use it should he decide to. Conversely, the more important freedom to move into the capitalist class obtains only in the weaker, more conditional sense: ‘every workman, if he is an exceedingly clever fellow…can possibly be converted into an exploiteur du travail d’autrui.’ Correlatively, the ideological implications of the two freedoms differ. With respect to the first, the ideologically attractive aspect is that the worker is free in the strong sense, while the second has the attraction of making him free with respect to an important freedom. If the two are confused, as they might easily be, the idea could emerge that the worker remains in the working class by choice rather than necessity.” (p. 211)

Of course Elster doesn’t address the fact that workers often have little or no real freedom (see below) when it comes to changing employers.

And now for your consideration, several formulations of the concept of exploitation:

[T]o exploit a person involves the harmful, merely instrumental utilization of him or his capacities, for one's own advantage or for the sake of one's own ends.”—Allen Buchanan

“Exploitation [in exchange] demands…that there is no reasonably eligible alternative [for the exploitee] and that the consideration or advantage received is incommensurate with the price paid. One is not exploited if one is offered what one desperately needs at a fair and reasonable price.”—Stanley I. Benn

“Exploitation of persons consists in … wrongful behavior [that violates] the moral norm of protecting the vulnerable.”—Robert E. Goodin

“There are four conditions, all of which must be present if dependencies are to be exploitable. First, the relationship must be asymmetrical … Second, … the subordinate party must need the resource that the superordinate supplies … Third, … the subordinate party must depend upon some particular superordinate for the supply of needed resources … Fourth, the superordinate … enjoys discretionary control over the resources that the subordinate needs from him…”—Robert E. Goodin

“The Upper Big Branch mine was shut down temporarily for safety violations 29 times last year, said Kevin Stricklin, a federal mine safety inspector. Massey was cited for 515 violations at the mine in 2009 and 124 so far this year.”

It’s clear that whatever sanctions Massey faces for these violations they’re seen simply as a necessary (and thus internalized) cost of doing business. “[T]he mine owner, Massey Energy Co., has come under increasing fire for a spotty record of safety operations at Upper Big Branch, including 10 citations this year for inadequate ventilation of explosive gases.”

Setting aside the gratuitously patronizing description (‘scratching his bare belly and sucking on a Marlboro’) of the miner, consider:

Bobby Gray was beat. He’d just worked the nine-hour overnight shift at a coal mine on Seng Creek on Wednesday, and he was due back at 4 p.m. But at least he was alive and safe. “Thank God,” said his wife, Michelle. “I worry every time he goes down in that mine that he won’t come home at the end of his shift.”

Three days after an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine killed 25 miners, dozens of other mines along the Big Coal River are still running, still sending men deep into the earth to scratch out a living. The deaths of their friends and neighbors stunned other miners here but it didn’t keep them out of the mines. Coal families fear the mines and often resent mine operators, but they know what pays the bills. “There’s nothing else around here,” said Gray, scratching his bare belly and sucking on a Marlboro after napping between shifts. “If I didn’t have this job, we’d be living in a trailer.” [....] Bobby Gray would prefer to work at a union mine. “They have safety reps doing what they’re supposed to do to keep you safe,” he said. But at 4 p.m., he intended to head off to the night shift at the mine on Seng Creek. “I need the work,” he said. [emphasis added]

I doubt Bobby Gray or his co-workers will be seeking the assistance of the National Right to Work organization. On the other hand, they might be receptive to the efforts of union organizers.

Sources (Los Angeles Times):,0,1908717,full.story and,0,3285951.story?track=rss

(Cross-posted at


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