This piece by Mike Konczal and Patrick Iber on Polanyi’s double movement, Trumpism, and the difference between left neo-liberalism and the social democratic left is fantastic. Go read it – I’m not going to try to excerpt from it, and certainly don’t think I can improve on it. One of the things that it does, which I’ve wanted to write about for a little while, is to pick up on Polanyi’s notion that labor and land are fictitious commodities – that is, that much of the problem with classical liberalism is that it presumes them to be commodities when really they are not. Konczal and Iber pick out a key quote:
Labor is only another name for a human activity which goes with life itself, which in its turn is not produced for sale but for entirely different reasons, nor can that activity be detached from the rest of life, be stored or mobilized; land is only another name for nature, which is not produced by man; actual money, finally, is merely a token of purchasing power which, as a rule, is not produced at all, but comes into being through the mechanism of banking or state finance
One very good example of how treating labor as a commodity goes wrong is ‘clopenings’ – near back-to-back shifts, combined with the practice of many employers of requiring their workers to agree to irregular shift work where they may not know until very shortly before when they are supposed to turn up to work. Steven Greenhouse wrote a strong piece on this for the New York Times:
On the nights when she has just seven hours between shifts at a Taco Bell in Tampa, Fla., Shetara Brown drops off her three young children with her mother. After work, she catches a bus to her apartment, takes a shower to wash off the grease and sleeps three and a half hours before getting back on the bus to return to her job. … Employees are literally losing sleep as restaurants, retailers and many other businesses shrink the intervals between shifts and rely on smaller, leaner staffs to shave costs. These scheduling practices can take a toll on employees who have to squeeze commuting, family duties and sleep into fewer hours between shifts. The growing practice of the same workers closing the doors at night and returning to open them in the morning even has its own name: “clopening.” … Last summer, Starbucks announced that it would curb clopenings on the same day that The New York Times published an article profiling a barista, Jannette Navarro, mother of a 4-year-old, who worked a scheduled shift that ended at 11 p.m. and began a new shift at 4 a.m. … But several people who identified themselves as Starbucks employees complained on a Facebook private group page that they still were scheduled for clopenings, despite the company’s pronouncement. One worker in Texas wrote on Jan. 30, “I work every other Sunday as a closer, which is at 10:30 or really 11-ish, then scheduled at 6 a.m. the next morning.” Another worker in Southern California wrote, “As a matter of fact I clopen this weekend.” Laurel Harper, a Starbucks spokeswoman, questioned the authenticity of the Facebook posts.
Markets, given that they are what they are, treat labour as a commodity. There are obvious efficiencies for firms if they can require their employees to carry out clopenings, or be available at short notice for unexpected shifts. Perhaps, indeed, one could construct a model demonstrating that consumers will benefit in the aggregate – that their venti half skim lattes with an extra shot will each cost one or two cents less if firms can rely on these kinds of labour models. But labour is performed by actual people, with actual families, which often involve children or dependents relying on them. This is a significant part of Polanyi’s point – and modern shift practices in the service economy are an example which should be viscerally tangible to those of us who have had to juggle our work lives and raising kids or looking after other dependents (which is not all of us, but is many of us). Ways of thinking that turn labour into a commodity, divorcing it from the human beings that carry it out, are apt to produce monstrosities.