Monday, March 03, 2008

Free labor

How does the solonian principle translate into day-to-day life? There's an excellent book which describes the strengthening of this principle, also known as "free labor", in 19th century America, together with a history to give this triumph context, The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English & American Law and Culture, 1350-1870 by Robert J. Steinfeld. Steinfeld writes,

The decision in Mary Clark's case was not an isolated event but was part of a broad process of transformation. Over the first decades of the nineteenth century, the labor relationship underwent major changes in the United States. By the time Mary Clark's case was decided, a new paradigm of the labor relationship had been developing for more than a generation. Over the next forty-five years, it would gradually achieve cultural and political hegemony.

At the heart of the new understanding was the idea, first fully articulated in Mary Clark's case, that labor became involuntary the moment a laborer decided to depart and was not permitted to do so—whatever previous agreement she may have made. As this model spread and was further elaborated, it had a far-reaching impact on basic understandings about the legal and political status of those who worked for others. The new model posited that, despite the fact that they had entered the service of another, laborers and servants continued to be masters of their own fates. Whether to remain or to leave was always a matter of their own volition. They had not, on entering service, impliedly agreed to place themselves under another's tutelage and could not even should they want to. Ultimately, whatever agreement they entered, the property in their labor was their employer's only so long as they wished it to be . At any moment they no longer wished him to have the right to that labor, they were free to take back possession. They and they alone always controlled their own energies and capacities. They were always their own masters.
Robert J. Steinfeld (1991) The Invention of Free Labor, pp. 147-148.