wages for labor -- 2/1/23

Today's selection -- from Ancient Economy by M.I. Finley. Paying discrete wages for labor is a comparatively recent historical development that requires two levels of abstraction:
"We are the heirs of the Roman law, filtered through the Middle Ages, and we are mesmerized by the notion that at the lower end of the social scale, in the work force, there are three and only three possible categories, slaves, serfs and free wage-earners. So the helots become serfs and the slaves with a peculium are discussed in the first instance as slaves, when, economically and in terms of the structure and functioning of the society, they were mostly self-employed craftsmen, pawn­brokers, moneylenders and shopkeepers. They did the same kind of civilian work as their free counterparts, in the same ways and under the same conditions, despite the formal difference in legal status. The members of neither group worked under the restraint of another, in the sense condemned as slavish and unfree by Aristotle and Cicero, and there is the paradox inherent in ancient slavery.

Roman mosaic from Dougga, Tunisia (second century  AD): the two slaves carrying wine jars wear typical slave clothing and an amulet against the evil eye on a necklace; the slave boy to the left carries water and towels, and the one on the right a bough and a basket of flowers.

"Historically speaking, the institution of wage-labour is a sophisticated latecomer. The very idea of wage-labour requires two difficult conceptual steps. First it requires the abstraction of a man's labour from both his person and the product of his work. When one purchases an object from an independent craftsman, whether he is free or a slave with a peculium, one has not bought his labour but the object, which he had produced in his own time and under his own conditions of work. But when one hires labour, one purchases an abstraction, labour-power, which the purchaser then uses at a time and under conditions which he, the purchaser, not the 'owner' of the labour-power, determines (and for which he normally pays after he has consumed it). Second, the wage­ labour system requires the establishment of a method of measuring the labour one has purchased, for purposes of payment, commonly by introducing a second abstraction, namely, labour-time.  

"We should not underestimate the magnitude, speaking socially rather than intellectually, of these two conceptual steps; even the Roman jurists found them difficult. The need to mobilize labour­ power for tasks that are beyond the capacity of the individual or family is an old one, reaching far back into prehistory. When any society we can trace attained a stage of sufficient accumulation of resources and power in some hands (whether king, temple, ruling tribe or aristocracy), so that a labour force was demanded greater than could be provided by the household or kinship group, for agriculture or mining or public works or arms manufacture, that labour force was obtained not by hiring it but by compelling it, by force of arms or by force of law and custom. This involuntary labour force, furthermore, was normally not composed of slaves but of one or another 'half-way' type, such as the debt-bondsman, the helot, the early Roman client, the late Roman colonus. The occasional slave is found, especially the female captive, as is the occasional free hired man, but neither was for a long time a significant factor in production, whether on the land or in towns.

"A proper balance of these low statuses is difficult to achieve. In a famous Homeric passage, Odysseus visits Hades, meets the shade of Achilles and asks after his well-being. The reply is a bitter one. Rather than be king over all the dead, said Achilles, 'I would rather be bound down, working as a thes for another, by the side of a landless man' (Odyssey 11.489-91). Not a slave, but a landless thes, was the lowest human status Achilles could think of. And in the Iliad (21.441-52), the god Poseidon reminds Apollo of the time when both of them worked a full year as thetes for Laomedon king of Troy, 'for an agreed upon wage'. At the end of the year they were driven off unpaid, with no means of obtaining redress. Thetes were free men, the swineherd Eumaeus a slave, but the latter had a more secure place in the world thanks to his attach­ment to an oikos, a princely household, an attachment more meaningful, more valuable, than the status of being juridically free, of not being owned by someone. Another nuance can be seen in the struggle, in early sixth-century Athens and fifth- and fourth-century B.C. Rome, to bring bondage. In both communities a substantial number of citizens had fallen into actual bondage through debt -- Aristotle even says (Constitution of Athens 2.2), about Athens, that 'the poor, with their wives and children, were "enslaved" to the rich' -- but their successful struggle was never looked upon, either by themselves or by our ancient authorities on the subject, as a slave revolt. They were citizens reclaiming their rightful place in their own com­munity -- for themselves alone, not for the few genuine chattel slaves who had been brought from outside into Athens and Rome at that time.

"Were these citizen-bondsmen, before their liberation, free men or not? I find this a meaningless question and worse, a misleading question, reflecting the false triad I mentioned earlier, whereby we try to force all labour into one of three categories, slave, serf or free. Conceptually there are two polar extremes of legal 'free­dom'. At one pole is the slave as property and nothing else; at the other pole, the perfectly free man, all of whose acts are freely and voluntarily performed. Neither has ever existed. There have been individual slaves who had the bad luck to be treated by their owners as nothing but a possession, but I know of no society in which the slave population as a whole were looked upon in that simple way. At the other end, every man except Robinson Crusoe has his freedom limited in one way or another in consequence of living in society. Absolute freedom is an idle dream (and it would be psychologically intolerable anyway)."

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M.I. Finley


Ancient Economy


University California Press


Copyright M.I. Finley 1973, 1985


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