The last several decades has witnessed a sharp increase in legally unfree or coerced labour in the Global North and Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

Sectors such as agriculture, construction, caregiving, truck driving, and light manufacturing among others draw heavily on racialized temporary migrant workers from the Global South who are regularly denied citizenship, are legally tied to a single employer, and thus do not have the right to enter or exit the labour market freely. Losing your job, whether because you were fired or quit, can lead to detention and deportation. The legal limits on the rights of these workers has in turn exposed them to extremely poor and dangerous working conditions.

Although most labour rights activists readily identify the status of these migrant workers as legally unfree, there is, however, a deeper form of unfreedom and coercion in the labour market that deserves much more attention than it receives in discussions of unfreedom. This unfreedom and coercion is not reducible to a legal status but is instead rooted in the very nature of the relationship between employer and worker in capitalist society.

If we isolate the experience of labour that is legally coerced from a discussion of the wider logic of the relations between capitalist and worker we ultimately limit our ability to identify the way in which unfreedom more generally, including that of “free” wage labour, is systematic to capitalism.

From Legal Coercion to the Disciplinary Force of the Market

Focusing exclusively on the legal form of unfreedom risks reproducing a very narrow understanding of freedom in which “free” wage workers are considered free simply because they do not face explicit legal restrictions on their ability to enter or exit the labour market. In so doing, it unnecessarily cedes political ground to the liberal ideological claim that so-called “free” wage labour – which, it is important to remember, is a much more common form of labour than that of legally coerced in most capitalist societies today – and market relations are important exemplars of the freedom achieved under capitalism.

After all, if the absence of legal restrictions on movement and choice in the labour market is a sufficient condition for one’s liberty as a worker, then we need not question the effect of private property, and what Marx described as the alienated social relations at the heart of it, on labour’s supposed freedom. Indeed, this has been a basic premise of liberal conceptions of freedom from John Locke to modernization theory to economic theorists like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman: a litmus of our freedom as formally equal individuals is the ability to dispose of our property on the market as we wish. That some people have property in society’s productive resources (its land, factories, mines, big box stores etc.) and others have only their ability to work is, for most liberal theorists, of little consequence for the fulfillment of the liberal promise of freedom, so long as the state does not impinge on an individual’s right to dispose of their property.

As Milton Friedman offered in his defense of capitalist markets, “Individuals are effectively free to enter or not to enter into any particular exchange, so that every transaction is strictly voluntary.” If we reduce labour unfreedom to a legal relation, this conclusion is hard to avoid, while a transformative project that seeks to do away with private property becomess antithetical to freedom.

Reframing Labour Freedom

Even though this liberal view has enjoyed an ideological dominance over the last thirty years that is perhaps unparalleled since liberal doctrine emerged in England several centuries ago, it is important to remember that there was a strong tradition in the labour movement internationally in the last two centuries that challenged not only legal unfreedom but, at the same time, liberal conceptions of freedom.

True freedom, many labour activists and socialists declared, was not possible under capitalism, where workers are alienated from and dominated by society’s productive resources and the products of their labour. The physical class battles that swept up workplaces and took over streets were also therefore a battle over the very meaning of freedom. After lengthy, exhausting, and sometimes violent confrontation, relations of juridically unfree labour would be largely defeated in the nineteenth century and some basic labour rights established for the majority of – though importantly not all – workers in North America, the U.K., and Europe. But wealthy employers and their defenders in the liberal intelligentsia wrapped this concession to the labour movement in a vigorous defense of liberal freedom that with considerable effort would gain status as a common sense understanding of the character of labour markets.

The working-class militants that attacked “free” wage labour challenged us to not limit our sense of freedom to a legal relation, however important such a relation may be. The ethos of freedom inspiring their organizing and thinking was more liberatory in its impulse: freedom is not a mere legal status but the collective desire and ability of humans to be genuinely self-determining and, through our self-determination, to realize our capacities for physical, intellectual, and psychic self-development. This, of course, is the starting point of the critical political and intellectual tradition in which Marx stood and which animated the anti-Stalinist Marxisms of the twentieth century. Capturing the humanistic and liberatory spirit of this tradition, Herbert Marcuse remarks that “Freedom is the innermost dynamic of existence.”

Pivoting from this vision of freedom, the Marxist tradition “starts”, Marcuse explains, “with the experience that the world is unfree.” Most (though importantly not all) of us have been dispossessed of our direct access to the land and our ability to sustain ourselves outside of market relations. Instead, we live under alienated social relations. Whether we are free or not to dispose of our labour power as we wish, we have no collective control over those things most vital to our existence and to the development of our human capacities. Instead of means that are democratically controlled for the fulfillment of human need and self-development, the productive resources of society – as capital – stand over us, controlling our labour as a means to the end of profit and economic expansion.

Capitalist social relations are thus, by their very nature, a barrier to our freedom. And it is in this respect, Marcuse insists following Hegel and Marx, that freedom “is essentially negative” – not in the liberal sense of negative freedom, in which freedom is the mere absence of legal restraints on one’s ability to dispose of one’s property, but in the sense that it is a process of struggle, of overcoming (or negating) those barriers to the realization of our self-determination and self-development.

Neoliberal Labour Markets

That the compulsion in legally unfree labour is often harsher than in “free” wage labour does not mean that the latter does not also involve compulsions that make the option of avoiding even the most disagreeable jobs an unrealistic alternative. Hunger or the loss of one’s home can be powerful weapons against a worker.

The granting of citizenship to temporary migrant workers would unquestionably be an important advance for them, allowing them freedom to enter or exit the labour market, as well as access to social benefits to which they are denied in many jurisdictions. But they would obviously still be subject to the vagaries, volatilities and coerciveness inherent in the free market.

Indeed, the neoliberal period has witnessed a steady decline in working conditions for most workers. The cutting edge of this deterioration is experienced by temporary migrant workers, but one can also find workers without juridical restrictions on their freedom who face conditions not far removed from those of temporary migrants. These are, it should be noted, disproportionately workers of colour, immigrants with fewer legal encumbrances vis-à-vis the labour market, and women.

The deployment of legally unfree labour has been important to the advance of neoliberalism. But the ability of capital to systematically drive down the working conditions of all workers is more generally rooted in the unfreedom which all workers face and the precarity inherent to capitalist market relations. The redress to which, therefore, will not be simply legal reform, however important, but the building of a collective struggle for the rights of workers that places sharp limits on the power of capital, and which is ultimately guided by a vision of a social order beyond market relations.

Todd Gordon is an Associate Professor of Law & Society at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ontario.

This article is based on Todd Gordon, “Capitalism, Neoliberalism and Unfree Labour,” Critical Sociology 45(6): 921-939 (2019)

Image: “I’m Not Your Slave” stencil on concrete wall, from Pixabay