The class servitude of landless workers

In my previous article, I defined class servitude as a situation where a class of people largely serve the interests of another class of people. This happens not because no individual can improve their situation, but because (in the case of at least some members of the class) when they do improve their situation, they indirectly make life harder for other members of the class. So each individual in the class can and does improve their productivity to make their lives better, but because everyone does so, no-one is much better off, and their extra work benefits other people.

This article argues that landless workers can be subject to class servitude.

First, imagine an island owned and occupied by one person. Then, another person is shipwrecked on that island. Proudhon imagines the owner repelling the immigrant by force:

The proprietor, like Robinson Crusoe on his island, wards off with pike and musket the proletaire washed overboard by the wave of civilization, and seeking to gain a foothold upon the rocks of property.

Alternatively, the landlord might think of something useful for the immigrant to do, and pay the immigrant with just enough food and shelter to efficiently satisfy the landlord’s desires.

Now let’s complicate the situation slightly by introducing more landlords. Suppose that the island is owned by several landlords, but that there is no unowned land. Now the immigrant is in a better situation; if one landlord offers them low wages, they can work for a different landlord instead. Unless the landlords form a cartel, the immigrant can expect to receive at least as much compensation as the benefit that their work would provide to the landlord second-most desperate to buy their labour.

But now, let’s complicate the situation more by introducing more landless workers, who may be immigrants, or may be the descendants of landlords who disinherited them, or who sold their land and wasted their wealth before their death. If there are too many landless workers, then the landlords will find it harder to think of ways in which the workers can better satisfy the landlords’ desires. They will employ a number of workers, but beyond that number, they may have no desire to employ more.

The presence of unemployed landless people will ensure that those who are employed receive low wages; if any demand higher wages, then they’ll lose their jobs in favour of the otherwise unemployed, who are keen to work for any wages at all. The unemployed must rely on charity.

Now, standard economic theory says that under the assumption of perfect competition, workers’ wages will be equal to the marginal product of their labour; that is, they’ll be paid for the value that one more worker would add to the total value produced.

As far as I know, this is true, as far as it goes. But it ignores something: the value that the worker adds is measured by their employer. And as we’ve seen, if there are too many landless workers compared to the number of employers, the employers might run out of things they want workers to do, so the marginal product of a worker’s labour drops to subsistence levels, or lower.

Or consider another thought experiment. First, observe that dentists are paid very well. (I haven’t checked this, but I assume they are.) Now, imagine that the government or some well-meaning charity decides that everyone should be trained as a dentist, to improve their income. Enormous amounts of money are directed towards training people as dentists. Miraculously, the universal training is successful; everyone over the age of 23 is a competent dentist. What’s the effect?

Dentists’ wages drop to the minimum wage; why hire a dentist for more than minimum wage when there are unemployed people who are perfectly competent dentists and willing to work for less?

True, the cost of dentistry will drop, but not enormously, because there are other costs, too, such as the drills and the material for fillings. At best, the government’s or the charity’s scheme to raise the general level of education can be seen as an inefficient subsidy on dental work.

So you see that learning to become a dentist can be good for one landless worker, because they’ll earn higher wages, but if every landless worker learns to become a dentist, then they all remain on low wages. This example illustrates how the situation of landless workers fits my definition of class servitude.

It’s all very well to say that it’s a free country — in theory, no-one is a slave, in the sense that no-one’s body or labour is owned by another person — but can a person be meaningfully free if they have nowhere to exercise their labour for their own benefit?

To make use of your labour, you must at least have somewhere to stand while you work, and somewhere to eat and sleep. If you don’t own any such place, you must hire it with your labour, and therefore, you don’t really own all the fruits of your labour; some of them benefit the owner of the land you’re forced to hire.


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