free wage labour

free wage labour

the form of labour in which the labourer is politically and legally free, i.e. to sell his or her labour to the highest bidder, and free from constraints on his or her life outside work.

The concept is a central one in both MARX's and WEBER's account of CAPITALISM. In noncapitalist social formations, a labourer is induced, through political, legal, or violent means of social control exercised by the nonproducer, to give up part of what is produced. Under capitalism, in contrast, the economic surplus is extracted by purely economic means, and the labourer is formally free to change employers in a way that is often not so in pre-capitalist systems.

For both Marx and Weber, the appearance of free wage labour has many positive features, and is a progressive social force. Both Marx and Weber agree, however, that the freedom involved can sometimes be illusory, since in practice it is often the employer rather than labourer who benefits most from this freedom, in that by hiring and firing labour he obtains greater flexibility in the use of CAPITAL than he would if he had a continuous responsibility for the maintenance of a labour force, as under SLAVERY or FEUDALISM. Proletarian labour, on the other hand, since it no longer has any rights of ownership over the MEANS OF PRODUCTION, can be in a weak bargaining position (see also CAPITALIST LABOUR CONTRACT).

Whilst all members of the PROLETARIAT are free wage labourers, the reverse is not so, since people may engage in free wage labour but still own their own means of production. This was the case in 17th- and 18th-century Britain where free wage labour emerged on the land, but people were not entirely dependent on wage for their livelihood. A similar situation exists in some THIRD WORLD societies today.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
References in periodicals archive ?
Private property and free wage labour did not emerge together in Nicaragua.
In Capital we read that free wage labour is the only "true" capitalist way to commodify labour power.