You, pencil

Posted: 4 April 2016 in Uncategorized
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I know I shouldn’t be. But I’m always shocked by these right-wing libertarian fantasies of freedom and the invisible hand.

A former student sent me a look to Leonard E. Read’s “I, Pencil,” which reminded them of my Commodities course.

Perhaps you’re familiar with it? I wasn’t.

The thing is, the story of the production of pencils (what we might call today, the pencil supply chain) does tell us something about the social division of labor, the interconnectedness that is both a condition and consequence of commodity production, and even a diminished, one-sided notion of freedom (since, historically, pencil companies have enjoyed the freedom to ship most of the production of pencils from the United States to other countries, especially these days China).


But in these libertarian fantasies, no one is forced to have the freedom to work for someone else—and then to confront the despotism of the capitalist workplace.

In Read’s story, there is no monopoly of ownership of the means of production on the part of (or, at least, at the behest of) capital, which renders workers’ ability to work useless to themselves. That’s what forces them to work for someone else. And then, after the labor power contract is settled, the workers enter a space in which the decisions are made by (or, again, at least for) capital.

The workers produce pencils: enough to sell so that they can paid; and, in addition, a surplus of pencils, which can be sold for a profit and in turn used to maintain the despotic relationship between pencil workers and their employers.

That’s why the pencils workers produce don’t represent any kind of “miracle,” but instead stand opposed to them as an alien force.

Where’s the freedom in that?

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