Suppose you are employed by Mr Jackal. According to the dominant economic theory, you have sold him your labour. Since you have sold it to him, he controls it: it is up to him how that labour is used. Mr Jackal tells you to go and assassinate the French President. So, since you are his employee and your labour now belongs to him, you go and assassinate the French President.
Not surprisingly, the gendarmes chase you down – led perhaps by Monsieur Hercule Poirot, or Captain Laure Berthaud of the TV series Spiral (Engrenages in French). When they capture you, you are the picture of innocence.
‘Not me gov,’ you say, ‘It was the boss that did it. I sold my labour to Mr Jackal, and he used it to kill the President.’
Unfortunately for you, the law will not let you get away with that. Because actually you cannot alienate your labour – it is a physical impossibility. Labour is an act of voluntary cooperation, and voluntary cooperation carries responsibility. Since in reality it was not Mr Jackal that controlled your labour but you cooperating with his instruction, you are responsible. He may have responsibility too, since he instructed you to do it, but you cannot escape the fact that you were responsible for your act of murder.
However, suppose Mr Jackal does not tell you to commit a crime, but instructs you to make a product or to provide a service. In exactly the same way, you carry out his instruction. Normally when you make something it belongs to you: if you paint a painting it is your painting. Newly created wealth is allocated to the people who are responsible for creating it. But this time, under employment law and economic theory, magically that responsibility disappears: the law is blind to it. So this time, the product that you make, through the same voluntary cooperation as would make you guilty in the case of a crime, belongs entirely to Mr Jackal, and not at all to you. It is a simple magic trick that takes from you what you produce, and removes the right that you would normally have to be at least part owner of what you have been responsible for creating.
This point has been made in depth by the philosopher-economist David Ellerman. It is a fraud on all employees. They should share in the ownership of what they create, just as they should share responsibility in any crime they commit. Employee-owned companies and worker cooperatives recognise reality: people are responsible for what they create. Corporate employment is a fraud based on a fiction: that our labour is handed over to our employer. It isn’t, and our responsibility should be recognised in ownership, as it would be in crime.