Thursday, November 25, 2010

Wage Slavery

Workers sell their labour power to capitalist enterprises for a wage as stated above in earlier post . As a commodity, labour power has an exchange value and a use value, like all other commodities. Its exchange value is equal to the sum total of the exchange values of all those commodities necessary to produce and reproduce the labour power of the worker and his or her family. The use value of labour power is its value creating capacity which capitalist enterprises buy and put to work as labour. However, labour power is unlike other commodities in that it creates value. During a given period it can produce more than is needed to maintain the worker during the same period. The surplus value produced is the difference between the exchange value of labour power and the use value of the labour extracted by the capitalists. In capitalism, however,the wage-worker is a “free” agent. No master holds him as a chattel, nor feudal lord as serf. This modern worker is free and independent: he has choices. He can dispose of his services to this or that capitalist owner, or he can withhold them. But this freedom is ephemeral. He must sell his working ability to some one or other employer or face starvation. In a capitalist society workers have the option of finding a job or facing abject poverty and/or starvation. Little wonder, then, that people “voluntarily” sell their labour and “consent” to authoritarian structures! They have little option to do otherwise. So, within the labour market workers can and do seek out the best working conditions possible, but that does not mean that the final contract agreed is “freely” accepted and not due to the force of circumstances, that both parties have equal bargaining power when drawing up the contract or that the freedom of both parties is ensured. His slavery is cloaked under the guise of wage-labour.

When the worker has found an employer he receives in return for his labour a price known as wages which represents on the average what is necessary for his sustenance so that he can reproduce the energy to go on working, and also produce progeny to replace him when his working days are over. During the working-day the worker produces wealth equivalent to that for which he is paid wages, but this does not require all the time of the working day. In providing for his own keep he has also produced a surplus and this surplus belongs to the employer. This may eventually be split into profit to the manufacturer, rent to the landlord, and interest on capital invested by a financier. As capitalism develops the time in which the worker produces his own keep decreases while the surplus accruing to the capitalist increases. During this development the productivity of labor increases at an accelerating tempo: The worker continually produces more with less.

So when a man sells his labour power a number of hours for a certain wage, the amount of necessaries to produce his wages is always smaller than the amount of labour which the employer receives from him, the difference between what the worker receives as wages and what his labour power produces during his working time, constitutes the sole source of unearned income, i.e., capitalist profits. So profits exist because the worker sells themselves to the capitalist, who then owns their activity and, therefore, tries to control them like a machine.

Wage levels will vary with “the respective power of the combatants” as Marx puts it and in the long run this will determine the value of labour-power and the necessaries of life. From the point of view of wage-labour , wage levels and the value of labour-power depends on the balance of class forces, on what workers can actually get from their employers. As wages are also regulated by the relation of supply and demand, a surplus of labour power (the unemployed) is necessary to prevent wages swallowing up all profit. Therefore the unemployed army is a vital necessity to capitalist production, and there can be no solution under capitalism.

It would be wrong to confuse exploitation with low wages. It does not matter if real wages do go up or not. The absolute level of those wages is irrelevant to the creation and appropriation of value and surplus-value. Labour is exploited because labour produces the whole of the value created in any process of production but gets only part of it back. On average workers sell their labour-power at a “fair” market price and still exploitation occurs. As sellers of a commodity (labour-power) they do not receive its full worth i.e. what they actually produce. Nor do they have a say in how the surplus value produced by their labour gets used.

Capitalism is a market economy, but not a simple market economy. A key difference of course is that under capitalism production is not carried out by self-employed producers but wage and salary workers employed by business enterprises. In other words, by profits we mean income that flows to the owner of a workplace or land who hires others to do the work. In other words, under capitalism, the producers have become separated from the means of production. This makes all the difference.
Marx explained the difference when he said that what happens in a simple market economy is that the producers brought to market a product of a certain value which they sell for money in order to buy another product or products of equal value. The economic circuit is commodity-money-commodity (C-M-C), the aim being to end up with a basket of useful things. Under capitalism the economic circuit is different. A capitalist sets out with a sum of money which they use to buy commodities (factory buildings, raw materials, working skills) that can be used to produce other commodities with the aim of ending up, after these other commodities have been sold, with more money than they started off with. So the circuit is now money-commodities-more money (M-C-M+).

But the picture of capitalism is still not complete.

Capitalist investors want to end up with more money than they started out with, but why? Is it just to live in luxury and consume? It is possible to envisage such an economy on paper. Marx did, and called it “simple reproduction”, but only as a stage in the development of his argument. By “simple reproduction” he meant that the stock of means of production was simply reproduced from year to year at its previously existing level; all of the profits (all of M+ less M) would be used to maintain a privileged, exploiting class in luxury . As a result the M in M-C-M+ would always remain the same and the circuit keep on repeating itself unchanged. This of course is not how capitalism operates. Profits are capitalised, i.e. reinvested in production, so that production, the stock of means of production, and the amount of capital, all tend to increase over time . The economic circuit is thus money-commodities-more money-more commodities, even more money (M-C-M+-C+-M++). In order to make more money, money must be transformed into capital.

This is not the conscious choice of the capitalists. It is something that is imposed on them as a condition for not losing their original investment. Competition with other capitalists forces them to reinvest as much of their profits as they can afford to in keeping their means and methods of production up to date. They cannot act contrary to the inner nature of capitalism which requires the constant accumulation of capital and the opening of new markets throughout the world. And it cannot avoid that increasing productivity of labor which means more production for less expenditure of labour.

The worker goes into the labour market as an article of merchandise, and his wages, that is, his price, is determined like that of any other article of merchandise, by the cost of production (i.e. the social labour necessary), and this in the case of the worker is represented by the cost of subsistence. The price of labour power fluctuates by the operation of supply and demand. There are generally more workers in the market than are actually required by the employers, and this fact serves to keep wages from rising for any length of time above the cost of subsistence. Moreover, machinery and scientific applications are ever tending to render labourers superfluous, with a consequent overstocking of the labour market, decrease of wages, and an increase in the number of the unemployed. Under these conditions reelative poverty is necessarily the lot of the working-class.

We have the worker entirely dispossessed of the means of getting a living except by selling himself as an article of merchandise to the owners of the means of living. This is wage-slavery. While capitalists are as a class against the workers as regards the ownership of the wealth produced by the working-class, they, the capitalists, are also antagonistic to one another in the endeavour to get the larger share of the markets. It wasn’t just Marx but also Fourier who pointed long ago that this competition could only end in monopoly, and we do see concentration going on in every branch of industry.

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