‘But the putting of labour-power into action – i.e., the work – is the active expression of the labourer’s own life. And this life activity he sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of life. His life-activity, therefore, is but a means of securing his own existence. He works that he may keep alive. He does not count the labour itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another. The product of his activity, therefore, is not the aim of his activity. What he produces for himself is not the silk that he weaves, not the gold that he draws up the mining shaft, not the palace that he builds. What he produces for himself is wages; and the silk, the gold, and the palace are resolved for him into a certain quantity of necessaries of life, perhaps into a cotton jacket, into copper coins, and into a basement dwelling. And the labourer who for 12 hours long, weaves, spins, bores, turns, builds, shovels, breaks stone, carries hods, and so on – is this 12 hours’ weaving, spinning, boring, turning, building, shovelling, stone-breaking, regarded by him as a manifestation of life, as life? Quite the contrary. Life for him begins where this activity ceases, at the table, at the tavern, in bed. The 12 hours’ work, on the other hand, has no meaning for him as weaving, spinning, boring, and so on, but only as earnings, which enable him to sit down at a table, to take his seat in the tavern, and to lie down in a bed. If the silk-worm’s object in spinning were to prolong its existence as caterpillar, it would be a perfect example of a wage-worker. ‘
– Karl Marx, Wage Labour and Capital
To understand the nature of exploitation in capitalist society, we have to understand:
- Our wages – how are they calculated, how are they paid, why is a certain amount paid for?
- What are our wages paid for and what is our ‘labour’, the time we give to an employer?
- Why is the amount paid for our wages and the profit made from our labour unfair?
To build an understanding of these questions and answer them, we must first define our terms and our premise.
- A wage is an amount paid to a worker for the time they spend at work – the period of their life which they dedicate to work the phones, cash registers, and computers of their employer.
- While labour is the amount of physical work which an employee performs that turns a less valuable commodity into a more valuable commodity (a pile of wood into a chair, a phone call into a resolved complaint), it is ultimately not what a worker is paid for. A worker is paid for his time committed, rather than the raw productive contribution he makes to the business. As a result, we use the term labour power, which signifies the workers’ potential to do work rather than the actual work which he does. This might seem like hair-splitting, but it is important because it explains the disconnection workers’ feel from the productive process, and it is the basis of the Marxist concept of alienation. Have you ever felt like you were sitting in a work-place simply to fill out an hourly requirement rather than being productive?
- Wages are a special name for the purchasing of labour-power but act as any other commodity for the capitalist (like buying a coffee machine, a shovel, etc). This reduces the lot of the labourer to that of a tool, or an implement, which is discarded when it has become obsolete. In this sense, labour is capital like money, land, or raw materials.
- The only distinction is that labour is the source of the capitalist’s profit. Profit is made by buying something cheap and selling it dear – the capitalist buys labour, and sells the transformative power of it dear.
- Labour power is measured by the clock.
- Labour power is exchanged for x amount of money for y amount of labour time (e.g 9.55 per hour minimum wage). The minimum wage is the average amount a capitalist needs to pay in order to ensure that workers are able to subsist and have stock, and thus renew the labour force. As it is an average, it does not necessary ensure everyone can live this basic, only enough people for the system to continue.
- Using the money received for selling your labour power (time spent working) you are then purchasing other commodities, produced by other workers, both at home and abroad. You purchase food grown outside of Ireland, you purchase clothes produced by even more exploited workers who have to sell their labour power for even lower amounts of money
- The price on a commodity that we buy is called ‘price’, or in Marxist terms, exchange valu,e i.e the amount that will be paid for it after production is finalized, labour power paid for and profit margin ramped up
You work in Abtran. You sign a contract which stipulates that you will sell your time, i.e labour-power, for 9.65 an hour, 39 hours a week, Monday to Friday. Your time has been purchased as a commodity by Abtran, just like the computers and other pieces of equipment there but you are there to produce further value for Abtran in the form of selling commodities. Your labour power is unique, if the employer-capitalist did not have it, the computers and others items in Abtran would not be able to produce more value, the worker selling their labour power is therefore unique. More than often than not you will far exceed the amount that Abtran pays you on a daily, weekly or monthly basis in your workplace. You will rarely or ever see any increase in value of your labour power, i.e a wage increase. Abtran will run competitions to make workers compete but will reward only one person while benefiting from the over-all collective activity of the workers.
Question: What is the point of being a productive worker?
- A wage is pre-determined, you are given it when you are offered a job. It is rarely based on how productive you are. You can be extremely productive in the workplace and sell 100 different deals on your Abtran account, or you can sell none, your wage will remain generally the same.
- The capitalist-employer buys your labour power for a certain amount alongside all other instruments of production (computers, etc).
- As a result, you as a worker do not have a share in the final production of the commodity or the surplus value of the commodities that you’ve sold.
- This means that wages are not a share of the worker in the commodity he produced or sold.
- Wages are part of the already existing commodities which the capitalist-employer buys to produce.
You work in a hotel. You have no set hours every week and are given a different roster every week. Your labour power to this hotel is worth 9.65 per hour and you can work between 10 – 48 hours per week. You receive no financial benefit from being a productive worker on a busy Saturday shift, or a lazy worker. You can do nothing and still get paid 9.65 or do everything and still be paid 9.65. You do not receive a share of the wealth that your hotel produces yet more tasks and productive objectives are put on you. Certain departments now also sell multiple services instead of the one they were initially designated to. You see no share of this productivity either. What you sell to customers is already paid for as part of the initial commodity investment by the hotel (food, alcohol, rooms).
Question: How is the price of your labour-power determined?
- We work to live and secure the ‘necessary means of life’, i.e a roof over our head, food on our table and other commodities by which we can enjoy ourselves.
- We therefore sell our labour-power for the obtaining of life necessities and goods and services.
- We produce wages for ourselves by selling our labour-power to the capitalist-employer
- When we are selling our time or working we do not consider this ‘living’ or life, we consider this a period of obligatory time that we must sell to get by.
- Where does life therefore begin? When we finish work? When we lie down into our bed? When we embrace our partner or our pillow because we’re lonely?
- The time spent in the workplace, selling our labour-power has no additional meaning other than a necessary activity that allows us to then go for a pint, see a movie, etc.
- Workers provide themselves to the capitalist as much as the capitalist desires – as the cost of living in Ireland rises, the worker must sell more labour power to get by.
- The very moment a worker becomes no use, they can get rid of you. (Zero hour contract, weak rights that only begin to cover you up until a year). If you create no profit for the capitalist-employer, you yourself are of no use as a human being.
- The capitalist system therefore places the worker, you and I into a simple position: we only have two options, to continue to sell our labour power to get by or death (as we see, suicide rates are actually growing in the Western world, not decreasing as conditions become more precarious).
You just lost your job and are looking again. You need to sell your labour-power to your 550e rent per month because if you do not, you will be homeless. You are a wage slave because the cost of living and the privatization of all services such as health, education, housing ensure that you need to pay for them all for wages. Wages are earned through the selling of your time i.e labour power for a certain amount which is usually a minimum wage. Your value as a human being is estimated therefore at your capacity to produce and to work – if you cannot or do not work, you are not worth anything to the capitalist-employer because your labour-power cannot be exploited.
- Workers are subject to the capitalist class and to selling their wages
- This means that the worker and all workers belong to the capitalist class as a whole, our relationship with the capitalist class is universally applicable
- Our role as a worker is to find a buyer for our labour-power/time in the capitalist class/capitalist organisation of society in order to survive.