James Grannell reviews a classic text by Marx which introduces his fundamental ideas about how capitalism works.
Wage Labour and Capital is an excellent example of a Marxist text which unravels the mystique of the capitalist system of production, and exposes it for the flesh-devouring monster that it truly is. In this short work Marx explains the economic base of capitalist production focusing on the relations between labour power and capital.
The pamphlet first appeared in the form of a number of articles in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (New Rhineland Gazette) of 1849. The text was compiled from a series of lectures that Marx had delivered to the German Workingmen’s Club in Brussels in 1847.
In the pamphlet, Marx examines the means by which labour becomes a commodity, the economic principle of supply and demand, and how capitalism is chiefly concerned with the constant accumulation of capital above all other considerations.
Marx begins by establishing the position of labour under capitalism. Workers sell their labour power to the capitalist for a certain amount of money. This same money could have been used to buy a certain amount of commodities and, as a result, labour power is as much a commodity as anything else. The exchange value of labour power is measured by money, which becomes its price. As Marx points out, wages are simply a name for the price paid for ‘this peculiar commodity which has no other repository than human flesh and blood.’
Naturally the question arises as to why the worker sells labour power to the capitalist? The answer: to live. While the exercise of labour ought to be the workers’ own activity, they instead sell it to another person to obtain their means of subsistence. The worker works to live, and the work has no meaning other than as earnings.
Marx puts it well when he states: ‘What he [the worker] produces for himself is not the silk he weaves, not the gold he draws from the mine, not the palace he builds. What he produces for himself is wages, and silk, gold, palace resolve themselves for him into a definite quantity of means of subsistence, perhaps a cotton jacket, some copper coins and a lodging in a cellar.’
While the worker is free to sell their labour power to any capitalist who will buy it, this is merely a veneer of freedom. The worker may move from one capitalist employer to another, but they cannot leave the whole capitalist class without renouncing their existence. The worker does not therefore belong to a particular capitalist, but to the whole capitalist class.
The constant need for economic and productive expansion is innate within the capitalist system. The need to simplify and speed up the rate of production division of labour resulting in the simplification of labour is a product of this. This in turn leads to the skill of the labourer becoming worth less. Machinery (which is controlled by the capitalist) does this to a greater degree. It replaces the skilled worker with the unskilled and oftentimes throws the worker onto the streets altogether. This reduction of the importance of skilled labourers plays right into the hands of the capitalist. They no longer have to spend the same amount of time training workers, and there is always a ready supply of new workers to replace the old. This fact, of course, proves to be a useful threat when bosses want to lower wages or change working conditions.
Wage Labour and Capital is very useful to the modern reader and highly recommended. Importantly, it provides a no-nonsense rebuttal of the trickle-down effect, which claims that workers, and society as a whole, benefit from the competitiveness and expansion of business and capital. This mantra is nowadays sung from on high as the credo of austerity economics. Enda Kenny and Joan Burton – the high priests of hardship – might well try to convince us that we must sacrifice our interests upon the twin alters of big business and the market, however, Marx shows that ‘the interests of capital and the interests of wage-labour are diametrically opposed to each other.’ The prevailing economic ideology of our government – that the worker has an interest in the rapid growth of capital – means only that the crumbs that fall from the table will be slightly larger, and that a greater mass of workers can become dependent upon the capitalist class for their very existence. The aim, therefore, must be the overthrow of capitalism. It is by understanding the contradictions inherent within that system and the lies of its ideology that we are better equipped to rip it up. Wage Labour and Capital is a worthy text for anybody to spend some time studying.