introduction to marx’s understanding of work

An essay by David Broder on Marx’s understanding of wage labour drawing together notes for a recent meeting of our London reading group on workplace organising.

Capitalists pursue development to accumulate capital: they do not invest in the production of linen because they want lots of linen or in the extraction of oil because they want lots of oil, but because they believe that putting capital into the production process will allow them to accrue capital by selling the end product.

Although wealth exists in nature and not just thanks to human endeavour, capitalist development must depend on investment in a commodity which can itself produce further value – this means human labour, our mental and physical energies. In this framework our work must create some goods or services which satisfy some human desire or need (‘use value’) but also be sold as a commodity to those able to pay for it (‘exchange value’).

The manner in which the productive forces are developed under capitalist relations is no simple reflection of what meets society’s needs. But neither can it be primarily based on mere financial exchange or accruing capital through the process of trading goods.

Under capitalism workers are contracted to sell our capacity to work (‘labour power’) – our skills, our time, our potential effort – to an employer for a given period, the bargain being that we are paid enough to get by, while creating sufficient value through our work such that the capitalist can take a profit from the remainder (‘surplus value’), thus accumulating capital.

Particular to Marx is this distinction between labour and labour power. Unlike farmers selling their own produce, workers are not selling the end result of our labours (as if the capitalist would buy that, then make a profit playing the markets) but our capacity to work in itself. The hiring of labour power (‘wage-labour’) is the relationship fundamental to work under capitalism.

The ‘up side’ is the freedom of the transaction – we can, to a certain degree, choose our employment and change our pay, hours, work rhythms and so on – marking a difference from slavery or serfdom whereby conditions of employment are long-term and enshrined in traditions and laws. The ‘down side’ of this same aspect of wage-labour is that the employer can more easily dispense with their workers’ services and replace them as necessary. Indeed competition between different workers for the same jobs is part and parcel of the way in which the employers can divide the workforce along lines of perceived skill, as well as gender, race and nationality, all the better to rule over them.

The great limitation to the worker’s freedom is that even worse than being exploited is not to be exploited: being unable to sell your labour-power. With no ownership over the land, equipment and capital of the enterprise (‘means of production’), the worker’s existence relies on finding employment week-by-week. In this sense selling your capacity to work is quite different from selling some natural resource or exchanging property or money:

” The commodity labour power has great disadvantages against other commodities. For the capitalist, competition with the workers is a mere question of profit, for the workers it is a question of their existence. Labour is of a more evanescent nature than other commodities. It cannot be accumulated. The supply cannot be increased or reduced with the same facility as with other commodities.” (Marx, Wages, 1847)

And although we trade our labour-power for money, not directly with food, housing, phone bills or any other goods and service, wages are tied into all other commodities in a very unique way:

” In all crises the following circular movement relates to the workers: The employer cannot employ the workers because he cannot sell his product. He cannot sell his product because he has no buyers. He has no buyers because the workers have nothing to offer in exchange but their labour, and precisely for that reason they cannot exchange their labour…” (Wages)

Wages are the price of the labour power commodity, which can be altered by all sorts of measures (e.g. worker organising; market fluctuations; employment law). Marx differentiates this from the idea of value (‘abstract labour’), since we can compare different commodities via a common abstract of what productive effort they represent (‘socially necessary labour time’), rather than having to directly exchange the goods themselves.

Value does not – and prices do not necessarily – increase or decrease due to changes in wages, since these are determined in society-at-large, not by the relations existing within any given workplace. The ability of a product to sell, or to satisfy a human want, can only be determined externally.

“The rise and fall of profits and wages expresses merely the proportion in which capitalists and workers share in the product of a day’s work, without influencing in most instances the price of the product.” (Marx, Poverty of Philosophy, 1847, Chapter 2.5)

The ratio of profits to wages might be termed the ‘rate of exploitation’: the measure of how efficiently hiring labour power increases the employer’s capital.  This is a scientific use of the word ‘exploitation’ to demonstrate the underlying laws of capitalism, not a moral category. Marx’s critique of capital is not merely that wages – the price of labour power – are ‘unfairly’ low.

Clearly, in order for any enterprise to sustain itself, its workers must create extra value worth at least as much the sum of their wages. Long-term unprofitability could well mean the employer going bust. But it does not follow that wage increases which chip away at profits to bring them close to nothing are gradually disposing of capitalist relations, any more than it is the case that a business losing money is one where the workers are ‘exploiting’ their employer.

The ‘exploitation’ which remains here, to use the other sense of that word, is that workers are still selling our capacity to work and have no control over whether the work we have to do is productive. If I worked making cars or compiling surveys, it would be no concern of mine whether my employer was able to sell the end product or not, except insofar as their lack of success was not such that the company folded and I was out of work. I would not judge the need to change my conditions by my ‘rate of exploitation’ in Marx’s sense, but rather in terms of what I perceived as the disparity between my potential creativity and need for money, and the work I was told to do and what I was paid for it.

Underlying this question is alienation – where we feel that what we ourselves create is somehow separate from us, and our labour is controlled from the outside. We do what work we are told, not what we think necessary or what we think most creative and enjoyable: we are, after all, selling our capacity to work.

Moreover, employed as an individual with our own contract, often on different terms from more or less skilled staff, in gendered job roles or as a migrant worker, our attitude to our workmates often reflects the division of tasks which capitalism imposes on humanity. The system relies on consent: our acceptance that there are order-givers and order-takers; the division between mental and manual labour and idea that some people are just not cut out for certain jobs; and that our individual advancement is at odds with other workmates’ interests. It is not the state stuffing propaganda down our throats, but the lived experience of such divisive relations at work every day, which trains us in the mentality of an atomised, individual worker who wants to rise above their class rather than with it[1]. The worker is convinced that she or he[2] is already a capitalist:

“The fact that a man is continually compelled to sell his labour-power, i.e., himself, to another man proves, according to those economists, that he is a capitalist, because he constantly has “commodities” (himself) for sale.” (Capital, Volume 2, Chapter 20)

The mass of people learning to accept this way of things as normal is much like the way in which it is often said that society has to follow market laws, when in fact money, markets and so on are not natural but actually part of the social relations created by humans. Marx compares this to how humans create gods in their own imaginations, and then allow themselves to be ruled by these gods’ supposed laws, which are also simply a human construct.

Precisely because such relations have not always existed and rely on mass consent it is quite possible that we could change them, but for many the idea of social change has itself been discredited by alternatives such as the USSR and its satellites. State-socialist systems with equal wages at what the authorities deem a ‘fair’ level preserve this alienation and separation of decision making exactly, as Marx warned:

“An enforced increase of wages (disregarding all other difficulties, including the fact that it would only be by force, too, that such an increase, being an anomaly, could be maintained) would therefore be nothing but better payment for the slave, and would not win either for the worker or for labor their human status and dignity. Indeed, even the equality of wages, as demanded by Proudhon, only transforms the relationship of the present-day worker to his labor into the relationship of all men to labor. Society would then be conceived as an abstract capitalist.” (Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844, ‘Estranged Labour’)

Rather, we have to abolish, as such, the need to be hired by an employer and accept their dominion over our labour-power.

So in terms of making radical change, trade union struggles for higher wages are not in and of themselves anti-capitalist merely because they squeeze profits: but if successful they do both serve an obvious immediate benefit and also help to build the confidence and assertiveness of the workforce, which might then go on to uproot capitalist relations in a more fundamental sense. Communists support struggles which not only alleviate exploitation but also increase workers’ reliance on themselves and their colleagues to change their conditions, in doing so constraining management’s absolute control in the workplace.

Therefore, where Marx writes that “Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!” (Marx, Economic Manuscripts, 1867, Part XIV) we ought not conclude that the working class will simply wake up one day and decide capitalism is rotten, before then proceeding to storm Buckingham Palace (still less, going off to live on a commune, thus leaving the existing capitalist society intact) – and therefore decide wage struggles are pointless.

“As [‘utopian’[3]] socialists we tell you that, apart from the money question, you will continue nonetheless to be workers, and the masters will still continue to be the masters, just as before. So no combination! No politics! For is not entering into combination engaging in politics?

“The socialists want the workers to leave the old society alone, the better to be able to enter the new society which they have prepared for them with so much foresight. In spite of both of them, in spite of manuals and utopias, combination has not yet ceased for an instant to go forward and grow with the development and growth of modern industry.” (Poverty of Philosophy, Chapter 2.5)

We can only build our organising strength, sense of solidarity and our confidence gradually and under capitalism: these are all at play in the here and now and their development is the only way in which the mass of people could ever take power over our lives. Saying this is not reformism – which is characterised not so much by being slow as the fact that the envisaged agency of change is the existing state – but on the contrary recognises that rather than relying on some benign top-down process, the working class has to acquire such consciousness as to be able to liberate itself.

The battle for control in the workplace – of labour process, the speed of work and the terms and conditions of employment – never goes away, and we shall be looking in more detail at this in our next reading group.


[1] This division of labour is a huge and multi-faceted subject in itself, and will be looked at in more detail in future reading groups.

[2] Marx often uses ‘man’, ‘he’ and so on when in fact he ought to describe all genders. In some cases the sexism apparent in his language is purely a matter of translation, in others his failure to challenge the prevailing attitudes of his time.

[3] Marx is mocking the likes of Robert Owen, a Victorian philanthropist who was hostile to worker organising but planned and created a small model ‘utopian socialist’ society where benign administrators ruled over a community of workers, much in the same vein as later state-socialist experiments.