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WAGES OF LABOUR
Wages are determined through the antagonistic struggle between capitalist and worker. Victory goes necessarily to the capitalist. The capitalist can live longer without the worker than can the worker without the capitalist. Combination among the capitalists is customary and effective; workers' combination is prohibited and painful in its consequences for them. Besides, the landowner and the capitalist can augment their revenues with the fruits of industry; the worker has neither ground-rent nor interest on capital to supplement his industrial income. Hence the intensity of the competition among the workers. Thus only for the workers is the separation of capital, landed property and labour an inevitable, essential and detrimental separation. Capital and landed property need not remain fixed in this abstraction, as must the labour of the workers.
The separation of capital, ground-rent and labour is thus fatal for the worker.
The lowest and the only necessary wage-rate is that providing for the subsistence of the worker for the duration of his work and as much more as is necessary for him to support a family and for the race of labourers not to die out. The ordinary wage, according to Smith, is the lowest compatible with common humanity (that is a cattle-like existence).
The demand for men necessarily governs the production of men, as of every other commodity. Should supply greatly exceed demand, a section of the workers sinks into beggary or starvation. The worker's existence is thus brought under the same condition as the existence of every other commodity. The worker has become a commodity, and it is a bit of luck for him if he can find a buyer. And the demand on which the life of the worker depends, depends on the whim of the rich and the capitalists. Should the quantity in supply exceed the demand, then one of the constituent parts of the price-profit, ground-rent or wages—is paid below its rate; a part of these factors is therefore withdrawn from this application, and thus the market-price gravitates towards the natural price as the centre-point. But (i) where there is considerable division of labour it is most difficult for the worker to direct his labour into other channels; (ii) because of his subordinate relation to the capitalist, he is the first to suffer.
Thus in the gravitation of market-price to natural price it is the worker who loses most of all and necessarily. And it is just the capacity of the capitalist to direct his capital into another channel which renders destitute the worker who is restricted to some particular branch of labour, or forces him to submit to every demand of this capitalist.
The accidental and sudden fluctuations in market-price hit rent less than they do that part of the price which is resolved into profit and wages; but they hit profit less than they do wages. In most cases, for every wage that rises, one remains stationary and one falls.
The worker need not necessarily gain when the capitalist does, but he necessarily loses when the latter loses. Thus, the worker does not gain if the capitalist keeps the market-price above the natural price by virtue of some manufacturing or trading secret, or by virtue of monopoly or the favourable situation of his property.
Furthermore: the prices of labour are much more constant than the prices of provisions, often they stand in inverse proportion. In a dear year wages fall on account of the fall in demand, but rise on account of the rise in the prices of provisions—and thus balance. In any case, a number of workers are left without bread. In cheap years wages rise on account of the rise in demand, but fall on account of the fall in the prices of provisions—and thus balance.
Another respect in which the worker is at a disadvantage: The labour-prices of the various kinds of workers show much wilder difference than the profits in the various branches in which capital is applied. In labour all the natural, spiritual and social variety of individual activity is manifested and is variously rewarded, whilst dead capital always shows the same face and is indifferent to the real individual activity.
In general it has to be observed that in those cases where worker and capitalist equally suffer, the worker suffers in his very existence, the capitalist in the profit on his dead mammon.
The worker has to struggle not only for his physical means of subsistence: he has to struggle to get work, i.e., the possibility, the means, to perform his activity. Take the three chief conditions in which society can find itself and consider the situation of the worker in them:
(1) If the wealth of society declines the worker suffers most of all, for: although the working class cannot gain so much as can the class of property-owners in a prosperous state of society, no one suffers so cruelly from its decline as the working class.
(2) Take now a society in which wealth is increasing. This condition is the only one favourable to the worker. Here competition between the capitalists sets in. The demand for workers exceeds their supply. But:
In the first place, the raising of wages gives rise to overwork among the workers. The more they wish to earn, the more must they sacrifice their time and carry out slave-labour, in the service of avarice completely losing all their freedom, thereby they shorten their lives. This shortening of their life-span is a favourable circumstance for the working class as a whole, for as a result of it an ever-fresh supply of labour becomes necessary. This class has always to sacrifice a part of itself in order not to be wholly destroyed.
Furthermore: when does a society find itself in a condition of advancing wealth? When the capitals and revenues of a country are growing. But this is only possible
(α) as the result of the accumulation of much labour, capital being accumulated labour; as the result, therefore, of the fact that his products are being taken in ever- increasing degree from the hands of the worker, that to an increasing extent his own labour confronts him as another's property and that the means of his existence and his activity are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the capitalists.
(β) The accumulation of capital increases the division of labour, and the division of labour increases the numbers of the workers. Conversely, the workers' numbers increase the division of labour, just as the division of labour increases the accumulation of capitals. With this division of labour on the one hand and the accumulation of capitals on the other, the worker becomes ever more exclusively dependent on labour, and on a particular, very one-sided, machinelike labour. Just as he is thus depressed spiritually and physically to the condition of a machine and from being a man becomes an abstract activity and a stomach, so he also becomes ever more dependent on every fluctuation in market-price, on the application of capitals, and on the mood of the rich. Equally, the increase in the class of people wholly dependent on work intensifies competition among them, thus lowering their price. In the factory-system this situation of the worker reaches its climax.
(γ) In an increasingly prosperous society it is only the very richest people who can go on living on money-interest. Everyone else has to carry on a business with his capital, or venture it in trade. As a result, the competition between capitals becomes more intense. The concentration of capitals increases, the big capitalists ruin the small, and a section of the erstwhile capitalists sinks into the working class, which as a result of this supply again suffers to some extent a depression of wages and passes into a still greater dependence on the few big capitalists. The number of capitalists having been diminished, their competition with respect to workers scarcely exists any longer; and the number of workers having been augmented, their competition among themselves has become all the more intense, unnatural and violent. Consequently, a section of the working class falls into the ranks of beggary or starvation just as necessarily as a section of the middle capitalists falls into the working class.
Hence even in the condition of society most favourable to the worker, the inevitable result for the worker is overwork and premature death, decline to a mere machine, a bond servant of capital, which piles up dangerously over-against him, more competition, and for a section of the workers starvation or beggary.
The raising of wages excites in the worker the capitalist's mania to get rich, which he, however, can only satisfy by the sacrifice of his mind and body. The raising of wages presupposes and entails the accumulation of capital, and thus sets the product of labour against the worker as something ever more alien to him. Similarly, the division of labour renders him ever more one-sided and dependent, bringing with it the competition not only of men but of machines. Since the worker has sunk to the level of a machine, he can be confronted by the machine as a competitor. Finally, as the amassing of capital increases the amount of industry and therefore the number of workers, it causes the same amount of industry to manufacture a greater amount of product, which leads to over-production and thus either ends by throwing a large section of workers out of work or by reducing their wages to the most miserable minimum. Such are the consequences of a condition of society most favourable to the worker—namely, of a condition of growing, advancing wealth.
Eventually, however, this state of growth must sooner or later reach its peak. What is the worker's position now?
(3) "In a country which had attained the utmost degree of its wealth, both wages of labour and interest of stock would be very low. The competition among the workers to obtain employment would be so great that wages would be reduced to a point sufficient
for the maintenance of the given number of workers; and as the country would already be sufficiently populated, this number could not be increased."
The surplus would have to die.
Thus in a declining state of society—increasing misery of the worker; in an advancing state—misery with complications; and in a fully developed state of society—static misery.
Since, however, according to Smith, a society is not happy, of which the greater part suffers—yet even the wealthiest state of society leads to this suffering of the majority—and since the economic system (and in general a society based on private interest) leads to this wealthiest condition, it follows that the goal of the economic system is the unhappiness of society.
Concerning the relationship between worker and capitalist one should add that the capitalist is more than compensated for the raising of wages by the reduction in the amount of labour-time, and that the raising of wages and the raising of interest on capital operate on the price of commodities like simple and compound interest respectively.
Let us put ourselves now wholly at the standpoint of the political economist, and follow him in comparing the theoretical and practical claims of the workers.
He tells us that originally and in theory the whole produce of labour belongs to the worker. But at the same time he tells us that in actual fact what the worker gets is the smallest and utterly indispensable part of the product—as much, only, as is necessary for his existence, not as a man but as a worker, and for the propagation, not of humanity but of the slave-class of workers.
The political economist tells us that everything is bought with labour and that capital is nothing but accumulated labour; but at the same time he tells us that the worker, far from being able to buy everything, must sell himself and his human identity.
Whilst the rent of the lazy landowner usually amounts to a third of the product of the soil, and the profit of the busy capitalist to as much as twice the interest on money, the "something more" which the worker himself earns at the best of times amounts to so little that of four children of his, two must starve and die. Whilst according to the political economists it is solely through labour that man enhances the value of the products of nature, whilst labour is man's active property, according to this same political economy the landowner and the capitalist, who qua landowner and capitalist are merely privileged and idle gods, are everywhere superior to the worker and lay down the law to him.
Whilst according to the political economists labour is the sole constant price of things, there is nothing more contingent than the price of labour, nothing exposed to greater fluctuations.
Whilst the division of labour raises the productive power of labour and increases the wealth and refinement of society, it impoverishes the worker and reduces him to a machine. Whilst labour brings about the accumulation of capitals and with this the increasing prosperity of society, it renders the worker ever more dependent on the capitalist, leads him into competition of a new intensity, and drives him into the headlong rush of over-production, with its subsequent corresponding slump.
Whilst the interest of the worker, according to the political economists, never stands opposed to the interest of society, society always and necessarily stands opposed to the interest of the worker.
According to the political economists, the interest of the worker is never opposed to that of society: 1) because the raising of wages is more than made up for by the reduction in the amount of labour-time, together with the other consequences set forth above; and 2) because in relation to society the whole gross product is the net product, and only in relation to the private individual has the "net product" any significance.
But that labour itself, not merely in present conditions but in general in so far as its purpose is the mere increase of wealth—that labour itself, I say, is harmful and pernicious—follows, without his being aware of it, from the political economist's line of argument.
* * *
In theory, ground-rent and profit on capital are deductions suffered by wages. In actual fact, however, wages are a deduction which land and capital allow to go to the worker, a concession from the product of labour to the workers, to labour.
When society is in a state of decline, the worker suffers most severely. The specific severity of his burden he owes to his position as a worker, but the burden as such to the position of society.
But when society is in a state of progress, the ruin and impoverishment of the worker is the product of his labour and of the wealth produced by him. The misery results, therefore, from the essence of present-day labour itself.
Society in a state of maximum wealth, an ideal, but one which is more or less attained, and which at least is the aim of political economy as of civil society, means for the workers static miserly.
It goes without saying that the proletarian, i.e., the man who, being without capital and rent, lives purely by labour, and by a one-sided, abstract labour, is considered by political economy only as a worker. Political economy can therefore advance the proposition that the proletarian, the same as any horse, must get as much as will enable him to work. It does not consider him when he is not working, as a human being; but leaves such consideration to criminal law, to doctors, to religion, to the statistical tables, to politics and to the workhouse beadle.
Let us now rise above the level of political economy and try to answer two questions on the basis of the above exposition, which has been presented almost in the words of the political economists:
(1) What in the evolution of mankind is the meaning of this reduction of the greater part of mankind to abstract labour?
(2) What are the mistakes committed by the piecemeal reformers, who either want to raise wages and in this way to improve the situation of the working class, or regardequality of wages (as Proudhon does) the goal of social revolution?
In political economy labour occurs only in the form of wage-earning activity.
Excerpted from Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 by Karl Marx, Martin Milligan. Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted January 11, 2013
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