Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Labour-Power

Labour-power is what it suggests, the power to perform Labour, that is the power of free labour to create new value. All human beings working freely have the power to perform labour, and, therefore, to create new value. Working freely here has to be understood in the sense that the person performing the labour is themselves free, i.e. they are not a slave or serf. All labour is in reality compulsory, because, without labour being performed, human beings cannot provide themselves with the products they need to survive. This is a fundamental aspect of the Law of Value. As Marx put it,

“As for the Centralblatt, the man is making the greatest concession possible by admitting that, if value means anything at all, then my conclusions must be conceded. The unfortunate fellow does not see that, even if there were no chapter on ‘value’ at all in my book, the analysis I give of the real relations would contain the proof and demonstration of the real value relation. The chatter about the need to prove the concept of value arises only from complete ignorance both of the subject under discussion and of the method of science. Every child knows that any nation that stopped working, not for a year, but let us say, just for a few weeks, would perish. And every child knows, too, that the amounts of products corresponding to the differing amounts of needs demand differing and quantitatively determined amounts of society’s aggregate labour. It is self-evident that this necessity of the distribution of social labour in specific proportions is certainly not abolished by the specific form of social production; it can only change its form of manifestation. Natural laws cannot be abolished at all.”


In the same way, the peasant that labours on the land of the Lord of the Manor for part of the week does not do so freely, but as a legal requirement to do so as a payment of rent, just as they perform similar labour to pay taxes to the state, and tithes to the Church. As Marx demonstrates at length in Capital, wage labourers also perform labour for capital, which is unpaid, and which constitutes surplus value. But, both the peasant and the worker are in control of their own body in performing this labour, in a way that neither the slave nor the serf are. Both of the latter, therefore, are in reality no different than a beast of burden or machine, which can only transfer a portion of their own value to the end product, rather than create new value. As Marx puts it,

“... in the relations of slavery and serfdom…The slave stands in no relation whatsoever to the objective conditions of his labour; rather, labour itself, both in the form of the slave and in that of the serf, is classified as an inorganic condition of production along with other natural beings, such as cattle, as an accessory of the earth.” (Grundrisse p 489)


Labour-power is then a use value of free human beings, and as with any other use value its value is determined by the labour required for its own production. The power to perform labour cannot be separated from the human being that performs it, and so the labour required for the production of that labour-power is the labour required to produce the human being that undertakes it. In other words, the value of labour-power is equal to the labour-time required for the reproduction of the labourer, for the production of all the things the labourer needs to consume. As Marx states above, in the letter to Kugelmann, this is true in all forms of society.

But, Marx says, it is only under the specific historical conditions of Capitalism that the use value that is Labour-power becomes a commodity. A peasant is free to sell their labour-power, if they so choose rather than to employ it wholly on their own production. But, the conditions under which this peasant sells their labour-power are different from those of the wage worker.

Suppose, a peasant works for 100 hours on their own land, producing 100 kilos of potatoes. The peasant may only require 50 kilos of potatoes to reproduce their labour-power. The value of their labour-power is then 50 hours, its exchange value is 50 kilos of potatoes. They are then free to sell the remaining 50 kilos, as a surplus product, and to obtain additional commodities with it. This surplus product is a surplus value in the sense that it has a value in excess of the value of the peasant's labour power, but it is not a surplus value in the sense that this value is in excess of the labour performed by the peasant. It is not something that has come to him with no equivalent. But, suppose the same peasant sells their 100 hours of labour-power to someone else, again producing 100 kilos of potatoes. If the purchaser of this 100 hours of labour-power, offered to pay the peasant with just the 50 kilos of potatoes required for the reproduction of the peasant's labour power, the peasant would tell them where to stick the offer, because it would be obvious to the peasant that they had been robbed of 50 kilos of potatoes.

In fact, we know this to be the case, because in pre-capitalist economies, it is precisely on this basis of an exchange of equal amounts of labour-time that such relations occur.

“... the principle of exchange is people and days. Thus if household A has two people at work on household B’s field for two days, household B is expected to provide its equivalent on A’s fields…” (John Embree – “Mura, A Japanese Village” pp 100-1.)

In Africa, Ralph Piddington tells us that a peasant from the Heh tribe who orders a spear from the smith works on the smith’s land while he is making the spear. (“An Introduction to Social Anthropology” p 275.) 

“Should a Dadaga wish more of these utensils, he would have to work in the field of the Kota iron worker of whom he requested them while they were being forged.” (David Mandelbaum, “Notes on Fieldwork in India”, in Herskovits “Economic Life of Primitive Peoples” pp 136-7)

The corporations of Antiquity and in those of China and Byzantium and in the European and Arab Middle Ages fixed rules, known to all, which laid down the labour time to be devoted to the making of each object, the length of apprenticeship, its cost and the equivalent normally to be asked for each commodity. (Georges Espinas “Les Origines du Capitalisme” pp 118, 140-2).

In fact, in many places, not only were such prices set down, but it was frequently illegal to exchange at different prices, and those that paid higher prices were often punished more severely than those that charged them!

This demonstrates why it is only wage labour that produces surplus value. The slave or serf does not sell labour-power, or even provide labour-power. The slave or serf does work in the same way that a beast of burden or machine does work. It is the slave or serf themselves that is a commodity, which is bought and sold the same as any other piece of equipment. The value of the slave or serf, like any other piece of equipment, is determined by what has to be paid for them and their maintenance. In other words, it is equal to the value of all those commodities, such as food, clothing and shelter required to reproduce them. Like any other piece of equipment, it is only this value which is transferred piecemeal to the products the slave or serf produces. In that the Physiocrats were right. They were wrong in applying that principle to Labour itself.

The free direct producer does not sell themselves or their labour-power. Instead they sell the surplus of their production. That is all those use values they do not require for their own consumption. The value of all the commodities they produce is equal to the labour-time they expend. Unlike the slave or serf, the value of the commodities required for the reproduction of the free direct producer is irrelevant. Unlike the slave or serf, it is not the direct producer that is being bought and sold, but only the product of their labour. But, the cost of reproducing themselves clearly is important for the direct producer, because they must at least create enough new value to cover that cost.

The direct producer is also different to the wage worker, because they do not sell their labour-power, but the product of their labour. If, the direct producer works for 100 hours, they produce commodities with a value equal to that 100 hours. Suppose, the direct producer here is a carpenter producing furniture, all of which is to be sold. In return for this furniture they will receive back other commodities also with a value equal to 100 hours. That might be through direct barter for these other commodities, or because they receive the equivalent of 100 hours in money form. So, the direct producer can never produce a surplus value, because the value of the commodities they produce and sell is never more than the labour they have themselves expended.

But, the situation is completely different with the sale of labour-power by wage labourers to capital. The wage worker sells their labour-power as a commodity to capital. Capital pays the worker the equivalent of the value of that labour-power, but the worker is then required to perform labour, creating new value to a greater extent, i.e. to create a surplus value. Looked at from the perspective of the capitalist, they lay out say the equivalent of 100 hours for the equipment and machines used, 50 hours for the labour-power bought, making 150 hours cost. But, the value of the commodities produced is 100 hours contained in machines and material, 100 hours labour performed by the wage labourer, making 200 hours. They sell the commodities then for the equivalent of 200 hours labour, giving them a surplus value of 50 hours.

So long, therefore, as the producers own their means of production, and can create new value, at least equal to the value of their own labour-power, wage labour cannot develop, because wage labour requires that workers hand over a portion of the new value they create without receiving anything in return. There is no reason why a peasant would willingly do that, but the wage worker is left with no alternative, because they do not own their means of production, and cannot provide for their own reproduction. Consequently, they have no alternative but to sell the only thing they have to sell, their labour-power, as a commodity.

A requirement for labour-power to become a commodity, therefore, is that the mass of producers must be separated from their means of production. This expropriation, by force of various types, of the property of the direct producers, was a precondition for the development of wage labour and of Capitalism.

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