Let’s Put the Nature of Work on Labor’s Agenda: Part Seven


Michael D. Yates, “Let’s Put the Nature of Work on Labor’s Agenda,” Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6

The reason why work is so unsatisfying is simple.  Work cannot be fulfilling; it cannot allow us to fully use our uniquely human capacities; it cannot be anything but profoundly alienating because of the nature of capitalism.  This nature can be expressed in a famous phrase of Karl Marx: “Accumulate! Accumulate! That is Moses and the Prophets!” Capitalist productions begins with a sum of money, call it “M,” or money capital.  This sum of money is used to buy the means of production, the machines, tools, buildings, and  materials necessary for the production of a product, and the labor power needed to activate these things. Let’s call these means of production “C,” or commodity capital. Once the means of production are purchased in the marketplace, they are combined under the supervision of the capitalists’ managers to produce the output, for example automobiles or the services of a bank.  These can be represented as “C’,” or commodities for sale. Finally the business returns the product to the marketplace and sells it for money, or “M’.” The goal is to make the second M as much larger than the first M as possible and then to begin the process anew, with the aim of making the capital grow as much as possible.  In other words, what makes capitalism tick is not the making of useful things for human well-being but the profits and growth that constitute the “accumulation of capital.”  Every capitalist enterprise must do this to avoid being driven out of business competitors. As the Jews had to obey the commandments Moses got from God, capitalists must obey the law of the marketplace. Accumulate or die.

But while the accumulation of capital is the goal of all capitalists, it remains to discover how this accumulation is possible.  How precisely is the M converted into the M’?  Marx’s answer to this question also answers the riddle of human beings capable of so much doing so little in terms of meaningful work. The following description of Marx’s analysis of the source of profits, which is also his analysis of why work is alienating in capitalism, is taken from Chapter Six of my book, Naming the System:

Marx argued that markets represented capitalism’s appearances but not its ultimate reality.  Underneath the market was a reality of exploitation of labor by capital.  The market served as a veil, a cover we have to remove if we want to see capitalism’s reality.  Workers are exploited just as certainly as slaves and serfs, but the way in which this occurs is much different.  Workers are cheated behind their backs, so to speak.

The key to Marx’s theory lies in the movement from C to C’ in the letter scheme.  Remember that this transition takes place inside of the workplace.  It is here that the workers confront the capitalist. They have the potential to labor, and the capitalist has the “duty” to convert this labor power into actual work.  Let us use an example to see what happens.  Suppose we consider a company that produces and sells cut flowers in Colombia, South America, one of the world’s leading exporters of cut flowers.

Maria at a Flower Factory

Maria Full of Grace

The young women who became drug smugglers in the film Maria Full of Grace worked in just such a company.  We see bouquets of such flowers, which are flown daily to the United States, for sale in many different places, from grocery stores to florists’ shops.

Each day our cut flower company employs some average number of workers. Assume that this number is 1,000 employees.  Furthermore, these 1,000 workers use up a certain amount of the machines, materials, and the like each day.  Assume that each day, 500 “units” of this “constant capital” are used up along with the 1,000 units of labor power or “variable capital.”  Each “unit” consists of an amount of raw materials plus some fraction of the long-lasting constant capital (a bit of the machinery is used up or depreciated every day, along with a bit of the land, buildings, and equipment).  That is, each “unit” of constant capital consists of a composite of raw materials and long-lasting constant capital.

How much will the cut flower employer have to pay for the constant and variable capital used up each day?  Marx employed a device known as the labor theory of value to answer this question.  The labor theory of value says that, in competitive markets, commodities that can be produced over and over again exchange in the marketplace according to the amount of average quality work time it takes to produce them.  Adam Smith has a simple example in The Wealth of Nations.  Suppose we have an economy in which two animals are hunted, and the hunters use only their hands to capture the animals.  Smith used beaver and deer in his example.  Let us say that an average quality hunter requires two hours of work to capture a beaver but four hours to get a deer.  If beaver and deer are traded, it is clear that, in equilibrium, two beavers must exchange for one deer.  This is because what is really exchanging are the labor times: four hours for four hours.  No person would trade three beavers for one deer, because  in the six hours it takes to capture three beavers, it would be possible to get a deer on your own (or hire someone to get one for a “price” just a bit above two hours) for four hours and have two hours left over.  If deer and beaver have prices, it is clear that the price of a deer must be twice that of a beaver.

If we make our example more realistic and allow for a weapon to be used in the hunting, the example becomes more complicated because the time required for a capture must now include some small part of the time it took to produce the weapon (a small part because the weapon can be used to hunt many animals before it wears out).  However, this complication does not alter the principle that, in equilibrium, equal labor times must exchange.  In any event, let us assume that the labor theory of value is correct, and commodities exchange in proportion to the average quality labor time it takes to make them.

Our cut flower employer has to purchase, given our assumptions, 500 “units” of constant capital each day.  The price paid will depend on the labor time embodied in each unit.  Assume that it took six hours of average quality labor to produce each unit.  This means that the cut flower employer will have to “pay” 3,000 hours for the 3,000 hours of constant capital (remember that equal labor times exchange in the market).  The 1,000 workers employed on average each day will have to labor 3,000 hours to produce the cut flowers which, when sold, will pay for the constant capital used up each day.  Each worker will have to labor for three hours per day (3,000 hours divided by the 1,000 workers).  What is true for these workers is true for all wage workers; part of their work day pays for the constant capital used up by their employer.

The variable capital presents a problem for this analysis.  It is clear that the machinery, raw materials, and other forms of constant capital were actually made by workers somewhere in the world and thus have definite amounts of labor time embedded in them.  However, labor power, itself, is not produced in factories like tractors and shipping crates.  An employer cannot go to a labor power factory and order so many units of it.  So, how can the labor theory of value apply to the price of labor power?  It can be applied, but in a roundabout way.  Marx argued that workers produce their own labor power, and they do this by consuming a definite quantity of goods and services.  In order for workers to get to work every day and work with an average intensity over their work lives, they must obviously eat a certain amount of food, obtain an adequate amount of shelter and clothes, and consume whatever else is necessary to continue to work.  In other works, reversing the way we usually think of it, workers must eat to work and not the other way around.

Put simply, there is some “basket” of necessities which an average worker must consume to maintain his or her labor power.  Now, this basket of goods and services took labor time to produce.  Some definite amount of labor power must be exerted to produce the basket of necessary goods and services.  This means that, on average, an employer must pay workers a wage that will purchase this basket; otherwise, the workers will not be able to maintain their labor power, much to the detriment of both parties.  Assume that the basket of necessary daily consumer goods and services takes five hours to produce.  Each worker’s wage must then be equivalent to five hours of labor.  The 1,000 workers will have to work 5,000 hours (five hours per worker per day) to produce the cut flowers which, when sold, will pay them wages just sufficient to buy the basket of needed consumer goods and services.  The minimum long-term wage rate is the equivalent of five hours of labor time.

We have, then, our employer purchasing the requisite amounts of constant and variable capital each day: 3,000 hours worth of constant capital and 5,000 hours worth of variable capital.  The total “cost” is 8,000 hours or eight hours per worker per day.  For our employer to break even, to just cover costs of production, the work day must be exactly eight hours long.  Notice that these eight hours are indistinguishable from the employer’s point of view.  The constant capital is not paid for in the first three hours of the work day and the labor power in the next five.  Whatever length the work day happens to be, eight hours of it are necessary to pay for the constant and variable capitals.

The question is: how long will the work day be?  If we think back to the time of Marx, when expropriated peasants were flocking to the towns and cities desperate for work, or about conditions prevailing in most of the world today, it is clear that employers have the power to set the length of the work day.  This power is rooted in their monopoly ownership of the nonhuman means of production.  If workers do not get access to these means of production, they will die, so the employer has great leverage over them.  They must work on the employers’ terms or not at all.

Employers will set the work day as long as their power allows them to make it, consistent with their drive to accumulate capital.  They cannot make the work day twenty-four hours long for each worker, but as the history of capitalism shows, they can make it very long indeed.  Let us suppose that employers, including our cut flower capitalist, are powerful enough to set the average work day at twelve hours.  What we immediately see is that there are four more hours than the eight hours it takes to pay for the capital used up each day.  These extra hours, Marx called “surplus labor time.”  What distinguishes these from the other eight is that there are no costs of production associated with them.  They are “free” to the employer.  One-third of the work day (one-third of every hour, minute, second of labor) is surplus for the employer.  However, these hours are not free for the workers.  They are expected, indeed compelled, to labor as hard in these hours, producing cut flowers, as they do in the other eight hours.  Therefore, the output they produce in the surplus labor time is surplus as well, “surplus value,” as Marx called it.  When the capitalist returns to the market place and sells the surplus output, the money returned to the employer is profit.

Marx’s great insight was to see that profits derive from the surplus labor time of the workers inside of the work place.  They do not derive from market transactions; the market just allows the surplus already created to be realized in a money form.  Paraphrasing Marx, workers go into the workplace with only their hides, and what they get inside of them is a “hiding.”  Our cut flower workers get paid for twelve hours of labor if they are paid by the hour.  But their pay is not the  equivalent of twelve hours of output, only eight. The market makes it appear as if they are getting the market wage for all twelve hours, that they are not being cheated.  However, they are being cheated in advance, so to speak; surplus labor is forced from them inside their work places.

If profits, the source of the capital accumulation that is the system’s motor force, derive from the surplus labor time of workers, it follows that employers must do everything in their power to maintain and increase this time.  Which means, in turn, that they have to control the labor process.  Alienating and meaningless work is the direct outcome.

To be continued. . . .

Michael D. Yates is associate editor of Monthly Review. He was for many years professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is author of Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs: Employment and Unemployment in the United States (1994), Why Unions Matter (1998), and Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global System (2004), all published by Monthly Review Press.