Written in 1847 by Karl Marx, the German philosopher, political economist and communist revolutionary, Wage Labour and Capital is an in-depth text centered around the idea that labour power is sold to capitalists. The book was republished by Engels in 1891 as he believed specific changes needed to be made, “specifically the distinction between ‘labour’ and ‘labour power'” (1). Marx who was “born in Trier Germany in 1818” (2), had a significant impact in developing ideas based around communism and socialism and published these ideas in various works. This specific piece focuses primarily on how a particular economy (capitalist) works, how those in a capitalist economy are exploited and ultimately how the relationship between capital and labour is “dialectically self-destructive” (Marx-Engels, pg. 203). In this essay, I will discuss exactly what Marx is trying to explain to us with regard to wage labour and capital, as well as demonstrate why he believes the capital system is flawed. Furthermore, I will provide my own personal view on the subject by explaining which ideas of Marx I agree and perhaps disagree with.
Marx immediately jumps into the discussion of wage labour by posing two basic questions, “What are wages?” and “How are they determined?” (Marx-Engels, pg 204). According to Marx, any worker(s) in a capitalist economy are ultimately selling their labour power to the capitalist for a specific sum of money. Marx uses the example of weaving a yard of linen or type-setting a printed sheet. The capitalist is in theory buying the labour power with money, while workers are selling labour power for money. It is clear, however, that the money that is given to the worker(s) by the capitalist could have been spent on any other available commodity, thus the labour power a worker offers is equivalent to any other commodity. As Marx explains in his example, “the two marks, with which he bought two pounds of sugar, are the price of the two pounds of sugar. The two marks, with which he bought twelve hours’ use of labour power, are the price of twelve hours’ of labour” (Marx-Engels, pg 204). In other words, “the workers’ labour power has been exchanged for an amount of commodities measured by money” (1). Why is labour power sold by the worker(s) to the capitalist? It is simple, to be able to live! What Marx explains is the fact that the labour which workers engage in is basically the way in which they live their life. Thus, “his life-activity is for him only a means to enable him to exist” (Marx-Engels, pg 204). A worker must sell this labour in order to be able to live. Their work is what lets them live. The worker also does not “reckon labor as a part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life” (Marx-Engels, pg 204). It is evident that Marx is trying to expose the fact that labour was not always wage labour, and that a “slave did not sell his labour power to a slave owner” ((Marx-Engels, pg 205). The concept of wage labour is the result of capitalism, where workers are free to choose whether or not they want to sell this ‘labour power’ they posses to any willing capitalists who might be interested in buying. Likewise, capitalists have the free choice to ‘fire’ workers when they believe profits are not being made. When one worker is worn out he can be replaced by another. I found this section extremely intriguing as Marx exposed me to new ideas that I had never considered prior to reading this piece. At first it was hard to comprehend, but I soon understood what he was trying to say. Originally, when I thought of someone working, that’s all it was to me, someone working. Now, however, I see the relationship between labour power and capital. I can see how Marx tries to show us that man is in essence capital and that the labour workers provide is essentially a commodity like all others. The goal of capitalists is to make the most profit possible while maintaining the lowest costs of production. They don’t care about the workers, because they mean nothing. It is easy to mistake the fact that we think we need the capitalist when in reality, we are the ones who possess the skill and labour power, so ultimately it is he/she who needs us. Though it was somewhat challenging, I felt that Marx made this section extremely rewarding when understood.
In the proceeding section Marx goes into further depth with regard to capital. He explains that it consists of “raw materials, instruments of labour and means of subsistence of all kinds, which are utilized in order to produce new raw materials, new instruments of labour and new means of subsistence”. However, these components are merely “creations of labour, product of labour, [and] accumulated labour. Accumulated labour which serves as a means of new production is capital” (Marx-Engels, pg 207). Additionally, we learn that during production, men must interact between one another, exchanging their activities in order to produce something. Only once a “definite connection and relation” (Marx-Engels pg 207) has been established can their action of production actually occur. We also learn that these social relations which are created between men constantly change over time with new innovations and developments to means of production. It is as if all components are intertwined, whereby social relations of production make up the “social relations, society, and, specifically a society at definitive stage of historical development” (Marx-Engels, pg 207). Therefore, any society at any specific point in time is displaying the stage of development by mankind. For example, the bourgeois society is responsible for the production relation that is capital. But what exactly is capital? Capital in itself must be the sum of all material products, commodities, exchange values, or social magnitudes. So what exactly is happening when this capital grows? In other words, capital thrives solely on exchanging itself with wage labour. When capital goes up so does wage labour, and more wage workers are required, resulting in the capitalist to gaining more power over the worker(s).Growth of productive capital, therefore, means that the capitalists is gaining more power over the workers. Marx then goes on to question what will occur to wages when there is a growth of production capital. What he tells us here is that when productive capital increases, so does the accumulation of labour. As a result the number of capitals in enabled to increase creating more competition amongst them. This increased competition creates tension amongst to capitalists where one wants to ‘be better’ then the other. One thing that’s clear is when the power of labour armies’ increases, the capitalists has the ability to try and ‘ruin’ his competitors. How can he do this? It’s obvious, sell cheaper than your competitors. You must however find the balance where you can sell cheap enough without harming yourself, and Marx says this can be done by boosting the productive power of labour. Marx also makes it evident that by improving machinery one can create greater division of labour, which would result in increase productive power of labour. This is because there is more division amongst a larger labour force and more improved machinery, which causes the cost of production for the capitalist to decrease. Thus, as Marx points out, “a general rivalry arises among the capitalist to increase the division of labour and machinery and to exploit them on the greatest scale possible” (Marx-Engels, pg 212). The question is what will happen according to Marx if this continues? We can conclude by saying that if capital continues to grow, then the competition between the worker(s) will also grow. However, the growth in competition experienced by the working class will be even larger than the rate of growth experienced by capital. After reading the next few sections, I soon realized that they were even more challenging and testing than the previous ones. Marx goes into such depth with regard to the relations between labour power and capital as well as all the components that make up capital. After reading it several times I soon understood how production was ultimately the relations built between men, whereby men had to come to terms by cooperating with one another in a “certain way and mutually exchanging their activities” (Marx’s-Engels, pg 207). Marx makes it clear that the capitalist goal is to try and increase their productive power as much as possible at whatever cost possible and figure they can do this by lowering all costs of production. This is something experienced every day. Company’s attempting to gain market power by improving machinery to lower costs of production, so that they can sell what is being produced at the lowest possible price. It is also clear that workers have to compete with one another more and more. The capitalist doesn’t care about the worker at all. We can see how Marx tries to explain how the capitalists are solely concerned with extending markets, but in doing so are contracting the world market as “fewer and fewer new markets remain available for exploitation” (Marx-Engels, pg 217). As a result he feels the whole system will come down and cave in on itself.
To conclude, I felt this piece on wage labour and capital was extremely insightful. I was able to penetrate into the mind of Karl Marx and uncover his personal views on the capitalistic economy and the way in which he feels it is flawed. As he is a strong believer in the communistic ways, it is clear Marx is determined to expose why we mustn’t follow the ways of other economies. Though I felt the work was somewhat demanding to understand, after reading it several times I slowly began to make the connections to what he was trying to say. Personally, I enjoyed learning how a strict communist views capitalism and why he thinks it’s a bad system.
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