WORKER AS SLAVE
To distinguish the workers themselves from their ability or capacity to work, Marx called the latter labour power, and its performance or application labour. These concepts are important but often misunderstood. The most important distinguishing feature of capitalism is that labour power becomes a commodity. The capitalist is the purchaser, the worker is the seller, and the price of labour power is the wage. The worker sells labour power to the capitalist, who determines how that labour power should be exercised as labour to produce particular commodities. As a commodity, labour power has a use value, which is the creation of other use values. This property is independent of the particular society in which production takes place. However, in capitalist societies use values are produced for sale and, as such, embody abstract labour time or value. In these societies, the commodity labour power also has the specific use value that is the source of value when exercised as labour. In this, labour power is unique.
The worker is not therefore a slave in the conventional sense of the word and sold like other commodities, but owns and sells labour power. Also, the length of time for which the sale is made or formally contracted is often very short (one week, one month, or sometimes only until a specific task has been completed). Yet in many other respects the worker is like a slave. The worker has little or no control over the labour process or product. There is the freedom to refuse to sell labour power, but this is a partial freedom, the alternative in the limit being starvation or social degradation. One could as well argue that a slave could flee or refuse to work, although the level and immediacy of retribution are of a different order altogether. For these reasons the workers under capitalism have been described as wage slaves, although the term is an oxymoron. You cannot be both slave and wage worker – by definition, the slave does not have the freedoms that the wage worker must enjoy, irrespective of other conditions.
On the other side to the class of workers are the capitalists, who control the workers and the product of labour through their command of wage payments and ownership of the tools and raw materials, or means of production. This is the key to the property relations specific to capitalism. For the capitalist monopoly of the means of production ties the workers to the wage relation, explained above. If the workers owned or were entitled to use the means of production independently of the wage contract, there would be no need to sell labour power rather than the product on the market and, therefore, no need to submit to capitalist control in society, both during production and outside it.
© Ben Fine & Alfredo Saad-Filho – Marx’s ‘Capital’ – PlutoPress