An ongoing series going through Marx, Capital Volume 1. Access free electronic copies of Volume 1 here or here. [Capital Volume I, Chapter 19-22, pgs. 675-706 of Penguin Press]
The next four chapters are all grouped under part 6, “Wages”.
Chapter 19: The Transformation of the Value (and Respectively the Price) of Labour-Power into Wages
This is a short chapter but an important one: I think its one of the places where Marx most clearly says what he thinks is going on with value.
We have so far been talking about it as the “price of labour”. But remember from part 3 that the price of something is just the name of its value, the sticker the shopkeeper puts on the commodity. Names can be misleading: you can name your cat “Dog” if you want to, but that’s not going to make your cat start barking or giving a shit about your life and safety. We can wonder, then, what the price of labor has to do with its value, if anything. Since Marx is team labor theory of value, he measures the value of labor the same way he measures the value of anything else: the amount of labor expended in it. Wait…what? How do we measure the quantity of labor in a 12 hour working day? Wouldn’t it have to be…12 hours of work? Nonsense, says Marx!
Yeah, I know. But we would be forgetting about a couple things. For instance, surplus value – the pointof capitalism – and the fact that it requires surplus labor. The capitalist and the worker aren’t exchanging equivalent things when 12 hour shifts are traded for 12 hours worth of wages. Plus, the labor time we use to measure the value of something is the labor-time required to produce it, which would be different from the length working day itself(677-678).
Not confused enough yet? Let me help: Marx also thinks there’s a difference between the value of labor power and labor itself. He claims that the difference between labor-power (the personality and capacities of the workers) is different from labor in the way that a machine is different from the operations it performs (e.g. the typewriter in front of you is different from the concept of typing and their values are also different) (677-678). The cost of producing or reproducing the worker is the value of their labor power, which (Marx says) classical political economists have confused with the value of labor itself.
Now enter surplus value: say necessary labor time for a worker is 6 hours, and the worker’s wages of $3 represents the value of this amount of time, as we’ve been assuming. Say the working day is 12 hours long. The worker receives the value of their labor power ($3) but works 6 hours longer than is necessary to make enough value to reproduce their labor for another day – that’s the surplus labor that produces the surplus value the capitalist is in this whole arrangement for. Say this labor produces another $3, and so when the day is said and done the worker has produced $6 with “labor” that is worth $3. This is why that earlier distinction is important: the labor is worth 6, but the labor-power is worth 3. If the capitalist actually paid the value of labor, he wouldn’t make any surplus value and capitalism wouldn’t get started, since, again, surplus value is the whole point. The fact that wages actually pay for labor power ($3, 6 hours) but pretends to pay for labor ($6, 12 hours) is the political sleight of hand that is a fundamental basis of capital for Marx. (678-682).
Chapter 20: Time-Wages The sale of labor power takes place for definite periods of time: hours, or a working day. But people’s labor varies: maybe you didn’t get a lot of sleep Monday but were really on the ball Tuesday, but both days you worked 12 hours and got 12 hours worth of wages (this is a difference in intensity, which we discussed in part 10). We just use averages here to get around this problem (see the parenthetical in part 1 if you don’t know why this solves the problem).
Not a lot of action in this chapter if you ask me, but one important thing is on 686, where Marx predicts a complication that’s very relevant today given to our increasingly precarized, flexibilized labor force. If capitalists don’t have to pay daily or weekly wages but instead can pay in smaller or more targeted instruments (say) the hour, the capitalist can “wring from the worker a certain quantity of surplus labor without allowing him the labour-time necessary for his own subsistence”.
I’m looking at you, Uber and Lyft
Chapter 21: Piece-Wages The piece-wage is compensation for individual, distinct and measurable contributions to construction. Think: a deli worker paid by the sandwich she makes, or a programmer paid per line of code, a sales person paid entirely on commission. This was called the “sweating system” in England for reasons you can guess: capitalists use it to squeeze more and more intense work out of people, since being employed didn’t guarantee how much money you’d make (695).
Marx thinks this is just a converted form of the time-wage, since it ultimately just measures the workers’ days in products or “pieces” made (since we could explain differences in how many pieces workers’ make from day to day using averages, so long as we remember that we’re averaging different intensities, the same kind of thinking we just used for chapter 20).
Chapter 22: National Differences in Wages
You might want to compare differences in wage-levels in different nations. This would be hard cause we’d want to take into account differences in the value of labor power (since wages are the prices or names of this value): the “part played by the labour of women and children”, labor productivity, the cost of training workers, “Natural and historical development”, etc. (701). We could, in theory, average the intensity of labour from country to country and make a scale which would represent units of universal abstract labour. But that would be complicated by differences in the value of money (which we use to measure the value of other things), since the value of money itself is based on the larger economy and the state of development of capitalism in a nation (702).
Marx takes the last part of this chapter to shit on an (American?) economist, H. Carey, for suggesting that wages might rise and fall in proportion to the productivity of labor. As with most of Marx’s personal beefs, I don’t care a whole lot about it, but it is interesting what mistakes Marx thinks Carey made. First, Marx portrays Carey as a free market guy: as having thought that capitalist relations of production were eternal laws of nature and reason and not to be disturbed by the state – except, it would seem, to counter the “diabolical influence of England on the world market”. Marx points out the contradiction here with relish: does that influence spring from the ‘natural laws’ of capitalist production? If that’s true then maybe that influence is ‘rational’ and shouldn’t be opposed. Or nah, in which case maybe the explanation of the economic world is less ‘natural’ than free market theorists like Carey pretend. (705). Second, Marx claims that it is “trade which destroys the inborn beauties and harmonies of the capitalist mode of production” but doesn’t explain this (here). Hmm…(706)