Karl Marx’s ‘Wage Labor and Capital’

I wrote these summary notes a few months back when I was reading Marx. I skip Chapter One because it’s just a short preliminary in which Marx sets a historical context.

Chapter Two: Wages are defined as the amount of money the capitalist pays the worker for a certain period or amount of labor. However, what is really purchased is labor power (the capacity for labor) and not labor itself. Think of labor power has one’s mental and physical energy as well as one’s time. What the wage laborer makes is commodities, which are comprised of a use value and and exchange value. The use value refers to the specific use a product fulfills, for example, coffee meets the need for having more energy. The exchange value refers to the quantitative worth of a product. Expressed in terms of money, the exchange value of a commodity is its cost, for example, a cup of coffee’s price or exchange value is three dollars. A wage is the price of labor power. Wages are not shares or percentages of the profits generated from the worker’s labor. The capitalist buys labor power with his already existing capital. The worker’s energy is purchased like any other thing needed for the production of a commodity. The worker gets a wage, but not a percentage of the profits. If the worker got a percentage of the profits and if profits increased, then so too would wages. Capital does not want this to happen because it would decrease its profit. Capitalism is what turned labor power into a commodity to be bought and sold. The commodification of labor power is a defining feature of capitalism. In other words, wage labor is a structure of capital. Sure, the workers can quit his job whenever he wants, but this is merely an abstract freedom. Yes, the worker can quit his job and find another one. But can he really choose to quit wage labor itself or the “whole class of buyers” (20)? If he quits wage slavery altogether, then he faces the perils of unemployment (hunger, poverty, low social status, etc.). True freedom would entail not having to sell one’s labor power to any capitalist and still be fine. So while the wage slave is not owned by any capitalist in particular he is, in fact, effectively owned by the capitalist class. Again, wages are the price of the commodity of labor power. The laws that determine the prices of all other commodities also determine the price of labor power. But what are these laws of the determination of price?

Chapter Three: What determines the price of a commodity? One word: competition. However, competition is threefold: (1) competition between sellers, (2) competition between buyers, (3) competition between sellers and buyers. Price is determined by supply and demand, but what determines the relation between supply and demand? The cost of production. The cost of the production of commodity x is that through which the relation between supply and demand is measured and determined.

Chapter Four: The price of wages (or the price of the labor power of the worker) is determined by the price of the means of subsistence or the means of life (the conditions of keeping the worker in working condition) and by the price of the reproduction of the working class (the cost of having to have the workers fuck and make replacements, i.e., children). The price of the minimum wage is determined at the general level of the working class — not by the individual workers. This means that many workers do not actually receive the minimum wage. For individual reasons and circumstances, many workers are not able to afford to subsist and reproduce themselves. But the wages for the working class in general do adjust themselves so as to preserve the class of wage slaves.

Chapter Five: Capital is not one thing. Capital consists of:

1. raw materials used to produce new raw materials

2. instruments of labor used to produce new instruments of labor

3. means of subsistence used to produce new means of subsistence

4. social relations between capitalists and proletariats

5. the sum of commodities (exchange values)

6. the dominance of accumulated labor over living labor

The economists of the time tended to define capital only in terms of the first three (notice that the first three are not thought of as exchange values here). The first three obviously existed before capitalism. The fifth can be said to predate capitalism as well, but only with bearing in mind that production based on the commodity (exchange values) is something unique to capitalism. It’s the social relations that fundamentally shape the mode of production, that is, it is the relation between capitalist and wage laborer that deterritorialized raw materials, instruments of labor and means of subsistence from their feudalistic parameters and reterritorialized them in a capitalistic way. However, it is the “historical development” of technology or means of production that give rise to the social relations. Industrial capitalism was not possible without the industrial revolution with its technological infrastructure. Yes, there was usury and merchant capital before this, but capital was not able to become the organizing principle of an economy until technology reached a certain stage.

What turns a sum of commodities (exchange values) into capital? It is by seeking to augment this existing value through the exchange with productive, living labor (the wage laborer). This, of course, means that capital proper only exists where wage labor exists. No wage labor means no industrial capital. “The existence of a class which possesses nothing but the ability to work is a necessary presupposition of capital” (30). Capital involves living labor becoming subservient to accumulated labor (capital). Think of accumulated as all of commodities, means of production, etc., already produced. In other words, capital involves workers serving production instead of production serving workers. Living labor is forced to submit to accumulated labor. Instead, of accumulated labor serving to help us increase the quality of our lives, we are forced to work so as to take that existing value and augment it. Capital is accumulated labor that sucks the blood of living labor. Africans were not born slaves — only under certain contingent conditions did an African become a slave. Also, only under certain contingent conditions does a sowing machine become capital and a human being become a wage laborer. Therefore, capital is a set of conditions or a multifaceted process. Capital is not reducible to the capitalist class (a group of people). Capital is a certain logic between various elements, i.e., social relations, raw materials, means of production, labor power, etc.

Chapter Six: It is the wage laborer’s labor power that is capable of producing more value in the production process than is received back in the form of wages. It is the worker’s labor activity that “gives to the accumulated labour a greater value than it previously possessed” (31). In other words, the capitalist only can increase and augment his existing (accumulated) value by having the wage laborer work on it, which is how surplus value is produced. When the wage laborer consumes the means of subsistence, it is not in the process of replacing the means of subsistence for himself. The consumption of the means of subsistence only serves the purpose of returning the laborer to wage work. Under capitalism, the worker has lost the ability to procure and reproduce the means of subsistence on his own. Instead, he is forced into selling his labor power to the capitalist in order to be able to continue his life.

Capital accumulation is only possible with wage labor. It’s only in the dynamics of the wage, having no other commodity than your labor power, that the worker is forced into a situation in which he must produce more value than he is reimbursed for, i.e., of producing surplus value for the capitalist so as to gain the means of subsistence. But this also means that capital is the condition of wage labor. They are mutually conditioning in a circular causality. “Capital therefore presupposes wage-labour; wage-labour presupposes capital. They condition each other; each brings the other into existence” (32). We can say that the interests of the capitalist is the interest of the worker — they do desire the growth of capital. However, they desire this growth for different reasons. The capitalist desires it for the augmentation of his wealth (capital) and the laborer for the continuation of his life (food, clothing, shelter). They may both desire the growth of capital, but only one of them is exploiting the other in the process. The wage laborer has no other way to feed himself without employment — this is why he is dependent on capital. This is a kind of slavery. What we’ll come to see is that the interest of the capitalist and the interest of the worker are “diametrically opposed to each other” (39).

There are three main aspects to the wage:

(1) nominal wages (the money price of wages)

(2) real wages (the effective buying power of wages)

(3) relative wages (the relation between wages and capital)

There is no absolute identity between nominal wages and real wages. We may continue to get the same money price of our wage during the inflation of all other commodities, but this effectively means that our real wage has decrease, since we have less buying power, that is, since we can buy fewer commodities. However, the main determining factor of wages is their relation to capital/profit or the amount of surplus value the laborer produces and becomes the property of the capitalist. But what are relative wages? “Relative wages . . . express the share of immediate labour in the value newly created by it, in relation to the share of it which falls . . . to capital” (35). In other words, relative wages have to do with the ratio between necessary labor and surplus labor. Relative wages have to do with the ratio between wages and the profits of the capitalist. If nominal wages remain the same while profits keep on increasing, then relative wages have gone down. This means less and less power for the worker and more and more power for the capitalist. This is the mechanism of the accumulation of wealth, power, injustice, exploitation and inequality.

Chapter Seven: Wages are a part of accumulated labor, that is, they have their source in already-existing capital. They are not a share or percentage of the new value (surplus value, profit, new commodities) the wage laborer produces. If they were a definite share, then wages would proportionately increase with the increase of profit or surplus value.

The three parts of the selling price of commodities:

(1) the price of the replacement of raw materials and the price of upkeep on machines

(2) the price of wages

(3) the amount of profit or surplus value

The first is just the replacement of previously existing values, which means that the new value created in production comes from the second and the third, i.e., wages and surplus labor. Let’s return to relative wages. Marx shows that if nominal wages fall 1/3 and the price of means of subsistence has fallen 2/3, then the worker can get more commodities than before, since real wages have gone up. However, there’s also the relative wage. Though the worker can now buy more shit with his wage than before, his wage has also now decreased in relation the amount of capital/profit gained by the capitalist. Since the nominal wage has decreased, the capitalist is going to make more profits, since the cost of labor is cheaper. The wage might have fallen, but the worker is still expected to do the same work as before, which means the capitalist’s overall profit has increased. Now there’s greater inequality and exploitation. The law that determines the rise and fall of wages and profit is the fact that they stand in an inverse proportion to each other. It is the law of inverse proportion. The profit of the capitalist is directly and structurally tied to the wage of the worker. If relative wages go down, then profit goes up.

Chapter Eight: The increase of capital/profit decreases the relative wages of workers, which amounts to saying that the tendency of capitalism is to create more and more distance between capitalist and worker. The capitalist gets more and more powerful while the worker is perpetually losing power and social influence. The inequality of wealth between them makes the one have an enormous amount of power and influence and the other have virtually none at all. Capital destroys democracy while claiming to spread it throughout the world.

Chapter Nine: Capital (the capitalist) has to always seek a greater division of labor and new machinery in order to compete with other capitals (wealth of other capitalists). But what does this do to wages? First, increase in the division of labor makes one worker able to do what it used to take many to do. This means that there ends up being more competition between workers. Second, the greater the division of labor, the simpler the labor and, therefore, the cheaper the labor. Of course, the simplification of labor means that the labor becomes more and more mind-numbing and soul-crushing (capital gives zero fucks about this though). The less specialized the work, the greater the competition for it, since anybody can do it. Simplification of labor means a cut in the cost of production, which means that one’s labor power has less value, i.e., wages drop. This drop in wages has nothing to do with the moral character of the capitalist — it is a structural effect of capital accumulation or the logic of capital itself. The moral sentiment and character of the particular capitalist has nothing to do with it. The worker must maintain his wage by either working longer or more intensely or both. This produces more competition between workers, which means that the cost of wages is driven down. Not only does capitalism pit the worker against the capitalist — it also pits worker against worker. “To sum up: the more productive capital grows, the more it extends the division of labour and the application of machinery; the more the division of labour and the application of machinery extend, the more does competition extend among the workers, the more do their wages shrink together” (47). In other words, the more capital grows, the more the worker gets fucked. And as Scarface put, “You know what capitalism is? Getting fucked.” Even many of those belonging to the middle class (small scale manufacturers) will eventually be forced into wage slavery. Also, over time, crises increase for big capital, which effects the whole of society. Capital not only lives on labor, feeds on it like a parasite, sucks its blood like a vampire, it also kills labor whenever it lands in a crisis. Capital: parasite and murderer. The rapid growth of capital both increases employment for more and more people but also lowers the value of their labor power (shittier jobs, shittier conditions) by forcing greater competition among the workers to work harder (longer and/or more intensely) for less many. Thus, the rapid growth of capital fucks workers.

I would prefer not to.