Week 10: Nov 16 Discussion Board

Please feel free to follow up on this week’s discussion about Federici here.


the abstraction of human labor into something that can be exchanged for money. The relation of labor-power to the actual labor of a private individual is analogous the relation of exchange-value to use-value. The system of labor-power relies on the belief that the laborer chooses freely to enter into a contractual relationship with an employer, who purchases that worker’s labor power as a commodity and then owns the goods produced by that worker. However, the worker is exploited insofar as he has no other option: the capitalist owns all the means of production. Also, the capitalist seeks to achieve the highest possible rate of surplus-value, which “depends, in the first place, on the degree of exploitation of labour-power” (747). The capitalist seeks to provide the laborer only enough money to subsist and to produce more laborers (through child-bearing).


The Proletariat

The English word ‘proletariat‘ is derived from the Latin ‘proles’, meaning ‘offspring’, since according to Roman law a proletarian served the state “… not with his property, but only with his offspring (Charles T. Onions (Ed.): ibid.; p. 714).

Marxist-Leninists define the proletariat or working class as

“…that class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live (Friedrich Engels: Note to the 1888 English Edition of: Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels: ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, in: ‘Selected Works’, Volume 1; London; 1943; p. 204).


Primitive accumulation

Primitive accumulation is the process by which precapitalist modes of production, such as feudalism and chattel slavery, are transformed into the capitalist mode of production.

Marx was not the first to consider the way in which feudal production was transformed into capitalism. For example, Adam Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations that capitalism arose out an ever increasing division of labor, where individual producers became extremely specialized at making useful goods. Eventually a particular section of the population became merchants dedicated to selling those goods. Other people rose up to own the factories where this highly specialized production could take place, and employed others as wage workers. Smith argued that those who rose to these positions did so by dint of hard work and saving.

Marx argued that this was far from the truth. The division of labor does not necessarily lead to capitalism, and saving (hoarding) money also does not lead to the development of capitalism.

Rather, as a contrast to Smith’s “original accumulation,” Marx detailed the “so-called primitive accumulation” as a process by which large swaths of the population are violently divorced from their traditional means of self-sufficiency. This process, unlike the bloodless version told by classical political economists, was one where common lands were closed to those peasants who used them:

“The parliamentary form of the robbery is that of Acts for enclosures of Commons, in other words, decrees by which the landlords grant themselves the people’s land as private property, decrees of expropriation of the people.” [Capital: Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land]

and where those peasants who were forced off their lands were penalized for becoming vagabonds and thieves:

“The proletariat … were turned en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds, partly from inclination, in most cases from stress of circumstances. Hence at the end of the 15th and during the whole of the 16th century, throughout Western Europe a bloody legislation against vagabondage. The fathers of the present working-class were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers. Legislation treated them as “voluntary” criminals, and assumed that it depended on their own good will to go on working under the old conditions that no longer existed.” [Capital: Bloody Legislation Against the Expropriated, from the End of the 15th Century. Forcing Down of Wages by Acts of Parliament]

Thus, unlike Smith’s history of the “natural” evolution of capital from the division of labor, and also unlike classical political economy’s lauding of the revolutionary character of capitalism, Marx argues that capitalism’s birth was a brutal, expropriative process:

“Hence, the historical movement which changes the producers into wage-workers, appears, on the one hand, as their emancipation from serfdom and from the fetters of the guilds, and this side alone exists for our bourgeois historians. But, on the other hand, these new freedmen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.” [Capital: The Secret of Primitive Accumulation]

The result of this process was a large population of “free” laborers; that is

“Free labourers, in the double sense that neither they themselves form part and parcel of the means of production, as in the case of slaves, bondsmen, & c., nor do the means of production belong to them, as in the case of peasant-proprietors; they are, therefore, free from, unencumbered by, any means of production of their own.” [Capital: The Secret of Primitive Accumulation]

It only through this process that capitalism can come into being and reproduce itself. This process leads to the two necessary classes in capitalism: the private owners of the means of production, and the free laborers who have no choice but to meet them in the marketplace and sell their labor-power to them:

“In themselves money and commodities are no more capital than are the means of production and of subsistence. They want transforming into capital. But this transformation itself can only take place under certain circumstances that centre in this, viz., that two very different kinds of commodity-possessors must come face to face and into contact; on the one hand, the owners of money, means of production, means of subsistence, who are eager to increase the sum of values they possess, by buying other people’s labour-power; on the other hand, free labourers, the sellers of their own labour-power, and therefore the sellers of labour.” [Capital: The Secret of Primitive Accumulation]


Wage Labour

Wage labour is the mode of production in which the labourer sells their capacity to work as a commodity.

The pre-condition for wage labour is a class of people who have no other way of living, and a class of people who own the means of productionas their Private Property. The capitalist who buys the labour power, and pays for it at its value, own the labour process and the product of labour, and can sell the product in order to realise a profit. The worker, on the other hand is alienated from her own labour.

Their commodity, labor-power, the workers exchange for the commodity of the capitalist, for money, and, moreover, this exchange takes place at a certain ratio. So much money for so long a use of labor-power. For 12 hours’ weaving, two shillings. And these two shillings, do they not represent all the other commodities which I can buy for two shillings? Therefore, actually, the worker has exchanged his commodity, labor-power, for commodities of all kinds, and, moreover, at a certain ratio. By giving him two shillings, the capitalist has given him so much meat, so much clothing, so much wood, light, etc., in exchange for his day’s work. The two shillings therefore express the relation in which labor-power is exchanged for other commodities, the exchange-value of labor-power….

But the putting of labor-power into action — i.e., the work — is the active expression of the laborer’s own life. And this life activity he sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of life. His life-activity, therefore, is but a means of securing his own existence. He works that he may keep alive. He does not count the labor itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another. The product of his activity, therefore, is not the aim of his activity. What he produces for himself is not the silk that he weaves, not the gold that he draws up the mining shaft, not the palace that he builds. What he produces for himself is wages ; and the silk, the gold, and the palace are resolved for him into a certain quantity of necessaries of life, perhaps into a cotton jacket, into copper coins, and into a basement dwelling. And the laborer who for 12 hours long, weaves, spins, bores, turns, builds, shovels, breaks stone, carries hods, and so on — is this 12 hours’ weaving, spinning, boring, turning, building, shovelling, stone-breaking, regarded by him as a manifestation of life, as life? Quite the contrary. Life for him begins where this activity ceases, at the table, at the tavern, in bed. The 12 hours’ work, on the other hand, has no meaning for him as weaving, spinning, boring, and so on, but only as earnings, which enable him to sit down at a table, to take his seat in the tavern, and to lie down in a bed. If the silk-worm’s object in spinning were to prolong its existence as caterpillar, it would be a perfect example of a wage-worker.

The free laborer , on the other hand, sells his very self, and that by fractions. He auctions off eight, 10, 12, 15 hours of his life, one day like the next, to the highest bidder, to the owner of raw materials, tools, and the means of life — i.e., to the capitalist. The laborer belongs neither to an owner nor to the soil, but eight, 10, 12, 15 hours of his daily life belong to whomsoever buys them. The worker leaves the capitalist, to whom he has sold himself, as often as he chooses, and the capitalist discharges him as often as he sees fit, as soon as he no longer gets any use, or not the required use, out of him. But the worker, whose only source of income is the sale of his labor-power, cannot leave the whole class of buyers, i.e., the capitalist class , unless he gives up his own existence. He does not belong to this or that capitalist, but to the capitalist class ; and it is for him to find his man — i.e., to find a buyer in this capitalist class.

Karl Marx
Wage Labour and Capital

In Capital, Marx treats piece-work, in which the worker is paid by the quantity of product, rather than by labour-time, as a form of wage-labour, not an essentially different from wage-labour. This form of payment is simply a means of forcing the worker to work harder, but what the worker is paid is nevertheless determined in the labour market, by the costs of production of a day’s labour, i.e., the historically and socially determined standard of living for the working class.

The more developed capitalism becomes the more common it is that workers are obliged to sell their product by means of contract labour for example. Like piece-work, contract-labour is an instrument used by the capitalists for the purposes of labour discipline, but the difference between the lot of the contract worker and that of the wage-worker is not fundamental. Lacking means of production, the contract worker is forced to sell their product at just such a price that enables them to live – in other words, they earn the going rate of wages.



The Enclosures

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