Micro-review of Marx
In “Wage Labor and Capital” Marx deals directly with the dialectic capital-labor relationship and, more particularly, the existing socio-economic conditions under capitalism that are expected to develop a revolutionary class consciousness in the proletariat. To say that the capitalist and the worker exist antagonistically, Marx effectively means that the class rule of the bourgeoisie and the slavery of the proletariat are founded upon a singular set of economic relations. This point becomes significantly evident with wage labor: by laboring for a capitalist for a determinate amount of time or for a calculable output of work, the worker is paid a certain sum of money, or wage, in return. In this precise sense, the capitalist purchases the labor of the worker and, reciprocally, the worker sells his or her labor for money. Consequently, labor, or what Marx refers to, more precisely, as labor power, is sold by the worker like a commodity to the capitalist for meager earnings, simply in order to meet his or her daily physical needs.
To recap briefly what Marx argues for elsewhere, the life activity of humanity is to consciously manifest itself in the external world, what we can now also distinguish as the exercise of labor power. But in this case, the activity of the worker is done not to produce objects for him- or herself. Rather, the worker labors for a subsistent minimum wage. The worker’s free life activity, therefore, does not integrally belong to his or her own life: it is the sacrifice of his or her species character to another. And, as we know, such labor is generally monotonous, meaningless and stupefying, repeating the same basic function ad infinum.
Doubtless, the worker laborers freely in a certain sense by selling him- or herself to the capitalist who is willing to purchase piecemeal hours of the worker’s daily life, but the freedom of the worker is, in fact, the form of appearance of its opposite: in the case of freedom, for Marx, the worker is, it is true, in bondage to capitalist servitude. The worker, more specifically, can always leave a particular capitalist, but given that his or her “sole source of livelihood is the sale of [labor power]”, the worker “cannot leave the whole class of purchasers, that is, the capitalist class, without renouncing his [or her] existence” (Marx-Engels Reader, p. 205). The point is that in the last resort the worker is enslaved to the capitalist class. The proletariat has no other option but to reassign its labor power to those with buying power, the bourgeoisie.
Marx maintains, echoing Hegel, that the whole mesh of production relations must be viewed in its totality—that is, the truth of capital is in the whole. Integral to the capitalist assemblage falls raw materials, technological machines, instruments of labor, wages, labor power, social connections, historical development, production, commodities, exchange values, and so on. Take for instance Marx’s example of a cotton jenny used to spin cotton: “It becomes capital only in certain relations. Torn from these relations it is no more capital than gold in itself is money” (p. 207). In this sense, the relations of production in their totality are inextricably bound in such a way as to be mutually reinforcing. Therefore whenever one element in the equation of capital is changed, the whole system shifts and transforms as a result, thereby reaching a new equilibrium. The distinctive character of capital, as such, is its flexible ability to perpetually revolutionize itself, whether in social relations of production or material means of production, without suffering the slightest amount of instability.
The reciprocally conditioning nature of capitalism, as shown directly above, is chiefly expressed in the relation between the capitalist and the wage-worker. In this exchange the capitalist captures the labor power of the worker in his or her productive activity, meanwhile the worker merely collects a wage minimum for instant consumption. Taken in its strict sense, labor power requires capital and capital depends upon labor power; one always already presupposes the other. More specifically, capital can only be amassed insofar as it has a working class to draw labor power from. Conversely, workers reliant on wages for subsistence perish so long as the capitalist class does not employ them.
The crucial point with Marx, however, is not so much that the one brings forth the other in an indispensably determining way, essential though this is. The real rub involves the realization that the increasing power of capital spells the denigration of the working class—that is, of the proletariat. Although wage labor and capital condition each other, that is, they are two sides of the same coin, they are by no means equivalent in standing: the increase in productive capital is simultaneously the extension of domination over the workers by the bourgeoisie. Given still the most favorable conditions for the working class, a rapid growth of productive capital in which unemployment is low and wages are high, the gulf that divides the rich from the poor continues to widen: “Profit and wages remain as before in inverse proportion” (p. 211). Stated differently, the more painstakingly the working class labors to expand the wealth of capital, particularly in a boon economy, the harsher that power is in ruling over the working class.
The general logic of unequal development in capitalism as explicated above is plainly observed, additionally, in the division of labor, which is animated by unyielding competition. In this familiar scenario, capitalists survive only by underselling their opponents, therein driving their rivals out of the market with a cheaper good. But to do this the capitalist must actually produce more cheaply, lest the entrepreneur ruin him- or herself in the process. For this to work the capitalist is required to increase the productive power of labor to the greatest possible extent in two primary ways, by escalating the dissection of labor and machinery and then exploiting this relationship as much as possible. Expressed in other terms, machinery or technology is introduced to decrease costs of production and increase the productivity of labor.
If the first capitalist is in fact able to lower the price of his or her product, even to a fraction below the competitor’s cost, then the rival capitalist is forced from the respective field and the initial capitalist extorts a larger share of sales. At the same time, however, the victory is Janus-faced: eventually other capitalists enter the market borrowing the same techniques, thus creating a new equilibrium of competition, now only at a lower cost of production. Marx continues: with this new exploitation of labor and machinery the competition is set rolling again towards what can be the only result, the natural leveling of commodity prices to the lowest possible cost of production. For this reason, given the continual transformation of productive forces and the shrinking of profit margins, the capitalist must now sell more commodities on a greater scale simply in order to realize the same total earnings as before.
What is important to Marx is not that competition flattens the selling price of commodities to the cost of production, thereby depriving capital of higher profits, but that labor suffers the true price in the push to cheapen production. Given the division of labor and the implementation of machinery, which is aggrandized to the furthest extent that production can be cheapened, the worker is now enabled and expected to do the equivalent work of several workers in the previous assemblage. As such, fewer wage-workers are needed by the capitalist and the struggle between laborers for jobs becomes increasingly acute. Moreover, the application of automated machines renders labor progressively simpler and more easily performed, requiring a reduced amount of skill and intellect, thus lowering the rate of wages at the same time as it raises the intensity of competition. Indeed, the more the working class labors for capital, the more their wages decrease, the more their work becomes unsatisfying and the more their competition amongst themselves expands.
Marx concludes elsewhere, in a nutshell, that workers who see their own individual conditions reflected in others will develop a world-historical class consciousness that will eventually lead to the takeover of the means of production and, alas, communism. For Marx, this is the only outcome of the dramatized division of labor that constitutes capitalism. To restate what was argued above, the logic of specialization inevitably worsens the conditions of wage workers, which means that all forms of quaint reform merely delay revolution and, what is more, can always be repealed and undermined. In a word, it puts off the inevitable. As an interesting side note, though one I am regrettably less knowledgeable about, the welfare state is used precisely as a tool to keep this from taking place. The creation of a middle-class acts as a buffer between capitalists and the proletariat insofar as the middle-class do not own the means of production but have more to lose than simply their chains. Therefore, since they do not share a class consciousness with wage-workers, they are unlikely to revolt and risk what possessions they do have.