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CHAPTER 6: THE SALE AND PURCHASE OF LABOUR-POWER
The contradiction turns out to be easy to resolve. It is given away in the title of this chapter. Marx sets the argument up as follows:
„In order to extract value out of the consumption of a commodity, our friend the money-owner must be lucky enough to find within the sphere of circulation, on the market, a commodity whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value,
whose actual consumption is therefore itself an objectification … of labour, hence a creation of value. The possessor of money does find such a special commodity on the market: the capacity for labour … in other words labour-power.“ (270)
Labor-power consists of the physical, mental and human capacities to congeal value in commodities. But in order to be itself a commodity, labor-power has to have certain characteristics.
First, “in order that its possessor may sell it as a commodity, he must have it at his disposal, he must be the free proprietor of his own labor-capacity, hence of his person.” So the idea of the free laborer becomes crucial—slavery and serfdom will not do.
The laborer cannot give up his or her person; all he or she can do is to trade the physical, mental and human capacities to create value.
„In this way he manages both to alienate … his labour-power”—that is, to pass it over to somebody else—“and to avoid renouncing his rights of ownership over it” (271).
So the capitalist cannot own the laborer; all the capitalist owns is the capacity to labor and to produce value for a certain period of time.
„The second essential condition which allows the owner of money to find labour-power in the market as a commodity is this,
that the possessor of labour-power, instead of being able to sell commodities in which his labour has been objectified, must rather be compelled to offer for sale as a commodity that very labour-power which exists only in his living body.“ (272)
Laborers, in other words, are not in a position to work for themselves.
„For the transformation of money into capital, therefore, the owner of money must find the free worker available on the commodity-market; and this worker must be free in the double sense that as a free individual he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that,
on the other hand, he has no other commodity for sale, i.e. he is rid of them, he is free of all the objects needed for the realization … of his labour-power.“ (272–3)
The laborer must, in short, already be dispossessed of access to the means of production.
Marx’s commentary on freedom is really apposite to our own times. What did it mean, for example, when President George W. Bush went on and on about bringing freedom to the world? He used the words “freedom” and “liberty” in his Second Inaugural Address some fifty times.
On Marx’s critical interpretation, this would mean that Bush was mobilizing a campaign to free as many people in the world as possible of any direct control over, or access to, the means of production.
Yes, indeed, individual laborers will have rights over their own body and individual legal rights in the labor market.
In principle they have the right to sell their labor-power to whomsoever they choose and the right to buy whatever they want in the marketplace with the wages they receive.
Creating such a world is what the capitalist form of imperial politics has been about for the past two hundred years. Indigenous and peasant populations were dispossessed of access to the means of production and proletarianized wholesale across the globe.
In more recent neoliberal versions of this same process, more and more social strata in populations all around the world, including in the advanced capitalist countries,
have been dispossessed of their assets, including independent access to means of production or other means of survival (e.g., pensions for older workers or state welfare payments).
The ideological and political ironies involved in the promotion of this “double-edged” form of bourgeois freedom are not lost on Marx. Today we are sold a bill of goods on the positive aspects of freedom and forced to accept as inevitable or even natural the negative aspects.
Liberal theory is founded on doctrines of individual rights and freedoms.
From Locke to Hayek and onward, all the ideologists of liberalism and neoliberalism have asserted that the best defense of such individual rights and liberties is a market system founded on private property and the bourgeois rules of independence,
reciprocity and juridical individualism that Marx described (and, for purposes of inquiry, accepted) in chapter 2.
Since it is hard to protest against universal ideals of freedom, we are easily persuaded to go along with the fiction that the good freedoms (like those of market choice) far outweigh the bad freedoms (such as the freedom of capitalists to exploit the labor of others).
And if it takes a little repression to dispossess people of their access to means of production and to ensure the sustenance of market freedoms, then that is justified as well.
Pretty soon we find ourselves in the midst of McCarthyism or Guantánamo Bay without an oppositional leg to stand on.
Woodrow Wilson, that great liberal president of the United States who sought to found the League of Nations, put it this way in a lecture he delivered at Columbia University in 1907:
„Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down.
Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.“
Marx’s essential ideological objective is to pinpoint the duplicity that lies at the heart of the bourgeois conception of freedom (much like he questioned Proudhon’s appeal to bourgeois conceptions of justice).
The contrast between George Bush’s rhetoric of liberty and freedom and the reality of Guantánamo Bay is exactly what we should expect.
But how did the laborer come to be “free” in this double sense? Why the free worker approaches the capitalist with his labor in the market, Marx observes, “does not interest the owner of money … And for the present it interests us just as little” (273).
Here Marx simply assumes that proletarianization has already occurred and that a functioning labor market already exists. But he does, however, want to make “one thing” clear:
„Nature does not produce on the one hand owners of money or commodities, and on the other hand men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no basis in natural history, nor does it have a social basis common to all periods of human history.
It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older formations of social production.“ (273)
That the wage-labor system had specific historical origins has to be acknowledged, if only to press home the point that the category of wage labor is no more “natural” than that of the capitalist or of value itself.
The history of proletarianization will be taken up in greater detail later, in part 8. For now he simply wants to assume a full-fledged labor market already exists. He nevertheless acknowledges,
„The economic categories already discussed similarly bear a historical imprint. Definite historical conditions are involved in the existence of the product as a commodity
… Had we gone further, and inquired under what circumstances all, or even the majority of products take the form of commodities, we should have found that this only happens on the basis of one particular mode of production, the capitalist one.“ (273)
The capitalist mode of production, not other modes of production, we are reminded, is Marx’s exclusive focus.
The commodity production that has in the past existed in various forms, alongside the monetary circulation that historically has also existed in many forms, is clearly related in Marx’s mind to the rise of wage-labor forms.
None of these evolutions is independent of the other in the rise to domination of a capitalist mode of production. Again, the historical and logical arguments intertwine.
The socially necessary relation that logically binds commodity production to monetization and both in turn to the commodification of wage labor has distinctive historical origins.
The wage system and the labor market that to us appear obvious and logical almost certainly did not appear so even toward the end of European feudalism.
„The historical conditions of [capital’s] existence are by no means given with the mere circulation of money and commodities. It arises only when the owner of the means of production and subsistence finds the free worker available,
on the market, as the seller of his own labour-power. And this one historical pre-condition comprises a world’s history. Capital, therefore, announces from the outset a new epoch in the process of social production.“ (274)
Labor-power is, however, a peculiar commodity, a special commodity unlike any other. First and foremost, it is the only commodity that has the capacity to create value.
It is laborers whose socially necessary labor-time is congealed in commodities, and laborers who sell their labor-power to the capitalist. In turn, the capitalist uses this labor-power to organize the production of surplus-value.
Note, however, that the form in which labor-power circulates is C-M-C (laborers take their labor-power into the market and sell it in return for money, which then permits them to buy the commodities they need to survive).
So the laborer, remember, is always in the C-M-C circuit, while the capitalist works in the M-C-M’ circuit. There will therefore be different rules for how they think about their respective situations.
The laborer can be content with the exchange of equivalents because it is use-values that matter. The capitalist, on the other hand, has to solve the problem of gaining surplus-value out of the exchange of equivalents.
So what is it that fixes the value of labor-power as commodity?
The answer is complicated because labor-power is not a commodity in the usual sense, not only because it alone can create value but also because the determinants of its value are different from those of shirts and shoes both in principle and in the details.
Marx mentions the differences with scarcely any elaboration:
„The value of labour-power is determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction, of this specific article.
In so far as it has value, it represents no more than a definite quantity of the average social labour objectified in it … For his maintenance he requires a certain quantity of the means of subsistence.
Therefore the labour-time necessary for the production of labour-power is the same as that necessary for the production of those means of subsistence; in other words, the value of labour-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of its owner.“
The value of labor-power is fixed, therefore, by the value of all of those commodities that are needed to reproduce the laborer in a given state of life.
We add up the value of the bread, the value of the shirts and the shoes and all the other things necessary to sustain and reproduce laborers, and the total is what fixes the value of labor-power.
It seems a simple enough calculation, seemingly no different in principle from any commodity. But how are “needs” determined? Needs distinguish labor from all other commodities.
First off, in the course of laboring, “a definite quantity of human muscle, nerve, brain etc. is expended, and these things have to be replaced.”
If the laborers are required for a certain kind of laboring (e.g., down in a coal mine) they may need, say, more meat and potatoes to sustain their laboring.
Furthermore, “his means of subsistence must therefore be sufficient to maintain him in his normal state as a working individual.” Again, what is “normal”?
There are “natural needs … such as food, clothing, fuel and housing” that “vary according to the climatic and other physical peculiarities of his country” (274–5). Workers’ needs are different in the Arctic than in temperate zones. But then comes the really big shift:
„On the other hand, the number and extent of his so-called necessary requirements, as also the manner in which they are satisfied, are themselves products of history, and depend therefore to a great extent on the level of civilization attained by a country;
in particular they depend on the conditions in which, and consequently on the habits and expectations with which, the class of free workers has been formed.
In contrast, therefore, with the case of other commodities, the determination of the value of labour-power contains a historical and moral element.“ (275)
The implication is that the value of labor-power is not independent of the history of class struggles.
Furthermore, “the level of civilization” in a country will vary according to, for example, the strength of bourgeois reform movements. The respectable and virtuous bourgeois are from time to time appalled to witness the poverty of the masses and, feeling guilty,
conclude that it is unacceptable in a decent society that the mass of the people live in the way they do. They insist on the provision of decent housing, decent public health, decent education, decent this and decent that.
Some of these measures can be seen as self-interested (because, for example, cholera epidemics do not stop at class borders), but there is no bourgeois society anywhere that does not have some sense of civilized values,
and this sense plays a crucial role in determining what the value of labor-power should be.
Marx is appealing to the principle that there is a totality of commodities that sets the terms for what counts as a reasonable wage in a particular society at a particular time. He does not discuss any such particulars.
Instead we can proceed with the theoretical inquiry as if the value of labor-power is fixed and known, even as the datum is perpetually moving and in any case has to be flexible, reflecting such other features as the reproduction costs of the laborer,
from training and the reproduction of skills to raising a family and reproducing the working class (its qualities as well as its quantities) (275–6).
There is one other peculiarity of labor-power as a commodity that is worthy of note. The capitalist enters the marketplace and has to pay for all the commodities (raw materials, machinery, etc.) before putting them to work,
but with labor-power the capitalist hires the labor-power and pays its providers only after they have done the work. In effect, the laborer advances the commodity of labor-power to the capitalist, hoping to get paid at the end of the day.
This does not always happen, however; firms that declare bankruptcy can renege on wages (277–8).
In contemporary China, for example, a large proportion of the labor force in certain industries (construction) and certain regions, particularly the North, have been denied their wages, prompting widespread protests.
Marx’s point here is that the notion of an acceptable standard of living for the laborer varies according to natural, social, political and historical circumstances. Obviously, what is acceptable in one society (say, contemporary Sweden)
is not the same as in another (contemporary China), and what was acceptable in 1850 in the United States is not acceptable today. So the value of labor-power is highly variable, depending not only on physical needs but also on conditions of class struggle,
the degree of civilization in the country and the history of social movements (some of which go far beyond what the workers themselves might directly struggle for).
There may be social democratic parties that insist on universal healthcare, access to education, adequate housing, public infrastructure—parks, water, public transportation, sanitation—as well as full employment opportunities at a minimum wage.
All these things can be considered fundamental obligations of civilized countries, depending on the social and political situation.
The upshot is that labor-power is not a commodity like any other. It is the unique creator of value at the same time as a historical and moral element enters into the determination of its value.
And this historical and moral element is subject to influence by a wide array of political, religious and other forces.
Even the Vatican has produced powerful encyclicals on the conditions of labor, and the theology of liberation, when it was at its height in Latin America,
played a key role in fomenting revolutionary movements in the 1960s and 1970s that focused on the standards of living of the poor. So the value of labor-power is not a constant.
It fluctuates not only because the costs of subsistence commodities vary but also because the commodity bundle needed to reproduce the laborer is affected by all these wide-ranging forces.
Plainly, the value of labor-power is sensitive to changes in the value of the commodities needed to support them. Cheap imports will reduce that value; the Wal-Mart phenomenon has thus had a significant impact on the value of labor-power in the United States.
The hyperexploitation of labor-power in China keeps the value of labor-power down in the United States through cheap imports.
This also explains the resistance, in many quarters of the capitalist class, to putting barriers to entry or tariffs on Chinese goods, because to do so would be to raise the cost of living in the US, leading to a demand from workers for higher wages.
Marx, having briefly mentioned issues of this sort, shunts them aside to conclude that, “nevertheless, in a given country at a given period, the average amount of the means of subsistence necessary for the worker is a known datum” (275).
Marx fixes what he concedes is fluid and in perpetual flux as the “known datum” in a given country at a given time. How reasonable is this move? Theoretically, it permits him to move on to explain how surplus-value can be produced, but it does so at a price.
In most national economies, ways have indeed been found to determine what this datum might be. Legislation concerning a minimum wage, for example, recognizes the importance of a fixed datum in a given place and time,
while the politics over whether to raise it or not is an excellent illustration of the role political struggle plays in determining the value of labor-power.
Local struggles in recent years over a “living wage” also illustrate the idea of both a general datum and social struggle over what the datum should be.
An even more interesting parallel with Marx’s formulation exists in the determination of the so-called poverty level. In the mid-1960s, Mollie Orshansky devised a method to define the poverty level by fixing it in terms of the money needed to buy that particular commodity bundle
deemed necessary for the reproduction of, say, a family of four at some minimally acceptable level. This is the sort of known datum that Marx is referring to. Since the 1960s, however, there has been incessant debate regarding this definition,
which became the basis of public policy (e.g., welfare and Social Security payments). Exactly what the market basket of commodities should be—how much for transportation, how much for clothing, how much for food, how much for rent (and do you really need a mobile phone nowadays?)
—became a matter of controversy. The figure for a family of four now stands at more than $20,000 a year. The right wing says we have all along been looking at the wrong bundle and thereby overestimating poverty;
in high-cost locations like New York City, however, studies suggest the level should be $26,000 or so. Obviously, historical, political and moral arguments are going to factor in here.
Let us return to the idea of the circulation of labor-power through the C-M-C circuit and the difference between that and the capitalists working in the C-M-C + ΔC circuit. Marx comments:
„The use-value which the [capitalist] gets in exchange manifests itself only in the actual utilization, in the process of the consumption of the labour-power …
The process of the consumption of labour-power is at the same time the production process of commodities and of surplus-value. The consumption of labour-power is completed, as in the case of every commodity, outside the market or the sphere of circulation.“ (279)
And now follows the large shift in perspective:

„Let us therefore, in company with the owner of money and the owner of labour-power, leave this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in full view of everyone,
and follow them into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there hangs the notice ‘No admittance except on business’. Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is itself produced. The secret of profit-making must at last be laid bare.“(279–80)
Marx then concludes with a swinging indictment of bourgeois constitutionality and law. Leaving the sphere of circulation and exchange means leaving that sphere constitutionally set up as “a very Eden of the innate rights of man.”
The market is “the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.“

„Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, let us say of labour-power, are determined only by their own free will. They contract as free persons, who are equal before the law …
Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to his own advantage.
The only force bringing them together, and putting them into relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interest of each. Each pays heed to himself only, and no one worries about the others. And precisely for this reason, either in accordance with
the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an omniscient providence, they all work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal, and in the common interest.“ (280)
Marx’s deeply ironic description of the standard form of liberal bourgeois constitutionality and market law brings us to the final phase of transition in his argument:
„When we leave this sphere of simple circulation or the exchange of commodities, which provides the ‘free-trader vulgaris’ with his views, his concepts and the standard by which he judges the society of capital and wage-labour, a certain change takes place, or so it appears,
in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He who was previously the money-owner now strides out in front as a capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his worker. The one smirks self-importantly and is intent on business; the other is timid and holds back,
like someone who has brought his own hide to market and knows he has nothing else to expect but—a tanning.“ (280)

These further reflections on bourgeois rights, echoing the duality of the supposed freedom of the laborer,
provide a segue in the argument into a consideration of the far less visible moment of production that occurs, typically, in the factory. And it is into this realm that we will follow Marx next.
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