How can wage-labour reasonably be described as wage-slavery? If a worker makes a free contract, as an individual equal before the law, with an employer, isn’t that a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work? Shouldn’t the word “exploitation” be reserved for exceptional cases where workers are exceptionally at a disadvantage in the wage-bargain, rather being the word being used (as Marxists use it) for all wage-labour?
The Grundrisse, Marx’s “rough draft” of 1857-8, offers a faster-burning and more vivid first draft of the answers to these questions which Marx develops in Capital.
In Capital, Marx is laconic and deliberately “flat” about labour and labour-power. In order to be able to extract value from the consumption of a commodity, our friend, Moneybags, must be so lucky as to find, within the sphere of circulation, in the market, a commodity, whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labour, and, consequently, a creation of value. The possessor of money does find on the market such a special commodity in capacity for labour or labour-power. [Chapter 6]. It just so happens that way, and that’s that.
In Capital, when Marx introduces the concept of surplus value (the common underpinning, in his theory, of capitalist revenue of all sorts), he starts by imagining that wages are equal to the amount of value added by a worker in a day. Impossible: there would be nothing for capital to feed on! A seemingly pedantic distinction resolves the conundrum. The value of labour-power (which underpins wages) is determined by the labour-time embodied in working-class subsistence, not by the labour done by the worker after the capitalist has bought the labour-power.
The owner of the money has paid the value of a day’s labour-power; his, therefore, is the use of it for a day; a day’s labour belongs to him. The circumstance, that on the one hand the daily sustenance of labour-power costs only half a day’s labour, while on the other hand the very same labour-power can work during a whole day, that consequently the value which its use during one day creates, is double what he pays for that use, this circumstance is, without doubt, a piece of good luck for the buyer, but by no means an injury to the seller. [Chapter 7] “By no means an injury to the seller!”
Only over hundreds of pages, in Capital, does Marx build up the picture which shows that the market criterion, “by no means an injury to the seller”, is only a half, or quarter, or one-tenth truth. In Capital, Marx does not use the words “exploit” or “exploitation” until chapter 11. Even there, those words are mostly used in a fairly neutral way. In Capital Marx chose a deliberately toned-down, give-your-opponents-their-strongest-argument approach. Compare the Grundrisse.
The exchange between capital and labour... splits into two processes which are not only formally but also qualitatively different, and even contradictory: (1) The worker sells his commodity... for a specific sum of money... (2) The capitalist obtains labour itself.. the productive force... which thereby becomes... a force belonging to capital itself... Instead of aiming their amazement in this direction — and considering the worker to owe a debt to capital for the fact that he is alive at all, and can repeat certain life processes every day as soon as he has eaten and slept enough — these whitewashing sycophants of bourgeois economics should rather have fixed their attention on the fact that, after constantly repeated labour, he always has only his living, direct labour itself to exchange... The worker cannot become rich in this exchange, since, in exchange for his labour capacity as a fixed, available magnitude, he surrenders its creative power, like Esau his birthright for a mess of pottage. Rather, he necessarily impoverishes himself... because the creative power of his labour establishes itself as the power of capital, as an alien power confronting him. He divests himself of labour as the force productive of wealth; capital appropriates it, as such... The productivity of his labour, his labour in general, in so far as it is not a capacity but a motion, real labour, comes to confront the worker as an alien power; capital, inversely, realizes itself through the appropriation of alien labour. The worker emerges not only not richer, but emerges rather poorer from the process than he entered. For not only has he produced the conditions of necessary labour as conditions belonging to capital; but also the value-creating possibility, the realisation which lies as a possibility within him, now likewise exists as surplus value, surplus product, in a word as capital, as master over living labour capacity, as value endowed with its own might and will, confronting him in his abstract, objectless, purely subjective poverty. He has produced not only the alien wealth and his own poverty, but also the relation of this wealth as independent, self-sufficient wealth, relative to himself as the poverty which this wealth consumes, and from which wealth thereby draws new vital spirits into itself, and realizes itself anew. After production, [labour capacity] has become poorer by the life forces expended, but otherwise begins the drudgery anew...
In the earlier parts of the Grundrisse, Marx follows other economists in calling what the capitalists buy from the workers “labour”. In the very course of writing the Grundrisse, he realised that was wrong. The worker sells not labour but labour-power, or the capacity to labour. The best-known explanation of this distinction between labour and labour-power is Engels’ introduction to a later edition of Wage Labour and Capital.
Engels’ introduction is deliberately “flat”, in the same way that Marx’s exposition in the early chapter of Capital is. In the Grundrisse, we see the distinction dawning on Marx; and it is not merely a distinction, it is a conflict. Living labour itself appears as alien vis-a-vis living labour capacity, whose labour it is, whose own life’s expression it is, for it has been surrendered to capital... Labour capacity relates to its labour as an alien... Just as the worker relates to the product of his labour as an alien thing, so does he relate to... his own labour as an expression of his life, which, although it belongs to him, is alien to him and coerced from him... Capital is the existence of social labour. The distinction between labour-power and labour is not just a logical distinction, but a social process of separation, a question of social power.
Marx was to explain further in Theories Of Surplus Value: Instead of labour, Ricardo should have discussed labour-power. But had he done so, capital would also have been revealed as the material conditions of labour, confronting the labourer as power that had acquired an independent existence, and capital would at once have been revealed as a definite social relationship. The explanations in the Grundrisse are all the more powerful because here — in contrast to some of his earlier writings, and more sharply than in any other of his later writings — Marx stresses that “the workers themselves... will not permit [wages] to be reduced to the absolute minimum; on the contrary, they achieve a certain quantitative participation in the general growth of wealth”.
That they do so is politically important: it is what makes wage-workers within capitalism able to get “a share of civilisation which distinguishes [them] from the slave” — such as “participation in the higher, even cultural satisfactions, the agitation for his own interests, newspaper subscriptions, attending lectures, educating his children, developing his taste etc”. The formal equality which the wage-worker achieves in capitalist society is important, too: it “essentially modifies his relation by comparison to that of workers in other social modes of production”. The evil is one not to be remedied by higher wages, or more complete formal equality.
Thus Marx’s comment, some years later, on a clause in the German socialists’ Gotha Programme which said that the problem with wage-labour was an “iron law” keeping wages too low: It is as if, among slaves who have at last got behind the secret of slavery and broken out in rebellion, a slave still in thrall to obsolete notions were to inscribe on the programme of the rebellion: Slavery must be abolished because the feeding of slaves in the system of slavery cannot exceed a certain low maximum! Of course slaves generally did not get enough food. Of course slave revolts were good even if limited to demanding bigger food rations. Of course it is inherent in the system of capitalist wage-labour that wages are squeezed down. Of course it is important that workers struggle to get even a little bit more. But Marx developed his theory so as to encourage workers to rebel against wage-labour as a whole, not just against low wages, just as, in their time, slaves had eventually rebelled against slavery as such, and not just against small food rations.
The same thought is expressed in the Grundrisse: The recognition of the products as [labour-power’s] own, and the judgement that its separation from the conditions of its realisation is improper — forcibly imposed — is an enormous advance in awareness, itself the product of the mode of production resting on capital, as much the knell to its doom as, with the slave’s awareness that he cannot be the property of another, with his consciousness of himself as a person... slavery... ceases to be able to prevail as the basis of production.