5 June 2020

Wage-Labour: The Production and Sale of the Commodity Labour-Power [1977]

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 by Rohini Hensman                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                


This paper was first published in the Bulletin of the Communist Platform No.1, October 1977. The context in which it was researched and written was the period between 1974 and 1978, a period of intense debate and discussion within and between some of the socialist groups claiming a Marxist heritage in India. The one with which I was associated was the Revolutionary Bolshevik Circle (RBC) in Bombay, but I had major disagreements with it. One was the perspective of building a vanguard Leninist party, which, in practice, involved extremely sectarian and polemical interactions with other socialist groups. The idea that any of these groups – even the RBC, which undoubtedly took theory, the study of Marx, the legacy of the Russian Revolution and a critique of Stalinism more seriously than any other group – could claim exclusive leadership of a socialist revolutionary movement seemed questionable. This was connected to a second criticism: designation of the industrial proletariat working in large-scale enterprises as the sole motor force of the revolution. One of the groups with whose members we were having discussions was working with agricultural labourers and the rural poor: might not these sections too have to be involved in any revolutionary movement?

However, the criticism that preoccupied me most was that this perspective excluded the vast majority of proletarian women, only a tiny proportion of whom were employed in large-scale industry. I began working on a critique of this marginalisation of working-class women, drawing on two sources. One was a study of Marx’s writings on domestic labour, which seemed to be marked by inconsistencies and contradictions. The other was my own experience taking care of a household and two little pre-school children on a very small income: we had no washing machine or fridge; I cooked on a kerosene stove that often made pots and pans sooty; queued up at the ration shop for kerosene and inferior rice from which stones had to be picked out before cooking; used cloth nappies for my baby until he was toilet-trained; and although we had running water in our flat, the supply was limited to a few hours in the morning and an hour or two in the evening (and occasionally failed to come even at these times), so we had to store water in a drum for washing and bathing etc., and in a matka for drinking and cooking, and there were times when it ran short.

It was hard work, but working-class women living in urban shanty-towns and poor rural women had an incomparably harder time, queueing up to collect water from a common tap or well and carrying the heavy waterpots home; in some cases collecting firewood for cooking; collecting wheat from the ration shop, taking it to the mill to be ground, and making chapatis from the atta; cleaning made so much more difficult because there was not a proper floor; and so on: all extremely heavy, time-consuming tasks.

It appeared that the amount of domestic labour was not independent of the level of wages but inversely related to it, and that when the women were forced to earn – often by homeworking or other forms of informal labour – it resulted in capitalists extracting even more surplus labour from the family. Surely all this labour put into maintaining the current labour force and bringing up a new generation of workers entitled these women to be part of any revolutionary movement even if they were not themselves employed? Their work was not unskilled: indeed, my study of developmental psychology and my own experience suggested that childcare in particular was highly skilled; surely the people who had been doing the bulk of it had a key role to play in reorganising it in a socialist society?

At first, other members of the RBC complained that I was violating ‘democratic centralism’ by discussing my reservations with other groups, but, between 1975 and 1977, during the Emergency, the RBC and groups associated with it in Delhi and Bangalore engaged in intensive discussions in which the politics which had inspired them was subjected to a thorough critique. In 1978, some of us socialist feminists held two workshops in Bombay to discuss the role of women in the class struggle: a smaller, more theoretical Marxist discussion from 3 to 5 July, and a bigger discussion including a larger number of women activists from 6 to 8 July. This paper was a contribution to the smaller discussion. On the last half-day of the small workshop, we invited male comrades to join in the discussion, and it was a sign of the change that had taken place during the transition from the RBC to what we called the Platform Group that we were listened to with respect.

May 2020


Marx’s early drafts for his critique of political economy indicate that he intended to write a separate book on ‘Wage-labour’; in the final version, however, this category is taken up in the volumes on capital. Undoubtedly this is a consequence of the restructuring of his work which took place as his conception of it became clearer; yet, in the integration into the main body of his work on capital, the category ‘wage-labour’ suffers considerably. Marx’s treatment of it is marked by ambiguities and inconsistencies which are not characteristic of his work as a whole. This is all the more serious because wage-labour, or labour-power which is sold as a commodity, is the commodity of capitalist production, that on which the whole of capitalist commodity production rests. As Marx himself puts it, ‘When we look at the process of capitalist production as awhole and not merely at the immediate production of commodities, we find that although thesale and purchase of labour-power … is entirely separate from the immediate production process, and indeed precedes it, it yet forms theabsolute foundation of capitalist production and is an integral moment within it’ (Capital Volume I, Pelican Edition, p. 1005). A further development of Marx’s work in this direction thus becomes a vital necessity for Marxists today.

Marx defines labour-power, or labour-capacity, as ‘the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a human being, capabilities which he sets in motion whenever he produces a use value of any kind’ (Capital I, p. 270). The capitalist mode of production is characterised by the existence of the direct producers as a class dispossessed of all means of production and subsistence, and therefore compelled to sell their labour-power in order to live. Labour-power therefore becomes a commodity which is sold on the market, and, ‘like all other commodities it has a value’ (Capital I, p. 274). Its value 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’ (Capital I, p. 274). Here is a clear and unambiguous definition: labour-power is a commodity, it is produced and reproduced as a commodity, and its value is determined, like the value of any other commodity, by the quantity of average social labour objectified on it. Not only labour-power, but ‘the real producer’ in whom this labour-power is embodied, plays the role of ‘mere means of production of material wealth, which is an end in itself’ (Capital I, p. 1037).

For capital, therefore, ‘the maintenance and increase of labour power appear … merely as the reproduction and extension of its own conditions of reproduction and accumulation’ (Capital I, p. 1062). According to this conception, not only means of production which are consumed in the process of production of commodities, but means of subsistence which are consumed in the process of production of labour-power are‘productively consumed’ (Capital I, p. 1045, emphasis added), because their product’s value re-enters the social process of capitalist production. Hence it is possible to condemn the manufacture of luxury goods from the standpoint of ‘capitalist production’ itself if it detracts from the production of ‘means ofsubsistence or production’ in sufficient quantities for the extended reproduction of capital (Capital I, p. 1046, emphasis added).

Running alongside this conception, however, is another which is quite different. In clear contradiction to the notion that the reproduction of labour-power is the production of a commodity which is consumed in capitalist production, Marx writes that ‘in fact, of course, the worker must sustain his capacity for work with the aid of means of subsistence, but this, his private consumption, which is at the same time the reproduction of his labour-power, falls outside the process of producing commodities’ (Capital I, p. 1004). This is in accordance with the idea, more explicit elsewhere, that ‘the product of individual consumption is the consumer himself; the result of productive consumption is a product distinct from the consumer’ (Capital I, p. 290). Such a distinction, which distinctly implies that individual consumption is, by definition, not productive consumption but unproductive consumption, is incapable of characterising the consumption which produces the commodity labour-power, which, on one hand, is embodied in the consumers themselves, so that its reproduction is inseparable from that of the consumers, but is, nonetheless, also a product distinct from the consumers in that it is alienable, it can be sold by the consumers as a commodity without their having to sell themselves.

A more serious defect of this definition is that it distinguishes productive and unproductive consumption purely on the basis of the material form of the product (i.e. living individual on one side, dead product on the other) and not on the basis of its economic function. The fact that in all cases consumption of means of subsistence leads to the reproduction of a living individual leads him here (though not in the passage quoted earlier) to overlook the fact that, in some cases, this living individual is from the standpoint of capital nothing but ameans of production, while, in other cases, this is not so. This is strikingly brought out in the following passage ‘The variable capital is resolved into revenue, firstly wages, secondly profit. If therefore capital is conceived as something contrasted with revenue, the constant capital appears to be capitalin the strict sense: the part of the total product that belongs to production and enters into the costs of production without being individually consumed by anyone (with the exception of draught cattle)’ (Theories of Surplus Value Part I, Moscow edition, p. 219). Here, the non-human form of the draught cattle alerts him to the fact that, although their individual consumption results only in their own reproduction and not in any other dead product, this product nevertheless ‘belongs to production’; while the human form of the labourers conceals the fact that the product oftheir individual consumption, human labour-power, equally ‘belongs to production’: where would production be, after all, without it?

It is not accidental that in equating the individual consumption of the labourer with the unproductive consumption of the non-labouring classes, Marx also equates the income of the labourer with the income of these classes by subsuming both under the category of ‘revenue’. This identification is particularly clear when he writes that ‘the whole amount of the annual product is therefore divided into two parts: one part is consumed as revenue, the other part replaces in kind the constant capital consumed’ (Theories of Surplus Value I, p. 230). This is in marked contrast with his later work, where revenue is strictly a fund for the consumption of the capitalists and their hangers-on, and thus part of the surplus-value appropriated from the workers, while the wages of the workers is part of the value created by themselves; and variable capital, the capital laid out in purchasing labour-power, is capital ‘in the strict sense’ just as much as constant capital. He points out that, if we examine the consumption of the working class on a social scale, the illusion disappears that in engaging in their own consumption workers are merely pleasing themselves, for ‘by converting part of his capital into labour-power, the capitalist valorises the value of his entire capital. He kills two birds with one stone. He profits not only by what he receives from the worker, but also by what he gives him. The capital given in return for labour-power is converted into means of subsistence which have to be consumed to reproduce the muscles, nerves, bones and brains of existing workers, and to bring new workers into existence. Within the limits of what is absolutely necessary, therefore, the individual consumption of the working class is the reconversion of the means of subsistence given by capital in return for labour-power into fresh labour-power which capital is then again able to exploit. It is the production and reproduction of the capitalist’s most indispensable means of production: the worker. The individual consumption of the worker, whether it occurs inside or outside the workshop, inside or outside the labour-process, remains an aspect of the production and reproduction of capital’ (Capital I, p. 717-18).

We must conclude, then, that individual and productive consumption cannot be mutually exclusive, as Marx sometimes implies, but rather that the individual consumption of the working classis, from the standpoint of bourgeois society, productive consumption, ‘since it is the production of a force which produces wealth for other people’ (Capital I, p. 719). In other words, it is productive of labour-power, a commodity which is sold to the capitalist, enters the capitalist labour-process, and is the only source of surplus-value and therefore of capital. This conception of the individual consumption of the working class, which fits in with the entire framework ofCapital, is conceptually clearly separable from the alternative conception of it as the unproductive expenditure of revenue, although, in Marx, the two conceptions are so closely intertwined that he sometimes contradicts himself in the space of a single sentence, as when he says of the means of subsistence consumed by the labourer that ‘this quantity of commodities has been consumed unproductively, except inasmuch as it preserves the efficacy of his labour-power, an instrument indispensable to the capitalist’ (Capital Volume II, Moscow edition, p. 312). Which is to say: it is individual consumption of revenue: therefore, it is unproductive consumption; however, it produces an essential means of production for the capitalist: therefore, it is productive consumption.

The confusion between individual consumption andunproductive consumption is here very clear. Once it is established that the individual consumption of the working class is, in fact, the process of production of the commodity labour-power, that the labour necessary for the production of this commodity is an aliquot part of the total labour of society, and that the value of this commodity is determined by the quantity of average social labour objectified in it, it then becomes possible to examine in greater detail the production process of this commodity, both as a labour-process and as a process of production of value. This we will now do.

Given the existence of the individual, the production of labour-power consists in his reproduction of himself or his maintenance… But in the course of this activity, i.e. labour, a definite quantity of human muscle, nerve, brain, etc. is expended, and these things have to be replaced… His means of subsistence must therefore be sufficient to maintain him in his normal state as a working individual. His natural needs, such as food, clothing, fuel and housing vary according to the climatic and other physical peculiarities of his country. 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 the 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… The labour-power withdrawn from the market by wear and tear, and by death, must be continually replaced by, at the very least, an equal amount of fresh labour-power. Hence the sum of means of subsistence necessary for the production of labour-power must include the means necessary for the worker’s replacements, i.e. his children… In order to modify the general nature of the human organism in such a way that it acquires skill and dexterity in a given branch of industry, and becomes labour-power of a developed and specific kind, a special education or training is needed… The expenses of this education (exceedingly small in the case of ordinary labour-power), form a part of the total value spent in producing it. (Capital I, pp.275-6.)

This is the most complete definition of the elements entering into the determination of the value of labour-power in Marx’s work. We see from this that the average social labour objectified in it includes labour expended on: (1) keeping the labourers alive; (2) replacing any energy or tissues used up in the course of their work and supplying the needs which have historically come to be regarded as essential even if they surpass the bare physical necessities; (3) reproducing the labourers through the upbringing of a new generation of labourers; and (4) educating and training the labourers. Thus, if the price of labour-power or the wage is to be equal to its value, then two conditions must be satisfied. Firstly, the labourers must expend in labour no more energy or tissues than can be replaced in the time at their disposal for rest and recreation. This implies a normal working day of reasonable length, for, as the labourer might say to the capitalist,

‘by an unlimited extension of the working day, you may in one day use up a quantity of labour-power greater than I can restore in three… You pay me for one day’s labour-power, while you use three days of it. That is against our contract and the laws of commodity exchange. I therefore demand a working day of normal length, and I demand it without any appeal to your heart, for in money matters sentiment is out of place… I demand a normal working day because, like every other seller, I demand the value of my commodity.’ (Capital I, p. 343.)

Overwork, the using up of more labour-power in a day than can be replaced in a day, will inevitably result in the reproduction of labour-power in a crippled state and ultimately premature death, and is thus one form of the payment of labour-power below its value. Secondly, the amount of the wage must at least be sufficient to purchase all the commodities, material goods as well as services, necessary to reproduce labour-power in a healthy and unimpaired condition. If the historically developed situation is such that more than this biological minimum is regarded as being essential for a normal life, and moreover education and certain skills are necessary, then the wage must be sufficient to purchase these also.

Of all these elements of the value of labour-power, the most obvious is the value of the commodities which are necessary for the subsistence of the individual worker. In fact, this element is so obvious that, at times, Marx even considers it possible to reduce the whole of the value of labour-power to this, as when he says that ‘the ultimate or minimum limit of the value of labour-power is formed by the value of the commodities which have to be supplied every day to the bearer of labour-power, the man, so that he can renew his life-process’ (Capital I, p. 276). But a little thought shows that should the value of labour-power ever fall to this level, it will not be reproduced ‘in a crippled state’ (p. 277), but rather will not be reproduced at all beyond a certain point in time. For if thevalue of labour-power (and not merely its price in individual cases) falls to a level such that only the subsistence of those who are actually working is provided for, then the workers will not be able to have children, and, once they die, there will be no one to replace them. It is evident that the value of labour-power can never fall to this level; the rock-bottom minimum is that level at which the worker’s family, the unit of production of labour-power, can subsist. Marx recognises this elsewhere when he says that ‘theexchange-value of labour-power is paid for when the price paid is that of the means of subsistence that is customarily held to be essential in a given state of society to enable the worker to exert his labour-power with the necessary degree of strength, health, vitality, etc. and to perpetuate himself by producing replacements for himself’ (Capital I, p. 1067). In other words, what is sold by the worker is not his labour-power as an individual, but the labour-power of the household, the unit of reproduction of labour-power; and what is sold by the aggregate of wage-labourers is not simply their own labour-power but that of the wage-labouring class as a whole, including that of children as yet too young to work. At any given time, the value of labour-power must include the value of means of subsistence for those who are not actually wage-labourers as yet; this is a necessary consequence of the fact that this particular commodity requires the expenditure of many years of labour-time on its production before it is brought to market.

Firstly, then, the value of the necessary means of subsistence for the working-class family enters into the total value of labour-power, or in other words the social labour-time embodied in these is part of the social labour-time embodied in the commodity labour-power. But, at no time in the history of capitalism, has this amount of labour-time alone been sufficient for the reappearance day after day and generation after generation of labour-power on the market. Food which is bought has to be cooked before it can be consumed, dwellings have to be cleaned in order to be habitable, clothes have to be washed and mended (and sometimes made), children have to be cared for and taught, etc. etc. That is to say, the reproduction of labour-power requires the expenditure of a considerable amount of additional necessary labour-time over and above the labour-time embodied in material means of subsistence. This additional necessary labour-time has to be supplied in the form of services, and very rarely is it the case that these services are available as commodities. Does it constitute part of the social labour objectified in the commodity labour-power? Marx’s attitude to this question is ambiguous, to say the least. Where these services take the form of commodities, he is prepared to accept that they add to the value of labour-power. ‘As to the purchase of such services as those which train labour-power, maintain or modify it, etc., in a word, give it a specialized form or even only maintain it,’ he writes, ‘thus for example the schoolmaster’s service, in so far as it is “industrially necessary” or useful; the doctor’s service in so far as he maintains health and so conserves the source of all values, labour-power itself – these are services which yield in return “a vendible commodity, etc.”, namely labour-power itself, into whose costs of production or reproduction these services enter’ (Theories of Surplus Value I, p. 167). Again, ‘what the labourer … pays out for education is devilishly little, but when he does, his payments are productive, for education produces labour-power’ (p. 210). Here ‘productive’ is clearly being used in the sense of being productive of value which is embodied in a commodity, and we will for convenience accept this usage.

However, as Marx points out himself, most of these services which are necessary for the reproduction of labour-power are not bought as commodities but are supplied directly by the working class itself. Does the labour-time spent on these services contribute to the value of labour-power? Marx distinctly implies that they do not. He says, for example, that ‘there are very few unproductive labours or services left on which the labourer’s wages are spent, especially as he himself provides his costs of consumption (cooking, keeping his house clean, generally even repairs)’ (T.S.V. I, p. 210). The term ‘costs of consumption’ which he coins here would be unnecessary unless he considered these costs to be something different from the ‘costs of production or reproduction’ constituted by the doctor’s and school-teacher’s services. The same conception of these costs is present in the following passage;

‘The largest part of society, that is to say the working class, must incidentally perform this kind of labour for itself; but it is only able to perform it when it has laboured “productively”. It can only cook meat for itself when it has produced a wage with which to pay for the meat; and it can only keep its furniture and dwellings clean, it can only polish its boots, when it has produced the value of furniture, house-rent and boots. To this class of productive labourers itself, therefore, the labour which they perform themselves appears as “unproductive labour”. This unproductive labour never enables them to repeat the same unproductive labour a second time unless they have previously laboured productively’. (T.S.V. I, p. 166.)

The argument is similar to that in the earlier passage. In contrast to the payments for education and medical attention, which are productive of value and enter into the costs of production of labour-power, the expenditure of labour on cooking, cleaning, sewing and repairs is unproductive of value and presumably does not enter into the costs of production of labour-power. From the argument here it is not clear whether this is because (1) these services by their nature cannot be productive of value: this is implied by the use of the term ‘costs of consumption’; or because (2) they are suppliedby the working class itself, whereas if they werebought with their wages they would be productive of value. Let us examine these one by one.

(1) In criticising Smith for identifying productive labour with labour which produces a material product, Marx makes it clear that the form of the commodity, whether it is a service or a material use-value, does not determine the character of the labour which produces it. He remarks that

‘even though capital has conquered material production, and so by and large home industry has disappeared, and the industry of the small craftsman who makes use-values directly for the consumer at his home – even then, Adam Smith knows quite well, a seamstress whom I get to come to my house to sew shirts, or workmen who repair furniture, or the servant who scrubs and cleans the house, etc., or the cook who gives meat and other things their palatable form, fix their labour in a thing and in fact increase the value of these things in exactly the same way as the seamstress who sews in a factory, the engineer who repairs a machine, the labourers who clean the machine, or the cook who cooks in a hotel as the wage-labourer of a capitalist.’ (T.S.V. I, p. 1649, emphasis added.)

Evidently, then, sewing, repairing, cleaning, cooking, cannot by their nature be unproductive of value, whether they take place in the factory or in the house of the consumer of these services. Therefore, the term ‘costs of consumption’, which implies that they belong within the process of individual consumption, is totally misleading; they are ‘costs of consumption’ only in the banal sense thatevery process of production of an article of consumption in some way prepares it for consumption. I.e. the reaping, threshing, milling and baking of grain are in this sense ‘costs of consumption’, likewise the picking, cleaning, spinning and weaving of cotton, and so on. Clearly, this is a strange way in which to conceive of these processes, which should rather be seen, and are seen by Marx, as processes of production of articles of consumption. Sewing, repairing, cooking and cleaning are likewise processes of production which result in a use-value, and, in a commodity-producing society, a value. In fact, when we examine the production of the commodity labour-power as a labour-process, it is clear that means of production (raw food, fuel, brooms and mops, needle and thread, etc.) are converted into the form of the product (labour-power) precisely through the labour-process which takes place in the home of the working-class family and whose components are cooking, cleaning, washing, sewing, knitting, mending, child-care and so on. If we examine it as a process of production of value, then the living labour performed in the final process of production is no less part of the total social labour objectified in the labour-power than the labour which has previously been objectified in means of production of labour-power.

(2) Thus we have already disposed of the argument that these processes of production do not add to the value of the product simply because they are performed by the working class itself. This would be like saying that the products of any petty commodity-producing households – handloom weavers, for example – incorporates only the value of the means of production such as yarn and loom, while the actual labour of weaving adds no value to the product because it is performed by the weavers themselves – a proposition which obviously contradicts Marx’s whole theory of value.

If we now look more carefully at the passage where Marx says that the working class can cook, etc. only after it has obtained a wage, we can detect an inversion. If we generalise this proposition to all commodities, it would state that until a commodity has been sold, it cannot be produced. Now, it perfectly true that, having once been produced, a commodity must be sold in order that the elements of production be replaced and the process of production occuragain. But it should be obvious that it cannot in the first place be sold unless it has already been produced. This is especially true of labour-power, which cannot be sold unless many hundreds of hours of labour-time have already been spent on its production. As Marx himself remarks in another context, ‘its value, like that of every other commodity, is already determined before it enters into circulation, for a definite quantity of social labour has been spent on the production of the labour-power’ (Capital I, p. 277). And, again, ‘Its exchange-value, like that of every other commodity, is determined before it goes into circulation, since it is sold as a capacity, a power, and a specific amount of labour-time was required to produce this capacity, this power’ (Capital I, p. 1066).

We can ask, then, why it is that this domestic labour, which, it is true, is not directly productive of surplus value, should be treated by Marx as though it is not productive ofvalue at all; and why he should, at times, treat the process of production of labour-power, which, it is true, is not the production of commodity capital, as though it were not the production of a commodity at all. It is possible that the answer lies in some lingering fetishism of the wage-form. If it were hislabour that was being sold, there would be no anomaly in saying that obtaining a wage is aprecondition of preparing means of subsistence for consumption, since labour, unlike labour-power, is not ‘a capacity, a power’, and no labour-time is required for its production. This lingering fetishism would also account for the idea sometimes expressed by Marx that the labourer sellshis labour-power only. The visible transaction is certainly the sale of something that ishis, and the sale of the labour-power of the entire family lies concealed beneath this appearance-form.

To establish that the value of labour-power incorporates the labour performed in the home may not appear to be very important. Yet it considerably alters the way in which the value of labour-power is calculated. Marx divides the factory working day into a period of necessary labour in which value equivalent to the wage is produced by the workers, and a period of surplus labour in which surplus-value is produced. In accordance with the assumption that the commodity labour-power exchanges at approximately its value, he assumes also that in the necessary labour-time value equivalent to the value of labour-power is produced. If this is the case, the labourer must in the necessary labour-time produce not only value equivalent to subsistence costs incurred in money, but also, in addition, value equivalent to the labour expended in the home, and this must be calculated on a household and not an individual basis. In other words, household labour must be seen as part of the total social labour-time engaged in the reproduction of society through its contribution to the production of labour-power. This is not immediately apparent because, here again, we come up against the fetishism of money and especially of the wage-form which hides the intrinsic unity of necessary labour performed in the factory and necessary labour performed in the home. In the case of a natural household economy, it is obvious that work done in the field, the workshop and the home are part of a single process of reproducing the household. Where simple commodity production is concerned, the unity is less apparent, because the labour-time spent in producing commodities for sale is divided from the time spent in producing use-values for household consumption. But it still not difficult to penetrate the secret that the labour spent in producing commodities is, when seen on a social scale, only part of the social labour performed to provide for the reproduction of the sum total of commodity-producing households. Capitalism, however, erects a Chinese wall between work performed in the workshop or factory, which becomes part of the life-process of an alien being, capital, and work performed in the home; thereby obscuring both the social character of domestic labour as merely ‘an aspect of the production and reproduction of capital’, labour-time spent in producing a product for consumption by capital,and the fact that however contingent the use-values in which the labour performed in any given workplace is embodied, the total labour of the working class must produce means of production and consumption necessary for the reproduction of society.

From this point of view, then, the full value of labour-power is realised only when the working-class family obtains a collective wage with which it can purchase means of subsistence necessary for a normal standard of living without collectively having to work a greater number of hours a day than normal. The former, it has already been pointed out, contains a historical and moral element; likewise the latter:

‘The working day does have a maximum limit. It cannot be prolonged beyond a certain point. This maximum limit is conditioned by two things. First by the physical limits to labour-power. Within the 24 hours of the natural day a man can expend only a certain quantity of his vital force. During part of the day the vital force must rest, sleep; during another part the man has to satisfy other physical needs, to feed, wash and clothe himself. Besides these purely physical limitations, the extension of the working day encounters moral obstacles. The worker needs time in which to satisfy his intellectual and social requirements, and the extent and number of these requirements is conditioned by the general level of civilization. The length of the working day therefore fluctuates within boundaries both physical and social.’ (Capital I, p. 341.)

All this is equally true of women and applies with even greater force to children, whose normal development requires more time for rest and the free exercise of physical and mental capacities than that of adults.

Thus, realisation of the full value of labour-power implies much more than that the labourers should be able to maintain themselves and produce children who will constitute the future labour-force. It implies also that the collective wage of the working-class family should be sufficient to maintain it at a standard of life which is socially considered to be normal, which may be much higher than the biological minimum. Moreover, it implies that the total number of hours of work per day for the family should not exceed the amount socially accepted as normal. This total number of hours per day, however it is distributed as between different members of the family, includes both domestic labour and wage-labour performed in the factory. In modern times, the normal working day is considered to be such that children should not have to work at all, while older adolescents and adults should not work more than eight hours a day. Since domestic labour contributes to the value of labour-power, only if it is included in the calculation of hours of work can labour-power be considered to be sold at its value. If wage-labour alone fills up eight hours of each adult’s day, labour-power is being sold below its value; and if wage-labour and domestic labour together constitute more than an eight-hour working day for any adult, then labour-power is still being sold below its value.

At any given level of the social productivity of labour, the mass of surplus-value can be expanded either (1) by reducing the necessary labour performed in the factory while keeping the factory working day constant; (2) by extending the factory working day; or (3) by intensifying the work performed in the factory, a case which need not here be considered. (1) When the necessary labour-time is reduced below the time in which value equivalent to the value of labour-power is produced, the immediate result is a reduction in the use-values which can be purchased and hence a fall in the standard of living. However, the necessary labour-time can be considerably reduced without producing a drastic fall in the standard of living simply by increasing the domestic labour-time engaged in the production of labour-power. If the wage is not sufficient to buy cooked or processed food, it will be bought raw and cooked at home; if it is not sufficient to buy laundering services, clothes will be washed at home; if tailoring services or ready-made clothes cannot be afforded, clothes will be stitched at home; if flour or bread is too expensive, grain may be bought, cleaned and sometimes even ground at home, at the cost of a tremendous amount of time and effort. In this way, it is possible to push the price of labour-power far below its value; where part of the food for domestic consumption is produced by the household on a small plot, it is possible to push it down still further. This is, however, compensated by a greater amount of time expended on domestic labour. In terms of social averages, the extra time expended at home may be equivalent to the reduction achieved in the necessary labour-time in the factory, but, in absolute terms, the extra time in the home is much greater because of the primitiveness of the domestic labour-process. Thus, the real mechanism by which this reduction of the price of labour-power below its value is achieved is by an extension of the household working day far beyond the normal length. However, since the extra working time occurs in the home and not in the factory under the direct supervision of the capitalist, it is seldom perceived as an extension of the working day. (2) On the other side, extension of the surplus-labour performed under the direct control of the capitalist is best considered from the standpoint of the entire working-class family. The total amount of surplus labour-time appropriated from them can be increased not only by increasing the working time of an individual member, but by increasing the number of family members engaged in wage-labour to include, e.g., women and children. Here, again, the price of labour-power is reduced below its value, not through a reduction of the use-values consumed by the family, but by an extension of the number of hours of wage-labour it is compelled to perform per day.

Thus, at a given level of labour productivity, surplus-value can be increased by (1) reduction of the quantity of use-values consumed by the working class; (2) extension of the domestic labour-time it must employ in order to reproduce its labour-power; and (3) extension of the surplus labour-time appropriated from it in the factory. The individual capital, on which the laws of capitalist accumulation act as external compulsion, strives to achieve all three, thus pushing down wages to the equivalent of the price of the minimum quantum of use-values that have to be purchased. The labourers, on the other side, have no means of resisting this pressure so long as there is free competition amongst them for the sale of their labour-power on the market. Thus, as a result of the operation of the laws of capitalist production, wages would tend to fluctuate around the average aggregate price of the minimum means of subsistence that have to be purchased on the market, and not, as Marx assumed, around the value of labour-power. Fluctuations of supply and demand would lead wages to deviate above or below this average aggregate price, but these deviations would mutually balance one another.

Why does this persistent, and not merely accidental, deviation of the price of labour-power from its value occur? The same problem in fact confronts us if we examine the prices of all other commodities produced in a capitalist society. If we begin with the assumption that prices gravitate towards values, we have to conclude that commodities produced by capitals of varying organic compositions must achieve correspondingly different rates of profit. This, however, is contradicted by the existence of a general rate of profit. It is the initial assumption which has to be dropped when we come to a more concrete examination of capitalist society where products exchange not at their value but approximately at their prices of production. As Marx points outs

‘For prices at which commodities are exchanged to approximately correspond to their values, nothing more is necessary than (1) for the exchange of the various commodities to cease being purely accidental or only occasional; (2) so far as direct exchange of commodities is concerned, for these commodities to be produced on both sides in approximately sufficient quantities to meet mutual requirements … and (3) so far as selling is concerned, for no natural or artificial monopoly to enable either of the contracting sides to sell commodities above their value or to compel them to undersell… The exchange of commodities at their values, or approximately at their values, thus requires a much lower stage than their exchange at their prices of production, which requires a definite level of capitalist development.’ (Capital Volume III, Moscow edition, pp. 174-5, 174.)

Thus, as the capitalist production of commodities comes to displace simple commodity production, products come to be sold at around their prices of production rather than around their values. But labour-power defies all the rules. On the one hand, it is only when the capitalist production of commodities has reached a definite level of development that it is widely produced as a commodity at all; on the other, even at this stage, it is produced as a simple commodity and not as a capitalist commodity. In other words, it is a simple commodity produced in a world of capitalist commodities: what, then, constitutes the centre towards which its market-price gravitates? Not its value, since commodities no longer exchange at their values. Nor its price of production, since it is not produced capitalistically and its producers do not demand profit at the average rate. Rather, its price gravitates spontaneously towards the average aggregate price of the commodities that enter into its production.

It is important to emphasise that, in a society where commodities in general do not exchange at approximately their values, there would be no possible mechanism whereby the price of one isolated commodity, namely labour-power, could fluctuate around its value. Marx does not point this out because he commits a forced abstraction in making a transition straight from the value of labour-power to its price in Volume I itself, throughout which he maintains the assumption thatall commodities sell at their value. Having done this, he forgets that this mode of determination of price is possible only on the assumption that all commodities sell at their value, and thinks that he has established the centre of gravity of the market-price of labour-power for a capitalist society as such. Hence, when he begins to approach the surface of bourgeois society inVolume III, and shows that capitalistically produced commodities have market-prices which fluctuate around prices of production and not values, he fails to carry out a similar transformation on the price of labour-power and assumes that it still continues to gravitate towards value. Thus:

‘If supply and demand coincide, the market-price of commodities corresponds to their price of production, i.e. their price then appears to be regulated by the immanent laws of capitalist production, independently of competition, since the fluctuations of supply and demand explain nothing but deviations of market-prices from prices of production. The same applies to wages. If supply and demand coincide, they neutralize each other’s effect, and wages equal the value of labour-power.’ (Capital III, p. 349.)

As a result of this mistaken assumption, he is unable adequately to explain the real historical necessity of trade unions. If it were merely a matter of fluctuations of supply and demand causing temporary deviations of wages above and below the value of labour-power, the immanent laws of capitalist production would, by themselves, ensure that labour-power, in the long run, would be sold at its value. It is, on the contrary, the immanent tendency of capitalist production to push wages below the value of labour-power that compels the working class tostruggle andcombine merely in order to realise the value of its labour-power, and the organisations historically thrown up in the course of this struggle are the trade unions. In fact, it is the struggle of the working class through the trade unions to increase the use-values obtainable with the wage and to reduce the length of the working day that tends to push wages up towards the value of labour-power. The failure or success of this struggle, however, depends on historical circumstances outside its control.

Finally, the state. As embodiment of the general interest of bourgeois society, it attempts to ensure optimum conditions for the accumulation of capital. Unlike, however, the individual capitalist, whose watchword is ‘Après moi le déluge!’ and who takes no account of the cost to society so long as his own profit is increased, the state must, in the interest of the whole capitalist class, limit the extent of exploitation of labour-power within boundaries which allow of its unimpaired reproduction. It is this function of the state which accounts, for example, for the passing of the English Factory Acts of the mid-nineteenth century.

‘These laws curb capital’s drive towards a limitless draining away of labour-power by forcibly limiting the working day on the authority of the state, but a state ruled by capitalist and landlord. Apart from the daily more threatening advance of the working-class movement, the limiting of factory labour was dictated by the same necessity as forced the manuring of English fields with guano. The same blind desire for profit that in the one case exhausted the soil had in the other case seized hold of the vital force of the nation at its roots.’ (Capital I, p. 348.)

In this instance, the blind desire for profits of the individual capitalists threatens to annihilate the very source of its profits by over-working the proletariat to such an extent that it is unable to reproduce itself. The workers, struggling for their own existence, ‘put their heads together and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier by which they can be prevented from selling themselves and their families into slavery and death by voluntary contract with capital’ (Capital I, p. 416). And this law, paradoxically, is enacted in the wider interests of the capitalists themselves, who individually fight against it tooth and nail.

The purpose of this example is merely to indicate the complexity of the interaction between capitalists, wage-labourers and bourgeois state which occurs during the process of the historical development of the class of wage-labourers. This historical development results, on the one hand, in an alteration of the conditions in which labour-power is produced, sold and consumed, on the other, in the expansion of the proletariat into a truly world-historical force, and these two aspects are inter-related. A more detailed investigation into the various aspects of this development and their inter-relations is a necessity if the various forms of organisation and struggle historically thrown up by the working class are sought to be understood, and if a deeper understanding of the present stage of the class struggle is to be obtained.


Image modify from “work” byJudy ** is licensed underCC BY-NC-ND 2.0