Wage Slavery and Capitalism

Economy - Comments Off on Wage Slavery and Capitalism - Posted on August, 20 at 11:12 pm

By Jim Smith

Slavery existed long before capitalism. As primitive tribes, which once roamed the earth, grew larger they developed a social division of labor. Some of the tribal members became rulers and priests and others became full-time hunters and/or fighters. When members of competing tribes were captured, they often became slaves.

What we call the “ancient” civilizations – Egypt, Greece, Persia, India, China, Rome, etc. – used slaves to a greater or lesser degree. Slaves were captured in wars, bought from other countries, and citizens were sentenced to slavery for crimes or bankruptcy. Many of these slaves enjoyed a relatively good life working for individual families. Others were cruelly worked to death in mines and galleys. Slavery also existed in most feudal countries, but did not play the dominate economic role.

With their discovery of the Western Hemisphere, Europeans tried to enslave the indigenous population, but were largely unsuccessful. Then began the massive uprooting of Africans, who were deprived of their names, families, cultures and religions. Slavery and racism joined hand-in-hand to perpetuate a system that was more inhumane than any that had gone before it. In the U.S., it took a bloody war to root out chattel slavery. In many other countries, it was made illegal by more peaceful means. Saudi Arabia outlawed slavery only in 1953. However, in many parts of the world, slavery, particulary of children and women, continues to exist on the fringes of the global economy.

Wage slavery is the predominate form of oppression today. Workers are forced to sell themselves (actually, their labor power) in order to survive. Instead of being owned, and provided for in some fashion, they are “free” for the remainder of the day. However, economic necessity prevents the overwhelming mass of humanity from being truly free. Survival is linked to becoming a wage slave for another. In most cases, the “other” is a giant corporation.

The system we live in today is called the capitalist mode of production. Past modes include primitive communism, slavery and feudalism. We can project future modes as socialism and advanced communism.

Classes have existed since the earliest days of the social division of labor. A class is determined by how its members relate to the means of production (including distribution and service industries). Are they owners, workers, slaves? In capitalism there are two main classes: capitalists and workers (or wage slave, which is used in this article interchangeably with worker). These two classes are not equal in either power or numbers. Capitalists constitute a tiny fraction of the population but are extremely powerful because they control so much of society’s wealth, as well as the state and its repressive forces, including the military and police.

Not everyone belongs to these major classes. There is also an intellectual strata, which is constantly shrinking as more and more intellectuals become wage earners at universities and other institutions. There is also a sub-class of small entrepreneurs, also called the petty bourgeoisie. They are the shop keepers and individual, small capitalists who are caught between the two major classes. They are constantly in danger of being crushed by big corporations but they fear the wage demands of workers. Small farmers constitute another class in the U.S. that has been shrinking for more than 100 years. Every passing year makes it harder to compete with large scale corporate farms. Most flee to the city and become workers.

A class analysis is perhaps the most powerful tool for understanding what is going on in the world around us. We can predict how, and why, certain people will behave if we know their class position. It is a testable hypothesis in contrast to other views of the world. Without a class analysis, we might think that events are just too bizarre to understand. The world is just insane. Or we might believe that things happen because some people are “good” and some people are “bad.” Or we might believe that everything happens because of a conspiracy. Yes, conspiracies happen every day, but they happen within the context of furthering the goals of individuals within a particular class context.

We can divide the capitalist system into two parts – economic base, and social and cultural superstructure. The economic base is where classes and class influence are most apparent. Everyone acts out of economic necessity. The social and cultural superstructure, on the other hand, is a reflection of the economic base. Art, literature, music, social interaction, family structure, the layout of cities, transportation, health care, war or peace, sports and nearly every other facet of our lives, except our class status, is part of the superstructure. Human behavior is often linked quite transparently to the economic base. At other times, it is mystified. Personality quirks often impel people to act in a certain way. Yet, even this behavior is restrained by class position.

Within capitalism, no one is free, not the capitalist, and certainly not the worker. The capitalist is constrained to accumulate more and more capital. If he (the overwhelming percentage of capitalists are men) does not, he will be gobbled up by a bigger capitalist. This process of concentration and centralization of capital is reported on nearly every day in the business section of newspapers. Likewise, the worker is a victim of economic necessity and has no freedom to quit his or her job to concentrate on art, music, or tending a garden.

A typical wage slave’s day is 8-8-8. Eight hours of wage slavery, eight hours of free time to eat, relax and watch TV, and eight hours for sleep, in order to regenerate for the next day of wage slavery. Many workers enjoy a weekend without wage slavery, but hundreds of millions do not. In the past few years in the U.S., the length of the working day has been growing as more workers find themselves without unions, or classified as “professionals” who have unlimited work days.

No one likes being in a condition of slavery. It’s understandable that slaves either identify with their master or deny that they are slaves. Many wage slaves come to identify with the corporation for whom they toil, that is, until they are fired or laid off. Big corporations encourage an atmosphere of “partnership,” via slick ads, caps, t-shirts and slogans: “Things (what things) go better with Coke,” and “At Ford, customer satisfaction is job #1.” Wage slaves, who are “professionals,” or “independent contractors” often donate much of their work without compensation. Because wage slaves are only enslaved for part of each day, ideological confusion is more rampant than if they were slaves all day, every day. Corporate and academic studies focus on “job satisfaction,” rather than slave dissatisfaction. Wage slaves can even buy a tiny share of ownership in their corporation through employee stock ownership programs. However, when a wage slave happens to win the lottery, the job is the first thing to be abandoned.

Another way of dealing with unacceptable conditions is to fight back. If individuals do this on their own it may take the form of lawlessness or terrorism. Often people strike out at the nearest target, their fellow slaves or neighbors. Terrorism, as well, is a non-class response to oppression. It can involve small groups who take it upon themselves to liberate the masses, or punish the oppressors. Often, the response from the ruling class is state terrorism.

By using a class analysis, we can understand that a class, not an individual or small group, struggle will be the most effective. Workers often involve themselves in class struggles, even when they dimly perceive the source or nature of their oppression. Assisting in the development of class consciousness among many millions of wage slaves is a necessary precondition to replacing a system that is based on exploitation and oppression with one in which freedom and the full potential of all people can be realized.

The two main forms of organization created by workers are labor unions and political parties. Labor unions can be very class conscious and revolutionary or they can be focused only on protecting the interests of workers in a particular company, craft or industry. In either case, they are valuable institutions. Unfortunately, under capitalism their leaders often succumb to corruption or to adopting the ideology of the oppressor. In almost all unions, class conscious workers are involved in continual efforts to make the organization more active, progressive and to push it to act in the interests of the working class as a whole.

Political parties dedicated to the working class have been part of the class struggle for 150 years. Some have come to power either by elections or revolution. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 in Russia is the best known. In the last few years, leftists have been gaining power in a number of South American countries. Even without wining state power, working class parties can have a huge influence. The Left Party in Germany (formerly called the Party of Democratic Socialism) led a massive movement against German involvement in a war in Iraq. The largest party there, the Social Democrats, were forced to adopt this position in order to win the election. In every case, whether working class parties come to power or not, they have been surrounded by a world system of capitalism. This has dramatically affected their ability to function. Even so, by challenging the capitalist parties, workers parties play an essential offensive role in the class struggle that unions, which are mainly defensive organizations, are unable to play. In the best case, a working class party will unify community, labor, peace, environmental, justice and anti-globalization struggles that would otherwise be separate and less effective.

Capitalism furthers the illusion of freedom and equality between master and wage slave with the pretense of a free labor market where a worker can choose his or her employment. As Karl Marx noted in Capital (Vol. 1, p. 176, Int’l Pub.), in the marketplace the capitalist and worker approach each other as equals. The capitalist has money to buy and the worker has something to sell, his labor-power. This sphere, says Marx, “is the very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality…”

However, after the deal is struck, they go to the

“hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face ‘No admittance except on business.’ …He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but – a hiding.”
– Capital, Vol. 1, p. 176

What happens in this “hidden abode?” For one thing, all rights evaporate. There is no free speech, no freedom or equality. The worker, who may live in a “free country” has entered the realm of fascism, where everything is dictated to him or her.

It is also in this hidden abode that the secret of capitalist exploitation is revealed. Back in the marketplace, the worker agreed to sell his labor-power to the capitalist for an agreed upon wage. The worker agreed to do the bidding of the capitalist for a set number of hours for which he/she would be paid a certain sum.

Let’s say, by way of example, that a worker is to be paid $10 per hour for a period of eight hours. For this eight hour period, the capitalist orders the worker to assembly TV sets. The worker puts together TV cabinets, circuit boards, knobs, power units, etc. that end up as working TV sets. Before the worker started, the TV components had a total value of $4,190. After they are assembled, there are 24 TV sets that have a value of $200 each, or a total value of $4,800. During the production process, $640 in new value has been created. Yet the worker was not paid $640, he was paid only $80. The remaining $610 is called surplus value. It can only be created by workers. In Marxist theory, this is called the “Labor Theory of Value.”

The worker did not receive the full $640 that he created because of an important distinction. Back in the marketplace, the worker did not sell his labor. If he/she had, the fair price would have been $640. Instead the worker sold his/her labor-power, that is, the ability to work. This labor-power brought a poor price – only $10 an hour.

If we wanted to, we could trace the process backwards and watch the workers who assembled the TV components from transistors, screens and other smaller objects. Then we could look at the molding of the steel and ingredients. Finally, we could look at the creation of the machine tools and the mining of the raw materials, all done by workers.

Apologists for capitalism argue that the capitalist also adds value by contributing capital to the production process. But we have just seen that capital is accumulated by nothing more than the past exploitation of workers farther down the production process.

Just to be fair to the capitalists, we should follow the process of capital accumulation farther back in history. Perhaps there really was a capitalist who somehow started the process by some means other than the exploitation of workers. How did capitalism first get its capital? This is called “primitive accumulation of capital.”

This look back to the beginning of the capitalist process was undertaken by Marx, who said:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”
–Capital, Vol. 1, p. 751.

The very core of capitalism is based on exploitation. It cannot be reformed. The capitalist must exploit the worker to the greatest extent possible to keep up with the other capitalists. This can be done in two ways. The capitalist can lengthen the length of the working day or working week. Many workers toil for much more than 40 hours per week, which has been the legal standard in the U.S. for the past 70 years. Others must constantly work “overtime” to keep up with their bills. Even when they are paid “time-and-a-half” after eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week, the capitalist still comes out ahead. Having wage slaves work longer is called increasing absolute surplus value.

The other way to increase surplus value, and profit, is to make the worker more efficient. The development of assembly lines made workers much more efficient (and more specialized). Speeding up the assembly line also makes workers more efficient – to a point. New scientific and technological developments – like computers – make work more efficient, and hence, more profitable. This is called increasing relative surplus value.

The era of the global economy has been made possible by the ever increasing scientific-technological revolution. Computers, the internet, biotechnology and countless other innovations are transforming our world just as the industrial revolution did two centuries ago. Unfortunately, these achievements which could create the conditions for the true freedom of humanity are instead used to create unheard of levels of private profit and greater and greater exploitation.

In the early days of capitalism, workers were treated as sub-humans. The novels of Charles Dickens and the economics of Adam Smith portrayed the naked, cruel face of capitalism. The ideology of capitalism was called liberalism. In those days, liberalism meant the unfettered use of the market to determine price and value. Unfortunately, the price of labor-power was constantly driven down. It would have been a violation of liberalism to have unions or the government interfere to push up the price of labor-power, or wages.

For most of the 20th century, those days seemed long gone as social welfare plans, minimum wages, union rights, child labor laws, pensions and other reforms cushioned the lives of wage slaves.

Then, about 30 years ago, a new theory was developed. It was called neo-liberalism because it was based on a return to the “good ole days” of liberalism. Finance capital – Wall Street – came to completely dominate old-style industrial capital. Meeting the needs of the Wall Street investors became the ultimate goal of the corporation. No longer did an industrial capitalist own the plant. It became common property of all capitalists. At the same time, the scientific-technological revolution was creating greater possibilities for profit, and exploitation, around the planet.

In the beginning, workers only noticed the symptoms of neo-liberalism such as a new anti-union attitude from employers. Union-busting consultants proliferated. Runaway plants became common. If workers could be hired for less in Mexico or Indonesia, that’s where the plant would move. It was now possible to create islands of ultra modern production in underdeveloped countries.

Capitalism is rife with contradictions. Every capitalist wants to become richer and richer by producing and selling more and more commodities. However when that happens, an overproduction crises occurs which can mean the ruin of many capitalists – and the loss of income for millions of workers.

Scientific and technological triumphs have allowed capitalists to exploit the entire world as never before. At the same time, the struggle against capitalism has been globalized. A new anti-neoliberal globalization movement has brought millions into struggle against giant corporations, if not capitalism, itself. The internet can not only move investment and capital around the world “at the speed of light,” it also can be used to mobilize opposition to war, sweatshops, the World Trade Organization and other machinations of the ruling class that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Just as feudalism contained the seeds of capitalism within it, capitalism contains the seeds of socialism. It has created a world system, and with it perhaps its own death. Unless capitalism can constantly come up with new ways to extract more and more surplus value and profit, it will die.

The drive for new markets has become worldwide. Every country in the world is fair game for explotiation by transnational corporations headquartered in the U.S. and a few other advanced capitalist countries. Economic imperialism is becoming more like traditional empires as countries and peoples resist the invasion of their markets and the destruction of their culture. The U.S. army is called upon to be the policeman for the capitalist. And in both developing countries and at home, the market is expanded by granting more and more credit to countries and to workers who are already drowning in a sea of debt. The pace of capitalist accumulation spins faster and faster.

Greater and greater amounts of capital are necessary, at any price, to triumph over other capitalists. But this causes the rate of profit, which is based on the total investment, to decline. Capitalists are always looking for a higher rate of profit on their investment. If it can not be found, a financial gridlock can occur. “Game over” for capitalism could be a huge disaster for all humanity if there is not a transformation to socialism – a system based on sharing and providing for human needs rather than individual greed.

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