How free is the worker in capitalism? A student wrote “ The corporate domain is not the only area in which a laborer lives; the laborer leaves the workplace and may do as he or she pleases.”
True, although as some other students point out, in times of recession the worker is reluctant to walk out on a job. Karl Marx, in Das Capital,(1867) makes the point that capitalism is predicated, among other factors, on the freedom of the worker to sell his labor power. Marx says this is why capitalism could not exist in antiquity (slavery) or the Middle Ages (feudalism).
Why does he say that? In Chapter Six, he makes the following points:
1. Labor power is a commodity because it has use value and exchange value.
2. The worker must sell his labor power which he owns as a free person, to the capitalist. The worker’s labor power is the worker’s private property
. 3. The worker sells his labor power because he does not own the means of production and therefore cannot go into business himself.
4. The worker is not however free to sell the commodities that his labor power has produced
In Chapter 7, Marx makes the following points:
1. All value comes from the laboring process. In other words, trees are value-less until they are handled by laborers to have use-value (for example, a table) and exchange value (the selling price of the table in the market place).
2. The capitalist pays the laborer enough for him to subsist or survive (enough for food, clothing, shelter etc). Marx gives the example of a worker paid 3 shillings for six hours work.
3. For the capitalist to make a profit, the worker must work 12 hours at 3 shillings - six hours of which are free to the capitalist. This is why workers’ struggles revolve around hours in a working day.
Paula wrote" However, it is the right of workers, as human beings to enjoy certain alienable privileges that are also protected in collectively such as those explained by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights "ARTICLE 4. NO ONE SHALL BE HELD IN SLAVERY OR SERVITUDE; SLAVERY AND THE SLAVE TRADE SHALL BE PROHIBITED IN ALL THEIR FORMS. "
My comment: There is no doubt that capitalism arose at the same time as human rights ideologies, around the 17th century in Europe. Marx believed it’s important to distinguish workers in capitalism from slaves, although the expression ‘wage slaves’ exists. There are other articles in the UDHR and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which the US has ratified) that declare the right to bargain collectively.
Slaves don’t receive wages, therefore they cannot be consumers.
Consumerism is a critical function of capitalism. You need people to buy items so they can be sold at a profit. One of the causes of the US Civil War in the 19th Century was that industrialists in the North needed free labor power for industrialization profit making.
Marx makes a critical point. He says that since value comes ONLY from human labor, it must be manipulated in such as way as to create profit. Some might say, isn’t profit created by setting prices? This is my comment: If prices are raised beyond the value that labor has created, the price of the workers’ subsistence will also have to be raised. The only way to realize profit is to add hours to the working day, beyond how much it cost for the workers to subsist and return to work every day. This, again, explains the fight over the working day. The capitalist wants to add more unpaid workers’ hours beyond what it cost to keep the workers ‘alive.
While unions “FOUGHT ONE HUNDRED BLOODY YEARS TO WIN THE RIGHT TO A FORTY-HOUR WEEK,” such rights have been rolled back. “IN THE LAST TWENTY YEARS, THE PROPORTION OF EMPLOYEES WORKING FIFTY HOURS OR MORE EACH WEEK HAS JUMPED BY 50 PERCENT” (Kelly, p. 37, 2001).