labor and labor-power

Reading Capital, finally made it through chapter 7 where Marx discusses the labor process and the valorization process. Along with this I read Raya’s Marxism & Freedom, coincidentallychapter 7 part 1 which explains the significance of Marx’s distinction between labor and labor-power. Here are my thoughts:

The most important thing about the break Marx made with the political economists of the time is that it expanded communist theory and allowed for a fuller picture of both the current social relations, and the possibility of a new mode of production where we the workers are the rulers of our own destinies. Might sound kinda corny, but it’s true. At the time communists, mainly utopian socialists, where limited to Ricardo’s theory of labor which saw the activity of labor and the commodity labor-power as one. Because of this there was a limited and contradictory understanding of how value was created. It appeared to be a more equal exchange of one commodity for another – labor for money. It also led people to conclusions like advances in technology would free workers because it would free up time.

Since they were using Ricardo’s understanding of the labor, they did not see that when we work we are not paid for our activity, but we are are paid for the potential to create value. The difference may seem like semantics, but let’s dig into it and see the difference. As a commodity we are given a value just as every other commodity is – labor time to produce, or reproduce in our case. This means, how much does it cost to feed us, shelter us, give us enough to get us up the next day and work again. That is what we are paid for. In Chapter 6 Marx shows us what this would look like in a math equation and it is basically all expenses for the year including food, clothing, shelter, car, movies, etc/365 and that is how much we get a day (or any other time interval works).

If we were paid for our labor, the activity, it would mean we were paid for how much value we created during production. If this were the case the capitalists wouldn’t make jack shit. The way capitalists make surplus is by paying us our measly wage and getting all the value we create in a day. Our wage turns out to be teeny tiny in comparison to how much we make the capitalists, well depending on what kind of capitalist we are working for I suppose.

So, since before Marx Ricardo was the main stream thinking of the day,  we can see how it might appear to be a more equal exchange. We are allowed to chose where we work, we are allowed to sell ourselves and get the money we get for it. But we are truly only able to sell it for prices that are fixed depending on the standard of living at the time, and sometimes not even that much. And as for technology, as it advances this just means that we are producing more in the same amount of time, we are creating more value than we are receiving, benefiting the capitalists not ourselves. This means that we are producing more value than we are getting. As Raya says, this process means that “labor – the source and creator of all values – becomes the poorer the more values the worker creates”. The more values we put out into the world, the more value is used against us as workers, the poorer we become. So basically the more we create the less we have. At the time Ricardos contributions to political economy could not explain this phenomenon using labor as both activity and commodity.


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