Deville - The People's Marx (1893)

Chapter XIX: The Transformation of the Value or Price of Labor-Power into Wages

Wages are the price, not of labor, but of labor-power.—The wage-form conceals the real relation between capital and labor.

Wages Are the Price, Not of Labor, But of Labor-Power.

If we look only on the surface of bourgeois society, the wages of the laborer seem to be the remuneration of labor—so much money paid for so much labor. Labor is then treated as a commodity, the market-price of which rises and falls above or below its value.

But what is this value? Value represents the social labor expended in the production of a commodity. And how is the magnitude of value of a commodity measured? By the quantity of labor that it contains. How then do we determine, for example, the value of twelve hours' labor? By the twelve hours' labor that it contains, which is evidently absurd.

In order to be taken to market and sold as a commodity, the labor must, at all events, have been in existence beforehand. But if the laborer could endow it with a material existence, separate from and independent of himself, he would sell a commodity and not labor.

That which directly confronts the capitalist on the market is not labor, but the laborer. What he sells is his labor-power. As soon as he begins to exert his labor- power, to labor, as soon as his labor exists, this labor has already ceased to belong to him, and can no longer be sold by him. Labor is the substance and measure of value, but itself has no value. The expression, value of labor, is an inaccurate expression which has its source in the apparent forms of the relations of production.

Having made this error, classical political economy proceeded to inquire how the price of labor was determined. It recognized that in the case of labor, as in the case of every other commodity, the relation between supply and demand explained only the oscillations of the market-price above or below a certain mean. As soon as supply and demand balance each other, the changes in price which they had occasioned cease, but the whole effect of supply and demand also ceases at the same point. If, when they are in equilibrium, the price of labor no longer depends upon their influence, upon what then does it depend? The price of labor, like the price of every other commodity, can only be its value expressed in money, and this value, political economy determined in the last analysis, by the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the support and re-production of the laborer. Without suspecting it, political economy thus substituted for the ostensible subject of its researches, the value of labor, the value of labor-power, a power which exists only in the person of the laborer, and is distinct from its function, labor, just as a machine is distinct from its operations. But classical political economy remained unconscious of this confusion.

The Wage-Form Conceals the Real Relation Between Capital and Labor.

According to all the appearances, indeed, what the capitalist pays is the value of the utility that the laborer gives him, the value of labor. Moreover, the laborer is not paid until he has delivered his labor. Now, in its function as means of payment money only realizes subsequently the value or prize of the article delivered—in this case, the value or price of the labor performed. Nothing but the experience of practical life brings to light the twofold utility of labor—the property of satisfying a need, which it has in common with all commodities, and the property of creating value which differentiates it from all other commodities and makes it impossible for it, as the value-creating element, to have any value of its own.

Take a day of twelve hours producing a value of $1.20, half of which is equal to the daily value of labor-power. By confounding the value of the power with the value of its function, with the labor that it performs, we get this formula: Twelve hours' labor has a value of 60 cents; and we thus reach the absurd result that labor which creates a value of $1.20 is worth only 60 cents. But in a capitalist society this is not apparent. There, the value of 60 cents for the production of which only six hours' labor are requisite, appears as the value of the full day's labor. By receiving a wage of 60 cents a day, the laborer appears to receive all the value to which his labor entitles him, and it is precisely on this account that the excess of the value of his product over the value of his wage takes the form of a surplus-value of 60 cents created by capital and not by labor.

The wage-form, or direct payment of labor, therefore, extinguishes every trace of the division of the working- day into necessary labor and surplus-labor—into paid labor and unpaid labor—so that all the labor of the free laborer is deemed to be paid labor. In the corvÍe, the labor of the serf for himself and his compulsory labor for his lord are clearly distinct from each other, being performed in different places. In the system of slavery, even that part of the day in which the slave is only replacing the value of his own means of subsistence, in which, therefore, he really works for himself, seems to be labor for his owner. All his labor wears the appearance of unpaid labor. In slavery, the property relation conceals the labor of the slave for himself. In the wages-system, the money relation conceals the gratuitous labor of the wage-worker for the capitalist.

It is now possible to understand the immense practical importance of this change of form which makes the remuneration of labor-power appear as the wages of labor —the price of labor-power as the price of its function. The apparent form renders the real relation between capital and labor invisible. From it flow all the juridical notions of the wage-laborer and the capitalist, all the mystifications of capitalist production, all the illusions regarding liberty, all the justificatory rhetoric of ordinary political economy.