Deville - The People's Marx (1893)

Chapter VI: Purchase and Sale of Labor-Power

The source of surplus-value is labor-power.—The value of labor-power.

The Source of Surplus-Value is Labour-Power.

The increase of value which transforms money into capital, does not occur in the money; whether it serves as means of purchase or as means of payment, it only realizes the prices of the commodities that it buys or for which it pays. It is by nature incapable of growth or expansion. The change in value must take place, then, in the commodity bought and later sold at an advance.

This change can be effected neither by the purchase nor by the subsequent sale. In these two transactions, there is, indeed, according to our hypothesis, only an exchange of equivalent values. There remains, therefore, only one possible supposition, and this is that the change occurs during the use of the commodity after its purchase and before it is again sold. Now we are considering a change in exchange-value. In order to obtain an increase in exchange-value by the use of a commodity, the plutocrat must have the luck to find on the market a commodity possessing the peculiar virtue of being, through its employment or utilization, a source of exchange-value, so that to use or consume it is to create value.

And our man actually finds on the market a commodity endowed with this peculiar virtue. This commodity is called capacity for work, or labor-power. This name must be understood to include all the muscular and intellectual faculties existing in man's organism that he has to bring into action in order to produce useful things.

The exchange-relation only indicates that the parties regard each other as the owners of the commodities exchanged, and as free agents, equal in rights. Labor- power can be sold, then, as a commodity only by its own owner. Its owner must enjoy the same legal rights as the money-owner with whom he contracts. He must be the untrammelled master of his person, free to dispose of it as he wills. He must never sell his labor-power except for a fixed time, so that at the expiration of this time he shall again be the absolute owner of it. If he were to sell it once for all he would convert himself from the free man that he was into a slave, from a merchant into merchandise.

On the other hand, for the money-owner to find labor-power to buy, the owner of that power must be without both the means of subsistence and the means of production, i.e., raw materials, tools, etc., which would enable him to satisfy his wants by selling the commodities produced by his labor. He must be thus obliged to offer for sale his labor-power as a commodity, not having any other commodity to sell, nor the means to live without selling that.

It is clear that Nature does not produce, on the one side, the owners of money or commodities, and on the other, men possessing nothing but their labor-power. This relation has no natural foundation. Neither is it a social relation common to all periods of history. And the special characteristic of the capitalist period is that the possessor of the means of subsistence and production meets upon the market the laborer, whose labor-power has assumed the form of a commodity, and whose labor has consequently assumed the form of wage-labor.

The Value of Labour-Power.

Like every other commodity, labor-power has a value, determined, like all the rest, by the labor-time necessary to its production.

Labor-power being a capacity of the living individual, its continued existence is conditioned upon the maintenance of the individual. For his support or maintenance, the individual requires a certain quantity of the means of subsistence. Labor-power has, therefore, exactly the value of the means of subsistence necessary to the laborer to enable him to labor day after day in the same conditions of fitness and health.

The natural wants, such as food, clothing, fuel, lodging, etc., vary with the climate and the other physical peculiarities of the country. On the other hand, the number and extent of the so-called natural wants, as well as the methods of satisfying them, is largely dependent upon the degree of civilization attained. But, for a given country and period, the quantity of the necessary means of subsistence is likewise given or determinable.

The owners of labor-power are mortal. To insure its continuous re-appearance on the market, which the continuous transformation of money into capital exacts, the owners of labor-power must perpetuate themselves by the natural reproduction of a quantity of labor-power, at least equal to the quantity removed from the market by wear and tear, and death. The amount of the means of subsistence necessary for the production of labor-power, includes, therefore, the means of subsistence of those who are to take the places of the laborers, that is to say, their children.

Again, to modify human nature so as to cause it to acquire skill and rapidity in a special kind of labor, to develop it into a special kind of labor-power, a certain education is necessary, and this training costs a larger or smaller outlay in various commodities. As the value of labor-power is equal to the sum of the commodities necessary for its production, when this sum increases, as in the case just considered, its value increases.

The price of labor-power reaches its minimum when it falls to the value of the means of subsistence absolutely indispensable to the life of the laborer. The laborer then merely vegetates. Now, as the value of labor- power is based on normal conditions of existence, its price is, in this case, below its value.

It is a consequence of the peculiar nature of labor-power that its use-value does not at once upon the making of the contract between its buyer and seller pass into the hands of the buyer. If its value, since its production requires the expenditure of a certain quantity of social labor, is determined before it enters into circulation, its use-value, which consists in its actual exercise, only appears afterward. The alienation of labor-power and its exercise as a use-value, in other words, its sale and its employment are not simultaneous. Now, nearly always when the purchaser of commodities does not enjoy their use-value at the time of the sale, the seller receives his money only after the expiration of a longer or shorter time, when his commodity has already served the purchaser as a use-value. In every country in which the capitalist mode of production reigns, labor-power is paid for only after it has already functioned during a certain time fixed by the contract, at the end of every week, for instance. Everywhere, then, the laborer allows the capitalist to consume his labor-power before he, the laborer, gets its price, in a word, everywhere he gives the capitalist credit. As this credit, which is no mere fictitious advantage for the capitalist, does not modify the essential nature of the exchange, we will provisionally assume, in order to avoid needless complications, that the owner of labor-power receives the price stipulated as soon as he sells it.

The use-value delivered by the laborer to the purchaser in exchange for his money manifests itself only in its own employment, in the consumption of the labor-power sold. This consumption, which is at the same time the production of commodities and of surplus-value, is accomplished, like the consumption of every commodity, outside of the market, beyond the domain of circulation. Consequently, we must leave this domain and penetrate into the domain of production, if we would learn the secret of the making of surplus-value.