Deville - The People's Marx (1893)

Chapter X: The Working-Day

I. The limits of the working-day.
II. The greed of capital for surplus-labor.
III. The exploitation of the free laborer in form and in fact.
IV. Regulation of the working-day.
V. The struggle for the limitation of the working-day.

I.—The Limits of the Working-Day.

We started with the assumption that labor-power is bought and sold at its value. This value, like that of every other commodity, is determined by the labor-time necessary for its production. As the capitalist buys labor-power at its day-rate, he therefore acquires the right to make the laborer work for him during one day. But, what is a working-day?

The working-day varies between limits imposed by society, on the one hand, and by Nature on he other. The minimum limit is that portion of the day during which the laborer must necessarily work for his own maintenance, but our social organization, based on the capitalist mode of production, does not permit it to reach this limit. As this method of production is based, in reality, on the formation of surplus-value, it demands a certain quantity of labor in excess of the necessary labor, or, in other words, a certain quantity of surplus- labor. There is also a maximum limit that the physical limitations of labor-power, the time necessarily devoted every day by the laborer to sleeping, eating, etc., that Nature, in a word, does not allow the working-day to overstep.

These limits are extremely elastic. In any case, a working-day is less than a natural day. How much less? One of its parts, indeed, is determined by the necessary labor-time; but its total magnitude varies according to the duration of the surplus-labor.

Like every other purchaser, the capitalist purchaser of labor-power seeks to derive the greatest possible advantage from the use of the commodity he has bought. He has only one motive—to increase his capital, to create surplus-value, to absorb as much surplus-labor as possible.

On his side, the laborer rightly wishes his labor-power to develop regularly and healthily, and to continue effective for a normal period, and he is therefore willing to expend it only within limits compatible with these conditions. He is willing to use up each day only the amount of power that his wages suffice to enable him to rebuild in readiness for the next day.

The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he strives to prolong the working-day as far as possible. The laborer maintains his rights as a vendor, when he wishes to restrict the working-day sufficiently, so that it shall not exceed the limits compatible with his continued bodily health. Here, then, we have right opposed to right, both alike based on the law which governs the exchange of commodities. Between two equal rights, what decides? Force. That is why the regulation of the working-day appears in the history of capitalist production as a struggle between the capitalist class and the working class.

II.—The Greed of Capital for Surplus-Labor.

The capitalist has not invented surplus-labor. Wherever a part of society possesses the monopoly of the means of production, the laborer, free or not, is compelled to add to the labor-time necessary for his own sustenance some surplus labor-time to furnish the means of subsistence for the owner of the means of production. It matters but little whether this proprietor is a slave-owner, a feudal lord or a capitalist.

Yet, when the economic form of a society is such that the utility of a thing is considered rather than the quantity of gold or silver for which it can be exchanged, in other words, the use-value rather than the exchange-value, surplus-labor will be limited by the satisfaction of certain definite wants. On the contrary, when exchange-value reigns supreme, to make the laborer work as much and as long as possible becomes the rule.

As soon as peoples whose production is still carried on by the aid of the lower economic forms of slavery and serfdom are drawn into an international market dominated by the capitalist mode of production; and the sale of their products abroad becomes, in consequence, their principal interest, then the horrors of surplus-labor, this fruit of civilization, are engrafted on the barbarism of slavery and serfdom. So long as production the Southern States of the American Union was directed principally to the satisfaction of immediate needs, the labor of the negroes preserved a moderate character. But when the exportation of cotton became the principal interest of those States, the negro was overworked and the exhaustion of his vital forces in seven years' labor became part of a coldly calculated system. It was no longer a question, as before, of obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products. It had become a question of the production of surplus-value at any cost. The history of serfdom in the principalities on the Danube tells the same story.

What is a working-day? What is the length of time during which capital has the right to consume the labor-power, the value of which it buys for one day? How far may the day be prolonged beyond the labor necessary for the reproduction of that power? To all these questions, capital replies: The working-day includes twenty-four full hours, less the hours for rest without which labor-power would be absolutely unable to continue its service.

If one talks of time for intellectual development, for the free exercise of the powers of the body and mind, capital cries: "Nonsense!"

Capital monopolizes the time required for the development and maintenance of the body in good health; it grudges the time for meals; and it reduces the sleeping-time to the minimum of lifeless torpor without which the exhausted organism could no longer perform its functions. It is not the normal sustenance of labor-power that serves as a rule for the limitation of the working-day; it is, on the contrary, the greatest possible daily expenditure of his powers which regulates the rest-time granted to the laborer.

III.—The Exploitation of the Free Laborer in Form and in Fact.

On the assumption that the working-day consists of six hours of necessary labor and six hours of surplus-labor, the free laborer furnishes the capitalist in the six work-days of the week thirty-six hours of surplus-labor. It is just as though he worked three days for himself and three days, gratis, for the capitalist. But this truth does not appear on the surface. Surplus-labor and necessary labor are blended together. It is otherwise with the corvée[1]. Under the form of the corvée, the surplus-labor is independent of, and distinct from, the necessary labor. The peasant performs the latter on his own field, and the former on the seignorial estate. He can thus plainly distinguish the work he does for his own support, from the work he does for the feudal lord.

The exploitation of the free laborer by the capitalist is less apparent. It has a more hypocritical form. The difference in form does not in any way alter the facts beneath the form, unless it makes them worse. Three days of surplus-labor a week are always three days' labor which yield nothing to the worker himself, no matter what name be given to them, be it corvée or profits.

The sole concern of capital, as we have said, is the maximum of exertion it can wrest from labor-power in a day. It strives to attain its goal without vexing its soul about the duration of the life of labor-power. And therefore it hastens the enfeeblement and the premature death of that power, by depriving it, by the forced prolongation of the working-day, of the conditions requisite for it to function normally, and thus retards or prevents the normal physical and moral development of the workers.

It would seem, nevertheless, that the self-interest of capital ought to impel it to husband prudently a power which is indispensable to it. But general experience shows the capitalist that there is an excess of population, that is to say, an excess relative to the momentary requirements of capital, although this abundant multitude is formed of human generations born with deficient vitality, starved and stunted, ready victims of disease and death.

Experience also shows the intelligent observer how rapidly capitalist production which, historically speaking, is of recent date, attacks the vital power of the people at the very root. It shows him how the degeneration of the industrial population is retarded only by the constant absorption of fresh elements from the country, and shows him how the toilers of the fields are themselves beginning to degenerate.

But capital concerns itself as little about the degradation of the race as it does about the final destruction of the world. In every period of speculation every one knows that the crash will come some day, but every one hopes not to be carried down by it, after having reaped the golden harvest preceding it. "After me the deluge!" That is the motto of every capitalist.

Day and Night Work.

Capital thinks then only about the formation of surplus-value, without disturbing itself about the health or the length of life of the laborer. It is true that, taking all the facts into consideration, this does not depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist. Competition sets aside the wishes of individuals and brings the capitalists face to face with the imperious laws of capitalist production.

If they remain idle, the means of production are a source of loss for the capitalist; for they represent, during the time in which they are not absorbing labor, a useless advance of capital. Besides this, they often require an additional outlay on the resumption of work. As it is physically impossible for the same possessors of labor- power to work twenty-four hours every day, the capitalists have gotten around the difficulty. This was for them a question of profits. They conceived the idea of utilizing their work-people alternately day and night. This can be done in various ways. A part of the employees of the factory may, for instance, do day work one week and night work the next week.

The system of night work increases the profits of the capitalist in the same proportion that it facilitates the scandalous exploitation of the laborer. It has, moreover, a pernicious effect upon health; but the capitalist realizes a profit from it, and for him that is the only thing to be considered.

IV.—Regulation of the Working-Day.

In every possible fashion, the capitalist abuses the laborer to the uttermost, so long as he is not prevented from doing so by society. The establishment of an endurable working-day is the result of a long struggle between the capitalist and the laborer. Yet, the history of this struggle shows two opposite tendencies.

While modern legislation shortens the working-day, early legislation attempted to prolong it. The effort was made to extract from the laborer, with the help of the State, a quantity of labor that the economic conditions unaided could not as yet force from him. It takes centuries before the free laborer, in consequence of the development of capitalist production voluntarily agrees,—that is to say, is socially compelled,—to sell the whole of his active life, his capacity for labor, for the price of his customary means of subsistence, his birthright for a mess of pottage. Hence it is natural that the prolongation of the working-day imposed from the middle of the 14th down to the beginning of the 18th century with the aid of the State, approximately corresponds with the shortening of the working-day, which the State here and there decrees and imposes in the second half of the 19th century.

If, in such States as England, the laws curb, by an official limitation of the working-day, the merciless eagerness of capital to absorb labor, this is because, not to speak of the more and more threatening attitude of the working-classes, this limitation has been dictated by necessity. The same blind cupidity which exhausts the soil, attacks at their roots the vital forces of the nation, and, as we have shown, causes the rapid deterioration of the race.

V.—The Struggle for the Limitation of the Working-Day.

The special object, the real goal of capitalist production is the production of surplus-value, or the extraction of surplus-labor. It is only the independent laborer who can, as the owner of a commodity, enter into a contract with the capitalist; but the isolated laborer, the laborer considered as the free vendor of his labor-power, must succumb without even a show of resistance, as soon as capitalist production attains a certain degree of development.

Our laborer, it must be confessed, comes forth from the domain of production greatly altered. On the market he appeared as the owner of the commodity "labor-power" face to face with the owners of other commodities, dealer against dealer. The contract by which he sold his labor-power seemed to result from an agreement between two free wills, that of the vendor and that of the purchaser.

The bargain made, he discovers that he was not free, that the time for which he is free to sell his labor-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it, and that in truth the vampire which preys upon him will not release him as long as he has a drop of blood left in him to be, exploited. To defend themselves against this exploitation, the laborers must, by a collective effort, by a class-pressure, secure the erection of a social obstacle to prevent them, the laborers, from selling by "free contract" themselves and their children into slavery and death. The pompous "declaration of the rights of man" is thus replaced by a modest law which makes plain when the time which the laborer sells ends, and when his own time begins.



[1] Translator's Note. It may be as well to say the corvée is the cornpulsory, uncompensated labor furnished by the serf to his lord.