Deville - The People's Marx (1893)

Chapter XXI: Piece-Wages

This change in the form of wages in no wise alters their nature. —Special characteristics of this form of wages that make it the form best adapted to capitalist production.

This Change in the Form of Wages in No Wise Alters Their Nature.

Under the form of piece-wages, it seems, at first sight, as if the laborer was paid not for the value of his labor power, but for the value of the labor already realized in the product, and as if this price was determined by the effective capacity of the producer. It is, in fact, nothing but a converted form of time-wages.

Let us assume that the ordinary working-day is made up of twelve hours—six of necessary or paid labor and six of surplus or unpaid labor—and that the value produced is $1.20. The product of one hour's labor will, therefore, be ten cents. It is assumed to be by experience that a laborer who works with the average degree of intensity and skill—who takes, therefore, only the time socially necessary for the production of an article—turns out in twelve hours twelve of these products or fractions of products. These twelve articles, after deducting the value of the means of production they represent, are worth $1.20, and each of them is worth ten cents. The laborer gets 5 cents a piece, and so in twelve hours earns 60 cents, while the commodities produced by twelve hours' labor are worth 1.20, minus the value of the means of production consumed in their production.

Just as, in the case of wages by the day, it makes no difference whether we say that the laborer works six hours for himself and six hours for the capitalist—or half of every hour for himself and the other half for his employer—just so here in the case of piece-wages it is immaterial whether we say that each article is half paid for and half not paid for—or that the price of six hours is only the equivalent of the value of the labor-power, while the surplus-value is incarnated in the six other articles for which the laborer is not paid. In time-wages, the labor is measured directly by its duration; in piece-wages, it is measured by the quantity of products in which it embodies itself in a given time. But, in both cases, the value of a day's labor is determined by the daily value of labor-power. Therefore, piece-wages is only a modified form of time-wages.

If the productiveness of labor increases—if, for instance, the quantity of products obtainable in a given time is doubled, the rate of piece-wages will fall in the same proportion—it will drop 50 per cent so that the wages per diem will not change at all. In either case—no matter what the form of wages—what the capitalist pays for, we repeat, is not labor, but labor-power. One form of payment may be more favorable than another to the development of capitalist production, but no change in form can modify the nature of wages.

Special Characteristics of This Form of Wages, That Make It the Form Best Adapted to Capitalist Production.

Under this form of wages, the work must be of average quality or the laborer will not be paid the stated price per article. From this point of view, piece-wages give rise to numberless pretexts for fines or deductions from the earnings of the laborer, and help the capitalist to rob him of the miserable pittance he contracts to give him.

At the same time, this system provides the capitalist with an exact measure of the intensity of labor. The only labor-time paid for is that which is embodied in a mass of products fixed in advance and established by experience. If the laborer does not possess the average efficiency—if he cannot turn out in a working-day the fixed minimum of products—he is discharged.

As the quality and intensity of the labor are thus guaranteed by the very form of the wages, a large part of the labor of superintendence becomes superfluous. This fact is the foundation not only of modern domestic or household industry, but also of a whole system of oppression and exploitation—a system hierarchically organized. This system has two fundamental forms.

On the one hand, piece-wages facilitate the intervention of parasites between the capitalist and the laborer—the sweating system. The profit of the sweaters comes altogether from the difference between the price of labor paid by the capitalist and the portion of this price which they allow to reach the laborer. On the other hand, piece-wages enable the capitalist to make a contract for so much per piece with a head-laborer, or chief of a group, etc., who undertakes for the price stipulated to hire and pay his own assistants. The exploitation of the laborers by capital is here effected through the exploitation of the laborer by the laborer.

Under piece-wages, the personal interest of the laborer incites him to exert his power at the highest possible tension, and this makes it easier for the capitalist to raise the normal intensity of labor. The laborer is likewise interested in prolonging the working-day, since his daily or weekly wages rise with its prolongation. This leads to a reaction analogous to the one we referred to at the close of the last chapter.

Time-wages imply, with few exceptions, equality of pay for laborers performing the same kind of work. Piece- wages, which measure the price of labor-time by a fixed quantity of product, naturally vary according to the extent by which the quantity of product turned out in a given time exceeds the established minimum. Hence, under piece-wages, the different degrees of skill, strength, energy, and endurance of the individual laborers cause great differences in their respective receipts.

This, however, causes no change in the general relations between capital and the wages of the laborer. In the first place, these individual differences compensate or cancel each other in the workshop as a whole. In the second place, the ratio between wages and surplus-value is not altered, since the mass of surplus-value furnished by each laborer corresponds to his individual wages. But piece-wages tend therefore to develop on the one hand the spirit of independence and self-government among the laborers, and on the other hand, to develop their competition with their fellows. The result is that while individual wages rise above the general level, the general level tends to sink lower.

Finally, piece-wages enable the employer to apply the system already described of giving the laborer employment for only a part of the full day or week.

All this shows that piece-wages is the form of wages best adapted to the capitalist mode of production.