Chris Harman

Economics of the Madhouse

Chapter 1
A world gone mad

1. The poverty of economics

Professional economists are meant to be able to tell us how all this has come about. Yet anyone who looks to them for illumination will be sorely disillusioned.

The dominant capitalist school of economics today is called the ‘marginal’ or ‘neo-classical’ school. This is what you will be taught if you study economics at further education colleges, in an adult education class or at university. Its proponents claim that their economics is a technical discipline, ‘the human science that studies the relationship between scarce resources and the various uses which compete for these resources’.

Production takes place, they claim, according to the ‘law of supply and demand’. Demand depends upon the choices individuals make, the margins by which they prefer some things to others as shown by the way they spend their money. Supply depends upon the cost of producing goods – how much it costs to employ the workers and to use the tools they work on. And something will be produced whenever the extra amount people are prepared to pay for it equals the extra cost of producing it.

Wonderful graphs can be constructed from these theories with supply moving in one direction and demand moving in the other, with what is finally produced depending on where the two graphs meet. The trouble is, these graphs in reality explain nothing since they do not explain where supply and demand come from in the first place. On the demand side they do not explain why the desires of some people (rich landowners, property millionaires or heads of privatised industries) translate themselves into ‘effective demand’, ie demand backed up by hard cash, while the desperate needs of other people (the unemployed, the low paid, the hungry peoples of Africa and Latin America) are ignored. On the supply side they do not explain why things which are desperately needed are not produced when the resources for them exist in abundance.

‘Marginalist’ economists say the extent of people’s incomes, and therefore the extent of their demand, depends on how much they each contribute to the production of wealth. People get paid, it is claimed, according to the extra value their work creates. But this begs the question, why do some people get paid ten or 20 times as much as others for their labour, and why do some people get paid who don’t work at all but simply own wealth? What work does the shareholder or the moneylender do?

There is an easy answer, to this, say the economists. Not only labour but also capital is involved in producing things. And just as labour gets paid according to what it contributed to wealth creation, so does capital. Each ‘factor of production’ gets a ‘reward’ equal to its ‘marginal output’.

In fact, this argument solves nothing – apart from making it easier for the owners of capital to have an easy conscience. It really amounts to saying that those who are rich deserve to get richer. It relies on a tautology – like saying that ‘2 equals 2’ or ‘a cat is a cat’. For if the economists are asked how you measure the value of capital they refer to the ‘marginal output’ that capital produces. But if you ask them how you measure this ‘marginal output’ they refer to the value of the capital used up in producing it. They end up saying, in effect, ‘The value of capital equals the value of capital’, or, ‘Profit equals profit’.

The only thing orthodox economics can say is that certain things are bought and certain things are sold at present, without saying why certain things are produced and not others, why some people are rich and some poor, and why some goods pile up unsold while people who desperately need them go without. Orthodox economists cannot tell us why sometimes there are booms and other times slumps.

These points were made against marginalist economics more than 80 years ago by the Austrian Marxist Rudolf Hilferding and the Russian revolutionary Nicolai Bukharin. They have been made again more recently in a rigorously logical form by dissident academic economists known as the ‘Cambridge school’.

There are many other absurdities at the heart of orthodox economics. Its model of the market assumes perfect knowledge of all economic transactions, not only in the present but also in the future – a logical impossibility. It uses the ‘theory of comparative advantage’ borrowed from the early 19th century economist David Ricardo to preach unlimited free trade to the world’s poorest countries – but the original theory was developed when capital did not have today’s freedom to move from country to country. It insists that if the state does not interfere then supply and demand will automatically balance – but its own equations show that not to be the case. Finally, orthodox economics insists that if the multiple factors which obstruct free competition in the real world – whether the monopoly powers of giant companies or trade unionists defending jobs – are removed things must get better. But the mathematics of their model actually show that removing one restraint but not others can actually make things worse.

In fact the model offers no guidance to what is happening and what can happen in the real world. As one of the dissident economists, Paul Ormerod, pointed out in his Death of Economics, the orthodox wisdom is as much use in understanding the economy as medieval astrology was in predicting events. Economists who based themselves on the orthodoxy have completely failed to foresee the ups and downs of the world economy:

Economic forecasts are the subject of open derision. Throughout the Western world their accuracy is appaling. Within the last 12 months alone, as this book is being written, they have failed to predict the Japanese recession, the strength of the American recovery, the depth of the collapse of the German economy, the turmoil in the European ERM.

Yet the orthodoxy continues to be taught in schools, to be studied in universities and to be thrown in the face of anyone who suggests there might be an alternative to the existing system of market capitalism. Its basic contention, that the market is the only rational way to organise production, has been accepted in recent years not merely by the traditional right but by the leaders of the world’s Labour, social democratic and former Communist parties.

Such an acceptance is only possible if you do not challenge the absurdities of the world. The orthodoxy rests on taking the world at face value, on saying that things are as they are because they are as they are. But it is of no use to those who find life in the existing world increasingly intolerable, who want an alternative to long slumps interspersed with short booms, to rising unemployment and deepening poverty, to goods that cannot be sold on the one hand and people who cannot afford to buy them on the other. To come to terms with these problems you need a different approach.

2. Explaining the topsy-turvy world

Karl Marx’s approach to economics was very different to today’s orthodoxy. He became interested in economics because he could see the inhuman absurdity of the new economic system – capitalism – then growing around him in Germany in the mid-1840s. He could already see it was a society in which people were continually being told to work harder in order to produce wealth, but reaping no benefit from their efforts. As he put it in 1844:

The more the worker produces, the less he has to consume. The more value he creates, the more valueless, the more unworthy he becomes... [The system] replaces labour by machines, but it throws one section of workers back to a barbarous type of labour, and it turns the other section into a machine... It produces intelligence – but for the worker, stupidity... It produces palaces – but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty – but for the worker, deformity... The worker only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, when he is working he does not feel at home.

Four years later he wrote:

The worker works in order to live. He does not even reckon labour as part of his life, but rather a sacrifice of his life... What he produces for himself is not the silk that he weaves, not the gold that he draws from the mine, not the palace that he builds. What he produces for himself are wages, and the silk, gold and palace resolve themselves for him into a definite quantity of the means of subsistence, perhaps into a cotton jacket, some copper coins and a lodging in a cellar...

And the worker who for 12 hours weaves, spins, drills, turns, builds, shovels, breaks stones, carries loads, etc – does he consider this 12 hours weaving, spinning, drilling, turning, building, shovelling, stone-breaking as a manifestation of his life, as life? On the contrary, life begins for him when this activity ceases, at the table, in the public house, in bed.

Marx’s economic writings are about how this form of society came into being and perpetuates itself. As such they are also writings about what established academic thinkers refer to as ‘philosophy’, ‘sociology’ and ‘history’. They are not mainly about how things have one price rather than another, nor even about why and when economic crises take place. Rather, they are about the whole world of ‘alienated labour’ – a world in which human activity takes on a life of its own and dominates human beings themselves, a world of endless work and unemployment, overproduction and starvation.

In his earliest writings Marx stressed the absurdity of this upside down world. The word he used to describe this, ‘alienation’, came from the German philosopher Hegel, whose own writings are often somewhat obscure. But Marx also based himself on various other sources. He used the accounts of the capitalist economic system to be found in the writings of founders of orthodox capitalist economics like Adam Smith and David Ricardo. And he drew on the experience of the first workers’ movements to fight back against this system, including the Chartists in Britain.

In Marx’s later economic writings, especially his three volume work Capital he dropped much of the philosophical language. This has led some people to claim that his whole approach to economics had changed. In fact the aim of Capital is to explain the way in which the whole world of ‘alienated labour’ develops, as an inhuman force dominating living human beings. This is clear from the notebooks Marx wrote immediately before compiling the final draft of Capital. Thus, he tells:

The rule of the capitalist over the worker is the rule of the object over the human, of dead labour over living, of the product over the producer, since in fact the commodities which become the means of domination over the worker are... the products of the production process... It is the alienation process of his own social labour.

He makes the point that the capitalist system restricts both what the individual capitalist and the individual worker can do. But while ‘the worker, as its victim, stands from the beginning in a relation of rebellion towards it and perceives the process as enslavement’, the capitalist ‘is rooted in the alienation process and finds in it his highest satisfaction... The self expansion of capital is the determining, dominating and overmastering purpose for the capitalist, the absolute driving force and component of his action...’

3. Production and commodities

You cannot understand any society, Marx pointed out, unless you look at how the people in that society get hold of the things they need to survive – their food, shelter and clothing. For, until they have a sure supply of them, they can do nothing else.

But getting these things has always depended on humans cooperating to change the natural world around them. Unlike other animal species, we are not equipped with special teeth or claws that enable us to kill wild animals or chew raw vegetation. We don’t have fur to keep us warm. The only way humans can live and protect themselves from the vicissitudes of nature is by working to change it. As Engels put it, ‘Labour is the source of all wealth, next to nature... But it is even infinitely more than this. It is the prime basic condition for all human existence.’

Historically, human labour has taken a variety of forms. For many tens of thousands of years it involved men and women working and living together in bands of about 40, collecting plant fruit and roots and killing wild animals. They were able to do this without rulers or male dominance over women. Then, about 10,000 years ago, it began, in different parts of the world, to involve the planting of crops and the domestication of animals. But the organisation of labour still did not involve one group in society lounging around in idleness while everyone else toiled. There was still a rough equality between all men and women, with a distribution of food, shelter and clothing according to people’s needs – a state of affairs that persisted in many parts of the world right through to the colonial conquests of the last century.

In these societies there is no sign of the ‘selfish’, ‘grasping’ ‘competitive’ ‘human nature’ we take for granted under capitalism: Thus an early 18th century observer of the Iroquois cultivators noted:

If a cabin of hungry Iroquois meets another whose provisions are not entirely exhausted, the latter share with the newcomers the little which remains to them without waiting to be asked, although they expose themselves thereby to the same dangers of perishing as those whom they help...

Of another group, the Montagnais, a Jesuit priest noted:

Ambition and avarice do not exist in the great forests... as they are contented with a mere living, not one of them has given himself to the devil to acquire wealth.

And a classic study of the Nuer cattle keepers of East Africa reports that, ‘In general it can be said that no-one in a Nuer village starves unless all are starving.’

It was only about 5,000 years ago that the class divide and the domination of women by men arose anywhere. This was a result of further change in the ways people produced their livelihoods, involving heavy agriculture, the smelting of metals and the building of the first towns. Exploiting classes emerged that lived off the labour of the rest of society and established states – permanent bodies of armed men organised as armies and police forces – to preserve and extend their rule.

Sometimes, as in early Ancient Egypt, in Ancient Mesopotamia and the Inca empire of South America, the ruling classes used the direct force of the state to seize the wealth created by those who worked in the form of taxes. Sometimes, as in ancient Greece and Rome, they owned slaves who did all the work. Sometimes, as in Europe in the middle ages, they controlled the land and forced those who worked on it either to labour for them for nothing or to give them half or more of its output. But in each case a minority lived by forcing the majority of society to work for them.

In all of these societies, however, there was one thing in common with the egalitarian societies that had gone before. The goal of work was the immediate satisfaction of people’s needs – although now the needs of a ruling minority took priority over those of the great majority of people. The slave, peasant or handicraft worker toiled to produce goods which would immediately be used either by themselves or by those who lived off their backs. So if the slave owner ate too much, or built himself too grandiose a palace or tomb, the slave would not have enough to live on and would go hungry. If the crop was not very good one year and the feudal lord insisted on living in luxury, the feudal peasant would starve. But what was impossible was a situation in which people would go hungry, as under the present system, because ‘too much’ was being produced. Production was for use – even if to a large extent for the use of one class which exploited everybody else. For this reason, Marx followed other economists in calling it the production of ‘use values’.

However, in the society we live in today, capitalism, very little production is for immediate use. Car workers do not produce vehicles for their own immediate use, or even for the immediate use of their managing director. They produce cars so that their employer can sell them to someone else. The same is true for the steel worker, shoe operative, film technician, computer programmer, or, in fact, virtually anyone involved in paid work. You could, for example, spend all your life making screws, turning out tens of thousands a day by working on a machine. Yet you would probably never use more than a few hundred personally.

Goods are produced to be sold. They are ‘commodities’ that have to be exchanged for money before the producers get any benefit from their effort. Of course, eventually the goods have to be of use. But they have to be exchanged first.

So goods under capitalism have a strange peculiarity. Before they can be used, be ‘use values’, they have to be exchanged against money which in turn can then be exchanged for other goods. And you measure their value in terms of how much you get for them when you exchange them. What is key is ‘exchange value’ – how much money, and therefore how many other goods, you can get for your goods.

Through exchange, the effort put in by one individual is linked to that of millions of other individuals through the world system. This becomes obvious when you look at what you buy with the money you get for what you yourself produce. Say you buy a basket full of groceries from Tesco’s – you have bread baked with wheat from Canada, apples and pears from South Africa or New Zealand, rabbit from China, tins of anchovies from Peru, flowers from Kenya, tin from Malaya or Bolivia, iron from the Great Lakes smelted in Germany, plastic wrapping made from oil from Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Any individual is thus linked to a system using the labour of people right across the world.

These worldwide linkages between the labour of many thousands of different people exist, despite the fact that there is no conscious coordination between them. They all work for different competing firms in different competing countries. Yet it is as if their labours were pooled together. There is a world system of production, but it is organised through the blind competition of individual firms, or, to use Marx’s phrase, there is ‘social production but individual appropriation’.

4. Labour and wealth

Economists before Marx had begun to provide an account of this system. They referred to the ‘invisible hand’ tying the activities of people together. They had also noted something else, that Marx accepted. All commodities have one thing in common. They are all the product of human labour.

Marx in Capital asks what it is that two very different objects that cost the same amount of money have in common – say a pair of socks and a loaf of bread. It is not their physical characteristics. They weigh different amounts, they are made up of different molecules, have different shapes and so on. Nor is it the use we finally make of them. You don’t normally wear a loaf of bread or eat a pair of socks. Comparing the use to which we eventually put bread with the use to which we eventually put a sock is like comparing the weight of an elephant with the colour of the sky, they are completely different things. Instead, Marx argued, what the two have in common is the amount of labour that goes into making them. Further, it is this that actually determines their values.

This is easiest to understand when you have people making things to exchange among themselves. A carpenter might make a table and exchange it for a suit made by a tailor – but not if he could make a suit of the same quality in less time than it takes him to make the table. He reckons that the suit is worth at least the same number of hours of work as his table.

The same principle applies when people make things and sell them for money. The carpenter will sell a table which takes him say four hours to make for the sum of money that will enable him to buy something else which takes four hours to make. The price of the table expresses the amount of labour that went into making it.

Of course, not all carpenters will be skilled enough to do the requisite job in four hours. Some will take twice as long (as I would if I was trying to make a table). But no one will be prepared to pay them the equivalent of eight hours work for the table, when someone else will supply it for the equivalent of four hours work. The price of the table expresses not the amount of work done by any particular individual, but the amount of labour required by an individual of average skill.

Through exchange, each individual’s labour is continually compared with labour throughout the system as a whole. Or, as Karl Marx put it, the ‘concrete labour’ of each individual is measured as a portion of the ‘social labour’ of society as a whole.

Marx did not originate the view that labour was the ultimate source of value. This was accepted, at least in part, by many of the first economists to identify with the rising capitalist system, from John Locke at the close of the 17th century, through Adam Smith in the 18th century to David Ricardo in the early 19th century. Thus Adam Smith argued:

The real price of everything, what it really costs the men who want to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it... It is not by gold or silver, but by labour, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased, and its value to those who possess it and who want to exchange it for some other object, is precisely equal to the quantity of labour which it enables them to purchase or command.

But pro-capitalist proponents of any such ‘labour theory of value’ have always run into an almost insuperable problem. If labour is the source of value, how does profit arise?

If all goods are exchanged according to the amount of labour contained in them, then everyone in society should be on a more or less equal footing. Some might choose to work longer, and so get a little more wealth and a little less leisure. But people should lead equally satisfactory lives. Again some people might be less skilled and lose out at first, but over time they should catch up. So where could systematic profit making come from? Individuals might make a profit by fiddling other individuals. But this could not explain how there was a whole class of rich people – and, indeed, under modern capitalism nearly all those who actually sell goods are rich.

As Marx pointed out:

The class of capitalists taken as a whole cannot enrich itself as a class, it cannot increase its total capital... by one capitalist gaining what another loses. The class as a whole cannot defraud itself.

But if capitalists do not get their profits from each other, then they must get them from elsewhere. But where?

Already, nearly 100 years before Marx, Adam Smith had tried to explain profit by mixing his view of labour as the source of value with another view, which saw capital as adding to value by producing a ‘revenue’.

Now some forms of capital – machines, factory buildings and so on – do make labour much more productive than it would be otherwise. Even the most elementary tool adds enormously to human productivity: a labourer with a wheelbarrow can move a much bigger weight with less effort than someone carrying things on their back. But machines and factory buildings are not things that exist in their own right. They are the product of previous human labour. The wheel barrow which aids the toil of the labourer is itself the product of the toil of the metal worker. That was why Marx called the means of production ‘dead labour’ (as opposed to present work, which is ‘living labour’).

The value of goods on sale still depends on the labour that goes into them, although some of that is past rather than present labour. If a capitalist says he should be rewarded for making an investment in plant or machinery, he has to be asked how the plant or machinery got into his hands, rather than into the hands of those whose labour first made it. What is more, there is no way that a machine can add to the value of something without being worked on by living labour. A machine by itself does nothing. It is the human being operating the machine that causes it to turn out new goods, with an increased value.

The human being can make things without the machine. The machine cannot make anything without the human being setting it to work.

The fact that it is human labour that ultimately determines the exchange value of things is shown by what happens with modern technological advance. Items that used to be very expensive 20 or 30 years ago have fallen in price as technological advance has reduced the amount of labour needed to produce them, even though the machines involved in their production have often got more complex and expensive. So an electro-mechanical adding machine used to cost £40 or £50 in the 1960s (equivalent to £400 or £500 in terms of today’s money), but you can buy an electronic calculator with greater power today for £1 or £2. Similarly, a medium powered computer would have cost you half a million pounds then. Now you can get one of similar power for £600 or £700.

The goods which have not fallen in price in this way are the goods that still require nearly as much labour to produce as in the past – cars, food and drink, bricks and mortar, and much clothing.

5. Profit and exploitation

The idea that labour is the source of all value, including that which goes to the capitalist as profit, interest and rent became increasingly embarrassing to apologists for capitalism after the time of Adam Smith. It implied that the capitalists were just as big parasites as the feudalists they replaced. This led pro-capitalist economists to develop different theories based on ‘abstinence’ to explain profit. Profits, they now claimed, were a reward to the capitalist for using his wealth to employ people rather than for his own immediate consumption.

But as Marx pointed out, this is absurd. Employing people involves buying their labour. If a capitalist gets a profit for doing this, then everyone else who buys something should get a profit.

So why don’t workers get a profit when they buy the things they need to live on?

The abstinence theory is pure mythology. The capitalist does not sacrifice his existing wealth when he invests. In fact, his investment preserves its worth, while profit is something he gets on top for doing nothing.

So if real profit rates are 10 percent (quite a low figure by capitalist standards) someone with a million pounds to invest can spend £100,000 a year (£2,000 a week) on indulging themselves in the most unabstemious way and still be worth as much at the end of the year as at the beginning – and get another £100,000 the next year for doing nothing. By contrast, even if a worker earning today’s average 1995 wage was able, miraculously, to ‘abstain’ from food, shelter and clothing completely, it would take him or her 80 years to earn enough to make such an investment.

What is really happening, Marx insisted, is that the capitalist is able to make a profit by seizing some of the labour of his workers, just as the slave owner could enjoy a life of luxury by forcing slaves to toil for him and the feudal lord could fill his belly by making the peasant work on his estate for nothing. The only difference is that there was nothing to conceal from slaves or the medieval peasants the all too harsh reality that the fruits of their labour were being taken by someone else. They knew it because someone stood over them with a whip or cudgel.

By contrast, there seems to be a fair and equal exchange between the worker and the capitalist under the present system. Workers sell their labour for a sum of money – their wages. And what they get depends on the going rate for the job much as what the greengrocer gets for eggs depends on the current price. There is, it seems, ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’.

But this apparently ‘fair’ exchange between the worker and the capitalist disguises a fundamental inequality between them. Both have the ability to work (although the capitalist hardly ever has to use this ability). But only one of them, the capitalist, has control of the tools and the materials which are required for work to go ahead. But if people do not have access to tools or land then they are faced with the grim choice of going hungry or of working for those individuals who do own tools or land.

As Adam Smith pointed out:

In the original state of things, which precedes both the appropriation of land and the accumulation of stock, the whole product of labour belonged to the labourer... But as soon as the land becomes private property, the landowner demands a share of the produce...

The produce of all labour is liable to a like deduction of profit... In all... manufactures the greater part of the workmen stand in need of a master to advance them the materials of their work... He shares in the product of their labour.

What was true in Adam Smith’s day, when many small farmers and self employed artisans still owned the means for making a living on their own behalf, is a hundred times truer today. All the means for making wealth – the factories, the machines, the agricultural land – are in the hands of a very small number of people. In Britain 200 top companies, run by an interlocking group of some 800 directors, control the means of production responsible for turning out over half the national product. The great bulk of the 24 million strong workforce in Britain have no choice but to seek to work for such people. This applies not merely to the manual workers who are usually identified as the ‘working class’. It also applies to very many white collar employees who think of themselves as ‘middle class’. Filing clerks, computer operators, subeditors on magazines and newspapers or shop assistants are all forced to sell their labour just as much as car workers or dockers.

Very few people who leave school or who are made redundant have the means to set themselves up in business on their own. The only alternative to trying to sell their labour to the firms owning factories and offices is to try to live on the pittance provided by the welfare system. Even this amount is increasingly restricted by governments which speak of the need to give people an ‘incentive’ to work.

The harsh reality is that the great mass of the population cannot dream of leading even a half decent life unless they are prepared to sell their labour to those who control the means of production. They may be ‘free’ in the sense that they do not have to work for any one individual firm or capitalist. But they cannot escape having to try to work for someone.

As Marx put it, ‘the worker can leave the individual capitalist to whom he hires himself whenever he likes... But the worker, whose sole source of livelihood is the sale of his labour, cannot leave the whole class of purchasers, that is the capitalist class, without renouncing his existence. He belongs not to this or that bourgeois, but to the bourgeois class.’

The worker may not be a slave, the personal property of one capitalist. But he or she is a ‘wage slave’, compelled to toil for some member of the class of capitalists. This puts the worker in a position where he or she has to accept a wage less than the total product of their labour. The value of their wage under capitalism is never nearly as big as the value of the labour they actually do.

6. Where profit comes from

In everyday language we often say that workers are paid ‘for their labour’. But Marx pointed out that the phrase ‘their labour’ means two different things.

It means the labour they do, but it also means their capacity to work – which he baptised ‘labour power’.

The two things are very different. People’s capacity to work depends on them getting enough food, shelter, clothing and rest time to enable them to arrive at work each day fresh enough to put in the required effort and pay sufficient attention to the tasks facing them. They will be physically incapable of work unless they get paid enough to buy these things. As Adam Smith noted:

There is a certain minimum below which it is impossible to reduce for any considerable time the ordinary wages of even the lowest species of labour. A man must always live by his work, and his wages must be enough to maintain him. They must even on most occasions be somewhat more; otherwise it would be impossible for him to bring up his family and the race of such workmen could not last beyond the first generation.

Exactly what counts as ‘enough’ for workers depends on the job they do and the general conditions in the society in which they live. So workers in Western Europe, the US, Japan or even South Korea today normally expect to get better food, shelter and clothing and more rest time than did the Manchester workers Engels met in the mid-1840s – or, for that matter, many workers in India or Africa today. And the more farsighted employer sometimes recognises that he must provide his workers with certain minimum conditions if they are to toil productively, just as the clever farmer knows he has to give his cows an adequate amount of hay if he is to get a high milk yield. An article in the Financial Times in January 1995 reported, ‘Many managers realise... that unless their staff take their holidays and maintain a life outside work they will fail to perform effectively. “I insist on my staff taking their holidays,” explained a partner at one leading British accountancy firm. “Otherwise they become less productive”.’

Of course, many employers do not see it like this. They resent every penny they spend on wages and every minute workers are not toiling for them. And the workers certainly do not see their wage as being just a means to enable them to work for the employer. They see it as something which gives them the chance to buy what they want – whether it is a few pints of beer, a secondhand car, toys for the kids, or a couple of weeks holiday. That is why there is always a continual struggle between employers and workers, with employers trying to force wages down below the minimum needed to sustain the lives of the workers’ families, and the workers trying to force wages above this minimum, to give themselves a little more ‘free time’ and a few ‘little luxuries’.

But the reality under capitalism today, just as much as in Marx’s time, is that the mass of manual and white collar workers are physically or mentally exhausted when they finish work, spending their money on things that do little more than restore them to a condition to resume work the next day or the next week. You don’t see many manual or white collar workers who are not tired when they crowd into the buses or trains to work in the morning, or when they crowd into them again to return home in the evening.

The wage or salary the worker gets depends on the cost of restoring this capacity to work – the cost of replenishing ‘labour power’. If wages are too low, workers will be ill nourished and too tired to work adequately. They won’t want to work and the capitalist won’t be able to get as much production out of them as he wants. If, on the other hand, the wage is greater than the cost of restoring the workers’ capacity to toil, the employer will do his utmost to replace them with other workers he can get more cheaply.

Just as with any other good that is bought and sold, the value of the worker’s labour power depends on how much labour is needed to produce it. That is, it depends on how much labour goes into producing the sustenance needed to keep the worker fit, healthy and ready to work – how much is needed to provide three meals a day, transport to work, a little relaxation in the evenings and at weekends, the upbringing of children who become the next generation of workers. But the amount of labour required to produce the goods that make you fit and able for work is not the same as the amount you can actually do once you start working. It may only take four person hours of society’s total labour to produce your family’s food, shelter and clothing. But you are capable, under pressure, of putting in eight, ten or even 12 hours a day. And the capitalist will refuse to pay you your wage unless you do so.

He pays you the going rate for your labour power. But he gets from you a day’s labour – and that is worth much more than the going rate for a day’s labour power.

So if it takes four hours work to produce the goods you live on but you work an eight hour day, then the capitalist is taking four hours work a day off you for nothing.

Because he controls the means of production he is able to pocket a surplus of four labour hours a day. This surplus Marx called ‘surplus value’ – the source of profit, interest and rent.

The capitalist grabs this value off the worker every day. And by doing so, he continually puts himself in a position to grab still more surplus value. For the surplus value provides him with the wherewithal to get further means of production and to force workers to slave for him in future.

Yet, after all this has happened, the capitalists claim they are doing the workers a favour by allowing them to work. They claim they are the ‘work providers’, as if no social labour could take place without their prior robbery. And some people within the working class movement are stupid enough to refer to them as ‘partners in production’, as if the slave owner is the ‘partner’ of the slave or the feudal lord the ‘partner’ of the feudal serf.

The reality is that, each time the worker works, he adds to the control which the capitalist exercises. This is true even if conditions are such as to allow an improvement in the workers’ living standards. As Marx puts it in Capital:

Just as little as better clothing, food and treatment do away with the exploitation of the slave, so little do they set aside that of the wage worker. A rise in the price of labour only means that the length and weight of the golden chain the wage worker has already forged for himself allow of a relaxation of the tension of it.

This enables the capitalists to get into their hands all the plant machinery and raw materials needed for further production. They can then pretend to be the ‘wealth creators’, the people who ‘provide work’ for others. In fact, what they have done is steal the product of the labour of others – and then forbid it to be used for further production unless they are allowed to steal again.

7. Robbery and the rise of capitalism

Today we take the buying and selling of labour power for granted. It seems as ‘natural’ as the rising and setting of the sun. Yet it was nowhere more than a minor feature of any society until a few hundred years ago. In Europe in the late middle ages or in Africa and Asia at the time of European colonisation in the 18th and 19th centuries most people had some direct access to the means of getting a livelihood – even if they had to hand over a slice of what they produced to a parasitic landlord. Peasants could grow food on their own land. Craftsmen could make goods in their own little workshops.

What changed this was a primeval act of robbery – the use of force to remove masses of people from any control over the means of production. This was carried through by the forces of the state at the behest of some of the most privileged groups in society.

So in England and Wales, for example, the rise of capitalism was accompanied by ‘enclosures’ – a series of acts of parliament which forcibly drove peasants from common land they had cultivated for centuries. Further laws were then passed against ‘vagrancy’, which compelled the dispossessed peasants to seek work at whatever wage they could get. In Scotland the ‘clearances’ had the same effect, as the lairds drove the crofters (small farmers) from the land so as to replace them first by sheep and then by deer.

As Britain’s rulers carved out an empire for themselves throughout the rest of the world, they took measures to bring about the same separation of the mass of people from control over the means of gaining a livelihood. In India they granted complete ownership of the land to the already highly privileged zamindar class. In East and South Africa they usually forced each household to pay a fixed sum of money, the poll tax, which it could only raise by sending some of its members to seek employment with European ranchers or businessmen. And in North America and the Caribbean when they found they could not force the indigenous population to become ‘free’ wage labour they imported millions of slaves kidnapped from West Africa to provide the profits they wanted.

Marx called this process of creating the conditions for the growth of capitalist production ‘the primitive accumulation of capital’. It involved two things – on the one hand, the concentration of massive wealth in the hands of the capitalist class, on the other the ‘freeing’ of the mass of population from any direct access to the means of making a livelihood.

Once capitalism had established itself, its own economic mechanisms pushed these processes further forward. Thus in Britain in the late 18th century there were still hundreds of thousands of handloom weavers, who worked for themselves weaving cloth to sell. Within 50 years they had all been driven out of business by capitalist firms using powerlooms. In Ireland in the 1840s a terrible famine caused by the requirement that hungry peasants pay rent to (mainly British) landlords – even after the potato harvest had failed – led a million to die of hunger and another million to abandon their holdings and seek work in Britain and the US.

The story has been repeated many times since. In Africa, Asia and Latin America routine ‘economic’ pressures – backed up by police action against those who cannot afford rents – have forced hundreds of millions of people to desert peasant holdings to seek work, often with little success, in the slums of great cities. There they have no choice but to toil for whatever wage they can get. Once capitalism is fully established in any part of the world, its need for direct force to make people work diminishes. Over time people forget that they were once able to make a livelihood without working for someone else. They begin to take for granted the relationship between the boss and the worker. And all too often they accept the capitalist message which disguises the reality of wage slavery behind talk of capitalists ‘providing work’.

The fact of exploitation – of a few people getting hold of value created by many – is hidden from view.

Marx used the term ‘fetishism of commodities’ to refer to such a situation. He pointed out that people make the mistake of only looking at what happens on the capitalist market, without seeing the real human relationships which underlie it. The conclusion is that there is no other way of organising things.

8. The dynamic of capitalism

Marxism is outdated, says Tony Blair, leader of the Labour Party, because, he claims, it does not understand the ‘dynamism’ of the ‘market economy’.

Such a claim shows Tony Blair’s ignorance about Marx’s ideas. For Marx’s whole analysis of capitalism was based on an understanding of the dynamism of the system – of its inability to stand still, of its relentless transformation of production and of the lives of those who worked within its system.

The Communist Manifesto, which Marx wrote with Frederick Engels early in 1848, insisted:

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than all the preceding generations put together.

It emphasised the continual transformation of industry under capitalism:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the means of production... Constant revolutionising of production... distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.

In Capital Marx sees the continual drive to build up ever bigger industry as the characteristic feature of capitalism:

Fanatically bent on making value expand itself, he [the capitalist] ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake... Accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for production’s sake!

Capital shows how this inbuilt obsession with accumulation arises from the very nature of the capitalist market. The work’s first volume begins with analysing production for the market (‘commodity production’), then looks what happens when wage labour arises and labour power becomes a commodity, and culminates in showing how production using wage labour brings about a process of compulsive accumulation that ignores human need and individual desires.

Marx’s disagreement with Tony Blair and other allegedly ‘modern’, but in reality very old fashioned, pro-capitalist thinkers, is not because he fails to see capitalism as dynamic. It is because he sees, as they do not, that its dynamism is inseparable from its inhumanity and irrationality.

Capitalism is based on a system of social production, involving today a worldwide workforce of about three billion people. Yet the organisation of production is by separate, rival firms (most privately owned, some owned by rival national states), motivated only by the need to keep ahead of each other in competition. The fact that each firm is involved in exploiting wage labour means that none of them dare rest on its laurels. However successful a firm may have been in the past, it lives in fear of a rival firm investing profits in new and more modern plant and machinery. So every firm has to worry continually about keeping its profits ahead of its rivals. And that means every firm trying to get its workers to do as much as possible for as low wages as possible. No capitalist dare stand still for any length of time. That would mean falling behind the competitors and eventually going bust.

It is this which explains the dynamism of capitalism. The pressure on each capitalist to keep ahead of every other leads to continual upgrading of plant and machinery, and continual pressure on workers to provide the profits which make the upgrading possible. But it is this too which makes the system inhuman.

In a sane world the introduction of new labour saving equipment would lead automatically to higher living standards and a shorter working week. But not under capitalism, where each firm is intent on cutting its costs to stay in business – and that means trying to hold down workers’ living standards.

The inhumanity and irrationality of decision making under capitalism are such that even the bosses are not free to do what they want. They can choose to exploit their workers in one way rather than another. But they cannot choose not to exploit their workers at all, or even to exploit them less than other capitalists do – unless they want to go bust. They themselves are subject to a system which pursues its relentless course whatever the feelings of individuals. Capitalism is indeed a rat race. Any capitalist who is not a rat, who tries to treat workers well, putting their needs above the drive to compete, does not last long.

Furthermore, the blind competition between capitalists inevitably creates conditions which threaten to throw the whole system into chaos. The production of rival firms is linked by the market. No one capitalist can keep production up unless he sells his goods. But the ability to sell depends on the spending of other capitalists – on their direct spending on goods (as luxuries and as plant and machinery for their firms) and on the wages which they pay to the workers (who, in turn, spend them on their upkeep). But these capitalists cannot spend unless they have sold their own goods.

The market makes production anywhere in the system depend on what is happening everywhere else. If the chain of buying and selling breaks down at any point, the whole system can begin to grind to a halt. Then an economic crisis results.


Last updated on 15.8.2011