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V. Grey

Shop Talks on Socialism

Labor and Labor Power

(8 June 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 23, 8 June 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“In order to be able to extract value from the consumption of a commodity, our friend Moneybags, must be so lucky as to find in the market, a commodity, whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labor, and consequently a creation of value. The possessor of money does find on the market such a special commodity in ... labor power.”

* * *

As we have shown, commodities exchange in accordance with their value. The capitalist buys and sells everything at its value. How is it then that he pays less for the new values created by the labor he employs?

Just what does the capitalist buy when he pays the worker his wages? He would probably say that he buys “labor.” That he pays the market value for it too, by God! His millions of dollars in profit – that is, his steel products, autos, soap, or frigidaires over and above his investment, he regards not as the product of labor, but as the product of his brain. Or if he hired someone else’s brain, he looks upon the new product as the legitimate offspring of his own capital. At any rate the law says the profit is his, and that is enough for him!

As a matter of fact the capitalist does not buy your labor at all. He buys LABOR POWER. And that is what he pays the market value for. Labor itself has no value at all. It is the measure of all values. But like breathing, it is only an activity of man (rather harder than breathing, to be sure.) Labor doesn’t have value any more than running has size.

Long before exchange or exchange value ever existed there was labor. Labor was “an eternal nature – imposed necessity” on man in order to live. It was his relationship to the earth – a purposeful activity. He couldn’t exchange this activity either then or now. Today he may perform this activity for another. But exchange is the trading of two things both of which are products of this activity, labor.

Walking, for example, is such an activity. Walking itself hasn’t any exchange value. But a number of hours walking behind a plow adds so much value to the potatoes which will be harvested in the fall. Later a faster, riding plow is invented. Walking behind plows becomes less and less socially necessary labor. But both before and after the invention of the riding plow, walking itself has no value.

“But I sell my labor for so much an hour, don’t I? It must be worth something” the worker says. No, you give your labor to the earth, as men have always done. You incorporate your labor in your product. What you sell the capitalist is not walking – but your ability to walk. If he can make you run instead of walk, so much the better for him, and worse for you.

You Sell Yourself

What you sell is your nerves, muscles, flesh, blood, bone and brain for so much an hour. Add up all the hours you sell, it for throughout your life, and you will see that what you sell is yourself. You sell yourself piece-meal to the capitalist, little by little, hour by hour throughout your life. The capitalist does not buy you all at once like a chattel slave. He does not want to feed you and your children during depressions when you don’t work for him.

The self that you sell piece by piece can well be called your labor power. It is this labor power that is bought and sold under capitalism. It is the worker’s strength, his intelligence, the skill of his hand, the sharpness of his eye, that passes under the auction block like tobacco and slaves.

Labor and labor power do not at first sound like such very different things. But you have to remember that “labor power” is the worker himself. Labor is the worker’s action. Or putting it another way: labor power is a commodity whose use is labor.

The capitalist buys so much labor power and pays so many dollars for so many hours of its use. How he uses it is his business. The more usefulness he can extract from it, the richer he gets.

You could buy an apple for a nickle, for instance. The seller would get the exchange value for it. You would get its use value by eating it.

If you are a laborer and sell your apple (your labor power) to the boss, you get your nickel. And the boss eats the apple, which in this case happens to be you – because you and your commodity (labor power) happen to be one and the same. At any rate the method the boss has of realizing your use value is by putting you to work. Your commodity, labor power, has the wonderful aspect for the capitalist, that in using it, he can obtain values beyond what he paid for it. And lo and behold, when the day is finished you are eaten up, the capitalist is fatter, while your wages – the price of your labor power – barely replenishes you and your family.

Next Week: The Value of Labor Power.

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Last updated: 23 December 2018