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V. Grey

Shop Talks on Socialism

The Value of Labor Power

(22 June 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. 10 No. 25, 22 June 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Your labor power is your SELF. It is your muscle, bone, and mind. Under capitalism it is a commodity. It is the only commodity you own. Your clothing, your car, your groceries, were once some capitalist’s commodities. Now they are your useful possessions. And being second-hand now you could not sell them for very much – even if you wanted to. They are no longer commodities.

Your labor power is the only thing you have to sell. The products of your labor are not your own. They belong to the capitalist who employs you in the factory.

You sell your labor power for so much a week and so much an hour. This selling price is called “wages.” Wages are always paid in money. This helps to conceal the difference between what you produce and what you get. It’s harder to see that you are giving the company so much unpaid labor every day.

How is the selling price of labor power determined? “Why, the union bargains for my wages,” you might say. But in many shops no union exists. Moreover there was a certain wage level before the union was organized. And even today the union’s bargaining centers around a definite amount called a “living wage.”

People’s idea of a good selling price for labor power is their idea of a good “living wage.” That is to say what they can live on. The wages which will buy them and their families enough food, clothing and shelter to get by decently.

And what is this food, clothing and shelter for the laborer? It is the cost of production of his labor power. His labor power cannot be useful and available for work without these necessities of life. And the value of these necessities is the value of his labor power.

How do we determine the value of the food, clothing etc.? By the amount of labor it takes to produce them. And so we find that the VALUE OF LABOR POWER IS DETERMINED BY THE AVERAGE AMOUNT OF LABOR NECESSARY TO PRODUCE THIS LABOR POWER. Like all other commodities, labor power obeys the same law of value.

But the commodity – LABOR POWER (the laborer) – does not drop from heaven with a rivet gun in hand. This commodity must be produced from the cradle to the factory gate as well. So the capitalist pays the laborer enough to bring up a family. Not because the capitalist loves his workers’ children, but because these children must be reasonably strong and healthy when they bring their labor power to market.

As Karl Marx says, “The value of labor-power is determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labor time necessary for its production, and consequently also, the reproduction, of this special article.”

If it takes 20 hours labor to produce the food, clothing, shelter, etc., for a working-class family to live then the values that you produce in 20 hours will be the value of your labor power, and approximately the same as your wages.

In other words, if you had the opportunity of exchanging what you produced in the factory with all the other factory workers in the world, you’d find that you’d produced your own wages in 20 hours.

However, you are working for the capitalist and not for yourself. Thanks to the labor of your fathers, he has huge machinery and factories with which he employs you in making values – in 40 hours, or 50 hours, not 20. And he keeps the change.

According to the law of the land you and he are – equals. You sell your labor power. He buys it. You sell it according to how much labor it takes to produce it. You sell it for enough to keep it alive. He buys it, and like all buyers, consumes what he has bought.

“To the purchaser of a commodity belongs its use. From the instant the worker steps into the workshop, the use value of his labor power, and therefore also its use – which is labor – belongs to the capitalists.” – Marx.

Value for value is given in the market. Equals exchange for equals. All is perfectly legal in this exchange. But the market-place is only the most temporary stopover for the laborer and his precious product, which is HIMSELF. His free and equal bargain with the employment manager is quickly sealed, his product sold, and he has to keep delivering for a long time after.

There is a change from equality to inequality. It takes place after the bargain is sealed. Marx describes the change thus:

“He who before was the money owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labor power follows as his laborer. The one with an air of importance, smirking – intent on business; the other timid, and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but – a hiding.”

Next Week: Labor Power and Productive Labor

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Last updated: 23 December 2018