Eldred/Roth: Guide to Marx's Capital (1978)

Paper 5

The Surface-Forms of Everyday Economic Life in Capitalist Society


The Mystificatory Character of the Wage-Form

Although the analysis of the wage-form is done by Marx in Capital Volume I immediately after the analysis of surplus-value production, we think that, because the wage-form is the way that the exchange between labour and capital is lived, the correct systematic place for its treatment is with the analysis of the revenue-form (cf. below), which constitutes the "religion of everyday life" (CIII 830).

For productive labour the basic wage-form (SG 135), which signifies the exchange between labour and capital as an exchange of labour for wages, dissolves the division of the working day into necessary labour-time and surplus-labour-time (SG 39), and hence makes invisible the source of surplus-value. The wage-form therefore conceals the exploitation of the productive labourers. At the same time as the wage-form obliterates the source of surplus-value it obliterates the distinction between productive and unproductive labour (SG 91) and both the productive wage-labourer and unproductive wage-labourer live their relation to capital in the same everyday form of life. (Marx gives an account of the (unproductive) commercial wage-labourer as an aside in his analysis of the costs of circulation. Their wages are a deduction from surplus-value, cf. CIII 135).

In entering into a transaction with capital under the wage-form, the wage-labourer has agreed to submit to the command of capital for the duration of the working-day. But how long is the working-day to be? Under the basic wage-form, the antagonism between labour and capital can be lived as a struggle on the labourers' side for a short working-day and with capital pressing in the opposite direction.

The time-wage (SG 138) in which an hourly rate is paid, confuses this struggle by making it in the workers' interest to work a long working-day so as to get a high wage, thereby partially internalising within the wage-form the interest of capital for a long working-day. Speaking of an internalisation here is not restricting the mystification of the wage-form (or indeed any practical signification of the form of bourgeois life) to the workers. The various wage-forms which we speak of here are general forms of life and at the same time as they internalise capitalist class interests in a contradictory workers' consciousness they equally mystify the inner connexions for the bourgeois. The workers' consciousness is contradictory because they want to be better paid but they can only do this by prolonging their submission each day to capital. Limiting the pace of work, however, is quite in the workers' interest in terms of the time-wage form and is the practical resolution of the internalised contradiction.

A development in the wage-form which counteracts the interests of workers to limit the pace of work and which further internalises the interests of capital in the workers is the piece-wage wage-form (SG 138). In this form what appears to be paid for is the use-values produced. As well as having an interest in prolonging the working-day the worker has an interest in producing as much as possible in a given time both by raising the intensity of labour and by increasing its productivity e.g. by co-operation. On the other hand, the determination of the piece-rate (SG 139), because it is divorced from the determination of value by labour-time, becomes an object of fierce class struggle. With an increase in productivity, once that new level of productivity has become the social average, the increased wages paid under the piece-rate system eat into surplus-value and it becomes necessary for capital to press the rate down. This can be illustrated in the following schema:

Value of a day's labour in all cases: $80.00 (intensity and duration of labour assumed constant).


piece-rate equivalent: $5.00
daily wage: $40.00

8 pieces produced in normal working day before introduction of piece-rate.


piece-rate equivalent: $3.75
daily wage: $30.00

Piece-rate introduced and set so that with the same productivity
only part of the previous wage can be earned.



piece-rate equivalent: $3.75
daily wage: $45.00

With an increase in social productivity, to 12 pieces/day the wage is above the previous wage and eats into surplus-value.

The contradiction immanent in the piece-wage (SG 139) is that in the determination of the value of the product it is labour-time, but in the determination of the wage is it labour intensity and productivity, which is decisive. This separation of the measure of the value of the product from the measure of the wage, is, on the one hand fundamental for the wage-form itself and on the other hand continually forces capital to adjust the piece-rate to re-establish the correspondence to labour-time. This readjustment of the piece-rate delegitimates piece-wages as a form of seemingly fair payment and actually turns the internalised interests of capital, in an ossified form against capital i.e. workers in living the piece-wage form as a fair basis for the relation to capital resist any attempt to change it.

Nevertheless the increase in intensity, as opposed to increases in productivity, brought about by piece-wages remains an advantage for capital.

The fully developed wage-form (SG 139) obliterates from consciousness the antagonism between capital and labour. With this form labour becomes a source of revenue for its possessor no matter whether the 'labourer' be a wage-labourer or an entrepreneur. The wage-labourer receives for their contribution to the production-process a fair share of the result and the entrepreneur also receives a fair share for his labour of supervision. The fully developed wage-form is also the form in which all labouring activity is seen as being for the good of society as a whole (the community), with each labourer receiving a slice of the social cake. The contradiction in this form is twofold: firstly, the worker's wage is compared with the entrepreneur's wages of supervision and the question arises: Why should the entrepreneur receive a bigger return for his labour than the worker? Secondly, the entrepreneur is not forced to work but can delegate the labour of supervision to his managers without foregoing a return; here wages are paid to one who doesn't labour and to that extent the entrepreneur becomes superfluous.

The Revenue Forms of New Value

In a further elaboration involving the fully-developed wage form, new value appears to divide into three parts: wages (of productive, circulation and entrepreneurial labourers), interest and rent. The three forms of property (SG 140) appear to be three trees that bear as their fruits wages, interest and rent. In relation to the particular property (source of revenue) from which they spring wage, interest and rent appear as revenue: the fruit can be consumed without preventing the tree from bearing more fruit. The mediation of this fruit-tree metaphor is done by the interest form of surplus-value which is the "mother of all crazy-forms" (MEW 25, 483 and CIII 465). In interest it appears to be a quasi-natural characteristic of a sum of value that it draws interest to itself. In the particular inverted price-form of labour-power as wage all the labour of the wage-labourer appears to be paid. At the same time, labour appears to be the source of the magnitude of value, wage, under the dominance of the interest form. When labour appears as the source of no more and no less than a wage then this labour is excluded as a source of the other revenues. Those other revenues, in analogy with the relation of labour-power to wage, seem to spring from the other factors of production. From the produced means of production stems profit/interest and from the natural means of production stems rent. The revenue in each case is paid to the owner of the source of revenue but herein the grounds for the distribution of the new value falsely appear as sources of the creation of value. Every revenue source seems to create its particular revenue.

The contradictions in this trinity formula are that firstly, the factors of production can only bear their revenues when co-operating - which is revealed when labour "strikes" - and secondly, even if it is recognised that the factors must co-operate for each of them to bear their fruits, in times of crisis they cannot co-operate and many workers' trees are made infertile. So long as 'normal' times continue the trinity formula expresses the optimism that the co-operation of the three factors of production leads to prosperity and a fair share for all. As soon as rough times come along, the workers are told that they need to take a wage cut. But why is it that the labourers' labour no longer creates the value which drew its wage to it as revenue? And why is it no longer possible for some workers to combine with the other factors to create value and get a wage?

The Creation of a Relative Surplus-Population as a Background to the Struggle between Wage-Labour and Capital

In order to understand why it is that workers are thrown out of work by capital it is necessary to work out the conditions in which capital can accumulate and create more surplus-value. These conditions are at the same time the conditions under which the class struggle is fought. The contradiction immanent in the accumulation of capital (SG 142) is that as capital attempts to convert surplus-value into an additional source of surplus-value it demands more labour. But it is just the increased demand for labour which puts the workers in the position of gaining higher wages. In Capital Vol I, the analysis has already dealt with the striving of capital to squeeze more labour out of its labourers. At the level of the revenue form, having already dealt with absolute surplus-value production, the only way in which capital can obtain more labour is to get more workers. In this way, the assumption of presentation that the workers are paid the value of the given quantity of means of life is relaxed and the analysis looks at the struggle over wages. In Vol. I, the concept of class struggle was limited to that of maintaining a wage equal to the value of the habitual means of life; when capital attempts to obtain more labourers it creates the conditions of a struggle over the carving up of the working day into necessary labour time and surplus labour time. At the limit, the increased demand of capital for labour-power can enable the workers to gain a wage which threatens the surplus-value production of the extra capital.

One way that capital has out of this contradiction is to replace labourers by machines, which is at the same time, a way in which capital produces relative surplus-value. In throwing labourers out of work by the introduction of machinery, capital is in a stronger position to fight the demands of the workers for higher wages. The relative surplus-value production is no longer a result of the lowering of the value of the means of life, as it was in Vol. I, but a lowering of wages through capital gaining the upper hand in the class struggle. Hence a condition for capital to accumulate is the creation of an industrial reserve army on which capital can call, as it requires, more labour-power. The creation of an industrial reserve army divides the working class into the employed and unemployed, who compete against each other for the jobs capital has to offer. Apart from the industrial reserve army, the relative surplus-population which functions as a background to accumulation is composed of those who are unable to work. In times of upward movement of the industrial cycle, individual workers and individual sections of the working class are in a position to gain higher wages without harming other sections of the working class. However, in times of depression, the competition between employed and unemployed leads to the former having to accept lower wages and worse conditions of work to keep their jobs, and the latter remains a labour reserve which acts as a lever for capital to maintain lower wages (cf. CI 599). Within the revenue-form it is only the employed who are revenue-source earners and who qualify for recognition as bourgeois subjects. It is otherwise with those who are thrown idle by capital. For the unemployed (in particular women, children, blacks, youth, etc and sick) their position as bourgeois subjects which does not have an economic base, comes to be questioned and leads to attempts to prescribe the way they can live on the basis of their economic dependence on the 'charity' of the rest of society.

Bourgeois Consciousness and Class Consciousness

From what we have shown in the development of the wage-form it follows that on the surface of society, the social being of possessors of sources of revenue is lived as an equality of property owners. Owners of labour, capital and land are equal subjects. Within this present form of bourgeois consciousness (SG 143), in which the contradictions of bourgeois society are resolved, the general interest of society is the interest of the private owner of a revenue source. Every possessor of a source of revenue has the interest that their source of income flows continuously and strongly, and hence they all have qualitatively the same interest. As the "great cake" of the material social wealth grows, so grows the share of each revenue source owner, if the proportions remain the same. This pure form focuses on a readymade bourgeois subject who has no sex, race, or other social differentiation. In fact, the bourgeois subject at this level of the analysis is only a character mask for the revenue sources and may be a group of individuals.

The wage which the workers gain is not a natural constant but a result of social struggle. On the side of capital the working-day itself is class struggle in a thousand particularities. In 'peaceful' times it is only capital that actively leads an offensive against the working class in trying to transform their life time into labour time "(and the mere reproduction of labour-power) and trying to get as much surplus-labour time as it can out of the working class. Capital makes the working class dependent on capital by separating the immediate producers from their product and the social forces of production. The experience of the class struggle led by capital against the workers provides the possibility (though not necessity) of a consciousness which recognises that the relation to capital is a struggle. The consciousness of being in a struggle may at first be articulated as a demand for equality (within the revenue-wage-form ideology) but as soon as 'peaceful' times are interrupted by unrest the ideological consciousness of equality loses its material basis and a contradiction arises. The experience of ensuing struggles helps reveal that the workers are no longer the equal of the other 'income earners' and that labour-power is the target of exploitation by capital. (Though this does not mean that the workers acquire the scientific concept of 'surplus-value extraction' merely by experience.) Now the workers fight back; they are no longer merely passive in class struggle but take an active part in it. In peaceful times it is capital that makes them work together. Now they co-operate according to aims which are opposed to the aims of capital. To take full opportunity of the assault on capital, it is quite crucial that the workers do not fall into the trap of imitating the hierarchical structures of the factory, trade unions, parties etc., as this limits the possibilities of developing a consciousness of what lies beyond bourgeois life. The realisation of revolutionary possibilities can only come when experiments in new forms of social relations lead into a dialectic with the already developed but formerly dissociated theoretical critique of bourgeois society (Capital).

The experience of struggles in which normal life (SG 144) is replaced for a time by a life form which is not dominated, disciplined etc. by capital shakes up hitherto dominant ideologies.

There is no hope of revolutionary change (i.e. change which spells the destruction of bourgeois life and the creation of a new socialist life) merely by a scientific understanding of capitalist society. But when deep spontaneously developing struggles are combined with a theoretical understanding of the breakdown of normal bourgeois life, the practical possibility exists of radically reconstructing life in a way which does not lead unwittingly back into the bourgeois form of society. For the determination of how radical that reconstruction must be the analysis of the capitalist mode of production (Capital) is not enough. The Capital analysis only constructs the bourgeois subject as a personification of economic categories. In addition, and systematically grounded in it, the analysis of the bourgeois state (SG 145) (comprising both the political and ideological) is necessary to construct the bourgeois form of life as reproduced by family, school, police, church, army, welfare, trade unions, work-places, political parties, juridical apparatuses, etc. Because of the absence of a theory of state, which gives a theory of the form of life and so indicates what it means to destroy the bourgeois form of life, the way has been left open to dogmatism of various sorts. Perhaps the most important of these dogmas is that it is the proletariat which must be in the lead in any revolutionary movement. This idea flows from extracting a theory of revolution from Capital, so that productive labour, because it is the source of surplus-value is also identified as the centrepiece of a revolutionary movement. Although it is unlikely that a revolution can be made without the industrial proletariat, many different forms of struggle and various social groups act in a chaos which opens the possibility of constructing life anew. One central component in this chaos is the breakdown of the relation between labour and capital, which takes the life blood of capital away from it.