Chapter 19: The Transformation of the Value of Labour-Power into Wages

Outline of Marx's Argument:


This chapter, along with the other chapters on the wage (20-22), is the only one in volume one of Capital in which Marx examines the monetary form of the variables he has developed for his analysis. Throughout the rest of the book his analysis is couched in value terms. Later, in volume III he will take up the various money forms of surplus value, i.e., profit, interest and rent, but this is the only place in this volume where he examines the implications of the particular money forms that his value categories allow us to understand in socio-political ways.

The basic thrust of this first chapter in this section on wages is to argue that the money wage is a "form of appearance" of the value of labor power. The money wage is only one possible form, there are others. For instance, with payment in kind harvest workers are paid by a share of the harvest, or shoemakers employed by early capitalists were paid in part through tolerance of the appropriation of scraps of the leather they were given to work. Salaries are yet another form of payment for the value of labor power. The analysis presented in these chapters provide a more general methodology for analyzing other kinds of form, and therefore has an interest that goes beyond the immediate subject. In the case of wages the analysis he presented in chapter six on the buying and selling of labor power (and also on its use-value) is also true here and you should probably reread that discussion as a prelude to studying this chapter. What he adds here to what he has already said about the "essence" is an analysis of the implications of the "form."

Marx's emphasis in the first quote cited in the summary above, that "Labor is the substance, and the immanent measure of value, but it has no value itself.", is logical enough: if labor is the measure, or nummeraire, of value, then we can't speak of the value of that nummeraire in the same sense we do of what it measures. This is like mainstream economists saying that value of something is its money price and then being aware that they can't speak of the value of money, except in terms of its "value" as nummeraire or in terms of its functional roles, e.g., means of circulation. However, just as Marx, with his theory of value, showed that we can indeed understand the "value" of money in terms of a different kind of value, "labor value", so too can we understand the "value" of labor in other terms. Little by little in Capital we come to see that the "value" of labor is not merely that it is the nummeraire for measuring the value of other things, but that it plays that role in capitalism because labor is itself the fundamental social relationship that capital imposes to create and maintain its social order. Labor is the fundamental measure of value in capitalism because labor is the fundamental means of social control and social order. The value of labor, in other words, is its value to capital in the creation and maintenance of its kind of society. Every hour a person works in this society, no matter what kind of work is being done, is an hour that person's time and energy, their very life is subordinated to capital. The more hours, the more subordination, the more value. Labor time measures capital's success at imposing itself; labor time measures the life workers lose to capital.

The distinction that Marx uses between appearance and essence is a very Hegelian one and one that has been much critiqued in recent years. The primary thrust of that critique has been against the notion that there is one discoverable essence lying behind the appearance of things. This critique has been a by-product of the post-structuralist emphasis on how any object, event, relationship, etc., can be viewed from many points of view and be subject to many different interpretations without any one of them being able to lay claim to the one-and-only "Truth" about what is being interpreted. In the language of appearance and essence, there are as many "essences" as there are interpreters. What is seen as essential by one, is perhaps not essential to another. The relevance of this to Marx’s use of the distinction is only, it seems to me, to remind us that the essence that he "chooses" at this point in his analysis –what he thinks is essential to the exchange relationship between worker and capitalist— is that what is being bought and sold is labor power, the ability and willingness to work, and not the work itself. As the development of his argument proceeds we soon learn that another "essence" of the relationship is the way this reality is hidden, the way exploitation is made to disappear by the apparent nature of the wage.

Marx’s analysis of the way the wage hides the exploitation of labor is reminiscent of his discussion of fetishism in chapter one. There he discussed how the commodity and its relationship to money appeared to be merely a relationship between things, but upon analysis those "things" were actually moments of the social relationships among people. Here the wage appears to be payment for work performed, and is often called the price or value of labor. But just as we have seen how "price" more generally embodies a complex set of class relationships, so too here he argues that the wage embodies the class relationship of exploitation: the usually invisible distinction between necessary labor and surplus labor.

The wage, he argues, makes exploitation invisible by making it seem as if the worker is paid for the labor performed. With most forms of the wage, as we will see in the next two chapters, the more workers work the more they are paid, so there seems to be a one-to-one correspondence between work performed and wages paid. The opposite extreme is illustrated by slavery. In the case of slavery because the slave is forced to work by and for the master, it appears as if all the work is done for the master. But of course some of the work performed by the slave must produce the slave's own means of subsistence (or in capitalism the value thereof) or the slave would soon die. So here too the real relationship, that slaves work both for themselves and for their masters is hidden from view by the form of the relationship. Marx juxtaposes both these situations to that of a certain feudal form of imposed work called corvee labor. In corvee labor the serf is forced to spend part of the week working directly for the lord, perhaps in the lord’s fields, perhaps building the lords roads and buildings, and so on. In such a case the distinction between the time the serfs work for themselves (necessary labor) and the time they work for the lord (surplus labor) is clear -- just the opposite of the situations under capitalism.

The wage and the unwaged

Since Marx wrote Capital feminist Marxists have pointed out another way in which the wage hides work done for the capitalist. Because factory workers --who were Marx's primary object of study-- are waged and the wage is generally seen as payment for labor performed, it is at least clear to most people that those being paid a wage are working, in some sense for the capitalist who hires them. But, as these feminists have pointed out they are not alone. There are others who are unwaged who also work for capital. Those who do the work of procreation and child rearing do the work of producing the next generation of labor power. Those who do the work of repairing, on a daily and weekly basis, the labor power of waged workers are reproducing the current generation of waged workers. Originally this argument was made about the work of "housework" and the role of housewives. The fact that such women were unwaged, that there is no direct payment by the capitalist for such work, hides the reality that much of this work benefits the capitalist by creating and recreating the labor power necessary for capital to exist.

It is not that such work is not paid -- if it was not paid through, for example, a "family" wage adequate to the reproduction of the whole worker family, the class would perish. The point is that because it is not paid directly the work does not appear to be done for capital but only for other family members. Indeed, women (and more recently men) are encouraged to do housework for love, as a manifestation of their affection for spouses and children. But irrespective of the motivation of the worker the reality is that much of the work done produces and reproduces the labor power of the family members for capital.

Moreover the more such housework substitutes for commodities, the lower can be the wage and the greater the surplus value for any given quality of labor power. For instance, if housework involves extensive gardening then less wages are required to adequately feed and reproduce waged workers. If clothes are made at home from cloth more cheaply than they can be purchased in a store, then less wages are required to adequately cloth waged workers. And so on. In this sense housework is "productive" of surplus value even though it produces no commodity on which a profit can be realized.

A major corollary of this insight is that because there is no direct payment for labor performed (even if such payment might also hide exploitation), there is no proportion between that part of the "family" wage that goes to support the houseworker and the work that worker performs. When waged workers work overtime they are paid extra, but when an unwaged housewife (or husband) works more, there is no corresponding increase in "payment." An exception would seem to be children's "allowances" when they are tied to work performed. Some parents give children money according to work performed: the more chores accomplished, the more money. But here although there is a correspondence between work and money, there is merely a redistribution of the value of labor power from adults to children. It is not the capitalist who is paying more because more work is performed.

The way in which the absence of a wage hides such work is now widely recognized. Measures of gross national product, for example, systematically ignore unwaged work and the value of what houseworkers produce because there is no wage and the product is not sold. Economists who work on countries in which such unwaged work as subsistence agricultural production is widespread are well aware that conventional measures of GNP understate the magnitude of aggregate output. Lawyers have also hired economists to present to courts -- in support of demands for the payment of alimony or palimony -- estimates of the value of housework performed by housewives being divorced by their husbands.

In both of these cases, economists can only impute values to the work performed and products produced because there are no market prices. Yet the exercise is instructive if the market price for various kinds of labor and for the products are taken as reference points. Imagine, for example, the estimated value of a housewife's services if years of cooking, cleaning, washing and providing health and sexual services were estimated at the cost of hiring cooks, maids, cleaners, nurses and prostitutes.

Such analysis has been subsequently extended to other forms of unwaged work, most obviously, the work of students that produces and reproduces labor power. Although in the past there have been ideologies of education that claim schooling is aimed primarily at personal fulfillment and citizenship, it has long been the case, and more obviously in recent years, that much if not all of schooling is conditioning and disciplining for the labor market. Energetic and active children are conditioned, little by little, to sit still and do as they are told. As they progress through school the amount of work and discipline increases and extends from the school itself to off-school hours through "homework" and such. By the time a person reaches the university level for the most part they are assumed to have so internalized work discipline that they no longer require regular supervision but can be counted on to impose work on themselves. Professors, as opposed to teachers, serve primarily as quality-control engineers to check papers and test results to determine the degree to which such discipline has been acquired. Students are "graded" not merely on skills manifested but indirectly on the amount of discipline they are willing to impose on themselves. All this with, for the most part, no wages. In fact, most students are in the absurd position of paying (tuition etc.) to have work imposed on them, paying to demonstrate their willingness and ability to work. The "degree" provides a certification of just this ability and just this willingness. Exceptions include scholarships and fellowships, teaching and research assistantships that do provide money for work even though they are rarely presented in this manner. Seen as various forms of payment for labor power -- labor power employed in the production of labor power -- such forms should be submitted to the same kind of analysis that Marx uses to examine wages. So too should we apply the methodology to the various forms in which unwaged work is imposed. We will do a bit of this in the examination of chapter 21 on piece wages.

A final point, the above considerations should make clear why a definition of the "working class" as a class of waged workers is inadequate. While the wage may be the quintessential form through which capital imposes work, it is far from the only one. Just as we must understand all that the form of the wage hides, so too must we understand the other forms of the imposition of work that are hidden by the wage. Once we recognize this then we can also recognize how the "working class" is made up of all of those who work, waged or unwaged, for capital whether in the production of commodities to be sold for a profit, or in the production of the least profitable but most basic commodity of all: labor power.

Concepts for Review

    labor power
    corvée labor
    price of labor power
    value of labor power
    appearance and essence
    wage as form of value of lp
    wage and exploitation
    money wages
    wages in kind
    unwaged labor

Questions for Review

1. What is wrong with the notion that workers sell their labor for a wage?

2. What is the relation between the wage and the value of labor power?

3. How is the wage used to hide eploitation? How is it more subtle than, say, corvée labor?

4. What is similar between the relation between labor and payment for slaves and for housewives?

5. What property does labor power possess which is different than all other commodities?

6. In what sense are grades IOU's on future wages? Do they constitute a form of credit? Do they hide exploitation? In what sense?

7. How much of what Marx has said about the value of labor power before Chapter 19 is relevant for understanding wages?

8. What is the relation between the wage and the definition of the working class? Does the wage define it, i.e., are all workers waged?