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Chapter I. Labor Power

If you are a wage-working man or woman, your life is conditioned upon having access to a job; you must establish yourself as an employee to some employer.

To establish this relationship you must possess something which the employer requires in the business in which he is engaged. You have the power to produce wealth—labor power. It is the only thing you have, but it is an essential factor in industry. In fact all capitalist industry is predicated upon the existence of men and women like you who have no other way to live, except by offering their life energy, labor power, for sale.

The labor power of the workers in nearly all industrial occupations is used in connection with other expressions of power such as steam, electricity, gas, water, gasoline and horses. Labor power differs from these other powers in that it not only expends itself but expends itself intelligently and directs, controls and uses these other power expressions. The brain of the worker, as well as his arms and legs, is a factor of his labor power. The other powers would as likely injure as serve without the guidance of labor power.

Selling Labor Power

When you sell your labor power to the boss you agree to deliver to him the use of it for so many hours per day, usually ten, for which he in turn agrees to pay you a stipulated price (known as wages) of, say, $3.00 per day; or you agree to embody a certain amount of it into the raw materials he provides at a given price. The former is the time system of selling labor power, the latter is the piece work system. In either case you sell your labor power to the boss, measured by the clock or incorporated in some article.

When you sell your labor power you deliver it by working according to the terms of the sale. If one has sugar or bacon, or a coat on sale by handing it over to the buyer and receiving from him the exchange for it the transaction is completed. But when the wage worker sells his labor power he must accompany it to the place of sale—field, workshop, mine, railroad—and work there until the time contracted for has elapsed, or the amount specified has been delivered, This is the peculiar quality of labor power—that it is part of the laborer—his life energy and cannot be separated from him.

Labor Power a Commodity

All use-values manufactured and offered for sale are termed commodities. It is characteristic of capitalist production that its products are intended as exchange values, commodities—and the wage worker is properly regarded as the producer of labor power—an exchange value. Now things can only have an exchange value when they also have use value. So labor power brings to the wage-worker its exchange, or market value; but in return for the exchange value the boss purchases its use value—the right to use it for the time specified for, say, ten hours.

The worker sells his labor power and receives in return a wage, out of which he must provide the means of life for himself and his dependents. The boss buys labor power because he needs it to operate his establishment, whether that be a factory, a mine, a railroad or a farm. The most up-to-date equipment is valueless as a means of producing wealth unless the magic influence of labor power sets it in operation. It is not a philanthropic motive that inspires the boss to employ the wage worker; it is because he must employ him, or fail in his enterprise. When he does employ the laborer he drives as hard a bargain as he can, which means that he will pay the laborer as little as the laborer will work for. But the least the laborer is inclined to accept, on the average, is a wage sufficient to maintain him and his family according to the standard of living obtaining among the workers. And this standard is what determines his wage. The labor time necessary to produce values equal to that required to maintain and reproduce the laborer sets the exchange value of his labor power, or the wage of the worker. As you will see later this is what determines the relation of all commodities to one another—the amount of socially necessary labor time contained in them—and, as labor power is a commodity, its exchange value is similarly determined.

But labor power, unlike other commodities, besides being part of the worker is associated with the aspirations, hopes, ambitions and will of the owner. That is, as well as being a commodity, it has human attributes, and being inseparable from the laborer has the effect of. reducing him to a commodity basis. In capitalist society he is not only a producer and seller of a commodity—labor power—but is himself practically a commodity—a package of labor power wrapped up in a human skin.

The Market Relations of Capitalist and Laborer

That which exists between the laborer and his employer is not a human relationship but a market relationship—buyer and seller. On the human side it is not the relationship of man to man, but of wage slave to capitalist master. When it is said, and that is very often, that capitalist enterprises are essentially philanthropic, that they provide means whereby the workers are enabled to live, there is a perversion of fact. What the capitalists really do is not intended to provide the workers with means of living but to take advantage of the workers' lack of the means of life. As dead workers cannot be exploited it stands to reason that the workers must be kept alive if their exploitation is to continue. The boss is not at all concerned about how the workers live just so they are able to deliver to him the labor power for which he bargains with them. As fellow humans he does not at all regard them. For instance, if the boss is in need of two "hands" and four men apply for these two vacancies, two of the applicants are strong virile men, one is a weakling and sickly, while the fourth is a cripple, the boss will employ the two first, because they possess that which the boss is in the market for—labor power. The latter two, though they may be in desperate straits and need employment worse than the others, will not be employed because the boss needs labor power, and they cannot qualify.

No human motive inspires the boss in the operation of his establishment. He is governed by the Rules of Business. Whether he is buying labor power, equipment or raw materials he strives to buy at the lowest figure and demands the highest quality. He favors low wages—a low price for labor power—while the worker desires a high price.

Questions

  • 1. What is meant by saying "the worker's life is conditioned upon having access to a job"?
  • 2. What is labor power?
  • 3. What is the difference between labor power and other powers like steam, electricity, etc.?
  • 4. How is labor power measured?
  • 5. Why does the boss buy labor power?
  • 6. What is the difference, if any, between labor power and labor?
  • 7. What is a commodity?
  • 8. For what is capitalist production carried on?
  • 9. Could a thing have exchange value without having use value? Why?
  • 10. Why does the worker sell his labor power?
  • 11. What does he get for it?
  • 12. What, roughly, determines his wage?
  • 13. Have the boss and the worker the same interest when the worker applies for a job?

Next page: Chapter II. Exchange Value