Wage labour

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Wage labour is the productive relationship in which the labourer sells their capacity to work as a commodity.

The pre-condition for wage labour is a class of people who have no other way of living (i.e. a proletariat), and a class of people who own the means of production as their private property (i.e. a bourgeoisie). The capitalist who buys the labour power, and pays for it at its value, own the labour process and the product of labour, and can sell the product in order to realise a profit. The worker, on the other hand is alienated from her own labour.

Their commodity, labor-power, the workers exchange for the commodity of the capitalist, for money, and, moreover, this exchange takes place at a certain ratio. So much money for so long a use of labor-power. For 12 hours' weaving, two shillings. And these two shillings, do they not represent all the other commodities which I can buy for two shillings? Therefore, actually, the worker has exchanged his commodity, labor-power, for commodities of all kinds, and, moreover, at a certain ratio. By giving him two shillings, the capitalist has given him so much meat, so much clothing, so much wood, light, etc., in exchange for his day's work. The two shillings therefore express the relation in which labor-power is exchanged for other commodities, the exchange-value of labor-power....

But the putting of labor-power into action -- i.e., the work -- is the active expression of the laborer's own life. And this life activity he sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of life. His life-activity, therefore, is but a means of securing his own existence. He works that he may keep alive. He does not count the labor itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another. The product of his activity, therefore, is not the aim of his activity. What he produces for himself is not the silk that he weaves, not the gold that he draws up the mining shaft, not the palace that he builds. What he produces for himself is wages ; and the silk, the gold, and the palace are resolved for him into a certain quantity of necessaries of life, perhaps into a cotton jacket, into copper coins, and into a basement dwelling. And the laborer who for 12 hours long, weaves, spins, bores, turns, builds, shovels, breaks stone, carries hods, and so on -- is this 12 hours' weaving, spinning, boring, turning, building, shovelling, stone-breaking, regarded by him as a manifestation of life, as life? Quite the contrary. Life for him begins where this activity ceases, at the table, at the tavern, in bed. The 12 hours' work, on the other hand, has no meaning for him as weaving, spinning, boring, and so on, but only as earnings, which enable him to sit down at a table, to take his seat in the tavern, and to lie down in a bed. If the silk-worm's object in spinning were to prolong its existence as caterpillar, it would be a perfect example of a wage-worker.

The free laborer , on the other hand, sells his very self, and that by fractions. He auctions off eight, 10, 12, 15 hours of his life, one day like the next, to the highest bidder, to the owner of raw materials, tools, and the means of life -- i.e., to the capitalist. The laborer belongs neither to an owner nor to the soil, but eight, 10, 12, 15 hours of his daily life belong to whomsoever buys them. The worker leaves the capitalist, to whom he has sold himself, as often as he chooses, and the capitalist discharges him as often as he sees fit, as soon as he no longer gets any use, or not the required use, out of him. But the worker, whose only source of income is the sale of his labor-power, cannot leave the whole class of buyers, i.e., the capitalist class , unless he gives up his own existence. He does not belong to this or that capitalist, but to the capitalist class ; and it is for him to find his man -- i.e., to find a buyer in this capitalist class. [Karl Marx, Wage Labour and Capital]

Equivalent productive relations[edit]

In Capital, Marx treats piece-work, in which the worker is paid by the quantity of product, rather than by labour-time, as a form of wage-labour, not an essentially different from wage-labour. This form of payment is simply a means of forcing the worker to work harder, but what the worker is paid is nevertheless determined in the labour market, by the costs of production of a day's labour, i.e., the historically and socially determined standard of living for the working class.

The more developed capitalism becomes the more common it is that workers are obliged to sell their product by means of contract labour for example. Like piece-work, contract-labour is an instrument used by the capitalists for the purposes of labour discipline, but the difference between the lot of the contract worker and that of the wage-worker is not fundamental. Lacking means of production, the contract worker is forced to sell their product at just such a price that enables them to live – in other words, they earn the going rate of wages.


Marxists Internet Archive Encyclopedia
This page was originally adapted from an MIA Encyclopedia entry written by Brian Baggins and/or Andy Blunden.

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