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Wage-labour versus Capital

In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels wrote of the nub of the class struggle:

“[wage labour] creates capital, i.e., that kind of property which exploits wage-labour, and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labour for fresh exploitation.”

The basic fact is that there is no way within the system of producing goods for sale by employing waged labour – i.e. capitalism – for the system to be run for the benefit of those who must work for a living. Their labour makes more chains of capital for themselves, and capital is always ever hungrier for more and more labour to be sacrificed to it. As Marx and Engels put it:

“Capital is a collective product, and only by . . . the united action of all members of society, can it be set in motion. Capital is therefore not only personal; it is a social power.”

To feed capital means to extend the number of people under its sway. As capital grows so too does the number of people who must sell their ability to work, i.e. the working class.

In a recently published document, the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) projects that by 2020 there will be something like 32.1 million people working in the UK. That is a growth of around 6.7 percent from 2005. That is, a growth of 6.7 percent for the social power of capital over the next fifteen years. A 6.7 percent rise in the absolute size of the working class – if their figures are actually correct. This figure includes the unemployed, since the International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines the workforce as anyone either employed or actively seeking and available for work. This last qualification is important.

The latest figures for the UK from the ONS state that there are 28.8 million people in employment. This includes not only the 3.7 million self-employed people but also the 24.9 million employees (among whom will be listed such people as Executive Directors of companies and Premiership footballers). The distinction between employee and self-employed is more fluid these days, since some people work as contractors and are nominally self-employed for tax purposes only. Likewise others whose self-employment means servicing another larger business on a regular basis. That is an employment rate of 74.5 percent of the available work age population. The overall UK population is 60 million. 20.2 percent of that employment is in the public sector, working for the state.

What this means, in detail, is a total of 926 million hours worked per week. This is part of a rising trend which sees the average worker in employment (full-time or part-time) spending 32.2 hours a week at their duties, not including the journey to work, thinking about work and recovering from work. So, not only are more people working – absolutely – but the people in work are working longer. The state of the class war in Britain is an increase in exploitation.

The main tool driving this exploitation onwards is the permanent pool of unemployment that has been a feature of the economy for the past thirty years. Currently there are around 1.5 million unemployed – i.e. people available for and looking for work – in the UK. Beyond that there are, as we have covered in this journal many times, people who want to work and who are not classified as unemployed but who are also a part of this mechanism.

Across the world a similar picture can be seen. As we reported in the March Socialist Standard, the ILO estimates that currently there are around 2.85 billion people in work (either employed, self-employed or an unpaid family member). In 2005 there were more people in work than in the previous year, up 1.5 percent – and up 16.5 percent since 1995.

And there are currently something like 192 million human beings who are unemployed. That is a global unemployment rate of 6.3 percent – a vast reserve army of labour – meaning that the global workforce available to capital encompasses more than half the human race. Between 1995 and 2005 this global workforce grew by 16.8 percent. Taken as a figure, it represents an incredible waste of the potential skills and talents available to our species.

The situation is worse though, since being in work is little guarantee of having a decent income. 1.4 billion of that 2.8 billion workers do not earn more than the equivalent of $2 a day for their family members. 520 million of them are taking in less than $1 a day. Obviously, the value of a dollar varies from country to country; but the real picture is that for over one sixth of the human race work offers no prospect of reward or opportunity for themselves or their family. Grinding, pitiless, toil is their lot – a lot demanded by capital.

These toiling billions helped produce an estimated growth in world wealth of 4.3 percent in 2005. Productivity per worker has increased by an average of 2 percent per year over recent years. The average total increase in wealth (productivity plus employment) has been 3.8 percent. Most of the growth in wealth, therefore, comes from increasing efficiency in productivity – that is more effective procedures and machinery being used, i.e. more capital being invested. However a substantial part of that increase in wealth has come from an increasing size of the working class. Much of this can be seen in the fact that 40 percent of the global workforce works in agriculture, an arduous and labour intensive branch of industry.

A simple whistle stop tour of the statistics shows clearly how little the working class is benefiting from capitalism and from the increasing wealth that we are producing. That so many hours, of so many lives are given over to capital is a testimony to the social power it exerts in the world.

The increasing growth, however, of the numbers brought under the sway of capital should give us hope – we who acknowledge ourselves as part of the working class are proclaiming our membership in the majority of the human race. As our numbers grow, as our knowledge of ourselves grows, then the prospect of building a union of that working class to emancipate itself grows also.

The total size of the workforce already exceeds 3 billion – and given that we can add in children and other dependents, we can safely affirm that over half the world shares a common experience of toil and exploitation under the direct control of capital. A clear majority who could benefit from a revolutionary change to the system and in whom the capacity to make such a change rests.

Mayday belongs to the three billion. It belongs to the workers – we have a world to win, and we can win it.