Wages and Prices

A correspondent who states that he is in agreement with us, writes to me asking if it would not be possible to organise the workers into a union or party, to obtain some benefit by an increase in wages, or by a betterment of the conditions of labour, while. awaiting the awakening of the mass of class-unconscious workers.

As his question seems to be one asked by many, I propose, with the editorial permission, to reply through these columns.

No part of the Socialist proposition seems more difficult to the average worker than the proposal to abolish money, price and trade. So deep has the idea of commerce been driven into the working class that they have come to believe themselves formed for the sole purpose of working and increasing trade.

In capitalist production the toiler is, indeed, just a piece of mechanism, necessary to the progress of trade, and he has been taught to believe that such is all he is fitted to be.

To-day we live to work, and the proposal of the Socialist—undoubtedly a revolutionary one—to reverse the sequence, to produce wealth in order to live, seems to be beyond the comprehension of the wage-slave. His brain, stored with capitalist ideas, cannot get away from the notions connected with capitalist methods of production and exchange, hence the information that under a Socialist system no wages would be paid comes to him as a shock.

Wages are the price of the commodity labour-power, and, as the Socialist object is to abolish the slave condition by abolishing the commodity nature of the worker’s labour-power (for the worker cannot sell his labour-power apart from himself), his price (wages) must cease when his labour-power is no longer a commodity.

This being so, and the sale of labour-power being the basis of capitalist commodity production, the whole structure of capitalism must fall when its foundation is removed. Without the buying and selling of labour-power, commodity production cannot proceed, and for wages to cease means, not only that labour-power ceases to be a commodity, but that no commodities can be produced at all ; while on the other hand, given the sale of labour-power, no matter what alterations may be made in other directions, the worker’s labour-power remains a commodity, and must of necessity bs bought and sold.

Hence the importance of being clear upon this question of what constitutes wages and what regulates the price of labour-power.

To talk of wages and exchange under Socialism betrays the ignorance of capitalist laws and the surface nature of the study of those who talk of “the socialization of capital and the means of exchange.

The value of labour-power is determined, as is the value of all other commodities, by the amount of socially necessary labour embodied in it, which is in this instance, the amount of labour-power required to produce the food, clothing and shelter necessary to maintain the average worker in efficient labour condition, and to raise future wage-slaves.

True the labourer might, under given conditions, force wages above the value of his labour-power, or be compelled to accept less than its value ; but this fluctuation is held in check by two further laws of capitalism.

If, for instance, the supply of labourers is large compared with the demand, wages will fall ; but they cannot fall far below the cost of subsistence or the labour-efficiency cannot be reproduced. On the other hand, should demand be high in relation to supply, the labourers may force up the price of their labour-power, but with what result ?

The immediate result would be an increase in the price of necessaries owing to the greater purchasing power of the wage earners. At the same time a sudden increase in the total wages bill, other things remaining equal, means a corresponding decrease in profits, and consequently a decrease in the demand for luxuries on the part of those living on profits.

Trades dealing in those commodities consumed, by the workers would now show rising profits, while in the “luxury” trades profits would decline. In consequence capital would be drawn from the latter branch of industry and thrown into the more profitable department. Hence a greater supply of necessaries to meet the greater demand, and a fall in the price of necessaries to the old level.

An increase of wages, therefore, would be a benefit to the working class ; but could they maintain it under existing conditions ?

The idea promulgated by certain Utopians, of cornering labour-power by organising and refusing to work under a certain price is, on the face of it, impossible. In the first place it leaves the capitalist buyer of labour-power with the whip hand. He has the store of surplus wealth, of commodities that can be kept for months, and the force to protect them. The worker is unable to store his commodity: he must sell his labour-power or it will perish. Should he for a time succeed in forcing up the price of labour-power (by keeping the surplus—the unemployed labourers) the result would be the introduction of machinery at present too expensive to work, and so partly counteract the increase in price. The employed would be unable for any length of time to maintain the flood of surplus workers let loose upon the labour market by the adoption of improved machinery, and wages would come down with a run.

We are forced to the conclusion that wages must approximate to the cost of living, and that such, law must obtain while capitalism lasts

Many have tried to show that wages are affected by population, and have argued that in an advancing State wages depend upon whether the capital or the population advances at the more rapid rate.

If, they say, the capital of the country increases more rapidly than the population, wages will rule high; but should the population increase at the greater rate, then wages will fall. In this country, with capital increasing far more rapidly than population, wages are continually falling. In France, along with an agitation for an increase in wages, which have fallen, it is alleged, below the cost of living, you have a national wailing over the continual decline of the birth rate.

In Ireland the population decreases and wages and conditions of labour there are as bad as elsewhere, while in countries like Spain and Italy the population increases enormously, and wages remain stationary.

On the economic field the masters have the controlling influence, and the workers, however organised, can do little. Strikes very seldom end in victory for the strikers, while often they are forced upon the workers in the interest of the master class.

In Parliament the capitalists control, and any measure of reform that might conceivably benefit the workers will not be passed.

The masters control on the economic field because they have control of the political machine, which places at their disposal the armed forces of the State, as witness South Wales, Belfast, and other well-known instances where, when the property of the employers is at stake, those forces have been used to bludgeon the strikers into submission.

A union is necessary—a union of class-conscious workers, determined to strike, not merely for an increase of wages, but for the abolition of the wages system. Such organisation must be political, because the masters’ success in the industrial war is due to his political supremacy, and because the workers hold the balance of political power, and can, when they desire to do so, eject the capitalists from their place in Parliament.

Such an organisation must be composed of Socialists, because not only unity, but united action on class-conscious or Socialist lines is required, and a class-unconscious organisation can do nothing.

While working for the proletarian awakening, we, with the remainder of our class, must suffer.


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