The origin of capital and the rise of wage slavery
The Socialist Party proposes the abolition of capitalism; that is, of the private ownership of the means of social existence, land, machinery, etc. “But,” object our opponents, “that is unjust; you propose to rob a class of people of the savings of their forefathers.” Let us examine this objection.
Wealth, in any form (and capital is a form of wealth) is the product of human energy applied to nature; in other words, of work or labour. A little reflection will show that the draining, fencing and cultivation of land, the sinking of mine shafts, the construction of railways, docks, roads, etc., and the production of machinery such as exists at present could not possibly be the work of the small class which owns and controls these embodiments of capital, nor yet of their ancestors. These immense forces have been brought into being by the labour of the disinherited mass of society, the working class. Every day this class is busy maintaining, repairing and adding to these instruments, as well as using them for the production of every-day necessities, such as food and clothing, etc.
The owners of capital, as such, do not invent or discover, direct or manage, the process of production, but hand over to salaried experts (specialised members of the working class) these various essential functions. Any part that the ancestors of present-day capitalists may have played in production was as important, but not more so, than the part played by those whom they controlled and directed. One of the essential features of capitalist production is its social character, the element of co-operation involved in each factory, and expressed in the fact that no person can say that this or that article is the product of his or her undivided effort.
The savings which the capitalist class have accumulated have been derived then, not from their labour, but from that of society at large. From the sale of goods produced in their various establishments the owners derive money to pay wages, replace raw material and machinery, pay rent, interest and taxes, and then find a surplus to be divided into personal income for the capitalist-owner and revenue with which to increase the capital of the concern. The workers’ wages are based, not upon what they have produced, but upon the average cost of living of their class. The greater proportion of the produce of their cooperative labour is thus filched from them under cover of a legal contract by which they make over to their employers the use of their energy lor certain periods, i.e., hour, day or w eek as the case may be.
It is thus obvious that the workers are unable to save up and become capitalists themselves, in spite of the fact that they spend their whole lives in toil. Here and there individuals climb from one class to the other, but their number is exceeded bv that of capitalists who are ruined by competition.
The question inevitably arises how this division of society into capitalists and wage-slaves came about. How did the workers become separated from the means of production in the first place? For it is important to notice that capital cannot accumulate so long as the workers remain possession of an alternative mode of life to selling their power to labour. Where the workers, for instance, have sufficient land and tools with which to feed, clothe and house themselves, there capital howls in vain for a labour supply. It is restricted to the sphere of commerce.
This was, roughly speaking, the state of affairs in Britain in the fifteenth century. The peasants in the country and the craftsmen in the town, freed from the burden of feudalism to a considerable extent, tilled their land and plied their crafts as it suited themselves and enjoyed the greater proportion of the fruits of their labour. They were organised locally in guilds which supervised trade in the interests of their members.
With the spread of knowledge, the growth of inter-communication and the development of national and international markets, a new economic class arose, i.e., the merchants. In the circumstances of its origin this class had an important social function to perform. It broke down the isolation of the mediaeval cities, which was their principal weakness and limitation. It increased the articles of use available in different districts and countries by developing trade and stimulated the increase in social wants and the general standard of life ; but the ambition of this class was not to be satisfied with the comparatively limited returns with which purely commercial relations provided them.
The merchants saw that they had to live on the difference between what the workers could produce and what they were able to retain for themselves ; and they further saw that, so long as the workers remained in secure possession of their means of production, the share of the merchants would not be large.
The problem facing this enterprising class was thus : How to separate the worker from his tools and means of production, land, etc.
The solution of the problem was the result of the development of the elements of the problem itself. The growing demand for wool led to the big land enclosures and the forcible dispossession of a considerable portion of the peasantry, who had to resort to the towns in search for a livelihood. Thus was provided the labour market desired by the merchants, who set up small factories in competition with the craftsmen.
The process by which merchant capital eventually captured the whole field was a protracted one lasting from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. The first means by which the merchants gained the advantage was by the introduction of division of labour in the workshop. The craft guilds laid down definite limits to the number of apprentices who might be employed by a master ; but these restrictions did not affect the new masters, and the larger number of their employees enabled them to split the work up into detail processes at which individual workers specialised, thus increasing the speed and quantity of work turned out.
The wealth produced no longer belonged to the workers; they were paid wages which by degrees were pushed down to subsistence level. The merchant sold the produce of his employees’ labour, whose share thus grew less as the total produced increased.
The handicraftsmen carried on the losing struggle in ever-worsening circumstances until the introduction of machinery finally terminated their misery along with their existence. The last obstacle to the industrial supremacy of capital was thus removed. Wealth grew by leaps and bounds, accumulating and concentrating in the hands of the few, while poverty spread over the lives of the many.
Those who wish to gather details of the change above described can hardly do better than read Thorold Rogers’ “Six Centuries of Work and Wages” and H. B. de Gibbins’ “Industrial History of England,” finally consulting “Capital,” by Marx, for a critical analysis of the whole process.
(Socialist Standard, December 1925)