Can we do without capital?
A correspondent asks :—
“How can the workers do without capital? I quite agree that they do not get a fair wage in many cases ; but if capital were abolished, as you suggest, where would the money come from to pay any wages at all ? Would it not be far more practicable to limit profits by law and compel the employers to give the balance to the workers in the shape of increased wages?”
Our correspondent, like a good many people, seizes upon a half-truth and loses sight of other facts which would enable him to understand it. It is, of course, quite true that wages form part of capital, and that the abolition of capital involves the abolition of wages; but only a person ignorant of history and economics imagines that the workers have always depended upon wages and must continue to do so.
Capitalism has not always existed. In the modern sense it dates in England from the sixteenth century. Previous to that time the workers were either peasants or handicraftsmen. The peasants, whether bond or free, held at least sufficient land on which to grow their own foodstuffs, etc., while the craftsmen in the towns owned their own tools and sold the products of their hands on their own account. All of them rendered tribute to their feudal lords either in labour, kind, money or military service, but in few cases did they depend upon wages. In fact, the bulk of the wealth then produced was for the direct use, either of the producers, or of their superiors in the social scale. Only a comparatively small surplus was for sale, and, consequently, money played a correspondingly small part in the affairs of mankind.
The merchants and moneylenders of those days occupied a subordinate and despised position in society, little dreaming of the future which lay before their successors, the modern capitalists.
If we enquire still further back into social development, we discover yet other conditions of labour, such as the chattel-slavery of Greece and Rome and the primitive communism of the barbaric races. Under these conditions, wages and capital in all its forms were as yet undeveloped.
The barbaric tribesmen hunted, fished, pastured cattle or rudely tilled the soil without waiting for any enterprising capitalist to come along to provide them with work.
On the other hand, the slave-owners of the ancient empires had no need to disguise the fact that they lived by exploiting their slaves. They possessed the persons of the workers and consequently had to feed, clothe, and house them. They no more thought of paying them wages than a farmer thinks of paying wages to his cattle.
If our correspondent has followed the argument thus far, he will see that the dependence of the workers upon masters arises out of the control by the latter of the means of living. Where the workers possessed their own means of producing wealth (as in the case of the barbarian or the mediaeval craftsmen) they were able also to appropriate the fruits of their labour without asking the permission of masters. It is only where n class has appropriated either the persons of the workers, the land on which they live, or the instruments by which they produce wealth that the workers become the exploited chattels, serfs or wage-slaves.
Further, it is only when the powers of production have reached their present scale, when most of the wealth is produced for sale, that the bulk of the population become dependent upon wages ; but why have goods to be sold, and whence arises the need for money ? The answer lies in the fact that the different instruments of labour, the mines, factories, farms, etc., are all the private property of different individuals or groups and that the products of labour become the private property of these groups likewise. Wealth to-day, therefore, can only be distributed by a process of exchange between the respective owners of commodities.
The workers, however, only possess their own energy. They lack the means whereby to apply it to nature in order to maintain themselves. All the accumulated fruits of the labour of their ancestors have been appropriated by a small class who have no need to labour ; for the workers are compelled to offer their power to produce, in exchange for the means of subsistence. Seeing that nearly everything is produced for sale, these means take the form of money-wages—by which the capitalists become the possessors of the force which wins wealth from nature. The workers produce a much greater value than is represented by their wages, however, and this value, when realised by the sale of the goods produced, thus yields a surplus from which the capitalist class derive their income.
The Socialist, approaching the matter scientifically, rather than sentimentally, is not concerned to argue about the “fairness” or “justice” of this order of things. From the workers’ point of view such argument is mere waste of time, seeing that the only standard of “justice” admissible under the present system is based upon the exchange of commodities, on the average, at their value. Thus, without doubt, the workers, on the average, obtain their dues according to capitalist canons. They obtain the value of their commodity, that is to say, they receive enough to enable them to replace the energy they expend in the production of wealth. This, however, does not alter the fact that the process involves their exploitation and is, therefore, contrary to their interests.
It is, then, from the conflict between the interests of the workers and the masters that the Socialist develops his proposition for the overthrow of capitalism. This conflict, which manifests itself on the industrial field in an endless series of strikes and lockouts, must find expression on the political field also. Here it can only have one conclusion ; that is, the organised capture of the machinery of government by the working-class who constitute the ever-increasing majority of the population.
Let us now consider our correspondent’s proposition, i.e., the legal limitation of profits. What party is going to introduce such a measure he does not tell us. It is difficult to conceive any such measure being seriously adopted except as a last resort, a sop with which to buy off a steadily growing revolutionary class. Admitting its possibility, however, our correspondent has not indicated what he considers a fair profit or a fair wage, nor how such an arbitrary standard of fairness could be enforced. The experience of centuries shows that Acts of Parliament cannot alter the trend of economic development unless they uproot entirely the property conditions.
Thus we find that legal efforts to keep wages down after the Black Death, failed because the number of labourers remained so small. Not until the great enclosures of land commenced, with the resulting dispossession of the peasantry, did the price of labour-power become subject to a steady fall.
To-day, any attempt to keep up the level of wages, much less increase it, has to contend with the rapid and constant improvement in labour-saving machinery, which increases the number of the unemployed, intensifying the competition for jobs, and thereby weakening the resistance of the workers to wage-reductions.
Thus, there is already at work a force tending to increase profits more rapidly than a legal enactment could limit them ; and the workers are left with the only remedy for their poverty-stricken, enslaved condition, that is, the conversion of the instruments of labour into the common property of all.
When that has been accomplished by means of their political control, they will no longer need wages. The products of labour, like the means of production, will be common property, accessible to all without money and without price. In the place of competitive exchange there will be established a system of co-operative distribution. Our correspondent’s question is, therefore, answered.
The workers can do without capital just so soon as they exercise their collective knowledge and organise democratically to obtain possession and control of the means of living; for the term “capital” simply expresses the fact that the means of social labour, and consequently the products of that labour are private property. In the same way, the terms “wages” expresses the fact that the power to labour is a mere commodity, exploited for the profit of those who purchase it.
When the workers act as we foresee, these terms will simply become as meaningless and obsolete as the terms of the feudal law (“villeinage” and “suzerainty”) or those of ancient Rome with its “patrons” and “clients,” its “bond” and “free.” In the place of class-society we shall have humanity.
(Socialist Standard , July 1926)