Is anyone exploiting you?
Ferrovius was a slave in Caesar’s Rome. He was owned by his master, who fed and housed him. and who took everything he produced. Ferrovius was absolutely without any rights—he could not acquire property, nor could he enter into a Roman marriage. He could not even call his life his own; his master could, if he wished, kill him with impunity.
It was obvious that Ferrovius was exploited, but very few people cared; his condition was mostly justified by condemn- ing him as a member of an inferior race. But his exploitation was not as complete as it appeared to be on the surface. His master could not take everything he produced without returning some of it, in some form or another, in the shape of food, clothing and shelter.
Bodo was a peasant who lived on the lands of the Abbot of St. Germain des Pres, near Paris, in the time of Charlemagne. He held a small farm of arable and meadow land and a few vines. In return, he had to do a certain amount of ploughing on the Abbot’s land, he had to help in other work like repairing buildings and to contribute some of his produce lo pay for grazing and other rights.
Like Ferrovius before him, Bodo was clearly exploited. But in his case there could be no confusion about the extent of it; the division between the work he did for himself and what he did for the Abbot was plain for all to see. Society had developed since the days of Caesar, and the manner of exploitation had changed, but exploitation itself was still going strong.
Of course there were plenty of moralists who sounded off about the conditions of men like Bodo and Ferrovius. They succeeded in making slavery and serfdom dirty words—and thereby persuaded millions of people in capitalist society that they are free.
Consider now the modern descendant of Ferrovius and Bodo—Bob Stiles, who works in a factory on an industrial estate on the fringe of London. Bob operates a machine which, in a rapid-rhythm burst of hiss and thump, punches six holes at a time in the steel shell of an electric kettle. He does this all day long, with the usual meal breaks, and every day. As often as he can he works overtime, which usually means when the management will let him, because the electric kettle market is too unstable to justify continual late working.
Bob’s work is murderously boring, but he absorbs it all, and the heat and the noise and the smell, like a punchy boxer taking it on the chin. His wage is above the National average; he has a car and a television set and a washing machine. His house is heated by those electric fires which are supposed to deceive us into thinking that they are a mass of cosily blazing logs; the same mechanical patterns of light flicker again and again over the fitted carpet and the wall where the almost obligatory flight of plaster ducks climbs up towards the latest thing in do-it-yourself wall lights. Bob has spent a lot of money on his home, and likes to think that he is comfortable there.
Most people would probably agree with him. Certainly, they would not think that Bob is exploited as Ferrovius and Bodo were. Yet in truth he is the most intensely and ruthlessly exploited of them all. Indeed, his exploitation has been developed into a science which other men (who themselves are also exploited) can study, and graduate in, at university. It is true that there are historical differences; where Ferrovius seemed to spend all his time working for his master, and where Bodo clearly worked part of his time on the Abbot’s lands, the nature and extent of Bob’s exploitation is not so easily discerned. It is necessary to examine his standing in capitalist society.
It is not just in things like the plaster birds that Bob is typical. Like the overwhelming majority of people in modern society, the only way he has of getting a living is by going to work for a wage. From the earliest days of understanding, the need to get a job when he grew up conditioned his life. Although he has never grasped it in these terms, the only thing he has which he can exchange for a livelihood is his ability to work. It is this ability that Bob sells to his employer, and for which he gets his wage at the end of the week.
Wages are not a reward for a job well done, nor are they a share of the wealth a worker has produced, nor a cut out of his employer’s profits. They are the price of a person’s working ability; at any one particular time, the size of the wage represents what can be got for that ability on the labour market. It is, for example, no coincidence that for the simple job of punching holes in kettles Bob gets a wage which was out of his father’s dreams. In the area where he works there is a chronic shortage of labour, and plenty of factories competing for the local available working force. It was not always like this. Before the war, when the slump was at its worst, Bob’s firm made a name for itself for the stringent conditions it imposed on its employees.
Taking one period with another, in general wages represent what it takes to reproduce a worker and his energies. Bob has obvious basic survival needs; food, clothing, shelter. But capitalism would be in poor shape if it only provided for basic needs. Human beings, if they are to be efficient workers, must have other things; they must have recreation and holidays and even some luxuries. So Bob’s wage covers more than just the barely necessary food, clothing and shelter; he has his television and car and his holiday, perhaps even abroad if he can save enough.
This is what makes up Bob’s standard of living and what is covered by his wage. The standard can vary with time and place. Bob’s father did not have a need for television because the thing had not been commercially developed when he was working; he got his relaxation in other ways. Bob’s firm exports parts of kettles for assembly in other countries, some of which are far away enough for the workers there to have different standards of food, clothing and housing to those in England. This all has its effects on the wage which is needed to reproduce a worker.
Now if Bob’s employer pays him enough to live up to his standard how does he make a profit? How can we say that Bob is being exploited?
By the time the electric kettles reach the market a great many people have contributed to their production—punching holes, tightening screws, soldering leads and so on. Part of their work has transferred the value of machinery, materials and parts to the kettle; and part of it has, in transferring those parts, actually added to the value of the finished product. The work has, in other words, produced a surplus value, which is something no machine or raw material can do. The ability to enhance a commodity’s value is unique to human labour power; that is why, no matter how much an employer may complain about strikers and no matter how much automatic machinery he may instal, in the end he is dependent on employing human beings.
It is surplus value which gives an employer his profit and which enables him to pay his rates and taxes, rent, interest on money loans and so on. In other words, Bob works for part of his time to produce his own keep—just like Ferrovius and Bodo. And part of the time he works for somebody else. Again like Ferrovius and Bodo, he is exploited.
The difference in his case is that the exploitation is not so immediately apparent. Bob is not. like an ancient slave, possessed mind and body by his master; on the other hand, there is no point in his working week when he stops working to produce his wage and starts working to produce his employers profits. In everything he does when he is working, every second of the lime. Bob is turning out surplus value. This very fact conceals his exploitation from the casual examiner.
The manner in which capitalism hides its exploitation has caused a lot of confusion. It is as well to get one or two things straight.
To begin with, let us recognise that exploitation is one of those emotive words (capitalism is another) which are often taken to imply a moral judgement by those who use them. But to point out that exploitation is part of property society, and to examine the style it takes under capitalism, is not to make any sort of judgement. Capitalism could not exist without exploiting its people; exploitation is a natural result of a system where one class employs another. There is no room for moralising here, although many people who lay claim to be Socialists are fond of talking as if it were possible to have capitalism without exploitation.
We have said that an employer gets his profits from the exploitation of his workers, but it does not follow that higher profits shown in company balance sheets mean greater exploitation. Workers are exploited when they are producing but profit is realised some time after, when the goods come on to the market. An unfavourable market can reduce, even wipe out, an employer’s profit and it could follow from this that he actually intensifies the exploitation of his workers. Falling profits often lead to economy campaigns, to cuts in staff and to more intense working through labour saving machinery. (This, in fact, is what is now happening in Bob’s firm.)
The fact that capitalist exploitation is something of a concealed process has had many side effects. Only very few workers have tumbled that they are exploited, and of those most misunderstand the way in which it happens; they think that it has something to do with high prices, of generous fees paid to company directors or something equally wrong. Many workers spend their lifetime pining for a ’’fair” wage in return for which they are prepared to give “fair” work — without ever considering what they mean by “fair”. Others think that the ideal to aim at is co-operation between both sides in industry, so that ’’their” goods capture every available market and drive ’’their” competitors (whose workers have presumably also been co-operating) out of business.
This is a convenient delusion for the capitalist class and of course hardly a day goes by now without their official representatives in the Government advising us to forget all about exploitation, which went out with the days of Ferrovius and Bodo, and to pull together so that ”our” exports are competitive enough to put the Old Country back where the politicians say it belongs.
Sadly, this sort of drivel is hungrily lapped up by the working class, who seem ready to go to almost any lengths to fall for any discredited reform, and to listen to any nonsense, rather than consider a change in society itself. Yet only when they do opt for another social system will exploitation cease. In this there is a basic irony. For the working class will only want to end capitalism when they realise, among other things, how they are exploited under it. But the very nature of capitalist exploitation tends to conceal the fact that it exists.
If this is a neat, frustrating, vicious circle then it is also one which must be broken if society is to solve its problems. And one which will be broken.