What Are Your Wages?
Do you suffer from that common ailment: too much week left at the end of your money? Most of us do. The doctors, the teachers, the shipworkers, the provincial busmen and many others are all struggling, at the moment of writing, for higher wages. In a few weeks’ time other workers in other jobs will be engaged in the same sort of tussle. As a matter of fact, we have become used to this pattern, since the war, of “rounds” of wage increases. The economy of this country has been “booming” fairly steadily, and unemployment keeps fairly low. But it is rather a strange fact that, in spite of all the increases that have been won in that time, our wages are still inadequate. There is plenty of evidence of this. The fact that the hire purchase debt in Britain passed the £1,000 million mark in 1964 shows just how much people can not buy without getting into debt.
Why is it that this struggle for higher wages is always going on, even in countries like the U.S.A. where workers are the highest paid in the world?
If it weren’t for the money, most of us would stop work tomorrow. After all, wages are the common means of getting work out of men and women. You can hear some of them call it “bloody slavery”. They are not trying to be accurate-only to express their feelings. There is very little real slavery in the world today. It is a very old-fashioned and inefficient system of getting work out of people. The big empires of the past were built up on slave labour; and there was a brief flare-up of it again in America when the virgin land of the new continent was being opened up to agriculture. The slave was caught or bought, like a horse or a machine; and he was fed or flogged when necessary in order to get the maximum of work out of him. Slaves were not really regarded as people: they were denied citizenship; and their owners usually had power of life and death over them. But the quality of work they could do was generally very low; and there is a snag to owning slaves: they have to be fed and housed even when there is no work for them to do.
Although there has always been a certain amount of it, getting work out of people for wages is fairly new as a universal system. Almost everywhere in the world the slave empires were overthrown by the much less highly organised system of feudalism. The feudal serf was a “free” man owning his own bit of land; but to protect themselves from attack serfs clustered round the strong-arm men, the lords of the manor; and they paid for their “protection” by working on the land or fighting the battles of their lords. In the time that was left over, they were able to work their own strips of land. A tenth of what they produced was demanded from them by a highly organised church, which operated in league with the lords to prevent serfs from running away. It is debatable, therefore, whether serfs were much better off than slaves.
With the rise of capitalism, however, the serfs were gradually freed entirely-by having even their strips of land taken from them. They were no longer forced to work for anybody-except by the pressure of starvation. As it was, they offered themselves for work eagerly, even desperately at times, for there was no other way of getting food, clothing and shelter, except by wages. At last, in capitalism, the system of buying and selling became universal. Everything was for sale. Anything could be bought. The problem for the great mass of humanity was that they had nothing left to sell except their ability to work.
Most of us feel we have the right to live. The trouble is that hardly any of us have got “private means”. We can only get the means to live by “selling ourselves”. It is rather like prostitution; but we have no choice. Because of this, a lot of workers talk about the “right to work” almost as though it were the same thing as the right to live. They take part in marches and demonstrations when jobs are scarce, insisting upon their right to work. They feel offended if they are told that they are demanding the right to prostitute themselves. Actually, of course, workers have no legal right to work. Nor will they ever have. All they possess is a commodity-the ability to work. Millions of people throughout the world own nothing else.
This is what distinguishes them as a separate economic class, the working class. They constitute about ninety per cent of the civilized population of the world. Of course, in the more advanced countries they may own their own house and their own car; but economically their class is determined by the fact that they have to prostitute themselves throughout their useful lives in order to keep these things and live from day to day.
Obviously, if workers are sellers of the ability to work, there must also be a class of buyers. Occasionally and briefly, one worker may buy the services of another to do a job; but as he only has his wages with which to pay wages it cannot be general. Only those who possess the wealth which can be worked upon to produce more wealth, can really afford to pay wages. But why should anyone want to hire us-especially if they already have the wealth, and we have none? Why should anyone pay us wages for the use of our mental and physical energy? There can only be one reason: to increase their wealth further by our work. And not only that: to increase it by more than the cost of our wages.
Wealth used in this way to make more wealth is called capital; and those who use it in this way are called capitalists. So the bulk of humanity is divided into two classes: sellers and buyers of labour power; workers and capitalists.
So wages are really the price paid for our ability to work. The very existence of wages proves the division into classes, wherever it is found. Every week or every month our pay packet or cheque reminds us of the fact that we belong to the class which can only secure the right to live by offering themselves for work by prostituting themselves to those who find it convenient to buy their abilities-the world’s capitalists.
Such a situation inevitably produces conflict. In buying and selling, the seller always tries to raise the price, while the buyer tries to reduce it. There is no let-up. And the very point of conflict is the wage packet itself. The quickest and surest way for the capitalist to increase his profits is by cutting wages. And yet the worker’s wage is his only means of living, so that he has no choice but to struggle-not only to raise his wages, but to prevent them being depressed.
A Fair Day’s Pay
There were times in the nineteenth century when some wages for adult men with families were as low as sixpence a week; and it meant, of course, that the women and children were forced out to work as well to keep alive. All this is gone now—at least, in Britain. Similar things are still found in the newly capitalist countries, and in places like Hong Kong; even, surprisingly enough, in the U.S.A. But here, for the last few years, the talk has all been of “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.” Harold Wilson has been the most recent public figure to use it, in a demand for greater effort from the working class of Britain. By this, he identifies himself with all other politicians, whether they claim to represent the working class or not, because this is a slogan used purely on behalf of the capitalist class.
There is really nothing “fair” about the wages system at all. It is always loaded overwhelmingly in the capitalists’ favour. Although they often do increase their profit by fighting off wage demands, this is not the main method of making profit. Capital finds it profitable to employ labour even when wages are not depressed. And this is generally the case in Britain today. Wages are inadequate, of course, but they are relatively about the highest that they have ever been.
How, then, does the capitalist make profits? Purely by using the wages system. Actually, the wages swindle is very simple, but very effective. And, what is more, it is perfectly legal. If you can get hold of enough capital, you can start operating it tomorrow-if you can get hold of enough capital.
This is the way it works: the capitalist simply hires a man’s abilities for the day, or the week, or the month; and then he gets as much work out of him as he possibly can during that time. Now, ever since the dawn of civilization it has been possible for a man to produce more than he needed for his own keep. That is what made slavery a possibility in the first place. And, since factory organisation, and then mechanisation, and now even automation, the possibilities have risen. But the capitalist does not pay for the actual value that the man adds to the raw materials by working on them. All that he pays for is the man’s keep. Loosely speaking the worker may have produced enough by Monday or Tuesday, to pay for his keep; but the capitalist keeps him turning out wealth until Friday, simply because he has bought the worker’s labour power for that period.
If the workers complain that this system is not fair at all, it is easy to point out to them that this is a buying and selling arrangement. They have something to sell: their ability to work. And the capitalist is prepared to buy it. Profit is simply the difference between a man’s wages and the value of what he actually produces. All this vague trade union talk about the workers having a right to a share in the profits simply shows a total lack of understanding of what profits are and what wages are. The workers have no right to a share in the profits at all, in the capitalist system.
How Much Are you Worth?
There is no direct connection at all, then, between the amount that a man produces and the size of his wage packet. Neither is there any real connection between his wages and how hard he works. This is often difficult to see because of the piece-work systems, bonus schemes, and high overtime rates, all of which make it look as though the harder you work, the more money you make. If there really was such a connection, it would mean that that Dr. Beeching, with his salary of £25,000 from British Railways, was working about thirty times as hard every day as the average worker – quite impossible.
By the time that most of us get home after a day’s work, we are pretty well exhausted. It takes a real effort to get washed and changed to go out to a cinema or the pub. And now that television has brought the cinema to us, millions of us are content to sit in an armchair for three hours and then go to bed. We have put out, during the day, all the physical, emotional and mental energy we are capable of, without running ourselves down into illness. Even this happens fairly often with many people.
So we have done our fair day’s work; and we have got our fair day’s pay. And there is a direct connection between them. This commodity that we have to sell-our ability to work is used up at the end of the day. We have sold it. And it costs money to renew it-money to keep up a certain standard of food, clothing, shelter and recreation to make us able to face another day, or another Monday morning. What is more, we were reared with a certain amount of care in the first place, educated at a certain cost, and probably trained, too.
All of this makes up the true cost of production of our commodity-the ability to do a certain type of work. This is what our wages pay for-the cost of producing our labour power. This is all that is ever meant by “a fair day’s pay” – enough for us to keep on producing the ability to work for the capitalist class, throughout our lives, until our commodity loses most of its worth through old age. It has also paid for the cost of producing children to provide another army of wage-slaves to take out places when we are gone.
The wages system has proved so successful that it has spread to all the major countries of the world, and is still spreading. And, in between the wars and slumps that it causes, it works like a charm. The surplus that the workers produce is largely used to buy more machinery and plant and materials to extract more surplus from their efforts, and to bring more peasants and primitives in “undeveloped areas” into the system. The new machines produced by workers in one industry serve to step up the amount of profit made out of workers in another. The buildings and plant set up by one generation are there to extract surplus value from the next.
All the time, and all over the world, the workers are building up more and more wealth none of which belongs to them. By their very work they deprive themselves more and more of the wealth which is in the world, and so set the capitalist class higher and higher above them, with greater and greater powers of oppression.
And most workers accept this system of legalised robbery. (It is only legal because capitalists made the laws.) They accept it every time they press for their “right to work”. They accept it when they talk of “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”, and when they think that “co-operation between both sides of industry” is a good thing, they are showing their approval of being robbed.
Of course, they are being brainwashed into accepting it. They don’t realise that they can abolish the wages system. They are usually so relieved and glad to get their pay packet or their cheque, when it finally comes, that they forget they are holding in their hands the proof that they have been taken for suckers once again in the biggest swindle of all time.