I went for a job interview recently. beforehand I experienced the trepidation that usually accompanies a visit to the dentist. Suitably softened up I was ushered into the Managing Director’s office. My razor sharp brain assessed the situation. All my carefully planned stratagems were of no use, designed as they were to suit a one to one confrontation. I was faced not by the interviewer I had been expecting, but with an inquisitorial panel of four.
For a nano-second I imaged the scene as a nineteenth century woodcut. The present: Capital confronts Labour. The worker stands with his head bowed, his hand extended in supplication. Behind him his hungry family huddle together for comfort. Looming before him are four wolves all dressed in frock coats, their fangs bared. The image changes. The future: Socialism confronts Capital. The four capitalists are cowering in a corner surrounded by a multitude of stern workers who have just effected the transformation from production for profit to production for need.
A questioning voice jerks me back to reality. The persons interrogating me are the owning directors of this private medium sized engineering company. Isn’t it odd that those who describe themselves as manufacturers are the ones who don’t actually make things with their own hands? Family companies like to project an image of caring paternalism. This type of firm works hard at earning itself a reputation for job security rather than high pay.
“We may not pay the highest wages in the area,” they say, “but when you work for us you’re a name, not just a number.” But woe betide you if even a paperclip goes missing from your desk.
The questions emanating from the quartet are designed to ascertain my suitability to contribute to, and increase, the company profits. These buggers may know nothing of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value, but they know what they want. With a working life in front of them they question every action and decision of the past twenty years. If the end result is a feeling of humiliation, rejection and failure as a human being because some other wage-slave was preferred, it’s because that’s the way the system designed us to feel. Capitalism isn’t some abstraction that is best left to the politicians and the bosses to run. Those who own the means of production and distribution have power over your life.
What is unusual, as Sherlock Holmes might have remarked, is that the vast majority of the working class, those forced to sell their labour power in order to live, see nothing unusual in the labour/capitalist relationship. However these self-same workers would agree with Marx that,
The exercise of labour power, labour, is the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life. And this life-activity he sells to another person on order to secure the necessary means of subsistence. Thus his life-activity is for him only a means to enable him to exist. He works in order to live.
He does not even reckon labour as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity which he has made over to another . . . what he produces for himself is not the silk that he weaves, not the gold that he draws from the mine, not the palace that he builds. What he produces for himself is wages, and silk, gold, palace; resolve themselves for him into a definite quantity of the means of subsistence. And the worker who labours for eight hours — does he consider this eight hour labour as a manifestation of his life, as life? On the contrary, life begins for him where this activity ceases, at table, in the public house, in bed. (Wage Labour and Capital).
Apologists of capitalism might argue that the market system offers me as much freedom of choice as it does the employer. After all, selling your labour power is a two way contract, freely entered into between buyer, the employer, and seller, the worker. And if your abilities and skills are market orientated, then you will have no problem in finding a capitalist eager to purchase the commodity on offer — your working abilities.
Members of the working class who think that a company car and the opportunity to work themselves into an early grave constitute happiness are deluding themselves. No matter how attractive the wrapping, BUPA, Luncheon Vouchers and a gold watch after twenty-five years of producing surplus value; the result remains wage-slavery. As was clear when I went for that interview . . .