Right to work?

It is sometimes said by socialists—perhaps half jokingly—that campaigns for the “right to work” are part of a conspiracy by the capitalist class to confuse the minds of workers. Certainly, there used to be a campaign in the 1970s called “The Right to Work”, which was a front organisation for the Socialist Workers’ Party. And you can’t get a more confused and confusing bunch of people than they are.

So why do socialists object to the demand for the “right to work”? Because in effect the “right to work” is a demand to be employed and employment is servile, exploitative and a denial of workers’ needs according to ability. But to understand these claims we must briefly look at the history and function of employment, of wage labour.

The wages system (including salaries) is the central social relationship of capitalism. All the other features of capitalism — money, commodity production and the state — can be said to facilitate the functioning of wage labour. This is so because it is through wage labour that the capitalist class gets its privileged income and accumulates capital. Because the capitalist class own the means of life (factories, offices, farms, transport and so on) we workers, as a class, are forced to sell our labour power by time in exchange for wages and salaries. During our time in employment we have the capacity to produce a a greater value of goods and services than the value of the wages we receive. This socially produced surplus value is appropriated by the capitalist class. It is because the working class is compelled to sell its labour power that it is possible to speak of wage slavery and workers are exploited in the process. Moreover, the wage labour and capital relationship is a barrier to the fulfillment of human needs. One of the most important human needs is useful and creative work in co-operation with others and this is central to what socialism will be. But within capitalism this vital need is constantly being frustrated by the inherent class antagonism of wage labour and capital.

Of course, wage labour existed before capitalism but it was not the predominant method of exploitation. In Western Europe capitalism was preceded by feudalism, in which exploitation took place through serf labour. Under such a system the peasants had some control of the land they worked, to provide for their own subsistence needs. However, the peasants were compelled to perform surplus labour for the ruling class (for example, working two or three days a week on the lord’s land). The surplus wealth was directly and physically appropriated by the landowning aristocracy and the Church. Exploitation was plain to see. The illusion that exploitation ceased when the peasants became “free” wage workers derives from the way that wage labour conceals the extraction of surplus labour. We cannot distinguish between necessary and surplus labour during our time in employment, but both are there nevertheless. It’s how the rich get rich.

Nor did the peasants, for the most part, freely and voluntarily take up wage labour. Through the enclosure movement many were forcibly deprived of their land and had to look for employment in the towns and cities. As capitalism took on its industrial form in Britain, in the late 18th century, even the old cottage system of putting out work became transformed in to wage labour. The new working class could see the situation for what it was and they didn’t like it. Some demanded the abolition of the wages system. But eventually wage slavery developed a slave mentality and a slave’s demand: “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”. And during the inevitable phases of of economic depression and high unemployment could be heard the equally pathetic demand to be exploited, the “right to work”.

We are still an exploited class no matter how high a particular wage or salary might be. The demands of profitability and markets sales dictate that there never can be a “right to work” in capitalism. Calls for such a right pose no threat to the capitalist class and their system of employment. On the contrary, such a demand encourages the capitalists to believe that wage labour and capital are here to stay, that they are eternally the masters. Indeed, it would seem that demands for employment are more plausible coming from the capitalists. In the state capitalist countries (like Russia, China, Cuba) employment is an offer the workers cannot refuse. In Britain the new Employment Training Scheme for the long-term unemployed may become compulsory. It seems that our masters are concerned that some of us may be losing our appetite for wage slavery. Just imagine a movement demanding the right not to work — for wages or for capital. Now that really would worry our masters!

But wage slavery is not kept going by any conspiracy. All that is required is a slave mentality by the great majority, unwilling to realise that the fetters which bind them can be broken.