2000s >> 2009 >> no-1260-august-2009

Cooking the Books 1: Sharing with Shah

 Eddie Shah? Wasn’t he the capitalist who in 1982 tried to break the print unions and provoked a bitter industrial dispute that lasted seven months and which he eventually won thanks to invoking Thatcher’s newly-introduced anti-union laws? Indeed, he is. He has now found another way to exploit the labour of other people:

“The former newspaper owner Eddie Shah is inviting the public to grow vegetables on his land – but demanding that they hand over 60 per cent of their produce. Mr Shah has offered to give over two acres of his estate to be used by gardeners. Most of their vegetables would then be served in his restaurants” (Times, 30 June).

 This is not quite a return to feudalism where serfs were obliged to work so many days on the estate of the lord of the manor. It’s the same principle though, and corresponds to one way in which in some countries those who worked the land were exploited in the sense of being deprived of a part of the fruits of their labour. “Sharecropping”, as it was known, was for instance the system that replaced chattel slavery in the American South after the North won the Civil War. The “free” Negroes were still exploited, but by this new method.

 Whereas under the wages system exploitation is hidden, under sharecropping (as well as under serfdom and chattel slavery) it is obvious. The producers directly surrender a part of what they produce to somebody else.

 It was the same when Shah was a newspaper owner, but not so obvious, because it was then done through money and not in kind. Shah paid his journalists, printers and other workers a wage for the use of their working skills (what Marx called their “labour power”) for an agreed period. The amount of money they received corresponded more or less (probably less as he employed non-union labour) to the monetary value of the working skills they sold him. This appears to be a fair transaction. The workers have something to sell; they sell its use for a contracted period; and get paid its value (what it cost to produce, i.e. the costs of the necessities and minor luxuries needed to reproduce it on a weekly or a monthly basis). And that appears to be it.

 But it isn’t. The amount of labour-time required to reproduce a worker’s labour-power for, say, a month (i.e. to produce what he or she needs to consume in a month) is not the same as the value of what a worker can produce in a month. Not at all. In fact it is considerably less. For instance, it might only take 12 days labour-time to produce a worker’s monthly needs. But that doesn’t mean that workers can stop after working only 12 days. They will have contracted to work for the whole month and this they must do. So, they have to work a further 18 days, free, for their employer. This unpaid labour is the source of the employer’s profits and is in fact why the employer employed the worker in the first place. It is as if the worker only kept 40 percent of what they produced. Just as under Shah’s revived sharecropping scheme.

 But Shah needs to be careful. Sharecroppers can organise just as wage and salary workers can. In fact they did organise in America in the 1920s and 1930s. And by asking for 60 percent he is already fixing a higher rate of exploitation than the ex-slaveowners did in the post-slavery South. They only took 50 percent.

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