Conversation with a hairdresser’s assistant
In the 1930s Wilhelm Reich, perhaps best known as the author of The Sexual Revolution, developed the theory that it was possible to explain the basic concepts of Marxian economics without employing complicated economic terms and arguments. As an example of his attempt at this, we publish below, for the first time in English translation, an article he wrote in 1935 under his pseudonym of Ernst Parell for the Zeitschrift für politische Psychologie und Sexualökonomie (vol 2, No 1) he published in exile in Denmark.
Assistant: Style or a simple haircut?
Customer: A haircut please but square not round.
Assistant: What do you think of present times?
Customer: Terrible. Where will it lead to?
Assistant: The hooligans are going to cut each other’s throats and we’ll get the worst of it whoever wins, whether the Communists or the Nazis. They’re as bad as each other.
Customer: Perhaps you’re right. I can’t understand politics.
Assistant: I’m glad I’ve got a job and am making ends meet. As for the rest, all I want is to live in peace.
Customer: May I ask how much you in fact earn?
Assistant: 100 marks a month.
Customer: Can you live on that?
Assistant: Just about. I’d like to get married but it’ll take a long time until my fiancée and me have saved up enough to be able to rent a f1at. I’ve been working ten years in this place and I’ve not saved up enough yet.
Customer: What’s your boss like?
Assistant: He’s a very nice person. Sometimes he’s a bit moody, but I get on fairly well with him.
Customer: How many customers do you deal with a day?
Assistant: 10 to 15. On Saturdays it’s more.
Customer: So that means that 15 customers pay 15 marks into the business. OK, but you only get 3.50 marks a day. What happens to the rest?
Assistant: You’ve not taken into account the expenses of our business. Lighting, telephone, insurance, instruments, rent, they eat up quite a bit.
Customer: I’d be interested how much.
Assistant: (thinks awhile) Well I suppose at least 8 marks.
Customer: OK, but that still leaves about 9-10 marks.
Assistant: Yes, but the business must make a surplus since the boss takes a great risk. For example, on some days there are fewer customers, or in bad times.
Customer: Does that mean that you get more when business is booming?
Assistant: No, why should I? I’m on a regular income.
Customer: I don’t understand. When you work more you don’t get paid more? And of the amount you earn on average for the boss keeps a fund for bad times?
Assistant: You’re quite right.
Customer: If I understand you correctly, you produce after subtracting all costs about 10 to 12 marks for him per day and of this you receive 3 to 3.50 marks. And if times become permanently bad for the business he’ll sack you, in which case the reserve fund is of no use to you. So what in fact does he use this money for?
Assistant: Well, for example the boss has to acquire modern machines. At present we’re replacing the hand clippers by electric ones.
Customer: What does that mean?
Assistant (surprised): What, you don’t understand that? It’s quite simple. Now I can deal with 10 customers a day, afterwards I’ll be able to deal with 20 because the cutting will be much faster.
Customer: And each one of these 20 will be paying 1 mark as before. And you, how much will you get then?
Assistant (even more surprised): Naturally, I’ll continue to get my 100 marks.
Customer: Excuse my being so inquisitive, I’m getting a bit lost and am rather amazed. With the new improved machines you’ll be earning 20 marks for, him but you yourself will continue to receive only 3.50. That means the surplus has grown from 8 to about 13? Where does the money go?
Assistant: (scratches his head) Actually, you’re right. That’s a good question but, you know, I get so tired from working that I don’t have much energy to think. I’m happy if I can rest and keep my job. You know next week 2 out of my 5 workmates are being made redundant and I have to ensure that I’m not sacked too.
Customer: It must be pretty bad to stand 10 hours a day in the shop – what about holidays?
Assistant: Oh yes. I get a fortnight every year, but the others also go on holiday and when they do I have to do more work. And now the boss is going away for 2 months.
Customer: Where does he get the money to stay away for so long?
Assistant: He has a villa in Dahlen.
Customer: Oh. How come?
Assistant: Well he’s owned this business for 30 years now.
Customer: I see. Does he work?
Assistant: Oh no, only sometimes he helps out. But it’s a successful business.
Customer: Listen. I don’t understand anything about such things but it seems to me that his villa and his summer holidays are paid by the 8 or 13 marks which you earn for his “business surplus”.
Assistant: Oh I don’t think so. But perhaps you’re right, it is odd. I’d like to talk to you sometime about this. You talk a lot of common sense.
In this conversation no political word has been mentioned, but this hairdresser’s assistant has developed the theory of surplus value, rationalisation and unemployment from the experiences of his own life. And over and above this he has developed a confidence in the “customer”. You don’t need to teach him about what rationalisation or exploitation is, he has described these himself. What he lacks is the understanding of the link between his knowledge about his work and surplus labour with the villa of the entrepreneur. Nor is he at all conscious of the fact that he identifies with his boss. And he is completely unable to see the connection between politics, which he is against and afraid of, and his everyday life. At this point it will be easy to make him conscious of this because it is contained in what he himself has said and experienced; all that has to be done is to develop it.