Cooking the Books 2 – Are nurses exploited? / Letter

Most of the recent and ongoing strikes are in the so-called ‘public sector’, by those working for the government at national or local level or for semi-state bodies such as the health service or schools and universities. The work they do is not sold but is a service provided by the state. They are not producing for profit; how then can they be said to be exploited?

If you work for a private (or state) enterprise producing something concrete that is sold, it is fairly easy to see that you are being exploited in the sense of being legally deprived of a part of what you produce.

But what about those employed by the state to do work that is not sold?

The first thing to note is that such employees are in the same basic position as any other worker. The means of production being monopolised by a tiny section only of the population, everybody else is driven by economic necessity to find an employer to get money to buy what they need to live. Workers get a living by working for wages, irrespective of who that employer is.

Wages are a price, the price of something that is being bought and sold. The textbooks say that this is ‘labour’, or the work done for the employer. In fact, however, it is the employee’s capacity to work, what Marx’s translators called ‘labour-power’. What it describes is the capacity a human has to use their physical and mental energy to perform a particular type of work.

Some people who work do sell their ‘labour’ in the sense of the product of their work — the self-employed; what their clients are paying for is the price of their work. But this is not the case with employees. They are selling their capacity to work and their employer is paying the price of this, not that of their work. This price — wages — depends on what it costs to produce it: the cost of the food, clothes, housing, travel, entertainment and training needed to keep them fit to work at their particular trade or profession; in short, on what is called ‘the cost of living’. Wages reflect this cost and are not the same as the work done for an employer. In fact, the work done to produce what workers consume is less than the work they perform while working for an employer.

A part, therefore, of their ‘labour’ is not paid for. In the case of those producing something for sale this is profits, realised when the product is sold. In the case of those working for the state or semi-state bodies this unpaid labour means that the service is being provided cheaper than otherwise. The state or semi-state employer seeks to provide its particular service as cheaply as possible; in other words, to maximise the amount of unpaid labour extracted from their employees. After all, the money they spend comes from taxes that ultimately fall on the profits of capitalist businesses and doing this reduces that.

If employees were being paid for their work — what they do in the course of their time at work — there would be nothing left for the employer’s profit. In the case of state and semi-state employees they would have to be paid much more than they are, much more than they need to create their labour-power.

Workers in the ‘public sector’, like that of their fellow workers in the profit-seeking ‘private sector’, also perform unpaid labour for their employer even if it is not monetised as profit.

So, yes, nurses too are economically exploited as they perform unpaid as well as paid work for their employer.

Philosophical debate

Dear Editors

There is a world beyond the senses, SJW informs us (May Socialist Standard) (true!) but ‘we are only ever speaking of our experience of it’. This is pure empiricism, the phenomenalism of Kant, the logical positivists (Mach, Carnap) and the phenomenologists (Husserl, Heidegger, Derrida et al) Karl Marx was not a phenomenalist but a dialectical materialist who embraced a ratio-empiricist epistemology (a critical realism or science) that sought to understand the reality of the material world (including capitalism) by going beyond immediate experience of appearances (phenomena). Nobody has ever experienced a dinosaur, or photosynthesis.

Brian Morris, Lewes

PS. In my Anthropology and Dialectical Naturalism (Black Rose 2022) I defend philosophical materialism as a metaphysic against its current detractors, especially the postmodernists and phenomenalists like Latour.

SJW writes: Marx was a skeptic by confession – his motto was ‘Doubt everything’. He was ‘no Marxist’, but criticised the entire edifice of philosophy that defends the brutal experience of private property with bewildering flights of fancy. The ‘Marxists’ that followed bewailed the fact that Marx did not leave them a philosophy. Engels and Kautsky provided their thoughts as substitute, and the entire edifice of dialectical and other materialisms is based on their works and later the likes of Lukacs and Bukharin. It is my argument that dialectical materialism and other ‘isms’ sometimes mangle the position that Marx took. I don’t claim to know Marx’s mind, as Brian Morris does, or to install him in the pantheon of capitalist thinkers: only to think clearly, as a worker in capitalism, and come to similar conclusions to Marx in the present day. We should expect to do our own thinking, as workers, simple yet profoundly different from capitalist teachings, being more daring than complex.

Next article: Proper Gander – send in the crowns ⮞

Leave a Reply