Socialist Worker

Exploitation hidden behind a pay packet

by Joseph Choonara looks at the system we are fighting-capitalism
Issue No. 1869

'ANOTHER WORLD is possible' is one of the most popular slogans of the anti-capitalist movement. It is hard to imagine a world without capitalism. Aspects of the system like competition, sexism or class divisions are often presented as eternal truths. But throughout history people have lived in many different kinds of society. Two hundred years ago over 95 percent of people were peasants. They might own a small patch of land and a few basic tools that they could use to produce enough food for themselves and their family. Most of what they needed could be produced in the home.

At the beginning of the 19th century this old system was dying and a new world was being born. Huge factories sprung up in cities like Manchester and Glasgow. New machinery driven by steam power was introduced, and railways and canals were being created. These changes transformed people's lives as they were dragged away from the countryside and into the new industrial cities.

Karl Marx, who was born into this rapidly changing world, wanted to understand what made the new system, which would later be called capitalism, both so dynamic and so destructive. Marx argued that every form of society was based on people coming together in different ways to produce what they needed to survive, using the tools and techniques available to them.

For the last few thousand years, most societies have been based on a central exploitative relationship-the majority do all of the work while a minority rule over them and live off the wealth that they create. Under the feudalism of medieval Europe, for example, the peasants worked while the lords ruled and were free from the burden of work.

Under capitalism the relationship between the workers and the rulers takes a different form. Workers do not own any of the tools required to produce what they need to survive. Capitalists own the factories, machinery and raw materials. Workers can only get what they need to survive by selling the one thing they have which the capitalist needs-their ability to work.

On the surface, this seems like a fair exchange. The capitalist gets a day's work and the worker gets a day's wages in return. But the wage a worker receives is not related to the amount of wealth they create for the capitalist. It might be possible for a worker to produce enough to cover the cost of their wage in four hours out of an eight-hour day. Unfortunately, the capitalist doesn't let the worker go home after that-they still have to work for the extra four hours.

This unpaid labour is the source of profits for the capitalist. To the worker it appears that they are being paid for a full day's work. So the exploitation that lies at the heart of capitalism is hidden behind a pay packet. Under capitalism production is geared towards the market, not towards meeting people's needs.

Car workers cannot eat cars no matter how many they assemble. They have to purchase what they need on the market using their wages. Capitalists engage in bitter competition to sell their products to workers or to other capitalists. It is pumping profit out of workers and competition on the market that make the capitalist system tick. Once the system is born it takes on a life of its own. The more profit a capitalist makes, the more they can invest in the best and most up to date technology. This allows them to make even greater profits and accumulate even more wealth. The capitalists who are most successful at exploiting their workers, competing on the market and reinvesting their profits can buy up or drive out of business any smaller, weaker companies.

This cycle of exploitation, competition and accumulation makes capitalism both incredibly dynamic and incredibly destructive.

Under feudalism there were limits to how much wealth the lord could consume. Under capitalism our rulers' lust for profits is limitless. Anything that gets in the way, from human rights to the environment, is trampled underfoot. And because there is no overall plan, the scramble for profit leads to economic crises that threaten to bring the whole system crashing down.

Marx argued that capitalism could not be patched up to make it a fair system. Workers are often pushed to fight against specific injustices or for better wages and conditions. These struggles can give workers more confidence and organisation. But Marx saw them as part of a wider fight against the whole capitalist system.

As well as creating horror for millions, capitalism also puts within our grasp a world in which everyone can lead a comfortable and fulfilling life. In order to build another world, workers will have to take control of the wealth they have created and use it in a very different way.

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What Socialists Say
Sat 20 Sep 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1869
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