By Simon Basketter
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Workers produce wealth, and the rich then steal it

The first in a series of columns that discuss What We Stand For, the Socialist Workers Party statement of principles, printed every week in Socialist Worker
Issue 2893
Workers strikes Mark theory

A woman worker in a wartime factory, 1914

Ray Charles sang, “Them that’s got are them that gets” and so they do.

So 148 of the world’s biggest corporations grabbed £1.5 trillion in net profits in the year to June 2023, a 52 percent jump from the year before. For every £100 of that profit, rich shareholders trousered £82. And as Charles pointed out, “If you gotta have something, before you can get something. How do you get your first is still a mystery to me.”

People are told that hard work and a good job means you can earn your way to prosperity. The truth is the most important factor to becoming wealthy is inheriting loot.

The other myth is that you can be a “wealth creator” like the vampires on Dragons’ Den sitting in large chairs next to piles of cash. But where does wealth come from? Wealth under capitalism appears as a collection of stuff — commodities.

These commodities are goods produced specifically for exchange in a market. This process is a relationship between people, not a relationship of things.

The ruling class controls what the revolutionary Karl Marx called the “means of production”—factories, offices and so on. Often they own them privately. Sometimes nation-states own them. The majority can only make a living if they work for someone else in return for a wage or salary. They produce the goods and services society needs— in workplaces they neither own nor control.

As the US socialist Eugene Debs described, “The capitalists own the tools they do not use, and the workers use the tools they do not own. The capitalists, who own the tools that the working class use, appropriate to themselves what the working class produce, and this accounts for the fact that a few capitalists become fabulously rich while the toiling millions remain in poverty, ignorance and dependence.”

So workers are actually key “wealth creators”. And as every slave knew, being a “wealth creator” doesn’t make you wealthy. The goods and services that workers produce belong not to them but to their bosses. 

In the very process of producing things, the working class also reproduces the wealth of the capitalists. The worker only gets enough value to allow them to come back to work. An extra portion of value beyond the wage—Marx calls it “surplus value”— is taken by capitalists.

That’s what exploitation means. Workers produce vast surpluses, which end up in the hands of those who rule over them. The more they work, the richer and more powerful their exploiters become. There are layers of society to enable the robbery—from managers to cops.

Factory owners, heads of multinationals, and big farmers don’t exploit workers just because they are “bad people”. They do it because they are capitalists.

Firms regularly change owners. Bosses and managers are frequently fired and replaced. Yet the way they operate doesn’t change. What drives them is a systemic drive to produce wealth. “Accumulate, accumulate — that is Moses and the prophets,” as Marx described it.

Each capitalist does this. But every other capitalist is doing the same thing. While they might join together against workers, they are always competing with one another.

The system as a whole is driven by these two forces — the need to accumulate and the competition between capitalists. That creates instability. What is a constant is that those who own and control the wealth always want to make more profit.

New technology—looms or computers—can speed up production, and give one capitalist a temporary advantage over another. But what really makes the difference is the amount of work that can be squeezed out of each worker over and above what that worker has to be given to survive.

This means pushing workers to do longer hours and harder shifts while keeping down pay. The system is built on the labour of the working class. But the way it exploits that labour makes class conflict inevitable.

This is the first in a series of columns that discuss What We Stand For, the Socialist Workers Party statement of principles, printed every week in Socialist Worker. 

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