This may be a tricky one for us to get our head round. We know that shop-lifting legally is theft, burglary and such like, it’s blatantly obvious. But how can it be that a boss in legally trying to make a profit is essentially stealing from workers? It’s a surprisingly simple argument, but as it defies an overwhelmingly accepted myth, it’s one that is often ignored and quite difficult to make.
Firstly, workers are selling their labour. The owner of the business tends to pay as little as possible to the worker in order to make enough money from that worker to cover costs (rent, electricity, taxes, investment) and have some left over, which is profit. The classic argument for this system goes something like this: The owner has the initiative and skills to organise the labour and run a business and is willing to take the necessary risks. In this way the worker just has to turn up for work, follow orders and is assured a living wage. This argument is compelling because it has convention on its side and to be fair many workers are able to live reasonably well with enough material wealth to be comfortable without having to get stressed over the viability of the business. The owner in comparison may have secured the business with their own home. They have everything to lose, while the worker just turns up.
But such arguments are flawed because they are based on fallacy. It is impossible for someone to actually sell their labour. Our labour is part of us, it’s who we are. It is an essential part of our human nature. In fact, it is what distinguishes us from other animals who do what they do to survive. By contrast we as humans do far more besides because of an innate desire to craft, fashion and make things – even if we don’t have to. That’s why we have hobbies to amuse ourselves. We don’t have to walk, cycle, craft, make, garden, read or write to survive, we do them for fun – we are in effect expressing our humanity.
Marx described this fundamental aspect of humanity as ‘life engendering’ and the ‘character of the species’: ‘In creating a world of objects by his personal activity, in his work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species-being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as his own essential being, or that treats itself as a species-being. Admittedly animals also produce. They build themselves nests, dwellings, like the bees, beavers, ants, etc. But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, whilst man produces universally. It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom.’ (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Karl Marx, Estranged Labour)
So labour is who we are, and we just can’t sell who we are. Another way of thinking about this, is that to sell something we have to own it first. Now, there are various arguments against ownership generally which I don’t have the space for here; but if we accept that we can own things (which most of us do accept), then we also accept that we have to own them to sell them, or at least someone does and we sell on-behalf of that person. But nobody actually owns us and we certainly do not own ourselves, that is just ridiculous. Hence we can not logically sell our labour, and thus our employer is not able to buy it from us.
So what is this money we receive from our employer? It is a contractual obligation that we will do what we are told, in other words it’s a bribe. I personally have to be somewhere at a fixed time, sit in a particular place, stay there for a certain time and behave in a very specific way – specified by my employer. I have to behave in accordance to my employer’s wishes within reason – that being that I have to behave in such a way for them to make a profit. But the only way to pay this bribe is to discipline the workers to behave in the most productive way, so we can receive wages, otherwise we wouldn’t bother turning up.
But to think of our wage as entirely a bribe neglects the fact that our labour, particularly the productivity of our labour largely determines our wage – so in a sense it is a wage for us to be productive in the modern workplace and a bribe to put up with the alienation that this causes. As soon as our work is controlled so rigorously by our employer we have lost control of a vital aspect of our humanity. The employer has little concern about how we feel about our work and every concern about how profitable it is. But the wage/bribe allows us to drown our sorrows in the pub after work, go on holiday and buy consumer goods to soften the blow. It is the relinquishing of control of our own fundamental natures that furnishes the illusion that our bosses are superior to us – as our benevolent, risk-taking and entrepreneurial ’employers’ and we are supposed to be grateful.
It’s also why employers get away with theft, as part of our wages are withheld. I will never get paid for what I actually do because my employer has to make a profit. As for the argument about the employer’s usefulness to me in organising my work, the hidden assumption is that I am incapable of organising my own work. The tragedy is that there is a certain amount of truth in this assumption. Under the current system it would indeed be very difficult for most workers to support themselves outside of the workplace, hence the argument that we need employers and are lucky to have them is a persuasive one.
Let’s face it, an employer could not get away with their behaviour by working alone. If workers had the choice between being disciplined for a wage and working for satisfaction then they would choose the latter. There was never just one slave owner or trader, each tyrant was part of an established system of exploitation and that is how they got away with it. It was only with mass-dissent that slavery ended, the slaves themselves were incapable of ending it, even though they played a part. So workers work for their employers because they have no or scant choice. Employers know this, and this is what enables them to exploit workers by withholding a proportion of their wages. Another factor though is that they don’t need to steal much from each employer. That’s one of the reasons that big companies make more profit, because they employ more workers, more to steal from.
Here’s some maths: If I employ one hundred workers and they each earn £10/hour, I can take 30p to pay my overheads which amounts to £30/hour and a pound for myself to pay my wages and make a profit. Thus I can earn £100/hour even without turning up that day! This is the beauty of the system from the employer’s perspective and why they are willing to take risks. The employer probably won’t miss that £1.30 because they are conditioned to accept a rigid and highly disciplined environment (school introduces time-discipline very early on) and probably don’t even know how they are being exploited. Just in case the employer’s risk/skill argument is still appealing, ask this question: Does a bike thief’s risk of stealing your bike in broad daylight justify his/her theft? Indeed the bike thief might be very clever and employ others and contribute to the economy (the victim has to buy a new bike).
So given the choice and the awareness, workers would not put up with this. But as a whole, we have neither, so for the time being the employer’s theft remains legal and justified. But that doesn’t make it ethical. African slavery was legal and accepted by many people because of the lies manufactured by the ruling class about biological and innate white superiority. Likewise, the ruling class manufactures lies about economic growth, employment and entrepreneurship to keep wage slavery legal. Indeed, it is not even regarded as slavery amongst most of us even though workers are forced by their need to be bribed by an employer to pay their bills, stay out of prison and off the streets.
I will leave you with Victor Burgin, who sums all this up eloquently in ‘Photographic Practice and Art Theory: Marx declared that the belief common to both factory owner and factory worker that labour may fairly be bought for wages is a mystification. The illusion conceals the fact that, as the value of a commodity depends on the labour invested in it, the owner is appropriating as profit what belongs by right to the labourer: profits are unpaid wages. When such a conception is embedded in the prevailing ideology, it will also be embodied in prevalent forms of language. It is common, for instance, to speak of people ‘making money’ out of speculation in stocks of currency. These people do not make money in any literal sense; that is the business of the Royal Mint. And neither do they create wealth, which is done by those engaged in productive labour. The expression ‘making money’ therefore presents as a mystification, as a sort of knack of conjuring money out of the air, the less utterable fact that wealth is again merely being appropriated.