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Discussion: Exploitation, Money and Class

The following piece is submitted by E Renyard as a contribution towards the development of our policy in this area.

Exploitation, Money and Class

We are named the Workers Party of Britain for one very simple reason, that workers constitute the vast majority of the British population. What is more, we hold that the working class produces almost all wealthand yet workers derive little of the wealth that they produce.

But, what makes a worker a worker?

The economic basis of civilisation as it currently stands in Britain is what we term capitalism. This system has come to dominate the globe in the last three centuries, having superseded the previous economic mode of feudalism that came before it, the epoch of the peasant and the lord, and before that the slave and the slave master.

Just as slave society had the slave master and feudalism had the lord, capitalism has the capitalist, the exploiter. The capitalist may be a factory owner, a shareholder or an investment banker, but regardless of the niche they hold economically they exist as a parasite. Their exuberant wealth and privilege rest on a single exchange that characterises the existence of the vast majority of human beings today: the extraction of surplus value.

This process is facilitated by a handful of means. The first is that the capitalist owns the means by which all things are produced, be it a mine and the equipment required, agriculture and means to plough and harvest or even the call centre or the coffee shop chain – the capitalist owns all of the means of production. But unlike the slave master the capitalist does not own the slave – instead the economic system compels the worker to sell their labour power to survive, to house themselves, to feed themselves, to clothe themselves etc.

As such, money therefore exists as a representation of labour value, for all things are made by labour. The capitalist must pay the worker enough to buy their necessities of existence so that they may continue to work, and those necessities are of course also in turn made by workers. So money is but the token of time labouring.

Very well, one might say, such is life. But we must take into account that the capitalist does not pay us to work, and we must work to survive, out of the kindness of their heart. The capitalist extracts surplus value.

Surplus value is the wealth created, the money generated, that is unpaid to the worker. A worker may be paid £100 a day, but may generate £200 a day, for example. In essence this means the worker has been paid half a days wealth for a full days work. The capitalist of course may pay rent, and upkeep and other costs. But even suppose £50 of the £100 extracted is lost to overheads (rent, upkeep etc.), if the capitalist employs one hundred workers at this rate they make £5,000 a day. By these numbers we can more easily understand how billionaires who employ thousands if not hundreds of thousands can attain their staggering heights. As such surplus value can be understood to be profit. This is the simple, if glib, basis for the exploitation of the working class. In this vein the state of the vast majority of people, who are exploited, can be termed as wage slaves.

This basis of the exploitation of labour plays host to numerous posited solutions, some state universal basic income is a solution, others hold modern monetary theory can halt all ills and other theories such as Keynesianism were the foundation for the Labour party’s thoroughly discredited track record.

But, if we are to accept the above formulation of the exploitation of the working class, on the basis of the extraction of surplus value. And further still, the inner basis that all wealth is generated by the labour of humankind. Then we must posit that the principle we must endeavour for is the right to work in the first instance, and secondly, the right to the full wealth of ones labour.

The former can theoretically be attained under capitalism, the latter cannot, as the latter implicitly accepts that in order for workers to not be exploited there must be no exploiter – this is the keystone of socialism. As for the former, the right to meaningful work is the right to a purpose. Civilisation, let alone humanity as a species, could not be attained or maintained without labour. Percy Bysshe Shelley said of labour in his notes to Queen Mab:

“There is no real wealth but the labour of man. Were the mountains of gold and the valleys of silver, the world would not be one grain of corn the richer; no one comfort would be added to the human race.”

To abandon the right of the worker to labour is to abandon entirely the field of battle of the working class against those who seize the wealth of their labour.

The right to work, to labour, in order to generate wealth and be paid is self evident in this context. But further to this are several other important factors. Chief amongst these is the social nature of labour. Few if any jobs exist in isolation – lighthouse keepers on isolated isles hardly abound – the mode of production therefore is social in spite of the means of production being privately owned. This highlights the social nature of the working class, and the contradiction between labour and capital. Workers do all, produce all, make all collectively and yet do not own the means by which they do this, despite having made and created the means of production themselves! Yet it is the very basis by which workers have organised for centuries.

The trade union is the means by which workers have organised since the 1800’s in order to improve their lot with respect to their conditions under capitalism. The trade union movement in organising workers in the workplace to improve their lot is the nucleus of working class organisation.

The trade union and the field of battle for better pay and workplace conditions, however, are limited in scope. In the first instance it is usually limited to bartering with single capitalists or single corporations. Secondly, the limits of struggling for better pay and conditions are a transitory; back and forth tug of war against the capitalists.

Workers must be brought into the political struggle for political demands. The political struggle can be of course waged locally, but when sufficiently developed struggle can place forth, fight for and win demands of the working class on the national level against the capitalist ruling class. Whilst these too can be transitory in nature they are far more useful in their breadth as well as depth. The workplace may win a pay raise for a hundred workers, the right to work may set to work a million unemployed workers and set a precedent that no able bodied worker should suffer the indignity of idleness and destitution.

A politicised class-conscious working class is one that understands better the interrelations of the economic base (capitalism) of society, and the political superstructure (government, education, media etc.) that maintain it. In simple terms, we workers must understand the game of the capitalist class in orderto beat it.

The well meaning but misguided advocates of universal basic income however would have workers under the reign of capitalism idle, disorganised and in a dire situation that if they step a foot out of line the taps could be turned off. UBI would gut the British working class of able-bodied workers and throw the unemployed into the scrap heap of penury – enough to survive, enough to entertain and buy cheap trinkets. They would debase the human condition to bread and circuses. What must be understood here is that a mass of unemployed, the reserve army of labour exist precisely to drive wages down. The threat of unemployment and paltry relief acts as a looming threat to the working class to accept worse wages and worse conditions, as it is a better lot than being on unemployment benefits. UBI would not change or relieve that dynamic; it soon would merely become the colloquial term for the dole.

Modern monetary theory by contrast proposes different approaches to economic management, primarily in addressing capitalist state management of the economy. In broad strokes it is modified Keynesianism and therefore is a capitalist critique of austerity. Within this lies the primary issue, the understanding of what money is.

We have conceived already that money is representative of labour power, but we must elaborate. As already stated, a worker must feed, clothe and house themselves with all the necessities of life – these themselves are produced by workers and must be obtained with a charge. A quantity of labour is spent in producing these necessities and therefore determines their value, and as such the necessities required of a worker determine the value of the labour power of a worker.

Money therefore is an embodiment of value, and that value is labour power, so as such, money is representative, abstractly, of labour. 

In contrast, the advocates of modern monetary theory advocate money is debt:

“What is money? All money exists as an IOU. It’s a debt. When we say, ‘I owe you,’ we mean two people are involved in every monetary relationship. The ‘I’ is the debtor. The ‘U’ is the creditor.” – Stephanie Kelton a professor of economics and MMT advocate

“Well, all money is debt.” Michael Hudson a professor of economics and MMT advocate

This is misleading explanation of what money is and ignores the fundamental fact that money is a universal equivalent and embodiment of value and therefore signifies labour. This explanation therefore bypasses the class nature of economics, it ignores the very basis of labour and exploitation.

Stephanie Kelton goes further:

“The money of account is something abstract, like a metre, a kilogram, a hectare. It’s not something you can touch or feel. It’s representational, something only a human could imagine.”

There are three problems here. Indeed, money is an abstract insomuch as it is a measurement of abstract labour. Secondly, measurement is representational of real material things, we may use a kilogram metal weight to weigh a kilogram of flour and it is thus scientifically quantifiable and therefore can be replicated. Thirdly, accepting money is an embodiment of value of socially necessary labour time, a universal equivalent of measurement and thus exchange is necessary – in shopping for groceries it is not stated the price of potatoes contain one hour of labour! Actually, we say they cost £2, and a large part of the price is determined by the labour that is necessary to produce the commodity.

Modern monetary theory, however, or at least some of its proponents like Michael Hudson do make many valid critiques of current finance capitalism. For example:

“So the new form of imperialism is essentially monetary and financial in character. It works via the American control of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which oblige other countries to focus their economies on helping the United States balance of payments, financing the US. military spending abroad, financing American takeovers, and being willing to balance their foreign exchange by privatizing and selling off their public infrastructure to American and foreign investors.”

But good analysis is not the same as good solutions. You cannot analyse a thing out of existence. The proponents of modern monetary theory advocate a revitalised form of social democracy, essentially running capitalism with the carrot rather than the stick. They advocate full employment, public healthcare and education but in doing so, as shown with their understanding of money, ignore the fundamental class nature of society. Therefore they advocate a better run form capitalism that turns away from austerity towards public spending.

This leaves us with two final comments.

The right to work can and must be differentiated from a capitalist policy of full employment. The right to work is a reform that must be fought for by the working class itself, the working class in organising for said reform will grow and organise from strength to strength. A working class that has grown from strength to strength to win this right is a working class that can hold on to that right. We well know that the capitalists will rescind all rights when they have the power to do so. No progressive policies are gifted, they are won, and they are transitory with respect to the relative waxing and waning power of the working class and the capitalist ruling class.

Lastly, the right to the full wealth of our labour is not accommodated by UBI, MMT or Labour party social democracy. These theories do not advocate socialism; they advocate a fleeting kinder capitalism. Socialism cannot and must not be understood to be a morally kinder capitalism, it must be understood to be the economic realisation of the end of exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class, and therefore, it is the capitalist class removed from economic ownership of the means of production.

Edward Renyard

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