Labor aristocracy

Jose G. Perez jgperez at
Sat Feb 8 10:17:39 MST 2003

I think there is a lot of confusion in this discussion on the distinction
between surplus value, on the one hand, and profit, on the other; and on the
relation between these categories and both wages and the value of labor

Some of this is due to the simplifying assumptions used in the initial
chapters of capital and other popularizations of marxist economics, where
surplus value, which is where profits come from, and profits themselves tend
to be equated. That's fine for pedagogical purposes, but not for trying to
work out complex real-world economic analysis.

Surplus value is NOT something that it makes a great deal of sense to talk
about in terms of an individual, concrete worker or the workers of a given
firm using that rudimentary level of analysis.

Understanding why is fairly easy by applying the Marxist analysis of where
value comes from to the commodity "labor power" (the capacity to work),
which is what the bourgeoisie buy from the workers. In general the price of
labor power (wages) --like any other commodity-- is the price of the
"socially necessary" amount of labor times it takes to produce the commodity
"labor power" in that given society.

What is considered neccesary depends on the specific society and also, as
one moves to a less abstract level of analysis, the kind of labor power.

Engels's comments circa 1890 about how the labor aristocracy of Britain is
understandable to a certain extent given England's position in the world
markets and so on are very important. He doesn't this Brits are getting paid
more than they are worth; he's saying that given Britain's privileged world
position, it was possible for the value of labor power to rise there. It is
not a question of British workers being paid more than the value their labor
imparts to commodities, it is a question of the value of the commodity labor
power in that society.

Similarly for relative privilege *within* any given country's working class.
Labor that requires more than average training is called by Marx, if I
remember right, complex human labor. Each hour of an engineer's labor costs
more because you have to pay, not just for this hour of her time, but for
some proportional part of the time she spent training, the time teachers and
others spent teaching her, the time spent creating the books she studied,
down to some fraction of the labor time it cost to build the building of the
university where the engineer was trained.

There are different ways you could do this analysis of complex labor in
Marxist terms; this one is quite simplistic, but it should suffice to
illustrate that there is no need to posit that something untoward is going
on here that requires a fairly broad and sweeping revision of Marxist
economics, overthrowing to all intents and purposes the labor theory of
value by carving out an exception to the idea that the price of a commodity
fluctuates around its economic value which in turn is determined by the
socially necessary amount of labor time it takes to produce that commodity.

There are in addition other factors that impact the labor market and, in a
sense, "distort" it, union, craft and guild organization being one of them.
Thus certain "professions" band together and consciously seek to restrict
the availability of labor of a given type, such as, say, doctors or nurses.
Craft unions seek the same effect. All these sorts of things average out in
the economy which is why It isn't exactly true to say that labor power (or
any other commodity) is sold at its value, but rather that the price
fluctuates around its value.

Because if you say that some significant stratum of the working class is
paid, not for the value of its labor power, but rather receives an extra
payment consisting of some sort of rent that come out of surplus value, then
you'd have to say that this stratum is not really part of the proletariat
properly speaking, they are a new pettite-bourgeois layer whose income
derives partly from selling its own labor power and partly from the
exploitation of other workers. Many "third worldist" currents in the 1970's
and later toyed with these sorts of ideas but I don't think they ever made
the case stick.

For classical Marxism, when you move down to very specific cases, as opposed
to illustrating the general laws of economic motion of capitalism, the
amount a given worker is paid is unrelated in any immediate sense to the
amount of value that their labor imparts to the commodities they produce.

Indeed, that is the very heart of the Marxist understanding of exploitation
under capitalism, the DISconnect between the value of one hour of labor
power, on the one hand, and the value one hour of labor power produces. The
bourgeois buys one thing --one hour of labor power-- and winds up with
something else entirely --the products of one hour of labor time-- which, on
average, for the capitalist economy as a whole, is worth decidedly MORE.
That "more" is, of course, "surplus value."

However, when you abandon the terrain of the most general view of the system
as a whole, and get down to cases, you find that surplus value is
distributed in the economy through complex mechanisms, and it goes to fund
all rents, profits and all sorts of other activities, too. In particular,
although in beginning to understand Marxist economics, the simplifying
assumption that surplus value=profits at a given enterprise is useful, it is
no good when you turn to analyzing the operations of many capitalist firms
competing with each other in the real world.

This means that trying to figure out whether that one hour's worth of value
in dollar terms is more or less than the one hour's wages isn't very useful.
The distribution of surplus value in the economy is extremely complicated;
depending on how you draw certain lines, many or perhaps even most working
people can be classified as not producers surplus value because they are not
directly invovled in the production of commodities. And roughly speaking,
all administrative, scientific, engineering, marketing, supervisory,
distribution and other personnel of an enterprise is paid out of surplus
value, and (if you use the simplifying, pedagogical assumption) take part of
the value created by the production workers, strictly speaking.

For example, the (typically) immigrant women that clean the toilets at some
high-tech firm can very legitimately under a Marxist analysis be considered
non-value producing. This doesn't mean that they are "exploiting" the much
more highly paid technicians and engineers directly involved in the
production process of the given firm. On the contrary it is quite likely
that these ladies are the ones being super-exploited (paid less than the
value of "simple" labor power in the U.S. economy).

More generally, it can be argued in entirely orthodox marxist economic terms
that, for example, all teachers, scientific researchers, health care
personnel, social workers, functionaries of unions and all other
organizations of the working class and the oppressed, all government
employees generally, certainly all members of the armed forces, etc. etc.
etc. don't add a single scrap of value or surplus value to the economy
because they do not produce commodities.

And if we say that if a worker is paid out of surplus value, rather than
receiving (on average) the value of his/her labor power, and that this is
tantamount to sharing in the exploitaiton of other workers, and it is the
root cause of the conservatism of the labor aristocracy, then logically we'd
have to apply this analysis in all sorts of directions.

For example, it would logically follow that we must oppose the unions and
all other organizations of working people having full-time staff, as such
staffers, clearly, are paid from value created by others. All soldiers must
be properly considered mercenary goons of the bourgeoisie, not members of
the working class. The results are rather far-reaching and attack the very
center of Marxism as a political movement, which rests on the idea that the
fundamental interests of all workers are the same in the final analysis
because they are all simply sellers of labor power in the capitalist

Trying to base an analysis of the labor aristocracy on ideas like that (at
least part of) the wages privileged workers  receive do not represent the
operation of the law of value in the market for labor power, but are rather
a rent paid from the surplus value produced by other workers and so on is
not Marxist.

It starts taking you down the road to Lasallean concepts like that workers
should receive the "full product" of their labor, to which Marx and Engels
were unalterably opposed because, at bottom, it undermines the scientific
basis for the unity of interests of the working class. It turns each group
of workers at a given factory into collective would-be small proprietors of
the "full product" of their labor, i.e., the commodities produced. This
turns the objective of the movement from abolition of bourgeois property
into generalization of one of the forms of bourgeois property (the coop).

How real and practical is the idea that workers can negate bourgeois
exploitation through these sorts of coop-type schemes can be judged from the
case of United Airlines, or by simply looking at your 401K statement (if you
still have a 401K plan).

Concretely, in the United States, quite a few leaderships of left groups
have ruined formations that were quite promising in some ways by adopting
this kind of analysis or making similar mistakes in trying to derive
political strategies and orientations from simplistic economic analysis.

How many of us have seen groups that headed off into the factories spouting
all sorts of nonsense about surplus value producing workers and the ruling
class offensive and this means the bourgeoisie has no choice but to do this
and that and the other, trying to suck all sorts of tactics and predictions
from a very superficial economic analysis? How many of those groups were
never heard from again, for practical purposes, becoming the kinds of
ossified sects that go around boycotting antiwar demonstrations because only
the revolutionary overthrow of the ruling class can stop war, or
disappearing alltogether?


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