indirect slavery, the slavery of proletariat

Letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov,

All official and liberal science defends wage-slavery, whereas Marxism has declared relentless war on that slavery


You hear the term "wage slavery" used quite a bit in Marxism.

  • how does Marx show that capitalism is a kind of slavery?

Clearly there are overlaps in that the poor are legally obliged to work if they are to have minimum income, and in the profit extracted from workers. Obviously there are less pleasing dis-analogies, in the unavoidable barbarism of the slave trade.

Am I missing anything more esoteric which appears in the literature?

  • People are not required by the SE system to explain their downvotes... but looking at the question, I don't see how it's answerable. What other than our own opinions would we use to determine the cogency of this metaphor?
    – virmaior
    Jul 19 '16 at 22:37
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    I'm kind of lost as to how any of your comments answer What other than our own opinions would we use to determine the cogency of this metaphor? Explain?
    – virmaior
    Jul 19 '16 at 22:43
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    Most books on marxism (in my experience) are written by either anti-communist conspiracy theorists or marxists themselves. The former think everything marxism says is BS; the latter everything is gospel truth. So the former thinks it's not cogent; the latter that it's deeply and massively cogent.
    – virmaior
    Jul 19 '16 at 22:51
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    and both camps probably include philosophers @virmaior
    – user6917
    Jul 19 '16 at 22:55
  • (1) For the most part, actually neither camp has that many philosophers in it. (2) Even if it were true, that still doesn't make the question answerable in an SE format. We can't for instance answer Does God exist? in this format, though nearly all contemporary philosophers have an opinion on this (somewhere upwards of 70% of philosophers say no).
    – virmaior
    Jul 19 '16 at 23:15

A capitalist society is based on the systemic exchange of commodities. In this system, the application of labour to materials is itself a commodity; so workers are paid (a "wage") "for their labour". Otherwise they would be unable to buy commodities, and the system would not be based on systemic exchange of commodities.

But there must be some mistake in that. If I sell a ton of apples, this operation cannot create value, and will only transfer value if it is a lopsided purchase. If the apples are sold at their value, neither buyier nor seller will gain anything. Of course, in real practice, purchases are often made above or below the value of commodities; but this cannot be the rule, or the systemic exchange of commodities won't endure. Which means, as a whole, as a system, those deviations from value must cancel each others.

But how does it happen, then, that a profit is made in the apple trade?

That's because the producers of apples do not, in a capitalist society, sell apples. Instead, they sell their ability to work - what is called "labour power". But "labour power" is a different commodity from apples, and it has a different value. So there is a quid pro quo here: the company producing apples buys one commodity - the labour power of its workers (and it buys it, in normal conditions, at its full value) - but the end result of the operation is that it has now a stock, not of labour power, but of apples. If the value of apples is bigger than the value of the labour power implied in their production, then you have a systemic transfer of value - from workers to employers - that does not violate the conditions for a sustained system of commodity production.

(As it is easy to realise, if the value of the labour power implied in the production of a commodity is not smaller than the value of that commodity, then the production of that given commodity is impossible under capitalist conditions, or, in other words, if it is produced, it must be produced as a non-commodity.)

Evidently, all this is possible because labour creates value; in labouring, human beings create more than they expend.

But that is what Marx and Marxists call "wage slavery": the systemic transfer of value, from workers to employers, that keeps workers' economic earnings always close to the socially acceptable subsistence minimum.

  • "subsistence" and "transfer of value"; that's a neat reply. thanks
    – user6917
    Aug 1 '16 at 17:00
  • the second term doesn't quite seem like marx's, is there a specific phrase he uses? the mechanism which underlies 'surplus value': perhaps just 'commodification of labour'?
    – user6917
    Aug 1 '16 at 17:08
  • @MATHEMETICIAN - It is also ambiguous, as it refers to, a. the value that is transfered from constant capital to final products (and it is in this sense that it is used by Marx), and, b. the value that is transfered from one economic agent to another, whenever we have a lopsided purchase. Aug 19 '16 at 12:47

Capitalism is a natural progression (and possibly evolution) from the feudal system of Guild-master/apprentice to factory based, unskilled laborers which require no specific status or knowledge to operate and complete tasks. This evolution moves the slaver from Guild-master to, now called, owner, or what he calls, bourgeoisie (which is directly associated with the capitalist business owner). This is a mere structure change, but now there isn't a necessity to have ownership or castes. He hypothesised that a rise and revolt of the slave working class (slave to the "wage"), or proletariat, against the bourgeoisie due to the realization that they lacked purpose within society (due to the fact that all labors were being conducted by the proletariat, or working-man).

  • I'd add that 'capitalism' is a meaningless distinction between the two phases. Instead it's more accurate to say that human societies have always been capitalistic in one way or another. People in the 21st century who decry 'capitalism' as an intentional phenomenon don't understand human nature. Marx probably represented a striving against the current power structure as is only natural in the evolution of any society. Whoever you're talking about, groups, individuals, whatever, they're probably trying to gain more power. Jul 22 '16 at 14:59
  • @CanadianCoder Marx is specifically addressing industrialization, which in the late 1800s was quickly spreading. Prior to industrialization it was necessary for a person to learn a "trade" as an apprentice. He talks about other forms of capitalism, and this "slavery" always existed, but the freedom from it only existed in an industrial nation. Jul 22 '16 at 15:24
  • well, capitalism specifically references post-industrial revolution, "capitalism", as you call it, was referenced as feudalism. (Just to clarify) Jul 24 '16 at 16:38
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    @CanadianCoder You can of course use words as you wish. But if we are referencing Marxist theory, then we need to use words as Marx did, and he certainly didn't think of the distinction as meaningless. To Marx, capitalism begins when capital acquires control of the process of production. As production in feudal societies was not controlled by capital, they were not capitalist societies. (Evidently, if we define capitalism otherwise, such as "capitalism = evil" or "capitalism = social inequality" then the disctinction may not apply. But then we are definitely not talking about Marx or Marxism.) Aug 1 '16 at 15:06
  • @LuísHenrique good response. Aug 1 '16 at 15:13

I take it that wage-slavery is a polemical term, particularly, if as you do, one compares it to the actual 'barbarism' of real slavery, and which until recently was a real historical phenomenon.

Arendt points out that in the Greek polis a citizen accounted himself free if he did not bear the burden of labour, for which he had his slaves. If, however, every man is free in this sense then who is to carry out the labour of labouring? For this, men will have to come together to decide how to bear the burden amongst themselves. It seems a little hard to call that which is neccessary a form of slavery.

For Hegel, this is the construction of civil society; then every man who is free in himself will have to find himself through these very real limits.

Arendt, going on from Marx, points out that the labouring classes have been freed, but there has been no emancipation from labour itself. This she calls the only 'utopian' element in Marxs work, and she speculates that automation may eventually emancipate men in their plurality from this burden; though she doesn't consider that this will emancipate men from themselves; on the contrary, she supposes accelerating technology may amplify desire so that men become mere appendages to an environment made by machines.

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