Does hard work in our society “pay off?” Generally it does not. A recent study found that 63% of Americans do not have enough savings to cover an unexpected $500 expense. And between 2015 and 2017, the number of homeless Americans without nightly shelter increased by 10% according to the Associated Press.
The reason the majority of Americans are in very tough and tight situations is not because they are lazy. It is because of the way wages and work serve the interests of capitalists and not workers. A primary reason for our suffering is the form of exploitation that is practiced in our capitalist system.
In our society, capitalists who own the vast majority of wealth and machinery exploit workers. But what does exploitation mean? Marxists understand exploitation as the robbing of workers of the value they create. What do workers create? They create the commodities that are used by society—everything from cars to candy. They use their brains and muscles to produce the material that allows the society to function from one day to another. If workers stopped working for just one day, the society would be reduced to a state of chaos.
Capitalists sometimes claim that their basic motivation is to create commodities that can be enjoyed by the people of the world. We know better. They exist so that they can parasitically earn a profit off the people’s labor. The goods produced by a worker (called Bob in this article) are sold by capitalists to produce a profit.
Profit indicates that a capitalist is getting more from a finished product than he or she spent on all the inputs—including the machinery, parts, labor costs, and raw materials—that went into the product in the assembly period. What then is the source of this “profit?” Shouldn’t the “value” of a good be equal to the cost of its component parts?
Actually, the source of value for capitalists ultimately is their exploitation of workers. The more they can squeeze out of us in a given length of time, the more capital they can possess. This is the hidden source of value behind the money hoarded and redirected by capitalists around the world. This money really represents the millions of past hours of sweat and blood exerted in labor by workers for the sake of the capitalist.
If workers are not paid for their profit they create (which goes to the capitalist) then what are the wages that workers receive? While workers are told that wages are for the value they contribute to a business in a day’s work, wages are actually for the purpose of reproducing one’s labor power.
Reproducing one’s labor power may sound like a task a space alien or future robot may perform. But actually, it is not so glamorous. Reproducing one’s labor power means doing what one needs to do to show up to work the next day—by getting food, clothes, and shelter. Bosses also need to give us just enough enough to one day reasonably be able to have children, and to produce the next generation of workers. It generally won’t do for the capitalists to squeeze us workers out of existence. In that situation, the system would collapse.
However, capitalists aren’t eager to give workers anymore than they have to in order to allow this “cycle of life” to continue. This makes life very hard for workers to say the least. The wages workers receive have no direct connection with the amount of wealth they produce for the capitalist. Under our capitalist mode of production—the basic form of economic organization in a society—capitalists have the legal right and privilege to extract this wealth from workers without punishment.
Over time, Bob will likely produce even more wealth for the capitalist in a day’s work than before. This may be because of his increased ability, because of demands from supervisors, or because of improvements in the machinery that Bob works with.
However, the increasing productivity of workers like Bob does not result in his boss increasing his wages. In the United States, the productivity for workers has more than doubled since the 1970s, whereas hourly wages have not increased at all, when adjusted for inflation (the amount money is worth and can purchase). There is no direct connection between what we produce as workers, and what we receive. We are endlessly told that we are being paid for a day’s work. In reality, we are being paid simply to have just enough to go to work again. And the entire capitalist system is based on the premise that the fruits of our labor should go to the capitalist.
Under capitalism, the owners keep to themselves the vast majority of wealth created by labor. Only a revolution can overthrow them and have this wealth serve the people.
Say that Bob has been working at the same job since the 1990s. Bob’s productivity has doubled since the 1990s, while his real wages have remained the same. However, even if Bob’s wages had doubled since the 1990s, he still would be being exploited, and exploited badly. On a typical job, workers’ wages represent only a small percentage of the wealth that they create. Bob works for $10 an hour and produces $200 worth of goods each hour. If the combined cost of the factory, the raw materials, and other such things comes to $100 per hour, that means that Bob produces $100 in wealth every hour. However, instead of being paid $100 per hour, he only pockets $10 and the capitalist extracts the other $90 for himself.
This extracted wealth is called surplus value. This adds up pretty fast. If Bob works 8 hours per day, his boss is extracting $720 (8 hours x $90 of hourly surplus value) of wealth from Bob every day. Bob is left daily with only $80 ($10 x 8 hours on the job)—again just barely enough for his survival, and for the potential Bob Jr. who may come along down the line.
In the meantime, Bob’s bosses, like all capitalists in our system, have a good deal worked out for themselves. They can rob more and more from Bob by finding ways to get him to use “his” time more efficiently. They can do this by adding extra technology and machines that allow Bob to produce more things each hour. But of course they will not share the extra value produced with Bob. They will pocket it themselves. They can eliminate break times for Bob, thereby increasing the amount of value they are able to extract from him.
Pictured: How capitalists respond when working people just “ask nicely” for a raise.
There are many other tricks capitalists use to further exploit working people. They can ask or force Bob to work overtime. Even if Bob is paid time-and-a-half ($15 per hour) for the extra hours worked, he will not be being paid for the large amount of extra value created during this time for the capitalists. They would still pocket $85 for each hour of overtime. Capitalists see us as cash cows. The more they can keep us working, the better. They justify this by giving us the equivalent of animal feed—enough to get us to show up to be milked at the workplace the following day.
The capitalists can also ask Bob to leave work early without pay if there is not work for him to do. By doing so, they are making use of the misconception that we are being paid for the value we produce. By saying there is no more value to produce, they justify telling Bob to go home early, and paying him less for the day.
However, as we know now, there is no direct relationship between the value we produce as workers and what we are paid. We are being paid near the bare minimum to get us to show up to work and to recreate the conditions for our survival. So when the boss sends Bob home early, they really are cutting into Bob’s ability to survive as a worker. These and other common tactics forced on us by bosses should be resisted and protested by workers as a group.
Why We Can’t Settle for a Hand-Out
If Bob’s wages had “kept track” with productivity and doubled since the 1970s, he would be making $20 an hour. However, his boss would still be taking home the lion share of wealth in that case, still, $1440 of surplus value each day (8 hours x $180 of surplus value), compared to $160 for Bob. From the perspective of revolutionaries, this wage increase could be a step forward, but only if it is a step on the road towards the overthrow of Bob’s boss, and the overthrow of all capitalists. Only in this way can the wealth that workers produce be shared by all the working people, and not extracted for the sake of the bloodsucking ruling class.
The reality is that the ruling class is willing to share some of its profits if this means gaining a greater stranglehold over workers. Given this, we need guard against attempts to buy us off with a few crumbs. Isn’t sharing contrary to the world view of the ruling class? Won’t they fight tooth and nail to not lose hold of any of their capital? On one hand, they will.
However capitalists are even more desperate to maintain their position as capitalists and to keep us workers “in our place.” In order to keep this whole system going, this system for exploiting workers must remain the rule of the land. If workers start to realize they are being exploited, and are only making cents for every dollar of value that they create, the control the capitalists have over us starts to weaken. People will be more likely to rise up, and demand an end to this murderous system.
The best way for the capitalists to prevent this is to keep workers divided. If workers start to organize, management will (and often has) tried to “throw them a bone” or a few crumbs from their pockets. Even if this means a $10 an hour increase, for Bob, this is money well spent by bosses if it keeps Bob and other workers from talking. Talking about what? Talking about the hundreds of dollars of wealth extracted every hour by the capitalist from their hands. Or talking about the similarity of Bob’s situation with that of most other workers in the country, and even in the world. When people realize the common nature of their exploitation, they can see the potential and the need to struggle together.
With every measly hand-out used to buy us off in a struggle, capitalists will try their hardest to convince us that the hand-out means that “management is fair” and that there is “nothing to talk about.” However, there is no such thing as a fairness under capitalism. In a system built on the sweat and blood of exploitation, the only fair response is struggle to completely overthrow the capitalist class.
We are going to leave the example of working conditions under capitalism now to take a look at where this system could go after a revolution.
Capitalists are well aware that workers thinking at work is very dangerous.
How Work Changes in a Revolutionary Society
After a revolutionary struggle eventually overthrows the U.S. capitalist class, the people will be able to establish a system of socialism—a transitory system between capitalism and the classless society known as communism. Communism is a society where capitalists, capitalist exploitation, and related forms of oppression no longer exist. Under communism there will be no classes, no poor people forced to labor for the profit of the rich; instead people will work together for the common good of all of humanity.
Under socialism, as part of the transition to communism, capitalist forms of exploitation will be methodically abolished. Instead, workers will democratically decide how to run stores, factories, and society at large. They will be able to decide how the fruit of their collective labor can best be used for the people as opposed to serving an exploiting capitalist class.
With socialism the exploitation of man by man will become prohibited by society, as opposed to capitalism, where it is upheld as the central principle of society. Under capitalism, the massive accumulation of wealth by capitalist tycoons—at the expense of the vast majority of humanity—is often celebrated as the highest goal in life, whereas in socialism the focus is on the development of society to serve the needs of the people, instead of the narrow interests of a handful of capitalists.
At first, under socialism, it is likely that people will receive compensation for the amount of time they work. They will likely receive a share of the wealth they produced during the period of time worked. This is opposed to under capitalism where workers are paid merely enough to return to work the next day, and where capitalists earn income by doing nothing spare being the official “owner” or “managers” of capital.
During the Cultural Revolution in China workers from a generator factory take time out of the work day to study revolutionary theory and discuss ideas collectively.
Over time, the society will emphasize a central principle of communism—that people will contribute to the society the abilities that they have, and will receive from the society what they need. This is expressed in the communist slogan “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.”
Aspects of both of these principles—of receiving a share of goods produced based on time worked, and the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” were practiced to varying degrees during the revolutionary society in China (from 1949 until 1976), and the Soviet Union (from 1917 until about 1953), before the revolutionary states were overthrown by pro-capitalist counter-revolutionaries.
Before being overthrown, the economic transformations in revolutionary societies had enormous implications for how society was organized. Because capitalists were no longer able to squeeze workers at the work place, working people could plan the way they used their time. While in our system, tremendous energy is devoted to keeping working people in line and “on task”—to produce value for capitalists—in a socialist society the working people instead decide what it makes sense to spend time on. They could, and in revolutionary societies did, decide that society has too much of certain commodities, and needs more of something else. In addition, they could decide that rather than producing things, work is needed to help mobilize struggles in society to further wipe out capitalist practices and related capitalist ideas.
These decisions would not be individual decisions made on a whim, but rather the result of collective discussions and debates between groups of people about the best ways to advance the larger struggle. This sort of society can only exist in a true people’s democracy, as opposed to our fake democracy, where we only have the “right” to vote for one of a handful of representatives of the rich, known as politicians.
Wouldn’t such a society suffer from tremendous shortages if people had all this freedom? Actually, in our current society, there is more than enough wealth in the world for everyone to eat their fill and to have shelter. However, many go hungry and homeless because the wealth of the society is not owned by the people but by a handful of capitalists. If working people had control of society, they would work by the principle of cooperation rather than exploitation. A lot more would be produced by and shared with the people than in our capitalist present.
Miners in revolutionary China take a break from work to study revolutionary theory and history.
In our society, the principle of competition is dominant even in finding work. Capitalists make us workers compete with one another to get basic jobs. We know if we don’t “win” such competitions, we could become unemployed or even homeless. Hence in capitalist society the “privilege” to be employed requires that others be “unemployed”—otherwise being employed wouldn’t be a “privilege.” Historically, capitalism has always required a large unemployed population to function. This allows bosses to keep wages low, and allows them to start and end businesses without having to worry where new workers will come from, or where their workers will go after being laid off. In a socialist society in contrast, employment for everyone is a basic principle.
In addition, a socialist and communist system would be far more productive. Have you ever worked at a job where the boss didn’t let you do a simple task, not because you did not know how to do it, but because he or she didn’t “trust” you to do it? U.S. workplaces are full of such examples.
The way we work is designed to maintain the position of authority of various supervisors on one hand, but ultimately, to maintain the authority of the boss to pocket the profits we produce. Supervisors are generally the loyal administrators for the bosses and work to keep things “in line.” They make sure that workers are doing the work in a profitable way, discipline those who step out of line, and are always on the lookout for those who are questioning the status-quo and the injustice of the system of capitalist exploitation.
Our system demands that workers efficiently create commodities. It also demands that the ruling class control and possess the value we create. These two demands often contradict one another. When they do, they system generally always does what is “safer” for ownership, even if this results in less productivity. For instance, it generally would be far more efficient if workplaces allowed workers full freedom to discuss how to work together more efficiently and make changes to the way production is carried out. This could allow the capitalist to earn more profit.
Amazon factories are typical examples of capitalist workplaces, which are designed to maximize profit and supervision of workers.
However, capitalists are afraid if workers are given too loose of a leash, that they will also talk about the unfairness of their wages, and of the larger system of exploitation altogether. They would likely start to organize together for their interests. Rather than risking this possibility, capitalists would rather give workers very little control in their businesses. The purpose of the capitalist system is to create capital for capitalists, at the expense of the lives of the workers. In our system, we give capitalists our time. Revolutionaries declare that the people must “seize the time”—all time, not just that at the workplace which we cannot “seize” right away—and make use of it to organize the struggle to create a better world.
After overthrowing capitalist classes in the past, workers literally “seized the time.” In revolutionary China for example, in the 1960s workers stopped “clocking in and out” when arriving and departing factories in Shanghai. Rather than concentrating their efforts on discipline, they decided that people could trust one another on such matters. After-all, people were showing up to work not to produce wealth for capitalists, but instead to contribute to their own society, to the struggle to further eliminate oppression and exploitation, and to support revolutionary struggles internationally.
These aims were in the interests of the people themselves, so they could be trusted to do their part at work. So rather than focusing on clocking in—and other forms of supervision which are necessary under capitalism where working people have to be coerced into working to make the capitalists wealthier—they focused on how to improve the operation of the factories themselves. They had mass meetings to decide different ways to organize their factories, and how to cooperate with other factories.
A poster from the revolutionary period in China calling for workers of the world to unite. During this period the Chinese people worked tirelessly to support revolutionaries around the world.
When administrators misunderstood their conditions, rather than the administrators blaming the workers, the workers criticized the administrators through the use of posters and meetings. They demanded that the administrators work alongside them. The administrators generally agreed. These administrators were not like managers in capitalist society. In socialist society, the economy was run for the interests of the common people. As a result the administrators were expected to serve the people, and they could be criticized or replaced by the people if necessary.
Even before overthrowing the capitalists, we must seize the time to organize the people, rather than waiting to retire, or waiting forever until the system is ready to “hear us out.” It is for these reasons that “seize the time” was a popular slogan used by the Black Panthers. The History of Exploitation in Class Society
Capitalist exploitation is not the only form of exploitation that has existed in human society. It is one of several modes of production that has existed in class society. Previously societies existed based around slave and also feudal exploitation. However, importantly, human society existed for thousands and thousands of years before the rise of class society. During this time people lived in small communities where there was no ruling class, and where there was relative equality between all people.
As Marx’s comrade Engels said, since the rise of class society, “every step forward is also relatively a step backward, in which prosperity and development for some is won through the misery and frustration of others.” Under capitalism however, workers work closely with one another, and huge surpluses are produced compared to previous periods of human history. As a result, with the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist class, we will be able to forge a society which truly serves the needs of the people rather than the exploiters. Exploitation, which has existed since the rise of class society, needs to be thrown out for good. The revolutionary struggle needed to take out this trash will be hard work. However it is work that truly will “pay off.”