This is a chapter from the book:
Work and Wealth (2nd revised edition)

I. The purpose of work in a market economy: Money for those who have to work and those who have others work

In a market economy, work is not done to provide people with all the various useful goods they need — with material wealth — but to earn money. This economic objective of acquiring property in the form of money is something that the members of bourgeois society agree on across all classes and social ranks. For it applies indiscriminately to everyone that the satisfaction of one’s needs does not depend solely on useful things being there, but rather on whether one has a title to them, a right to exclude others from them — property. It is as property that the needed products of labor come about, as objects of a private power of disposal that are initially withheld from those in material need of them.

That is why the economic fate of the members of this egalitarian moneymaking society is decided by whether they already have money or first have to earn some. Those who have to work in order to acquire some property because the material wealth of society already belongs to others need somebody who has money to pay them for their labor. And they are consequently confronted with the fact that their work is a very limited means to get hold of well-deserved money of their own. It can only serve them this way if it proves itself as a means for their employer — for his identical goal. So those who work for money serve property doubly: their own and somebody else’s. And vice versa, those in a market economy who have enough money are in a position to provide a money income to others and at the same time to augment their own property through the labor services they buy.

In its unshakable egalitarianism, the market economy counts both sides among its “gainfully employed.” Yet everyone is clear about how differently labor performs for those who employ it and those employed to do it. It creates property to increase that which already exists. For the worker it provides money that will never make him a property owner in any real sense. When work is done for money, it is not money that serves work as a useful expedient, but work that serves money as its source. Hence what becomes of work in a market economy is exclusively determined by the use that property acting as capital makes of it.

1. Equating benefit with property: The private power of money as the principle of society’s division of labor

If the economic life of nations were all about people providing for themselves optimally with minimal effort, then their needs would be ascertained and an expedient division of labor organized for supplying the necessary and desired goods. The only economic problems would be how to organize work, what technology to use, and how to transport goods smoothly. Intelligent people, who in the prevailing market economy have to plan and carry out the most absurd and complicated “production and sales strategies,” would merely have to answer the comparatively simple question of how to produce wealth for society in a people-friendly way and make it available to everyone. Nobody would make a problem out of whether it “could actually be done” because the purpose set by society would be the answer.[1]

Things are different in a market economy — where, incidentally, nobody asks if it is actually feasible, much less expresses any doubts about the purpose prevailing in society just because what everyone is after totally fails to materialize for a good many people. A market economy is about making money, as much as possible. This goal unites all members of bourgeois society. Low-income and high-income earners, small businessmen and trade unionists, capitalists and civil servants all agree and take it for granted that the reason for working, running a business, producing a good or providing a service is to get a wage, a return, a professional fee, a salary — in short, money.[2] What they then get with their money is strictly up to them. After all, money provides them with a portion of real freedom; it opens up the inexhaustible world of commodities to them. That is the good side, what everyone likes about making money.

The other side of course becomes apparent very quickly to wage earners, at least the vast majority of them. Once that sum of money is used up, the wealth of society closes up to them again. The goods they desire or need are still there; they just cannot be had. Money grants the possibility of satisfying all needs but this is quite distinct from the real satisfaction of even a single one of them.

This difference involves a quantitative aspect and a principle. The sum of money available is limited, so that all problems boil down to just one: earning more money. What this all-dominant necessity of life in a market economy shows is the unfortunate peculiarity of this mode of production. All the produced goods that a person needs have been produced but this does not mean they are available; they belong to someone. Ownership separates products from those who need them. That is in fact the reason why they are produced in the first place: to belong to businessmen who themselves do not need them or intend to consume them, and to be withheld from those who do need them. For that is the only way to achieve across the board the economic operation the market economy is named for: money has to change owners for a commodity to reach someone who needs it. This was not thought up by anybody, as a clever method for distributing goods, say. It is the other way round: whatever is produced is already property. The useful item is allocated to one private person’s power of disposal to the exclusion of others. This is a power of disposal that is not out to hang on to its object but rather to separate from it and become an abstract power to get hold of any wealth. It is to become a pure private power with money as its concrete form and its quantitatively measured reality. That is why a produced object cannot be “distributed” to those who need it in any other way than by sale. Only then is the purpose of its production actually realized, even though the product itself has long been finished. The material form of the product is not what matters, it is only a means to an end. What has actually been produced in this form is the money it is supposed to realize: what the thing is worth to its owner. That is why the production of goods is not enough to take care of things; it does not make society richer in means of production and consumption, and contented. Instead, it establishes the general necessity to earn money, any way one can, in order to be able to acquire the things that have been produced: they cannot be used without being bought.

Those living in a market economy are so familiar with all this, and all economic considerations are so dominated by the interest in making as much as possible on everything that can be sold on the one hand, and paying as little as possible for what one needs on the other hand, that no thought is wasted on the peculiarity of this relationship and the reason for it. So it should be expressly mentioned that property designates a legal relation, it means a thing is lawfully ascribed to someone as belonging to him. State power defines everyone as an owner of private property, thereby establishing a relation between the wills of legal persons with respect to objects of all kinds. It mandates and grants a person’s exclusive power of disposal over what is his own. This turns all labor into private labor, giving the producer the exclusive right of disposal over the product of his labor.[3]

In the market economy, this legal relation is the decisive economic feature of all products. It is not something the public power adds on to assure the producer that he has material use of his products, but the thing that matters. What are produced are needed goods as articles of exchange. That means, what matters about them is that the right of disposal they contain separates from the produced and thus ‘owned’ object and becomes an independent right to get hold of a certain quantity of any other product. This actual economic purpose of the product is attached to it as its price; the purpose is realized in the corresponding monetary proceeds. The property coming about upon production of a commodity is represented by this sum of money, separate from the commodity and according to the money’s units of measurement. And solely this private power of appropriation as such that is embodied in money is what commodities are produced for. In the market economy, money is the true economic product of human labor.

The amount of this disposal power embodied in money is not laid down as a binding rule by anyone, in this world of private property and production for the purpose of selling. It results from the competition of suppliers and prospective buyers, which will be discussed in detail later. What matters at this point is that the property brought about in material form is transformed on the market, through the act of sale, into a general power to get hold of things and quantified in monetary units.

Productive work itself is thus economically defined as a source of wealth having the abstract form of such a power measured and objectified in money. It counts as work in general in a totally abstract way, without any material relation to its product — as a gainful activity, which only provides access to needed use-values through the money it earns. Property fundamentally and radically tears apart the means-to-ends relationship between producing wealth and having disposal over the useful goods produced, on the one hand, and between the useful goods and the use of them, on the other. Money imposes itself on both labor and consumption as the determining quantity, thereby thoroughly redefining the benefit of each one. First, it separates productive labor from its beneficial result in the form of the means of production and of livelihood, and defines itself as the actual benefit of all work: work takes place in order to make money. Secondly, property separates benefit from need, by putting itself between useful goods and their use. It thus makes itself the quintessence of all benefit. For nothing can be used without the power, quantified in money, to appropriate others’ property through purchase. Today, this is taken for granted as the very basis of economic rationality.

Equating benefit with property imposes a peculiar logic on the economic activities of a society subsumed under such an equation. This logic relates, firstly, to the hierarchy of needs, which results from the private possession of money deciding which needs are satisfied. Formally it is all up to private preference. There are limits to the property one has acquired, of course, but how one manages one’s needs is a private matter.[4] Materially, though, every need becomes a dependent variable of one’s private buying power, and, as long as this economic system endures, there are always varying degrees of “poverty right next to wealth” to be amazed at. The logic applies, secondly, to what is called the “social division of labor.” There is no doubt that production in a market economy is “social”; the goods produced are not intended for supplying oneself but rather for sale and thus for the general public’s needs. But the necessary connection between the various branches of production is not based on the material way they relate to each other as socially divided labor, but results from the negative way private property owners relate to each other, refusing to plan any cooperation but needing each other as paying customers. Thus, the necessary connection is provided by the private power of money. When this power has been in action thoroughly enough, the result actually looks like a most practical interplay of productive market participants.[5]

Thirdly, the moneymaking purpose of all market-economy activity leads to a fairly absurd relation to work. In this kind of economy, work does not rank as the bother that it is and will always be, as effort that one tries to reduce as far as possible, but becomes an end in itself. For it creates property to the extent that it takes place and its product brings in money. Its benefit is not measured by the useful product it brings about, but by the money earned, and thus, at all levels of income, by the amount of labor. It if were a matter of creating real wealth that was available to everyone, a society with a consistently organized division of labor would be done at some point — actually pretty fast given the level of the productive forces that has been reached for some time. Gainful employment, on the other hand, never stops: the interest in it taking place is insatiable.[6] The “aspect” that is virtually unavoidable for the people who have to do the producing — that it wears them down and costs them living time — plays no role in the logic of moneymaking. This is a first indication that these people are in any case not the beneficiaries of the market economy and that it is not to please them that property is the purpose of work.

Consequently, the generally binding equation of benefit and property works out generally and bindingly only in the negative sense that all benefit depends on the property one has acquired. For it to work out in a positive sense, for acquired property to guarantee real benefit, the quantity of available private assets must attain a very specific quality.

2. The two sides of gainful employment: Applying one’s own labor to create others’ property — Applying others’ labor to increase one’s own property

When people work to earn money; when the productive activities that create society’s wealth have really nothing to do with their products because the only product that is relevant anywhere is moneymaking; when this purpose is so firmly taken for granted that, conversely, any activity that makes money is called “work” — everyone knows that government ministers, artists, and stockbrokers go “to work” just like anyone who has taken up the occupation of “worker” — and nobody wants to see any fundamental differences; then there is only one difference that matters: whether someone already has money or not.

In a world where all useful goods are somebody’s property, someone without such property cannot even get to work on his own and procure some of it, for he lacks the necessary means to do so; these are property too. In order to survive benefit being equated with property, he needs a property owner who has means of production and will pay him to make himself useful by operating them — useful to the owner, of course; why else should he pay money? After all, he’s out to make money, too, not to give it away. Someone lacking property and reliant on gainful employment has to serve this owner’s interest in order to be able to earn money for himself. He must apply his work to create property for his employer over and above what the latter already has, in order to get paid himself from the owner’s assets. This does not in the least alter the worker’s purely private purpose of getting money for himself; it only shows what it means to earn one’s own money without already having enough of it. Work then becomes a double source of money: it becomes a source of wages for the person performing it on condition that he enrich the other, better-endowed side that has money and puts others to work. These two services of work are therefore not exactly equivalent: for people who want to take part in a market economy without having any property, working is the sole means of making money that they have; but, strictly speaking, it is not their means at all. It only becomes their means if, and as long as, a business owner sees fit to use it for himself, as his means of making money. Workers produce property, which is somebody else’s (so much for the Latin etymology of the word, proprius, “one's own”). And vice versa. Whoever has enough property at his disposal can turn it into his means of making money by investing it in a factory and providing an income to people who need one — in return for them working in it and producing things to sell; commodities that by ownership rights belong to him and that, once sold, increase his financial assets. By using their property this way, property owners earn money without having to create it themselves: they have others produce property, which is their own. So the equation of property and benefit works out for enterprising property owners. When used properly, property proves itself as a sufficient means for increasing itself through others’ work, that is, as a relation of production: it functions as capital.

The people doing the work likewise have what they wanted and need: their own money in their hands. The snag is that this kind of property is a rather fleeting affair due to its smallness. No sooner has it been earned than it must be spent in order to procure the necessities of life — thereby basically flowing back to capitalist businessmen who are realizing the value of their commodities in money. So the way wage earners take part in the production process, they are forever reproducing the starting point: the lack of property that compels them to peddle themselves for increasing others’ property again. For workers, then, property remains a merely negative condition for their benefit, which they must submit to in order to be able to live. And by submitting to this condition, they reproduce and increase the wealth that gives others the power of control over their labor.

It is of some importance to note that it is one and the same capitalist equation of money and meeting needs, of property and benefit, that works out in such a contrary way for two different sides. When work is done for money — or not at all! — then it is not about providing everybody with real wealth, but about abstract wealth. Then it is not workers having the products of their work at their disposal, but rather the private power of property that exists in money commanding both work and workers. Then it is not people without monetary assets making use of a convenient distribution mechanism when they take home a wage as the proceeds of their labor, but rather nothing else being produced but property: wealth under the binding condition that it not belong to those who produce it. Well, what else could the economic achievements of money and property possibly be? The fact that the means of production are privately owned contributes nothing to their productive force. Their being property has only one effect, but it is a crucial one. It separates the material, productive use of these means, i.e., the work, and those who do it, on one side, from control over the production process along with its products, on the other side. Hence property prevents the means of production from being at the disposal of those who use them, and products from being at the disposal of those who need them. Looking at it the other way around, from the standpoint of property and the market-economy system, the whole productive force of technically necessary means of production lies in nothing other than the fact that they are a firm’s private property. That they are materially useful, that they are necessary for effective production, is only of interest in a market economy insofar as the work done with them solely creates property not for those who do the work, but for the side that owns these means and is therefore legally entitled to be the producer. Property used in such an enterprise separates labor from its means, thereby causing the product, i.e., the aimed-at and achieved monetary proceeds, to be appropriated — in accordance with the law — by the company that buys the services of its workforce for that purpose.

The money this puts in the hands of wage-dependent workers at least gives them, too, free access to the big wide world of goods, albeit to a very limited extent. However, this is only an appreciable advantage when it is taken for granted that, to them, all of the produced goods are initially useless, having come into this world as somebody else’s property. Working in order to earn money, which is moreover gone again in no time — what could such a deal possibly be good for if not for making sure workers basically do not get what they produce, while those who pay the money for workers do? This would be an absurd arrangement and grotesque trouble if the purpose were to produce useful goods and neatly distribute them to people. So that can hardly be the deeper meaning behind money, property, and gainful employment. They must be good for what they actually achieve: equating benefit with property, so that the two opposing but complementary social characters necessarily result.[7]

Therefore, one is out of touch with reality to think that labor can be left subsumed under property since it can’t be changed anyway or any change would even be counterproductive, while the so conflicting consequences of the rule of money might be remedied separately; preferably by the state, since it is committed to the common good and should use its power to smooth away excessive social conflicts. Such thinking is not out of touch in the sense of being alien to the bourgeois world — the opposite is the case. This is exactly how the market economy is supposed to be viewed, as an economy with a sophisticated and, moreover, freedom-based distribution strategy, with its mean effects being easily disregarded. It is even supposed to have an institution for actually undoing these effects: the social system. The only thing is it is just not true. And when those trusting in the holy two-in-one of democracy & market economy insist, “but this is the way it should be,” then they are admitting this is not how it is.

In reality, the first thing the bourgeois state does, before attending to any resultant problems, is to put into place the systematic subjection of work to moneymaking and the power of property. This it does by providing property with legal protection and the right to command work. And capital does what it can. It takes control of work, i.e., its productivity, as its own source (section II, following). It uses work to increase its surplus over the money spent for this purpose, i.e., to increase its rate of profit (III). It makes work responsible for servicing and maintaining a credit system that is not the least bit interested in its own preconditions in the production of profits, although it promotes them (IV). It uses work as a weapon in international competition (V), which calls state power into action as an interested party with its own demands on successful work (VI). And, again with state support, it repeatedly makes work act as a stopgap for its repeated self-made crises (IV and VI).


[1] Those who ask whether a planned economy is actually feasible are never seriously asking what means would be required, but are dismissing the project on the pretext that they can’t imagine it. And how could they, seeing as how there is no existing social connection for setting up and carrying out a sensible plan, there is no organized deliberation free of “economic constraints,” and seeing how they are tacitly assuming that the backdrop for introducing a planned economy is the market economy with all its concrete purposes and established procedures, including the human character masks that go with it. One need not agree with the project of organizing needs and their satisfaction in a free and sensible way; but then at least one should not pretend one would be all in favor of it if only communists came through with practicable “recipes” and “models” — that would really be the easiest part once a savvy working class knew what it wanted.

A bitter irony of history is worth mentioning here. The great historic attempt at a socialist planned economy, which its organizers themselves declared a failure and abandoned, implemented that very mistake of taking the capitalist setup of the economy for granted, from hourly wages to credit. Instead of detecting the capitalist purpose in this setup, they developed a model for managing a worker-friendlier economy with it. The use of state force makes such a project work out to a certain extent of course, it even enables real capitalism… As if they themselves had never overcome their doubts about whether a fundamentally different kind of economy was actually feasible, the governing socialists of the East Bloc proudly gave their sorry effort the revealing honorary title of “real,” while practicing a brand of socialism in which all the constraints of capitalism were wielded as “economic levers” for cleverly operating the economic “apparatus.” The success was modest compared to the capitalist original, at least as far as the wealth available to the state was concerned.

[2] Bourgeois society is of course also home to a fundamental criticism of every aspect of life being commercialized. One variant targets the attitude of people who have to prove themselves in this moneymaking system but largely fail, and demands they subscribe to loftier maxims than the necessities of money-based materialism that are truly binding, and are indeed accepted as “organizing principles.” The call to reject “mammon” is out to supplement commerce with a moral air with which an individual affirms he is no slave to it. The vicissitudes of life in a market economy provide him with ample opportunity for proving how sound this honorable posture is. This “critique of capitalism” is typically aimed not so much at the rich, who can easily afford to display an affinity for nobler things, as at people who are supposed to idealize their hardships as the virtue of doing without, rather than succumbing to “social envy.”

The other variant of this criticism that “money rules supreme” calls for certain spheres to be removed from “purely commercial” interests due to their spiritual or material importance. Some people consider God and love, art and music, and products on offer in the field of moral edification and luxurious musing too valuable to be dragged into the “snake pits” of moneymaking. Others lament elementary needs being violated when health care, the power and water supply, or education are commodified, so that one almost wants to ask them, which goods are actually unimportant enough to fall under the principle of moneymaking?! Every such plea to save a sphere bears witness to how completely the system of moneymaking dominates life in society.

[3] In mature capitalism, the connection between productive labor and ownership of the product of labor has disappeared from the experience of those working in production. It plays no part in the calculations of employers; it is not addressed by academics — except to be denied. For reasons to be explained later, it is normal in the market economy for the “producer,” and thus the rightful owner of the goods, to be the owner of the production process, not the immediate producer who does the work in the factory.

That a legal person’s productive activity establishes property is familiar in the case of “intellectual” property, of all things. Here, the product has a use value that makes it quite unsuitable for being an object of exclusive disposal. Thoughts can be thought by others who do not need to take material possession of them, and they do not become “less” through others understanding them, i.e., making them their own. Hence, Marx calls their production “universal labor” (Capital, Vol. III, ch. 5). That is exactly why the law specially fixes and elaborately lays down the exclusive character of this universal labor, in order for the exclusive right of disposal to remain valid even when the thing it relates to has long since passed into general use. The state issues copyright regulations to protect intellectual work’s acting as property, i.e., its marketability. In this way — via patents and licenses — the state creates a monetary interest in the production of knowledge in a world of property owners, at the same time regulating how money can access the results of research and development.

[4] Economists, in their unshakable cynicism, have treated this sort of freedom by putting forth the dogma that every economic actor is fundamentally concerned with nothing other than optimizing his utility. They have derived mathematical models of market activity that all prove how well everybody gets his money’s worth, since even the smallest sum of money ends up conveying a utility preference. The price someone pays represents the optimum utility of the purchased good for its buyer — would he buy it otherwise! Worse than these circular thought constructs, however, is the way “market participants” themselves are used to viewing the art of budgeting as freedom fulfilled, and even developing a perverse pride when they have once again succeeded in making ends meet despite their lack of money by their thriftiness and bargain hunting. Such heroes of private freedom can only imagine a planned economy to be the opposite, as being bossed around in their poverty.

[5] In a market economy, even elementary necessities are omitted from production when there is not enough ability to pay for them; they are even destroyed when that serves moneymaking. That is why the public power, which brings this economic system into operation by guaranteeing property, is faced with plenty of effects that require intervening to compensate for them. The fact that the whole business works at all even though the public power by no means directs it in any planned way aroused some amazement and admiration among early apologists of this system. They “inferred” there was an “invisible hand” ingeniously working “behind the back” of the actors bent solely on making money. The less credulous truth is that whatever social connection there is in material terms in a market economy is the entirely unplanned effect of everyone’s efforts to get hold of other people’s money. And that explains the result as well: everything that is no good for making money is simply stricken out.

[6] Bourgeois economics turns the matter upside down with its model-based derivations of market activity. Humans are said to have by nature a boundless materialism, which is both ridiculous and physically impossible no matter how diverse the interests they have historically acquired are.The intention is for the economy of property, which makes the exclusion from all needed goods the starting point of a life based on making money while never eliminating the resulting privation by the labor it organizes, to be justified as one big struggle against “scarcity.”

[7] Of course there are other solutions to the equation too. The market economy accommodates all sorts of self-employed persons, from farmers to doctors, who battle their way by means of the property required for their occupation and their own gainful labor. In different configurations they represent the antagonism between labor and property in their own person, so they are hardly moderating it. Then there is the state, which uses funds expropriated by taxation to play the role of employer without having its employees create property. So while being sovereign over the classes of its society, it too respects the absolute rule of money over work (a rule it puts in place!) by paying its professional staff. And it calculates this pay keeping all the more closely to the criteria of private-sector wage payments the lower the task. One should altogether avoid making a mystery out of the various functional subdivisions of a capitalist moneymaking society — after all, even the leading public authorities have no trouble going at their citizens with economic class distinctions that are quite clear in their way, when it is a matter of collecting taxes or setting up welfare benefit systems. And anyway, a methodological hint: the principles of capitalism’s political economy are not pigeonholes to be proved valid by how well they can be used for sorting everyone, or to be called into question by borderline cases.

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