This is a chapter from the book:
Work and Wealth

Translated from Arbeit und Reichtum, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich

Work and Wealth: II

The productive power of work belongs to the owner of the means of production, who pays for it and has the work done. Therefore, his demands on it also define it. It doesn’t come down to the banal fact of people using suitable equipment on the basis of a division of labor in order to easily produce far more useful things than they need for themselves and for easing their work. Rather, under the command of capital and with its means, and thus also according to its guidelines and calculations, productive labor is labor that produces more property, measured in money, than the latter has to pay out in wages.

Correspondingly, it is not the actual labor expended, not a person’s time and effort, that counts as labor expenditure, but rather the aggregate wages paid for having work done. The product of work does not have its measure in the needs it satisfies, but in the proceeds from selling the produced commodity relative to labor costs. It is not the relation between labor power exerted and product that counts as labor efficiency, but rather the ratio of produced commodity value to aggregate wages paid out. Labor productivity is thus not a technical quantity; instead, it gets calculated according to business success.

This is how capital appropriates the productive power of work as the source of its accumulation.


It is no secret that workers regularly and quickly deplete their wages, but not because their work doesn’t yield more than what they absolutely need or habitually consume. The “overflowing” shops the market economy is famous for provide striking evidence to the contrary; especially those offering goods that are hardly ever within the reach of the wage-dependent population; and all this is merely a fraction of the glut of useful goods brought about by the working members of society. And no wonder. For when people effectively employ their minds and bodies on the basis of a division of labor, they bring about not only their means of consumption and production but some technical progress, too; and when they set to work at the currently attained level of technology, the production of even the most complicated good becomes a matter of a few minutes work. In this sense, it would be no problem for workers today to churn out useful goods of any kind, without much effort, for themselves as well as for all those unable to work at the moment — if indeed this were the purpose of production.

That things work out so unerringly and utterly different is due to the peculiar social claims and prevailing rights to which work done for wages must yield. In a market economy, the product of labor is none of the business of those who do the work: it is completely and immediately somebody else’s property; none of it belongs to the workers. It may well be that wages are paid out of the proceeds from selling the produced goods; where else would the money come from. But that is a deal between the wageworker, who has no property in his products, and the owner, to whom the entire proceeds belong.

This is because the minute wageworkers set to work — if in fact they do so at all — they are no longer working for themselves. They wouldn’t even be able to work at all if an employer didn’t let them into his factory; what they do there is solely his business and proceeds completely on his account — that’s exactly what he pays them wages for. In practice, of course, workers continually put their labor power and time into the production process — things that cannot be detached from them, unlike a piece of property that an owner can freely dispose over; what takes place in a capitalist factory is always their activity, however much it is under the factory owner’s control. All the same, the category of property is applied even to this activity; and in this property-like respect, the work for which they are paid is thus no longer theirs at all. They hand over their activity, which of course is and remains physically theirs, like alienated property. This is important because it determines what becomes of the property that labor brings into existence: since work no longer belongs to those who devote their intellect, energy and time to producing useful things, then the value of manufactured things, property quantified in money, also does not fall to those who have expended the material effort, but to those who command this effort as an element of their production process.[7]

Work is and remains productive because people cooperate purposefully using appropriate equipment. This is no different under capitalism. Only here the productive power of work is subsumed under a cost-output calculation of capitalist property. And this calculation is what counts economically.


Capitalist firms accumulate their property by making use of the productive power of work. However, they count work as productive only if it has the desired effect on their property. And they attribute this effect to their own doing, chalking it up to their invested capital. This isn’t so much their ideology — many an executive schooled in management skills readily gives three cheers for the creativity of his “associates” — as it is their real practice: what the productivity of labor achieves is realized in capital’s business account.

In this account, nothing of the effort that workers have to expend is found under the heading ‘expenditures.’ Expenditure in the definitive, capitalist sense is exclusively the company’s: an expenditure in money that it has to make in order for production to take place. This involves two major items of expense.

The first one regards “work stations” — equipping a factory with machinery, as well as procuring raw materials, energy and whatever else is needed for the manufacture and sale of a product. The material substance of everything acquired in this way is absorbed in the process of production. It is used up, worn out, transformed, productively consumed in one way or another. However, the one “quality” of the means of production that does show up in the company’s accounts, namely their value as figured in their purchase price, does not perish at all but reappears again in the thoroughly calculated price of the produced commodity. It’s true that a businessman first has to realize this price to get the money he has advanced back into his hands; but for the production process and throughout its course he doesn’t let one bit of his property out of his hands.

With his other operating expense, wages, he puts property in the hands of others at his own expense; and if he is in the right mood, he regards this in all seriousness as a major act of generosity on his part, one for which he receives far too little thanks. In any case, with this expense he does get hold of the labor power of his workforce so that he can freely decide on its productive employment. The wage payment itself functions here as a means of command, for the remuneration of the workforce is paid, aptly enough, as the price of labor, according to the number of hours worked, or, more in line with the purpose of the payment, according to whether a worker meets, exceeds or finishes under the time allowance for completing specific tasks or entire steps of production. This way of paying wages is the basis for the gleefully propagated ideological pretense that workers get paid fairly for the exact “share” their work contributes to the product or its value, that the value of labor gets fully compensated. If that were the truth, a capitalist’s balance sheets would really be in trouble: what would be left over for the owner if labor were paid with the property it creates?! And even if it weren’t the entirety of newly created property: how could the performance of work be distinguished, as one “share,” from the fact that the means of production belong to the employer, as another “share?!” No capitalist has ever waited for a conclusive calculation of this kind; otherwise he would never have gotten his business off the ground.[8] The trick of measuring and paying wages according to the amount of work delivered — i.e., basically according to time with adjustments for intensity — actually achieves the opposite of a neat distribution of effort and product between employee and employer. It turns the payment of wages into a permanent coercion of the employee to satisfy the one-sided demands placed on him entirely according to business calculations. By “paying” the price of labor through the payment of wages, capital forces workers to acquire an interest in earning this price hour after hour and with the required effort. Capital thereby removes the obstacle to the appropriation of labor that lies in the fact that it is the activity of other conscious subjects, after all, that capital intends to appropriate. Capital thereby ensures that its workers submit to its standards of performance in matters of duration and intensity quite of their own accord. In this way it can also easily call for flexible hours, night work and continuous shifts, or even the acceptance of especially unhealthy working conditions. In this utterly humane way, namely by extorting the will of the workforce, the capitalist firms gain command over the productive power of work, right up to the very last working hour and the very last bit of capitalistically useful exertion.

The manufactured product enters into the company’s operating balance under the heading ‘receipts’ — as a pure sum of value. This abstraction is in no way impractical — which it would be if the product were intended as a contribution to the satisfaction of the needs of the whole of society through a division of labor. Rather, it sums up conclusively and definitively the single relevant thing about the work done, and allows comparison with the heading ‘expenditures.’ This comparison is the only thing that matters, for it decides whether or not a firm has “made money” — which is not merely a colloquial expression for business success, but actually hits the nail on the head: the product the firm is after is the excess of income over expenditure, figured in money. Nobody has to know a company’s products to know everything that matters about it: all the economic essentials are contained in such informative “production figures” as ‘turnover’ and ‘profit.’

Thus, the productive power of work has a precisely defined content, which at the same time is the criterion for whether it was productive at all, or whether it has remained unproductive despite the goods it has produced. Capitalist calculations not only ignore the real expenditure of work; they are also highly critical of its material result, accepting it only if and insofar as they can tally up an increase of ‘receipts’ over ‘expenditures.’ Either labor proves its productivity as a source of profit, or it is worth nothing at all.

Yet labor, despite all its productivity, can in no way guarantee this uncompromisingly and unconditionally demanded result. The only thing it is capable of creating is a product, which, were this the point, would be a useful contribution to providing for the needs of society. Whether this product has a value that enriches the company is an entirely different matter, one that is decided outside the world of work on the market, which revolves not around useful production but around acquiring money. Work is not capable of transforming the produced commodity into money, nor is this any of its business; after all the commodity is the company’s property to be realized in money. The effects of the market’s decision are all the more severe for labor, for a capitalist firm does everything it can to guarantee that the production it has at its disposal be an effective means for its business success. The appropriation of the productive power of work by property is only the beginning of labor’s journey from being the source of all capitalist wealth to being its means.


[7] In practice, the point of this truly peculiar, double nature of work, as the productive activity of a paid workforce and as the company-owned process of value creation, really isn’t a mystery to the persons affected: every worker is familiar with his work as a “job” that ultimately has no connection to him beyond the factory’s decision to assign him to a particular work station and equip it in keeping with its own cost-output calculation. The trend-setting managerial idea of letting workers “share” in “shaping” “their” workplace does not alter this relation, but is a calculating reaction to its unmistakable one-sidedness. Years of settling in to a job offer no safeguard against having to bid farewell to a familiar workplace when a company decides to “modernize.” The fact that the capitalistically tailored working world revolves around abstract labor for someone else’s property makes itself felt in the most concrete way — even if a good many people are unwilling to admit what they experience for themselves, and doggedly insist on their right to take their function as an appendage of capital to be a home they are entitled to.

[8] As can be seen in every wage dispute and in every demand for wage cuts during economic downturns, the price of labor is in truth a matter of negotiation, i.e., a question of power. Even when trade unions dish up calculations showing that labor has once again become more productive and thus “accordingly” should be remunerated at a higher rate, these calculations are only worth as much as the actual pressure employees bring to bear on their employers — and this pressure never turns out to be very huge if this kind of calculation is to justify it.

Bourgeois economics has never derived the price that labor is worth, either. But it is all the more unabashed about upholding the ideology that wages remunerate exactly what labor — distinguished from the other “production factor,” capital — contributes to the value of the product. In a disarming bit of dialectics so typical of this science, it simply invokes the results, claiming that one can see from what workers get from a company’s total proceeds and what the employers keep for themselves just what each side has contributed — the proof: otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten what they got …

It is also worth noting the interpretation of “labor” and “capital” as “production factors” offered by the “theory” of “factor costs” as a matter of course. There is not a single word about the private power of money over labor anywhere in this entire science, from start to finish. It regards the capitalist firm as nothing but a neutral body between labor and capital, an organizer of production that ingeniously combines these two “factors,” sets them in motion and pays them fairly. Still, this is exactly how even this cookie-cutter ideology expresses the capitalist fact that labor is incorporated as a “factor” belonging to the firm and subsumed as a means available for productive purposes. As much as this view of things turns a blind eye to capitalist property and its rule, it still as a matter of course reproduces theoretically the standpoint of capital, according to which labor belongs to the company as soon as it is employed there.

The real capitalist calculation, namely the one carried out in practice, whereby labor and capital are compared with each other as production cost factors and treated as exchangeable quantities, is dealt with in the next section.