Work, workers and the working class
by Tony Kushelew
Physics states that work is done when a force is applied to move an object over a distance. This requires the expenditure of energy. For example moving bricks or mixing mortar by hand is work. The energy is supplied by the contraction of human muscles.
The capacity to perform work also exists in inanimate nature. Consider a simple example, say that of a river flowing over a cliff. At the top of the cliff the stream of water has potential energy i.e. the capacity to do work by virtue of its position. As the water falls it possesses kinetic energy — the energy of movement. In nature this energy accomplishes nothing. Its energy is converted largely to sound, but once a waterwheel is put in place the falling water has the capacity to grind corn or drive turbines which transform kinetic into electrical energy, i.e. to directly do work or transform a natural form of energy into one which can be used by humans.
Similarly, working humans expend energy. They perform work to alter or transform simpler substances or materials into more complex ones. For instance, men and women extract sands, clays, stone from mines (in our time using machinery) to extract raw materials. These are transported to kilns where they are mixed in certain proportions and baked into bricks. Mortar or cement is made in an analogous way. These and other ingredients are transported to a site which has been cleared and prepared and then assembled in a purposeful way to build houses.
The extraction of raw materials and their processing by workers who sell their labour-power creates material objects which can be sold by the owner of the means of production to buyers in the market. These are commodities.
Surplus labour and surplus value
Because the capitalist, the owner of the means of production, pays workers only a fraction of the value which the labour-power they sold to him has produced, he benefits from the extraction of this surplus value. This is the source of his profit. In our example of houses, the capitalist can accumulate wealth in the form of money when the commodity is sold. He has the option of withholding sale if market prices are low. Then his wealth consists of a store of commodities.
The making of commodities is a process. The realisation of surplus value involves production, distribution and exchange. Let us consider some of its component parts. Mining produces tangible material objects which can be sold, i.e. commodities. The houses are commodities. But what about transport? This is an essential part of the process but makes no tangible “things” and cannot be accumulated. But it is a “service” which can be bought and sold just as material-tangible commodities can. Should this then be classed as an example of Marx’s “unproductive labour?”
Unproductive labour is not to be confused with useless labour. Digging and filling in a hole in the ground for no reason is useless labour! This would be a socially useless labour, serving no purpose.
There is a wide variety of unproductive labour — some more socially necessary than others. Who would argue that the provision of health or educational services is useless? Possibly selling perfumes, teaching the violin or footy coaching are useless? Here we come to an arena of personal and subjective choice.
What of the State and Federal Government bureaucracies?
The workers in these sectors perform unproductive labour — they produce no commodities. They enable the modern state to undertake a multitude of tasks, from provision of medical care to road and rail maintenance, maintaining police and defence forces, regulating trade to subsidising the arts and sciences etc. The state today is much larger and more diverse in its functions than in Marx’s time.
In the 1980s Commonwealth public servants took unprecedented action for wage increases — despite their oaths or affirmations of loyalty and in defiance of explicit instructions from management — in a series of rolling strikes, involving most departments including taxation. Mass meetings and rallies were held and union leaders promised to “bring the government to its knees” if it did not meet the workers’ demands. Of course no such thing happened! The union settled for a fraction of the increase fought for. This was a purely economist struggle.
Health and education workers
The same cannot be said of the large and militant strikes by nurses and teachers in the recent past. They have demanded improvements in hospitals and schools and not just better pay and conditions for themselves.
The point here is that non-productive workers, who do not make “things” but provide services which are essential to society, are just as capable of militant and conscious struggle as are, say, automobile workers. Services cannot be accumulated as wealth but they can certainly be bought and sold just as more tangible commodities can be, e.g. houses, cars etc. We need only look as far as the growth of private health care, private education, private insurance and superannuation to be convinced of that.
While it is not possible to organise mass actions by workers in small business or craft production, it is possible, and has occurred with the employees of giant retail stores e.g. in response to changes to shopping hours and consequently their employers’ demands for extra working hours. This is an example of workers resisting the discipline imposed by capital.
Marx’s concept of the proletariat
As the Industrial Revolution occurred before his eyes, Marx saw displaced agricultural labourers flocking into the cities to become absorbed in factory production. In factories they became mere adjuncts of the machine, timed, regulated semi-automata subject to labour discipline. Marx recognised them as potential legions organisable into a great weapon against the inhumane capitalist order, which exploited and ruled them.
The workers had been defeated in the revolutions of 1848. Marx realised that the working class in a non-revolutionary period would only attempt to improve wages and conditions i.e. engage in economist struggles, using their main weapon — the withdrawal of labour. Factory work created the discipline and the aggregation of workers to organise, but understanding of their objective position in society did not arise spontaneously. Marx consciously set out to provide the potentially revolutionary class with theory in his speeches and many written works, culminating in the incomplete Capital.
WHO ARE THE AUSTRALIAN WORKING CLASS TODAY?
The CPA adopts Marx’s definition of a worker as “a person who has nothing to sell but labour-power to produce commodities”. When Marx lived and worked in Victorian London, England had no system of universal education or a national health scheme. There were many railways, all owned by private companies. Many “service” providers were domestic servants employed by the aristocracy, the genteel and the wealthy. As they were not subject to the “discipline of labour” imposed on industrial workers by the factory system, they were hardly in a position to be aggregated and moved to take militant action against their employers! It is understandable that Marx neglected them in any consideration of potential anti-capitalist action, except if they fell into the ranks of the proletariat.
This article argues that in modern society the sale of services makes it necessary to consider services a type of commodity.
The production, distribution and exchange of commodities add up to form a process. This process contains within it both productive and unproductive labour and both are essential to the whole process. Therefore it is not justifiable in theory to focus primarily on productive-labour and assign it an exclusive role in our practice as communists.
Essential services and workers who provide them
As mentioned above raw materials must be transported to factories where commodities are made and, in turn these commodities are taken to the points of sale. A multitude of workers rely on the public transport services to commute between home and work. The energy used in manufacture needs to be supplied. Fossil fuels are moved by tankers, coal by trucks, gas and water through pipes and electricity through wires. Each of these, fossil fuel, gas etc. is a commodity but the service of providing them is also integral to the whole productive process.
Communication plays an extremely important role in the running of modern capitalism. Deals can be negotiated, documents faxed in an instant and the stock exchange can respond to fluctuations in share prices immediately. To transmit and receive electronic signals requires solid, tangible devices (commodities) but the service of receiving a signal can also be purchased. Think of Foxtel. Advertising now floods the internet, a service which is purchasable, and on-line shopping and banking are available. Capitalism uses every means it can to promote consumerism.
Public health is essential to maintain a workforce which is sufficiently healthy to work effectively and to reproduce, thus providing the next generation of workers. Education is growing in importance. Until nearly the end of the last century the mobile phone did not exist. Now it is ubiquitous. It has acquired the status of a “need.” Giant computers were once housed in universities, large government departments and corporations. Now the humble PC is a commonplace commodity accompanied by a host of marketable software. There is no reason to assume that the creativity of the bourgeoisie is exhausted. The next generation of workers need to be trained and educated to the extent that capitalism’s demands for innovation, design and maintenance of new commodities can be met by them. This will not only be the case in the electronics industry but also in the rapidly advancing bio-technologies.
Health and Education workers are well aware of the essential social role that they play. Their militant actions have not been merely self-serving but have incorporated demands for dramatic improvements in working conditions, (who can provide good care when they have already worked a 36 or 48 hour shift?) in funding, so that more bed-space can be provided, staff to patient ratios decreased by hiring more nurses, for essential equipment etc. What they may be less aware of are the reasons behind the governments’ policy of neglect. In the March state election in South Australia, Herron, the Liberal leader of the opposition gave the game away. The Liberal “solution” to the hospital crisis was not to put more funds into the public system but, instead, to subsidise Private Hospitals to deal with the overload! This is consistent with the Federal Liberals push to privatise Medibank Private and to put into practice the ideology of “user pays.” Similarly State schools are sub-standard but the Feds pour millions into wealthy private schools.
Workers in these sectors need only to read CPA policies to realise the qualitative difference between services run on behalf of Capitalist society, i.e. to enable the making of profit, and those which a socialist Australia would provide to meet the needs of the people. With the involvement of communists in their struggles militant nurses and teachers can reach the insight that they and “blue collar” workers have common interests and a common foe. In other words they can achieve working class consciousness.
Who is a worker? Objective definition and subjective ideas
At the CPA 10th Congress in 2005 comrade Peter Symon stated that 80% of Australia’s employed population are workers. The Political Resolution adopted at the congress says: “In the last decades there has been a steady decline in the number of workers engaged in manufacturing industries and other blue-collar occupations. … Unity and support between blue-collar and white-collar sections of the working class is needed.” (pages 21-22).
There remain “fundamentalists” in our party who assert the primacy of the industrial proletariat, quoting Marx. Objective conditions have changed. There has been an imposition of labour-discipline on white-collar workers in the public sector (privately the extreme example is in call centres). The ascribed advanced class-consciousness of industrial workers is not a theoretical tenet but an empirical claim to be tested.
In our society today many who are objectively workers — with nothing to sell but their labour-power — do not see themselves as workers. There is a host of ideological misconceptions masking reality and promoting ideas which legitimise our capitalist system as “natural” and bourgeois democracy as “the best we can hope for.” There are notions that we live in an egalitarian, classless society where everyone can expect “a fair go.” It takes some observation and analysis to disclose these as examples of “false consciousness”.
There is a common stereotype of what a worker is — someone in greasy blue boiler suit, holding a spanner and doing manual work! Actually, all work involves a component of mental and physical exertion, only the proportions vary. The common subjective criteria used to assign class are based on how one earns a living, the things owned, the suburb in which the person lives and notions of “lifestyle.” (The “typical” worker drinks beer and loves footy, the “more refined” dine in fine restaurants, enjoy wine and opera!) These are caricatures, but like all caricatures, they contain some truth.
A principal role of the CPA is to dispel myths, reveal reality and build unity amongst all those exploited by capital. This is achieved through the dialectical process of theory — practice — theory — practice, which is continuous. In other words our practice is informed by scientific Marxist theory, and theory is refined through its implementation in practice.
Party policy and the way forward
Our Political Resolution says “In Australia, a broad democratic movement that unites all left and progressive parties, trade unions, community organisations and progressive individuals is needed to start challenging the existing structures of economic and political power.” (page 34).
The unity of social forces which the above passage speaks of is a strategy not based on mere pragmatism. It is based on Marxist theory.