In this chapter, I will outline how I am defining labor and discuss labor power in the context of the capitalist mode of production.
I am referring to labor as both material labor, such as construction or manufacturing, and immaterial labor, such as child rearing and home care to and software engineering. My view on labor encompasses work in the factory, office, out of the office, in the home etc. These forms of labor both represent wage-earners and unpaid, unrecognized work. All these forms of labor, in which the worker does not own the means of production, but must sell their labor to the employer, are a part of the proletariat.
In its simplest form, labor power is what a worker sells to the employer. It is the “capacity” for work which any worker is capable of. This capacity is different from the worker’s labor, which is the use of labor power. Under the wage, Marx notes that the capitalist employer buys labor power from the worker to be exercised, as labor, in the production process.
Given this expansive definition, I recognize this leads to a makeup of the modern working-class that is an enigma. It includes everyone from front-line employees to a corporate CEO that sells their labor to the company. There are distinctions to be made here between those who direct and organize the work and those who do the work. I would argue a more precise definition of the working-class is those who do the work. My hope is the writings to follow will result in a clearer anatomy of today’s working-class.
I. To act, do, function, operate.1
In his book, Labor and Monopoly Capital, Harry Braverman elaborates on this description of work –
“Plants absorb moisture, minerals, and sunlight; animals feed on plant life or prey on other animals. But to seize upon the materials of nature ready made is not work; work is an activity that alters these materials from their natural state to improve their usefulness. The bird, the beaver, the spider, the bee, and the termite, in building nests, dams, webs, and hives, all may be said to work. Thus the human species shares with others the activity of acting upon nature in a manner which changes its forms to make them more suitable for its needs.”2
Braverman’s description of work highlights how labor has been a critical factor in the development of the human and animal species, going back its earliest stages. In 1876, in an unifinished essay, Engels discussed how labor is the “basic condition for all human existence”. Meaning, how the human mind and body were shaped by the historical processes of labor. Engels discusses how the dexterity of the hand is the product of historical labor processes.
Engels explains –
“Labour begins with the making of tools. And what are the most ancient tools that we find – the most ancient judging by the heirlooms of prehistoric man that have been discovered, and by the mode of life of the earliest historical peoples and of the rawest of contemporary savages? They are hunting and fishing implements, the former at the same time serving as weapons.”3
In Braverman’s description, labor refers to the ability of human beings and other living things to perform work. Like humans, all animals engage in their labor process. As Braverman pointed out, beavers work to build dams and bees construct hives. For beavers, their work transforms a pond into a site of easy access to food and a protected area away from predators. Animals are instinctual builders. The beaver does not pre-conceive the dam in advance. Rather, the beaver instinctually begins carrying small piles of mud and rocks with its front paws and twigs and branches with its teeth. The beaver’s instinct to construct the dam cannot be broken out from its execution of the dam.
Beaver dam on the Smilga River, Lithunia. Source: Wikipedia.
What differentiates human work from all other forms of work is that it is human work is conceptual and planful. Humans imagine the end product before starting the labor process. In this way, the conceptualization and execution of human work can be well marked and separated. This is the basis for the division of labor and the ability to segment planning tasks from execution-oriented tasks in human work. In modern work, planning has been elevated to full time occupations and specific companies provide planning services and/or software.
Engels details this distinction between planning and execution when he writes,
“In short, the animal merely uses its environment, and brings about changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals, and once again it is labour that brings about this distinction.” 4
Marx defined labor power as –
“[The combination] of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description.”5
For Marx, the use-value of a commodity is a measure of its usefulness. Labor, and how it is applied towards use-value in the capitalist mode of production, is differentiated by its focus on the purchase and sale of labor in the form of the wage.
Wage-labor, while it has been present since the fourteenth century, dramatically rose in industrial capitalism during the eighteenth century. Several conditions during this time led to the proliferation of wage-labor. Braverman elaborated:
“First, workers are separated from the means with which production is carried on, and can gain access to them only by selling their labor power to others. Second, workers are freed of legal constraints, such as serfdom or slavery, that prevent them from disposing of their own labor power. Third, the purpose of the employment of the worker becomes the expansion of a unit of capital belonging to the employer, who is thus functioning as a capitalist. The labor process therefore begins with a contract or agreement governing the conditions of the sale of labor power by the worker and its purchase by the employer.” 6
Under these conditions, wage-labor under capitalism expanded massively, while other forms of labor, such as self-employment declined throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. These trends speak to the force of capitalism, like a black hole, to pull all forms of labor into wage-labor and gear up the labor process to expand capital. What’s left is little to no room for any other type of work to exist under capitalism.
Over the last two hundred years, while capitalism has expanded, labor power and the labor process has been subordinated, dominated, and reshaped many times under its mode of production. Relentlessly hungry capitalists continue to use every means within their control to dominate the labor process, including the rise of new employer contracts such as temporary staffing agencies, independently contracted work, and on-call work.
There is a large distinction between employees and contractors in the capitalist mode of production. Only employees receive protections such as minimum wage and unemployment insurance. Contractors do not receive these benefits, but they able to deduct expenses from taxable income. And, they often talk about the flexibility in how they work or the organization of their work. That said, many contractors are exploited due to the employers offloading the costs of benefits and a lack of predictable minimum earnings onto them.
Still from the film Uberstrike. Filmed in Queens, New York on May 8th, 2019. Photo: Brett Wallace.
Independent contracting (IC) work is on the rise. An IRS study found “the share of workers with IC income has grown by 1.5 percentage points, or 22 percent, since 2001.”7
This is not a surprising trend given primary objective of the capitalist enterprise is to extract more value from workers.
Surplus value is a law of capitalism. It is a law where the purchased labor power of each worker creates more value than the capitalist pays for it, or the worker takes home. This is how capitalist enterprises generate profit.
Marx explains –
“Surplus value is nothing but the excess amount of labor the worker gives over, above the amount of materialized labor that he receives in his own wages as the value of his labor power.” 8
Surplus value is manifested in the working time beyond the costs of the the workers labor. This extra surplus value generates profits for the capitalist, giving them a return on their investment and the mechanism to accumulate more capital and reinvest it. If the capitalist did not require surplus value, then the worker could go home once they generated enough value in the workplace for subsistence. But, that is not the essence or law of how capitalism works.
In the mercantile economy before capitalism, merchants purchased already produced goods and sell them at higher prices. The model was to buy low and sell higher and the profit was manifested in this transaction. But, with capitalism, the focus is not so much on creating value from the exchange of goods, but extracting value, which becomes profit, from within the production process. In other words, the capitalist does not maximize wealth creation by purchasing and reselling products. The capitalist enterprise maximizes wealth creation by owning the means of production, purchasing labor power, and extracting as much as possible from that purchase labor power. In the case of Amazon, they refer to the means of production and wage-labor as “advanced logistics, innovative technology, and dedicated associates.” 9
Let’s look at a list of Amazon’s assets across these two dimensions –
Means of Production
- Fulfillment centers to house all the inventory.
- Software and hardware, such as conveyor belts and orange robotic drive units that move inventory around the center, and computer systems that scan, track, weigh, and label boxes.
- Amazon trailer trucks, carrying more than 2,000 boxes at a time . These boxes could be distributed by Amazon and carriers such as UPS, FedEx, and the U.S. Postal Service.
- Amazon Air planes.
- Amazon will be launching more robotics in the factory and unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver packages.
- 938,000 worldwide employees.
- Amazon Delivery Services Partners – teams of 40 to 100 drivers.
- Independent contractors through Amazon Flex or Mechanical Turk.
Through the means of production and labor power, the capitalist enterprise, such as Amazon, is focused on extracting the most it can from the mode of production and distribution of the products.
Because Amazon, and other enterprises, own all the means of production, their wage-labor workers are exploited in the sense that there are no other alternatives of work.
Brett Wallace, Drone Delivery, performance documentation, archival inkjet print, 2016
Labor as Commodity
In capitalism, labor power, the human capacity to do work, becomes a commodity, and a part of capital, when it is purchased and sold on the market. The worker’s individual labor becomes alienated as the worker becomes an abstract node in the capitalist enterprise directed through the use of managerial techniques (which I’ll discuss more in later chapters)
In business school, when studying about such managerial techniques, I found no discussion or readings on the concept of labor power or the social relations or employer conditions that power it. This is because mainstream economics, and the business schools that teach this subject, don’t bring up Marx or labor relations, but focus solely on concepts of productivity scorecards, profit and loss, innovation strategy, etc.
Engels discusses labor as a commodity in this passage. “Labor [power] is a commodity, like any other, and its price is therefore determined by exactly the same laws that apply to other commodities. In a regime of big industry or of free competition—as we shall see, the two come to the same thing—the price of a commodity is, on the average, always equal to its cost of production. Hence, the price of labor is also equal to the cost of production of labor. But, the costs of production of labor consist of precisely the quantity of means of subsistence necessary to enable the worker to continue working, and to prevent the working class from dying out. The worker will therefore get no more for his labor than is necessary for this purpose; the price of labor, or the wage, will, in other words, be the lowest, the minimum, required for the maintenance of life.”10
There is continual conflict in the relationship between employers and workers regarding wages. The capitalist uses any means to reduce labor costs, which eat into their profit margin. This is why Amazon had to be forced into increasing its minimum wage or why Uber lobbies for their drivers to be classified as independent contractors, not employees with legal regulations around minimum wage or unemployment insurance.
The capitalist is known for holding out on recognizing workers demands for more wages leading to greater antagonisms, including walkouts and strikes. In one example, the acclaimed documentary, American Dream by Barbara Kopple, focuses on a mid-1980s workers’ strike at a Hormel meatpacking plant in Minnesota. Employees saw their wages rolled back, leading to a local union strike that seemed unending.
The Value of Labor Power
Wages are dependent on several factors including the corporate enterprise’s demand for labor, the level of unemployment, nationally and locally, which reduces wage power, or full employment, which increases it, and the organizational ability for workers and unions to demand higher wages.
Marx described the value of labor power as –
“the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of the labourer.” 11
Capitalists pay attention to this value, both in wages, but also in incentives, because it impacts their profit margin. For the worker, the value of their labor power, is not just an abstract economic number, it is a moral signifier which directly affects their standard of living. A rollback in wages could lead to the loss of a house for a working family.
Labor power can vary widely based on occupation, industry, skill, and race, and gender lines. The wage gap continues to grow. In a study on Productivity and compensation, 1987–2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found wages increases lagging productivity in nearly all industries.
“Productivity in the information industry increased 5.0 percent from 1987 to 2015, while real compensation increased 1.4 percent. Manufacturing productivity increased 3.3 percent, while compensation increased 0.8 percent. Transportation and warehousing productivity increased 1.1 percent, but compensation decreased by 0.2 percent. Mining was the only industry in which the change in productivity (0.5 percent) was smaller than the change in real compensation (1.5 percent) over the 1987–2015 period.12
The capitalist business model is rampant with various forms of inequality, including wage gaps, manifested along racial and gender lines.
Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics break out weekly earnings for wage and salary workers highlighting this inequality in earnings.
“White women earned 83.3 percent as much as their male counterparts, compared with 94.1 percent for Black women, 77.1 percent for Asian women, and 85.3 percent for Hispanic women.
Among the major race and ethnicity groups, median weekly earnings of Blacks ($805) and Hispanics ($786) working at full-time jobs were lower than those of Whites ($1,017) and Asians ($1,336). By sex, median weekly earnings for Black men were $828, or 74.3 percent of the median for White men ($1,115). Median earnings for Hispanic men were $841, or 75.4 percent of the median for White men. The difference was less among women, as Black women’s median earnings were $779, or 83.9 percent of those for White women ($929), and earnings for Hispanic women were $717, or 77.2 percent of those for White women. Earnings of Asian men ($1,479) and women ($1,141) were higher than those of their White counterparts. (See table 2.).”13
This data clearly shows the disparity in earnings by race and gender lines. What’s left out of this data, and the economy in general is the value of unpaid labor that reproduces the labor force. Often, women bear this burden spending an average of 10.8 hours more per week doing unpaid household work than did men. The likelihood of woman doing unpaid household work on an average day was 91 percent
compared to 78 percent of men.14.
Labor costs have a moral affect, in addition to an economic one, because the livelihood of workers depends on earnings. Employers often feel the government regulates them too much in the laws for labor and labor contracts affecting areas such as minimum wage, unionization, benefits etc. Some employers argue that by removing legal barriers, labor costs would go down, enabling companies to hire more. Who is to say these companies don’t just increase profit with the same amount of workers?
Marx regarded piece wages, as the ideal and most exploitative form of labor for the capitalist to purchase. By only purchasing labor in the form of piece wages that directly contribute to results, the capitalist creates more value for the invested capital.
With the purchase of labor, the capitalist takes the worker and uses every means to increase results. The labor of each individual worker is theirs to own. They only have so much to give. In the early period of capitalism, capitalists used longer working days to create more surplus-value.
Photo: Woolworth’s sit-down strike, 1937. Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram and Sun Collection. 15.
Companies still work to elongate the working day, but more subtly. On Silicon Valley campuses, such as Facebook and Google, it is common to preparing breakfast and lunch for workers. Also, business leaders now preach work-life harmony as opposed to work-life balance. What that means is work harder, faster, and longer and don’t seek balance, but a false harmonic relationship between home and work. In the end, these tactics seek to normalize the domination of work over one’s life.
In today’s age, new labor processes continue to emerge, in industrial, office, and services work, creating new opportunities for capital exploitation. Also, we see new mechanisms to extract surplus-value from workers including gamification, time-keeping software, hyper-intense tasks, new forms of automation.
James Bloodworth went undercover as an Amazon warehouse worker at a fulfillment center Rugeley, England.
Bloodworth reported he found “a workplace environment in which decency, respect and dignity were absent.” Bloodworth saw a Coke bottle filled with urine on a warehouse shelf and reports that his co-workers wouldn’t take bathroom breaks for fear of being tagged for “missing productivity.”16
Amazon Fulfillment Center, Rugeley, Staffordshire, England. Image: Birmingham Mail.
There is one major condition to the wage work that the capitalist must contend with. The efficiency of each worker, whose labor is a purchased unit of the capitalist enterprise, is based on their physical, mental, and emotional state, their history, the working conditions in their job and within the company, how their work is organized and for whom they work under.
If production is nearly optimal, but workers are burning out, capitalists find no reason to dramatically change things because they build turnover rates into their models. They continue to ameliorate worker’s demands just enough to keep production uninterrupted. In Amazon’s case, they understand turnover and burnout will be high. Amazon does not need to dramatically improve working conditions, no matter the human cost on their warehouse workers because Amazon of how plans on turnover. One study found the Amazon warehouse employee turnover rate may be as high as 100%. This means the amount of workers leaving is near equivalent to the hundreds of thousands of workers Amazon is hiring. 17.
Management consultants and senior executives often frame their work as transformative and world-changing e.g. work hard, have fun, make history (Amazon) change that matters (McKinsey), building a better working world (EY). Savvy PR teams and charismatic leaders come up with these phrases, but all of these companies share a common objective – they are laser-focused on driving “efficiencies” and productivity in the organization and management of the labor process.
Amazon has 20,000 employee cases of COVID-19 for not practicing safe protocols and providing workers with PPE supplies early on. This is a high price to pay for faster packages or “making history.” And, as unemployment soared to nearly 20%, and his employees were fighting for safe working conditions, Jeff Bezos saw his wealth rise by an estimated $48 billion. Jeff Bezos is not interested in the qualitative virtues of work. Amazon only makes working conditions better to offer ameliorations to worker demands.
How do companies square up laying off workers in a pandemic, while continuing to generate profit?
Mayday, JFK8 – Amazon Fulfillment Center. Staten Island, NY. May 1, 2020. Photo: Brett Wallace
Under the capitalist mode of production, if the capitalist does not relentlessly pursue profit to all extremes, such as reducing labor costs, the capitalist enterprise will eventually lose its leadership position over time and be outpaced by more ruthless, “innovative” and hungry competitors. This is a natural law of competitive capitalism. This is why when capitalism is working well, we see its most hideous and pathetic characteristics.
Amazon’s relationship with labor power is not much different from any capitalist enterprise. Since the 1970s, capitalism’s unchecked rise has led to an intense stand off with labor power. Unions have been eroded. Capitalist enterprises are notoriously anti-union, a sharp change from the mid 20th century. The gig economy has given rise to independently contracted wage-work without benefits. And, work is more controlled and instrumented. All of this has led to a decline in labor power and a degradation in work.
2. Art worlds
- Oxford English Dictionary on the Internet (visited October 13, 2020).
- Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, p.36, 1974
- Frederick Engels, The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, 1876.
- Frederick Engels, The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, 1876.
- Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1: The Buying And Selling Of Labour-Power
- Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, p.36, 1974
- Lim, Katherine, et al, Independent Contractors in the U.S.: New Trends from 15 years of Administrative Tax Data (visited October 15, 2020)
- Marx, Karl.”Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, The Poverty of Philosophy, and Wage Labor and Capital“., vol. 47, pp. 190–91
- Amazon.com on the Internet (visited October 15, 2020)
- Friedrich Engels, The Principles of Communism, 1847
- Marx, Karl. “Capital, Vol. 1: The Buying And Selling Of Labour-Power“
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, The Economics Daily, Productivity and compensation, 1987–2015 on the Internet (visited October 15, 2020)
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed on Internet, Usual Weekly Earnings of Wage and Salary Workers, Second Quarter, 2020, on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/wkyeng.pdf, (visited October 13, 2020)
- Krantz-Kent, Rachel. “Measuring time spent in unpaid household work: results from the American Time Use Survey“, Monthly Labor Review, July 2009 (visited October 13, 2020)
- Akron rubberworkers and Flint autoworkers first used the sitdown strike in 1937, and the tactic spread (until it was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in 1939). In New York, first H.L.Green store employees were demanding a forty hour week and 20 dollar minimum weekly wage, and four days later the employees of Woolworth’s at Union Square also sat down. Stores were occupied for 10 days, until Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia intervened, imposing a settlement that provided union recognition, an 8 hour day, 6 day week and 32.5 cent minimum wage.
- National Council of Occupational Safety and Health, The Dirty Dozen 2019: Employers Who Put Workers and Communities at Risk on the Internet (visited October 13, 2020)
- Romano, Benjamin. “Amazon’s turnover rate amid pandemic is at least double the average for retail and warehousing industries” on the Internet (visited October 13, 2020)