The work of key workers is immensely valuable for a community but not so to a surplus-driven capitalist economy, says Dominic Alexander
It is not news that care staff are paid often less than enough to live on and suffer from exploitative zero-hours contracts. It is not news that a whole range of key workers, from cleaners, shelf-stackers to delivery workers and others, receive low wages earned in harsh conditions. It has, however, suddenly become an embarrassment to the establishment that the country now depends so transparently on those marginalised and undervalued workers of our free-market economy.
While the essential nature of all this work has always really been known, it remains a question of how it can be so undervalued. The standard answer is that these are areas of unskilled labour. These workers are easily replaced from a pool of undifferentiated labour that, for whatever reason, has not invested in developing the necessary skills to be more highly rewarded. The eternal laws of supply and demand take care of the rest.
Neoliberal moralism, therefore, puts the blame for poverty on the efforts and psychology of those who fail to thrive in the capitalist labour market. This is a powerful mechanism to browbeat and demoralise people at the receiving end of brutal inequalities of pay and conditions. It is particularly horrifying to hear of care workers being accused of lacking sufficient concern for their charges when they raise concerns about pay and conditions. It is as if expecting a living wage and safe conditions at work is a selfish act if your job is to perform essential tasks that sustain other people’s lives.
The real issue is that, for the companies in these cases, following the overall logic of capital, labour which is not producing a surplus is a waste and a burden upon the whole system. The need for workers to maintain basic standards of hygiene, or to look after those who can no longer work to produce profits for others, is no more than a costly overhead to the total economy. The cost of key workers, therefore, needs to be minimised, so that the maximum amount of capital can be invested in those other spheres which produce a surplus for capitalism. The purpose of outsourced companies in cleaning or care is to drive down the cost of all this key work, for which they receive as profit a share of the surplus created elsewhere.
This is not a new invention in the neoliberal era of the last forty years but is a basic element of the capitalist system. It was expressed during the industrial revolution of the later eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries in the astonishing levels of poverty and social breakdown of the new industrial cities, where there was no provision for maintaining even the basics of public health like sewage systems. The underlying reason for all of this is not the industrial revolution as such but is the way in which capitalism separates out use-value from exchange value.
To the capitalist, the particular characteristics (the use-value) of a product do not matter at all, it only matters that at the end of the process of commodity production and exchange on the market, that the return represents a profit on the capital investment and all the costs entailed. In this process, capital pays labour less than the value of the labourer’s work, otherwise, a profit could not be made. If a worker’s labour goes towards the formation of a surplus, which can be appropriated as profit, then that worker is a productive one for capitalism.
What does not enter into these calculations is the fact that a worker does not come to the place of production (the factory, say), without other socially necessary activity having taken place. Raising children, acquiring and preparing food, caring for those who cannot work, and so on, are all activities out of sight of the individual capitalist, and are not taken into account as costs of production. Wages, through competition between capitalists, are then driven down to levels that can drop below what is socially and ecologically sustainable.
During the industrial revolution, wages for many factory workers were driven so low that the whole family had to work in factories, men, women, and even small children, just to afford to rent a single room. During peak economic times, adults could be expected to work up to sixteen hours a day. Their productive labour was producing an extraordinary mass of profit which enriched the owners of capital but blighted and shortened their lives. Children working at throstle frames for spinning cotton grew up lame from the repetitive action. It was realised by the more enlightened capitalists that the next generation of workers were being used up before they could become adult workers.
Alongside labour that is productive in terms of exchange value, society also requires reproductive labour. This is all the work that goes into keeping society going, generation after generation, but it is just an overhead to the individual capitalist, who will seek to limit the cost of the reproduction of labour to its absolute minimum. Since the competitive mechanism of capitalism does not recognise that unproductive labour has real social value, the funds and time allocated to it can be forced below what is feasible for the basic reproduction of society.
It will not be lost on the reader that a very high proportion of the labour required for social reproduction is done by women. Women’s labour in the workplace has been historically underpaid, and women are overrepresented in many of the most underpaid of our key-worker sectors today. Care work, like the NHS, is a cost to capital because it is socially necessary labour, but it removes labour and capital from the sectors which produce a surplus, and therefore from the total mass of profit available to the capitalist class. The oppression of women and the production of capitalist profit are deeply intertwined forces.
The Factory Acts of the nineteenth century would not have passed without the struggles of working-class movements which demanded restrictions on working hours, and improvements in conditions. Importantly, however, some capitalists did support reform, on the pragmatic grounds that the workforce needed to be maintained for the future. Those capitalists that did support reform, notably Michael Sadler and John Fielden, both also MPs, were, because their factories had the most advanced machinery, in a position to outcompete their rivals if protections were put in place for the whole of industry.
The Factory Acts which prevented industrial capitalism from exploiting its workforce to destruction shows the necessity for collective regulation of the system, even from the point of view of capitalists themselves. This means that the cost of the reproduction of labour is a political decision that depends upon the balance of forces in society and politics. For a long period, while capitalism was on the upswing, with technology making workers more productive, it was possible for capitalists to allow higher wages and more money for social reproduction.
That long, but very chequered period has come to an end. In the 1970s, the capitalist system at a global level entered into a crisis of profitability; the rate of return on investment was falling, and this threatens the viability of the whole system. What in Britain was called Thatcherism, globally neoliberalism, sought to reduce the cost of labour in order to restore profitability. This includes not just directly productive labour, but the whole growing sphere of the reproduction of labour. The costs allocated to these areas in the post-war period, for example to the NHS, state education, and so forth, had to be scaled back. Where once they had been seen as an acceptable trade-off to maintain social peace in a highly productive economy, now they became just an overhead that dragged down the rate of profit.
This is why the neoliberal mantra for the last forty years has been productivity. If workers want to be paid more, if more is to be allocated to matters of social value rather than the production of surplus-value, then workers must be more productive. It is our responsibility, say the capitalists, whether it is in widget-making, or in the education of the next generation of the workforce, to sustain the surplus available for the whole economy through the length and intensity of our working day.
This logic can and must be, resisted. Low wages are not in fact due to an eternal law of supply and demand. It is certainly not a valid estimation of the skills involved in much of this actually highly skilled work. It is a collective, political decision concerning how much of society’s resources are to be devoted to essential social labour.
It has been said that clapping for care and health workers is something of an empty gesture. It is certainly so when self-serving politicians seek to exploit it. However, such rituals can create a sense of collective solidarity; they are a kind of work that creates a community, something else which capital fails to see as having value. It has been made clear how all this work is central to our social survival, so it is up to us collectively to assert its importance and value, as against the logic of capital, which can see only its own profit.
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Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).
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