[OPE-L:2383] Re: the employment contract and capitalism

From: Gerald Levy (glevy@PRATT.EDU)
Date: Sat Feb 19 2000 - 15:18:39 EST

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Date: Sat, 19 Feb 2000 20:56:23 +0100
From: "Prof. Ernesto Screpanti" <screpanti@unisi.it>

Jerry wrote in [2379]

At 09.01 17/02/00 -0500, you wrote:
>Re Ernesto's [OPE-L:2377]:
>> My view is that the employment contract is not a contract for the sale of a
>> commodity (labour power or labour services) but a relational contract that
>> establishes a power relation.
>The employment contract is, by definition, a contract that states that in
>*exchange* for the performance of labour time at the command of an
>individual capitalist (or the state in the case of state employees), a
>worker will receive an amount of money wages calculated according to
>some formula (and, depending on the specifics of the contract, other

Right. But I would not say "labour time". What is a "performance of labour
time"? There can be a performance of labour activity, i.e. the execution of
the employer's commands in the labour process in performing activities of
commodities transformation, but this is not a commodity.

>In either case (employment of wage-earners by capitalists or the state),
>this is a *market* development. Thus, whether you wish to call
>labour-power a commodity or not, there is a contract where an
>agreement is made to *buy* something (the right to command the
>labour-power of workers during some work period) in *exchange
>for an amount of money* (generally to be paid at a later date,
>i.e. in arrears).

Right. But I would say that what one buys in an employment contract is the
workers' freedom during the labour process. Once this has been bought, it
becomes the employer's power.
>> It produces the conditions for exploitation
>> in the production processes independently of the way property rights are
>> distributed.
>But, are they "independent"? Why *do* workers work for capital? Isn't
>the answer to that question related to both the ownership of means of
>production by the capitalist class and the *non-ownership* of means of
>production by the working class? Thus, property rights (and the absence of
>property rights) *directly* relates to why workers enter into a
>"employment contract" to begin with.

I am not so sure. Workers can be formally the owners of the (or some) means
of production, for instance through pension funds or the public ownership of
the "workers' state", yet they can be exploited if they have no control of
the labour process. The institutional conditions of exploitation can be
independent from the distribution of property rights. The owners can be
shareholders without control. The exploiters can be managers or bureaucrats
without ownership.
>> The employer can be a private capitalist or a public company
>> or a state company or whatever else. There will be capitalist exploitation
>> anyway, provided the power relation is used to make workers produce a
>> surplus value usable for sustaining capital accumulation. This implies,
>> among the other things, that also a system based on state ownership of the
>> means of production can be a capitalist system (like the Soviet Union!).
>This also implies that state employees rather than being paid out of
>*revenues* and performing unproductive labour, are productive labourers
>who create surplus value. Yet, this seems to me to obliterate the
>productive vs. unproductive labour distinction and the production vs.
>distribution of surplus value distinction.

I am not so convinced of that distintion. If productive labour is that which
produces surplus value, a foreman who controls, punishes and coordinates
workers thus obtaining from a team a value which is higher than what would
produced in the absence of the foreman himslef, then the latter is
productive. If so, also a policeman in a state capitalist system is productive .
>I will pass on a discussion of the former USSR at this point (although,
>others can discuss it if they wish). Let me only note here that the
>question of whether the USSR was capitalist is a *much more* concrete
>question than the question we are discussing now. Also, let me note, that
>a position one way or the other on whether the USSR was capitalist or
>socialist or a transitional economy can not *determine* our perspective on
>the much more abstract question.

I agree.

>> The basic reason why the ownership of the means of production does not in
>> itself suffice to produce the conditions for capitalist exploitation is
>> that the right to residual control it grants is not a right to control the
>> workers but just to control the machines. These do not produce anything if
>> they are not handled by workers. But then you need an institution to compel
>> the workers to do what the capitalist likes. This institution is the
>> employment contract.
>The "institution" that compels the wage-earner to perform a certain
>standard of work in the labour process is ultimately the understanding
>that since the capitalist has the right to hire and fire (a consequence,
>in part, of the ownership of the means of production),

No, it is a consequence of the employment contract and labour law.

workers will do as
>capital commands or run the risk of joining the industrial reserve army.
>This does not, however, imply that workers through *collective action* do
>not have any other options. Thus, the "employment contract" is itself
>modified by struggle. The major reason for this potential power by
>wage-earners is that one aspect of "free labour" is that they have the
>right to withhold their labour. And if workers don't work, then
>surplus value and profit won't happen. Of course, though, the outlawing of
>the "right to strike" does not negate capitalist relations of production.
>Historically, this might be explained in the following way: workers are
>"free" as *individuals* to seek and quit employment; however, the state
>has in many cases said that workers are not free to act *collectively* to
>withhold their labour by going on strike (frequently, there is the
>specious argument made that workers can not be allowed this right since
>trade unions are supposedly a "monopoly"!).

I agree.

In solidarity,

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