[OPE-L:4682] the determination of real wages---- and a puzzle

Michael_A._Lebowit (mlebowit@sfu.ca)
Wed, 9 Apr 1997 01:35:33 -0700 (PDT)

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Trying to convince Ajit that real wages in Marx are determined by class
struggle and that Marx intended to relax his assumption that the standard of
necessity is given when it came to his special study of wage-labour is
clearly no simple task. It doesn't seem to be possible by providing the
appropriate quotations because Ajit always seems to have an interpretation
which, to me at least, seems off the wall. Eg., in response to my point that
Marx treated the real wage as given as an assumption, Ajit (ignoring all
Marx's statements to this effect) answered (4453) that no, this was a
"crucial theoretical position for Marx" and proceeded to argue that real
wages are fixed because they depend on the "level of civilization" (as if
that explains anything). When I cited Marx's statement about workers
succeeding in achieving "a certain quantitative participation in the general
growth of wealth"-- a point Marx was making to explain why surplus labour
grew less rapidly than increases in productivity would suggest, Ajit
responded (4470) by proposing that it was necessary to give the full
statement from Marx, placing it in its proper context in the discussion of
Hodgskin, and he concluded that Marx's statement about that "quantitative
participation in the general growth of wealth" really refers to the "increase
in the numbers of workers employed and not increase in real wages". (This
interpretation is despite the fact the fuller statement that Ajit cited
refers specifically to how the workers "will not permit them [wages] to be
reduced to the absolute minimum"---which seems to suggest the matter has to
do with wages and with agency, class struggle, etc!)
So, I conclude from this, quotations are not going to sway Ajit on this
question. Maybe it's possible, then, to engage him and others in a bit of
In 4666, Ajit responded to Jerry's question, "can trade union struggles
succeed in raising real wages over time" by stating "if productivity is
rising then [the] answer is yes." This seems pretty straight-forward--- if
real wages rise*without* productivity increases, then the prospect is for a
crisis in capitalist reproduction or for capital to be driven, sooner or
later, to increase the technical composition of capital.
On the other hand, Ajit presumably does not mean that the increase in
productivity (while necessary for a sustained increase in real wages) in
itself leads to (or means) the increase in real wages. After all, we know
that increased productivity with constant real wages and thus a falling
value of labour-power and rising rate of exploitation is Capital I's story
of relative surplus value. However, it is too late-- Ajit has let the cat
out of the bag by acknowledging that real wages can rise if productivity is
So, here is the question/puzzle--- if we no longer treat real wages as
fixed *by definition* (ie., if we acknowledge, as Marx said, that "the level
of the necessaries of life whose total value constitutes the value of
labour-power can itself rise or fall"-- Vol. I, Vintage,1068-9), then what
exactly happens to real wages as productivity increases? Eg., if
productivity in the production of goods entering into workers' consumption
doubles, this is equivalent to a fall of 50 0n the value of those
commodities. Then--- excluding the unlikely case in which workers are paid
directly in kind, ie. in use-values, why will real wages not in this case
double (ie., increase at the same rate as productivity)?
In short, what *exactly* is the mechanism that governs the determination
of real wages? In particular, what is the mechanism that will generate a
constant real wage (ie., that money wages will also fall by 50%)? Finally,
does the story of relative surplus value have to be modified once real wages
are no longer fixed by definition? I know Ajit will have answers for this
but I hope that others will help to clear this matter up for me.

in solidarity,
Michael A. Lebowitz
Economics Department, Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, B.C. Canada V5A 1S6
Office (604) 291-4669; Office fax: (604) 291-5944
Home: (604) 872-0494; Home fax (with warning): (604) 872-0485
Lasqueti Island (250) 333-8810