Labor power is the potential for humans to do work. Capitalists buy it from us, usually a week at a time, for what they call a week’s wage. As something that is produced for sale or trade, labor power clearly falls under our definition of a commodity.

How does this particular commodity, labor power, get its value?

All commodities get their value from the average amount of socially necessary labor time needed to produce them. Labor power, then, is valued by the labor that went into its making. That is, the accumulated values of birthing, rearing, transporting, training, and otherwise preparing the workers. Take a moment to absorb that.

 

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Of course, workers aren't created like machines, but the value of their time on the job can be computed in a similar way. If a boss could build a robot to exactly replace a worker, he would base his decision on cost!

Just for an incidental thought, consider that medical doctors get paid a lot more for their labor power than schoolteachers, and schoolteachers get more than janitors, even though none is intrinsically better than the other. Medical doctors, it turns out, have to be trained longer and thus their labor power has more value. Schoolteachers are trained longer than janitors, and thus produce more valuable labor power.

Remember again that we are talking about macro-economics, not specific people or events. The average value of labor power is equal to the amount of socially necessary labor time needed to produce it, or to produce the worker who sells the labor power.

If the value of a worker is his or her replacement value, does their wage tend to equal their worth? In economics, all commodities (don’t forget we’re talking averages) are sold at their value. Consequently, the answer is yes, in a very general sense, the capitalist pays workers their replacement value, or their value.

Might the capitalists pay more or less than value?

Capitalists might temporarily pay more or less than value according to market conditions for labor, or for certain kinds of labor. The rules work the same as for other commodities. The ups and downs vary the price of labor power, but always around its value.

Capitalism would not work if capitalists consistently paid workers less than their replacement value, because the workers would die out for lack of subsistence. Marx remarked wryly, “However, they always try!”

Capitalists can and do pay more than replacement value when workers unite and start winning the perpetual class struggle within capitalism. But capitalist competition forces each employer to try to lower labor costs, consequently they must always maintain pressure to cut wages. The workers’ gains, under capitalism, are always temporary and must be won over and over again. Workers will never make stable and permanent gains as long as capitalism is the reigning system of production. Take a minute to absorb that. The word was “never!”

To summarize: labor power is a commodity and obeys the rules of other commodities. Capitalists purchase labor power, on average, at its value. Under capitalism, workers must fight constantly, over and over again, to get anything more than subsistence and training.

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