Wall Street’s fortunes based on millions of unpaid hours

Jan 22, 2014

Workers create all wealth through their labor—only to have it stolen by parasitic capitalists. (Photo by Alfred T. Palmer. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Time is money for the capitalist class

The vast majority of the working class sees the money in their bank accounts, wallets and shoeboxes as hard earned. People endure unsatisfying jobs for years, filled with all sorts of daily inconveniences and abuses in order to keep receiving a paycheck. That paycheck is then used to purchase all the things they need to sustain themselves and their families.

It is obvious to most poor and working people that the money and things they possess are directly the products of their hours, days, weeks and years of labor.

The trick that the ruling class plays is to take this understanding and convert it into a myth: “If you work hard enough, you can become rich.” This says that the enormous wealth enjoyed by a privileged few, who we are trained to admire in the corporate media, celebrity culture and the school system, is also the product of individual labor.

In fact, the billions and trillions of dollars controlled by corporations and sitting in private bank accounts are of a different character. This money is the product not of individual labor, but social labor: the work of millions of other people, all across the world, over centuries of time.

How money developed

Before there was money, a person would trade directly one thing for another—what is called “barter.” The amount of needed labor to produce each item was the way human beings estimated its value in relation to another item. One would not trade a coat for a wooden spoon because it took far more labor to produce the coat.

To complete a trade in this type of “marketplace” based on barter, however, both parties always needed to have an item that the other desired, and which had equal value in terms of the necessary labor-time that went into them.

This could not work in a complex economy and so, in civilizations across the globe, people developed money to make things easier.

Instead of trading one product directly for other products of equivalent value, one could trade it for money—in other words, selling. They could then trade their accumulated money, in small or large amounts as needed, for another product from someone else—in other words, buying. The money in a sense “stored” the value of this labor, to then be split up or combined with other money to trade for other items.

In neither the act of buying or selling does the money itself have any inherent value. It is just the “middle man,” representing a certain amount of labor time. That is why societies could use different things for money—some used gold, other used cowrie shells, while others used special types of leather. The money can take different forms. Today we use pieces of paper with the image of dead presidents’ faces.

All this then leads to a series of questions: how did some people get so much money? If we are all trading equivalent values, items for money and money for items, how did the world end up so divided between rich and poor? If money is based on labor, and only valuable because it “contains” labor time, does that mean rich families and their ancestors worked literally a million times harder than poor ones and their ancestors? That is clearly impossible: those working the hardest seem to always have the least!

Theft as the basis of inequality

How did society divide between haves and have-nots? The answer, in short, is theft. For thousands of years, the vast majority of humanity has labored, and this has been reflected in a growing overall wealth of human civilization as a whole. But in nearly every stage of society, a small class of people designed ways to rob people of the value of their labor.

The theft has come in different forms and is typically not considered “unlawful” at the time that it is in fashion.

Slavery, which was legal for over thousands of years, and included hundreds of years in the European settlement of North and South America, is the most obvious form of theft.

The commodities produced, the fields tilled and the buildings constructed by the slave could all be converted into money, which the slaveowner received.

Serfdom was another blatant form of theft. The serfs worked the land—to which they were legally bound — and delivered a set amount or portion of what they produced to the “lord” who owned the land. This land ownership itself was typically established by theft, as reward for war and conquest. This too was entirely legal in the societies in which it flourished.

Colonialism, which for centuries was not only legal but celebrated (and continues in altered forms today), is another form of blatant theft. The resources and commodities of one nation or region are simply seized and their value transferred to the colonizers.

In each form of theft above, there is one general rule: one large group of people produces value based on their labor, while another smaller group finds a way to steal or “appropriate” this value for themselves.

This is still going on today under capitalism, but in different form. Today’s ruling class, which to a large degree builds on previous generations of rulers, has its own mechanisms to “legally” steal an enormous portion of the overall social wealth.

Surplus value

Under capitalism, the theft takes the form not of outright robbery but instead begins with a purchase. Unlike all other purchases in which money is exchanged for a commodity of an equivalent value, the capitalist purchases a commodity that creates more value as it is used. That commodity is labor time.

The capitalist purchases the labor power of the worker for a given amount of time, but during that time the worker produces far more value for the owner than they receive in their paycheck. The capitalist gives money to the worker, but only enough to keep them coming back to work. The additional value—what Karl Marx described as “surplus value”—is pocketed as a profit.

The worker spends part of the day, a certain number of hours, to generate the value of their wage, and another portion of the day essentially working for free.

Take a cell phone, for instance, which on average returns a 50 percent profit to the company on each that is sold. A cell phone is the product of a complex labor process that spans continents. It involves not just engineers and software developers, but miners of copper, lithium, cobalt, coltan, gold and a range of other metals (often in Africa); factory workers who make the plastics and small parts, assembly lines of workers who put the pieces together (typically in east Asia); the dockworkers and ship crews who send them to the receiving country; truck drivers and railroad workers who send them across the country and the retail workers who finally service customers at the store.

If the amount that the customer pays for the cell phone were distributed in full to the workers, there would be no private profit. Instead, at each stage of the process the capitalist pays the workers less than the value of their labor.

Why would workers all over the world agree to this unjust proposition, this daily form of robbery? It is because the things one needs to survive like food, housing, health care, clothing, etc. are only accessible as commodities for which one must exchange money. The things that produce value — the buildings, the machinery, the land, etc. — are all privately owned and out of reach. So despite the inherent robbery, the worker sells in the marketplace the one thing they control: their labor time.

Up close, the process of a capitalist employing an individual worker and taking the “surplus value” each day may appear unremarkable. But if repeated hundreds of millions of times per day, all over the world, for generations, it explains the enormous sums that the capitalist class has accumulated. It explains how they are swimming in oceans of wealth while the working class generally accumulates no wealth.

Socialism is an act of reclaiming

The worker accumulates money fundamentally as a means of exchange—the thing that transfers their labor time into the purchase of products that they need or desire.

The capitalist accumulates money not based on their labor time, but others’ labor time. They use that money to increase their ownership, to purchase extravagant things, to pay off debts to a bigger capitalist or simply to stow away for a time.

In the current system, the worker only escapes the robbery of the wage system by somehow becoming a capitalist.

This is a dream that does not at all alter the legalized theft at the heart of the system. It just means a few of the exploited become exploiters.

Socialists have a different sort of “dream,” one that can be made a reality. The overall social wealth, produced by humanity over hundreds and thousands of years, should likewise belong to humanity and used for its betterment. The great mass of this wealth is currently under the control of private banks in which the capitalist class has consolidated and merged their profits. This wealth may appear in money form but that money is really millions of hours of unpaid labor and the product of non-stop theft over lifetimes.

Wall Street’s money is, in fact, the stolen time of the global working class. When socialists say “expropriate the expropriators,” we mean to reclaim this wealth and use it to finally eliminate the inequality between nations and people.

The theft at the heart of capitalism—one person’s private profit off another’s labor—will likewise pass into history as a great crime and finally be declared unlawful.