The competition of the workers Ruthless Criticism

Wage labor –
The competition of the workers –
Class consciousness



Wage labor is labor that is done in order to get an income. It is characterized by its connection to the wage, the payment that the worker receives for his activities. As labor, an activity appropriately directed toward the production of objects satisfying human needs, it is a means for a different purpose: for the wage laborer, it is the means of his reproduction. [1] He does the work because he gets money for it, with which he buys the necessities for living. By ceding his activity to somebody else who gives him money for it, he ensures his existence. So wage labor is a social relationship which the wage laborer enters into with an owner of money who is interested in his labor. [2] The exchange between these two social characters concerns money and labor in a certain quantity, whereby the labor as an activity (= process, movement) is measured in time.

The sale of a quantity of labor for a quantity of money enables the wage laborer as a buyer on the market to procure the objects of his needs. The money wage in principle gives him access to everything available for purchase that the society produces. “… he is neither bound to particular objects, nor to a particular manner of satisfaction.” (Grundrisse, p. 283) But the quantitative determinacy of his wages nevertheless represents a limitation to his reproduction. He can satisfy the needs of his own individuality only to the extent that he can pay for the relevant objects. The qualitatively determined pleasures that are meted out to the worker have their limit in the amount of wages. Hence, the form of wage labor (money) includes a restriction for the reproduction of the worker; it is his means and it is always restricted. [3]


Since the sale of labor at a certain price is a means for individual reproduction which is based on the benefit that the buyer of the labor draws from the exchange, the wage laborer exposes himself to a comparison with other sellers of labor whose reproduction likewise depends on selling their activity.

“Thus a sellers’ competition takes place, pressing down the price of the offered commodity.” (Wage Labor and Capital)

Vice versa, the competition between the buyers causes a rise in the price obtained by the suppliers of labor. The result of the interacting pressure between supply and demand is a valid market price for each of the different types of labor. The exact amount of the wage, which sets a limit to the reproduction of the wage laborer, therefore depends on the course of competition. Its specific limitation is a result of the pressure that the wage laborers generate among themselves as competitors, and appears to each of them as an expression of his individual ability to assert himself, the manner in which he proves himself in the competitive struggle. This consists in the first instance in comparing themselves as sellers.


As the wage relation is an exchange, an economic relation entered into by the buyer and the seller of labor only for their individual benefits, the legal form of a contract is required. The commitment of a declaration of intention given by both sides, the contracting partner respectively ceding either labor or money in defined quantities, requires protection by the state. Because the identity of the wills, the commonality of the special interests with regard to the object of the contract, disappears with each side’s individual benefit – due to the presence of competitors, no side is dependent on the services of specific individuals as counterparties – the wage laborers (just like the capitalists) are reliant on the universal power of the state. By maintaining a legal situation, it guarantees the conditions under which they can reproduce themselves as wage laborers[4], which means, vice versa, that the wage laborers must contribute to the revenue of the state with their economic means.


The limitation that arises for the wage laborer from the amount of wages appears in reproduction itself as a shortage of money that forces the wage laborer to desist as a buyer in the market. Debts and savings are the continuous forms of his poverty, if his continued existence is not made altogether impossible: if he borrows money, he satisfies his needs at the expense of future sacrifices; if he saves, he limits his need satisfaction for future benefits.


With the existence of the state, which ensures in law the conditions for the reproduction of the individual through the sale of labor, this form of reproduction is recognized as legitimate by the universal power. If the wage laborer fails due to the course of competition, then – given the absence of any alternative for gaining an income – he has a right to have his existence maintained, and the state has the duty to take care of his subsistence. The public welfare service is the consequence of the poverty which bourgeois society forces on part of its members because they are not able to reproduce themselves in the recognized forms of securing an existence. The compensatory nature of this care means that it is also linked to all sorts of coercive measures to force the wage laborers to manage their subsistence without the help of the state.


From the experience of not having enough money, a constant tension in a worker’s life, arises the conventional equation of social differences with the “gap” between poor and rich. A whole range of efforts, from gambling to inheritance scheming up to crime, proves that a consciousness exists that contains the insight that one does not become rich by working, but on the other hand does not get to the bottom of the difference between poor and rich and also thinks that the only form in which the desolation of the worker’s existence can be overcome is by gaining wealth. All variants of this consciousness – from rags to riches movies to the proverb “it’s better to be healthy…” – thrive on an instrumental view of the social relations, which are just something to cope with. [5]

In relation to the state, which tries to influence the economic movement with its social and politico-economic program, this consciousness deals with the claim that its measures may positively affect the reproduction conditions of the workers and prevent adverse modifications in the standard of living that are fixed by the total sum wage:

The demand that the state should ensure a fairer distribution of wealth and thereby social power among individuals is the “harmless” prelude to the worker as fascist as well as revisionist.



The limitation of the worker’s reproduction given by the amount of wages must be overcome by increasing the sale of labor to bring in more wages. The quantitative fluctuations in the exchange of labor for money are an inherent consequence of the wage labor relation, the immediate result of which is the fact that the received quantity of money sets a barrier to fulfilling the purpose of reproducing the worker in accord with his individual needs. [6]

But increasing the sale of labor, which should safeguard reproduction through wage labor, directly subjects the realization of this goal to a reduction. The time in which the worker as an individual spends pursuing his special interests and satisfying his needs is shortened by the means that are used for the sake of reproduction. The temporal extension of work should increase the wage in order to ensure reproduction, but constricts it. In its own necessity to increase, wage labor as a means for reproduction excludes the realization of this purpose.


The compulsion imposed on the individual wage laborer to extend labor increases the supply on the labor market and increases the competitive pressure among the sellers: the effect of competition, a sinking market price for labor, reveals that increasing the sale of labor, instead of securing the reproduction of the wage laborer, conflicts with the goal it serves. The worker’s efforts to benefit as an individual on the basis of wage labor worsens the ratio between money and labor; the social relationship he enters into with wage labor stands in opposition to the private benefit he draws from it.


The need to increase labor time contradicts any limitation of the working day, because as a constant regulation this hinders the need to be able to pay for individual reproduction. Vice versa, the competition counteracts the aim of securing reproduction by worsening the ratio between money and wages. So that the prolongation of wage labor can function as a means for the reproduction of the wage laborers, the regulation of a normal working day is required, which cannot be affected by the interacting pressure of supply and demand. In order to make the means of “work” useful to a heightened degree, the fixing of wages for a specific duration is necessary, so that going over this normal working day really involves an improvement of reproduction.

In this respect, the time in which the wage laborer increases his amount of work directly reduces his reproduction time and thus affects the quality of needs he can satisfy, so for the additional work he must be paid a wage that takes into consideration this obstacle to reproduction. The overtime wage is the result of reflection on how labor is extended for a goal whose fulfillment makes the extension necessary.

Regulation of a normal working day and the accompanying special compensation for overtime are preconditions for the individual use of labor as a source of income, which are required as universal regulations by the fluctuations of competition on the labor market. The inherent collision between means and ends in the wage labor relation implies a forced specification of the conditions of competition by the state as an authority that uses force against the competitors, because otherwise the purposes pursued in the competition would be defeated by the competition.


The time in which the worker satisfies his needs and follows his personal interests and inclinations is shortened by the means of wage labor, for the sake of which his activities take place in a sphere separate from it, something that also negatively affects the organization of free time. A “compression” of his reproduction takes place: necessary consumption must be completed in as short an amount of time as possible if anything is to still be left over for free individual activity at all. Saving on time – on the activities necessary for housekeeping or for commuting between workplace and residence, as well as for a residence in good condition – costs money in itself. The expected demand for these items from the wage laborers results in increased prices and again counteracts their intention. The contradiction of wage labor is experienced as a constant threat to the “quality of life” – the rest is done by devastation to the family as the “personal” realm, its special relationships falling prey to the employment of women.


Because a livelihood in the form of wage labor is authorized, but at the same time has the aforementioned defects in reproduction as consequences, the state through its actions as guarantor must be responsible for the free actuation of the personality for which wage labor represents the approved means. That’s why points in the state’s sociopolitical program are to be found that aim at coping with the difficulties that arise for the wage laborer from the tendency of labor to expand into the sphere of reproduction and bring wage labor as a source of income into conflict with its purpose. The state impedes the danger to an area of individual need satisfaction due to the absorption of wages by the necessities of merely continuing to exist, in part by weakening the effects of competition through interventions in the housing market, in part by independently procuring living space alongside the competition between landlords – because landed property is likewise recognized as a source of subsistence – which makes the price of housing prohibitively expensive for wage laborers. It provides for the shortage of time and the financial restrictions on the private activities of the wage laborers by establishing a system of public mass communications, and counteracts the restrictions which raising children imposes on wage laborers by family policy measures ranging from tax exemptions and child benefits for school up to children’s programming in the publicly organized mass media. The latter permits wage laborers a non-expensive option for information and hence the pursuit of their duties as citizens, but it also creates entertainment programs for easy access to cultural pleasures, which they would be deprived of without state action or would spread their time and their money too thin.


The very material consequences of the increased efforts of the wage laborer, which sometimes increases his income, leads him to find an “explanation” of the poverty he finds himself and others in: the differences are based on differing willingnesses to work. Laziness and hard work are supposed to be reasons for how much one can afford. Vice versa, a high income is seen as an indicator of the virtues of the respective person.

The state, whose good reputation is in turn derived from the negative consequences of wage labor for the worker’s “quality of life,” appears unsatisfactory insofar as it does not take up what he perceives as its duties in sufficient measure. For the wage laborer, it is helpful for coping with the contradictions of his reproduction, but not sufficiently, so a strengthening of its socio-political influence on the worker’s existence is required: the demands apply to all its relevant activities (land reform, free admissions, child care) and are the favorite subjects of citizen initiatives, the form of oppositional politics which takes the authorization of demands as the occasion to search for enforcement possibilities which have not been met in the mechanisms of democracy.

The consequence of the interplay of supply and demand on the labor market, the danger of being unable to sell labor, finds expression in advocacy for job security when it comes to the state’s economic policy objectives.

The recognition of the virtues of individuals as the basis for their “secure” existence – a view which is combined with demands for state action – is in turn the transition to fascist consciousness: the state should eliminate what is interpreted as “inadequacies” in their own reproduction by not tolerating laziness, deadbeats, etc. By not working, they want to escape the compulsions of capitalistic reproduction and they (not those who obtain incomes from not working) seem responsible for these restrictions by becoming a burden on the state and thus the general public.



The increase in labor that the wage laborer sells must take place in a way that does not hinder reproduction by reducing free time and result in all the shortcomings for the sphere of individual activity that follow from it. The temporal extension of labor must be replaced by its intensification within the given duration. The form of the measured rate – a certain activity performed in a certain time is measured by a quantity of money that is paid for it – develops into an inherent quality of the work itself. Its discrete moments are set in relation to time, given in its process as measured: performance. The amount of the wage is obtained as a result of the output produced within the labor time and can be measured in the product (piece-rate) or in the activity itself (methods-time measurement). Different wage systems exist depending on the type of labor; usually hybrid forms of time and piece-rate wages (bonuses); group piece rates are needed when no discrete product (part) can be attributed to the activity of the individual worker in the production process.

In these forms of performance measurement, the quality of the labor appears as mere a prerequisite, no more than a basis for the amount of the wage. Indeed, it is still specific, appropriate activity that is demanded in the wage labor relation; but the payment is directly related to the intensity of the activity, so that the same work obtains different wages only on account of the tempo in which it is done. The wage measures the activity of the individual wage laborers, but this individuality consists exclusively in the different degree to which he wears out relative to other workers. In incentive wages, the inherent nature of the wage labor relation emerges, as we know from Capital: the wage laborer is paid for the stress and strain which he demands of himself in his work, so he functions in the production process as a representative of labor par excellence. (The hierarchy of jobs is based on the two criteria effort and stress, according to which the different activities are compared.) While the purpose of his work is the wage, he must strive in the labor process to increase the benefit to the buyer of his labor so that his wage rises and he can reproduce himself: he does this by the destruction of his individuality. In order to be able to satisfy his needs and enjoy himself, he must run himself ragged.


The comparison between the competitive workers as sellers of labor takes place not only on the market, but also in the production process itself. The increased performance of the individual wage laborer increases the labor supply and allows the buyers to press down the price.

“The workers not only compete with each other when offering themselves more cheaply than the others, but when one works for two.” (MEW 6/542)

Superiority over his competitors, which the wage laborer wants to achieve in order to improve his reproduction, is at the same time his disadvantage. The increase in performance over his competitors, which he only accomplishes because he wants to earn more, is played against him by the buyer of labor: the exertions by which he intends to improve his individual reproduction not only wear him out, but also press down the price of his labor.

“Given the piece rate, it is of course in the personal interest of the worker to work as intensely as possible, which makes a rise of the normal degree of intensity easier for the capitalists.” (MEW 23/577)

The increased labor supply – whether it takes place as a lengthening of work time or as an increased performance on the part of the wage laborers – has the same consequence; it causes the exact opposite of what the wage laborer wants to achieve. Everything that he must undertake in order to secure his reproduction as an individual who is dependent on the sale of labor is deflected against him by the effect of competition. Each fixing in the measured ratio between performance and wage – such as falls due with technical changes – involves the tendency “while raising individual wages above the average, to lower this average itself.” (Capital I, Ch. 21)


The increase in performance is only a means to preserve his existence if the competition does not thwart the effect of an increase in income. But it is impossible to set a normal work day analogous to a state-assured performance standard which a wage laborer can surpass without the competition throwing him back behind an already achieved level: a universally valid measure for the stress and strain on the worker can’t be defined in view of the performance measurement connected to the specific labor process. By setting the worker’s obligation to perform in a wage contract, the law assumes that this performance of services has the tendency to destroy his health when it states that these are to be regulated so that “the obligor is protected against danger to life and health insofar as the nature of the service permits it” (§618) – but at the same time, also accepted. Yet a definition of the relation of wage and performance is not formulated in any law – wage regulations can give at best the minimum wages for a valid time period, thus “defining” the other side of the relation, so that the consideration of the “development of purchasing power” of money is the highest as can be regulated. The impossibility of separating the relation of wage and performance from the specific labor process completely hands its fluctuations over to the results of competition.

In this respect, the reproduction of the workers also depends on proving his individuality in the specific performance requirements that a job places on him. If he is not up to the results of the competition in an activity, another must be open to him: The state must protect the right to labor mobility and guarantee its realization: legislation protecting against unlawful dismissal and the relevant regulations in the courts.


The relation of labor and reproduction, as one of means and ends, presents itself in the compulsion to increase performance as a resolution of its own; the work, which serves as a means for the free, completely distinct character of the reproduction left up to the individual, negates this purpose by sending the wage laborer home as a used-up, destroyed individuality. The reproduction is, as the literal meaning of the word already says, restoration of a used-up person. The worker who goes to work for the capitalist in order to get wages with which to access enjoyments and free activity carries out exactly the opposite purpose. In his labor, he is a means, an object of the benefit that the buyer derives from him, and his free time serves to ensure that he is maintained in this function. The satisfaction of his needs goes to preserving the ability to work – he is labor power. He has to arrange his sleep, his meals, his enjoyments in such a way that they allow him to work. [7] The expenses for food, living room furniture and television demonstrate the vicious circle into which he is brought by the attempt to secure an area of free activity by wage labor. What culture critics deplore as the worker’s abstinence from intellectual pursuits and vulgar materialists attribute to manipulation has its reason in the determination of his private sphere by the social conditions into which he is forced by wage labor. The damage to his physical constitution forces a “healthy” diet on him, his job requires a residence that is appropriately furnished. Efforts in intellectual areas do not regenerate him, but demand his energy in a way detrimental to his work; “advanced professional training” is the measly remainder of his intellectual development, completely oriented to the sphere that should provide him freedom for his individuality. Labor, which reduces the “realm of necessity” on a social scale, does not create a “realm of freedom” for the wage laborer. The social form of labor is the reason that the fascists wrote over the concentration camp gates in Dachau: Work brings freedom!


The demands of the labor process have their limits in the physical and psychological characteristics of the wage laborers. In the sphere of reproduction, the reaching of this limit of the individual makes itself known as illness, i.e. the compulsion to restore the functionality of the body, and as lack of education, i.e. the need for education. The state has to create conditions for the reproduction of the wage laborers by constructing a health service and establishing education institutions. Because the concern of the workers for both their health and the acquisition of knowledge in accord with the requirements of competition (which precedes entering work life) represents restrictions on the free activity of the individuals in their free time, the achievements of civilization – disease control and education – appear under capitalistic relations as state compulsions on the individual: the wage laborer must insure himself, i.e. save for the natural occurrence of being unable to work, and his children must go to schools which he finances with his taxes, just like hospitals.

The education organized by the state reflects in its goal of mobility indifference towards the specific kinds of labor, which includes not the universality of abilities in the positive sense, but the negative result of wage labor, that an activity must be avoided because of its unsuitability as a means of reproduction. Establishing mobility therefore means that the educated should not be trained for one particular job, but that they should prepare themselves to compete and have alternatives.


Health and intelligence are for the wage laborer the crucial means for his ability to compete, their presence or absence appear to him as the reason for the success or failure of his reproduction, which for him depends on what one achieves. With the conception of the fair wage this consciousness accepts the hierarchy of labor, and ascent within this hierarchy as the way to a better life.

He demands from the state preferential treatment for sociopolitical programs, partly from the necessity for self-preservation (hospitals, etc.), partly from the desire for more justice: realization of equal opportunities. Instead of criticizing competition, he positions himself positively towards it, wants its perfection by relating the terms of competition that the state provides to his individual advantage, and wants it improved.

This siding with the requirements of competition and their assertion with respect to state barriers is, on the one hand, understood as democratization, and even held up by others as socialism (examples range from the Gotha program to today’s revisionism). Adherence to justice, the ideal of competition, reveals its craziness as soon as individuals – from within the negative effects of competition – want to obligate the state to fairness because it keeps to actual performance differences based on the pros and cons of individuals: in the fascist idiom of competition fanaticism, the sick person deserves (!) his fate, critics who are unwilling to perform deserve isolation and suppression, and the state does its duty when it promotes the healthy and efficient, eliminating decadence…

The agreement between revisionism and fascism consists in that they hold the state responsible for effects that they consider unfair, and expect it to act to redress them. Revisionists fall under the delusion that because the state creates the conditions for competition and rectifies its shortcomings, equality is an ideal to be realized, not a compulsion. Fascists demand that the state not only recognize the results settled by competition – the differences between individuals and their social influence – but make them the positive principle of its actions, favoring the strong.

Whichever variant of the forcible perpetuation of competition is decisive for the consciousness of the worker is taken up without much trouble by the supporters of the political parties: they are the false consciousness of the citizens raised to a state program.

The wage forms –
the forms taken by class conflict

The efforts of the wage laborer to secure his livelihood by selling his labor turns out to be unsuited for this purpose. The measurement of his performance, which he takes an interest in for the sake of his reproduction, is a means to his destruction – wage labor is therefore a business whose inherent purpose does not coincide with the intention of those who perform it. Its reason still has to be determined, the measured ratio of wages and performance dictates that its analysis continue to the point that reveals its positive purpose, which includes the hindering of the reproduction of the wage laborer. We are clear from the start about the result of this analysis because of our knowledge of Capital, but we know that this result has to follow here, as in agitation, from the analysis of wage labor – Marx showed that this is the precondition for the insane derivation of a “price of labor.” That's why the negative result of our analysis of wage labor pushes us to the question: which purpose of wage labor underlies the different forms of measuring the relation between wages and performance?


Already the simplest form of performance measurement, the time wage, permits an answer through two strange phenomena:

a) The attempt of the worker to obtain an increase in his wages by an increase of his performance, i.e. by lengthening his working day, does not lead to the desired result via the effect of competition. The formerly valid time wage proves – to his disadvantage – to be a variable measured ratio, and this effect can also be produced indirectly via the price movements of the commodities that he buys with his wage.

b) Different wage brackets exist side by side, i.e. not every working hour is paid the same quantity of money. With help from job evaluation methods, a scale of groups of labor values is set up in which, as a result, the hourly wage varies according to the requirements that a worker fulfills.

Such requirements are, according to the REFA schema [Reichsausschuß für Arbeitsstudien, Germany's oldest and largest organization of industrial engineering and work design; similar to scientific management, it “aims at increasing performance through process organization and work improvement” –trans]:

I. Ability
A. mainly non-muscle (training, experience)
B. mainly muscle (manual skill)

II. Responsibility
for personal and material damages relating to
- equipment and products
- work flow/work of others
- safety

III. Workload (strain on the organism)
A. mainly non-muscle
B. mainly muscle

IV. Environmental conditions:
Temperature, wetness, dirt, optical and acoustical stress, vibrations, acids, caustic solutions, gases.

In the effects of competition, the worker finds that the relation between wage and performance is a relative one, depending on conditions that have nothing to do with his effort. The demand of the buyer of his labor determines how much he receives for one hour of work; he may do the same amount of work year in and year out and nevertheless be remunerated differently due to changing requirements on the side of the buyer that he cannot influence. And if, in view of the danger of no longer being in demand at all, he adapts to these requirements of the other side, then this happens at his expense. The argument of the employers is their calculation, and the worker figures in it as a cost factor that is acceptable only if it is profitable. The benefit of his performance is not in the production of labor products, but in the profit that the buyer of his labor derives from it. Whether and how well he can reproduce himself with his wage labor is thus subject to a completely different criteria than his labor performance, and its measurement in wages becomes, in its subjugation under this criteria, a regular voucher for the fact that the equation wage = performance is a fiction.

If the benchmark of his performance changes as a function of the earnings which the employer secures, then it is also no longer a mystery why this fiction exists: the measurement ratio work = money regulates the remuneration of the worker in such a way that his performance helps the entrepreneur make a profit. The precondition for the worker earning his livelihood is that he does more for capital than he costs; and in the fluctuations of his wages, he discovers that his attempt to satisfy these preconditions by increasing his performance is answered by the lower evaluation of these efforts.

The same thing that results in sequentially different time wages also results in their juxtaposition. If, on the one hand, labor is paid according to its length of time, and on the other hand, each hour of work is not compensated with equivalent money, then there are different standards. The different evaluations of the working hours, which only last 60 minutes for everybody, reveals that the time wage is a way to subsume the special skills and efforts of the industrial workers to the needs of the buyers. The workers find certain activities in the production process organized into a division of labour as objective activities, usually fixed in jobs. They prepare for these via processes of education and vocational training. Once ready for such an activity, their wage amount differs from that of other workers who are no less necessary for the functioning of the production process, as long as their appropriate qualification is needed. If this is the case, no consideration is shown towards their “ability” and they have to remain realistic with an activity, meaning a wage, that is blind to their qualification.

Admittedly, by subjecting their specific character to the requirements of the workplace, they all have the chance to benefit the company by observing (= supervising) the performance of other workers or ensuring carelessness towards their health. The fact that “responsibility” ranks as a criterion of job evaluation reminds the wage laborer that the specific quality of his work lies solely in achieving the goal that capital pursues with the production process and has nothing to do with his individual abilities – vice versa, the specific performance of the wage laborer consists in adapting to requirements determined regardless of him. And it can be seen in the criteria “workload” and “environmental conditions” that these requirements are detrimental to their well-being, even if some intend to be allowed to enforce these conditions of labor against other workers and be remunerated for that. To make themselves wage-efficient and useful always includes both: comparing themselves to other workers, i.e. competing and accepting the worsening of their own situation as a consequence of each relative improvement. They all set themselves in relation to the normal performance which none of them decides.


Things are even more clear with piece wages or piece-rates, where the wage of the worker is calculated according to the number of production units he delivers, which are assigned a certain money rate (with time-related piece-rates, a production time is given for a production unit and remunerated with a standard piece-rate):

a) A defined standard time, designated as a “normal performance,” assumes that the strain of the workers to raise their earnings by increasing performance leads, with an unchanged demand for labor, to a reduced demand for labor power: Competition in the production process causes a reduction of the standard time and an increase of the normal performance.

b) The piece wage varies for the same production unit, the normal performance differs according to the production conditions that it finds. Instead of a measurement of his performance in its result, an evaluation of his workplace takes place.

The assignment of a standard time refers to two quantities which show that the performance incentive wage certainly has a lot to do with the performance of the workers, but little to do with a remuneration determined by this performance. First, a wage level is assumed as normal earnings to calculate the money rate per unit (and/or the money factor per minute), which is assumed in the form of time wages, in order to divide it by the number of pieces produced. Second, the division postulates an intensity in the observed labor process which is considered a normal performance and defined in a collective bargaining agreement with pleasing clarity:

“Normal performance is the performance that can at least be reached by each employee qualified according to training and practice without endangering their health and ability to work. Incidentally, whatever principles of labor study are current at the time shall apply in determining the normal performance.”

If preserving health and ability to work provides the limit for assigning the normal performance, this means that a worker surpassing the normal performance endangers his health and ability to work; on the other hand, it is through the acceleration of competition he causes for the other workers (and vice versa) which drives up the normal performance, compelling this endangerment. So the incentive wage is a more adequate form of wage payment for the purpose of wage labor which already appears in the time wage: the worker must be interested in turning his self-preservation into the means of an ever-increasing performance. Only if his performance meets the continually increasing demands of the buyer is he able to receive his normal earnings – and he is still not able to secure his reproduction.

Of course, it does not escape the worker that the assignment of piece wages is decided by the degree of his exertions so that he has to produce as much as possible for his livelihood, which is why he does not demonstrate his optimum abilities to the regularly visiting REFA people (and he does not speak well of those who break the piece rate). This in turn does not escape the men with the stopwatches, which compels them to find “objective” methods of job evaluation. It is not the really existing worker who is observed and measured, but the material of analysis is formed by observing the work process, dissecting it into abstract elements; this analytic job evaluation invalidates the problems of the individually evaluated worker by assinging times to the single sequences of movement in an activity, supplemented by breaks and recuperation times, in order to arrive at a standardized execution time. In such a way, all potential interruptions occur at the expense of the wage laborer, who for his part has the opportunity to prove that a human is not a machine just because he is treated like one. Since proving this means his injury, he still tries to be one and makes his buyer aware of the limits of human performance, which stirs his mercy.

If the purpose of wage labor is to demand more for his reproduction than what helps to preserve his ability to work, then his payment consequently isn’t there to preserve him. He just ranks as a cost factor in a company which does not depend on producing lots of goods, but on the thrifty production of the same; so it is also no wonder if the facilitation of his labor through changes in machinery – which allows him to produce a larger number of items per time – is accompanied by a new evaluation of his job: the study of ergonomics reveals its efficiency when it takes the facilitation of the labor process as the occasion to hamper the earnings of the worker. The recipient of piece wages finishes more product units than before the technical innovation in the same amount of time, but receives by no means equivalently more wages. On the contrary! The evaluation of his job brings to light that fewer sequences of motion are needed than before to supply the unit concerned, so the remuneration per piece has to sink. And even when the newly determined normal performance brings the same wages as before, the necessary increase over the normal performance now becomes more difficult – for the other side, the effort has become cheaper.

The goal of wage labor – to hold the costs of the workers as low as possible, but to continuously increase their performance for the benefit of the buyer – attains in group piece work the obsessive form of a collective interest, so that the single worker in the group labor process requires not only his individual benefit to intensify his performance. As a result, their cooperation is the buyer’s benefit and quite subordinate to this, something that expresses itself not as ordinary competition, but as direct hostility towards unproductive or unmotivated “colleagues.”


While the piece wage takes no further consideration of the specific character of the work that is done – it is always assumed that the wage laborer masters his craft and supplies the article in a way that makes it viable, and if that is not the case, the wage sinks (deductions) – and knows only differences in the intensity of the expenditure of labor power, the incentive wage seems to compensate the special skills of the worker. He receives

1. Goods bonuses – reduction of defects, reduction of the refinishing operations, reduction of parts of inferior quality;
2. Stock yield bonuses – for higher yields of valuable raw- and working-materials;
3. Utilization bonuses – for good utilization of machines;
4. Savings bonuses – for saving on factory supplies and operating supplies, manufacturing material, reducing energy costs, less spending on the care and maintenance of equipment;
5. Deadline bonuses – in case of hasty orders, new models and tools.

The performances rewarded in REFA are here called “qualitative labor performances,” also specified as “intelligence and character performances,” and are rightly contrasted with ordinary performances; while in piece wages the only compulsion imposed on the wage laborer is the intensity of his labor, here wages are promised to him for showing thoughtfulness to his buyer’s other costs. The incentive wage requires that the worker doesn’t push the intensity too far, which, for the sake of his reproduction, is something that he wants to get rid of when working for a performance wage – and certainly his health is not the source of concern. The incentive wage revokes the negative effects of performance wages for the benefit of the buyer and criticizes the indifference of the worker to the costs of the company.



Because wage labor includes a tendency to make the wage laborers’ reproduction impossible, this forces them to defend themselves against the inversion of their means.

“The laborer seeks to maintain the total of his wages for a given time by performing more labor, either by working a great number of hours, or by accomplishing more in the same number of hours. Thus, urged on by want, he himself multiplies the disastrous effects of division of labor. The result is: the more he works, the less wages he receives. And for this simple reason: the more he works, the more he competes against his fellow workmen, the more he compels them to compete against him, and to offer themselves on the same wretched conditions as he does; so that, in the last analysis, he competes against himself as a member of the working class.” (Marx, Wage Labor and Capital)

Sticking to wage labor as a means for reproduction happens as a change in the measured relation between money and work, which the wage laborer forces on the buyer of labor: labor struggles.


The dependence of the buyer of the wage laborer’s work – he needs the labor in order to make an income on his part – can’t be used by the seller of labor as leverage in setting the price of labor, because the competition between the wage laborers, who on their side are dependent on the sale, makes him powerless. In order to bring about an improvement in the relation between performance and wage, the wage laborers must join forces and make the capitalists negotiate a generally valid price of labor in line with their interest: unions. These

“presuppose the insight that the rule of the bourgeoisie is based only on the competition of the workers under itself, i.e. on splintering the proletariat, on opposing the individual workers against each other.” (MEW 2/436).

In joining forces, the workers draw the conclusion from the contradiction they experience in the sale of their labor: the form of united action reflects the identity of all wage laborers, their sense of unity as a class; moreover, it expresses that the peaceful relation of buyers and sellers on the market includes a conflict that needs to be waged because of the thing that is transacted there.

The purpose of unions – a new determination of the price of labor (which ranges from regulating a new minimum hourly wage to industrial safety regulations), thus overriding the limitation that wage labor brings with it – is also the contradiction of unions: they are associations that expressly aim at continuing wage labor, and they suspend the competition that goes with it only to modify the terms and conditions of the measured ratio between money and labor. While in a strike an interruption of wage labor takes place in order to resume it under new conditions, the union as a combination of workers stands alongside competition. The contradiction that wage labor is temporarily suspended only in order to perpetuate it and that the limitation of reproduction through wage labor again leads to the reason for the labor struggle, has its continuous form in the simultaneous existence of competition and coalition. Unions as permanent combinations – not only formed on given occasions in specific struggles – are the institutionalization of the labor struggle, a condition for maintaining reproduction by wage labor. They arise as representatives of the workers vis-à-vis the interests of the capitalists: collective bargaining. For the entrepreneurs, their existence represents the continuous threat that wage labor will be interrupted if they do not deal with the demands of the unions. As the representation of this threat, this agency of the wage laborers strengthens their position in relation to the buyers of labor because their pressure now no longer depends on the success of joining together under the respective conditions. However, these conditions make themselves felt in the relation of the workers to their representatives: the various demands of the individual wage laborers with regard to the new definition of the price of labor forms the subject of internal union debates. These are characterized by the contradiction that the results of the negotiations must be generally accepted and not deviate from the interests of the workers because of their inherent differences from each other and the simultaneously taking place competition; with the realization of the threatened labor struggle as a strike, this attains expression in differences in the willingness to fight: competition against unity.

In the coexistence of competition and unity lies the reason for the differences between the “union leadership” and the “rank and file,” which leftists usually explain as the corruption of the “bosses” who are distant from the production process whenever the goals achieved are not enough for some workers. [8]


As a condition for the reproduction of the wage laborer, the union is a right guaranteed by the state. The objectives of the union struggle, however, are also limited by the goals of the state, which protects the general conditions of competition. This is why their freedom of association is a fundamental right which is specifically forfeited insofar as the struggle is abused against the free democratic system. Labor struggles, in which right conflicts with right, run up against state violence as soon as their effects endanger politico-economic goals: restrictions on the right of association.


The shortcoming of the labor unions – appearing to override competition only to resume wage relations alongside it – shows up in the reproduction of the wage laborer as the temporal and financial expenses for the functionality of these organizations. The defensive struggle that serves to preserve their reproduction is another restriction on their private sphere. If they want to maintain wages, they must permanently support the union. The conflict between their private interest and the need for membership in a union is reflected in the existence of “dues payers” on one side and officials on the other. The usefulness of the trade union for the individual worker, its objective purpose, is the reason for the comparison of the dues that the individual pays with what he gets for them. He sacrifices part of his reproduction as the price of services that protect his interests.


The unions are active not only in setting the price of labor, but also regarding compensation for those shortages within the sphere of reproduction that wage labor includes. They act not only as official contacts with the capitalists, but also represent the interests of their members in relation to the state as a pressure group: the content of this activity is all those demands on the state that arise from the right to reproduction by means of wage labor and the obstacles to it by the state (in each point see sections b). That’s why the demands for social and economic policies in the programs of the unions assume the state – how could it be any different? – as the addressee of reform proposals and accept its entire field of activity, including the compulsory character of all of its measures. Insofar as the unions represent workers’ interests, their demands naturally collide with the duties of the state, which intends to fulfill its duties regardless of the benefit for the workers. It tries to make clear to the unions that its measures indirectly benefit the workers as well and points out that the public interest limits their demands. The unions are both continually addressed for legitimization and a term of abuse on the part of the state’s agents because the parties depend on the large number of those who are represented by the unions. Vice versa, the influence of the unions on public debate is based on this. The congruence of reformism and revisionism, which the former feels ashamed of, is based on a principle of revisionist politics which is consistently interested in state representation and democratization.

(Union activities relating to the state, like that of any interest group, reach their limit in the objective necessities of the state. This becomes clear in the question of the political strike, which some radical democrats and revisionists would like to see codified. The political strike, which seeks to prevent or constrain a certain state measure by means of work stoppages, signifies something that amounts to the imposition of a particular interest vis-à-vis the state power and renunciation of the state’s sovereignty.)

The union leadership takes the state’s point of view to legitimize compromises in wage negotiations and makes allowances for the effects of collective wage agreements on economic growth overall because trade unions are loyal – and if they do not run into opposition within their own organizations, then this only means that the working class also takes the state’s point of view. This loyalty of the labor union is the condition for its continued existence as a democratic institution and the logical consequence of the contradiction of the union, that it perpetuates what it fights against.


The necessity for combining in a labor union to preserve the wage laborer is expressed in the consciousness that the well-being of the workers depends on their unity. This specifically union consciousness directs its hostility not only against people who stick to their special interests during negotiations and strikes and want more than the majority, but especially against communists, whose demands and slogans go beyond the immediate objectives of the fight and appear to be divisive, destroying the (imaginary) unity: uncompromising. In their view that union activities and the state are the means for advancing the individual’s benefit, union supporters become fanatics of unity and democrats of the most disgusting character, who even welcome sacrifices by the workers as being in their interest because it is a means for unity and healthy for democracy.

However, the same attitude to unions also leads to anti-union attitudes among the workers: their argument for not joining the union is the unsuitability of union success for their individual reproduction (also their superfluousness) and they find evidence for it in the effects of strikes on the jobs situation. They are partisans for a well-organized competition and see the unions as (external) enemies of the common good because they constantly endanger normal relations, as proved by leftist union activists. They demand that the state take a course of action against the unions: fascistic working class consciousness identifies the union, this continuous form of the contradiction between wage labor and capital, with the negative consequences this contradiction has for the individual, and considers the state to be the authority that can create order and justice. [9]

The progress of the trade unions
The politicization of the economic struggle

In their coalitions, the workers fight for their preservation without attacking the wage relation, the reason for the danger to their reproduction. Labor union consciousness is inevitably false consciousness; it is directed against the negative effects of wage labor without wanting to abolish wage labor. It aims at protecting the workers’ existence within relations that constantly bring it into question. Hence, the emphasis on the need for working class coalitions that Marx writes about is only a qualified praise of workers who join together for wage struggles – in Marx’s time it signified an advance for the working class when it discovered the union as a means to ward off the attacks of capital. For all his recognition and enthusiasm for this insight of the workers into their conditions of existence, he felt compelled to make the following warning:

“At the same time, and quite apart form the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerrilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’” (1865: Value, Price and Profit)

Today the conservative slogan of these organizations, which represent the interests of the workers without fighting the relations that force the workers to fight, looks quite different. The wage struggle is not only led with the illusion that a fair wage would solve the problems that the wage relation brings the workers – there no longer is any! Its place is taken by collective bargaining, a form of struggle in which the the union asserts the contradiction corresponding to the interests of the workers in such a way that accommodates the terms under which it is recognized. And the first of four principles of this collective bargaining policy strives for permission:

“l. Maintenance of collective bargaining autonomy. The trade unions can observe their responsibilities in the economy and society only if collective bargaining autonomy is ensured in its entirety.”

The mystery as to what “responsibility” the workers’ interest organization would like to observe is clarified in the second principle of the collective bargaining policy, it even now springs into action:

“2. Continuation of an active pay scale policy. The unions by concluding collective agreements work for the protection and improvement of the economic and social situation of the workers. Collective bargain policy should contribute to securing, among other things, full employment, constant economic growth, fair income and property distribution, and promote price stability.”

Whereas Marx criticized the unions for adopting the ideals of bourgeois haggling, we must observe that contemporary trade unions tamper with these ideals in practice – they justify the representation of the workers’ interests with the prosperity of the nation. They promise to pursue the concerns of a class by showing consideration for their enemies – and consider the refusal of their demands and proposals on the part of the state evidence to argue that they have not yet been heard. A social and economic policy in favor of the employees contradicts capitalism, even when such requests from the state are reckoned a philanthropic arrangement and strive to adapt the unfortunately still essential wage struggle to the requirements of the economy.

The modern trade union now tries to rid itself of the suspicion of wanting old-fashioned class warfare by advocating for the workers only as citizens (something the proles have not yet rejected), i.e. it takes a constructive position towards all the tasks of the state:

“Our time requires, first of all, the democratic organization of social, cultural, political and (!) economic life, so that every person can use their gifts, develop their personality freely and make responsible decisions.”

Certainly, all democrats could agree with such sayings, but they have become cautious. The unions have taken the state’s point of view, but over and over again they try to use this point of view one-sidedly. They pursue not only wage policy, but also economic policy:

“According to union ideas the present income and wealth distribution is unfair. There is a pressing need for all strata to participate in the creation of national wealth… The most important condition for a broader diversification of assets will be a higher proportion for workers in the national income, the elimination of tax privileges for higher incomes and the special promotion of distribution of assets among the lower and middle income brackets … preservation of currency stability… fight against economic concentration … for democracy in the economy… There is a risk of an abuse of economic power…”

Here it is a matter of exerting influence on the guardian of justice, the state, which under the rubric of social policy marks out the following:

“The personality of the employee and his human dignity are also to be respected on the job. The worker may not be evaluated as a commodity. The work of an individual is also a personal achievement for the society.”

The radicalism of this struggle is shocking. It is also conducted in the field of “regional, infrastructural policy, urban planning and housing policy,” revolves around co-determination and needs an organizing of the union members, the young in particular. Our friend finds himself ready again and again to promote with his sociological fantasy this organizing of the worker into a democrat.

In this counterfeit of union worker education, this person wants to cultivate the abilities

“to go from one view to another … from the political to the psychological, from the investigation of an individual family to the evaluation of the national budget and to recognize structural connections between individual life histories, direct interests, desires, hopes and historical events.”

So a critical academic introduces the standpoint of sociology into working class education and one lets him carry on, even if he sometimes mentions the humanist Marx – his sociological imagination nevertheless brings such problems to light when he blathers to the trade union youth:

“Is the capitalistic enterprise actually rationally planned and organized in view to its actual purposes?”

Despite everything: our derivation of the unions is true. The affirmative representation of the workers’ interests in developed capitalism must go hand in hand with their representation in the state – although the task of representing their interests does not need to.


[1] The purpose that the wage laborer pursues with the sale of his labor, reproduction, falls completely within the distinctiveness of his needs and interests – that differences exist is assumed here.

[2] For him, the purchase of labor is likewise a means to obtain an income, which is provided through the sale of the work products.

[3] This statement does not require the “derivation” of limitless needs or anything like this. It concerns the relationship of the amount of the wage and the objects of need that are bought with the wage, and is not disproved by the “case” that one is satisfied. In addition, it can be noted that it is a contradiction to describe individuality as the purpose of wage labor and to assume a restriction of needs in the midst of an “enormous collection of commodities.”

[4] The development of the specifically economic content of the wage contract, which is the subject here, will show that instead of expressing a common interest of both sides, it represents a pure conflict and must burst the legal form of the identity of two wills. The collisions inherent in the employer-employee relation are regulated in labor law.

[5] Necessarily false consciousness of the contradictions of his existence is here given with wage labor to the extent that he is forced in practice to reflect on the social conditions as his means of reproduction.

[6] A variant of the increased sale of labor is the use of family members, whose activities at first belong exclusively to the sphere of reproduction of wage labor, as wage laborers. While in the later phases of the imposition of capitalism, normal child labor disappears as it conflicts with the necessities of the capital relation, the woman is emancipated from the narrow-minded existence of a reproductive assistant to the man and even as a free wage-laborer; the contradiction of the wage labor relation demands the dissolution of the domestic idyll, which was solely based on tasks dedicated to the individual in his specificity by members of the community.

[7] Leave of absence as a temporary interruption in the wage relation; foregoing earnings is the reaction to the experience that one no longer delivers the goods.

[8] The restriction on union actions by the state and the bourgeois attitude of the working class are another reason, also apart from the moral qualities of the bosses, for the willingness of the unions to compromise, which makes extra-union actions – wildcat strikes – sometimes seem advisable to the workers.

[9] It goes without saying that the historical development of the labor unions, like the laws of competition for wage labor in general, show the laws developed here in a different order. Thus the rights necessary for the workers that are derived in sections a) and b) could only be forced by collective action, hence by unions. These struggles were one moment in the enforcement of the democratic state and did not wait for the contradictions in 1.1 to 3.2 to present themselves as they are represented here. However, we also describe not what happened when, but explain which contradictions are constitutive of the wage relation – with which also the historical development is made adequate to its concept. Or more simply: the laws described here are those of wage labor, represented in their connections, not a re-telling of what the wage laborers or the working class has done.