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Labour and Labour-Power

Labour and Labour-Power
fan Hunt
Marx claimed that his principal theoretical achievements were
the distinctions he drew between ‘concrete labour’ and ‘abstract labour’, and between ‘labour’ and ‘labour-power’.

These distinctions have been the focus of subsequent interpretation and criticism of Marx’ s theory of the capitalist mode of
production. In this paper I shall argue that the distinction
between ‘labour’ and ‘labour-power’ is a crucial feature of
Marx’s theory. I shall show that it is tied up with the distinction between the employer/employee and the client/agent relationships, and that this in turn is crucial to an understanding
of Marx’ s concept of the specifically capitalist mode of production.

What is the distinction between
labour and labour-power?

On the surface, the difference between labour and labourpower is just the difference between a capacity and its exercise. However, Marx goes on to say that under capitalism the
wage-labour contract involves the purchase by the capitalist
of labour-power, and not labour. This fact is supposed in turn
to explain how capitalist exploitation is possible, even though
all commodity transactions are ‘fair’ and ‘equal’ in terms of
the rules governing commodity exchange. And this differentiates specifically capitalist exploitation from exploitation
based on unequal terms of exchange, such as that practised by
speculators, middlemen or monopolists. 1
It is the theoretical use to which Marx puts the distinction
between labour and labour-power which makes it important.

So, after briefly tidying up the distinction as such, I shall look
at two opposed interpretations of its basis which effectively
nullify, but from opposed directions, the theoretical use Marx
wished to make of it.

When Marx speaks of labour-power he means a cluster of
commonly shared skills possessed by a typical human being
which can be used in production. It is worthwhile here to
differentiate any particular skill from the overall cluster of
skills, whether that skill is a part of the cluster or not. Thus
people may have specialised skills which are not typically
shared, so that a person may have labour-power together with
some extra skills which other people do not have. And a
specific skill which is part of labour-power, is nevertheless
distinct from labour-power, as a part is distinct from the
whole which includes it. A person who loses his or her labourpower through an accident, and who is consequently unemployable as a wage-labourer, may nevertheless retain a specific skill, and be as proficient in its exercise as before.

Labour-power is thus the capacity for any work which a
person is typically capable of, and may be distinguished both
22 Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989

from some capacity an individual may have for some extraordinary activity, and from specific ordinary skills, which are
commonly shared capacities for this or that specific productive activity.

Now labour is the exercise oflabour-power. However, it is
important for what follows to recognize that labour is not the
manifestation of labour-power in precisely the way that a
machine’s working is the manifestation of its ‘machine powers’. Between labour-power and its manifestation in labour of
any kind steps the conscious purpose which determines the
end to which the labour-power is exercised, and the procedures involved in reaching that end. Production involving
human beings is thus not some pre-determined process. How
much and what kind of work is done in any period depends not
only on the worker’s capacities, but also on their motivation
and their awareness of what is going on around them.

Of course, there is a similar gap between the capacity of
any multi-track machine and its performance. Any specific
performance will presuppose not only the capacity of the machine but also a particular machine setting. However, I am not
claiming that there is some absolute qualitative gap between
humans and machines, but only that any labour is not simply
the realisation of a capacity, but is also the realisation of some
conscious purpose.

It is also worth differentiating here what Marx calls ‘concrete labour’ from what he terms ‘abstract labour’. The exercise of labour-power will always coincide with the exercise of
some specific skills for some definite end. It will always be a
particular kind of work, whether it is specified in terms of the

product it results in, as in baking bread, weaving cloth, forging steel, and so on, or in tenns of the skills exercised, as in
hand-sewing. The exercise of labour-power can be more
loosely specified, as in odd-job housework. However, even
loose job specifications never abstract entirely from the specificity of the work or skills involved. Abstract labour, on the
other hand, is labour in abstraction from any useful effect. It is
averagely productive labour of any kind considered only with
respect to its duration.

Having sketched the distinction between labour and labour-power in what is hoped to be the direction Marx intended, it is time to look at other attempts.

Is there no significant difference between labour
and labour-power?

In a fairly recent discussion of the distinction between labour
and labour-power, Steedman asks:

At the end of a week, after having worked in the nonnal
expected manner, some workers are observed to receive their wages. Observer X states, ‘Those workers
are being paid for having perfonned N hours of labour’. Observer Z retorts, ‘Those workers are being
paid for their labour-power (or for the capitalist’s disposal over their labour-power).’ Are the statements of
X and of Z really significantly different?2
Steedman goes on to argue that the only force the difference
between labour and labour-power can have is that labour
contracts are never, perhaps cannot ever be precise. Thus,
because of an unfortunate but necessary lack of precision in
our contracts, there will always be disputes over the intensity
of work, conditions of work, etc. And so the concept of
labour-power, Steedman characteristically adds, contributes
‘nothing to one’s understanding’ of such disputes.

This is the point Roemer makes in his ‘New Directions in
the Marxian Theory of Exploitation and Class’ ,3 when he
argues that the question of capitalist control or domination
over the process of production reduces to a distinction between what a labour contract specifies, and what the parties to
it intended. According to Roemer, the capitalist either tries to
extract more labour from the worker than expected, or the
worker tries to deliver less than the capitalist expected.

Domination over production is a ‘substitute for a perfect
contract’.4 Roemer then goes on to point out that in some of
his models it is assumed that the exchange of ‘labour’ for the
wage is determined by a perfect and costIessly enforcable
contract, so that the ‘capitalist’ in these models purchases a
specific labour service. Nevertheless, Roemer argues that
there is still capitalist exploitation in such a case, although
what Marx takes to be the foundation of it, the purchase by the
capitalist of labour-power, does not occur. Indeed, Roemer
takes the labour-power to be ‘alienable’ only with the person,
so that the alienation of the worker’s labour-power to the
capitalist not only need not, but cannot, occur under capitalism, although it occurs under slavery.

Of course, if the difference between the sale of labourpower and the sale of labour were simply a matter of the
difference between a less and more specific labour contract,
then workers’ resistance to capitalist management could not
involve a breach of contract, since the conflict is supposed to
arise from the failure of the contract to specify what the
workers are expected to do. Resistance to management might
be a breach of the spirit of the contract, as the capitalist takes
it, but not of its letter. Steedman dimly perceives this when he
points out that the capitalist does not have complete disposal

over labour-power if the worker does not ‘perfonn a certain
number of hours of a certain kind of work’ .s In fact, of course,
resistance to management is a breach of contract precisely
because the contract is for the purchase of labour-power.

Thus, if the capitalist hires, or temporarily comes to own,
the labour-power of the worker, this is not an imperfect
purchase of a specific labour, but the purchase of an ability
which the capitalist as owner then has the right to use in his
interest. The lack of specificity of the ‘labour’ contract is a
perfect reflection of the capitalist’s right to direct at will how
the worker exercises his or her productive abilities. This
managerial prerogative is not the accidental by-product of a
contract entered into for other reasons. It is actively sought
for, as it enables the employer to respond to unforeseen
circumstances, to redirect work from less to more profitable
lines, or to introduce changes to technology, without thereby
having to redraw contracts of employment.


On the other hand, a person may work for, or on behalf of,
another, without being employed as a wage-labourer. Thus
when an agent acts for a client, the client does not purchase
labour-power, no matter how unspecific the client’s instructions to the agent may be. Whether labour or labour-power is
purchased is not a matter of the specificity of the contract, as
Steedman and Roemer suppose. It is essentially a matter of
whether one party to the contract works under the direction of
the other party. In each case the contract may be relatively
unspecific as to what work is to be done. However, in the case
of an agent acting for a client, the concrete detail of the act by
which the client’s instructions are carried out is filled in at the
agent’s own discretion. Thus, if a lawyer is engaged to defend
a case, a doctor to perfonn an operation, or a land agent to sell
a house, each acts under his or her own direction, and not
under the management of the client.

Thus there are clearly two relationships under which one
party may contract to work for another: the master/employee;
and client/agent relationships. In one, the master acquires the
right to direct how the employee works, while in the other, the
agent has the right to self-direction in perfonning the service
requested by the client. That is, the employer purchases labour-power in one case, and a service in the other.

It does not matter that typical examples of the client/agent
relationship are of agents supplying clients with skilled services. There is still a contrast between one doctor working as
an employee of an hospital, and another with the same skills
working on a ‘fee-for-service’ basis. While each in practice
works largely at their own discretion, the hospital has managerial powers over matters, e.g. determining standard treatRadical Phllo8ophy 52, Summer 1989 23

ment procedures, which ‘fee-for-service’ doctors decide for

There is, nevertheless, a link between skill and self-direction in labour. Usually the employer of a skilled worker will
not have the skills of the employee, as the purpose of employing the skill is to obtain its use. Consequently, the employer
will rely on the judgement of the employee in carrying out the
work required. However, the judgement and initiative exercised by the employee is exercised not by right but by the
leave of the employer. In a client/agent relationship the judgement and initiative is exercised by right. 6 It is only by recognising the skill of the employee as a limit on the employer’s
control that we can understand the common employer’s strategy of transforming the technology of production so as to
minimise any such reliance on employees’ skills.

Can Labour be a Commodity?

Some Marxists have attempted to explain why Marx stressed
the importance of recognising the distinction between labour
and labour-power by arguing that capitalists must purchase
labour-power, as labour itself cannot be bought. Thus
Hodgson first attempts to argue that labour is inalienable in
the case of a free worker,7 and then later suggests that labour
is inalienable in principle.8 In both cases, what seems to
suggest this view is the fact that the labour is the labourer’s, or
is inseparable from the labourer. If labour is inseparable from
the person of the labourer, then it might seem that it can be
alienated only with the person. Thus, labour would be alienable only under slavery, as it is only then that the person is
alienated also. Or, if the alienation of the person in slavery
does not include the alienation of the person as an agent,
labour then might be inalienable in principle.

Now, Hodgson is simply confused about the inseparability
of labour from the person. In one sense, labour is inseparable
from the person only because the person must be
where and when the labouring activity occurs.

However, this implies
only that the point of production of an activity must
coincide with its point of
sale, and with its point of
consumption, in contrast
with enduring products,
which may be sold or consumed at a place and time
far from when and where
they are produced.

In another sense, labour is as the worker experiences it,
and as such it certainly cannot be alienated. However, this
applies equally to free and unfree workers. The experience of
the slave can no more be alienated under slavery than the experience of a worker can be alienated under wage-labour.

This fact provides some of the practical basis for the idea of a
separation between the soul and body. Only the body, and the
publicly accessible aspect of the mind, can be alienated in
slavery. The slave’s own experience remained his or hers, so
that a slave experiences a contrast between an inner freedom
and an outward unfreedom, that is, a contrast between a
freedom of the ‘soul’, and a lack of freedom of the body. The
‘soul’ of the slave which the slave-owner cannot own must, of
course, not be confused with the ‘soul’ taken as some sort of
immaterial body through which one might live after death.

When Faust alienates his soul to the devil, the whole point of
24 Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989

this would be spoiled if it were the devil, and not Faust, who
thereby faces the prospect of eternal torment.

So, while the worker’s experience of labour cannot be alienated, if we take, for example, a singer singing a song, the
song as an object can be alienated in the same way that any
other process or event may be. A song is not only performed,
it is also heard. Thus the song as an object can be alienated, as
this amounts to singing it for others, for a consideration, as
opposed merely to singing it for oneself.

Now, the inseparability of labour from the person is exactly paralleled by the inseparability of labour-power from
the person. This is one factor leading Roemer to suppose that
labour-power is alienable only with the person, and therefore,
inalienable under ‘free’ labour. Indeed, inasmuch as labourpower is the inner capacity of the person for labour, it might
appear less alienable than labour itself, which is its outward

However, labour-power as an object of conscious direction is as much an object capable of alienation as is the singing
of a song, taken as an object of satisfaction. The difference between slavery and wage-labour is not that labour-power is
alienated in one case and not in the other, but that, as Marx
puts it, it is alienated ‘rump and stump ‘9 in the case of slavery,
but under wage-labour it is alienated only for a definite
number of intervals of time to be set aside for work. Although
the wage-worker has a choice of employer, and a choice
between earning a wage and having to accept some form of
charity, public or private, in order to survive, Marx stresses10
that this freedom is as far as the freedom of working for wages
goes: during working time the wage-worker belongs as much
to the capitalist as the slave belongs to the slave-owner. And
this fact warrants the use of the term ‘wage-slavery’ for

Now Marx did suggest that it was absurd to speak of the
‘value’ of labour, as in: ‘Labour is the substance and the
immanent· measure of
value, but has itself no
value’.l1 However, this
claim does not imply that
services cannot have
‘value’, and therefore
cannot be bought and
sold. For the absurdity of
speaking of the ‘value’ of
labour rests, for Marx, in
the vacuity of speaking
of the ‘value’ of ‘value’.

And, since value is socially necessary abstract
labour, it is abstract labour, not’ concrete’ labours, which cannot for that reason be a
commodity. As abstract labour is by definition labour in
abstraction from its use-value, it seems that Marx’s point is
sustainable. However, services are concrete labours with
useful effects, and therefore may still be commodities, for
Marx, as well as for us.

The difference between contract labour and
employment of wage-labourers
Marx, it is true, considers the view that capitalists purchase
labour rather than labour-power to be an apology for capitalism. However, if I am right, the apology involved rests on
confusing the master/employee relationship with the client/
agent relationship, rather than resting on taking services as
commodities. Treating the capital/wage-labour relationship

as a transaction between client and agent results in substituting the question of whether the terms of the wage-labour
contract are ‘fair’ for the question of whether there should be
such contracts at all, given that it must be perfectly fair for
owners of labour-power to determine in their own interest
how it will be utilised.

Now, as capitalists have managerial prerogative, it is inherent in the master/employee relationship that workers are
alienated from their own labouring activity. That is to say, as
their labour is directed by and is in the interest of another, it
belongs not to them but to the other. In a passage already
referred to, Marx makes the point that ‘As soon as [the
workerfs] labour actually begins it has already ceased to
belong to him; it can therefore no longer be sold by him. ’12
And since the capitalist pays for labour-power and not labour,
it is inherent in the wage-labour contract that there may be a
discrepancy between the value of what the capitalist purchases, and the value of what the capitalist sells. The same
value of labour-power may produce a greater or lesser value
of product, depending on how efficiently and effectively the
capitalist extracts productive effort from the workers employed. Thus, since it rests with the capitalist how much
labour is extracted from the workers, albeit within limits set
by the right of the labourer to protect the labour-power which
they hire out, it is the capitalist’s managerial prerogative
which determines whether and what amount of surplus-value
is produced.

It is clear that as the working day varies, and the value of
the product increases, the increased cost of raw materials and
wear and tear of machinery offsets part of the increase in the
value of the product, while the value of the labour-power
employed is fixed up to the limit of the working day. With a
working day of X hours, say, the value of the product exactly
covers the cost of wear and tear and raw materials used in X
hours, and the cost of employing labour-power for a day. With
a working day of X plus Y hours, part of the increased value of
the product is offset by the cost of an extra Y hours of raw
materials and wear and tear of machinery. However, part of
the increased value of the product, equal to YIX of the cost of
employing labour-power for a day, is appropriated gratis by
the capitalist. 13
On the other hand, the alienation of the agent from his or
her own labour is not inherent in the client/agent relationship.

Further, if the agent’s service is to produce a product for the
client, it is not inherent in their relationship as such that there
may be a discrepancy between the value of what the client
purchases and what the client sells. Whether the client can
make a profit depends on whether a position as an intermediary may be exploited in order to ‘buy cheap, and sell dear’.

The identity of contract labour and
employment of wage-labourers
Marx defines a mode of production as the specific way the
direct producers are combined with the means of production
under definite social relations of production so as to produce
a surp1US. 14 Thus the capitalist, as an owner of money functioning as capital, purchases means of production and labourpower, and directs the employed workers on pain of dismissal
to work with the capitalist’s means of production so as to
produce surplus-value. A relationship in which the capitalist
comes temporarily to own the direct producers’ capacity for
work is clearly different from one in which an owner of
money pays for a service.

Thus, in the letting-out system, the owner of money operates as a merchant who lends wool to cottage spinners, for ex-

ample, whereas a capitalist employs workers to spin wool in
the capitalist’s factory. Through penalties for late delivery or
poor quality, for example, the merchant in the letting-out
system can only indirectly control the labour of the spinners
or determine the technology they use, whereas the capitalist
enforces labour discipline on the workers he or she employs,
and directly determines the technology employed.

Of course, capitalist social relations of production may
merge with those of contract labour. IS Indeed, it may be
profitable to avoid the responsibilities of an employer to
provide for holidays, workers’ compensation etc., and to pay
workers on a contract basis instead. Control over the workers
may be exercised in practice through the terms of the contract,
and the requirements of the successful operation of the means
of production. As Marx points out, capitalism throws up technologies in which machines determine what workers do,
rather than workers determining what machines-do.” Exploitation of contract labour may be even more severe and injurious
to the workers’ health than capitalist exploitation, as in the
letting-out of sewing to women, who work in their own home,
using their own sewing machine, in their own time (often late
at night when kids are in bed), and on a miserable piece-rate
basis of pay.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the social dynamic of such
opportunistic exploitation of the difficulties of housewives in
coping with the double burden of earning and housework,
differs radically from the social dynamic of capitalism, which
exploits instead the productive power of co-operative labour,
learning on the job, and technological progress. The use of
relatively obsolete technology, premature exhaustion of
workers, haphazard delivery of the product, and the other
vagaries of sewing fashion garments under the letting-out
system may be tolerable in the niche provided by the fashion
industry. However, that sort of anarchy is less easily tolerated
in the mass production of standardised products characteristic
of the capitalist mode of production.

The difference between the alienation of labour-power
and the alienation of a service emerges most strikingly when
workers labour together. Under the master/employee relationship each worker’s labour-power is purchased individually,
and the workers co-operate in labour under the direction of
the capitalist. Under the client/agent relationship, the collectively rendered service itself would be alienated, with the
workers themselves responsible for their own co-ordination
in labour. It must be a juridical fiction to represent the capitalist as purchasing a service when the contracts of employment
are with individuals taken separately, but the actual service is
the labour of many working together. This may not, of course,
Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989 25

prevent capitalism using the form of a contract to evade their
legal responsibilities as employers, while remaining employers in fact.

Indeed, it is arguable that contract employment typically
is capitalist employment, but under the legal form of the
client/agent relationship. Since capitalism sets the social standard of employment, it is reasonable to say that contract
labour is in fact capitalist employment of labour-power, especially where supposed contract workers are employed for set
hours, and work with means of production owned by the
employer. In other cases, although contract labour may merge
with wage-labour, it may be appropriate to recognise it as
invol ving the working of a mode of production different from
the capitalist mode of production. However, at least in the
advanced capitalist countries, the social dominance of the
capitalist mode of production is such that we may speak of the
workers employed under the client/agent relationship as being
subject to capitalist exploitation, if only of a secondary kind.





The distinctive mark of the capitalist
mode of production
It is clear from the discussion so far that the distinctive feature
of the capitalist mode of production is not that surplus labour
is appropriated by a propertied class in the form of surplusvalue, since this also occurs in exploitation through market
speculation, usury, and the letting-out system. Contrary to
those who have sought to emphasise the concept of exploitation and to eliminate the concept of alienation, the distinctive
mark of the capitalist mode of production is that the appropriation of surplus-labour under capitalism takes place on the
basis of the capitalist’s ownership of wage-workers’ labourpower. That is, the appropriation of surplus-labour under
capitalism takes place on the basis of the alienation of the
workers from their own collective labouring activity. This
mode of production has its own distinctive dynamic. The
expanded reproduction of the relationship between capitalists
and wage-workers has as its presupposition and result the
transformation of human labour into machine-like labour, and
the progressive displacement of the human elements of the
productive mechanism by new, utterly mechanical elements.16
Marx’s theory of the capitalist mode of production may be
paralleled by a theory of market exchange which pretends that
entrepreneurs merely trade with workers and other owners of
productive services on one side, and with consumers on the
other side. Such a theory, however, necessarily fails to highlight the dynamic of the capitalist’s purchase and consumption of labour-power, a dynamic based on the opportunities
and limits of the possible forms of co-operative productive
activity directed by a capitalist. Marx clearly presumes that it
is impossible to have the form of the client/agent relationship
take the place of capitalist employment of wage-workers. If
this is so, it can only be because capitalist exploitation, and
the dynamic of co-operative labour under capitalist control,
cannot be established generally and securely under a relationship which, in its legal form, is premised on workers’ selfdirectionP


Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989




The contrast between specifically capitalist exploitation and
exploitation through unequal terms of trade does not preclude these other types of exploitation being secondary
forms of capitalist exploitation. See, for example, Ian Hunt,
‘A Critique of Roemer, Hodgson and Cohen on Marxian
Exploitation’ in Social Theory and Practice, vol. 12, no. 2
(1986): 121-71, especially p. 162.

I. Steedman, ‘Marx on Ricardo’ in Ian Bradley and Michael
Howard (eds.), Classical and Marxian Political Economy,
London and Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1982.

J. Roemer, ‘New Directions in the Marxian Theory of Exploitation and Class’, in Politics and Society, vol. 11, No. 3
(1982): 375-94, 253-87.

Ibid., pp. 376-77.

Steedman, ‘Marx on Ricardo’, p. 15l.

Strictly speaking, the self-direction of an agent is not necessarily by right, inasmuch as there can be a discrepancy
between an individual’s rights and the socially produced and
defended powers he or she may have. However, an agent
typically is able to direct his or her own work in virtue of
having the right to do so.

G. Hodgson, ‘A Theory of Exploitation Without the Labour
Theory of Value’, Science and Society, 44 (1980): 257-73.

G. Hodgson, Capitalism, Value and Exploitation, Oxford:

Martin Robinson, 1982, p. 204.

K. Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Moscow: Progress Publishers,
1954, p. 165.

K. Marx, Capital, Vol. rn, Moscow: Progress Publishers,
1959, p. 819.

Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Chapter XIX, p. 503.


At this point, Marx’s theory involves an abstraction from the
fact that the amortisation of fixed capital· per hour is not a
constant, but decreases as the working day increases. So
profit is due not only to the management of labour-power,
but also to the management of the operating time of fixed
capital. However, the management of the working time of
fixed capital generally has a relatively minor impact on
profits, and is in any case mediated by the management of

Marx, Capital, Vol. Il, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1956,

This merging of one relation with the other is compatible
with their difference as is the merging of child and adult in
adolescence compatible with the significant difference between their social status, a point I owe to Graham Priest.

See Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Chapter XV.

I would like to thank Charles Pigden, Ross Poole, Graham
Priest and Janna Thompson for helpful comments on an
earlier version of this paper.


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