Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Capital I, Chapter 28

Bloody Legislation against the Expropriated, from the End of the 15th Century. Forcing down of Wages by Acts of Parliament

All of the former retainers, thrown from their former employment, all of those left rootless by the dissolution of the monasteries, all of the peasants, forcibly evicted from their land, were far too numerous for the needs of the small-scale manufacture that was beginning. All of these people, removed from their only means of subsistence, by force, were now cast out into the land as vagabonds, whose only means of staying alive was through begging and criminal activity.

Against all these people, thrust into this position for no fault of their own, are then introduced a series of laws. This process happened not just in Britain, but across Western Europe, from the end of the 15th Century.

Marx details this legislation, in England, from the time of Henry VII. It includes punishment for begging including whipping, and having part of an ear cut off, and the turning of the workless into slaves by anyone who denounces them. These slaves could be branded with an “S” on their forehead. If the slave ran away three times they could be executed.

This kind of parish slaves was kept up in England until far into the 19th century under the name of “roundsmen.”” (p 687)

Under Elizabeth I, unlicensed beggars were to be flogged and branded and ultimately executed.

Thus were the agricultural people, first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system.” (p 688)

But, for capitalist production it is not enough that capital exist at one pole and forced wage labour at the other. The workers must accept their relation to capital as being just as normal as the former subordination of the serf to the lord of the manor.

The advance of capitalist production develops a working class, which by education, tradition, habit, looks upon the conditions of that mode of production as self-evident laws of Nature. The organisation of the capitalist process of production, once fully developed, breaks down all resistance. The constant generation of a relative surplus-population keeps the law of supply and demand of labour, and therefore keeps wages, in a rut that corresponds with the wants of capital. The dull compulsion of economic relations completes the subjection of the labourer to the capitalist. Direct force, outside economic conditions, is of course still used, but only exceptionally. In the ordinary run of things, the labourer can be left to the “natural laws of production,” i.e., to his dependence on capital, a dependence springing from, and guaranteed in perpetuity by, the conditions of production themselves.” (p 689)

But, that is not at all the case in respect of the actual genesis of capitalist production. The bourgeoisie that, once secure in its position, enthuses over Free Trade, is quick to use the power of the State for the purposes of control.

The bourgeoisie, at its rise, wants and uses the power of the state to “regulate” wages, i.e., to force them within the limits suitable for surplus-value making, to lengthen the working-day and to keep the labourer himself in the normal degree of dependence. This is an essential element of the so-called primitive accumulation.” (p 689)

But, at this stage, wage labourers still form a tiny element within society. Moreover, their position is to a degree protected by the fact that these workers continue to have familial ties to peasant producers or workers employed in the guilds. That has continued in Europe until today. Until quite recently, many German workers continued to derive part of their income from a smallholding. One reason that the current Depression in Spain has not caused even greater misery and social upheaval is that workers have been able to rely on support from families still based on the land, or have returned to the land themselves.

In country and town master and workmen stood close together socially. The subordination of labour to capital was only formal — i.e., the mode of production itself had as yet no specific capitalistic character. Variable capital preponderated greatly over constant. The demand for wage labour grew, therefore, rapidly with every accumulation of capital, whilst the supply of wage labour followed but slowly. A large part of the national product, changed later into a fund of capitalist accumulation, then still entered into the consumption-fund of the labourer.” (p 689)

Labour laws, which began, in England, with the Statute of Labourers, under Edward III, in 1349, are then from the beginning aimed at forcing the workers to work for a minimum number of hours, and to limit their wages. Similar legislation is enacted in Europe.

It was forbidden, under pain of imprisonment, to pay higher wages than those fixed by the statute, but the taking of higher wages was more severely punished than the giving them. [So also in Sections 18 and 19 of the Statute of Apprentices of Elizabeth, ten days’ imprisonment is decreed for him that pays the higher wages, but twenty-one days for him that receives them.] A statute of 1360 increased the penalties and authorised the masters to extort labour at the legal rate of wages by corporal punishment. All combinations, contracts, oaths, &c., by which masons and carpenters reciprocally bound themselves, were declared null and void. Coalition of the labourers is treated as a heinous crime from the 14th century to 1825, the year of the repeal of the laws against Trades’ Unions. The spirit of the Statute of Labourers of 1349 and of its offshoots comes out clearly in the fact, that indeed a maximum of wages is dictated by the State, but on no account a minimum.” (p 690)

In the 16th Century, workers position was even worse. Money wages rose, but the value of money fell, inflating prices, so real wages fell. Once the bourgeoisie is secure, the laws against Trades Unions are no longer required, and in large part repealed in 1825. But, as we know, to this day, the State stands ready to intervene both by legal force or physical force to limit the ability of workers to defend their interests.

Back To Chapter 27

Forward To Chapter 29

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