Marx’s Theory of Surplus Value -- in 532 words!!

When commodities are produced, labour adds value. A pile of pieces of wood, pots of glue and bits of material are worth a certain amount as raw materials – but when a labourer assembles them into a chair, the chair is worth more – it has had value added to it, by labour. Only labour can do this. In Marx’s terms, labour generates surplus value.
The labour market treats human labour as if it were just any other ‘raw material’. In (bourgeois) economics, labour is just listed along with wood, glue, materials etc as a cost, a raw material. The price labour gets on the market (called ‘wages’) is set by the market just as with any other raw material.
However, labour is really a special and unique ‘raw material’ we argued. It is the only one that adds value. To treat it just like any other raw material is to exploit labour. We are so used to this happening, we fail to notice this trick

In a way, every capitalist knows that labour is special. You can’t do much with wood or glue, but, if you think it out, you can ‘stretch’ your labour to deliver even more added value. You make labour work longer hours, or you make it work as hard and as ‘productively’ as you can while you’ve got it. If you can do this, you can generate lots of surplus value. Of course, you may have to bully your labourers, supervise them closely, fire any slackers etc

Can you now see how, for most marxists, the origins of class struggle between labour and capital are rooted in the production system in capitalism?
With a bit of luck, you can persuade your labourers that it is ‘natural’ to work long and exhausting hours, or even that it is sanctioned by the Bible to labour from sunrise to sunset, six days a week, and that it is vulgar to ask for reward.
You then need some good reason to claim that you, the boss, deserve to get the lion’s share of this surplus value. Here are some classic ones:
  •  The boss owns the factory, therefore the boss should own any surplus generated in his/her factory. To do any other would be to violate the sanctity of private property! 
  •  Bosses are clever and ingenious entrepreneurs who deserve large rewards (more than just a high wage) for this sort of risky initiative and courage 
  •  Bosses are born to rule over labourers, or they deserve to do so because they are nicer, better educated, wiser etc. 
  • Any alternative would be unthinkable, foolish,be based on the politics of envy,  bring back Stalin, lead to anarchy, discourage Japanese investment, ruin the economy, lose the election for New Labour etc. 

Can you see how, for some marxists, the leading ideas in society are ideological (that is they support the dominant institutions of capitalism)? Can you see how ideas might be tied in some way to an ‘economic base’?
A problem to discuss at the end:

Are surpluses still generated these days by the exploitation of labour? What about machines making goods? What about people making large fortunes (or losses) on currency speculation?

 back to samples

back to S Hall on ideology