Labour power (in German: Arbeitskraft; in French: force de travail) is a key concept used by Karl Marx in his critique of capitalist political economy. Marx distinguished between the capacity to do work, labour power, from the physical act of working, labour. Labour power exists in any kind of society, but on what terms it is traded or combined with means of production to produce goods and services has historically varied greatly.
Under capitalism, according to Marx, the productive powers of labour appear as the creative power of capital. Indeed, "labour power at work" becomes a component of capital, it functions as working capital. Work becomes just work, workers become an abstract labour force, and the control over work becomes mainly a management prerogative.
The commercial value of human labour power is strongly linked
The commercial value of human labour power is strongly linked to the assertion of human needs by workers as citizens. It is not simply a question of supply and demand here, but of human needs which must be met. Therefore, labour costs have never been simply an "economic" or "commercial" matter, but also a moral, cultural and political issue.
In turn, this has meant that governments have typically strongly regulated the sale of labour power with laws and rules for labour contracts. These laws and rules affect e.g. the minimum wage, wage bargaining, the operation of trade unions, the obligations of employers in respect of employees, hiring and firing proced
In turn, this has meant that governments have typically strongly regulated the sale of labour power with laws and rules for labour contracts. These laws and rules affect e.g. the minimum wage, wage bargaining, the operation of trade unions, the obligations of employers in respect of employees, hiring and firing procedures, labour taxes, and unemployment benefits.
This has led to repeated criticism from employers that labour markets are over-regulated, and that the costs and obligations of hiring labour weigh too heavily on employers. Moreover, it is argued that over-regulation prevents the free movement of labour to where it is really necessary. If labour markets were deregulated by removing excessive legal restrictions, it is argued that costs to business would be reduced and more labour could be hired, thereby increasing employment opportunities and economic growth.
However, trade union representatives often argue that the real effect of deregulation is to reduce wages and conditions for workers, with the effect of reducing market demand for products. In turn, the effect would be lower economic growth and a decline in living standards, with increased casualisation of labour and more "contingent labour". It is argued that, because the positions of employees and employers in the market are unequal (it is usually easier for an employer to loose an employee than an employee to loose an employer), employees must be legally protected against undue exploitation. Otherwise employers will simply hire workers as and when it suits them, without regard for their needs as citizens. A further twist in some countries is that unions are part of the political establishment, and not interested in collecting complaints and suggestions from individual employees, employing staff in proportion to dues received, backing employees' legal cases, or rocking the boat in their public statements. For example, in China some workers are in prison for criticising the official unions.
Often the demand for "labour market flexibility" is combined with the demand for strong immigration controls, to block any movement of labour which would be only a burden for capital accumulation. The term "flexibility" is used because, while capital must be able to move freely around the globe, the movement of labour must be strictly controlled. If that control does not exist, it is argued, it could mean additional costs to employers and taxpayers.
It has been argued by Ian Steedman that Marx's own concept of labour power was in truth very similar to that of David Ricardo and Adam Smith and, therefore, that Marx was not saying anything really new. However, Marx's interpretation is (as he himself said) different from the "natural price of labour" of the classical political economists, because the "free play of market forces" does not gravitate spontaneously and automatically toward the "natural price" (the value) of labour power. Precisely because labour power is a unique and peculiar commodity, being lodged in the living worker, it does not conform to all the same laws as other kinds of commodities. Depending on social conditions, labour power may durably trade at prices well above, or below, its real value. Marx only assumed that labour power traded at its value, in order to show that even if that was the case, the worker was still economically exploited. But he was well aware that often labour power did not trade at its value, either because of unfavourable wage-bargaining conditions or because of labour scarcity.
A recent criticism by Prof. Marcel van der Linden is as follows: "Marx's thesis is based on two dubious assumptions, namely that labour needs to be offered for sale by the person who is the actual bearer and owner of such labour, an
A recent criticism by Prof. Marcel van der Linden is as follows: "Marx's thesis is based on two dubious assumptions, namely that labour needs to be offered for sale by the person who is the actual bearer and owner of such labour, and that the person who sells the labour sells nothing else. Why does this have to be the case? Why can labour not be sold by a party other than the bearer? What prevents the person who provides labour (his or her own or that of somebody else) from offering packages combining the labour with labour means? And why can a slave not perform wage labour for his master at the estate of some third party?" This difficulty was first noted in research conducted during the 1980s by Tom Brass, gathered together in his 1999 book.
The buying and selling of human work effort can and has taken many more different forms than Marx acknowledges—especially in the area of services. A modern information society makes possible all kinds of new forms of hustling. Marx said himself that "Above all [capitalism] overturns all the legal or traditional barriers that would prevent it from buying this or that kind of labour-power as it sees fit, or from appropriating this or that kind of labour". The concept of the value of labour power referred to the underlying economic relationship, not to be confused with the formalities of all the kinds of labour contracts which are possible.