We see this very clearly wherever the division of labor has made it customary for different parts of the full process of production to be carried on by different sets of producers—that is to say, wherever we are in the habit of estimating the amount of value which the labor expended in any preparatory stage of production has created. And a moment's reflection will show that this is the case as to the vast majority of products. Take a ship, a building, a jackknife, a book, a lady's thimble or a loaf of bread. They are finished products. But they were not produced at one operation or by one set of producers. And this being the case, we readily distinguish different points or stages in the creation of the value which as completed articles they represent. When we do not distinguish different parts in the final process of production we do distinguish the value of the materials. The value of these materials may often be again decomposed many times, exhibiting as many clearly defined steps in the creation of the final value. At each of these steps we habitually estimate a creation of value, an addition to capital. The batch of bread which the baker is taking from the oven has a certain value. But this is composed in part of the value of the flour from which the dough was made. And this again is composed of the value of the wheat, the value given by milling, etc. Iron in the form of pigs is very far from being a completed product. It must yet pass through several, or, perhaps, through many, stages of production before it results in the finished articles that were the ultimate objects for which the iron ore was extracted from the mine. Yet, is not pig iron capital? And so the process of production is not really completed when a crop of cotton is gathered, nor yet when it is ginned and pressed; nor yet when it arrives at Lowell or Manchester; nor yet when it is converted into yarn; nor yet when it becomes cloth; but only when it is finally placed in the hands of the consumer. Yet at each step in this progress there is clearly enough a creation of value—an addition to capital. Why, therefore, although we do not so habitually distinguish and estimate it, is there not a creation of value—an addition to capital-when the ground is plowed for the crop? Is it because it may possibly be a bad season and the crop may fail? Evidently not; for a like possibility of misadventure attends every one of the many steps in the production of the finished article. On the average a crop is sure to come up, and so much plowing and sowing will on the average result in so much cotton in the boll, as surely as so much spinning of cotton yarn will result in so much cloth.
In short, as the payment of wages is always conditioned upon the rendering of labor, the payment of wages in production, no matter how long the process, never involves any advance of capital, or even temporarily lessens capital. It may take a year, or even years, to build a ship, but the creation of value of which the finished ship will be the sum goes on day by day, and hour by hour, from the time the keel is laid or even the ground is cleared. Nor by the payment of wages before the ship is completed, does the master builder lessen either his capital or the capital of the community, for the value of the partially completed ship stands in place of the value paid out in wages. There is no advance of capital in this payment of wages, for the labor of the workmen during the week or month creates and renders to the builder more capital than is paid back to them at the end of the week or month, as is shown by the fact that if the builder were at any stage of the construction asked to sell a partially completed ship he would expect a profit.
And so, when a Sutro or St. Gothard tunnel or a Suez canal is cut, there is no advance of capital. The tunnel or canal, as it is cut, becomes capital as much as the money spent in cutting it—or if you please, the powder, drills, etc., used in the work, and the food, clothes, etc., used by the workmen—as is shown by the fact that the value of the capital stock of the company is not lessened as capital in these forms is gradually changed into capital in the form of tunnel or canal. On the contrary, it probably, and on the average, increases as the work progresses, just as the capital invested in a speedier mode of production would on the average increase.
And this is obvious in agriculture also. That the creation of value does not take place all at once when the crop is gathered, but step by step during the whole process which the gathering of the crop concludes, and that no payment of wages in the interim lessens the farmer's capital, is tangible enough when land is sold or rented during the process of production, as a plowed field will bring more than an unplowed field, or a field that has been sown more than one merely plowed. It is tangible enough when growing crops are sold, as is sometimes done, or where the farmer does not harvest himself, but lets a contract to the owner of harvesting machinery. It is tangible in the case of orchards and vineyards which, though not yet in bearing, bring prices proportionate to their age. It is tangible in the case of horses, cattle and sheep, which increase in value as they grow toward maturity. And if not always tangible between what may be called the usual exchange points in production, this increase of value as surely takes place with every exertion of labor. Hence, where labor is rendered before wages are paid, the advance of capital is really made by labor, and is from the employed to the employer, not from the employer to the employed.
"Yet," it may be said, "in such cases as we have been considering capital is required!" Certainly; I do not dispute that. But it is not required in order to make advances to labor. It is required for quite another purpose. What that purpose is we may readily see.
When wages are paid in kind—that is to say, in wealth of the same species as the labor produces; as, for instance, if I hire men to cut wood, agreeing to give them as wages a portion of the wood they cut, a method sometimes adopted by the owners or lessees of woodland, it is evident that no capital is required for the payment of wages. Nor yet when, for the sake of mutual convenience, arising from the fact that a large quantity of wood can be more readily and more advantageously exchanged than a number of small quantities, I agree to pay wages in money, instead of wood, shall I need any capital, provided I can make the exchange of the wood for money before the wages are due. It is only when I cannot make such an exchange, or such an advantageous exchange as I desire, until I accumulate a large quantity of wood that I shall need capital. Nor even then shall I need capital if I can make a partial or tentative exchange by borrowing on my wood. If I cannot, or do not choose, either to sell the wood or to borrow upon it, and yet wish to go ahead accumulating a large stock of wood, I shall need capital. But manifestly, I need this capital, not for the payment of wages, but for the accumulation of a stock of wood. Likewise in cutting a tunnel. If the workmen were paid in tunnel (which, if convenient, might easily be done by paying them in stock of the company), no capital for the payment of wages would be required. It is only when the undertakers wish to accumulate capital in the shape of a tunnel that they will need capital. To recur to our first illustration: The broker to whom I sell my silver cannot carry on his business without capital. But he does not need this capital because be makes any advance of capital to me when be receives my silver and hands me gold. He needs it because the nature of the business requires the keeping of a certain amount of capital on hand, in order that when a customer comes be may be prepared to make the exchange the customer desires.
And so we shall find it in every branch of production. Capital has never to be set aside for the payment of wages when the produce of the labor for which the wages are paid is exchanged as soon as produced; it is only required when this produce is stored up, or what is to the individual the same thing, placed in the general current of exchanges without being at once drawn against—that is, sold on credit. But the capital thus required is not required for the payment of wages, nor for advances to labor, as it is always represented in the produce of the labor. It is never as an employer of labor that any producer needs capital; when he does need capital, it is because be is not only an employer of labor, but a merchant or speculator in, or an accumulator of, the products of labor. This is generally the case with employers.
To recapitulate: The man who works for himself gets his wages in the things he produces, as he produces them, and exchanges this value into another form whenever be sells the produce. The man who works for another for stipulated wages in money works under a contract of exchange. He also creates his wages as be renders his labor, but be does not get them except at stated times, in stated amounts, and in a different form. In performing the labor he is advancing in exchange; when he gets his wages the exchange is completed. During the time he is earning the wages he is advancing capital to his employer, but at no time, unless wages are paid before work is done, is the employer advancing capital to him. Whether the employer who receives this produce in exchange for the wages immediately re-exchanges it, or keeps it for awhile, no more alters the character of the transaction than does the final disposition of the product made by the ultimate receiver, who may, perhaps, be in another quarter of the globe and at the end of a series of exchanges numbering hundreds.
* "Industry is limited by capital.... There can be no more industry than is supplied with materials to work up and food to eat. Self-evident as the thing is, it is often forgotten that the people of a country are maintained and have their wants supplied not by the produce of present labor, but of past. They consume what has been produced, not what is about to be produced. Now, of what has been produced a part only is allotted to the support of productive labor, and there will not and cannot be more of that labor than the portion so allotted (which is the capital of the country) can feed and provide with the materials and instruments of production." — John Stuart Mill, "Principles of Political
Economy," Book 1, Chap. V, Sec. 1.
* I speak of labor producing capital for the sake of greater clearness. What labor always procures is either wealth, which may or may not be capital, or services, the cases in which nothing is obtained being merely exceptional cases of misadventure. Where the object of the labor is simply the gratification of the employer, as where I hire a man to black my boots, I do not pay the wages from capital, but from wealth which I have devoted, not to reproductive uses, but to consumption for my own satisfaction. Even if wages thus paid be considered as drawn from capital, then by that act they pass from the category of capital to that of wealth devoted to the gratification of the possessor, as when a cigar dealer takes a dozen cigars from the stock he has for sale and puts them in his pocket for his own use.
THE MAINTENANCE OF LABORERS NOT DRAWN FROM CAPITAL
But a stumbling block may yet remain, or may recur, in the mind of the reader.
As the plowman cannot eat the furrow, nor a partially completed steam engine aid in any way in producing the clothes the machinist wears, have I not, in the words of John Stuart Mill, "forgotten that the people of a country are maintained and have their wants supplied, not by the produce of present labor, but of past"? Or, to use the language of a popular elementary work—that of Mrs. Fawcett—have I not "forgotten that many months must elapse between the sowing of the seed and the time when the produce of that seed is converted into a loaf of bread," and that "it is, therefore, evident that laborers cannot live upon that which their labor is assisting to produce, but are maintained by that wealth which their labor, or the labor of others, has previously produced, which wealth is capital"?*
The assumption made in these passages—the assumption that it is so self-evident that labor must be subsisted from capital that the proposition has but to be stated to compel recognition—runs through the whole fabric of current political economy. And so confidently is it held that the maintenance of labor is drawn from capital that the proposition that "population regulates itself by the funds which are to employ it, and, therefore, always increases or diminishes with the increase or diminution of capital," is regarded as equally axiomatic, and in its turn made the basis of important reasoning.
Yet being resolved, these propositions are seen to be, not self-evident, but absurd; for they involve the idea that labor cannot be exerted until the products of labor are saved—thus putting the product before the producer.
And being examined, they will be seen to derive their apparent plausibility from a confusion of thought.
I have already pointed out the fallacy, concealed by an erroneous definition, which underlies the proposition that because food, raiment and shelter are necessary to productive labor, therefore industry is limited by capital. To say that a man must have his breakfast before going to work is not to say that he cannot go to work unless a capitalist furnishes him with a breakfast, for his breakfast may, and in point of fact in any country where there is not actual famine will, come not from wealth set apart for the assistance of production, but from wealth set apart for subsistence. And, as has been previously shown, food, clothing, etc.—in short, all articles of wealth—are only capital so long as they remain in the possession of those who propose, not to consume, but to exchange them for other commodities or for productive services, and cease to be capital when they pass into the possession of those who will consume them; for in that transaction they pass from the stock of wealth held for the purpose of procuring other wealth, and pass into the stock of wealth held for purposes of gratification, irrespective of whether their consumption will aid in the production of wealth or not. Unless this distinction is preserved it is impossible to draw the line between the wealth that is capital and the wealth that is not capital, even by remitting the distinction to the "mind of the possessor," as does John Stuart Mill. For men do not eat or abstain, wear clothes or go naked, as they propose to engage in productive labor or not. They eat because they are hungry, and wear clothes because they would be uncomfortable without them. Take the food on the breakfast table of a laborer who will work or not that day as he gets the opportunity. If the distinction between capital and noncapital be the support of productive labor, is this food capital or not? It is as impossible for the laborer himself as for any philosopher of the Ricardo-Mill school to tell. Nor yet can it be told when it gets into his stomach; nor, supposing that he does not get work at first, but continues the search, can it be told until it has passed into the blood and tissues. Yet the man will eat his breakfast all the same.
But, though it would be logically sufficient, it is hardly safe to rest here and leave the argument to turn on the distinction between wealth and capital. Nor is it necessary. It seems to me that the proposition that present labor must be maintained by the produce of past labor will upon analysis prove to be true only in the sense that the afternoon's labor must be performed by the aid of the noonday meal, or that before you eat the hare he must be caught and cooked. And this, manifestly, is not the sense in which the proposition is used to support the important reasoning that is made to hinge upon it. That sense is, that before a work which will not immediately result in wealth available for subsistence can be carried on, there must exist such a stock of subsistence as will support the laborers during the process. Let us see if this be true:
The canoe which Robinson Crusoe made with such infinite toil and pains was a production in which his labor could not yield an immediate return. But was it necessary that, before he commenced, he should accumulate a stock of food sufficient to maintain him while he felled the tree, hewed out the canoe, and finally launched her into the sea? Not at all. It was necessary only that he should devote part of his time to the procurement of food while be was devoting part of his time to the building and launching of the canoe. Or supposing a hundred men to be landed, without any stock of provisions, in a new country. Will it be necessary for them to accumulate a season's stock of provisions before they can begin to cultivate the soil? Not at all. It will be necessary only that fish, game, berries, etc., shall be so abundant that the labor of a part of the hundred may suffice to furnish daily enough of these for the maintenance of all, and that there shall be such a sense of mutual interest, or such a correlation of desires, as shall lead those who in the present get the food to divide (exchange) with those whose efforts are directed to future recompense.
What is true in these cases is true in all cases. It is not necessary to the production of things that cannot be used as subsistence, or cannot be immediately utilized, that there should have been a previous production of the wealth required for the maintenance of the laborers while the production is going on. It is only necessary that there should be, somewhere within the circle of exchange, a contemporaneous production of sufficient subsistence for the laborers, and a willingness to exchange this subsistence for the thing on which the labor is being bestowed.
And as a matter of fact is it not true, in any normal condition of things, that consumption is supported by contemporaneous production?
Here is a luxurious idler, who does no productive work either with head or hand, but lives, we say, upon wealth which his father left him securely invested in government bonds. Does his subsistence, as a matter of fact, come from wealth accumulated in the past or from the productive labor that is going on around him? On his table are new-laid eggs, butter churned but a few days before, milk which the cow gave this morning, fish which twenty-four hours ago were swimming in the sea, meat which the butcher boy has just brought in time to be cooked, vegetables fresh from the garden, and fruit from the orchard—in short, hardly anything that has not recently left the hand of the productive laborer (for in this category must be included transporters and distributors as well as those who are engaged in the first stages of production), and nothing that has been produced for any considerable length of time, unless it may be some bottles of old wine. What this man inherited from his father, and on which we say he lives, is not actually wealth at all, but only the power of commanding wealth as others produce it. And it is from this contemporaneous production that his subsistence is drawn.
The fifty square miles of London undoubtedly contain more wealth than within the same space anywhere else exists. Yet were productive labor in London absolutely to cease, within a few hours people would begin to die like rotten sheep, and within a few weeks, or at most a few months, hardly one would be left alive. For an entire suspension of productive labor would be a disaster more dreadful than ever yet befell a beleaguered city. It would not be a mere external wall of circumvallation, such as Titus drew around Jerusalem, which would prevent the constant incoming of the supplies on which a great city lives, but it would be the drawing of a similar wall around each household. Imagine such a suspension of labor in any community, and you will see how true it is that mankind really lives from hand to mouth; that it is the daily labor of the community that supplies the community with its daily bread.
Just as the subsistence of the laborers who built the Pyramids was drawn not from a previously boarded stock, but from the constantly recurring crops of the Nile Valley; just as a modern government when it undertakes a great work of years does not appropriate to it wealth already produced, but wealth yet to be produced, which is taken from producers in taxes as the work progresses; so it is that the subsistence of the laborers engaged in production which does not directly yield subsistence comes from the production of subsistence in which others are simultaneously engaged.
If we trace the circle of exchange by which work done in the production of a great steam engine secures to the worker bread, meat, clothes and shelter, we shall find that though between the laborer on the engine and the producers of the bread, meat, etc., there may be a thousand intermediate exchanges, the transaction, when reduced to its lowest terms, really amounts to an exchange of labor between him and them. Now the cause which induces the expenditure of the labor on the engine is evidently that some one who has power to give what is desired by the laborer on the engine wants in exchange an engine—that is to say, there exists a demand for an engine on the part of those producing bread, meat, etc., or on the part of those who are producing what the producers of the bread, meat, etc., desire. It is this demand which directs the labor of the machinist to the production of the engine, and hence, reversely, the demand of the machinist for bread, meat, etc., really directs an equivalent amount of labor to the production of these things, and thus his labor, actually exerted in the production of the engine, virtually produces the things in which he expends his wages.
Or, to formularize this principle:
The demand for consumption determines the direction in which labor will be expended in production.
This principle is so simple and obvious that it needs no further illustration, yet in its light all the complexities of our subject disappear, and we thus reach the same view of the real objects and rewards of labor in the intricacies of modern production that we gained by observing in the first beginnings of society the simpler forms of production and exchange. We see that now, as then, each laborer is endeavoring to obtain by his exertions the satisfaction of his own desires; we see that although the minute division of labor assigns to each producer the production of but a small part, or perhaps nothing at all, of the particular things be labors to get, yet, in aiding in the production of what other producers want, he is directing other labor to the production of the things he wants—in effect, producing them himself. And thus, if be make jackknives and eat wheat, the wheat is really as much the produce of his labor as if be had grown it for himself and left wheatgrowers to make their own jackknives.
We thus see how thoroughly and completely true it is, that in whatever is taken or consumed by laborers in return for labor rendered, there is no advance of capital to the laborers. If I have made jackknives, and with the wages received have bought wheat, I have simply exchanged jackknives for wheat—added jackknives to the existing stock of wealth and taken wheat from it. And as the demand for consumption determines the direction in which labor will be expended in production, it cannot even be said, so long as the limit of wheat production has not been reached, that I have lessened the stock of wheat, for, by placing jackknives in the exchangeable stock of wealth and taking wheat out, I have determined labor at the other end of a series of
exchanges to the production of wheat, just as the wheat grower, by putting in wheat and demanding jackknives, determined labor to the production of jackknives, as the easiest way by which wheat could be obtained.
And so the man who is following the plow—though the crop for which he is opening the ground is not yet sown, and after being sown will take months to arrive at maturity—he is yet, by the exertion of his labor in plowing, virtually producing the food he eats and the wages he receives. For, though plowing is but a part of the operation of producing a crop, it is a part, and as necessary a part as harvesting. The doing of it is a step toward procuring a crop, which, by the assurance which it gives of the future crop, sets free from the stock constantly held the subsistence and wages of the plowman. This is not merely theoretically true, it is practically and literally true. At the proper time for plowing, let plowing cease. Would not the symptoms of scarcity at once manifest themselves without waiting for the time of the harvest? Let plowing cease, and would not the effect at once be felt in counting room, and machine shop, and factory? Would not loom and spindle soon stand as idle as the plow? That this would be so, we see in the effect which immediately follows a bad season. And if this would be so, is not the man who plows really producing his subsistence and wages as much as though during the day or week his labor actually resulted in the things for which his labor is exchanged?