Graphic Witness: Hugo Gellert
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Hugo Gellert: Karl Marx' 'Capital' in Lithographs

Savage legislation against the expropriated from the end of the fifteenth century onwards
Acts of Parliament to force down wages [2/3]

PRIMARY ACCUMULATION: Savage legislation against the expropriated from the end of the fifteenth century onwards -- Acts of Parliament to force down wages

It does not suffice that the conditions rendering labor possible shall be concentrated at one pole of society in the shape of capital, while at the other pole are grouped masses of persons who have nothing to sell but their labor power. It does not suffice that these masses shall be forced to sell themselves "voluntarily."

In the course of capitalist production, there comes into existence a working class which, by education, tradition, and custom, is induced to regard the demands of this method of production as self-evident laws of nature. The organization of the fully developed capitalist process of production breaks down all resistance.

The continuous formation of a relative surplus population keeps the law of the supply and demand of labor, and therefore the wages of labor, in a rut which is accordant with capital's need for self-expansion. Finally, the daily compulsion of economic relations completes the subjugation of the worker to the capitalist. The direct use of force, apart from economic conditions, goes on, of course, from time to time, but has now become exceptional. In the ordinary course of events, the worker can be left to the "natural laws of production," this meaning that he can be left to his dependence on capital--a dependence arising out of, and guaranteed in perpetuity by, the conditions of production themselves. It is otherwise in the early days of capitalist production. Then the rising bourgeoisie needs and uses the State authority to "regulate" wages, to restrict them within the limits suitable for the making of surplus value, to lengthen the working day, and to keep the worker in a proper condition of dependence. This is an essential element of what is termed primary accumulation.

The class of wage workers, which came into existence during the latter half of the fourteenth century, formed at that time and during the next century only a very small part of the population, a part whose position was safeguarded by the existence of independent peasant agriculture in the rural districts, and by that of the craft guilds in the towns. Neither in the towns nor in the countryside was there a marked social difference between master and man. The subordination of labor to capital was purely formal, this meaning that the method of production had not yet assumed a specifically capitalistic character. The variable element of capital predominated greatly over the constant element. The demand for wage labor, therefore, grew quickly whenever accumulation of capital occurred, whereas the supply of wage labor grew but slowly to satisfy this demand. A considerable proportion of the national product, which at a later date became transformed into the fund for capitalist accumulation, still passed, in those early days, into the fund for the consumption of the workers.

Legislation concerning wage labor, primarily designed to favor the exploitation of the worker, and, as time passed, remaining invariably hostile towards him, was inaugurated in England by the Statute of Laborers passed in 1349, during the reign of Edward III. . . .

The Statute of Laborers was passed at the urgent instance of the House of Commons. A tory writer says naively: "Formerly the poor demanded such high wages as to threaten industry and wealth. Next, their wages are so low as to threaten industry and wealth equally, and perhaps more, but in another way." A tariff of wages was fixed by law for town and country, for piece-work and day-work. Agricultural laborers were to hire themselves out by the year; urban workers were to make their arrangements "in open market." It was forbidden under pain of imprisonment to pay higher wages than those prescribed by statute, and the acceptance of higher wages was punished still more severely. (So also in Sections 18 and 19 of the Statute of Apprentices passed in the reign of Elizabeth, ten days' imprisonment is to be the punishment of one who pays higher wages, but twenty-one days of one who receives them).

By the statute of 1360, the penalties were increased, and the master was actually empowered to force wages down to the legal limit by the infliction of corporal punishment. All combinations, agreements, oaths, etc., by which masons and carpenters respectively bound themselves, were declared null and void. From the fourteenth century till well on into the nineteenth, combination among workers was treated as a heinous crime. . . .The spirit of the Statute of Laborers passed in 1349 and that of succeeding enactments of the same kind is clearly shown by the fact that, whereas a maximum of wages was prescribed, there was absolutely no mention of minimum.