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

Limits of the Working Day

THE WORKING DAY: limits of the working day

. . . The capitalist has bought labor power at its value for a day. He has, therefore, acquired the right of making the worker work for him for a day. But what is a working day?

Unquestionably the working day must be shorter than the natural day of 24 hours. How much shorter? The capitalist has his own ideas on this matter.

As a capitalist, he is merely capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital, which has a vital impetus of its own, the impulse towards self-expansion, towards the creation of surplus value, towards making the constant factor of capital (the means of production) absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus labor. Capital is deal labor, and, like a vampire, can keep itself alive only by sucking the blood of living labor. The more blood it sucks, the more vigorously does it live. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist is consuming the labor power he has bought. If the worker consumes his disposable time for his own purposes, he is robbing the capitalist.

Thus the capitalist appeals to the law of exchange of commodities. Like any other buyer, his desire is to turn the use-value of his commodity to the greatest possible advantage. But suddenly we hear a voice which has hitherto been stifled amid the storm and stress of the process of production. The worker speaks as follows:

"The commodity I have sold you is distinguished from the ordinary welter of commodities by this, that its use creates value, and a greater value than its own. That was why you bought it. What to you seems a spontaneous expansion of capital, seems to me an excessive expenditure of labor power.

"In the market you and I know only one law, the law of the exchange of commodities.
By that law the consumption of a commodity belongs, not to the seller who alienates it, but to the buyer who acquires it. Consequently, the use of my daily labor power belongs to you. but it is my concern to reproduce it daily, by means of the price of its daily sale, so that I can continue to sell it over and over again. Apart from natural wear and tear due to advancing years, and so on, I must be capable of working to-morrow with the normal measure of energy, health, and freshness I possess at my work today. You are continually preaching to me the gospel of 'thrift' and 'abstinence.' Well and good!

"I shall make a reasonable and thrifty use of my sole possession, my labor power, and shall be careful to avoid squandering it. From day to day I shall set so much only of it in motion, shall turn so much only of my capacity for labor into labor, as is compatible with its normal duration and healthy development. If you prolong the working day for me immeasurably, you will reach a point when you will be able in one day to set in motion an amount of my labor power which may exceed what I can replace in three days. What you thus gain in labor I shall lose in the substance of labor.

"Using my labor power and despoiling me of my labor power are two very different things. . . .you pay me for one day's labor power, and in that day you consume three days' labor power. This conflicts with terms of our contract and infringes the law of the exchange of commodities. I therefore demand a working day of normal length; and I voice this demand without making any appeal to your heart, seeing that sentiment has nothing to do with business. You may be a model citizen. Perhaps you are a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and one who lives in the odor of sanctity. But the thing that you represent when you confront me has no heart within its breast. The heart which seems to throb there is my own.

"I demand the normal working day because, like any other seller, I demand the value of my commodity."

. . . The capitalist maintains his right as purchaser when he tries to make the working day as long as possible and to make, whenever possible, two working days out of one. On the other hand, the specific nature of the commodity that has been sold imposes a limit upon the buyer's consumption of it, and the worker is maintaining his right as seller when he wants to restrict the working day to a normal length. Here we encounter an antinomy [apparent contradiction] in which right conflicts with right, both of these rights being hallowed by the law of exchange of commodities.

When two rights come into conflict, force decides the issue. That is why, in the history of capitalist production, the decision as to what is a normal working day presents itself in the form of a struggle as to the defining of the limits of the working day -- a struggle between the aggregate of capitalists, the capitalist class, and the aggregate of workers, the working class.