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

The Greed for Surplus Labor

THE WORKING DAY: the greed for surplus labor

Surplus labor was not a new discovery made by capital. Wherever a part of society has a monopoly of the means of production, the worker, whether free or bound, must supplement the labor time necessary for his own maintenance by surplus labor time in which he produces the means of subsistence for the owner of the means of production, whether this owner be an Athenian devotee of the Good and Beautiful, an Etruscan theocrat, a Roman citizen, a Norman baron, an American slave owner, a Wallachian boyar, a modern landlord, or a capitalist:

It is obvious, however, that when a society is so constructed that from the economic viewpoint, the use-value of products predominates over their exchange-value, surplus labor is restricted within a smaller or larger circle of wants, and that in such a society an unquenchable thirst for surplus value cannot arise as the direct outcome of the very nature of the method of production. For this reason over work in ancient days became horrible only when the aim was to gain exchange-value in its independent form, by the production of gold and silver. In that case a compulsory working to death was the official form of overwork. (For information as to this read Diodorus Siculus.)

Such conditions were exceptional in the ancient world. As soon, however, as people among whom production still takes the lower form of slave labor, serf labor, and the like, are attracted within the domain of the world market dominated by the capitalist method of production (so that the sale of products made for export becomes their leading interest), the civilized horrors of overwork are grafted on to the barbaric horrors of slavery, serfdom, etc.

In the Southern States of the American Union negro slavery had a moderate and patriarchal character so long as production was mainly carried on for the satisfaction of the immediate needs of the slave owners. But in proportion as the export of cotton grew to be a vital interest of the slave States, overwork became a factor in a calculated and calculating system, so that in many places it was considered "good business" to use up the negroes lives in seven years.

No longer did the slave owner aim merely at getting a certain quantity of useful products out of the work of his slaves. He wanted to extract surplus value. The same thing has happened in the Danubian Principalities in the case of serf labor. . . .

"The cupidity of mill owners whose cruelties in the pursuit of gain have hardly been exceeded by those perpetrated by the Spaniards in the conquest of America in the pursuit of gold," -- this werewolf hunger for surplus labor, these monstrous exactions, this impulse towards the perpetual increase of the working day -- ultimately led to the imposition of legal restrictions upon the demands of capital. . . .

Mr. Broughton Charlton, a county magistrate, speaking as chairman of a meeting held at the Assembly Rooms, Nottingham, on January 14, 1860, and reported in the "Daily Telegraph" of January 17, 1860, declared "that there was an amount of privation and suffering among that portion of the population connected with the lace trade, unknown in other parts of the kingdom, indeed, in the civilized world. . . . Children of nine or ten years are dragged from their squalid beds at two, three, or four o'clock in the morning, and compelled to work for a bare subsistence until ten, eleven, or twelve at night, their limbs wearing away, their frames dwindling, their faces whitening, and their humanity absolutely sinking into a stone-like torpor, utterly horrible to contemplate. . . .

"We are not surprised that Mr. Mallett, or any other manufacturer, should stand forward and protest against discussion. . . .The system, as the Rev. Montagu Valpy describes it, is on of unmitigated slavery, socially, physically, morally, and spiritually. . . .What can be thought of a town which holds a public meeting to petition that the period of labor for men shall be diminished to eighteen hours a day? . . .We declaim against the Virginian and Carolina cotton planters. Is their black-market, their lash, and their barter of human flesh more detestable than this slow sacrifice of humanity which takes place in order that veils and collars may be fabricated for the benefit of capitalists?"

. . . For my purposes it will suffice to cull from the reports of 1860 and 1863 the evidence given by some of the exploited children. . .

. . . William Wood, 9 years old, was 7 years and 10 months old when he began to work. He 'ran molds' (carried ready moulded articles into the drying room, afterwards bringing back the empty mold) from the beginning. He came to work every day in the week at 6 a.m., and left off about 9 p.m. 'I work till 9 o'clock at night six nights in the week. I have done so seven or eight weeks.' Fifteen hours of labor for a child 7 years old!