Capital I. Chapter 6: The Sale and Purchase of Labour-Power

This chapter considers the emergence of labour-power in the commodified form in capitalism. The expression of the relationship between labour-power and value that we see develop in this chapter is LP-M-C(MS), this presents a class perspective on exchange-value. The point of Chapter 6 is to explain how value is generated through the exploitation of labour by the money owner, this takes shape in the chapter through first defining the concept of labour power, further developing the notion of surplus-value and discussing the measures of LP’s value.

Marx’s “concern with the exchange-value of labor-power at this point is only to show that the origin of surplus-value lies not in cheating the workers during the sale of their labor-power, but rather that it [surplus-value] may occur even in the presence of equal exchange” Cleaver (

To begin with Marx re-affirms some points made earlier. These are that use-value and exchange-value forms are not unique to capitalism. Secondly, that money, in its multiple forms, is the definite stage in the development of commodity exchange.

“In order to extract value out of the consumption of a commodity, … the money-owner must … find with-in the sphere of circulation, on the market, a commodity whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption is therefore itself an objectification of labour, hence creation of value” (270).

Labour-power (or labour-capacity) is:

  • a commodity sold on the market,
  • “the total of mental and physical capabilities” which a person sets in motion to produce use-values,

“the qualitative essence of surplus value” (Cleaver).

We could consider the difference between labour and labour power in this week’s session.

Labour-power is conditional upon the following two points:

1) It must be sold in limited periods (or it would be self-enslavement, the shift from a person as owner of a commodity, ie labour-power, into a commodity him/herself)

2) The owner of labour-power must feel compelled to sell it (272). That is, that he/she has no other commodity for sale.

“In order to become a commodity, the product must cease to be produced as the immediate means of subsistence of the producer himself (sic)” (273).

The value of labour-power is determined by

“the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction of this specific article” (274)

  • the capacity of the living individual
  • the ability of the source of labour-power to reproduce.
  • the means of subsistence. That is, in order to maintain and reproduce, the person selling their labour-power depends on the presence of a means of subsistence. (In extension on the point of self-maintenance, Marx mentions the ability to attain, access and participate in certain cultural practices, regionally and class specific – this is the “historical and moral element” present in the determination of LP’s value).
  • Education expenses required for certain LP, “form part of the total value spent in producing it” (276).

Should we incorporate welfare, social security, public education etc. into the investment made by the capitalist in labour power?

“The value of labour-power can be resolved into the value of a definite quality of the means of subsistence. It therefore varies with the value of the means of subsistence, that is, the quantity of labour-time required to reproduce them” (276). It follows then, that when contemplating the value of labour, one incorporates the value of the means of subsistence (277).

Concerning wages:

“the worker allows credit to the capitalist” (278).

In what ways does the working class give credit to the capitalist today?


5 Responses to “Capital I. Chapter 6: The Sale and Purchase of Labour-Power”

  1. 1 khatun 16 February 2010 at 5:23 am

    I think the complete lack of mention of human labour within the home to produce and reproduce labour and children is obvious in this chapter, but well worth pointing out. By the end of this chapter, Marx says that the market place does not hold the key to how surplus value is actually created. By the end he is alluding to the next chapters which will examine the point of production – i.e. the workplace. Having come to Das Kapital via both feminist and postcolonial critiques of and additions to Marx, I was really very fascinated to see how the ‘private sphere’ or ‘home’ is infact completely absent from his demarcation of crucial spaces in the world of industrial capital into the ‘marketplace’ and the ‘workplace’. I read these three chapters (and will continue to read the subsequent chapters), almost adding the ‘home’ as this third category of space as I plod through. But perhaps I am pre-empting… perhaps he talks about the home elsewhere?

  2. 2 jonathon 17 February 2010 at 5:21 am

    But is it relevant to his argument? He mentions that the conditions of existence of labour are external to the market, but doesn’t go into detail about numerous aspects of these conditions (not only the home). Labour done in the home does not produce value. He does mention the home in a different context in Chapter 1, Section 4 to say that it contains an organic division of labour but doesn’t produce commodities. I think this might be the pertinant point: labour in the home doesn’t produce commodities and therefore sits outside Marx’s argument – though it is obviously a precondition of what he is talking about. There is no doubt that the interrogation of the family and the home by subsequent thinkers is important. But that someone, somewhere else does some work that I’m not doing doesn’t represent a lack in my work. I think the emphasis on Marx’s silence here is misplaced.

  3. 3 jonathon 18 February 2010 at 2:28 am

    There may be another conceptual problem here. Part of the argument about gendered labour in the home is that it contributes to the reproduction of the labour that goes to a workplace. In the argument about the former labour there is a tendency to see that labour as ‘value-adding’ to latter labour. But I think this then confuses what value producing labour is. For example, Steve Keen treats the labour performed within the capital relation as if the worker is a machine whose value is transfered to the use-value they create. Marx insists that the labour embodied in all other aspects of the production of use-values is transfered to the use-value. But the labour that is actually performed creates a value that had never existed before: its creates new value. That is the use-value of labour-power: living labour (as opposed to the dead labour in the world – both physical and not – we build up around ourselves). The preconditions of a person getting to work to perform labour has no bearing on the value they create. Value is rather purely social; and not to do with the worker’s physical body or mental state. My point is that it isn’t a transfer of some pre-existing value that may have been created in the home. None of which is to deny that that sphere is relevant to the study of life within capitalism. The point is its relevance to the production of value. (This in turns leads us to the vexed question of productive and unproductive labour.)

  4. 4 khatun 23 February 2010 at 6:13 am

    Jonathon, I think our disagreement is about how to read Marx, or any thinker for that matter. In reading Capital, I am starting from the position that Marx, along with a whole range of key European theorists of modernity are simultaneously indispensable AND inadequate for understanding the experience of non-European modernity (of which Capitalism is an organising principle.) This is the position of some postcolonial Marxists writing from former Euroepan colonies such as Algeria and India and closely parallels some of the critiques of Marx made by feminist political economists.

    Interestingly as the David Harvey lecture (Class 5, right at the end) points out, drawing attention to the silences of past thinkers is precisely what Marx himself is doing in Capital. In response to a question at the end of the class about why is it that Marx can see all these things about Capital that the classical political economists can’t – Harvey replies (paraphrasing): In part it is because Marx has made a conscious choice to situate himself as the worker and look at Capital from the point of view of the worker. Harvey describes this method as ‘situated knowledge’ and suggests that viewing the world under Capital from the point of view of the worker reveals crucial things about the system that are otherwise invisible to the classical political economists. I see my PhD project as very much about trying to understand modernity and capitalism from the point of view of of the nonwhite subjects of European empires – surely another type of ‘situated knowledge.’ Surely the reading of Capital from this position of ‘situated knowledge’ is a valid intellectual project, whether for feminists or anti-racist activists.

    While, I think it is very imporant for us to understand deeply the logic of Marx’s argument with the classical political economists in mid 19th century, I believe that bringing to attention silences that appear along the way is a crucial part of a critically engaged, relevant, reading of Capital today.

  5. 5 Kareem 23 July 2013 at 6:15 pm

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Reading Capital in Sydney records reading notes on Marx's Capital I, II and III, and other bits and pieces.

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