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The Wage System

FREEDOM PAMPHLETS., No. 1., (New Edition. 1920.)

By Peter Kropotkin

Critique by Punkerslut

From RadicalGraphics.org
Image: From "Work" Gallery from RadicalGraphics.org

Start Date: June 5, 2003
Finish Date: July 8, 2003


     While reading "The Wage System," I was expecting to find an intellectual assault on the wage system of that time (apparently, the same wage system as we have today). That is to say, I was expecting to see arguments against the idea that one man may work, and that an idle man (called a Capitalist) becomes rich from this work. Though there were some inspirational remarks proposed against such a system, this pamphlet was mostly directed towards the system devised for the distribution of wealth promoted by revolutionaries at that time. Specifically, it speaks of the Collectivists, and their arguments that a man ought to be paid according to his deeds. This critique is criticizing these arguments of Kropotkin.

Equal Pay For All Labor?

     In this pamphlet, there are numerous places where Kropotkin argues against the idea of a scale of wages. He proposes, instead, that a doctor -- regardless of his years of training -- ought to be paid equally as much as a factory worker, or that one unskilled laborer who works ten hours a day should be paid the same as another unskilled laborer who works five hours a day, depending perhaps on the nature of their work. Some remarks by Kropotkin on this include...

Yes, but to establish this distinction is to maintain all the in- equalities of our existing society. It is to trace out beforehand a demarcation between the worker and those who claim to rule him. It is still to divide society into two clearly defined classes: an aristocracy of knowledge above, a horny-handed democracy below; one class devoted to the service of the other; one class toiling with its hands to nourish and clothe the other, whilst that other profits by its leisure to learn how to dominate those who toil for it.


But we know also how much of all this to believe. We know that if the engineer, the scientist and the doctor are paid today ten or a hundred times more than the laborer, and the weaver earns three times as much as the toiler in the fields and ten times as much as a match girl, it is not because what they receive is in proportion to their various costs of production. Rather it is in proportion to the extent of monopoly in education and in industry. The engineer, the scientist and the doctor simply draw their profits from their own sort of capital--their degree, their certificates--just as the manufacturer draws a profit from a mill, or as a nobleman used to do from his birth and title.


And we say, "Let us have done with privileges of education as well as of birth." We are Anarchists just because such privileges disgust us.


The general above the soldier, the rich engineer above the workman, the doctor above the nurse, already disgust us. Can we suffer them in a society which starts by proclaiming equality?


"To each according to his deeds," say the Collectivists, or rather according to his share of service rendered to society. And this is the principle they recommend as the basis of economic organization, after the Revolution shall have made all the instruments of labor and all that is necessary for production common property!

Well, if the Social Revolution should be so unfortunate as to proclaim this principle, it would be stemming the tide of human progress, it would be leaving unsolved the huge social problem cast by past centuries upon our shoulders.


No hard and fast line can be drawn between the work of one and the work of another. To measure them by results leads to absurdity. To divide them into fractions and measure them by hours of labor leads to absurdity also. One course remains: not to measure them at all, but to recognize the right of all who take part in productive labor first of all to live, and then to enjoy the comforts of life.

     Before we can make any inquiry into the claim that all should be paid equally regardless of their ability of production, we must understand where the ability of production comes from. There are two sources of a person's ability: inheritance and training. There is no doubt to the truth of both of these sources. A man may inherit his ancestors strength, or their cunning, or their memory, or other physical or mental faculties. Furthermore, by training, by devoting an amount of time to honing these abilities, a man may obtain strength, quickness, or knowledge. Yet, it is a great truth that ability obtained from heredity and ability obtained from practise often combine to make one skill. For instance, if a man were hunting with a bow and arrow, his precision would be based on the years of practise that he had devoted to the subject -- but still, the potential to become such a great hunter is based entirely on his heredity. It was his genes that determined whether he was born with or without those muscles which he used into hunting. A doctor will use his mental faculties, as they were given to him by his parents, as they were developed by the hours of study in the university. A manufacturing worker is equipped with the muscle and bone necessary to complete the task, the brain to understand his obligation in the factory, and the training necessary to know how to work the machinery -- but each aspect which makes up his skill does not equally contribute to the efficiency of that skill. And, it must be understood, that the inherited abilities between men must vary -- something that is implied (but often not said) when speaking of heredity. For instance, one man with a poor inheritance of intelligence may find it more difficult to obtain the necessary education of being a doctor than another man, whose inheritance was great.

     Allow me to draw a scenario. Let us say that there is a manufacturing society, inhabited by beings of identical potential, not unlike identical twins. One man, for instance, has the same muscle, the same bone, and the same brain, as any other man. As far as work goes, they are all laborers in the same factory. They are each employed for the same hours and are paid each the same. Each worker is capable of producing 200 products every hour. Now, allow us to assume that there is a college nearby. If a worker goes to this college and educates himself, he will then begin to produce 800 products every hour -- that is to say, the training the college provided to him allowed him to access the potential given to him by his parents and improve it. When this worker returns to the society from college, a grueling labor in itself, he will begin to produce four times as much as the other workers. The reason why is because he decided to commit himself to a college and gain training necessary to improve his rate of production. If this society were under the pretenses of equal distribution of wealth, this worker -- who produces four times as much as any other individual -- would recieve perhaps a 1% increase in pay, just as any other worker. Here we find that this improved worker is not paid what he produced, which is the essential criminal nature of Capitalism. Furthermore, we find that the other workers themselves are paid more, without any labor on their parte, another aspect of the criminal nature of Capitalism: individuals growing rich off the labor of another. Thus, we come to simple question: whence cometh the ability of the productive worker? From his own undertaking of training, which cost him a great deal of effort, strength, and dedication -- only so that those who did not sacrifice like him can become rich from his own sacrifices.

     It must be understood, though, that the scenario I am drawing above is very simple. I did not want it to become weighted down with different aspects of the economy. Rather, I wanted it to be simple, by comparing workers of the same field. The question, though, of equal pay may arrise with, "But, what right does a doctor have to receive more pay than a factory worker?" In this case, the doctor left manual labor to go to college, that instead of becoming a better factory worker, he went to a new position. However, a doctor will increase the efficiency of others in society, by allievating their ills, providing nutritional supplements, giving general health advice. For instance, if in the example above, the worker came back as a doctor, he may have increased the production of other workers by reducing their sick time and giving them advice on how to increase their strength or ability. In the example above, if one doctor in a society of 50 people was capable of increasing their productivity by a bare minimum of 25%, that would mean that each worker produced 250 units every hour, instead of the normal 200. Essentially, the doctor would be responsible for producing 2,500 units every hour, through his means of increasing the efficiency of the labor of the factory workers. Or, perhaps, instead of becoming a doctor, the fledging student of the college would become an engineer, who would develop more advanced machinery for the factory, increasing production by 10% every year, with a new development. That would mean that for the first year, the production of an additional 1,000 units every hour, would be due to the engineer's ingenius, and the second year would be 2,000 units every hour, and then 3,000 units every hour, and so on.

     However, I cannot leave this scenario yet and proceed to an opposite scenario without making some further remarks on education. I am only using the word "education" to allow me to communicate my ideas in a more concise clear manner. Often times, when I speak of education, I mean a learning process, where a person's mind ingests new concepts and ideas which allow them to improve and become happier -- not the memorization of useless facts, but a living, working process, ceasing only when the person ceases, ending only when the person's mind ends. In this case, however, when I speak of education, I mean acquired wisdom of an individual which allows them to increase their proficiency in production. When a person increases their education, in a manner that allows them to multiply the efforts of their fellow men, they are adding to the productivity of their fellow men. In the scenario, I described the educational process, of obtaining the new skills, as being arduous and difficult. Many of the new trades of our current time take up to a decade of learning, others require constant maintenance, some require a great deal of effort and sacrifice. Even if someone wants to leave work temporarily so they can become more proficient at another task, it requires a sort of ambition, a sort of desire, a sort of willingness to risk and sacrifice. In this regard, since they are elevating their community, by further advancing the productivity, they ought to be given a reward, and those who look to this reward, are to see it as an incentive.

     That is, at least, if education is to be understood as something which requires ambition and strength to achieve. What if, in the distant future, obtaining an education requires little to nothing? Honestly, I can see such a prospect to be rather little. For instance, the education which our modern engineers receive is based on the education of the commoner -- in that it is elevated in one particular direction in some degrees. If a commoner is knowledgable in the future, with tools to aid him, the engineer must only respond by being even more wise, so that he may invent even more complex tools. The only time when education will be dull, is when the greatest engineer invents the most complex machine: a thinking device, which alone can produce phenominal tools and machinery, and methods of organization to increase productivity. Only at the time when a non-human is leading the chariot of technology will there be less variety in pays.

     As far as this means of education goes, allow me to express certain doubts that technology will one day be responsible for creating newer technology. I am not skeptical that technology will aid its own development, as it always has, but I am doubtful that the human element will be wholly removed. Besides education, there are other things which determine one's pay. For instance, the foul nature of working in a sewer, the dangerous conditions of working in a mine, or the arduous duress placed on a lumberjack, all compared with a rather simple job on an assembly line. The jobs which cause more stress to their workers, or threaten danger, ought to be more liberally rewarded. I am not arguing against the idea that all workers are dependent upon one another. The axe of the lumberjack, for instance, may have been created in the factory, with the work of the manufacturing laborer, just as the pipes for the sewer were and the pickaxe of the miner was. However, there seems to be a certain uniformity of mankind, on likes and dislikes. Few people enjoy danger as a part of everyday life, but I know some who do. Few people enjoy the stench of the sewers, and I have yet to see someone confess their secret passion of it. And there are few people who enjoy work that wholly exhausts the body, though such people exist. It cannot be argued that there is a certain degree of uniformity among mankind. Otherwise, why would a person buy a chair, when they have an equal chance of prefering sitting on concrete, rock, or grass? Why would someone buy a house, when they have an equal preference of sleeping outside? The answer is simple: because people enjoy things which bring them comfort. The arguments drawn from these questions can also be demonstrated in the workplace: people typically will not like working in sewers. Hence, their pay ought to be higher, since they are sacrificing more stress, and perhaps even sacrificing part of their longevity, all for the sake of their community. This, I believe, is why they ought to be rewarded more liberally. I cannot think of a rational man who would disagree with me.

     Allow me to draw a rather opposite scenario. Imagine, instead, that there is a society with a scale of different genetic potentialities, ranging from extreme low to extreme high. But, in this society, few individuals range in the between, and most are either at one end or the other end of the spectrum. For instance, imagine there are a class of individuals who are born with extremely inferior muscles, whose potential to develop whatever ability they have is almost non-existent. And then, imagine a class of individuals who are born with extremely developed muscles, whose potential to develop them even further is immense. Those of the poorer genetic quality are capable of producing perhaps 20 units in an hour, while those of the superior genetic quality are capable of producing perhaps 20,000 units in an hour.

     First, there are certain evolutionary concepts that must be taken into place. One may wonder, "Why is it that Evolution has not rendered a humanoid being capable of such stength and dexterity?" The reason is simple: because it would require such a great, vast amount of food to support this being, that it would not obtain enough resources for itself. In an industrial society, this problem is eliminated. So, while an advanced humanoid is capable of producing more, it must also consume them. And while a lesser advanced humanoid is capable of producing less, it needs to consume much less.

     But this is not always true. We must heed the expression of the inventor, "An invention is worth more itself, than the sum of all its parts." A thousand cogs and a thousand pipes would not be enough to get anyone anywhere, but when properly constructed into a car, it would be an advanced method of transportation. So, too, it is the case with the human body. A human body without a brain would be no more productive than a vegetable. A human brain without a body would be in the same predicament. Now, returning to the case of those poor genetic quality workers and those of great genetic quality... Imagine that their bodies are both constructed almost exactly, but the reason why the workers of poor genetic quality work less, is because their brains are incapable of focusing on something for longer than a second, which makes them incapable of producing great quantities of wealth. Thus, to support their massive body, they must consume as much as those who are capable of producing hundred times more wealth than they. In this society, no person is granted their ability through personal advancement, but simply by birth. One may like to take the position that a person's body is simply capital, used to produce wealth. In a way, this view is not entirely inaccurate. But then, the position may be furthered to argue that those of superior capital/bodies and those of inferior capital/bodies should not be paid based on their capital, but on their effort. Even if we grant these simple statements, a conclusion will result that may offend many readers: if a person's body is capital, then we would only do what a sane society would do: discharge capital which requires more wealth to support it than it produces. For instance, if a person could hand-weave a doll in an hour, but operating a machine would make the same doll in five hours, then we would not every use such a machine, nor would we pay for its maintenance.

     That is, at least, the logical conclusion of this thinking, that a person's body is simply capital. The problem with this is that a person's body is not just capital -- it is the throne to a mind, capable of producing and expressing sincere thoughts, emotions, and desires, capable of retelling enchanting memories and ideas. A mind is the organ which produces consciousness, an invaluable result. Essentially, in a society that has workers of great inferiority as far as genetics go, I believe that they should not be able to reproduce, because they would simply be producing a burden to the rest of society. Do not confuse my opinion with that of the Eugenics movement. The Eugenicists believed that if a person was only slightly inferior than others, that they should be not allowed to have offspring similar to them. Perhaps what I believe today may be called cruel by all around me, but in the coming centuries, I believe it will eventually be called cruel to give genes to a child that will doom it to a life of failure and misery.

     Regardless of these scenarios, there can be a somewhat appealing argument on behalf of the idea of equal pay. One may decently argue that, "Society itself is like a machine. In a steam engine, every bolt and every pipe is necessary to succesful use. If one were to be removed, it might entirely fail, though it is unlikely. But, if several are removed, it's efficiency is greatly reduced. If everything is removed, it cannot work at all. So it is with society, as we have the common factory workers, the doctors, the scientists, the engineers, and all others. If one of these individuals is removed, the efficiency will slightly drop, but if a handful are removed, it will begin to drop dramatically. If everyone in every profession is removed from their spots in current society, then the entire social structure will fall." By drawing this analogy, this person may further their position with, "Since every part of a piece of machinery is necessary towards the final product, so it is the same with modern society, where every person is necessary towards the final society. Since everyone contributes and is equally necessary, so everyone ought to be equally rewarded with the final product."

     There are some points in this reasoning which I must agree with. For instance, it is true that society is a collective of individuals, each working at different positions to complete a finalized product. It is, as the analogy pointed out, not much different than that of a machine, with different parts, each completing a different task to reach a finalized end. Also, every part is necessary towards the end product. I agree with this. But, if it is true that each part is necessary towards the end product, why should not each part be paid equally the profits of that end product? The answer lies in the fact that -- though each part is necessary towards production -- some parts require more development or cost than others. In a car, for instance, the bolts required to keep the hubcabs on are important, but the engine is much more important. If a factory had decided to sell car parts, would it take the cost and desired profit of the bolts and the engine, and sell bolts for $1,000 a piece and an engine for $1,000 a piece? After all, both parts are necessary towards a working car. Why should not both be sold at the same price? An answer can be found... Just as one part of a machine may cost more, so do different positions in a society cost more. A doctor must sacrifice at least a decade of his life to study. It costs MORE than a factory worker who requires only a week of study. To argue that a doctor should be paid the same as a factory worker is to say that a bolt should cost the same as an engine. It is an absurdity, and in opposition to the idea that every person should reap the fruits of their own labors.

     I do not believe that those who are responsible for producing an additional 1,000, 2,000, or 2,500 units should be paid the exact wealth of that increased production. The increased amount of production is two-fold: it is due to the college-educated doctor or engineer who aids the worker, and it is due to the labor of the worker. The wealth of society would thus be by the different services offered by its members: the manufacturers, the doctors, the engineers, the scientists, etc.. Those who have dedicated a greater deal of time to the training of their profession, however, ought to be paid more. Why do I believe this? For two reasons. Firstly, for the sake of society. If a person decided to subject themselves to painful training, only to receive a small 1% increase in their own pay, but to have others have an increase in their pay without any additional work on their part, then the progress of society would come to a near complete stand still. There would be no incentive for people to advance themselves, because the greater part of the wealth produced by their labor would end up in the hands of those who did not work. The second reason why I believe that an individual who has training should be paid more is simply for a moral factor -- I believe in it for the same reason why I believe it is wrong to pay children two quarters a day for their labor, for the same reason why I believe it is wrong for an industrialist to suffice to their vanities while people across the globe are starving -- for the same reasons that I believe it is a cruelty that those who produce the wealth of society are also those who are the poorest in society. It is not only a matter of producing a greater society, but it is a matter of appealing to our sense of justice, humanity, and fairness.

That it would not be an Advance

     There is one argument advanced by Kropotkin that I wish to respond to. He remarks that a Collectivist wage scale will be worse than Capitalism. To quote him...

We are, however, certain to be informed that the Collectivist wage scale will, at all events, be an improvement. "You must admit," we shall be told, "that it will, at least, be better to have a class of workers paid at twice or three times the ordinary rate than to have Rothschilds, who put into their pockets in one day more than a workman can in a year. It will be a step towards equality."

To us it seems a step away from it. To introduce into a Socialist society the distinction between ordinary and professional labor would be to sanction by the Revolution and erect into a principle a brutal fact, to which we merely submit today, considering it all the while as unjust. It would be acting after the manner of those gentlemen of the Fourth of August, 1789, who proclaimed, in high sounding phraseology, the abolition of feudal rights, and on the Eight of August sanctioned those very rights by imposing upon the peasants the dues by which they were to be redeemed from the nobles. Or again, like the Russian government at the time of the emancipation of the serfs when it proclaimed that the land henceforth belonged to the nobility, whereas previously it was considered an abuse that the land which belonged to the peasants should be bought and sold by private persons.

     This argument is perhaps of great, unthinkable absurdity. Perhaps the laws which forbade the use of dangerous machinery were just worsening the condition of the workers? Perhaps minimum working hours, too, also just made it harder on the workers? Or perhaps when yellow-dogging (refusing to hire union workers) was outlawed -- that must have been one of the greatest and most cruel blows to the Workers Solidarity movement. All sarcasm asside, any laws or system which is advanced, that puts more wealth into the pockets of the workers, is a better system than Capitalism.


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