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Three Lectures on the Rate of Wages

By Nassau Senior, 1830

Critique by Punkerslut

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Start Date: July 12, 2003
Finish Date: July 12, 2003


     Nassau Senior was an economist, who primarily wrote in the early 1800's. In this work, he attempts to develop a method for improving the condition of the laboring class. His simple desire to improve society, though, was not enough to cause him to become either a Socialist or a Communist. Here, his ideas on improving the condition of the worker are somewhat illogical. Besides that, he offers the argument that machinery has not reduced the wages of workers. I will attempt to show how both of his ideas are unfounded.

Improving the Condition of the Worker

...it must also follow that the rate of wages can be raised, or, what is nearly the same, the condition of the labouring classes improved, only by either increasing the fund for their maintenance, or diminishing the number to be maintained.

The principal means by which-the fund for the maintenance of labourers can be increased, is by increasing the productiveness of labour. And this may be done, -- [Preface]


It is true that the causes which raise the amount of the labourer's wages often raise the rate of the capitalist's profits. It; by increased industry, one man performs the work of two, both the amount of wages and the rate of profits will generally be raised. But the rate of profit will be raised, not by the rise of wages, but in consequence of the additional supply of labour having diminished its price, or having diminished the period for which it had previously been necessary to advance that. price. [Lecture 1]

     Nassau Senior argues that, the fund for which the laborers are supported, must be increased, before the laborers are increased. To increase this fund, is to add to the luxury of the workers, thus, it becomes a moral imperative. On the method of increasing this fund, Senior proposes that workers become more industrious. I can only regard his reasoning as largely infantile, his evidence mostly unfounded, and his claims to be destructive towards a true study of political economy. His idea, of increasing the fund which supports the worker as a means of achieving economic prosperity, is opposed to all reason and experience. And, to quote Thomas Malthus, "What can we reason, but from what we know?" ["An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798, chapter 9.] In regards to this fund, which is used for paying the wages of the workers, this fund is not increased or decreased with the rate of production. The workers are not paid according to a strict fund set by the Capitalist. Rather, those workers without any skill or ability receive a subsistence wage. Those of higher ability, skill, and education, tend to be paid more. These are the methods by which wages are determined: the ability of the worker to produce wealth. If a Capitalist builds machinery into his factory, and doubles the work of his workers, the wages do not increase. It has been 200 years of innovation, technology, and progress, from the creation of the steam engine to our most latest discoveries -- and yet, minimum wage today is not enough to meet the poverty level. [I did some research on this in the First Edition of the book Class War.] Wages are not determined by the productivity of the workers, but rather, by their ability compared to other workers.

     This can be but the most obvious truth of political economy, aside from that wisdom that wealth is created by labor. When man made the transition from primitive hunter gatherers to an industrial society, when the division of labor commenced, the productivity of every person increased. The natives labored but several hours per week. The worker labored close to 14 or 16 hours per day, and these workers included children whom became permanently deformed due to such excessive work. But they had machinery, which increased their work. If a hammer can aid a man in putting nails in wood, then imagine what something so complex and powerful as a steam engine could do. The laborers already had a production rate that was close to 100 fold the normal rate of production. Today, this number may even be closer to 1,000 fold the normal rate. Yet, they are paid but a subsistence wage. Since the productivity is one hundred times what it would be without machinery, why should anyone believe that increasing productivity even more, would alter wages with an increase? Only a fool uneducated in political economy.


Have not even magistrates and landlords recommended the destruction, or, what is the same, both in principle and effect, the disuse of the very machines of which the object is to render labour more efficient in the production of the articles consumed by the labourer -- in the production of that very fund on the extent of which, compared with the number to. be maintained, the amount of wages depends? And is there any real difference between this conduct and the burning of a rick-yard? Threshing-machines are the present objects of hostility, ploughs will be the next; spades will then be found to diminish employment; and when it has been made penal to give advantage to labour by any tool or instrument Whatever, the last step must be to prohibit the use of the right-hand. [Preface]


Few inventions, during the present century, have conferred greater benefits on the labouring classes than that of the power-loom. By diminishing the expense of clothing, it has been a source, not merely of comfort, but of health and longevity. But its proximate effect was to spread ruin among the hand-weavers; to reduce almost all of them to a mere subsistence, and many to the most abject want. Ever since its introduction, thousands have been pining away under misery, not alleviated even by hope; with no rational expectation, but that the ensuing year would be more calamitous than the passing one: and this without fault, without even improvidence.' [Preface]


...it. appears to me dear that the use. of machinery must either raise the general rate of wages, or leave it unaltered. [Lecture 3]


If, however, machinery be applied to the production of any commodity used by the labouring population, the general rate of wages will rise. That it cannot fall is clear, on the grounds which I have just stated. If the improvement be great, and the commodity not subject to a corresponding increase of demand, some of the labourers formerly employed in its production will be thrown out of employment, and wages, in that trade, will fall -- a fall which, as the whole fund for the maintenance of labour is not diminished, must be met by a corresponding rise in some other trade. But the fund will be increased by the additional quantity produced of the commodity to which the improvement has been applied: estimated in that commodity, therefore, the general rate of wages, or, in other words, the quantity of commodities obtained by the labouring population, will be increased by the introduction of machinery; estimated in all others, it will be stationary. [Lecture 3]

     The idea that machinery increases wages is absurd. Though machinery does increase how much production occurs with labor, it comes with the painful effect making class distinctions immeasurably more distinct and the conditions of the worker remarkably miserable. For instance, as Senior pointed out, the power loom made it much more quick and effective at producing clothing, but those who worked in the industry suffered unemployment. The competition between these workers was great. They were all willing to offer wages as low as subsistence to acquire their employment. And so the subsistence wage was born. Did the price of clothing go down with machinery? Some report that, while production increase by 10,000%, prices were reduced by only 10%. In Political Economy by Jean-Charles-Leonard Simonde de Sismondi, he reports that a group of individuals decided to produce clothing without this machinery. In one hundred days, they would make what a machine could produce, in one day. Yet, they still turned a profit, which was close to 1/4th of their expenditure, doing things without machinery or proper capital. This is simply an example of the exploitation of the Capitalist system. It turns technology into the enemy of the people. However, I digress... Technology lowers wages in that it makes competition ridiculously stronger among the working class. Senior argues that perhaps wages may decrease there, but increase in other fields. Quite the opposite is true. Those who were laid off in the mills will seek employment in other factories, offering their services for lower than those already employed. Consequently, the workers of every industry feels the inflow of these employees. Those workers who are striking will have a greater possibility of these newly unemployed workers becoming scabs and stealing their jobs. Now, if the cost of clothing were to genuinely decrease, then perhaps it would be true that wages would remain unaltered. Since the price decreased, the factory workers would work perhaps four hours less per day, this amount of time being filled by those who lost employment in mills.... However, that is not the case, as has been demonstrated in only a brief understanding of political economy.

     I am not, however, opposed to using technology as a method for decreasing the amount of labor employed in creating our needs. When we use tools, our rate of production increases. When we work together, divide our labor, our rate of production increases further. When we employ technology, the innovation of the human genius to our disposal, then our productivity is increased remarkably. I believe in harnessing this productivity, so that it may work on behalf of the workers and not on behalf of the Capitalists. The only method of harnessing this productivity is through Communism. If a new invention comes about, which aids in production, wages will not be increased or decreased, but a new field of industry will arise, where those of the old field are relocated. These new fields of industry will cater to the interests of the Capitalist class only. In a way, the Capitalists keep the poor laboring hard to sustain themselves in poverty and to sustain the Capitalists in wealth, while the poor labor and the rich remain idle.


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