RECAP: As we approach the opening of the (iron?) curtain to Marx’s Capital, we will set the stage by touching upon the work of those that Marx refers to in his magnum opus. Not only should excerpts of related thinkers help show how Capital is expected to be a step up from these, but they should also give a clue as to the power of Capital in highlighting with awesome lucidity the problematic nature of today’s capitalist social relations.
Having first focussed on the importance of desire in the status of the working class, we then touched upon the notion that, because of human nature, workers would be comfortable in being dependent upon capitalists for their subsistence. Today, I want to come back to this notion of golden shackles, as it is described by Marx himself:
“Under the conditions of accumulation supposed thus far, those most favourable to the labourers, their relation of dependence upon capital takes an endurable form or, as Eden says, easy and liberal.
A larger part of their own surplus-product, always increasing and continually transformed into additional capital, comes back to them in the shape of means of payment, so that they can extend the circle of their enjoyments; they can nourish, clothe, furnish themselves better and they can save up small amounts of money. But just as little as better clothing, food, and treatment, and a larger peculium, do away with the exploitation of the slave, so little do they set aside that of the wage worker.
A rise in the price of labour, as a consequence of accumulation of capital, only means, in fact, that the length and weight of the golden chain the wage worker has already forged for himself, allow of a relaxation of the tension of it.”
The image of the golden chain wants to push the idea that being an employee is in many, if not all, respects the same as being a slave. You might have a big house and a cool car, but you are still dependent on capital to receive the money needed to sustain yourself; in this way, you are wearing “golden” chains.
Supposing that Marx is right in saying that the worker gives away part of his work for free, it is worth highlighting that the equation “wage labour = slavery” is not a factual one: labourers have rights and obligations slaves did not (right to refuse work, right to choose a different employer, etc.). Rather, this equality is based on a value judgment, on ethics.
By using the expression “golden chain”, Marx is stepping into debates of human morality by implicitly saying that the capitalist relations of production produce an unjust situation. On the one hand, it is wrong for capitalists to use their material superiority to coerce the workers into a certain situation where they are in chains. On the other hand, it’s just as wrong for workers to become complacent due to their apparently good/golden conditions of life; there’s the implicit feeling of some kind of cowardice in doing this, in ignoring that you are still in chains and still far from the ideal of a full and free development of your human capacities.
In volume one of Capital, the picture of exploitation is recurrent. It then becomes relevant to ask: is exploitation wrong? How and why would it be wrong?
Quote is from Chapter 25 of Vol. 1; slightly modified and shortened for better readability.
The open-source reference to Marx’s Capital, Vol. 1: here.
Blog of the picture source: here.