Flow of Ideas

Against What We Are Worth

Glenn Rikowski, Education Studies, School of Education, University of Northampton, UK

A paper prepared for the Post-Graduate Programme: Gender and New Educational and Employment Environments in the Information Age, 'Summer Workshops on Gender', at the University of the Aegean, Rhodes, Greece, 4th July 2008

“True equality is not equality of outcomes but equality of worth” (Tony Blair, in White and Maguire, 2000).


The ideas underpinning this paper were first worked out ten years ago in discussions with Ruth Rikowski on what individuals and groups of people were ‘worth’, socially, within the orbit of capitalist society. We intended to write a paper together on this topic, but it never happened. In 2000, we drafted a few ideas on the topic with a view to writing a full paper. A few people were aware what we were up to and some even referenced our joint work as ‘forthcoming’, changing the date in their own writings in the face of its non-emergence!

However, I did manage to get a few of our ideas out in a paper prepared for a British Educational Research Association (BERA) Day Conference on ‘Approaching Social Justice in Education: Theoretical Frameworks for Practical Purposes’ held at Nottingham Trent University in April 2000 (Rikowski, 2000). Discussions with Michael Neary (previously University of Warwick, now University of Lincoln, UK) during 1999-2000 enabled me to deepen the analysis in this 2000 BERA paper. It was more concerned with ‘social justice’ and ‘equality’ than with social worth. A further difference between the 2000 paper and the one that follows is that the former places greater emphasis on exchange-value whereas the paper here incorporates a more significant role for labour-time in the formation of labour power. For the purposes of this paper, reading section 5 of Rikowski (2000) may be helpful, but it is not necessary to read the earlier paper to understand what I have to say here – though it does broaden the analysis.

Thus, after ten years, the ideas that Ruth and I developed take shape within the framework that we developed then: gender inequalities in the capitalist labour market. The implications of the theory of social worth developed here are wide ranging, and in future work Ruth and I will generate and discuss some of these implications.

Glenn Rikowski
28th June 2008


Why do men earn more than women, especially as in some countries (such as the UK) girls outperform boys in compulsory education and females are more likely to go on to university? Starting out from this question, an answer becomes clear that indicates a path towards a revelation regarding capital’s social validation of human souls: the nature, constitution and measure of social worth in capitalist society are unfolded.

The argument is developed through some seemingly unlikely routes. The opening section explores data indicating that female school pupils and post-compulsory education students outperform males. The data originates mainly from England; for those outside the UK, the education systems of Scotland (and increasingly Wales) are separate from that of England. There is no ‘UK education system’, as such. However, the UK Government’s National Statistics Online (NSO) service does provide UK data for educational performance by gender – just to confuse the issue. In section 2, these data are then contrasted with UK data on earnings that suggest females are not rewarded for their outputs and results in education as compared with males. The third section focuses on human capital theory, which predicts that the productivity and earning of individuals are a function of the duration and quality of their education and training. The data in the previous two sections casts doubt on the validity of human capital theory. Section 4 takes a different tack, focusing on commodities, value and labour power via the work of Karl Marx to posit a theory of social worth in capitalist society which is outlined in section 5. Section 6 and 7 develop an account of the social production of labour power in capitalist society. On the basis of this account, it is suggested that the ‘automatic’ production of labour power in the labour process is both the key to explaining the differential social worth of males and females and discrepancy between data by gender for educational achievement and earnings. This becomes clear when working hours for females and males are examined (in section 8). The Conclusion discusses some of the implications of the argument for education, social policy and gender equality and argues that it makes sense to say that we ‘are against what we are worth’.

1. Gender and Educational Achievement in England

“On the whole girls continue to outperform boys at all levels of education in the UK from Key Stage 1 [the early years of primary education: GR] to higher education” (NSO, 2007a, p.1).

From a concern with the achievement in education of females in the 1960s to the early 1980s, in recent years the focus has been on relative underachievement of males in education in the UK. For the standard school leaving qualification, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), in 2005-06, 64% of girls obtained ‘five or more GCSE grades A* to C, compared with 54% of boys’ (NSO, 2007a, p.1). There is a graph at NSO (2007a) indicating that the ‘gender gap’ at GCSE has been fairly constant since 1990 – though the performance of both girls and boys increased over that period.

The ‘gender gap’ in educational achievement develops from the early years of primary education. In England, girls do better than boys in the Key Stage 1 (age 5 to 7 years) SATs, and the in the Key Stage 3 (age 11 to 14) SATs. Only at Key Stage 2 (age 7 to 11) do boys outperform girls in any subject in SATs tests: mathematics, by 2% (NSO, 2007a, p.1), and the performance of girls in science starts to tail off by age 11 (DfCSF SS, 2008b, p.1). However, overall, girls ‘progress more than boys in mathematics and science, although the differences are much smaller than those in English’ (DfCSF SS, 2008c, p. 1). At Key Stage 1, girls start to pull away from boys in reading and writing – and this has ‘a cumulative effect as pupils progress through school’ (DfCSF SS, 2008b, p.1). The UK Department for Children, Schools and Families (DfCSF) notes that:

“While gender is one of the key factors affecting educational performance, it affects different sub-groups of boys and girls in different ways. Social class, ethnic origin and local context are all factors strongly linked to performance. The crucial point is in ensuring that policies designed to improve boys’ results do not do so at the expense of girls” (DfCSF SS, 2008a).

It should be noted at this point that there is considerable debate regarding the quantitative analysis of gender differences in educational attainment within compulsory education in the UK amongst academic researchers (see Connolly, 2008). Interesting statistical analyses by Gorard, Rees and Salisbury (2001) show that the ‘gender gap’ at GCSE, for example, is most acute at low levels of achievement, not the A* - C grade benchmark most favoured by politicians and media pundits. These debates centre on the measurement of the ‘gender gap’ and its significance for education policy and gender relations. Here, I have largely focused on the official UK government statistics for achievement in compulsory schooling without getting into detailed analysis.

At the school level, Connolly (2006) points toward two competing models in research on gender differences in educational attainment. First, there is what he calls the main effects model which holds that:

“…gender tends to exert an effect on boys’ and girls’ levels of achievement independent of either social class or ethnicity. For this model it is accepted that there are differences between boys and girls as a whole and that these are relatively stable across social class and ethnic groups” (p.4).

The second model is what Connolly calls the interaction effects model. This suggests that:

“…differences between boys and girls in relation to educational attainment are not actually stable but systematically vary across social class and ethnic groups” (Ibid.).

By focusing on crude official data provided by the government on gender differences in attainment in compulsory schooling, by default, I am writing in accordance with Connolly’s ‘main effects model’. Connolly’s (2006) study attempts to assess the two models via data from the Youth Cohort Study of England and Wales 1997-2001, and concludes that:

“At one level, the findings presented … tend to simply confirm what many within the field of gender and education have been arguing for some time now. While gender does tend to exert an influence on GCSE attainment such that boys in general tend to achieve less than girls, these differences are relatively small and tend to be overshadowed by the effects of social class and ethnicity” (p.14).

Another study that merits particular attention is that by Yang and Woodhouse (2001). Using official education statistics they demonstrated that females with ‘grades at GCSE averaging C or above tended to enter for fewer A/AS levels [typically a higher education entrance exam] than similarly qualified males, and to obtain lower overall scores’, and that this finding was ‘stable over time’ (p.262). Thus, it is the results of lower achieving males at GCSE that tends to drag the overall male GCSE performance down; higher GCSE male achievers tend to do well relative to females.

What is clear from the research on differential attainment by gender in compulsory schooling in England is that there are no simple answers for education policy makers. Thus, as Connolly (2006) notes:

“The key implication arising from this [i.e. the findings from his study], therefore, is that simply because it is possible to statistically separate out the effects of gender from social class and also ethnicity, this does not mean that gender differences can actually be addressed practically in isolation from social class and ethnicity. Given the ways in which gender identities are so intertwined with, and mediated by, social class and ethnicity, then there can be no singular programme of intervention that will be appropriate and applicable to all boys or all girls” (p.15).

Quick-fix solutions such as having boys taught by male ‘role models’ and girls taught by females are unlikely to work, as indicated by Carrington, Tymms and Merrell (2008). Interestingly, this study found that both male and female 11-year-old pupils who were taught by women were ‘more likely to show positive attitudes towards school than their peers taught by men’ (p.321).

For university entrance qualifications, the General Certificate in Education Advanced Level (A-levels) in England and Scottish Highers (and other equivalent qualifications), the ‘proportion of young women gaining this result more than doubled, from 20% to 44%’ over the 1990-91 to 2003-04 period (NSO, 2007a, p.1). The equivalent data for boys were 15% (in 1990-91) to 33% (in 2003-04) (Ibid.). The overall pass rate at A-level has been better for females than males since 1992 (DfCSF SS, 2008c, p.5). Young women obtain better A-level results than boys in all subjects in England, Wales and Northern Ireland apart from at the highest (A – C) grades at A-level in French, Spanish and German, where more young men achieved these highest grades, and in the highest grades for English – which were about the same. In terms of subject choice at A-level (or equivalent), young men dominate in areas such as science, maths and technology and this has ‘significant implications for men’s and women’s career choices and future earnings’ (DfCSF SS, 2008d, p.1).

More women than men obtained vocational qualifications in the UK in 2005-06. For National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) and Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQ) level 3, 63% of awards were made to women (NSO, 2007a, p.1). However, the subjects studied for NVQ/SVQs differ, with more males going into the construction, planning, manufacturing, technological and engineering fields (where nearly all awards were made to men), with young women following NVQ/SVQs in the health, public services and caring fields to a greater extent (taking 86% of all awards) (NSO, 2007a, p.2). These choices are likely to have some impact on future earnings as males are more likely to take up qualifications in vocational fields that would yield higher earnings relative to those taken up by females.

There are now more women than men on full-time undergraduate courses (54%) in the UK. This is up from 38% in 1982 (DfCSF SS, 2008c, p.6). The most recent data indicate that 56% of graduates are women, and it was in 1995 when ‘women outnumbered men in H.E.’ (Ibid.). Women and men were equally likely to get a first class honours degree, however, women were more likely to get an upper second class honours degree than males; 47% to 39% (NSO, 2007a, p.2).

Overall, then females outperform males at all levels of education in England and the UK. At school level, boys’ underachievement has an international dimension:

“Boys’ underachievement is an international problem. We know for example that in the USA, Australia, Scotland, and Holland, girls appear to get off to a better start in reading and writing, and sustain their advantage in later schooling” (DfCSF SS, 2008b, p.1).

Thus, what I am arguing for here in relation to England and the UK may have resonance beyond these shores.

2. Gender and Pay in the UK

But does the superiority of female performance in education in England and the UK translate into higher earnings? Not at all. The gender ‘pay gap’ in favour of males is greater than the ‘gender gap’ in education in favour of females. The gender ‘pay gap’ is the ‘difference in average earnings between men and women and is usually measured by hourly rate or weekly wage’ (DEPICT, undated). Prior to the Equal Pay Act of 1970, there was much direct discrimination in the labour market, with women being paid 50% less than men for doing the same (Ibid.). After the 1970 Act the pay gap closed but is still substantial.

In 1991, an Equal Pay Taskforce studied the gender pay gap problem in the UK labour market. It found three main causes: occupational segregation (with females more likely to be in lower paid occupations and lower-level jobs in terms of skill and status); caring responsibilities (where more women work part-time than men to look after children and elderly relatives); and discrimination in pay system, even though these are formally equal in terms of rate for the job (women have lower staring salaries, exclusion from bonus schemes, do not get log service awards and sometimes get lower marks in performance assessments) (DEPICT, undated, pp.1-2).

NSO (2007b, p.1) indicates that the gender pay gap in the UK, based on median hourly pay rates excluding overtime, was 12.6% - the lowest on record. However, there were big regional variations, with the South East region yielding 15.9% median pay gap, and Northern Ireland a 2.8% gap. The accepted international comparison is based on mean earnings. On this measure, ‘women’s average hourly pay (excluding overtime) was 17.2% less than men’s pay, showing a decrease on the comparable figure of 17.5% for 2006’ (Ibid.). A detailed study of the gender pay gap by the Trades Union Congress (TUC, 2007) showed that the gender pay gap for part-time working was 35.6% (p.13).

The UK has a large gender pay gap in European terms; a third higher than the EU average (TUC, 2007, p.14). Only Germany has a bigger gender pay gap (Ibid.), though according to Knight (2006) the UK’s gender pay gap is ‘the worst in Europe’.

The European Commission has a particular form of measuring the pay gap based on the difference between men’s and women’s gross average hourly earnings as a percentage of men’s average. The table in TUC (2007, p.14) shows data for the EU member states on this measure. Estonia (25% pay gap), Cyprus (24%), Germany (22%) and Slovakia (22%) have the largest gender pay gaps on the EU measure, with the UK at equal 5th Austria and Finland on 20%. Greece and Romania have half that of the UK (at 10%), with Belgium (7%) and Malta (3%) having the lowest gender pay gaps on the EU measure.

The TUC Report (2007) shows that the full-time gender pay gap in the UK has closed from 20.7% in 1997 to 17.2% in 2007, and that the part-time gender pay gap has also closed: from 41.9% in 1997 to 35.6% in 2007 (p.16). There is an age related element, as the gender pay gap for full-time workers aged 22-23 is only 3.3%, but this rises to 11.2% for fulltime workers aged 30-39, 22.8% for those aged 40-49 and dips slightly to 20.6% for those aged 50-59 (TUC, 2007, p,17). Bristow (2006) argues that the lower gender pay gap for younger workers:

“…tells us two important things: that the younger generation is reaping the benefits of equality legislation, employment practice and cultural shifts in a way that the older generation could not; and that the problems regarding pay inequality kick in when women have children. In the absence of time travel, there is nothing that can be done to improve the lot of women who began their careers 30 years ago, when life was that much less equal. On the other hand, there is a great deal that could be done to improve the career chances of women who have children today” (pp.2-3).

There are also regional differences. For 2007, the gender pay gap was highest in London for full-time workers (23.0%) and the South East (20.1%) and lowest in Northern Ireland (7.2%) and Wales (10.3%) (Ibid.).

Drawing on research undertaken by the Equal Opportunities Commission in 2004, the TUC Report (2007, p.21) explained the gender pay gap in four ways:

* 36% of the gender gap is explained by differences in lifetime working patterns (as women spend less of their carers in full-time work than men);

* 18% is explained by labour market rigidities (gender segregation, and the fact that women are more likely to work for small firms that are unionised);

* 38% by direct discrimination and women’s and men’s carer preferences, and

* 8% by the fact that older women have poorer educational attainment.

In more general terms, the TUC Report explains gender segregation in terms of undervaluing of women’s work (pp.21-2); an employment penalty for mother (pp.22-23); and gender segregation in the labour market (pp.23-26). For our purposes, on this last explanation, the most revealing findings are for those with first degrees (TUC, 2007, p.25). Of full-time graduates of 1995 who were employed in 1998:

* Whatever subject they had graduated in, men were earning more than women with degrees in the same subject;

* Women with first class honours degrees earned less than men with firsts, and women with 2:1s earned less than men with 2:1s;

* Whatever industry they worked in, male graduates earned more than women in the same industry;

* Whatever occupation they worked in, male graduates earned more than women in the same occupation

As the TUC Report notes, these differences developed a mere three years after graduation.

Even in cases where women formed the majority of the workforce the gender pay gap could be quite large: 40.3% in financial intermediation for full-time workers; and 31.3% in health and social work. The lowest gender pay gap for full-time workers where women had great numbers than men occurred in education (12.5%). The private sector gender pay gap for full-time workers was 22.3% against 13.6% for public sector workers.

The TUC Report (2007) made a number of suggestions for how the gender pay gap could be closed (pp.27-29). It argues that gender segregation in the labour market needs to be addressed, that there should be better arrangements for those caring for children and relatives to engage with the world of work, and how discrimination in recruitment could be lessened by mandatory equal pay audits – which would aid ‘transparency in pay systems’ (p.28). On this last point, the New Labour government’s Equalities White Paper, published this week, announced that all public sector organisations are to publish figures showing their gender pay gap, and private sector firms on public sector contracts will also have to do the same (Wintour, 2008). The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (EFILWC, 2006) also argued that voluntary pay audits and pay reviews would be significant in ‘pushing equal pay up the negotiating agenda’ for trade unions and employers (p.8). Furthermore, in the financial services sector, where the gender pay gap is particularly virulent, the City of London will face an investigation into gender differences in pay and financial companies in the Square Mile and Canary Wharf financial centres will have to voluntarily publish total bonuses for men and women – ‘or face new Companies Act powers to compel them too’ (Waugh, 2008). A female representative from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) argued that compulsory pay audits are expensive to produce and that:

“Pay gaps are not the result of discrimination – they are because many women would prefer to work in the HR department than the finance department or that they prefer to work part-time” (in Waugh, 2008).

However, since the classic study of discrimination in the recruitment process (Collinson, Knights and Collinson, 1990), which indicated substantial discrimination against women in recruitment in a range of occupations, things have improved (as indicated by some closing in the gender pay gap) – but not markedly so. Indeed, there has been a massive rise in equal pay legal cases. There were 44,000 equal pay claims brought to court under the 1970 Equal Pay Act in 2007, more than twice the number of 2005 (Revill, 2008). In addition, the gender pay gap amongst managers in Britain has widened for the first time in 11 years, just as the overall gender pay gap has closed. A study by the Chartered Management Institute published in 2007 indicated that it widened to 12.2% among all managers in the survey, with the gender gap at managing director level rising to 23% (Carvel, 2007). The biggest gender pay gap was in the food and drinks industry (46%), with IT (11.7%) and public sector and charities sectors (0.7%) having the lowest gender pay gap amongst managers. Ironically, amongst human resources managers – those at the forefront of enforcing equal pay legislation – the gender pay gap was 33.9% (Ibid.). Again, the CBI has argued over a number of years that the gender pay gap for managers is not a result of discrimination but an outcome of women choosing to have career breaks when they have children. As Iain McMillan of the CBI argued a couple of years ago:

“It’s not realistic to aim for having a 50% of men and 50% of women in every workplace because of people’s life choices. … Some leadership roles in senior management require a lot of full-time dedication and simply won’t accommodate work-shares or childcare breaks” (in BBC News, 2006).

But the onus is on managers to re-design management roles so that work shares and childcare breaks are possible.

3. Human Capital Theory

“The 20th century became the human-capital century. No nation today – no matter how poor – can afford not to educate its youth at the secondary school level and beyond” (Goldin, 2003, p.1).

Human capital theory is the mainstream theory in economics pertinent to explaining the relationship between education and training and earnings. However, the phenomenon of females doing better in education than males yet not earning more than male workers tends to cast a question mark over human capital theory. To see this, it is necessary to outline briefly human capital theory.

Starting with a definition:

“[Human capital is] … a loose catch-all term for the practical knowledge, acquired skills and learned abilities of an individual that make him or her potentially productive and thus equip him or her to earn income in exchange for labor” (Johnson, 2000, p.1).

Many of these skills are developed in young people in education systems in contemporary society. Thus, these systems make a direct contribution to human capital development. Governments have taken this on board in their efforts to raise productivity and the rate of economic growth. As Tomlinson (2001) notes:

“Governments of varying political persuasions around the world rediscovered human capital theory … a theory which suggested that improving people’s skills and capabilities makes them act in new productive ways, and assumed that investment in education will improve the quality of the workforce, which will in turn improve economic growth and productivity. By the 1990s government was firmly committed to the belief that only greater investment in human capital would enable the country to compete in the new global economy” (p.4).

This is held to be so more than ever by New Labour in its quest to re-brand the UK as the world’s leading knowledge economy. Furthermore, the government argued that young people’s investment in their own ‘human capital’ was in their own interests as it would (everything else being equal) provide them with higher earnings through their increased employability. Indeed, notes Tomlinson (2001):

“There was certainly an argument to be made for regarding young people as human capital and persuading them that continuous education, re-skilling and lifelong learning were in their own best interest…”(p.4).

Lifelong development of skills and abilities through education and training (lifelong learning) gives individuals an edge in the labour market, according to human capital theory.

Simon Marginson (1997) provides a useful history of human capital theory going back to 18th century political economy (pp.102-11). He notes that the philosopher Thomas Hobbes held that ‘the value or worth of a man … [was] … the price … given for the use of his labour” (p.103), whilst Adam Smith argued that human capital was given greater value by education. Hence, human capital theory has a long pre-history.

At the heart of human capital theory, according to Marginson is that the value of education could be measured, first for individuals in terms of the additional earnings they gained through education (the ‘rate of return’), and secondly by its cost. It is in relation to the ‘rate of return’ on educational performance in the UK that females appear to be losing out relative to males on the data provided in the previous two sections.

Although these basic ideas from classical political economy indicated that education had become ‘investment in the self’, it was ‘to be another 200 years before this became systematised in education programmes’ (Marginson, 1997, p.104). The 1960s and 1970s saw the birth of a new faith, argues Marginson: that investment in human capital raised economic growth in the aggregate, for nations, not just for individuals. On this basis, the state had a responsibility to raise human capital levels for society as a whole, and for individuals.

By the 1980s, the OECD and World Bank agendas encouraged government policies that generated opportunities, incentives and sanctions that would propel individuals to invest in their own human capital development. Lifelong learning (as lifelong human capital development) became an aspect of mainstream economic thinking in an effort to increase labour flexibility and to provide labour markets with the quality and quantity of labour required by ever more demanding employers.

In late 1990s in the UK, human capital development was placed at the heart of New Labour’s education policy, building on a trend started up by previous Conservative and Labour governments going back to the mid-1970s, and in some respects to the 1944 Education Act, the 1948 Employment and Training Act (see Neary, 2002 for more on this) and the 1964 Industrial Training Act. New Labour’s obsession with human capital developed as a key driver for education policy. This can be viewed in Rikowski (2001b-c). The UK Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) argued its Green Paper of 2001 that:

“In the 21st century, it will not be acceptable for young people to leave formal education with few skills. Everyone will need to be knowledgeable, to be able to reason, to think logically and creatively and continue to learn throughout their lives” (DfEE, 2001, para4.1, p.42 – in Rikowski, 2001a, p.2).


“The working environment is changing at an unprecedented rate. Like every other profession, teaching must keep pace if we are to prepare children for a rapidly changing labour market. For teachers, as much as for their pupils, the issue is one of lifelong learning: the need to constantly build and update skills” (DfEE, 2001, para 5.6, p.70 – in Rikowski, 2001b, p.2).

Regarding how human capital theory is related to New Labour’s lifelong learning policy, see Rikowski (2004).

Thus, although human capital development as a practical application and education policy for New Labour clearly has significance in the UK, the discrepancy between the qualifications of UK females and their earnings throws doubt on human capital theory. Human capital theory also has trouble in with the uncomfortable empirical work carried out by Alison Wolf (2002) who has shown that there is no clear link between expenditure on education and training by nation states and their rates of economic growth. Yet human capital theory underscores New Labour’s policies on human capital development for education training in the UK context.

4. Commodities, Value and Labour Power

If human capital theory lacks the power to explain the relationship between the relative success of females within education in the UK and their relative lack of success on the pay front, it is always possible to fall back on a conjunctural explanation. Such an explanation would involve explaining the discrepancy between female education success and lower earning than males in terms of the various barriers to females realising their educational advantage in terms of obtaining higher pay than males. Such an explanation would start from the various barriers to equality in the labour market for females as noted by the TUC Report (2007) and Bristow (2006), for example. Other explanations, such as the evolution of the family wage form (German, 2007) or feminist theories of patriarchy could also be utilised.

Rather than assess these theories here in relation to the seemingly anomalous data pinpointed in sections 2 and 3, I am going to try a completely different strategy. In this section of the paper and in sections 5-7 I shall develop a theory of social worth that plays a vital part in the explanation of the rift between female success in education and betterment by males in the labour market. This theory of social worth also uncovers the fact that, in contemporary UK society, men (on average) as labourers have greater social worth than women on the basis of the capitalist organisation of society in the context of the UK. These ideas are developed through the work of Karl Marx; particularly in terms of what he says on value, labour power, labour time and the value of commodities.

In Theories on Surplus Value – Part One, Marx makes a distinction between the general class of commodities and ‘those which consist of labour-power’ itself’ (1863, p.161). Marx argues further on in this text that:

“The whole world of “commodities” can be divided into two great parts. First, labour power; second commodities as distinct from labour power itself” (1863, p.167).

Labour power, then is in a class of commodities by itself. It is the unique living commodity insofar as its expression in labour in the capitalist labour process has the potential to create more value than is required to maintain its own social existence through the wage. In a number of works (e.g. Rikowski, 2002 and 2005) I indicate the various ways in which labour power as a commodity differs from commodities in the general class.

The transformation of labour power into actual labour in the labour process, at the certain point, produces surplus-value, the first form and life-blood of capital; its precondition for maintenance and expansion. Labour power is a commodity ‘whose use value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value’, and being a source of ‘more value than it has itself’, that is, surplus-value (Marx, 1865, p.164 –original emphases, and p.188).

Marx defines labour power formally as:

“…the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercise whenever he produces a use-value of any description” (Marx, 1867, p.164).

The key point here is what is to be included in ‘mental capabilities’. For conventional human capital theory, skills, practical abilities and learned abilities are sufficient. However, on the basis of research I carried out on the recruitment of engineering apprentices in the early 1980s, I concluded that personality traits and attitudes (especially attitudes towards work) should also be included (see Rikowski, 1990; and 2003, p.144). Thus, my conception of labour power is a broader and richer one than the conception of human capital in human capital theory.

When labour power is expressed as labour in the capitalist labour process it creates value: but what is the value of labour power itself? For Marx, the value of a commodity changes on the basis of the socially necessary labour-time (not the actual labour-time) it takes to produce it. This varies according to the ‘productiveness of labour’ (Marx, 1867, p.47). This applies to labour power too:

“We must now examine more closely this peculiar commodity, labour-power. Like all others it has a value. How is that value determined? The value of labour-power is determined, as in the case of every commodity, by the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also reproduction, of this special article. So far as it has value, it represents no more than a definite quantity of the average labour of society incorporated in it” (Marx, 1867, p.167).

What is important, for Marx, regarding the value of labour power, is the value of the means of subsistence required by labourers to enable them to exist as labourers in order to transform their labour power into value creating labour in the labour process. Thus:

“Labour-power exists only as a capacity, or power of the living individual. Its production consequently pre-supposes his existence. Given the individual, the production of labour-power consists in his reproduction of himself or his maintenance. For his maintenance he requires a given quantity of the means of subsistence. Therefore, labour-time requisite for the production of those means of subsistence; in other words, the value of labour-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of the labourer” (Marx, 1867, p.167 – my emphasis).

As the value of the items constituting the means of subsistence varies, then so does the value of labour power, and:

“The value of labour-power resolves itself into the value of a definite quantity of the means of subsistence. It therefore varies with the value of these means or with the quantity of labour requisite for their production” (Marx, 1867, p.169).

Labour-time is the measure of value for labour power, as well as for the commodities of the ‘general class’ (Marx, 1867, p.97). Bringing all of this together, then:

The value (the real exchange value) of all commodities (labour included) is determined by their cost of production, in other words by the labour time required to produce them (Marx, 1858, p.137 – original emphasis).

For Marx, in his great work Capital, the value of labour power was crucial for fixing the value of the items within the general class of commodities. It was important for his value theory of labour and his account of exploitation via surplus-value production in capitalist society. However, Marx sidesteps the issue of the value of labour as labour power; its value as the capacity to labour in itself. Marx did not consider education and training to be a significant determinant of the value of labour power. This is clear in the following quotation:

“In order to modify the organism, so that it may acquire skill and handiness in a given branch of industry, and become labour-power of a special kind, a special education and training is requisite, and this, on its part, costs an equivalent in commodities of a greater or lesser amount. This amount varies according to the more or less complicated character of the labour-power. The expenses of this education (excessively small in the case of ordinary labour-power), enter pro tanto into the total value spent in its production” (Marx, 1867, pp.168-169).

When Marx talks the value of labour power he invariably sees it in terms of the social reproduction of labour power through the labourer’s wage, which reflects socially necessary labour that produces value adequate to support the wage required to purchase the means of subsistence. Yet he acknowledges that education and training do enter into the value of labour power, but that it is insubstantial in most cases. He makes this clear elsewhere when he says that:

“…what he [the labourer] pays out for education is devilishly little, but when he does, his payments are productive, for education produces labour-power” (Marx, 1863, p.210 – my emphasis).

It is possible to make a distinction between the social reproduction of labour power, which is what Marx is almost totally concerned with in the determination of the value of labour power as expressed in the quotations above, and the social production of labour power itself. In Marx’s day, and before, during the industrial revolution in England, whose history and economics from which Marx drew material and data for Capital, education and training for many workers were in fact marginal.

Today, the situation is different, with many nation states having multi-billion-dollar education and training budgets, and private companies spending additional sums. These institutions are involved in what I have called the social production of labour power in capitalism (Rikowski, 2001c, 2002, 2003 and 2005) – which shall be the focus of section 6. These and related institutions are involved in raising the quality of labour power at lowest cost in order that the national capital (all the enterprises relating to a nation state) can compete successfully in national and international markets.

The concept of the value of labour power in Marx’s Capital rests on the value of means of subsistence, and is used by Marx in his account of the value-producing labour and the incorporation and measurement of value in relation to the ‘general class’ of commodities. Complementary to this, I am interested in the quality of labour power per se: labour power value (in distinction to the value of labour power). The focus is on the determination of labour power quality: the quality of labour power as value-creating power.

Not forgetting that labour power is a (living) commodity (Rikowski, 2005) nevertheless, its value in this sense still has an abstract moment in terms of its average value in its determination by labour time:

“The value of commodities as determined by labour time is only their average value. This average value appears as an external abstraction … [But]… the market value is always different, is always below or above this average value of a commodity” (Marx, 1858, p.137 – original emphasis).

The latter point is crucial here: labour power values vary as market values. All else being equal (e.g. the quality of educators and trainers, the conditions of learning, the technology and materials available etc.), labour power value can be measured by the labour time taken to develop it – as with other commodities. The more labour time going into the social production of labour power, ceteris paribus, the great the quality of it value as labour power; its labour power value to capital.

5. Social Worth

Behind the argument developed in the previous section is a deeper point about social worth. Basically, labour power values of a higher power, a higher quality, entail that their possessors have more social worth relative to persons with lower labour power value. This is because in terms of the dominating power in contemporary society, capital, the higher the quality of a person’s labour power the more utility they have for categories of capital (from capital in general to individual capitals and functions of capital – see Rikowski, 2001d) and as instances within categories of labour power itself (from specific occupations to adventitious categories – such as gender or age groupings). The higher the quality of labour power of persons, the greater their social worth, and this social worth is socially validated, given substance by capital itself: capital, as a ‘blind social force, without ego’ (following Postone, 1996).

Thus, in capitalist society, social worth is established on the basis of capital itself; the utility of labour power for capital, which resolves itself into labour power value – the quality of labour power. The greater the quality of labour power as value-creating entity, the greater is the social worth of its possessor.

This view of social worth is radically different to abstract and transcendental perspectives on human worth (e.g. humans all having intrinsic worth, as in religious conceptions) established by a supreme power (God). It is counter to the notion that we, as humans, all have equal worth; e.g. all made equal in the eyes of God or made in His image. Those with higher labour power value, higher quality of labour power, have a corresponding higher social worth.

This view is also runs against the notion, put forward by those such as Andrew Collier (1999), that humans have worth due to their capacity to have values that transcend the ‘ulterior good of our species’ (p.7) and yet have the right to discriminate in favour of our species. For Collier, following St. Augustine, there is an ‘objective order of things’ where ‘more perfect beings’ (such as us humans) ‘are greater goods and have a greater claim on our love’ (p.8), and human beings have a greater claim on our love as they are ‘more perfect than other material beings’ (Ibid.). Thus, lesser beings (e.g. animals) may be sacrificed for human welfare, yet ‘we may not treat any being as worthless’ (Ibid.). Collier claims that his view of human worth, although deriving from St. Augustine’s views, is not a religious conception, and neither does it rest on subjective taste. Rather, human worth is a function of persons striving in their lives for human wellbeing; not just their own wellbeing, but that of others and humanity as a whole.

However, it is hard to see that this perspective on human worth does not ultimately rest on some form of subjectivism regarding the constitution of ‘wellbeing’. One way out of such subjectivism might be the democratic route where people decide amongst themselves on what the ‘good’ is for humans in general and for particular humans. This might collide with notions of freedom and respect for others. Another route is to enlist the sciences, human and natural, to validate what constitutes human wellbeing, and by default human worth. There are examples of this in some primary schools in England that operationalise Howard Gardner’s ‘learning styles’, for example. But this strategy throws up issues of social control, the medicalisation of social life, the reality of therapy culture and other problems in enlisting science and pseudo-science (e.g. psychology) in attempts to make us ‘good’ and enhancing our human worth.

A notion of social (as opposed to human) worth, as expressed here, has social validity and rests on a clearly substantive reality (as opposed to some transcendental or extra-phenomenal reality or entity), but is tied to its social formation. Our social worth derives from capital; whose workings are divisive, creating hierarchies and rankings based on value-creation (as value is the substance of capital’s social universe) and value-creating capacity. This social reality confers social worth; where there are radical inequalities and persons are worth more or less, as based on their labour power values.

This abominable, unfortunately socially real perspective on social worth, does, however, provide us with some insight into the problem we started out with: the apparent anomaly of females doing better in education than males yet being paid less than them. As we shall see, it is not really an anomaly but is built into contemporary society as currently constituted. To see this, it is necessary to delve into the social production of labour power itself.

6. The Social Production of Labour Power in Capitalism

I have written at length on the social production of labour power elsewhere (e.g. Rikowski, 2002, 2003, and 2005). This section draws heavily on my article Education, Capital and the Transhuman (Rikowski, 2002), where I discuss the social production of labour power in most depth. Basically:

“The social production of labor-power is the conglomeration of the social processes involved in producing the unique, or ‘thinking’ commodity. Although there are some general and elementary forms of the social production of labor-power, the fragmented forms in which labor-power is socially produced in capitalism, with its institutional splits in contemporary capitalist societies makes for great difficulties – theoretically, and in terms of empirical work” (Rikowski, 2002, p.132).

Since the Second World War, and especially in the advent of the 1944 Education Act, the 1948 Employment and Training Act, the 1964 Industrial Training Act and 1988 Education Reform Act, the social production of labour power in the UK and especially in England (more so since the 1997 New Labour government), the social production of labour power has taken on ever greater definition and social reality. As a productive process, various combinations of the following institutions and organisations are included, though the list is not exhaustive: schooling; on/off-the-job training; various forms of further and vocational education and training in post-compulsory schooling institutions but not higher education; higher education; in-house training programmes of private companies; apprenticeships; adult education; character and attitude training programmes; and management training programmes – are just some of the elements. Empirically, research can map out the various element involved for socially producing labour power for particular sectors of capital and individual capitals etc. I did this for the engineering industry in relation to the social production of craft and engineering labour powers in the early 1980s.

Of course, schools, colleges and universities etc., are not only involved in producing labour power. Furthermore, they (especially and increasingly higher education) are engaged in producing a vast array of commodities, labour power being only one (but very important) instance. The key point for the argument of this paper is that we need to enquire into the social production of labour power if we are to understand how it is that different categories of labour power have varying labour power values, and hence differential social worth as validated by their existence within capital’s social universe. In relation to labour power value (and social worth) and differences in the market value (and hence labour market value) regarding fe/male labour powers it is important to grasp the role of the ‘automatic’ form of labour power production.

7. Labour Power: Its ‘Automatic’ Production

As well as all the formal and formalistic institutions involved in the social production of labour power noted above, there is also the ‘automatic’ element in labour power production: its development within the labour process itself. This occurs as workers labour; the quality of their labour power is altered.

In Marx’s day, the social production of labour power incorporating clearly visible and definable institutional and organisational productive forces was not an established social reality. The social production of labour power was ill-defined in his time, with state schooling just emerging in England in the 1870s. This lack of social definition of the social production of labour power as outlined in the previous section led Marx to conclude that:

“Labour as a social and natural force does not develop within the valorization process as such, but within the actual labour process. It presents itself therefore as a set of attributes that are intrinsic to capital as a thing, as its use-value” (1866, p.1056).

Hence, on this account the labour process itself is a force that develops labour power, and:

“…the individual not only develops his abilities in production, but also expends them, uses them up in the act of production” (Marx, 1857, p.90).

As we labour in the labour process, our skills (in their variety and complexity), practical knowledges, specialist knowledges and pertinent work and social attitudes and personality traits – are developed. Such ‘automatic’ labour production (which can be formalised to some extent through various forms of work-based learning and on-the-job-training) plays its part in the constitution and formation of labour power value and differential labour power values and market values for labour power through increasing the (self-validating) labour time involved in labour power production.

On this basis, we would expect to find that, other things being roughly equal (i.e. that there no systematic or substantial differences in the quality and quantity of labour powers produced by other relevant elements of the categories of labour power under consideration), that those categories of labour power where the labourers work in the labour process for a greater duration, ought to have higher labour power values, and higher market values for their labour powers. This is exactly what we find when examining differences in the pay (which partly reflects the market values of labour powers) between men and women in the UK. Men tend to work more hours than women; on a weekly and yearly basis and over the whole course of their working lifetimes, on average. In this way, they develop their labour powers to a greater extent within the capitalist labour process – through the ‘automatic’ production of their labour powers – than women do (on average), yielding greater labour power value (and also social worth) for men, vis-à-vis women, as labourers.

The quality of female labour powers in the UK and England, on average, is higher than that of males (according to educational outputs), but not by that much. It is the time that men spend in various labour processes that makes the difference; that yields higher quality labour powers values, which is practically reflected in higher market values and labour market rewards. The labour-time spent in the social production of male labour power is greater than for women; this gives it its greater value.

There are limits to this. If men were to work such excessive hours and with such intensity that their capacity to labour was harmed, then the quality of their labour power would deteriorate. There are clear natural limits to the ‘automatic’ element of labour power production, which relates to human survival and struggles over the length of the working day that goes back way into the nineteenth century in England, and which was charted by Marx in the first volume of Capital.

Data on working hours for men and women support the argument advanced here. The next section examines briefly working hours for men and women in the UK.

8. Gender and Working Hours

Unfortunately the standard UK national statistics for hours worked is not as up to date as compared with those for educational attainment or pay (by gender). What NSO (2003) indicates is that the numbers working long hours of 45+ hours per week declined from 1997 to 2003, which had the effect of depressing the overall number of hours worked. There is no gender analysis for weekly hours worked – which is another limitation on the standard data. However, another publication by the UK government’s Office for National Statistics service (ONS, 2006) does provide more useful data. For full-time workers, males had a mean weekly average of 40.7 hours per week in April 2006, whilst the equivalent female statistic was 37.6 hours per week. Taking part-time work into account too, males worked an average of 38.1 hours per week against females on 29.6 hours pr week – almost identical to the 2005 figures, which are also provided by ONS (2006, p.8). A greater proportion of men working full-time worked paid overtime hours (27.6%) than women (15.5%). In addition, those fulltime male workers who worked overtime worked more overtime hours (2.0 per week on average) than women (0.7 per week on average) (ONS, 2006, p.8).

Recent data from the UK Trades Union Congress (TUC, 2008) indicates that in the face of the ‘credit crunch’ long hours working is once again on the rise in the UK, following a decline in long hours working from 1998-2006 (p.1). Research by the TUC indicates that 85% of ‘new long hours are male’ (Ibid.). For males, 19.7% worked more than 48 hours per week in 2008, whilst for females the corresponding statistic was 5.9% (TUC, 2006, p.2). Senior management jobs (more likely to be filled by males) are particularly prone to be affected by a long hours culture in the current climate (TUC, 2008, p.1).

Even the overall fall in working hours for men and women over the 1998-2006 period hid the phenomenon of those working extremely long working hours in the UK. In 2002, a survey by the Department of Trade and Industry’s Work-Life Balance Campaign found that one in every six workers surveyed reported that they worked more than 60 hours per week. Most of these were young people. It was also found that the majority who worked these long hours and ‘only a third are awarded with extra pay or time off in lieu’ (BBC News, 2002). Thus, the official ONS figures fail to report on absolute working hours as unpaid overtime was not included. Perhaps it was campaigns such as this that led Prime Minister Gordon Brown to abolish the Department for Trade and Industry when he reshuffled government departments last year.

The TUC has called for the European Working Time Directive (EWTD) in the UK to be strengthened (TUC, 2008, p.1). The EWTD was established in 1998 and limited weekly working hours to 48 per week in EU member countries. However, the UK government forced an opt-out clause in the Directive which allowed UK workers to ‘voluntarily opt out of this limit’ (UNISON, 2006, p.1). In May 2005, the European Parliament voted to scrap the UK’s opt-out clause by 2012. Countries strongly opposed to the UK’s opt-out were France, Belgium, Sweden, Greece, Finland and Lithuania (BBC News, 2005, p.1). Other countries supported the UK stance and the UK employment minister got enough support in June 2005 to halt the abolition of the UK opt-out, which the UK government argued was ‘vital for competitiveness and job creation’ (Ibid.). EU employment ministers met in Luxembourg two weeks ago to try to reach a deal, and ‘Spain and Greece have emerged as the leading opponents to the UK’s stance’ (Laitner and Taylor, 2008). The position of Greece is particularly interesting as research by Colette Fagan (2002) indicated that workers in Greece had higher weekly working hours than any other EU country – for men and for women (see tables on pp.76-77). Taylor and Laitner (2008) note that UK business folk, and particularly the Engineering Employers Federation are concerned that the draft agreement on working time that ministers discussed two weeks ago showed that whilst the opt-out clause was retained, proposals giving workers in the UK rights regarding asking for flexible working patterns was inserted. Yet they need not have worried. A deal was struck between the UK and France where the former ditched its proposal for the EU liberalisation of gas and electricity (which France opposed) whilst France sidelined its opposition to the UK EWTD opt-out (Laitner, Parker and Eaglesham, 2008). However, part of the deal was that temporary workers in the UK were to receive employment rights three months after starting work, which the UK government had to persuade the Confederation of British Industry to accept (Ibid.). The deal still has to go through the European Parliament – which might generate difficulties for New Labour’s policy on the EWTD.

What the struggle by the UK government and UK business organisations to maintain the EWTD opt-out shows, is that there is no real enthusiasm for addressing the factors that generate long working hours. Enforcing the EWTD in the UK would be a step in the gender equalisation of working hours, which would also be a step in the direction of equalising labour power values, labour power market values and gender differences in social worth. This can be seen as part of a cultural climate in the UK where status and rights of women are under attack generally. As Kira Cochrane writes today in The Guardian:

“The sex industry is booming, the rape conviction rate is plummeting, women’s bodies are picked over in the media, abortion rights are under serious threat and top business leaders say they don’t want to employ women. It all adds up to one thing … an all-out assault on feminism” (Cochrane, 2008, p.6).

In these circumstances, equalising working time between the genders is unlikely to materialise. Cochrane argues that regenerating the feminist debate required in the UK over work, abortion and other issues affecting women’s quality of life and freedoms in the UK will not be easy given the rightward drift of politics, the weakness of the Left and the likelihood of a Conservative victory at the next general election (p.11).

Conclusion: Against What We Are Worth

The main argument of this paper is that the labour power value of men in the UK is greater than that of women as their labour power quality is developed to a higher degree, mainly through the ‘automatic’ production of labour power attributes in the labour process brought about by their longer working hours relative to female workers. Although females outperform males in education this is not by much, and does not make up for the more extensive and intensive participation of males in UK labour processes. Furthermore, as Gorard, Rees and Salisbury (2001) note, males participate more in adult education and training and get more work-related qualifications – which also boosts their relative labour power value. These trends ensure that males have greater social worth in UK society than females as they rank higher regarding the foundation of social worth in capitalist society: labour power value.

If this argument is correct, then the moral panic over boys’ underachievement in compulsory schooling and the superiority of female achievements and participation rates in higher education are side issues. If anything, female achievements in education and the duration of their participation in formal education should be enhanced relative to males within a programme of labour power quality equalisation. However, the key point is to address the longer working hours of males – on which abolition of the EWTD opt-out for the UK would be a start.

At a deeper level, UK employment and education and training policies mean that UK males (on average) have greater social worth than females on the basis of their labour power value. If we support gender equality then this is a situation that needs to be struggled against here in the UK (and elsewhere).

Marxist analysis exposes this shameful situation powerfully as it is a theory that does not just explain what is happening in society, but is also a theory against capital. Marxist analysis reveals the skeletons in the cellar of capital’s rule particularly effectively as it informs us about the constitution of capitalist society in ways that generate critiques of that form of society. Through the Marxist analysis in this paper, for example, and on the basis of gender equality, we can argue with confidence that we are ‘against what we are worth’, and engage in the struggle to ‘wrest non-capitalist life from capitalist life’ (Martin, 2008, p.45).

(References are on the next page - see below)

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