The capitalist, who must submit his commodities to the exchange market at a competitive price, will buy as much labor power from the worker at the lowest price possible, which is no more than the cost of keeping the worker alive. Where neither laws exist to regulate this system nor any mechanism for collective bargaining, the capitalist is in a position to decide the terms of this relationship to the detriment of the worker. For example, in industrial England prior to legislation limiting the length of the working day, workers had no power and were forced to work long days in horrible conditions for wages that barely kept them fed. This struggle over the length of the working day is illustrative of the struggles in capitalist society generally. The exploitative relationship has capitalists trying to get as much from the worker as possible and the worker trying to limit the capitalist’s power to do so.
Marx’s account of the exploitative relationship of capitalist to labor remains powerfully compelling and seems by many to be vindicated in history. Essentially, Marx argues that the mechanism of exploitation built into the capitalist economic system is the source of social antagonisms that will eventually lead to the dismantling of capitalism itself. In the early Hegelian writings, Marx looks to a notion of alienation, the estrangement of the worker from his humanity, to support the same prognosis. With the theory of exploitation and surplus value, he shifts away from philosophical language toward an economic frame of reference, though a common element, the idea that the capitalist social relations of production will lead to a destruction of the capitalist mode of production. The later formulation is more effective than the earlier, as it accompanies an analysis of actual historical events rather than purely speculative thought.
Writing in exile in England, Marx was able to view firsthand the workings of the world’s most advanced industrial economy. Scenes of textile laborers in industrial Manchester living in abject squalor and barely clinging to life, the poet William Blake’s evocative and disturbing images of “dark satanic mills,” all impressed on many the downside of growing production and prosperity that had become evident in England and throughout much of Europe. Marx tried to show that such poverty was a permanent feature of capitalism and in fact would grow worse as capitalism advanced. With no means of defense, the working class’s economic well-being is at the mercy of capitalists. But the capitalist, if he wishes to survive in a competitive market, cannot exercise mercy without endangering his enterprise. Classes grow out of this antagonistic relationship that exposes their bare economic interests. The bourgeoisie unite to defend their monopoly over workers using all the means at their disposal, including the state and even religion. While workers, through common association, gradually manage to unite to push back the capitalist. In England, the Parliament, through growing pressure of workers and their sympathetic advocates among the upper classes, finally decided to intervene in this exploitative relationship.