Further notes on the concept ‘proletariat’ (following on from these , these, and these).

I call this the classic marxian definition of proletarians: those who own only their own hides, such that in the market they receive a hiding. Proletarians sell their bodies and capacities for determinate lengths of time, in exchange for money. (Slaves, by contrast, do no own their own bodies and bodily capacities. They own nothing.) This definition is based on the condition of proletarians prior to – or at the moment of – entry to market. At this point, proletarians own only their own bodies and bodily capacities.

Proletarians need wages. Wages are the sole means by which proletarians get access to use values that they need and want. Or, money is the sole means for access to use values. Wages consist of money received in exchange for the sale of labor power. Wages are the sole means by which proletarians gets money. In order to get use values, proletarians must get money, which proletarians only get via the sale of their labor power. This is the compulsion to work. (The word “sole” throughout this paragraph is an overstatement for effect which could be replaced by “primary”.)

Proletarians after entry to the market, having completed a transaction exchanging labor power for wages, own their bodies, their bodily capacities, and the money they received in the form of wages for the sale of their labor power. The amount of money received in wages is roughly equivalent to the value of the labor power they sold, which is to say, the money is something considered equivalent to the life-time and energy sold. After the exchange of labor power for wages, the proletariat is capable of making other exchanges, using money to purchase use values. Proletarians can spend their money to purchase whatever they can afford to purchase. They own whatever they purchase with their wages. As noted, these purchases are, generally speaking, for items of value equivalent to the labor power sold by the proletarians.

Proletarians after the sale of labor power, having received wages, are no longer strictly proletarians, in what I called the classical marxian sense. They do not only own their own bodies, but own money and/or use values equivalent to some fraction of their body or bodily exertions over time. I will call this ‘departure’ – proletarians depart from being proletarian. Capitalists have an interest in reducing the quantity of wages so as to minimize the quantity of this equivalence, so that proletarians own as little as possible beyond their own bodies and capacities.

Proletarians depart from being proletarians when they receive wages. Upon receipt, they own something in addition to their bodies and capacities: money. They purchase use values, exchanging money owned for use values which they also own. If these use values are consumed such that they cease to persist – as with food eaten or medical care received – the use values disappear and are no longer owned. If a proletarian consumes the entirety of wage and the use values purchased with it, such that they once again own nothing but their own bodies and capacities, they are once again proletarians in what I called the classical marxian sense. They re-enter the market in this condition. I will call this a return to being proletarian. The capitalists’ interest I mentioned above is an interest in ensuring that departure from being proletarian is followed by return to being proletarian. (One way this is accomplished, as noted, is by reducing wages, thereby reducing the ‘distance’ of the departure, so to speak, or its duration, by reducing the quantity of use values the proletarian can own.)

To perhaps stretch the terminology, proletarians may re-enter the market without having returned to being proletarian: they may have some left over wages from the last transaction or left over use values purchased from the last transaction. This does not (or does not necessarily) change their status as a proletarian in the sense of someone who sells their labor power in exchange for a wage.

The condition of being proletarian is characterized over time by departures and returns. The proletariat is the (point of equilibrium or vector derived from the) aggregate of departures from and returns t0 being proletarian, defined in relation to some geographic and historical markers. The condition of proletarians owning only their own bodies look life does not persisted over time without departures and returns. The condition of being proletarian, if it persisted over time without departure, would come to look a good deal like slavery, for the proletarians needs to reproduce their bodies, which requires resources in addition to the body itself.