Human Capital - Marxist Analysis

Marxist Analysis

In some way, the idea of "human capital" is similar to Karl Marx's concept of labor power: he thought in capitalism workers sold their labor power in order to receive income (wages and salaries). But long before Mincer or Becker wrote, Marx pointed to "two disagreeably frustrating facts" with theories that equate wages or salaries with the interest on human capital.

  1. The worker must actually work, exert his or her mind and body, to earn this "interest." Marx strongly distinguished between one's capacity to work, Labor power, and the activity of working.
  2. A free worker cannot sell his human capital in one go; it is far from being a liquid asset, even more illiquid than shares and land. He does not sell his skills, but contracts to utilize those skills, in the same way that an industrialist sells his produce, not his machinery. The exception here are slaves, whose human capital can be sold, though the slave does not earn an income himself.

An employer must be receiving a profit from his operations, so that workers must be producing what Marx (under the labor theory of value) perceived as surplus-value, i.e., doing work beyond that necessary to maintain their labor power. Though having "human capital" gives workers some benefits, they are still dependent on the owners of non-human wealth for their livelihood.

The term appears in Marx's article in the New-York Daily Tribune article "The Emancipation Question," January 17 and 22, 1859, although there the term is used to describe humans who act like a capital to the producers, rather than in the modern sense of "knowledge capital" endowed to or acquired by humans.

Neo-Marxist economists such as Bowles have argued that education does not lead to higher wages by increasing human capital, but rather by making workers more compliant and reliable in a corporate environment.

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