The employment contract

Image: Aleksandar Pasaric


The labor force purchase and sale contract becomes, at the same time, true and fictitious


The modification of the government in general that will transform itself into a bourgeois State cannot occur in this same government in general, because as a representative of the collective interest, the government only establishes the law that in its general form is always fair, requiring reciprocity in equivalents. Interversion of the law can only occur either in a particular context (in the case of the inegalitarian legal form, as in pre-modern law) or in its application, that is, in the enjoyment of the law (in the case of the egalitarian legal form, as in contemporary law). .

To obtain an unequal result in the use of the law, the bourgeois state government needs to find, within the legal sphere, a law whose application has the peculiar characteristic of being the source of conversion of equality (form) into inequality (content). The bourgeois ruler finds this law in the legal sphere – labor law or the employment contract.

By employment contract, we understand the rule that regulates or regularizes the relationship between the owner of means of production and the direct producer, in which the purchase and sale of labor power is involved. There is, on the one hand, capital, which rents the workforce, aiming to increase the value of goods, and, on the other, salaried labor, which has a quantum of working time for a monetary value, the salary, aimed at satisfying the needs of the owner of the workforce.

For capital and employees to find labor contract law in the legal sphere, some conditions need to be met. As the form (appearance) of this contractual law is the equal treatment of the owners of things (capital and labor power), the first condition is that the possessor of labor power, while it is declared the “absolute” owner, and then comes assimilated to the category of subject of law (self-government) or person (free will), reiterates the belief in the freedom (unconditionality) of the right to property.

Now, the continuity of this belief in the unconditioned or categorical form of the law is determined not by the legal sphere itself, but from outside it, by the cultural-symbolic sphere, religious and philosophical beliefs. In the modern world, theologies of revelation and deistic philosophies spread the principle that every human individual is free.[I]

However, not only the salaried worker is considered free; the servant is so too. The difference is that the latter does not have the prerogative of equivalence in property rights (the servant is assigned certain obligations and the master certain privileges); while the former has formal equality (ability to contract).

The second condition of the employment contract is that the owner of the workforce, while formally holding the same rights as the owner of the means of production or the owner of capital, reproduces the belief in the harmonization of ends in the capital-labor order. Likewise, the permanence of this belief in the just ends of capitalist law is determined not by the law itself, but by cultural-symbolic practices. Modern philosophies – both moral (Kant, etc.) and social (Comte, etc.) – convey the axiom of the functional harmony of profit and salary.

However, the discursive interversion of the antagonism of values ​​into value harmony, which does not exclude conflict around means, would run the risk of being revealed in the face of perceptions of the contractual effectiveness of the workforce. Why does this unveiling tend not to materialize?

A third condition of the employment contract is the meeting between the ruler professionalized by formal merit criteria and those governed who are formally equal to each other. The law becomes a matter for experts considered competent; while the governed are in practice expropriated of legal knowledge. This meeting of legal meritocracy and mediocrity citizens is the result of a long historical process: on the one hand, the specialization, regularity and complexity of government practices; and, on the other, the routinization of productive or service functions and the restriction of political participation for the social majority. Let’s take a closer look at this law of the capitalist order.


The labor force purchase and sale contract becomes, at the same time, true and fictitious. In the legislative sphere, the employment contract really means the harmony of objectives between the owners of things: the enjoyment of things, as long as they are not used prohibited by the rules of the political community, such as unjustified destruction.

However, in the executive sphere, the labor contract becomes an illusion, as it gives rise to antagonism of values: wealth (the appreciation of value) sought by the capitalist and happiness (the satisfaction of needs) sought by the employee. In this way, social consensus or the common interest in producing and exchanging different things turns into false consensus or class domination, by appearing to measure incommensurable things: valuing exchange value and satisfying life's needs.

The institutional appearance of labor law is, therefore, the equal treatment of owners of goods, which presupposes the right to property for the direct producer.[ii] But the structural reality of the employment contract is the equal consideration of producers, in order to preserve the functions of owner of the means of production or capitalist entrepreneur and of owner of labor power or salaried worker. This reality concretizes the character of labor law as a functional imperative, tending to stabilize the roles of a historical form of society, capitalist society.

Rudolf Hilferding – Austrian economist, first to explore Karl Marx's perception of the multifunctional group (the “financial aristocracy”) within the capitalist ruling class, by proposing the analysis of “finance capital” as the union of banking and industry in the formation of big capital –, argues about the transition from the individual contract to the collective labor contract: “employer associations guarantee equal conditions of competition, preventing private agreements by individual entrepreneurs. The best way to do this is through the salary agreement, the common organization-to-organization employment contract agreement. (…) Here those trends emerge that lead to the conclusion of union alliances. (…) The extra profit from the cartel is divided between businesspeople and workers. (…) The issue of salary increases and profit reduction becomes a question of power. (…) In the course of all union development, the point necessarily comes at which the formation of an independent political workers' party becomes a condition of the union struggle itself.” (Hilferding, 1985: 336-9).

John Kenneth Galbraith – Canadian economist, based in the USA and follower of the economic philosophy of John Meynard Keynes – advances the analysis by changing the focus, in relation to collective agreements, from the sphere of circulation – cartels – to the sphere of production – productivity in large companies: “the common strategy for stabilizing wages and prices, when formally carried out, is to contain wage increases within amounts that can be paid from productivity gains. The importance of productivity gains – the increase in production per worker – only becomes known over time, and is not the same for different firms. The duration of the contract allows time to understand the gains in productivity that will accrue and calculate the increase that can be granted without harming price stability. The union, given its labor negotiations cover industrial members, does not establish what the individual firm can pay, which would imply different wage rates for different firms and would be a complication impossible to resolve, but rather what everyone, on average, can pay. This is a valuable simplification.” (Galbraith, 1983: 205)

* Francisco Pereira de Farias He is a professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Federal University of Piauí. Author, among other books, of Reflections on the political theory of the young Poulantzas (1968-1974) (anti-capital fights).


GALBRAITH, JK. The new industrial state. São Paulo: Cultural April, 1983.

HILFERDING, R. the financial capital. São Paulo: Cultural April, 1985.

TOCQUEVILLE, Alexis de. Democracy in America... Paris: Gallimard, 1986.


[I] “We still find among us zealous Christians, whose religious soul loves to feed on the truths of the other life: they will undoubtedly act in favor of human freedom, the source of all moral greatness” (Tocqueville, 1986, p. 48).

[ii] “Christianity, which made all men equal before God, will not be reluctant to see all men equal before the law” (Tocqueville, 1986, p. 48).

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