Marx's Capital: Parts III-IV
4.2.3) Part III: Production of Absolute Surplus-Value: Formal Equality Masking Substantive Inequality and Oppression: Here Marx tries to peel back the mask that conventional liberal ideology places over the face of the capitalist market economy. The market economy pretends that it is a realm of freedom: everyone is independent, everyone is unbound by ties of slavery and serfdom, everyone owns what he or she owns, everyone produces, buys, and sells, everyone does so an an equal legal footing…
And yet..., and yet..., and yet...
Marx tries to lay out how such a formally-equal form of social organization like the market economy nevertheless produces massive and mammoth inequality. He does so by diving into the working day and the labor process: How is it that the value of labor-power is less than the value of the commodities that that labor-power the capitalist purchases then creates? Why doesn't the worker just work for themself and so reap the full value of the commodities they produce as the wage for their labor power?
However, Marx gets lost here in the swamp of the labor theory of value. And so the analytical apparatus he builds creaks. It is, I think, simply not up to the task.
Sources of Capitalist Social Power: I think, however, that it is easy to rescue Marx's argument by throwing his labor theory of value overboard and simply looking at average or market equilibrium prices. It is a fact that those without money have little social power. It is a fact that those without money have little ability to delay their purchases or sales in the hope that a better bargain will be. It is a fact that those who are desperate to buy or sell get a bad bargain. And it is a fact that workers are desperate to sell their labor, and then desperate to buy commodities now: they and their families have to eat.
But why can't workers just work for themselves? Why can't they be independent contractors, and so capture for themselves the surplus the capitalist exacts from the fact that workers are desperate to work and so will work for less than the value of what they will produce because they need money now? They can—if they have enough of a stake to tied themselves over. But as time passes and as production becomes more and more capital-intensive and value chains become longer and longer, the size of the stake needed to remain independent grows. Some succeed in maintaining the needed stake, and even enlarging it: they maintain a precarious independence or become capitalists themselves, respectively. Most, from bad luck, imprudence, or a failure to keep pace with increasing scale, fall into the proletariat, and so have to strike bad bargains with employers in which they capture little of the surplus created in the process of production.
That, at least, would be a coherent theoretical argument.
Marx Wrote at the End of an Era of Wage Stagnation: It would run into the empirical problem that the wages of labor today in the Global North are 15 times higher than they were two centuries ago, and that in the world as a whole only 9% of people earn too little in the global market to escape from extreme poverty while 80% were in extreme poverty 200 years ago. But it would be a coherent argument. And it would accurately describe the world of an Industrial Revolution with little or no increase in real wages that Marx had seen in his life up to 1867. (Albeit that phase of the world economy was about to end: wages, worldwide, were then about to start rocketing upward.)
Nassau Senior’s “Last Hour”: Please, I ask you, do not miss the last part of chapter 9: Section 3: Senior's "Last Hour". Marx’s evisceration of the argument in support of the cotton manufacturers of Britain by British classical economist Nassau Senior is a thing of beauty. And it was the source for the first economics article I ever wrote that would up published.
The Length of the Working Day: And read carefully and reread chapter 10. In chapter 10 the book descends from German Hegelian-philosophical and British classical-economic abstractions and theory into the condition fo the working class in England in the middle of the nineteenth century, and the book becomes great.
Creaky Abstractions Return: But in chapter 11 the abstractions and the creaky analytical apparatus are back.
Marx then finds himself on the defensive. The profits that different manufacturers realize have nothing to do with the amounts of surplus value that Marx calculates different manufacturers extract from their workers. Why are the profits of one manufacturer who has few workers and so can extract no surplus value from them just as high as the profits of another manufacturer sweating surplus value out of tens of thousands? How I this consistent with Marx’s claim that profits in some sense are, or are the surface manifestation of the deep reality that is surplus value?
This is a natural question to ask. Asking it very much puts Marx very much on the defensive. So we find passages like:
The law... of surplus-value produced... clearly contradicts all experience based on appearance.... A cotton spinner, who... employs... little variable capital, does not, on account of this, pocket less profit or surplus-value than a baker... [with] much variable... capital. For the solution of this apparent contradiction, many intermediate terms are as yet wanted, as from the standpoint of elementary algebra many intermediate terms are wanted to understand that 0/0 may represent an actual magnitude.... It will be seen later how the school of Ricardo has come to grief over this stumbling block. Vulgar economy which, indeed, “has really learnt nothing,” here as everywhere sticks to appearances in opposition to the law which regulates and explains them. In opposition to Spinoza, it believes that “ignorance is a sufficient reason”...
To paraphrase, Marx is here saying: My theory says the sun rises in the west, but you say it rises in the east. You are confused by the surface appearance of things. I have a deeper understanding, and I will present my answer later.
He never did present an explanation.
As I said, the analytical apparatus creaks, and is not up to the task.
4.2.4) Part IV: The Production of Relative Surplus-Value: No, you are not caught in some Groundhog Day-like time loop. If this sounds to you like he is starting to repeat himself, you are right. And if you ask what makes some surplus value “relative” and other surplus value “absolute”, you will not get a clear answer.
I think that when the working day is expanded or the standard of living is lowered, that is an increase in absolute surplus value. I think that when productivity rises, that is an increase in relative surplus value. I would have called Part III “The Working Day and Surplus Value” and Part IV “Worker Productivity and Surplus Value”.
Deskilling: But do not skip or skim—too much. The analytical core of this part is an important insight: The market economy produces enormous incentives to innovate in technology and to then invest in labor-saving machinery in order to raise productivity:
A most furious combat rages between the capitalists for their individual share in the market... proportional to the cheapness of the product.... This struggle gives rise to in the use of improved machinery for replacing labour-power... the introduction of new methods of production... [and] a forcible reduction of wages beneath the value of labour-power is attempted...
And this pressure has a powerful impact in potentially "deskilling" workers. Marx quotes Adam Smith here:
The understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations … has no occasion to exert his understanding … He generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.... The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind … It corrupts even the activity of his body and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employments than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems in this manner to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society, this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall...
Hence Adam Smith calls for a major deviation from laissez faire in favor of publicly-funded and mandatory public education:
The common people... have little time to spare for education. Their parents can scarce afford to maintain them.... As soon as they are able to work they must apply to some trade by which they can earn their subsistence.... But though the common people cannot, in any civilised society, be so well instructed as people of some rank and fortune, the most essential parts of education, however, to read, write, and account, can be acquired at so early a period of life that the greater part even of those who are to be bred to the lowest occupations have time to acquire them before they can be employed in those occupations. For a very small expense the public can facilitate, can encourage, and can even impose upon almost the whole body of the people the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education... by establishing in every parish or district a little school, where children may be taught for a reward so moderate that even a common labourer may afford it; the master being partly, but not wholly, paid by the public.... It was in this manner, by facilitating the acquisition of their military and gymnastic exercises, by encouraging it, and even by imposing upon the whole body of the people the necessity of learning those exercises, that the Greek and Roman republics maintained the martial spirit of their respective citizens....
The gross ignorance and stupidity which, in a civilised society, seem so frequently to benumb the understandings of all the inferior ranks of people... [leaves them] mutilated and deformed in... [an] essential part of the character of human nature. Though the state was to derive no advantage from the instruction of the inferior ranks of people, it would still deserve its attention that they should not be altogether uninstructed. The state, however, derives no inconsiderable advantage from their instruction. The more they are instructed the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition.... An instructed and intelligent people, besides, are always more decent and orderly.... They feel themselves, each individually, more respectable and more likely to obtain the respect of their lawful superiors.... They are more disposed to examine, and more capable of seeing through, the interested complaints of faction and sedition.... In free countries, where the safety of government depends very much upon the favourable judgment which the people may form of its conduct, it must surely be of the highest importance that they should not be disposed to judge rashly or capriciously...
I dare say you might well be able to convince Adam Smith, were he here with us today, to ban cable news, and Facebook.
But to return to Marx and to the cause of “deskilling”, rather than attempts to counteract its effects, we have Marx:
Along with the tool, the skill of the worker in handling it passes over to the machine. The capabilities of the tool are emancipated from the restraints inseparable from human labour-power. This destroys the technical foundation on which the division of labour in manufacture was based.… In so far as the division of labour reappears in the factory, it takes the form primarily of a distribution of workers among the specialized machines.... In handicrafts and manufacture, the worker makes use of a tool; in the factory, the machine makes use of him. There the movements of the instrument of labour proceed from him, here it is the movements of the machine that he must follow.... In the factory we have a lifeless mechanism... independent of the workers... incorporated into it as its living appendages.… The machine... deprives the work itself of all content … [The] conditions of work employ the worker...
Capitalism as a Vampire: And so innovation further diminishes workers' power to strike a good wage bargain, in chief a reasonable working day. Dead Labor—capital—or rather Undead Labor—fastens upon Living Labor like a vampire sucking his or her blood:
Partly by placing at the capitalists’ disposal new strata of the working class previously inaccessible to him, partly by setting free the workers it supplants, machinery produces a surplus working population... compelled to submit to the dictates of capital.... Machinery sweeps away every moral and natural restriction on the length of the working day.... The most powerful instrument for reducing labour-time suffers a dialectical inversion and becomes the most unfailing means for turning the whole lifetime of the worker and his family into labour-time at capital’s disposal for its own valorization.... Dead labour... dominates and soaks up living labour-power...
There is even, Marx claims, a large downside to laws to protect workers, to raise minimum wages, and to shorten the maximum working day. Such laws relatively disadvantage small-scale producers, and drive them into bankruptcy:
If the general extension of factory legislation to all trades for the purpose of protecting the working class both in mind and body has become inevitable, on the other hand, as we have already pointed out, that extension hastens on the general conversion of numerous isolated small industries into a few combined industries carried on upon a large scale; it therefore accelerates the concentration of capital and the exclusive predominance of the factory system. It destroys both the ancient and the transitional forms behind which the dominion of capital is still partially hidden, and replaces them with a dominion which is direct and unconcealed...
What is worse:
The immense impetus given to technical improvement by the limitation and regulation of the working day is to increase the anarchy and the proneness to catastrophe of capitalist production as a whole, the intensity of labour, and the competition of machinery with the worker. By the destruction of small-scale and domestic industries it destroys the last resorts of the ‘redundant population’, thereby removing what was previously a safety-valve for the whole social mechanism...
“The Worse, the Better”: But there is a "the worse, the better" apocalyptic silver lining here:
By maturing the material conditions and the social combination of the process of production, it matures the contradictions and antagonisms of the capitalist form of that process, and thereby ripens both the elements for forming a new society and the forces tending towards the overthrow of the old one...
I tend to be very very suspicious of “the worse, the better” arguments.
Karl Marx’s Theory of History: Note also that it is in this Part IV of Capital that we get Karl Marx's big-picture theory of history and political economy:
My view is that each particular mode of production, and the relations of production corresponding to it at each given moment, in short ‘the economic structure of society’, is ‘the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness’ [mental conceptions, if you like], and that ‘the mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life...
And it is in this part of Capital that we have get a very brief glimpse into Marx's speculations about the business cycle:
The factory system’s tremendous capacity for expanding with sudden immense leaps, and its dependence on the world market, necessarily give rise to the following cycle: feverish production, a consequent glut on the market, then a contraction of the market, which causes production to be crippled. The life of industry becomes a series of periods of moderate activity, prosperity, over-production, crisis and stagnation. The uncertainty and instability to which machinery subjects the employment, and consequently the living conditions, of the workers becomes a normal state of affairs...
Here the full files are—unfinished: https://www.icloud.com/pages/0howtV7CndvjkSCCLmtjmq_SA
And the course slides:
#books #highlighted #history #historyofeconomicthought #moralphilosophy #politicaleconomy #2019-12-03