Marx's Capital: Parts V-VI

*4.2.5) Part V: Absolute & Relative Surplus-Value *: Here Marx is indeed repeating himself. You are trapped in some Groundhog Day-like scenario. This time through reading these chapters, my major thought was: Wouldn’t Engels pay for an editor? It goes over ground Marx has already gone over. And it loses itself in byways that seem pointless to me.

For example, what is the usefulness of this?:

From one standpoint, any distinction between absolute and relative surplus-value appears illusory. Relative surplus-value is absolute, since it compels the absolute prolongation of the working-day beyond the labour-time necessary to the existence of the labourer himself. Absolute surplus-value is relative, since it makes necessary such a development of the productiveness of labour, as will allow of the necessary labour-time being confined to a portion of the working-day. But if we keep in mind the behaviour of surplus-value, this appearance of identity vanishes. Once the capitalist mode of production is established and become general, the difference between absolute and relative surplus-value makes itself felt, whenever there is a question of raising the rate of surplus-value. Assuming that labour-power is paid for at its value, we are confronted by this alternative: given the productiveness of labour and its normal intensity, the rate of surplus-value can be raised only by the actual prolongation of the working-day; on the other hand, given the length of the working-day, that rise can be effected only by a change in the relative magnitudes of the components of the working-day, viz., necessary labour and surplus-labour; a change which, if the wages are not to fall below the value of labour-power, presupposes a change either in the productiveness or in the intensity of the labour…

Why is it not better to say that the rate of profit (or of surplus-value extraction) depends on five things; the length of the working day, the productiveness of labor, the intensity of labor, the cost of worker subsistence, and the deviation of the wage level from the cost of subsistence? What is gained by calling some of these ‘relative’ and the others ‘absolute’ as it is indeed true that, as Marx says: ‘relative surplus-value is absolute… [and] absolute surplus-value is relative’?

Perhaps there is a new nugget in Chapter 16 of this Part V. Marx wishes to establish that David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill have blinded themselves by confusing things that are present only under the capitalist mode of production with things that are always true of the human division of labor, and so confuse themselves. But Ricardo and Mill—and I—would respond: Yes, these things are only apparent and obvious under the capitalist mode of production, but they are always true in the sense that they are constraints on and opportunities arising from the construction of a societal division of labor under conditions of scarcity; it is just that under other systems of arranging the societal division of labor these constraints and opportunities are masked by how they are embedded in the networks of obligation and control that make up non-market societies.

This is an argument Marx ought to have wrestled with. But he did not.

And much of Part V is simply confused: Marx disappears into the swamp that is the labor theory of value, and criticizes other economists for not getting lost in the swamp in the same place he does.

4.2.6) Part VI: Wages: Once again, I find Marx in need of an editor: little said in a substantial space. However, chapter 22, on differences across nations in the level of wages, seemed to me to be of interest. Marx says that looking across countries there are those with:

more intense national labour… more productive nation[s]…. In proportion as capitalist production is developed in a country, in the same proportion do the national intensity and productivity of labour there rise above the international level…. It will be found, frequently, that the daily or weekly, &tc., wage in the first nation is higher than in the second, whilst the relative price of labour, i.e., the price of labour as compared both with surplus-value and with the value of the product, stands higher in the second than in the first…

So that a higher rate of exploitation, a higher rate of productivity, and a higher value of real wages in terms of the commodities they can buy go together. Comparing Russia to England, Marx finds:

Despite all over-work, continued day and night, despite the most shameful under-payment of the workpeople, Russian manufacture manages to vegetate only by prohibition of foreign competition…

English cotton mills pay their workers more and extract more profits and surplus value out of them. Russian cotton mills pay their workers less, over-work them more, and yet would fail to extract any profits or surplus value if not for government subsidies via tariffs. The more exploited are workers in Marx’s extraction-of-surplus-value sense, the better off there workers are.

This should have given Marx pause: if it is true looking from less-capitalistic to more-capitalistic nations that higher rates of exploitation and better-fed and better-housed workers go together, might it not also be true looking over time from less-capitalistic to more-capitalistic eras that we see the same? This should have led Marx to rethink. It did not.

4.2.7) Summing Up Parts I-VI: In summary, with the exception of Chapter 10, The Working Day, Parts I-VI of Capital do not sing for me. Confused, and where not confused usually wrong, is my judgment.

Part I makes Hegelian philosophical intellectual moves to construct an argument for the labor theory of value, an argument which I do not see as valid and which leads to a false conclusion. Part II makes the important point that capital is not a thing but rather a set of relationships or processes that generate a certain kind of economy with its patterns of production, distribution, and dynamic evolution. But this seems obvious to me: it is something I know in my bones. Marx presents it with what seems to me to be a lot of fluff and mystification.

Parts III-VI develop and use his analytical framework and, with the exception of chapter 10 on the working day, I find the framework creaky, inadequate, and often misleading: labor theory of value, rates of surplus value, organic composition of capital, and hidden behind the curtain the unsolved and unsolvable analytical problems of reduction and transformation.

It is only in Part VII that the book begins to sing to me.

Here the full files are—unfinished:

And the course slides:

#books #highlighted #history #historyofeconomicthought #moralphilosophy #politicaleconomy #2019-12-03