Worthy Reads from December 6, 2018

Marx's Capital: The Capitalist System Worsens Over Time

4.3.3) The Capitalist System Worsens Over Time: Remember, always, to Marx, capitalism is a system. It works, in the sense that it carries itself forward into the future:

Therefore, the worker himself constantly produces objective wealth, in the form of capital, an alien power that dominates and exploits him; and the capitalist just as constantly produces labour-power, in the form of a subjective source of wealth which is abstract, exists merely in the physical body of the worker, and is separated from its own means of objectification and realization; in short, the capitalist produces the worker as a wage-labourer. This incessant reproduction, this perpetuation of the worker, is the absolutely necessary condition for capitalist production…. The capitalist process of production, therefore, seen as a total, connected process, i.e. a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus-value, but it also produces and reproduces the capital-relation itself; on the one hand the capitalist, on the other the wage-labourer...

As the system carries itself forward into the future, it changes. It, Marx argues, becomes even worse and more destructive. The gap between what society could be given the magical productivity of human labor augmented by science and technology and what society is grows beyond measure.

Accumulation of capital leads to innovation and the invention of new kinds of more productive machines. The capital intensity of production rises. And as the capital intensity of production rises, downward pressure on workers’ wages rises as well.

Marx thinks he has an airtight argument that this will be so:

Since the demand for labour is determined not by the extent of the total capital but by its variable constituent alone, that demand falls progressively with the growth of the total capital, instead of rising in proportion to it, as was previously assumed. It falls relatively to the magnitude of the total capital, and at an accelerated rate, as this magnitude increases. With the growth of the total capital, its variable constituent, the labour incorporated in it, does admittedly increase, but in a constantly diminishing proportion... constantly produces, and produces indeed in direct relation with its own energy and extent, a relatively redundant working population, i.e. a population which is superfluous to capital’s average requirements for its own valorization, and is therefore a surplus population…

Marx believes that machinery is not a complement to but a substitute for labor. Here, once again, Marx has been betrayed by the labor theory of value. The century and a half after his writing of Capital has seen wages rise fifteen fold. It has seen inequality rise, fall, and more recently rise again. But even now, at our current inequality peak, it is only back to the level it was in mid-nineteenth century Britain here in the United States, and is lower elsewhere in the global north.

Not a Human Logic, But Its Own Mad Logic: Why does the system work as it carries itself into the future—as it “reproduces itself”, as Marx likes to say? The rapid advances of science and technology on the one hand in the scope of the collective social division of labor mediated by the market on the other greatly increase the productive power of humanity. Why are these increased productive powers turned not to the greater good but to making greater evils? Marx has an answer: His answer is that the wishes and wills of humans have no purchase once the capitalist machine has started rolling. People must fit into their slots, and do what their slot in the system requires that they do. Workers who do not sacrifice their essential humanity to a hard, dehumanizing, and low-paying job find themselves and their families at deaths door. Capitalists who do not devote every moment to raising productivity, pushing down wages, and reinvesting their larger profits to increase their scale of operations faster find themselves outcompeted. They wind up going bankrupt–and then their children join the working class proletariat. Thus, according to the principle that the purpose of a system is what it does, the purpose of the capitalist system is maximum investment and capital accumulation:

Accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production: this was the formula in which classical economics expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie in the period of its domination. Not for one instant did it deceive itself over the nature of wealth’s birth-pangs. But what use is it to lament a historical necessity? If, in the eyes of classical economics, the proletarian is merely a machine for the production of surplus-value, the capitalist too is merely a machine for the transformation of this surplus-value into surplus capital…

Mark thinks he has an iron and water-tight argument that this process of investment in capital accumulation greatly raises the stock of instruments of production that workers use—no, in capitalist factories as Marx sees them workers do not utilize machines, instead, machines use up workers—while reducing the funds available to be spent paying the wages of the workers:

The law of the progressive growth of the constant part of capital in comparison with the variable part is confirmed at every step … by the comparative analysis of the prices of commodities, whether we compare different economic epochs or different nations in the same epoch. The relative magnitude of the part of the price which represents the value of the means of production, or the constant part of the capital, is in direct proportion to the progress of accumulation, whereas the relative magnitude of the other part of the price, which represents the variable part of the capital, or the payment made for labour, is in inverse proportion to the progress of accumulation…

Thus, for Marx, it is inconceivable that there might be a permanent, durable increase in the average wage level as the process of capital accumulation proceeds and as capitalism-the-sytem carries itself forward into the future. Supply-and-demand could not, and marks his analysis, lead to such an outcome, for supply-and-demand work in the context of a ever-growing surplus population that makes up an industrial reserve army of unemployed and hungry-for-jobs workers:

The industrial reserve army, during the periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down the active army of workers; during the periods of over-production and feverish activity, it puts a curb on their pretensions. The relative surplus population is therefore the background against which the law of the demand and supply of labour does its work. It confines the field of action of this law to the limits absolutely convenient to capital’s drive to exploit and dominate the workers…

In fact, for Marx, it is inconceivable the average wage level will manage to stay above bare subsistence:

The most diverse machines are now applied to the manufacture of the machines themselves…. The labourers employed in machine factories can but play the role of very stupid machines alongside of the highly ingenious machines…. To sum up: the more productive capital grows, the more it extends the division of labour and the application of machinery; the more the division of labour and the application of machinery extend, the more does competition extend among the workers, the more do their wages shrink together…. A mass of small business men and of people living upon the interest of their capitals is precipitated into the ranks of the working class…. Thus the forest of outstretched arms, begging for work, grows ever thicker, while the arms themselves grow every leaner…

Thus, as Mark sees it, the more powerful and productive new workers become, the more dominated and exploited workers become. :Workers become not men but fragments of men: hands, no more than appendages to the machine. And working to make things becomes not a source of joy at accomplishment but into an alienated torment:

We saw in Part IV, when analysing the production of relative surplus-value, that within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productivity of labour are put into effect at the cost of the individual worker; that all means for the development of production undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become means of domination and exploitation of the producers; they distort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, they destroy the actual content of his labour by turning it into a torment; they alienate…

In Marx’s analytical framework, wealth, productivity, and misery all grow together. Greater productivity produces greater wealth. And then greater wealth produces greater misery, because under capitalism wealth is used to dominate and, if the capitalist is going to survive, he must use his power to dominate to push down wages and worsen working conditions so that he can not consume but invest his profits to produce an even greater scale of production and even greater productivity:

In proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse. Finally, the law which always holds the relative surplus population or industrial reserve army in equilibrium with the extent and energy of accumulation rivets the worker to capital more firmly than the wedges of Hephaestus held Prometheus to the rock. It makes an accumulation of misery a necessary condition, corresponding to the accumulation of wealth. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalization and moral degradation at the opposite pole, i.e. on the side of the class that produces its own product as capital...

What is going to bring an end to this mad process?

Here the full files are—unfinished: https://www.icloud.com/pages/0howtV7CndvjkSCCLmtjmq_SA

And the course slides:


#books #highlighted #history #historyofeconomicthought #moralphilosophy #politicaleconomy #2019-12-05