Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
Why Everything Costs Money Part 12
[Capital Volume I, Chapters 23-24, pgs. 708-761 of Penguin Press]
Marx for folks who aren’t trying to read 900 damn pages, by someone who has nothing better to do.
Part 12 of an ongoing series of posts going through Capital Volume 1. See a full introduction to this series here, get caught up with part 1 here, and access free electronic copies of Capital Volume 1 here or here. Continue to Part 13.
This is the beginning of a part Marx labels “The Process of Accumulation of Capital”. There’s a two-page, unlabeled introduction to this section before the beat drops, where Marx reviews some stuff he’s already said, including some of the working assumptions. We can skip to chapter 23. What matters about these chapters is that we’re finally talking squarely about accumulation, which is an important concept.
Chapter 23: Simple Reproduction
“A society can no more cease to produce than it can cease to consume. When viewed, therefore, as a connected whole…every social process of production is at the same time a process of reproduction.”
Basically, for a society to keep going, it’s gotta make the stuff and do the work it needs to survive, whether it’s capitalist or not. Every production process needs to not only produce plantains or machetes, but also the ability to keep making plantains and machetes - replacing broken tools, helping the workers and capitalists who are in the plantain and machete business alive and replenishing their labor power. The survival work and stuff are parts of “reproduction”, basically creating the conditions for future production. We started talking about this re: Silvia Federici.
But if this process keeps going and going and going into the future, did it keep going and going into the past? Or did it have a starting point? Remember, the capitalist is the person who already has either the means of subsistence themselves (food, water, shelter) or the money to buy them with – that’s the only reason why he can afford to wait around for factory workers to make products and to find buyers for them. For that to have started – for capitalism to have started – it makes sense for the capitalists to have just ended up with a lump of money or the means of subsistence even before capitalist wage labor. Let’s call this primitive accumulation (714), and remember this cause it matters.
Anyways: it’s important to think about reproduction because the fact that a process is one part of a sequence gives it characteristics that a one-off process wouldn’t have (712). The production process converts material wealth into capital: it turns factories and tractors into the capitalist’s Jordans and pocket squares. The worker who enters into a production power has sold her labor power to the capitalist, which means it’s no longer hers while she’s working – her labor power, too, gets converted into capital. Because of the power dynamics created by these repeated processes, everything goes sideways: the “means of subsistence purchase human beings” and the “means of production…employ the people who are doing the producing”…”the working class, even when it stands outside the direct labour process, is just as much an appendage of capital as the lifeless instruments of labour are” (716). Marx seems to mean that the objective laws of motion of capital don’t work because this or that dude with a factory decides to buy hours of people’s lives with money, but they work because a society as a whole does them repetitively. But what this ends up meaning is that the process controls the people’s decisions, rather than the people controlling the processes.
Chapter 24: The Transformation of Surplus Value into Capital
How do you stack paper? You put paper on top of other paper – you literally use money as a physical foundation for more paper. Same thing for capital: “the employment of surplus value” (value the capitalist has already jacked from workers) as capital, or reconverting it into (more) capital, is the accumulation of capital. When Marx talks about “advancing” capital, this is what he means – putting money into means of production (new raw material or machines) or workers (wages, hiring) now in anticipation of the money he’ll get from them later.
Say a capitalist is getting workers to spin cotton into yarn, and makes 240,000 lb of yarn a year. When we calculate how much of that labor time of that yarn belongs to capital and necessary labor and all that good shit, we find that dude has a value-product (surplus value measured in commodities) of 40,000 pounds of yarn. He already has the surplus value when he has the yarn, but unless he has hella grandkids and is real nice with sewing yarn onesies for kids, the value product probably isn’t the form he wants the surplus value to be in. So he sells it for its value: let’s say its worth $2000. What’s he gonna do with it – just spend it all on consumption? If he did that, where’s the accumulation?
Don’t get me wrong, he’s gonna spend some of it on lobster and Timbs (because if you can’t floss on these haters what’s the point of oppression)? But he’s also going to replace any broken down tools so that he can keep making cotton next year. That’s reproduction. He’s also going to want more: he’ll hire some more workers, buy more spindles, on top of what he replaced so that next year he can get even more surplus value. The surplus value that was a shitload of yarn became money, which then became more workers and machines, which will become yet more surplus value.
Guess what he’s gonna do with next year’s surplus value?
Don't stop till you get - uh, just don't stop
This repetitive pattern and cycle of conversions essentially goes like this: surplus value-product (cotton) -> surplus value in money ($ from sale of cotton) -> capital and wage payments in anticipation of future surplus value product. We could rewrite as one of our basic formulas for capitalist production from part 3, C -> M -> C’ if we were sure that the investments in capital and wages would end up producing more cotton. That’s how surplus value becomes capital.
Continue to Part 13.