Why Everything Costs Money Part 7
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
[Capital Volume I, Chapters 10-11, pgs. 340-426 of Penguin Press]
Marx for folks who aren’t trying to read 900 damn pages, by someone who has nothing better to do.
Part 7 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 8.
Chapter 10: The Working Day
The rate of surplus value only tells us the ratio of necessary labor to surplus labor. That is: if the rate of surplus value is 50%, that tells us that workers spend equal parts of their day on each, half and half. But that could be true on any shift length we could imagine: if they worked in 2 hours per day (1 hour necessary, 1 hour surplus) or 16 hours per day (8 hour necessary, 8 hour surplus). Then, nothing we find out about the rate of surplus value will tell us how long the working day will be. (340-341)
But there are limits: it probably wouldn’t be possible to work a 24 hour shift. Long shifts with insufficient breaks or days off will also eventually catch up with the worker. Work takes physical and emotional resources that will run out, and have to be replenished over time (reproduced). Trying to make the working day too long will deplete a worker’s labor power over time, but capitalists may push for it anyway to get more bang for their buck. In a capitalist system, the worker has a political right to guard the value of their commodity (labor power) over the long term, which means pushing for a shorter work day. But the capitalist has a political right to guard the value of their capital (again, this a context to read this as “means of production”) – which is, after all, “dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor”(342) – since capital is only productive if workers use it to make shit the capitalist can sell. That means pushing for a longer working day.
There’s a conflict, a “struggle” between these competing desires. Marx makes an announcement that is probably important for our discussions of what dude was getting at in our earlier discussions about political equality in part 1 and part 4: “Between equal rights, force decides.” The sides in this “protracted and more or less concealed civil war”(412) are “collective capital, i.e. the class of capitalists” and “collective labour, i.e. the working class”. (analysis from 341-344, quotes from 344 and 412.)
“Capital did not invent surplus labor”(344). Whenever there’s a group of people in a society can control access to the means of production, somebody’s gonna have to do surplus labor. But in societies where use-value explains how and why commodities get produced (like the corn and wine farmers’ in part 4), there’s usually a limit to how much over-work is produced. The master, the baron, or the lord only can drink so many glasses of milk, and only eats so many meals per day – once these jobs are done, the enslaved or indentured can get on to the business of their own lives, to whatever extent is possible in their political systems(346).
But in societies where exchange value explains how and why commodities get produced, the desires of the entire world are at issue when the master or capitalist decides how many commodities to produce. In a world market dominated by the capitalist mode of production, that means global market movements will decide whether or not people will literally be worked to death: Marx’s chief example for this early on is the differences in the living conditions of enslaved Africans in the American south after cotton became a chief export of Southern states (344-347). Here, like in the West Indies and Cuba (Marx discusses this in 377), a deliberate strategy of working these people to death in the West Indies and Cuba followed from a calculation about how much it cost to replace enslaved Africans vs. how much extra exchange value could be produced by forcing them to work until it literally killed them. Marx discusses the mathematical rationale behind this cold-ass reasoning in Chapter 12 (pages 430-432) but we’ll get there in Part 8.
Marx spends much of the rest of this chapter discussing historical and (for him) contemporary examples of struggle over working days and working hours. He includes feudal labor for lords of territory in the “Danubian principalities”, English and Irish industrial labor and child labor and their predictably horrific effects on physical health (life expectancy, chronic pain and illnesses, etc). A grab bag of interesting anecdotes:
- An example is given of a town that held a town hall on the question of whether to diminish working days to 18 hours (353)
- Discusses the death of Mary Anne Walkley, employed by a dressmaking establishment owned or managed by a noble woman identified only as “Elise”, who worked 26.5 uninterrupted hours to make new dresses for a ball to welcome the Princess of Wales (364)
- Child labor discussion includes boys as young as 9 working 12 hour night shifts in England (371-373).
- “Capital therefore takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker, unless society forces it to do so. Its answer to the outcry about the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, is this: Should that pain trouble us, since it increases our pleasure (profit)? But looking at these things as a whole, it is evident that this does not depend on the will, either good or bad, of the individual capitalist. Under free competition, the immanent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him.
The establishment of a normal working day is the result of centuries of struggle between the capitalist and the worker.” (381). Marx thinks that struggle naturally takes a hot minute: the statutory limit on child labor in Massachusetts (“freest state of the North American republic” ) established near the time Marx wrote Capital, the mid 1800s, was the same length as the normal working day of able bodied skilled workers in England in the mid-1600s. (383)
- Decades of resistance by the English working class resulted in nominal reforms and legislative traps for the working class (five “Labour Laws” between 1802-1833, three Factory Acts from 1833-1847, ) which provided nominal restrictions to working hours based on gender and age but were subverted by underfunding of enforcement mechanisms, legal challenges by capitalists, and on occasion responded to by mass layoffs. (389-416)
- On the other side of the Atlantic: “In the United States of America, every independent workers’ movement was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin. However, a new life immediately arose from the death of slavery. The first fruit of the American Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation…” Marx is referring to 1866 agitation for an eight hour legal working day, advocated for by the General Congress of Labor in Baltimore and the International Working Men’s Association in Geneva. (414-415, hey how many hours is a 9 to 5 again?)
but hey, capitalism also gave us iPhones! So, like, that’s pretty cool right? (#capitalistsbelike #worthit #sorrynotsorry)
Chapter 11: The Rate and Mass of Surplus Value
Another deceptively short chapter (rule of thumb for the Capital Volumes: if Marx ever takes less than 20 pages to say something, you should get worried). In this chapter Marx gives us equations to calculate the rate (how fast) and mass (how much) of surplus value cause math is cool.
S = (s/v) * V = P * (a’/a) * n
The characters, in order of appearance
S = mass of surplus value
s = surplus value supplied by an average worker in a period of time (Marx uses day, why not?)
note: the length of the work day will be important for determining this value. Think about it for a sec)
v = one individual’s labor power
V = sum total of variable capital
P = the value of an average worker’s labor power
a’ = surplus labor
a = necessary labor
n = how many
This is just a precise way of saying what the relationships are between the concepts. For example, putting all these concepts this way, we can just visually see what will happen to one variable if there’s a change in another and we hold all the other variables constant. Don’t get too carried away with the math though, it can only do so much. Three “laws” as Marx puts it, or things to remember based on this math:
- The supply of labor exploitable by capital is independent of the supply of workers.
The math equation here also lays out (mathsily) the strategies that capitalists can use. I just got done saying in the abstract that we could see what will happen to one variable if there’s a change in one of the others. Let’s keep in mind what these variables mean so that we can make this concrete.
Example: A fall in the rate of surplus value (s) would, all things being equal, make the mass of surplus value decrease. The rate of surplus value is a ratio of surplus labor to necessary labor. One scenario where s would fall is if the work day hours decrease: say it takes 4 hours for a cotton spinner to produce the amount of value that corresponds to producing their daily labor power (necessary labor). If the daily working time is 12 hours shifts, then 8 of those hours are surplus labor (12-4). Then, the s value is 8/4, or 2.
If laws change to decrease the working day to 8 hour shifts, the amount of labor time it takes to replace a worker’s labor power would remain the same, since it is not (directly) based on the amount of surplus value made for capitalists. But the amount of hours left to produce extra surplus value for the capitalist would be squeezed to only four. The new s value is 4/4, or 1. That’s half of the old rate.
The capitalist wanting to maintain the previous mass (S) of surplus value could respond by doing changing one of the other variables. Cutting s in half, all other things being equal, decreases the amount of S. Doubling the variable capital spent per day (V) would counteract that: for example, doubling the amount of workers paid on a given day (think about hiring of temp workers or day laborers, since we haven’t said anything about long term contracts or health benefits). Since S represents the mass of surplus value or the amount of abstract surplus labor, this strategy maintains it: individual workers are exploited half as much as before (measured in labor time), but twice as many of them are in the factory to be exploited.
- “The total value a worker can produce, day in, day out, is always less than the value in which 24 hours of labor are objectified.” (419)
This one’s obvious enough: don’t get carried away with the math, and think that because we’ve averaged daily labor power it’s just going to work for any values that we can plug-in to the equations. There’s only 24 hours in a day and people need to spend some of them resting (pour some out for Mary Anne Walkley).
- In the short term, the mass of labor power (S) is exclusively dependent on the mass of labor he employs.
Marx doesn’t himself say “in the short term” but that’s more or less what’s going on. The other determinants of S are mostly matters of policy and the given level of technology and organization a corporation has: the length of the working day, and the limit of what proportion of it is necessary labor as opposed to surplus labor. It takes a while to lobby even a bought Parliament or Congress, a while longer to get legislation on the books, maybe years. In time periods shorter than that, the main way a capitalist can decide how much surplus value they’re going to get is by deciding how many shifts of labor to pay wages for. (420)
Marx cautions us about one of the further implications of the law based on some of the other discussions: “This law clearly contradicts all experience based on immediate appearances” (421). After some satisfying shade at famous British economist David Ricardo (and shoutouts to that fuckboy Hegel and my nigga Spinoza). But despite teasing us with a promissory footnote, it doesn’t look like he gets around to explaining the more complicated version in this book at all. But the Penguin edition has a footnote that kinda helps but doesn’t fully explain shit. So I put down the version of the law that looks like it’s going to be the least involved to explain, but if folks are really heated about this third law holler and maybe I can get into the details of the problems on these pages. (420-421)
Speaking of fuckboys, one last observation of interest in this crowd. The ethics nerds in the crowd might think of Kant when Marx says some shit in German that gets translated as this: “If we consider the process of production from the point of view of the simple labour-process, the worker is related to the means of production, not in their quality as capital, but as being the mere means and material of his own productive activity…But it is different as soon as we view the production process as a process of valorization. The means of production are at once changed into means for the absorption of the labour of others. It is no longer the worker who employs the means of production, but the means of production which employ the worker. Instead of being consumed by him as material elements of his productive activity, they consume him…” (425-426). Kant’s famous book on ethical theory, the Groundwork, he says that about how you definitely shouldn’t ever treat someone as a mere means but you also gotta treat folks as an end in themselves, now and forever.
This is a “categorical imperative”, which is a sort of absolutist position: things that violate this categorical imperative shouldn’t be done no matter what the consequences would be. (Kant’s book was published in the eighteenth century and niggas still argue over exactly what that means, so stay tf out my DMs with complaints about this summary).
Point is: if you think that the positions of the worker and the means of production are exactly reversed when the production process itself produces value (as is a defining feature of the capitalist mode of production) then the worker becomes the mere means for capitalism. That violates Mannie Fresh Kant’s super-ultra rule. So if you think his megazord rule is a thing at all then there are a bunch of interesting questions about whether a society’s mode of production is the sort of thing that could violate that rule, and, if so, what the moral status of actions done in a society ruled by that mode of production are. But that’s it for now.
Continue to Part 8.