Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
Why Everything Costs Money Part 8
[Capital Volume I, Chapters 12-14, pgs. 428-491 of Penguin Press]
Marx for folks who aren’t trying to read 900 damn pages, by someone who has nothing better to do.
Part 8 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 9.
Chapter 12: The Concept of Relative Surplus-Value
So far we’ve observed that the amount of necessary labor, the amount of daily labor that will produce enough value to reproduce a worker’s daily labor power, doesn’t depend on the capitalist’s decisions. Since the exploitation rate s is a ratio of surplus labor to necessary labor, the only thing left that can change it is the amount of daily surplus labor: the other hours they are working. So we assumed that the change to the rate of surplus value would come from the length of the total working day.
But that would be to give capitalists too much credit. After all: show me an amount of money capitalists can have and I’ll show you an amount they want more than. What if there was a way to increase the amount of time workers spend on surplus labor? So far, we’ve also been assuming that wages are paid at the level of the workers’ exchange-value (what it costs to replenish their labor power). But if workers wages were even less than that, that would translate functionally into more surplus for the capitalist. This wouldn’t be consequence free: if workers aren’t given enough wages to replenish their labor power, they just won’t – their labor power will decrease over time. This is the theoretical half of the lengthy chapter 10 discussion of the increasingly ill and disabled workers of the English and Irish working classes. And, though Marx doesn’t initially draw this comparison himself and really should have, this reasoning would explains how surplus value was stolen from enslaved Africans and indigenous peoples in the Americas, if we replace ‘wages’ with something more general ‘costs spent on workers’. (429-431)
The surplus value created by directly manipulating how much time is spent on necessary labor and how much is spent on surplus labor is relative surplus value. The surplus value made the other way, by lengthening the working day, is absolute surplus value. (432)
Example. A capitalist can squeeze out a bit more surplus value in the short term by forcing workers to be more productive than they’d otherwise be. Say Mr. Rhodes forces workers who were making 12 shirts in a working day to double it, making 24 shirts, but without increasing their pay. Since the value of a commodity is based on the average labor time needed to make them from the view of the whole society, it doesn’t change based on the extraordinary efforts of one small group of workers. Then, the labor time put into that working day still corresponds to 12 shirts worth of value, but is spread over 24 shirts, making each of them individually half as valuable as shirts produced under average working conditions.
But the market price for shirts is, like their objective social value, based on the whole economy and not this particular factory’s working conditions: say, $10 each. So even though the workers make shirts that are half as valuable, since people’s expectations about shirt prices are mostly based on shirts with twice as much labor time put into them, the capitalist might be able to sell the shirts for $6 each rather than $5 each as we might have guessed based on labor-time. So before the capitalist cracks the whip, they’d sell 12 shirts for $10 each and make $120. But under this new strategy, they sell 24 shirts for $6 each and make $144. The extra $24 bucks is the relative surplus value. (think: sweatshops)
Chapter 13: Co-Operation
Marx finally addresses the complications about average individual labor power. Some people are stronger than others, some are more coordinated, more handy, more motivated, etc. These differences might translate into differences in labor power and productivity: maybe Tunde can consistently harvest more plantains per working day than Siobhan can. And, that aside, neither of them are exactly average – maybe Tunde is a bit more productive than the average worker and Siobhan a bit less, or maybe they are both less productive than average but Tunde is closer to the average than Siobhan, etc etc. Why, then, to make our calculations and predictions based on a uniform standard of average labor power and average productivity?
Marx thinks these differences wash out when you’ve got enough people. He quotes Edmund Burke, a former farmer, as saying that “in so small a platoon’ as that of five farm labourers, all individual differences in the labour vanish, and that consequently any given five adult farm labourers taken together will do as much work in the same time as any other five.” (439-441)
Marx also defines co-operation: “When numerous workers work together side by side in accordance with a plan, whether in the same process, or in different but connected processes”. (443) This setup increases the individual efficiency of each worker, and then the amount of use-values that these workers can make as a group. (445-447)
As capitalism develops, capitalists increasingly escape different kinds of work. Having enough to avoid having to work for one’s means of subsistence is already a basic requirement of being a capitalist (we figured out why in part 4). But, if they can afford it, they can also offload the job of “direct and constant supervision” of the group of co-operating workers to a special group of workers: managers, foremen, overseers. (450)
i.e. THIS motherfucker
Chapter 14: The Division of Labor and Manufacture
Marx thinks that a classical form of co-operation based on division of labor emerged in the manufacturing period, from the middle of the 1500s to the end of the 1700s. It developed in two, opposite ways. One way was through a capitalist assembling all the craftspeople needed to make the commodity in one factory. Say the capitalist is in the carriage business: then they get together all the wheelwrights, tailors, upholsterers, etc, and have everyone work on their part of the carriage at the relevant stage of finished-ness. The other way is when a capitalist employs all the craftsfolk that do the same kind of work – say a capitalist in the make carriage wheels business. The wheelmaking trade becomes more standardized and complicated, since you’ve got to make a bunch of these that predictably fit carriage bodies someone else is making (and a shit ton of them because capitalists gon capitalist), and some other capitalist’s job is to put those wheels on carriage bodies. Either way you slice it, manufacture represents a combination of various, previously independent trades that now become economically dependent on each other. (455-456)
The standardization, complication, and specialization of each step in the manufacturing process makes workers work differently. If a craftsperson were to do all of the parts of the production process for, say, a watch, they’d have to switch tools, maybe even positions in the factory – all of this is lost co-operative time from the capitalist’s perspective. Better to just get a person that sits in one place and uses the same tools to make the exact same part for all of the watches. Instead of watch makers, we get specializations for each component part of a watch: mainspring makers, dial makers, screw makers, ruby lever makers, all of whom were probably talking shit about how nice their watch part-making game is. (460-462).
The assembly lines of locomotive production – at that time, made from 5000 different parts – show how deep that rabbit hole can go, once manufacturing industries get large enough in scale. Co-operation at this scale and complexity fashions individual specialized workers into a collective worker, itself an item of machinery. (468)
Since there are differences in the functions performed by the collective worker, the “organs” of this worker, the parts that make them up, require different training and can possess different values. Then, manufacturing leads to a hierarchy of labor-powers and that’s matched to a hierarchy of wages. Though the specific positions on the hierarchy will depend on the industry, Marx thinks the general distinction between “skilled” and “unskilled” workers also comes from this same place. Semi-commentary: Marx also compares this to the family or “tribe” where division of labor results “naturally” from the “purely physiological” differences of sex and age. I’d guess that this is considered an uncool kind of thing to say today but is worth pointing out anyway, as a reminder of what some going background assumptions were. (469-470)
A couple interesting things in this chapter. Marx gives a fairly detailed description of his view on “ancient Indian” (i.e. South Asia, not North America) communities’ social organization around caste, though Marx doesn’t use the word “caste” specifically. These economic relationships, and the communities built around them, were stable even in the face of the constantly dissolving and reforming political states surrounding them (whether this seems like a pro or a con to you might depend on what caste you imagine yourself in!). Marx thinks capitalism makes this kind of division of labor impossible in manufacture, since the division of labor in communities like this involves maybe 2 or 3 people in a particular role, and the scale of manufacturing calls for lots and lots of specialists. (478-479)
One more thing: Marx starts to say some incredibly provocative shit in this chapter: “The colonial system and the extension of the world market, both of which form part of the general conditions for the existence of the manufacturing period, furnish us with rich materials for displaying… how division of labour seizes upon, not only the economic, but every other sphere of society” and also “The foundation of every division of labor which has attained a certain degree of development...is the separation of town from country. One might well say that the whole economic history of society is summed up in the movement of this antithesis.” I was ready. I was like:
Continue to Part 9.