This story supports a group reading of Karl Marx’s Capital Vol 1. This covers chapters 11-14.
We can use Charlotte Bronte’s novel Shirley to introduce Marx’s labor theory of value as the Luddites in that novel are a threat to the success of a capitalist but are also about the social relations of production in Marx’s Capital.
“What these fellows have done to others they may do to me. There is only this difference: most of the manufacturers seem paralyzed when they are attacked. Sykes, for instance, when his dressing-shop was set on fire and burned to the ground, when the cloth was torn from his tenters and left in shreds in the field, took no steps to discover or punish the miscreants: he gave up as tamely as a rabbit under the jaws of a ferret. Now I, if I know myself, should stand by my trade, my mill, and my machinery.”
Technical progress and its effects on the 19th Century British economy are about labor saving, but are also about the relations between workers and capitalists, even if Bronte never discusses surplus value. Any possible contact between Marx and Bronte would stretch credulity even if they both attended the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition.
Bronte’s character “Robert Gérard Moore is an industrialist whose textile mill is idle because of the war. He installs new labour-saving machinery in his mill and becomes the target of Luddite attacks.” This is a conventional context more for the fictional romances than the labor strife of the industrial revolution, but it does frame the class struggle even as the resistance of workers is secondary. The more important elements for Marx will be cooperation, manufacture, and machine production. Bronte gives us a glimpse from a specific class perspective.
it remains a fact that the working class produces a surplus product about which it has no say.
Marx categorizes the changes in social production broadly into two categories: those increasing absolute surplus value by extracting more labor from workers without changing the wage and those increasing relative surplus value through lowering the value of labor-power by reducing the cost of workers’ consumption. The innovations that promote relative surplus value are connected with the fundamental tendency of capitalism to promote technical changes
(Duncan Foley p. 61)
The counterfactual example could be located in the usual business argument that there’s a market demand for a product and that scarcity happens spatially and temporally (I want it now), premised in invisible hand(s).
Recall that 20 yards of linen does not equal 40 acres and a mule, but the problem remains for the casual reader that hypothetically that you could represent this equivalency in terms of “price” and “value” in a situation of market scarcity. There are economies of scale once a process is standardized and the sizing/patterns created for linen coats (darn widgets), then there’s the possibility of ancillary costs.
The relative value-expression returns at this point to its original form: 1 coat = 20 yards of linen. Now, however, this simple equation is further developed. Originally it only contained the fact that the value of the coat obtains through its expression in another commodity a form which is different from and independent of the exchange-value coat or even the body of the coat.
Instead of the equation, 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, we should have 20 yards of linen = 2 coats, since 1 coat would now contain only half the labour time embodied in 20 yards of linen. If, on the other hand, in consequence, say, of improved looms, this labour time be reduced by one-half, the value of the linen would fall by one-half.
It's true, twenty yards of linen can make more like five coats. But, back in the mid-19th century when philosophers and economists were trying to make sense of emergent capitalism, industrialization, urbanization, and social change, Karl Marx wrote this book called “Capital”.
20 yards of linen = 1 coat” is repeated throughout the first chapter of Capital vol. 1 to explain how commodities gain both use value (coats keep us warm), and exchange value (20 yards of linen can be exchanged for 1 coat, or is worth the equivalent in money value). The exchange value represents the labour time embedded in the commodities; however, exchanging goods can obscure the social relations and human labour behind the commodities. Marx called this “commodity fetishism”.
Why get all Marxist in my blog title about sewing and crafts?
I love that the online community of people who sew, refer to themselves as “sewcialists”. It’s obviously word play with “social”, but it also got me thinking about socialists, Marxist theory and what that has to do with sewing. Both in Marx’s day and now, textile mills and clothing factories were and are especially exploitative places to work. Marx’s linen and coat exchange remains a salient example of how we can become so removed from the people who make our clothes (and other sewn commodities). When I buy clothes it looks like a relation between my credit card and a coat, not me and the person who sewed the coat (packed it, shipped it, etc), even though it really is a human relation (because only in Tom Robbins novels do objects act on their own accord). One of the reasons why certain economic exchanges are continually exploitative is because they appear as relations between things instead of people, and thus we distance ourselves from responsibility to others involved in the production of things we consume.
For close to a century, anarchists have united under the banner of the Anarchist Black Cross for the sole purpose of supporting those comrades imprisoned for their commitment to revolution and to the ideas of anarchism. Who would have suspected that a few men supplying boots, linen, and clothing to deportees in Bialostock would have been the meager beginnings of an organization that has spread throughout the globe? (Yelensky, Boris. The Struggle For Equality. pg 22)
This example allows us to think about conditions of the working day of footnote 149 in Capital Chapter 10.
“Cooling” is the technical expression for their occasional escape from the drying-rooms into the fresh air. “Fifteen girls in stoves. Heat from 80° to 90° for linens, and 100° and upwards for cambrics. Twelve girls ironing and doing-up in a small room about 10 feet square, in the centre of which is a close stove.
-(Marx Chapter 10)
In chapter 11 and 12 the contrast is built from chapter 10’s discussion of the limits of the working day which get more complex as one considers the gender divisions of labor and the use of child labor versus the bargaining over the length of the working day. What becomes more contentious is the rate of surplus value.
In the relative surplus value calculation,, scales of economy that compare labor needed and labor time or new methods, affects the value production in that it changes the working day is divided between surplus value and wages or between unpaid and paid labor time. Increases in labor productivity will affect real wages (and consumption) of workers. This accumulation also means that in the early 20th C. new mass markets for consumption of products (durables like cars and appliances), see Fordism.
An example will show, in conclusion, how this sophistication, peculiar to and characteristic of capitalist production, this complete inversion of the relation between dead and living labour, between value and the force that creates value, mirrors itself in the consciousness of capitalists. During the revolt of the English factory lords between 1848 and 1850, “the head of one of the oldest and most respectable houses in the West of Scotland, Messrs. Carlile Sons & Co., of the linen and cotton thread factory at Paisley, a company which has now existed for about a century, which was in operation in 1752, and four generations of the same family have conducted it” … this “very intelligent gentleman” then wrote a letter in the Glasgow Daily Mail of April 25th, 1849, with the title, “The relay system,” in which among other things the following grotesquely naïve passage occurs: “Let us now … see what evils will attend the limiting to 10 hours the working of the factory…. They amount to the most serious damage to the millowner's prospects and property. If he (i.e., his “hands”) worked 12 hours before,and is limited to 10, then every 12 machines or spindles in his establishment shrink to 10, and should the works be disposed of, they will be valued only as 10, so that a sixth part would thus be deducted from the value of every factory in the country.”
In chapter 12 are both the algebra and the empirical examples that distinguish between necessary and surplus labor-time, one measure of labor power. The point of all this is to show empirically, that “the capitalist, because he has his eye on surplus value, cannot afford to pay attention to the effects of the labor process on the workers as human beings.” This gets us to those Dickensian images of 19th C labor conflicts and the corresponding interest in capitalist interests in controlling the work of labor. (Foley p.58)
There would be an alteration, not in the length of the working-day, but in its division into necessary labor-time and surplus labor-time. The underlying problem introduced in Chapter 12 is the issue of technical progress.
Technical progress lowers the value of commodities by reducing the amount of social labor needed to produce them. After a technical change, a given amount of social labor produces the same amount of value even as the amount of time expended can produce more use values. Marx explains this by suggesting that technical progress has some effect on standards of living and/or the value of labor-power. In this instance, three things get affected: “a rise in the rate of surplus value as a result of a fall in the value of labor power”. The subsequent fall in the composition of capital leads to a lower mark-up. (Foley p.55-7)
This is the regular #WeeklyMarx summary:
This chapter examines legislation to limit the working day as the site of socio-economic struggle behind the political expression of law and identifies it as class struggle between workers and capitalists. By the end of the chapter, Marx has shown how working class consciousness has been shaped through this process from the individual worker selling labor as a commodity in the market now to a collective struggle workers waged to limit unrestricted exploitation of surplus labor by capitalists in the industrial factory system. Opposition to extensions of the working day started as exceptions in the industries earliest transformed by the capitalist mode of production (textiles) before becoming generalized as the mode of production and exploitation expanded to other industries like pottery, glass-making, baking…The isolated worker necessarily succumbs “without resistance once capitalist production has reached a certain stage of maturity.” Freedom and liberty has no actual meaning for the worker in this system, but liberal political economy occludes the “protracted and more or less concealed civil war between the capitalist class and the working class.” Class struggle! Marx turns to the international context to document how France and the US, once slavery was abolished, likewise followed England in workers collective resistance to the extension of the working day. The worker is now transformed and realizes that the capitalist “vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” Workers must act collectively to prevent from “selling themselves and their families into slavery and death by voluntary contract with capital.” A new Magna Carta has been born in the struggle to limit the working day.
Chp. 11 The Rate and Mass of Surplus-Value: The rate of exploitation and the number of workers involved allow Marx to discuss overall parameters of total social value and to identify the critique of several laws of political economy. Those needn’t concern us too much here as he develops the points further later in Capital. One very interesting point however relates to how the capitalist differs from a master craftsman in the guild system that imposed limits on the number of apprentices and journeymen that could be employed. As Marx points out, Hegel articulated that “at a certain point merely quantitative differences pass over by a dialectical inversion into qualitative distinctions.” With enough workers, the capitalist dedicates all time to overseeing the labor process and the sale of its products rather than participating in any aspect of productive labor. Capital is coercive and capitalism exceeds all other modes of production in its “unbounded and ruthless activity.” This transforms through the process of valorization the worker into a kind of instrument that reverses the process uniquely in the capitalist mode of production: “It is no longer the worker who employs the means of production but the means of production that employs the worker.”Chp 12 The Concept of Relative Surplus-Value: Here Marx investigates how the productivity of labour can be achieved within the terms of the commodity exchange system in the capitalist mode of production. No cheating in theory though of course, he says, this happens routinely in practice! This is political economy so the full value is presumed to be paid for the commodity. But what happens when an alteration in the labour process shortens the socially necessary labour time for producing a commodity? Capital seeks to achieve exactly this (especially when restricted by nasty government regulation that limits the working day’s length). It attempts to revolutionize the labour process to extract greater value from the labour power purchased. In contrast to absolute surplus-value that consists in the extension of the working day,Marx terms the surplus-value derived from this increase in productivity relative surplus-value. Marx does not want to psychologize about the motives and intentions of individual capitalists but to examine the effects and consequences of the system’s operation by paying attention to the “inner nature of capital” rather than its “forms of appearance.” He finds that the capitalist has a motive to cheapen his commodities by increasing the productivity of labour under any theoretical circumstance. The race to the bottom begins. And it is a competitive race!“Capital therefore has an immanent drive, and a constant tendency, toward increasing the productivity of labour, in order to cheapen commodities and, by cheapening commodities, to cheapen the worker himself.” Lower consumer prices simply defrauds the workers.Marx will turn now to the many ways of producing relative surplus-value. We have a very special guest #WeeklyMarx summarizer next week for Chapter 13 on Co-Operation—watch for an update later this week. Keep reading, comrades!
On the one hand, co-operation allows of the work being carried on over an extended space; it is consequently imperatively called for in certain undertakings, such as draining, constructing dykes, irrigation works, and the making of canals, roads and railways. On the other hand, while extending the scale of production, it renders possible a relative contraction of the arena. This contraction of arena simultaneous with, and arising from, extension of scale, whereby a number of useless expenses are cut down, is owing to the conglomeration of labourers, to the aggregation of various processes, and to the concentration of the means of production.
The work of supervision becomes their established and exclusive function. When comparing the mode of production of isolated peasants and artisans with production by slave-labour, the political economist counts this labour of superintendence among the faux frais of production. But, when considering the capitalist mode of production, he, on the contrary, treats the work of control made necessary by the co-operative character of the labour-process as identical with the different work of control, necessitated by the capitalist character of that process and the antagonism of interests between capitalist and labourer. It is not because he is a leader of industry that a man is a capitalist; on the contrary, he is a leader of industry because he is a capitalist. The leadership of industry is an attribute of capital, just as in feudal times the functions of general and judge, were attributes of landed property.
– (Marx chapter 13)
Professor Makoto Itoh comments: “Unlike pure circulation costs such as bookkeeping and advertising costs which are faux frais specific only to a commodity economy, some portions of the costs of storage and transport belong substantially to production processes that are continued in the circulation sphere, and therefore add to the substance of value and surplus-value just as production costs. The rest of the costs of storage and transport, together with pure circulation costs, proceed from the mere change in the form of value, and cannot enter into the substance of value of commodities. Such circulation costs are faux frais which must be maintained by a part of surplus value.” (Makoto Itoh, The Basic Theory of Capitalism, Barnes & Noble 1988, p. 227).
Marx’s concern will remain about the social nature of the production process especially with the population of workers.
“Economy in the use of the means of production has to be considered under two aspects. First, as cheapening commodities, and thereby bringing about a fall in the value of labour-power. Secondly, as altering the ratio of the surplus-value to the total capital advanced, i.e., to the sum of the values of the constant and variable capital.” (Marx)
John Roemer concerns himself in interpreting the distribution of justice that is often assumed as the difference between collective/cooperative ownership and the individual alienation that comes from exploitation. Consensus remains contentious for interpreters of Marx, reminding us that the power and influence of monopoly capital and an expanded role for finance capital have become more sophisticated since he tried to explicate the role of socially necessary, embodied labor into a political economic critique.
Capitalism is unique, however, in engendering a consciousness among the working class that induces its members to abolish private property in the means of production when the revolutionary point comes, rather than replacing capitalism with some new form of private property in productive assets. Under socialism, these assets would be collectively owned by all producers, and the economic surplus, which in previous modes had been appropriated by the small class of exploiters, would be collectively owned. (G.A. Cohen)
The second theory Marx propounded, of great influence, was the theory of exploitation under capitalism. Marx motivates the need for such a theory by observing that in slave and feudal modes of production, there is no mystery as to the source of the economic surplus and its acquisition by a small class of slave owners or feudal lords and royalty. Direct military and police suppression of slaves and serfs enabled the lords to appropriate the surplus, leaving only a subsistence consumption for the producers. But capitalism is different: nobody forces the worker to sell his labor power to the capitalist;labor power is traded on a competitive market (at least in the ideal form). Because the system is based upon voluntary trade, with de jure personal freedom, it is somewhat of a mystery how vast wealth accumulates in the hands of a small class, while the direct producers remain impoverished. Marx proposed the theory of exploitation to solve the mystery.
That theory explained the mechanism with which capitalism accomplished the sleight-of-hand of concentrating the economic surplus in the hands of a small class of capitalists, under conditions of personal freedom, and freedom to contract, and the theory of historical materialism conjectured that class society would be eliminated, once and for all, when capitalist property relations became a fetter on the further development of the ‘productive forces.’ As is well known, Marx wrote almost nothing about socialism, and it was left for later Marxists to formulate the details of how the economy would be organized after the revolution.
Socialism, as propounded by Marx, was still, in large part, motivated by an ethical condemnation of capitalism, before it was established in any state. ( I say ‘still’ because there were socialist theorists before Marx including Fourier, Blanqui, Proudon and perhaps Rousseau, who condemned capitalism on an ethical basis. ) Thus, with capitalism we have a precise definition in terms of property relations and markets, with a largely ex post ethical justification, while with socialism we have primarily an ethical justification with no consensus upon the economic mechanism.
As we will see the concept of surplus value has a variety of interlocking meanings whether as a stock, a flow, accumulated funds, the social relations or a power index, or an indicator of social productivity.