Spring 1999

Capital, Volume 1

Parts Four, Five, and Six


Last week I tried to organize the argument as proposing a series of definitions of capital, each more adequate.  Today I want to focus rather on Marx's use of dialectical arguments in this section of the book.  So I'll present 3 or 4 examples of his dialectic.  (I'm not in fact sure that any of them should be called dialectics but they are presented in that language -- wait till I've presented them all and then we can discuss them in second half.)

We read three chapters for today: 15, 16, and 19.  I'm going to talk almost exclusively about 15.  I think 16 (about absolute and relative surplus value) repeats in large part what we have already said last week about this; and 19 (about the wage) also repeats what we have said about the value of labor-power and the costs of reproduction.


Review overall structure of the argument:

Capital is aimed at the production of surplus-value.  This is yet another definition of capital: "Capitalist production is not merely the production of commodities, it is, by its very essence, the production of surplus-value" (644).  Surplus-value is the great discovery of the book (which appears first in Part 2 but then is developed throughout).

Then surplus-value has to be broken down into the two capitalist strategies for increasing the rate of surplus-value:

 1) absolute surplus value -- Part 3 -- length of the working-day -- quantity of time.

 2) relative surplus value -- Part 4 -- technical organization of production -- quality of time.

  Now the history of capitalist projects to increase relative surplus- value have presented two forms that correspond to the passages among the three stages of the technical organization of production (nb: changes in technical organization do not change the mode of production; they are changes within the capitalist mode of production).

    A) Passage from Handicrafts [Handwerk] to Manufacture raises productivity mainly through division of labor (from individual labor to collective labor; collective because production of each product requires numerous workers each contributing a single task).  Collective labor is more productive than individual labor.  (Chapter 14)

    B) Passage from Manufacture to large-scale Industry raises productivity mainly through mechanization.


Chapter 15

OK, that's the context for Chapter 15.  Now we are faced with several questions:

 1) What is a machine?

 2) What is its value?

 3) How does mechanization effect workers?

 4) What drives the mechanization of production?

1) What is a machine?

 A machine differs first of all from a tool.  In fact, a machine is defined as that which employs tools to conduct a certain operation.  "From the moment that the tool proper is taken from man and fitted into a mechanism, a machine takes the place of a mere implement."  "The machine, therefore, is a mechanism that, after being set in motion, performs with its tools the same operations as the worker formerly did with similar tools" (495).  Now, it doesn't really make any difference if this machine is powered by human power or natural power or machine power -- for example, the pedal-powered sewing machine is just as much a machine as an electric sewing machine.  What is central is that the human worker is no longer working directly with the tool and thus not working directly on the object.  The worker tends to the machine, which in turn employs its tools to work on the object.  One practical difference is that while in general the human could only employ one tool at a time, the machine can in principle employ several.  Example: the spinning Jenny can spin 12 spindles at once.

     Now, what is interesting here is that once machines replace humans (as the agents that employ tools to work on objects), the machines are then organized in production as humans were.  What was developed as the organization of humans in production during the phase of manufacture is now aimed at machines.  So, first of all machines are subject to the division of labor.  "Here we have again the co-operation by division of labor which is peculiar to manufacture, but now it appears as a combination of machines with specific functions.  The tools peculiar to the various specialized workers, such as those the beaters, combers, sherers, spinners, etc. in the manufacture of wool, are now transformed into the tools of specialized machines, each machine forming a special organ, with a special function in the combined mechanism" (501).  So, just as in the passage to manufacture we saw a movement from individual human labor to collective human labor (through the division of labor and cooperation), so too here we move from the individual machine to the "collective working machine", an articulate system of individual machines.  This collective working machine (mechanical monster, Cyclops, etc) constitutes a "vast automaton" in that it presents a whole organization of production (at least relatively) autonomous from human labor.

First dialectic (?): Dialectic of industrial development in the passage from manufacture to large-scale industry.  Manufacture provided the basis for the passage to large-scale industry and hence for its own destruction: "in manufacture, we see the immediate technical foundation of large-scale industry .  Manufacture produced the machinery with which large-scale industry abolished the handicraft and manufacturing systems in the spheres of production it first seized hold of.  The system of machine production therefore grew spontaneously on a material basis which was inadequate to it.  When the system had attained a certain degree of development, it had to overthrow this ready-made foundation, which had meanwhile undergone further development in its old form, and create for itself a new basis appropriate to its own mode of production."  (Not mode of production but technical organization of production.)  Now, this is very similar to the passages in the Manifesto that I read the first day in which M&E describe the inevitable historical movement from feudalism to capitalism to communism.  Each mode of production (its relations of production) develop productive forces that expand beyond this "narrow basis" and eventually the old relations of production which at one time had been adequate become merely fetters to increased development -- they have to be broken asunder.  Here the question is not of modes of production but phases of technical organization, but in both cases the form of the argument is the same.

What is dialectical here?  The initial basis necessarily promotes the development of forces that will lead to its own destruction.  Specifically, manufacture promoted the development of machinery and the division of labor that together led to the factory system, the vast automaton, and large-scale industry, which in turn destroyed manufacture.  It's really a dialectic of emanation -- or maybe not a dialectic at all.


2) What is a machine's value?

As we saw earlier in the section on constant and variable capital, machines (like all constant capital) do not create value.  They merely transfer value from the labor that went into making them to the product.  Clearly they transfer it over time.  If it took 100 hours of labor-time to make a machine and that machine can work to make 100 products before being replace, then it transfers one hour of labor-time to each product.  What is at question here, as I said last week, is Marx's axiom about the distinction the human, the natural, and the machinic.  "The less labor [the machine] contains, the less value it contributes to the product.  The less value it gives up, the more productive it is, and the more its services approach those rendered by natural forces" (512).  Only the human produces value.  The machine merely transfers both human-produced value and the "free" powers of nature.


3) How does mechanization effect workers?  Marx gives 3.

A) The first effect is that by changing the qualifications for work (principally by lowering the need for muscle power), mechanization allows capital to employ women and children where it hadn't before.  This certainly adversely affects the health and education of children, but the primary result here is the great influx of labor-power and hence the depreciation of the value of labor.  (One might explain this with a supply/demand argument -- ie, increased supply of labor -- but Marx makes the point by pointing to the change in the costs of reproduction.  Destruction of the family wage (p. 518).)  The increase of the supply of labor and the decrease in its value both undermine the power of the working class.  "Machinery, by this excessive addition of women and children to the working personnel, at last breaks the resistance which the male workers had continued to oppose to the despotism of capital throughout the period of manufacture" (526).  In other words, the organized worker resistance developed under manufacture is destroyed by large-scale industry.  (Mechanization as weapon against the working-class.)

B) Extension of the working-day.  This is the paradox: machines reduce necessary labor-time and one might assume that they would then lessen the working-day, but instead machines create the conditions and added incentives for the capitalist the lengthen the working day.  First of all, the machine is most valuable if it is used up quickly -- it might rust of become outdated.  So you can get the most value out of machines if you never turn them off.  Machines also make the work less strenuous physically so the workers may be more capable of working longer hours.  So, the capitalist on one hand wants to reduce the number of workers so that he will have to pay fewer wages, but on the other hand he needs to increase the number of hours worked to make the most surplus value possible.  Here, Marx says, we arrive at a contradiction.

Second dialectic (?): "Here there is an immanent contradiction in the application of machinery to the production of surplus-value, since, of the two factors of the surplus-value created by a given amount of capital, one, the rate of surplus-value, cannot be increased except by diminishing the other, the number of workers.  This contradiction comes to light as soon as machinery has come into general use in a given industry, for then the value of the machine-produced commodity regulates the social value of all commodities of the same kind; and it is this contradiction which in turn drives the capitalist without his being aware of the fact, to the most ruthless and excessive prolongation of the working day, in order that he may secure compensation for the decrease in the relative number of workers exploited by increasing not only relative but also absolute surplus labour" (531).  Is this a contradiction?  Does it imply a higher resolution, subsumption?  The capitalist is faced with conflicting pressures and he finds a way to satisfy them both: work fewer workers longer hours.

C) Intensification of labor.  "Capital's tendency, as soon as a prolongation of the hours of labour is once for all forbidden, is to compensate for this by systematically raising the intensity of labour, and converting every improvement in machinery into a more perfect means for soaking up labour-power" (542).  I see this as a passage from the quantity of time to the quality of time; or rather, we might think there are different times.  Intensification is done either by speeding up production or requiring one worker to oversee more machines.  Speed up, stretch out.  Capital can change time itself.


The factory is the site and unification of production dominated by machines.

Humans have to adopt to machines: "In handicrafts and manufacture, the worker makes use of a tool; in the factory, the machine makes use of him" (548).  Or really, the worker becomes a machine, or part of a machine: The lifelong speciality of handling the same tool becomes the lifelong speciality of serving the same machine.  Machinery is misused in order to transform the worker ... into a part of a specialized machine" (547).  This means the introduction of discipline.  Factory discipline is a barracks-like discipline for the industrial army.  This discipline is first of all hierarchy but more important the regimentation of time.

At this point Marx makes an interesting shift.  The process of mechanization not only forces the worker to become like a machine and under the rule of machines, but the worker comes to see the machine as its primary enemy.  In effect, class struggle appears in the form of the struggle of the worker against the machine.  Marx has to qualify this immediately because he does not at all think that mechanization as such is against the interests of the workers or society.  The Luddites have a good first instinct but the opposition to machines is not total.  "It took both time and experience before the workers learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and therefore the transfer their attacks from the material instruments of production to the form of society which utilizes those instruments" (554-55).  The struggle against machines can thus be a form that working-class struggle against capital can take in certain circumstances and at certain times.

Mechanization is also a means of class struggle from the point of view of capital.  "It is the most powerful weapon for suppressing strikes, those periodic revolts of the working class against the autocracy of capital" (562).  Machines are a weapon that capital wields.  But this really points to a more interesting formulation, which deals with what drives technological development (on the surface) but really capitalist development as a whole.  The slogan: "Where there are strikes, machines will follow."  In Nietzschean terms, worker antagonism is the active element; capitalist restructuring (technological development) is merely reactive.  Capital cannot develop on its own (even if it would profit from new technology); it needs worker antagonism to drive it forward.

Third dialectic: the dialectic of capitalist development.  Capitalist relations of production are negated by worker revolt, refusal, strike.  That negation leads to a capitalist restructuring (technological advance) that is more productive and takes away the potential for that old form of revolt.  A new form of worker revolt must develop again, and so forth.  This is a two-part dialectic that is never resolved.

So to the question: what drives the mechanization of production?  one might answer a) scientific invention; b) capitalist thirst for surplus value; or c) worker revolt.  I would say c is primary, most immediate.


Last, I want to look at perhaps the most properly dialectical argument in this chapter which comes at the end, in the section on the health and education parts of the Factory Acts.  The contradiction here regards the specialized and/or varied tasks that workers have to due in large- scale industry.  In one respect, with the division of labor in the factory, the tasks of the workers become ever more repetitive creating a stunted or one-dimensional subject.  On the other hand, large-scale industry is constantly throwing workers from one branch of production to another, forcing them to acquire a variety of skills.  That is the contradiction: "large-scale industry, by its very nature, necessitates variation of labour, fluidity of functions, and mobility of the worker in all directions.  But on the other hand, in its capitalist form it reproduces the old division of labour with its ossified particularities" (617).  This contradiction will lead to a new higher individual: instead a merely the "bearer of one specialized social function" the worker will become a "totally developed individual" (618).  [NB: large-scale industry brings a destruction of the family, patria potestas, changes parental authority and relation between the sexes, but also creates "a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of relations between the sexes" (621).  Foucault and biopower.]

So, here is the dialectical formulation:

Fourth dialectic: "There is also no doubt that those revolutionary ferments whose goal is the abolition of the old division of labour stand in diametrical contradiction with the capitalist form of production,l and the economic situation of the workers which corresponds to that form.  However, the development  of the contradictions of a given historical form of production is the only historical way in which it can be dissolved and then reconstructed on a new basis" (619).  Or later: "By maturing the material conditions and the social combination of the process of production, it matures the contradictions and antagonisms of the capitalist form of that process, and thereby ripens both the elements for forming a new society and the forces tending toward the overthrow of the old one" (635).  Now, this is certainly a dialectical form in which a contradiction (between variation and specialization) will lead to collapse the reformulation on a higher plane.  I wonder if these needs to be posed in such dialectical form.  Is Marx perhaps just saying that capitalist brings bad elements, such as poverty in terms of wealth and one-dimensionality of human experience, which both lead to the delegitimation of its rule, ie, to revolt; and good elements, cooperation, variation of activity, that form the basis of the potential new society.  Does this double aspect of capital have to be conceived dialectically?


Formal and real subsumption (645).  Formal subsumption of labor under capital involves laboring forms that were developed outside of capital.  They suffice for absolute surplus value.  Relative surplus value requires the real subsumption, that is the rule of laboring forms developed within capital itself.  The real subsumption is the specifically capitalist mode of production.  More next week.  What of this had happened during Marx's time and what happened since.