August 20, 2008

What do you think?

I've only just now finished the gargantuan chapter fifteen, about a week and a half late, and while I don't think that it would be too difficult to catch up with the schedule and finish by the end of the first week of September, I've been thinking . . . . The David Harvey lectures have been unbelievably helpful far, and reading along with the lectures has been - based on a handful of experience - exactly the sort of thing I had in mind when starting this blog.

So I was thinking that I'll change the schedule so that it conforms to the Harvey schedule. Only four more Harvey lectures left, each one released about once a week, which means finishing Volume One at the end of September. The lectures will only cover the first volume, so why rush?

Plus, quite frankly, Volume One is where all the literature is at, so it doesn't make sense to move too quickly onto Volume Two, which I have never opened and know little about.

August 6, 2008

Throw it on a fire

I'm trying to catch up by posting on a chapter a day as often as possible (so..not always everyday).

Marx continues in chapter thirteen to speak about the transformation from individual laborers to capitalist production (historical? logical?) and a dichotomy that is best captured in this quote from chapter eleven:
Here, as in natural science, is shown the correctness of the law discovered by Hegel, in his Logic, that at a certain point merely quantitative differences pass over by a dialectical inversion into qualitative distinctions (423).
Again, I'm going to bracket the terms Hegel and dialectics for another time and for someone else to talk about

----> [Hegel] [dialectical inversion]

Instead, I just want to point out that Marx seems to say that yes one can speak of the limits of capitalist production as passing over a quantitative threshold, but eventually we also have to pay attention to how that affects the work itself, qualitatively, and why ten workers in cooperation will make more than ten workers individually. So, the qualitative and quantitative.

The qualitative of course comes out strongly in Marx's description of the animality and sociality that comes with factory labor, which turns the workers from a collection of individuals into a collective whole, like an army which requires sergeants and generals to guide them en masse (not exactly sure what 'en masse' means). Here's a good example:
Whether the combined working-day, in a given case, acquires this increased productive power, because it heightens the mechanical force of labour, or extends its sphere of action over a greater space, or contracts the field of production relatively to the scale of production, or at the critical moment sets large masses of labour to work, or excites emulation between individuals and raises their animal spirits, or impresses on the similar operations carried on by a number of men the stamp of continuity and many-sidedness, or performs simultaneously different operations, or economises the means of production by use in common, or lends to individual labour the character of average social labour whichever of these be the cause of the increase, the special productive power of the combined working-day is, under all circumstances, the social productive power of labour, or the productive power of social labour. This power is due to co-operation itself. When the labourer co-operates systematically with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species (447).
Again, Marx, a humanist. He thinks there is some foundational value in labor, something like species-being, which appeared in his earlier work but only pops up periodically in the present text. Marx emphasizes that this new collective creation, rather than being multi-headed or lead by one of the workers themselves, is in advance appropriated by capital. Formally, of course, having bought the workers' labour-power in advance, capital appears to rightfully own the fruits of the cooperation process. As Marx talked about in chapter six, a temporal ruse is played wherein the worker is forced to give up any claim on its labor's use-value and only settle for wages, that is, its exchange-value.

Significantly, he notes on page 449 that because the logic of capital knows that the more workers, the more productivity, it will demand more workers, and as more workers are united, the more they will need to be disciplined. In other words, we begin to get some hints of class struggle and labor politics, as opposed to an exclusive focus on the capitalist class as the only active agent in this narrative.

The quantitative stuff is directly addressed on the first page (439), where he speaks of the first capitalist production being one where manufacture merely grows out of handicraft trades, distinguished only "by the greater number of workers simultaneously employed by the same individual capital. It is merely an enlargement of the workshop of the master craftsman of the guilds" (439). And then the qualitative stuff kicks in.

What I'm interested with this quantitative stuff, though, is not the quantitative part itself but rather what is going on at this early, early stage, which is when Marx sets the point at which capitalism tears itself apart from non-capitalist production. As he says, "a large number of workers working together, at the same time, in one place ... in order to produce the same sort of commodity under the command of the same capitalist, constitutes the starting-point of capitalist production. This is true both historically and conceptually" (439).

This quote seems to confirm what we discussed a million times so far, that Marx's text is crazy obsessed with history without, at the same time, being a purely historical text but rather one trying to figure the fuck out what is the logic of the temporal progression of capitalist production. Capitalist production, which, remember, was more or less incredibly, intensely developed by the time Marx starting writing Capital, which means he was in a similar boat we are in.

And even though capitalist production becomes far more complicated than the initial manufacture trades, Marx wants to emphasize that machinery, division of labor and all the other techniques are ephemeral (remember, competition), and the only real lasting foundation that signifies capitalist production is cooperation, or, scale of production. It remains because, deep down, that is the base: "Co-operation remains the fundamental form of the capitalist mode of production" (454). So, although concerned with the historical developments of machinery and rationalization of production in his time, Marx is not a technological determinist, even though he may be sort of an economic one. It's important to remember that capitalist production is above all marked by its social formation, not by its technical components.

Final note, and this is a quote that I completely missed while reading but only noticed from listening to the Harvey. On page 448, we see the first traces of a distinction that becomes sort of a big deal in later debates: the distinction between formal and real subsumption. The connection to the rest of the chapter, or chapters, is that there seems to be a temporal movement from formal to real subsumption. The formal part sort of sits somewhere between the quantitative to qualititative movement, and real subsumption is the final stage of social reification. I guess in my mind it looks like this:

quantitative enlargement --> formal subsumption (selling of labour-power) --> qualitative structural changes (division of labor, animality kicks in, etc.) --> real subsumption (total discipline of work force, worker becomes only an extension of the logic of capital)

Anyway here's the quote:
We also saw that at first, the subjection of labour to capital was only a formal result of the fact, that the labourer, instead of working for himself, works for and consequently under the capitalist. By the co-operation of numerous wage-labourers, the sway of capital develops into a requisite for carrying on the labour-process itself, into a real requisite of production. That a capitalist should command on the field of production, is now as indispensable as that a general should command on the field of battle (448).

August 5, 2008

The more things change

Reading these two chapters (twelve and thirteen) [note: this is actually just about chapter twelve] as well as the following handful dispels for me the myth that volume one is Marx's abstract philosophy and volumes two and three represent the nuts and bolts of his economics. Sure, he prattles on about the commodity form, social averages, alienation, etc. but there is a very historically specific description about what capitalist production is and is not and what elements are necessary before one can call a phenomenon capitalist in nature. Later writers who extrapolate on concepts like alienation, fetishism and commoditization really need to re-arrange Marx's priorities, because at this point those concepts seem incidental to his larger concern of explaining political economy. Someone like Lukacs could claim that someone might not be directly involved in capitalist production, either as a capitalist owner nor as a wage-earning worker, but because they live in a reified social universe, they are part of capital-ism. I don't see any hint of that sort of move in Marx's text so far (well, chapter one). As I recall, other chapters later on will revisit the first chapter's themes, and that is something worth keeping in mind.

Anyway, I made some promises in my last post to talk about a few things in this one, but . . . . lots of promises were made, you know? Well, to begin with, I can't talk about chapter twelve without talking about the laws of competition, which Marx has circled around a bit for a while and further addresses here. My comment in the last post about the constantly self-revolutionizing properties of capitalist production are spelled out nicely in the 430s. What is interesting about the discussion is that Marx on the one hand is talking about how individual capitalists are compelled to act (innovate in order to get surplus-value, imitate in order to survive) but those individuals are completely predictable from the standpoint of the class they belong to (or, the logic undergirding their industry). As Harvey makes clear in his talk, Marx here historicizes invention and innovation to show how not only have good inventions been a nice boost to capitalist production but also how they are built into its very movement. And it's true; has there ever been any other moment in history when something called a "research and development" department existed? The social net of competition more or less brings every competitor in a single industry into close proximity, so that once a general industry-standard-equilibrium has been reached, the very next competitor to come up with an edge will steal business from everyone else, unless they follow suit and adopt that same technology:

On the other hand, however, this extra surplus-value vanishes as soon as the new method of production is generalized, for them the difference between the individual value of the cheapened commodity and its social value vanishes. The law of the determination of value by labour-time makes itself felt to the individual capitalist who applies the new method of production by compelling him to sell his goods under their social value; this same law, acting as a coercive law of competition, forces his competitors to adopt the new method. The general rate of surplus-value is therefore ultimately affected by the whole process only when the increase in the productivity of labour has seized upon those branches of production and cheapened those commodities that contribute towards the necessary means of subsistence, and are therefore elements of the value of labour-power (436).

That's a lot to handle.

It is important to note, however, that even though capitalist production breeds innovation and greater productivity, it does not necessarily raise the wages of workers. That is because, as the quote shows, value is generally determined by socially necessary labor time. If I pay workers ten dollars to make ten widgets a day, just because I have new technology that will help them make twenty widgets a day does not mean I am going to pay then twenty dollars from now on, right? Because the use-value and exchange-value of labour-power are separated in the commodity of labour-power, increased use-value does not equal increased exchange-value. The workers are paid the same, while the capitalist, by selling more widgets, probably at a marked-down price, reaps more surplus-value. Hence the importance not simply of tracking the whole mass of stuff available or the increased wages of workers but of tracking REAL WAGES, that is, wages adjusted to account for the share of wages in relation to total wealth.

I think competition is an important concept, definitely worth tracking here on out. It seems that competition is really the heart of capitalist production, the motor, the ghost in the shell, etc. This leads to two consequences, at least. First, it means capitalist production is anonymous. Competition is just like passing a baton from one competitor to another, no leader is invulnerable, anyone (technically) would overthrow the existing hierarchy at any moment. The intern3ts thing has really demonstrated this sharply (friendster? webcrawler? lycos? R.I.P.).

Secondly, it also provides a link - some link, something - to the literature about cycles and booms and busts. Schumpeter is getting hot now because we are heading to another depression, but for real Marxists, there's also Mandel and Kondratieff. Competition sort of explains it, doesn't it? If there is no single force pushing things forward but simply a series of new leaders asserting themselves ahead of the pack, then growth is not smooth and linear but bumpy. And for competition to work, it has to be somewhat unregulated, and although it has become more regulated over time, the unregulated element of it helps explain why crises occur (which, I think will come up in volume three) and hence the 'bust' in 'boom and bust' or the downturn in the cycle.

While it is not our intention here to consider the way in which the immanent laws of capitalist production manifest themselves in the external movement of the individuals capitals, assert themselves as the coercive laws of competition, and therefore enter into the consciousness of the individual capitalist as the motives which drive him forward, this much is clear: a scientific analysis of competition is possible only if we can grasp the inner nature of capital, just as the apparent motions of the heavenly bodies are intelligible only to someone who is acquainted with their real motions, which are not perceptible to the senses (433).

So if we accept Marx's observations on competition, do we also have to endorse the language of laws and scientific, immanent movements? Maybe it is not such a bad thing. Take this quote:
This result [of gaining surplus-labor without changing productivity], however, could be attained only by pushing the wage of the worker down below the value of his labour-power .... Despite the important part which this method plays in practice, we are excluded from considering it here by our assumption that all commodities, including labour-power, are bought and sold at their full value (431).

In other words, if Marx is going to prove that capitalist production exploits its workers, he can't just show that some people cheat, because that would excuse the system itself and just scapegoat the bad apples. Marx needs to show that even if the laws of Smith, Ricardo, et al. are followed perfectly, exploitation would still happen, due to the actual nature of the laws of capitalist production. In this sense, yes, it is necessary to speak of laws and immanent natures.

August 4, 2008

In Capitalist Society . . .

"It is no longer the worker who employs the means of production, but the means of production which employ the worker" (425).

Sorry, that one was too good to pass up.

This chapter begins with an explication of the rate of exploitation, which generally boils down to

Re (Rsv) = s/v; Re * V = S

Or, the rate of exploitation = surplus-capital over the amount of variable capital invested per worker; and the rate of exploitation multiplied by the total amount of variable capital invested equals the total amount of surplus capital you get in return.

This will become more important in the next chapter, but for now Marx begins with some dry observations about the dimensions and limits to these variables. Some are basic algebra, like if you have a higher rate but lower amount of variable capital invested, you could still wind up with the same amount of surplus capital as before. The limits are important, both because they point towards the possible ways in which the capitalists are able to increase the Re/Rsv but also because they illuminate other elements of capital's dynamic.

As I will talk about more in the next post, Marx is moving into a mode of speaking about capital as something with internal laws. Whether that is a good or bad thing, I'll leave open. But make no mistake, he thinks there is a unidirectional path to capital's logic, which, of course, he attributes to capital itself: "capitalist production presupposes the increase of wealth" (423).

Some of the limits to capital Marx outlines are:

Productivity. Or, the rate of surplus-value. You can only squeeze as much from a single worker as the current technology allows you to. This will be foundational for the next few chapters.

Time. Obviously, 24 hours, but beyond that legal time restrictions. But even beyond that, Marx notes, a capitalist will learn that there is an optimum balance of not exhausting your workers but also using EXACTLY all of their labor-power during their waking hours. What may appear as humane (not working them for 20 hours each day) is in fact, economical.

Population. You can't employ more workers than are alive. In fact, most of the time, Marx shows, it is in capital's interest to employ less than are available. This is because the most productive arrangements tend to use less workers to gain more profit, plus -- some foreshadowing -- wages can be kept low if there is no shortage of labor.

After outlining such limits, Marx then shifts into a more broadly philosophical and historical mode. Apropos some of the history discussions we have been having, let me raise another rhetorical question that Harvey raises in his class on chapter one: A) is Marx making a historical argument? or B) is he making a logical argument? Does he think this is how capitalism really developed? Or is he merely conjecturing based upon the appearances of capital at the present? Althusser would clearly side with the latter, and I also think that one could say, C) both of the above: he thought he was giving a real history but in reality was just guessing blindly.

The point is that the A) position probably can't be sustained or taken seriously as it was for about 100 years after Capital was written. Mainly because, EVEN IF he intended to, he could not tell a very accurate world history. Nonetheless, the inner logic of capital and the way in which it unravels history retrospectively is, of course, no small concern to the modern historian. These are questions we will have to deal with (assuming we are all good critical thinkers + good or at least competent archive-ers on the level).

In Marx's brief history of capitalism -- one of many he gives -- a few things stand out:

First, he says that in a given time and place, there is a minimum requirement for becoming a capitalist. To become a capitalist, you need enough capital to start a firm of a certain scale which can buy others' labor power and generate surplus-value. In other words, the opposite of an individual working for itself, in a steady state.

Second, he says this is historically specific. The minimums and maximums change over time, dictated by the dynamics of competition (next chapter), and thus ..... there is NO TRANSHISTORICAL DEFINITION OF CAPITALIST PRODUCTION. Think you can make a profit by operating gigantic, coal-powered handlooms today? Try it, and you will fail miserably. This is what Marx means when he constantly suggests that capitalism continually revolutionizes itself.

But then, think about this: if capitalist production continually produces its own multiple beginnings (stages, if you will), then how could one ever speak of the beginning of capitalist production? And how could one ever say that the beginning of capitalist production is a thing of the past (primitive accumulation chapter)?

Third (or fourth), it also strikes me that in the model that Marx has laid out, if an individual working or making money for itself at a given period, designated 'capitalist' by historians and commentators, does not actually have the initial capital to pay for the means of production or to hire the labor-power of many others, then doesn't that mean there is the possibility of non-capitalist production in a capitalist society? Simple observation I know, but something to remember underneath all the abstract goo about modernity and capitalist modernity. This is probably what inspires so many anthropological studies of alternative economies, mixed economies, proto-capitalisms, or, perhaps worse, J.K. Gibson-Grahamisms (no, they're not awful, I'm just feeling reactionary right now).

//addendum: to finish this incomplete thought... the question becomes, what do we make of non-capitalist production (and attendant social relations) in a space dominated by capitalist production? Are these exceptions really exceptions, or do they serve a purpose that somehow sustains capitalist production? Kautsky argued in the Agrarian Question that it was small, petty-producers, who effectively earned less value than even the market value of labor-power, sustained by the fact that they could produce for themselves half the time -- these people actually benefited capitalist production by providing cheap products for workers with little to no cost to the capitalist class. That's one example, I'm sure others have made similar arguments. It is perhaps too broad a question to answer, but it is something to consider. Can one really just pull out of a world of capitalist production, or are you somehow still a part of it? If you define things differently (say, capitalism as marked by the domination of abstract time) one could say one never escapes capital, even if you are unemployed, so long as you follow the logic of time as an empty conduit through which value is created (in which case being unemployed just means you are losing money). I guess in a predictable way, this just goes back to the question of how one defines capitalism (Marx didn't; he only defined capitalist production) and whether it is marked primarily by the way one relates oneself to objects of consumption or marked by one's position in a chain of production. That's a simplification, I know, but two dominant interpretations. End addendum//

Finally, it is worth noting that in this abstract formula, Marx relies upon logical limits to the rate of exploitation, a minimum for the division between capitalist and non-capitalist production, and absolute averages to determine productivity ("We assume throughout, not only that the value of an average labour-power is constant, but that the workers employed by a capitalist are reduced to average workers" (418)). Is this an instance of Marx insisting upon using the language and logic of classical political economy to criticize it from within? Or is it proof of his rigorous scientific framework, where social activity must be abstracted into anonymous equations? Probably both, but I think that, unless we are willing to discard Marx for being outdated and too Darwinian, we should be more interested in the first possibility. Namely because it reveals a truth about the inner logic of capital itself: because of the dynamics of competition (what I believe classical political economy calls the invisible hand), productive activity is constantly compared, homogenized and scrutinized to extreme degrees, just like the way in which the commodity form treats those products of labor as comparable, homogenized objects of scrutiny. It is interesting to note that, although Marx seems to open Capital with a critique of the commodity form, it is clear by now that he relies upon the abstractions of the commodity form in order to make his argument.

August 2, 2008


I haven't fallen behind with reading, I'm just negligent with posting. But I have plans to change that. Big, big plans.

As it is, let me avoid a pile-up of observations for my next post by mentioning something that struck me while watching the first Harvey video from the Harvey website. He ends by making a very sharp observation: Marx basically agrees with the neoclassical economists on a lot of positions. On the dynamics of economic logic and on the almost metaphysical existence of some invisible force making decisions through the proxy of the capitalist class. In the more recent chapters, I have been struck by how Marx's footnotes are no longer long arguments, tirades, historical examples but simply small quotes from bourgeoisie, classical economics to support a contention. He more or less ASSUMES a lot of the logic of those he criticizes, which, as Harvey points out, leads to a lot of confusion and messiness on both Marx's part and the reader's. This book is not an anti-economics tirade (how could you turn that into 4,000 pages?) but rather one that takes a body of work at its word and then tries to mess around with it with great detail and subtlety, showing how, by looking at the same process from a different perspective, different explanations emerge for the same appearances. Isn't that interesting?