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.

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