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.


Max said...

Andy -

Schumpeter came to mind immediately for me as well. Its crazy how many "marxists" turned to Schumpeter, not for his Marginal Utility Theory-based approach to exchange/value, but for his concept of 'creative destruction' - which usually ends up as more of a misread of his conservatism than anything else. But anyhoo - thanks for pointing out the finer points of how competition works in Marx's theory - very helpful.


Jackline said...

Hi Nice Blog .I think HR understands the importance of other people tracking time--IT, Lawyers, non-exempt employees, but struggles with the idea of web time clock .