September 25, 2008

The beds never get cold

This post will necessarily fail to do justice to the significance of so-called primitive accumulation in Capital. In a way, I am afraid to even write about it, for a few reasons. First, any google search for primitive accumulation will generate pages upon pages of analysis of the concept, which, although seemingly obscure, academic and definitionally relegated to the past, may be more relevant than ever (or, the fifteenth century). A good place to start is Michael Perelman's work, featured in a good issue from the Commoner on the topic of enclosure (not foreclosure, although that is certainly relevant too) (Other reads: Jason Read's essay which has become a book and the chapter on the universal history of capital in Anti-Oedipus).

Secondly, I think that although only lightly treated in Capital, primitive accumulation is the bridge to more nuanced, updated analyses of capital and neoliberalism today, prominently argued by David Harvey, such as uneven geographical development and the relationship between the rural and the urban, the peasant and the proletariat, ecological concerns, etc. Once one becomes familiar with recent scholarship emphasizing the spatial distribution of capital, uneven development, development of underdevelopment, post-development studies, colonial economy and post-colonial whatever, etc., it is almost too easy to re-read all of these concepts back into Marx. But that would give too little credit to the work of trying to rethink these concepts years later, work which to this reader is far more salutary than those who read Marx literally, as though what was true in 19th century England was and is true for the rest of the world ever since.

Finally, this is a difficult section to write about because there seems to be an imbalance between, on the one hand, all of the theoretical vibrancy and potential lying dormant in it and, on the other hand, the lack of much actual substantive material carried forward and cross-applied by latter day theorists. What I mean is, most everyone will talk about Marx's so-called primitive accumulation by circling around the concept itself and the famous first paragraphs of chapter twenty-six:
We have seen how money is changed into capital; how through capital surplus-value is made, and from surplus-value more capital. But the accumulation of capital pre-supposes surplus-value; surplus-value pre-supposes capitalistic production; capitalistic production presupposes the pre-existence of considerable masses of capital and of labour-power in the hands of producers of commodities. The whole movement, therefore, seems to turn in a vicious circle, out of which we can only get by supposing a primitive accumulation (previous accumulation of Adam Smith) preceding capitalistic accumulation; an accumulation not the result of the capitalistic mode of production, but its starting point.
But what everyone ignores is the actual beef of this last section: a slow, gradual reconstruction of the primitive accumulation of peasants in England, through the creation of a capitalist class, enclosing land, banishing farmers to cities, creating an industrial reserve army, the commoditization of everyday life, etc.

Upon first reading this section, one could easily believe it a historical text more than a theoretical one. And perhaps this returns to an earlier question raised by many: does Marx make logical arguments or does he make empirically historical ones? If one were a historian (let's just suppose) how does one digest this last chapter about the ongoing (but let's set that aside for a second) prehistory of capitalism and its constant transition into capital? One could be as literal as possible and try to reconstruct the primitive accumulations of every part of the world (or at least Europe) in sociological terms ("rent in kind? check."); or, one could say that all we need to know about primitive accumulation is the definition Marx explicitly gives on page 875: "So-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as 'primitive' because it forms the pre-history of capital, and of the mode of production corresponding to capital" -- and then ignore all the details about the history of enclosure and proletarianization in England and simply tell a completely different story, preserving only the basic skeletal remains of that concise definition. More radically, one could also say, given that primitive accumulation has happened, let's deal with the results of it and bypass altogether the question of how it occurred.

As one could guess from my tone, none of these approaches seem satisfactorily nuanced to me, but on the other hand, each option represents in its extremity a viable position to take or at least bear in mind going forward. The problem is that their irreconcilability -- no, their singularity results in an expansive gap within which to form one's own approach (which one would no doubt have to justify against all others) towards thinking so-called primitive accumulation with regards to the present, or at least, with regards to different histories beyond the one given in volume one.

Obviously, no answer to these questions in this post; just some frustration. A good frustration.

The last point I want to make revisits something I wrote earlier about how capital is constantly revolutionizing itself, a position sprinkled throughout this and other texts from Marx. The idea alone should give one pause when trying to define what exactly is capital, since one of its characteristics is to be cutting edge, which really means completely unstable. In that sense, if one were to carry in mind a simple timeline version of the transition from precapital to capital as a bisected path of linear time:

---- (prehistory ) --- || -- (capital) ------

Well, that's just untenable right? The goalposts are always moving. And yet, doesn't Marx seem to write this last section as though capital were a state of conditions that could be isolated in history? Doesn't he, periodically at least, write in the bankrupt sociological mode that reduces capital from a total set of relationships into a checklist of landmark developments to be tracked down and framed as commensurable factors in historical equations, like opposable thumbs or birth control? Hmm, maybe. The overall message of Capital is overwhelmingly against that interpretation, but for clarity's sake Marx does list traits of capital as though they were timeless characteristics, bastardized by people who think in terms of timeless social science (e.g. the development school).

To perhaps guard against the idea of capitalism as a binaristic transition, one should pay extra attention to the last chapter on colonies, which contains one of the most explosive passages in all of volume one:
In Westrn Europe, the homeland of political economy, the process of primitive accumulation has more or less been accomplished. Here the capitalist regime has either directly subordinated to itself the whole of the nation's production, or, where economic relations are less developed, it has at least indirect control of those social layers which, although they belong to the antiquated mode of production, still continue to exist side by side with it in a state of decay. To this ready-made world of capital, the political economist applies the notions of law and of property inherited from a pre-capitalist world, with all the more anxious zeal and all the greater unction, the more loudly the facts cry out in the face of his ideology.
It is otherwise in the colonies (931).
I do not really care about the Wakefield or Hegelian views on American colonies to which Marx was primarily responding, and so much of this chapter is kind of a disappointment to someone who anticipated Marx to rip into the overseas imperial expeditions of the British (1867 wasn't yet the height of imperialism though, which probably explains the relative silence).

However, I am interested in the fact that Marx explicitly argues for the co-existence of multiple temporalities within a single socio-economic system; not the colonies and metropole but the feudal and the capitalist dimensions of the English classes. But, you know, let's extrapolate. Where earlier one could easily read Marx's accounts of Manchester industry and think "well this doesn't apply to me, I can ignore this analysis," Marx here is saying that even though you think a part of the world is outside or unconnected to or inculpable for the misery and exploitation of another part of the world; or if you think the unevenness of the global economy is incidental to development and could be corrected by the market -- Marx is saying that's wrong. These multiple temporalities, where capital means one mode of production in one area and another mode in another, are ultimately welded together. This is a continuation of earlier arguments that manufacture and pre-industrial production in Marx's time had been transformed by their dependency on the industrial home market, united by "invisible threads."

So, to recap, earlier Marx lays the groundwork to say that capital is uneven in its temporality. Constantly in flux, constantly self-revolutionizing, what is properly capitalistic today may be outmoded tomorrow. But he also lays the groundwork for its uneven spatiality: feudal here, cutting edge there, rich here, poor there, etc. etc. And then think of the permutations of space and time. In short, we have an analysis that tries to cut up its object and expose as many differentiations and variations as possible. What sustains it in the end is an analytical framework which argues that these differences and varieties are both the result and the basis for the motor of capital: its exploitation of labor. And from the outset, all of these uneven developments have already been accounted for as merely internal differentiations of a larger entity, which, if it didn't encompass the world before, is possessed by an ontological necessity to constantly accumulate and expand, to constantly push itself towards the edges of real subsumption.

September 22, 2008

The dice are loaded

Chapter twenty-five is over one hundred pages long, and it represents the culmination of Marx's argument about capitalist economic dynamics in volume one. If you believe Harvey and, also, the presentation of the book itself. This chapter ends on a very empirical note, about sixty pages of examples from various districts in England and in Ireland. The next section, on the topic of primitive accumulation, seeks to explain how capital grew to such extreme heights. The presentation of history of course has ramifications for the logical and abstracted descriptions of economics as a science, but Marx will no longer explore with as much depth the ways in which the various factors of capital will collude in order to produce contradictory crises and unspeakable violence. This is the chapter that pulls it together best.

The first four sections provide the theoretical basis for the concluding empirical descriptions, and if I'm not mistaken, the third and fourth sections are not entirely distinct. Further, Harvey argues that the first two sections are not necessary to reach the conclusions of the third, but I'm not sure myself. But at any rate, here are the steps Marx takes:
Section 1. The Increased Demand for Labour Power that Accompanies Accumulation, the Composition of Capital Remaining the Same

Section 2. Relative Diminution of the Variable Part of Capital Simultaneously with the Progress of Accumulation and of the Concentration that Accompanies it

Section 3. Progressive Production of a Relative Surplus Population or Industrial Reserve Army

Section 4. Different Forms of the Relative Surplus Population. The General Law of Capitalistic Accumulation
In the first section, Marx argues that the accumulation process eternally preserves the class relationship between workers and capitalists because of exploitation, the conversion of surplus-value into capital, wage labor, etc. Nothing new: "...the mechanism of the accumulation process itself not only increases the amount of capital but also the mass of the 'labouring poor,' i.e. the wage-labourers, who turn their labour-power into a force for increasing the valorization of the growing capital, and who are thereby compelled to make their relation of dependence on their own product, as personified in the capitalist, into an eternal relation (765, italics added).

Next, Marx distinguishes between the concepts of concentration and centralization, which he defines in a bit of a counter-intuitive manner. Concentration is merely the fact of extended accumulation by one company in isolation, like a spiral that spins outwards but with no regard for others. But eventually, these growing companies will collide with one another, and they can't simply keep accumulating infinitely without some companies being eaten and others eating them. Centralization is Marx's term for this. It describes a process wherein capitals are attracted to one another, where capital grows not by simply creating wealth ex nihilo (that is, from workers or from credit) but rather by eating the capital of others. So which capital b/eats which capital? Generally the one able to steal all the business by selling cheaper commodities, that is, the capital with greater productivity. And hence "this depends in turn on the scale of production. Therefore the larger capitals beat the smaller" (777). As a general rule, contra the self-regulating dream of supply and demand, the free market breeds unfair competition and monopolies.

Third, Marx pays attention to the drive for productivity , resulting in more capital invested in machines which obviate the need for labor. In other words, variable capital goes down, constant capital goes up. The contradiction of course is that, with competition, the exchange-value of these commodities will soon be canceled out by the technical advances of other capitals, even as use-values are increased; meantime, the rate of surplus-value has decreased because the source of surplus-value, that is, exploited labor, has been decreased relative to the total mass of capital invested. In other words, profit will fall as use-values rise.

Harvey has a good exposition on whether or not this falling profit is a law, a tendency, a tendency of law, a law of tendency, etc. It's worth listening to, around the 43:30 mark and again at the 81:40 mark:

It's also worth checking out a summary of crisis theories from Anwar Shaikh, an economist at the New School, one of the better to have written on this (for a better bibliography, read Harvey's Limits to Capital and search for "falling rate of profit" in the index).

Harvey takes a pretty good position on the truthiness of Marx's law: the contradiction of technology that displaces labor as the source of exploitation is always a disruptive force in capitalist development, and Marx's descriptions of this process are accurate, but they are not predetermined as an economic law insofar as, well, even though profit has fallen throughout history, people have found new ways to generate more profit, and there is still profit to be made today (by the way, I'm going to resist the temptation to write about the massive fuckup that is the current financial crisis, but the connections between the present day and Marx's thoughts on credit, finance capital and deregulation are readily evident).

Not only does capital shoot itself in the foot by displacing labor, Harvey concludes, but it also generates a condition that is worse for the worker. When there is more supply of labor than there is demand, workers' wages decrease, and more exploitation can be squeezed out of employed workers who are expendable and superfluous to the actual production process. De-skilling and machinery are a big part of this. And of course, one of the lessons of neoliberalism has been that when the inevitable crises do occur, the capitalist classes will try generate more capital, that is, more surplus-value, by squeezing wages down even further; and they get away with it because of the pressure exerted by the industrial reserve army in the backdrop ("Sure you can quit, but I'm just going to hire that guy instead when you leave").

Marx thus ends on the most crushing note of the capitalist process, that is, the way in which it produces and fixes a relation between superfluous working classes and the capital they have become dependent upon, even as the capital displaces them from any sort of political, economic security. In my mind, I couldn't help think of the somewhat trendy yet completely de-historicized attention paid recently to such populations, given various names by various theorists: Agamben and homo sacer; Foucault and biopolitics; Subaltern studies; the various decontextualized others of Levinas and other literary critics; etc. etc. Isn't it necessary to re-assert the history of how such populations are reproduced by particular socio-economic dynamics? Isn't it incumbent to demonstrate the underlying, broadly encompassing processes that unify these snapshots scattered across and time and place? Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to happen much.

My final thought on this chapter and on Marx's argument as a whole is that it seems very difficult to pin down precisely a single concept the process that holds the key to its effectiveness. This is perhaps why the left has been fighting with itself for so long over what to do about capital. It's not just about exchange-value, it's not just about machines or money, it's not just about wages or time, although all of those factors are very much integral to the history of the modern world.

What really strikes me about Marx's presentation is that capital's strongest weapon is that it grows. When it grows, it displaces people who are forced to rely upon capital to survive, and the more it grows, not only do the alternatives disappear but more pressure is exerted upon the worker and the capitalist classes to adhere ever more stringently to capital's laws. Capital becomes personified.

In the case of wages, workers' wages will only go down once it becomes clear that alternatives for non-wage based labor have disappeared. In the case of the organic composition of capital (variable and constant capital ratios), only when industries fight one another in such a deadlock will the pressure for technological changes enabling greater productivity actually generate faster, better, bigger machines.

If there were a name for this dynamic, it would be the dynamic of competition. But competition is an empty term, a formal one that lacks any actual commentary on who is competing with whom, what draws them together, who wins and why they win. Again, in order to explain why it works, one must start explaining the different, interacting levers of action that spur accumulation, centralization and crises.

At some point, Marx will make arguments about capital that is not yet fully mature, stages in production that cannot yet generate systemic crises or throw laborers into a state of floating insecurity. For example, on 785:
This peculiar cyclical path of modern industry, which occurs in no earlier period of human history, was also impossible when capitalist production was in its infancy. The composition of capital at that time underwent only very gradual changes . . . . Even though the advance of accumulation was slow in comparison with that of the modern epoch, it came up against a natural barrier in the shape of the exploitable working population; this barrier could only be swept away by the violent means we shall discuss later.
In a footnote inserted into the French edition on the next page:
But only after mechanical industry had struck root so deeply that it exerted a preponderant influence on the whole of national production; only after foreign trade began to predominate over internal trade, thanks to mechanical industry; only after the world market had successively annexed extensive areas of the New World, Asia and Australia; and finally, only after a sufficient number of industrial nations had entered the arena -- only after all this had happened can one date the repeated self-perpetuating cycles, whose successive phases embrace years, and always culminate in a general crisis, which is the end of one cycle and the starting-point of another (786).
These paragraphs suggest to me that capital's force lies in its imperative for growth, which comes not from a single source but rather from the mutual reinforcement from competition among many different sources. This is more than simply saying it cancels out other alternatives; it makes any decision to seek an alternative irrational and suicidal. Even if competition destroys itself, the stakes are too high to allow that destruction to occur, for capital is too mutually dependent to simply allow anyone to leave, cough, bailout (sorry). Competition, more than simply fixing a relationship of exploitation or drawing a line between the haves and have nots, regulates that line and manipulates it in order to maximally intensify exploitation to its logical limit. Much like the self-regulating supercomputers behind hedge fund schemes, capital is less about subjective and more about objective limits and forces. Even if it is regulated, that regulation, definitionally, only aids and abets that extremism. And it ends in scenes as ugly as this:
Capital acts on both sides at once. If its accumulation on the one hand increases the demand for labour, it increases on the other the supply of workers by 'setting them free,' while at the same time the pressure of the unemployed compels those who are employed to furnish more labour, and therefore makes the supply of labour to a certain extent independent of the supply of workers. The movement of the law of supply and demand of labour on this basis completes the despotism of capital (793).

September 14, 2008

Runs the shibboleth

What I want to talk about by the end of this post is the (non?)-distinction between a theory of capital focused primarily upon accumulation as the agent of history versus labor. It is a distinction I have read and heard before, if not explicitly, then at least implicitly, in debates about how to understand capital. Related to this is the question, of course, of how to do something about the system and its logic, a topic about which I don't think I'll have the guts to speak about until many more years of thinking about these problems.  . .  .

The following is meant to be an exposition on chapters sixteen through twenty-four, conforming to Harvey's division, but I mainly will talk about chapters 23 and 24 because the prior ones seem to repeat arguments, and I didn't find very much continuity between them and the later ones. I think I should re-read the chapter on money and watch Harvey's lecture on it, because that seems to be the only key insight that arises from his discussion of wages.

So let's begin with a point that is reiterated throughout these chapters and which appeared earlier, too: volume one is primarily a simple model. He says he will assume that commodites are sold at value, that there is always an equilibrium between the prices of commodities and their value, that there is no overproduction or underconsumption, there are no taxes, no interest, no landholding, no banks, no tariffs or export and transportation issues. It's a closed system.

In his defense: this is not a bad thing because for understanding the larger schema of things, one must understand the basic elements and how they push things along, beneath the surface of more complicated financial formula. There will be time in volumes two and three for that. Offense: this is a good thing because Marx can prove that even when the system is at its simplest and runs smoothly according to the tenets of classical political economy, it results in exploitation.

Within this simplified model, Marx observes that value oscillates between two hands but essentially remains the same: labor and capital. If we assume capital exists, then its next stage is to buy labor-power (as exchange-value), which gives the capitalist the right to all the labor expended by workers (as use-value), which results in commodities sold on the market (as an exchange-value greater than the wages), pocketed as surplus-value, which ultimately becomes reinvested as more capital. Old story right? UV -> XV> Exchange-value is a ruse for the use-value of labor, and it is this oscillation that allows for the sleight of hand. As in chapter one, he writes: "Not a single atom of his old capital continues to exist" (715).

It has vanished into the undifferentiated commodity form.

Marx also returns, seemingly for the first time since chapter one, to the obvious question of -- so where did all that capital originally come from? 
From our present standpoint it therefore seems likely that the capitalist, once upon a time, became possessed of money by some form of primitive accumulation [ursprΓΌngliche akkumulation] (714).
More on this later, of course. Instead of harping on primitive accumulation, though, Marx more logically says that since at the end of the cycle, surplus-value is converted into capital, we should think of the originary capital invested in labor-power as simply past labor. Dead labor. Labor extracted from the capitalist is then used to pay the laborer again and again and again. It is a never-ending cycle.

Marx then spends time developing two big ideas. First, he argues that even in a static system, such a process of using labor to feed labor cements the division between the working and capitalist classes. If the process iterates repeatedly, the worker winds up with no surplus, and the capitalist piles up the surplus. Thus the formation of classes. Even when the worker gets a wage and spends it on food for its family, it is still doing it to support the capitalists who profit from their consumption (in two ways: the food gives the worker energy to work, and the profits from food probably go to the capitalist):
By converting part of his capital into labour-power, the capitalist augments the value of his entire capital. He kills two birds with one stone. He profits, not only by what he receives from, but by what he gives to, the labourer. . . . The consumption of food by a beast of burden does not become any less a necessary aspect of the production process because the beast enjoys what it eats.(717-718).
Next, Marx spends chapter 24 asking why the capitalist doesn't just use the surplus-value to consume things and live a nice life. Why does surplus-value necessarily become more capital? His answer is that capital is a spiral and that in order to survive it must grow, and if you aren't growing then you are dying. In the mind of the capitalist, it becomes stated as an imperative to
Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets! 'Industry furnishes the material which saving accumulates.' Therefore, save, save,i.e, reconvert the greatest possible portion of surplus-value, or surplus-product into capital! Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake: by this formula classical economy expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie in the period of its domination (742).
Accumulate to accumulate, produce to produce, labor to labor, value to value. On the one hand, it is a self-referential and nihilistic position (insert the need for religion and some sort of spiritual reassurance that something external and greater has a plan for all of us), and on the other hand, in its self-referentiality, it is limitless in its prospects. Ask capital when it plans to stop using resources and widening the rich-poor gap, and it wouldn't even understand those terms.

The other passage that I think is worth quoting is on the page before:
[I]n so far as he is capital personified, [the capitalist's] motivating force is not the acquisition and enjoyment of use-values, but the acquisition and augmentation of exchange-values. He is fanatically intent on the valorization of value; consequently he ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production's sake . . . Only as a personification of capital is the capitalist respectable (739).
Now to try to bring this together. 

It seems to me that the last two quotes -- 'accumulation for accumulation' and 'capital personified' -- while not at all facetious reveal Marx's writing mode as a model. In extreme cases we have absolute bastards like the ones he writes about, but really what you probably find in real life are people whose intentions aren't completely evil but, when it comes down to it, share the tenets of capital personified. If one were to reduce someone's role and position in an economy to their most fundamental logics and actions, then you wind up with capital personified.

So this is how one can come to the conclusion that the agent of capital is capital itself. As William Sewell has claimed a few times, taking a cue from Moishe Postone, the social horizon of the modern era has been the accumulation of capital. Here is a line from his article that has stuck with me for months:
I would tend to emphasize the endless accumulation of capital as forming the crucial underlying dynamic of capitalism, with class and class struggle figuring more as a context and outcome of the dynamic of accumulation. In capital-centered Marxist theories, the endless accumulation of capital produces changing historical configurations of political power, spatial relations, class struggles, intellectual forms, technology, and systems of economic regulation that endure for a certain time until they are dismantled by their own contradictions and replaced by new configurations.
The opposition in this quote lies between Sewell's emphasis on capital accumulation versus Geoff Eley's emphasis on class. The opposition seems to be between a theory that sees history moving forward by the actions of the capitalist class (who accumulate) versus a theory that sees history moving forward by the actions of the working class (who get exploited).  Eley's position is similar to the position taken by the editors of the Re/thinking Marxism journal, Resnick and Wolff. An oversimplified version of Eley's and R/W's theses would be that in all social phenomena, since capitalist exploitation is involved, class is involved. Class overdetermines everything, and even though there are variations in class dynamics, it is always present and hence almost transhistorical (within the historical limits of capital).

After reading these last few chapters, I think that I am willing to agree with Sewell but with the need for a fuller explanation. Something paradoxical emerges from these chapters. On the one hand, the only governing principle of accumulation is completely lifeless and abstract. No single person is giving the orders to accumulate, businesses full of greedy people run themselves into the ground trying to accumulate more than their peers, and well-intentioned people also do bad things to other people because they see it as the only way for them to survive. Would they do this if they had the total freedom to choose how to live their lives? Hard to say but probably not as unanimous as it appears today. No one is really running the show. 

On the other hand, where could capital come from if it does not come from the workers? Capital is simply a disguised form of dead labor, which emerges from living labor itself. You cannot have capital without the workers, but then of course you could not have a working class without an exploitative one. So it is a system that depends upon the life and blood of those who form the basis of value. These processes of class, labor and accumulation seem incredibly, inextricably intertwined. How could one choose?

And then add to the formula the fact that Marx is writing in full modular mode. What he writes is very powerful and resonates strongly with everything we experience by simply living in this world economy, but it is definitely a simplified version, and if that's the case is he underestimating the role of any alternative logics outside that authorized by capital? In his above exposition of how the worker is reproduced as a figure within capital, Marx seems to suggest that even when we think we are not at work -- resting, eating, complaining about our jobs -- we are simply refueling for more work, a socially necessary element for capital's functioning. Which would suggest we are always at capital's mercy.

As Harvey says in his podcast, the modular mode for Marx is necessary because capital is a shape-shifting force that cannot be represented in a single, fully complex moment but must be stripped down to a governing logic that grafts itself on top of historically specific situations. Other logics do exist and co-exist with capital, but it's just that capital seems to appropriate and make use of those logics in different ways in each instance and somehow in the end remains, at its heart, intact. 

So is capital accumulation the only logic? Probably not. And could capital exist without labor and without reproducing classes? Nope. But those classes are much more a result of capital than they are a pre-existing historical agent. Capital gives, and capital can take away. I think that's Sewell's point, and it's a more dynamic formulation than the crappy cultural studies model of looking for reified class distinctions (along with gender and race and sexuality and caste and religion and whatever) outside of history. 

September 5, 2008

About today -

This is a gigantic chapter, the subject of two videos by David Harvey, and so my own coverage will necessarily be too light. I have a few bullet points in my notebook that I will try to develop and transcribe here, but I'm not really sure how this post will go. Excuse the frenetic appearances.

I thought a good starting point that would pick up on the theme of the last post would be a quote that bleeds between pages 568 and 569 on the contradictions of the social organization of capital rendered by new technology:

Since therefore machinery, considered alone, shortens the hours of labour, but, when in the service of capital, lengthens them; since in itself it lightens labour, but when employed by capital, heightens the intensity of labour; since in itself it is a victory of man over the forces of Nature, but in the hands of capital, makes man the slave of those forces; since in itself it increases the wealth of the producers, but in the hands of capital, makes them paupers-for all these reasons and others besides, says the bourgeois economist without more ado, it is clear as noon-day that all these contradictions are a mere semblance of the reality, and that, as a matter of fact, they have neither an actual nor a theoretical existence.

This short list encompasses Marx's own argument that as new technologies seemingly benefit everyone by making the production of greater use-values more efficient, more abundant and less strenuous on all, it is counter-balanced by the dynamics of exchange-value, that is, competition, which drives down prices and forces capitalists to continue investing more into their fixed and variable capital, that is, to continue exploiting labor in order to create a profit. The crux is that any profit one gains is always a comparative profit - no matter how nice and shiny your machines, if everyone else has the same machine, then you will not make a profit.

The result of this dual movement is that more use-values are created but exploitation continues because of the gap between use and exchange-value, which regulates wages as well as a host of other capitalist practices for managing investment. More broadly, one could say that on the one hand, capitalism is a liberating force that really opens up all sorts of possibilities that, for the sake of argument, a slave or feudal society would not allow. Never did a pauper become a king, never did a king text message with a 3G iPhone, never did a slave-owner in Mississippi eat Kobe Beef flown in from halfway around the world. Hierarchically, spatially, temporally, the limits of economic activity become transformed and the distance between extremes proportionally shrinks as capital loosens existing segmentations. On the other hand, capital that depends upon technology also deepens one's servitude in a single function in a larger net of specialized labor. A former shoemaker now only makes soles or the heel or the laces, a former textile weaver now only makes fabric or turns the fabric into a particular cut, or assembles cuts into modular-sized clothing. One is basically de-skilled in order to maximize co-operation, the theme of the last chapter.

One basic connection between these two movements is that the relative leveling of skill converts all jobs into relative commensurability. The minimum wage evaluates a job at McDonald's the same as a job at a supermarket. A security guard in a school is the same as a security guard at a courthouse. A job assembling parts in one factory is the same as assembling parts in another factory which produces completely different finished products. Ah, see how the commodity form is interwoven into this logic of work? So on the one hand, specialization occurs, but on the other hand, the commensuration of specialized jobs logically extends infinitely to any other numbers of jobs.

In a somewhat bizarre and jarring passage, Marx speaks of this process, albeit only briefly, as a positive development. Or, properly dialectically, negative and positive (so bad it's good). Here is a condensed version from page 618, with some reading markers:

But if Modern Industry, by its very nature, therefore necessitates variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer, on the other hand, in its capitalistic form, it reproduces the old division of labour with its ossified particularisations. We have seen how this absolute contradiction between the technical necessities of Modern Industry, and the social character inherent in its capitalistic form, dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his detail-function, to make him superfluous, We have seen, too, how this antagonism vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital; in the incessant human sacrifices from among the working-class, in the most reckless squandering of labour-power and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy which turns every economic progress into a social calamity. This is the negative side. But if, on the one hand, variation of work at present imposes itself after the manner of an overpowering natural law, and with the blindly destructive action of a natural law that meets with resistance at all points, Modern Industry, on the other hand, through its catastrophes imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes. It becomes a question of life and death for society to adapt the mode of production to the normal functioning of this law. Modern Industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of to-day, grappled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.
What I find puzzling about this quote is just how such a fully developed individual is to be brought about. I understand the capital leads to specialization and that specialization forces workers to do various jobs throughout their lives in order to live. But what stake does capital have in actually creating individuals who can do multiple jobs, vitiating the need for specialized workers? It seems like while there will be exceptional workers who learn multiple skills, the majority of the population must necessarily stay wed to their specialized job in order for production to occur. I suppose this is the problem of actually existing socialism.

In fact, this section contains many passages which can be traced to Marx's Communist Manifesto days and to the politics and rantings and ravings of latter day socialists. Marx also argues that the abolition or concealment of former boundaries - gender, age, family - marks class as both a predominant and universal dimension of social existence, something in itself revolutionary (a double sense of revolution, I think, or at least a 1.5 sense. Not revolution in the CC/C/P way, but that's not unrelated to the sense in which capital revolutionizes economic organization):
However terrible and disgusting the dissolution, under the capitalist system, of the old family ties may appear, nevertheless, modern industry, by assigning as it does an important part in the process of production, outside the domestic sphere, to women, to young persons, and to children of both sexes, creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of the relations between the sexes. (621)
What is the "higher form" here? It's very ambiguous. Ultimately, I think one can say that any positives Marx found in this economic order would only come about with its own dissolution, not simply because Marx disliked capital but also as a scientific observation of the historical tendencies of successive technologies. Contrast this with the article linked in my last post, where Mr. Prasad believes that the forces of neoliberal capital in India will help the depressed castes, not by tearing down capitalism but by allowing the castes to thrive within it. It is a similar argument to Marx's: class and economics will overcome other categories (gender, family, caste), but Prasad seems to believe there is something stable or neutralizing about this process. That is, unlike Marx, he does not see the future upheaval of this liberating economic order, an upheaval necessitated by the inner dynamics of its own growth.

To backtrack a bit, I also wanted to point out that this contradictory tendency of both liberating and segmenting one's economic position is also a good response to those who argue that capital is what allows for X, Y, Z success story to occur. Much like Mr. Prasad's examples, such success stories are undeniable and are a strong incentive for any of us to work hard at our jobs. I think it is a bit of an intellectual blackmail to say it's either incentives/success or no-incentives/stagnancy. I think the first counter-argument should be the one in the NYT article itself, that as a general tendency those success stories are exceptions. And second, well, I'm not sure, we'll need to figure out some better socialist model before figuring out how to re-frame the question.

Next point. As Harvey points out for much of the first video on this chapter, the footnote on page 493 provides a glimpse into a properly holistic perspective on the economy, one that takes into account the multiple categories of social life intimately connected to properly economic activity. Harvey jumps up and down over this footnote, so you should just watch the video. Even before re-reading the footnote I noticed that this chapter represents what many today would call the "cultural studies" or even "social history" side of Marx. He delves into discussions of how the economy effects changes in the family like alcoholism, de-skilling, the end of education, the liberation of women and children, the shift from an individual to family wage, etc. I think the categories laid out in the footnote, although very useful, are a bit fetishized by Harvey, who repeats them throughout his discussion, classifying everything into the categories of technology, mental conceptions (WTF does this mean?), etc.

But the question of technology laid out in the footnote are helpful in answering a question that ran through my head while reading the chapter: what is the relationship between technology, capital and history? In a simple phrasing, "is technology always bad and inevitable?" Or is it the people who use the technology? On the one hand yes, on the other hand, no. As Marx writes in the footnote, "Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature." That is, it is not technology itself but how humans have positioned themselves in relationship to nature that is paramount. Unsure what nature means, but I'm assuming one's relationship with other humans, with animals, with raw materials and resources, perhaps what one could today call ecological concerns.

But I say yes and no because in different sections of this chapter, Marx seems to go in either direction. He seems to disagree with the Luddite response of destroying every machine in sight and instead endorses the realization that one must "distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and therefore to transfer their attacks from the material instruments of production to the form of society which utilizes those machines" (555). This is a pretty good quote that Harvey spends some time on. However, it seems, at least superficially, to be contradicted by a later quote: "The principle, carried out in the factory system, of analysing the process of production into its constituent phases, and of solving the problems thus proposed by the application of mechanics, of chemistry, and of the whole range of the natural sciences, becomes the determining principle everywhere" (591).

While I know this second line is only a phrase that does not overturn the entirety of Marx's social theory, I am not so sure he is not a technological determinist. One could obviously make the statement that Marx always foregrounds the social organization of capital and production and that technology is almost incidental to the way labor is organized. Of course it makes no sense to say machines enslaved humans; rather, it was the class of capitalists who used machines to enslave them. And so when Marx says machines become a determining principle, he does not mean that machines themselves determine the factory but rather that labor itself was qualitatively changed by new practices and that machines became the centerpiece of those new practices. 

A lot is at stake in this question, because if one were to argue fully that machines are incidental to capital, then one could dismiss all those naysayers who say "Marx was right about the industrial age but he is wrong about the information age." But then, Marx is still quite specific about industrial machines in accomplishing something historically unique in the reification of human labor:

But it is only in the factory system that this inversion for the first time acquires technical and palpable reality. By means of its conversion into an automaton, the instrument of labour confronts the labourer, during the labour-process, in the shape of capital, of dead labour, that dominates, and pumps dry, living labour-power. The separation of the intellectual powers of production from the manual labour, and the conversion of those powers into the might of capital over labour, is, as we have already shown. finally completed by modern industry erected on the foundation of machinery (548).

There is something unique about the machines of the industrial age that separate them from the tools of manufacture. What distinguishes them is not a specific technical difference, for Marx barely names any specific machine, but rather the social relation instantiated by them: from a subjective relationship to one of objectification. But a specific level of technology and machinery was still required for the total inversion to occur. So Marx is ambiguous here. It is a social question. But not social alone. But not technological alone. Perhaps one could argue that Marx, as a good historian, simply was foregrounding those recent inventions as being important to that specific historical stage and not making such a large metaphysical statement about technology and capital in general. But I still think that -- although I am more than inclined to buy the "social" version of Marx -- there is a lingering "technological" question that remains.

The last point I want to make is quite broad. This is a large chapter that is easy to get lost in, and I certainly benefited from patchy re-readings and listening to the Harvey lectures. It helps to begin with and continually return to looking at the section headings:

Chapter XV Machinery and Modern Industry374

Section 1. The Development of Machinery


Section 2. The Value Transferred by Machinery to the Product


Section 3. The Proximate Effects of Machinery on the Workman


a. Appropriation of Supplementary Labour Power by Capital. The Employment of Women and Children


b. Prolongation of the Working Day


c. Intensification of Labour


Section 4. The Factory


Section 5. The Strife Between Workman and Machine


Section 6. The Theory of Compensation as Regards the Workpeople Displaced by Machinery


Section 7. Repulsion and Attraction Of Workpeople by the Factory System. Crises in the Cotton Trade


Section 8. Revolution Effected in Manufacture, Handicrafts, and Domestic Industry by Modern Industry


a. Overthrow of Co-operation Based on Handicraft and on the Division of Labour


b. Reaction of the Factory System on Manufacture and Domestic Industries


c. Modern Manufacture


d. Modern Domestic Industry


e. Passage of Modern Manufacture, and Domestic Industry into Modern Mechanical Industry. The Hastening of This Revolution by the Application Of the Factory Acts to Those Industries


Section 9. The Factory Acts Sanitary and Educational Clauses of the Same Their General Extension in England


Section l0. Modern Industry and Agriculture

Marx begins with some general remarks on the historical relationship of pre-capitalist and capitalist forms, which are coeval with pre-machine and machinery economies (the main distinction being that social thing I just talked about), then he takes the reader through a superficially linear development that is constantly interrupted with contradictions and opposite movements. Finally, he ends with the domestic industry and agriculture, something I'm interested in for research purposes. These sections really deal with this question: what happens to all those economic sectors that are not industrialized and not mechanized? Do they remain the same as before, pristine and untouched? Obviously not. So how are they utilized by the new pace of the machine economy?

For one, the workers are still expected to generate the quantity of raw materials adequate to the pace of machines. This might mean simply buying things from more and more farms for only one factory, but that's all right because there is no need to provide land or machines for those domestic industries, which are funded by the manufacturers themselves. The consequence is that they are de-centralized and hence weakened in any class struggle. Karl Kautsky also argued that the persistence of small household farms could be explained by the fact that, not fully given over to commodity production, such households could be exploited yet still survive by growing their own food and relying upon the unpaid labor of family members. That is, they could be underpaid because they could rely upon the pre-capitalist elements of their domestic arrangements. How does one classify this? Semi-capitalist? Petty capitalist?

Marx then ends by arguing that not only does this destroy some harmonious social metabolism between people but it also saps dry the fertility of the soil. In a way this could be seen as a pre-environmentalist Marx. In another way, a romanticist and humanist Marx. But perhaps he is just of the opinion that, like all forms of fixed capital, land will be worn out if mistreated by those who use it to produce things. And that this expense is not factored into the cost of production of raw materials, for which the farmer is paid like a wage laborer but which also requires an investment that is only expected of someone with as much money as a member of the capitalist class. That is, they are given the responsibility of miniature capitalists but only given the means of a laborer.

September 2, 2008

Division of Labor

I read this one a while ago and just reviewed some of my notes. In the larger picture, I see this chapter as a warm-up for the next chapter, the gargantuan chapter fifteen, which completes a lot of ideas that are only anticipated in this one.

As the title suggests, this chapter is mainly about division of labor, which is usually described through the idiom of manufacture. In the next chapter, Marx will go into a long discussion about the difference between tools and machines, manufacture and industry. Frankly, I don't understand the division very well, probably because it is intentionally a description of social differences and not technical changes (he writes against technological determinism) but there is still definitely a difference between machines and factories and non-machines and non-factories.

It seems that manufacture stands at the threshold of industrialization. It goes as far as possible in terms of specialization, de-skilling, conglomerating large groups of laborers under a small numbers of capitalists, etc., and only will these limits of quantity and quality be radically altered to the next level.

So just a few questions about Marx's treatment.

First, there seems to be a dual movement with regards to the way division of labor in manufacture relates to previous social formations, wherein work is already divided according to occupation, sex, groups, age, etc. While not specifically talking about India, he says that every society in history has organizations, or castes, that traditionally do a certain type of job on their own, and that these divisions of labor provide the social foundation for the oncoming changes of capitalist production. Manufacture, as a historically specific form of production, grafts itself onto prior forms. On the other hand, Marx suggests later that manufacture distinguishes itself from non-manufacture, non-division groups because it rearranges laborers to do even more specialized functions, as part of a workshop, under the same roof. Instead of a caste of watchmakers, for instance, now watchmaking is subdivided into some twenty-odd jobs that go into making a watch.

The question then is: how much of a revolutionizing force is the division of labor in the face of prior social arrangements? On the one hand, it preys upon and takes advantage of them, on the other hand, they are liberated such that, potentially, top becomes down and down becomes top. What is this historical relationship between pre-capitalist forms and the division of labor? I guess it just depends on the specific historical contexts; one could probably safely say, however, that those on the bottom of the hierarchy probably have not risen to the top of the hierarchy in capitalism. Metal chains may be loosened, but only replaced with economic ones.

As a demonstration of this question, we have a recent New York Times article featuring a man who argues that the liberalization of the economy will have precisely the latter effect without the former: that the depressed castes of India will soon be able to move up in the socio-economic ladder of the country/world precisely because of a freer economy, which allows them to get an education, save money, etc.

When Chandra Bhan Prasad visits his ancestral village in these feudal badlands of northern India, he dispenses the following advice to his fellow untouchables: Get rid of your cattle, because the care of animals demands children’s labor. Invest in your children’s education instead of in jewelry or land. Cities are good for Dalit outcastes like us, and so is India’s new capitalism . . . . His latest crusade is to argue that India’s economic liberalization is about to do the unthinkable: destroy the caste system. The last 17 years of new capitalism have already allowed his people, or Dalits, as they call themselves, to “escape hunger and humiliation,” he says, if not residual prejudice.

The article itself provides other opinions which counter Prasad's, suggesting that any overall trend in economic improvement cannot be discerned, apart from the individual cases which he champions. This seems intuitive to me: why would a system of economic division of labor liberate and abolish categories of work, instead of simply shifting them around or preying and deepening them? I'm sure there is plenty of literature on how British capitalism in the 18th to 20th century only deepened the economic significance of caste (in fact, I'm sure of it), and although one could argue that 21st-century-style neoliberalism is a different animal than imperialism, a spade is still a spade, capital still relies upon economic exploitation, does it not?

It does raise interesting questions about the counter-movements of division of labor under capital, however, and how some lives are improved while others are only more fastened to jobs they cannot escape from. Surely individual success stories will pop up here and there, but I'd be surprised to find in any historical epoch an instance of how there was an overall improvement for all, that is, an even rather than uneven development.

I'll end this entry here and hopefully raise other related questions in my entry for chapter fifteen.