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.

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