why everything costs money CAPITAL VOLUME 1 Part Ten
An ongoing series going through Marx, Capital Volume 1. Access free electronic copies of Volume 1 here or here. [Capital Volume I, Chapters 16-18, pgs. 643-672 of Penguin Press]
Chapter 16: Absolute and Relative Surplus Value We started off in the first few parts by talking about the labor process at a super high level of abstraction, individual humans in nature and using aspects of nature (tools developed in a natural environment) to fit other aspects of nature to their individual needs. That shit was real cute. But the training wheels are off now: we’ve discussed co-operation between workers and their combination into a “collective laborer”, we’ve talked about complex systems of machinery and production processes that involve lots of individuals doing smaller and smaller parts of making a final product, like the upholsters and wheelmakers whose work eventually adds up to a car. With these, we can now talk about big kid stuff, the larger social and historical context that makes production and productive labor what they are. (643-644)
The point of capitalism is the production of surplus value (if you stare at part 4 long enough this should jump out at you). Surplus value is appropriated by the capitalists, in the two ways we discussed in part 8: by getting workers to generate absolute surplus value (surplus value generated by extending the working day further and further past necessary labor time) and relative surplus value (surplus value generated by shrinking necessary-labor time with tech and organization and what-not) for them. According to Marx, there’s nothing natural or inevitable about the global dominion of capitalism, the organization of society around producing surplus value that originates in Western Europe. Marx gives the example of the islands of the “East Indies”, where there are a species of tree that provide hundreds of pounds of food per tree. In a society with that kind of luck with natural resources, it might only take a person 12 hours of labor per week to meet all their material needs. How would you convince a person in that situation to accept a deal where they give up 6 days a week in wage labor to get the material needs they could have worked for in a day? You wouldn’t: “a whole series of historical circumstances is required; before he spends [his leisure time] in surplus labour for others, compulsion is necessary” (651).
Marx spends much of the rest of this chapter throwing shots at “bourgeois economists” who could neva eva get on his level, paying special attention to David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill. Not a lot that we really need to dig into but it does include this memorable bit of shade: “After thus proving clearly that capitalist production would still continue to exist even if it did not exist, Mill now proceeds, quite consistently, to show that it would not exist even if it did exist.” (653)
Chapter 17: Changes of Magnitude in the Price of Labour-Power and in Surplus-Value Review time. The value of labor power is determined by the value of the means of subsistence that the average worker usually needs to reproduce their labor power: that is, the combined value of food, clothing, domestic and other reproductive labor (again, remember Silvia Federici), rum for your nightcap, all that good shit. We stared at this for a hot minute in part 4. Marx wants to set aside two sources of complications for what he’s about to say: 1) the cost of developing the labor power of a worker (education and child-rearing and such), since that cost will be different in capitalist and non-capitalist contexts, and 2) the “natural diversity of labour-power”, since Marx thinks labor power is different by gender (“men and women”) and age (“children and adults”). Using these diverse sources of labor power is also related to whether or not we’re in a capitalist society and also affects the calculation about how expensive it is to reproduce the “worker’s family” and also in “the value of the labour-power of the adult male”. I already complained about Marx defining the worker as the adult male wage laborer in part 9 so this time I’ll let him live. (655)
Anyways, Marx has so far been assuming two things: 1) that commodities are sold at their value (that is, price of commodity X = objective value of X) and 2) that the “price of labour-power” (wages) is at least, but possibly more than, its value, which is again the cost of reproducing it. (655)
Based on these assumptions, Marx thinks we can say some general things about labor power and surplus value:
“A working day of a given length always creates the same amount of value…although the mass of the use-values(commodities) produced varies with the productivity of labor, the value represented…will simply be spread over a greater or a less number of commodities” (656)
You should add “at a given intensity” to “of a given length”. Why? Check this out and be annoyed with me: “Increased intensity of labor means increased expenditure of labour in a given time…if the length of the working day remains constant, a day’s labour of increased intensity will be incorporated in an increased amount of value, and…an increased amount of money” (661). If it helps, think of labor intensity as squeezing more hours of regular labor into the same window of time, i.e. as doing 12 hours worth of work in an 8 hour shift.
“…the value of labour-power and surplus-value vary in opposite directions” i.e. when labor power goes up surplus-value goes down, and vice versa. By the way, labor power can’t fall (and consequently surplus value can’t increase) without a rise in the productivity of labor. Be worried about this because it sounds like machines might cheapen labor! But stare at 1a for a second to make this maximally confusing. (656-657)
Change in surplus value is always caused by change in the value of labor-power. (658)
So what happens if multiple factors change at once: maybe labor productivity changes but the length of the working day changes too. It will matter how much more or less productive, and how much longer or shorter the working day is, for working out exactly what will happen to the value of the commodities produced and to the value of the labor power of the workers in this production process. We wouldn’t be able to just talk our way through that, we’d need to sit down and do some counting and calculating. That’s what math is for! If only we had some math to help us…OH WAIT
Marx discusses two examples of multiple shifts in these conditions: 1) diminishing productivity of labor at the same time as a lengthening of the working day, and 2) increasing intensity and productivity of labor with simultaneous shortening of the work day. The case of 1) is a resounding it depends: if the working day is made long enough, both the absolute and relative magnitude of surplus value might increase. If not then the relative magnitude of surplus value might not change but its absolute magnitude might change, or the reverse. It’ll all depend on the numbers – again, this is why we math. As for 2, the answers is also that it depends. However the point of this second possibility is to start talking seriously about what an alternative to capitalism might look like, concretely (only took dude 600 pages…). Capitalism, in forcing workers to make surplus value by working past their necessary labor-time for capitalists who already have their means of subsistence, essentially creates free time for one class of people (the capitalist class) through the labor of able bodied members of another class of people (the working class) (666-667). That’s fucked up! What if we didn’t do that?
Well, off the top, we’d have to abolish capitalist production since surplus value and thus surplus labor hours are kinda the point (see part 3). But we could keep the gadgets, and we could keep accumulating. How? Walk with me. So far we defined necessary labor as what is needed for an individual to reproduce their labor power. But if instead we had some group and community goals, on some team shit, we could still want to have nice things, and thus more than the bare subsistence we would have if we all only produced the bare essentials. Then we could still ask for labor above and beyond our original definition of necessary labor, but it wouldn’t be for the appropriation of the extra value created by some other exploitative class, but for the common benefit of the whole society, a “social fund for reserve and accumulation”. Marx doesn’t give this a name just yet but we could call it socially necessary labor and read regular old necessary labor as individually necessary labor (this doesn’t strictly match Marx’s conception of the worker as I understand it, since he’s imagining as the paradigm worker an individual adult male trying to reproduce his whole family. but fuck that). Oh, the possibilities…but that’s the end of the chapter, so we’ll just have to speculate ourselves.
Chapter 18: Different Formulae for the Rate of Surplus Value In this chapter Marx basically says “I hope u like math cause I put math on ur math so that u can math while u math”. It’s a short chapter and you can check it out if you’re interested in a discussion of the math here, but there is one formula I’ll pull out for commentary: Surplus value/ value of labor-power (1) = surplus labor / necessary labor (2) = unpaid labor/paid labor (3) for explanatory purposes, I’m labeling these, so don’t confuse (1) (2) and (3) as part of the math
The first two equivalencies are easy enough – surplus value just is the value that’s produced during one’s surplus labor time, and necessary labor is the labor needed to (re)produce one’s labor power. So it makes sense that the ratio of surplus value to the value of labor power (1) is the same ratio as surplus labor to necessary labor (2). 3 is the interesting addition to the team. The capitalist claims to pay the worker for every hour that they work, through the wage, but Marx is saying that this isn’t really how that cookie crumbles. Say we’re tracking the worker Bukola, who works a 9 to 5. During the part of her shift that corresponds to necessary labor, Bukola produces a value for her capitalist employer Jeff that is equivalent to the amount of value it takes for her to clock in tomorrow – grab some dinner, pay rent, keep these damn kids clothed and fed and out of Harambe’s cage, all that good shit.
That number is itself, we’re assuming, equivalent to what she is paid in wages – let’s say, by 12 PM. That is, Bukola produces the value of her wages by 12 PM. If she stopped working then, she and Jeff would have exchanged equivalencies in value. But as she finishes her shift, from 12-5 PM, she creates more value than that necessary amount. That’s the surplus value. But Bukola doesn’t get any more money to correspond to this extra work – which is, again, the point from the Jeff’s perspective, since surplus value is the name of the capitalist game. “Capital, therefore, is not only the command over labor…It is essentially the command over unpaid labor. All surplus value…is in substance the materialization of unpaid-labour time.” (672)
Plus: the alternative Chapter 17 asks us to consider is, what if Bukola worked from 9 to 2 instead? That would still involve her working more than she in particular needs to make it to another day. But this time, the “extra” labor time from 12-2 wouldn’t be surplus value for fucking Jeff. It would be in a pool for everybody – for Bukola’s neighbors who aren’t able bodied and can’t produce surplus value. It would be to give everybody access to nice things like comic books and fire mixtapes which we could all survive without but nah. Plus, Bukola gets extra hours to shoot the shit, bake a pie, write erotic haikus, take care of a loved one, and has a less stressed environment to do all of that in. Wouldn’t that be nice?