why everything costs money CAPITAL VOLUME 1 Part Nine
An ongoing series going through Marx, Capital Volume 1. Access free electronic copies of Volume 1 here or here. [Capital Volume I, Chapter 15, pgs. 491-639 of Penguin Press]
As of part 9 we are more than halfway through these 900 damn pages. I’m going to start summarizing these back chapters in broader strokes: the first 8 parts should have many of the important concepts that you’d need to mine through details. There are some notable exceptions in the back half of Capital, though, so don’t sleep.
Chapter 15: Machinery and Large-Scale Industry
In this chapter Marx goes in on machines, right from the jump. This chapter is damn near 140 pages. If you actually read this (and you should!) The first sentences: “John Stuart Mill says in his Principles of Political Economy: ‘It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being.’” Marx continues by claiming that machinery, like every other instrument for increasing the productivity of labor, is intended to shorten the part of the working day in which the worker works for themselves (necessary labor) and lengthen the part where they work for the capitalist (surplus labor), cheapening the commodities produced but exploiting the workers that produce them. They shorten the time of day needed to produce necessary value but increase the possible surplus, which overall can lead to pressures that lengthen and intensify the working day (526, 53). Machines are a super effective means for producing surplus value, like electric attacks on water Pokemon. (492)
What’s a machine anyway, and how’s it different from a tool, which we already identified as a means of production? A machine is like a tool but more sinister. Unlike tools, which require use by workers to be productive, machines can replace workers and themselves do what workers do with tools, and themselves compete with workers to be employed by capital, even usable as strikebreakers (495, 497, 557, 562). I think that’s about as close as we’re going to get to a definition – Marx spends a lot of pages explaining why other attempts to strictly differentiate tools from machines, and getting through those pages required me to read intense analyses of the emptying of the Lake of Harlem, the history of water and horse power, and more than I ever cared to know about the history of spindles (you’re fucking welcome).
A machine system is made out of a number of machines that complement each other’s work, in the way that a machine is made out of a number of tools that also complement each other’s work. (501). Such systems replace the isolated machines of individual inventions for this or that part of the labor process, eventually forming “a mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demonic power, at first hidden by the slow and measured motions of its gigantic members, finally burst forth in the fast and feverish whirl of its countless working organs” (at least, I think that’s what Marx was saying – either that or he was describing the contents of the hidden folder on his desktop marked “Tentacles”. 503) Large scale industry, based on machine systems, represents the human achievement of making their past labor perform “gratuitous service” (why is he talking like this?!) on a large scale like a “force of nature” (510).
The creation of machine systems helped create the capitalist world. When one part of the economy speeds up, other parts of the economy have to keep up – one example being the enormous boom in world cotton cultivation by colonial labor forces (the enslaved in colonies in the western hemisphere, the colonized in India). The separation of the seed from a single pound of cotton used to take an entire day. After the cotton gin was invented in 1793, “it became possible for one black woman to clean 100 lb a day” and that was before they perfected the shit (514). That is, the boom in the production of cotton incentivized the invention of the cotton gin so that the cotton could be weaved as fast as it could be grown. When we zoom out from cotton specifically and look at a bigger slice of the world economy, say, the entire agricultural sector (a sector dominated by the output of enslaved people working in colonies in the western hemisphere – hey, that keeps being relevant! Weird), we can guess that a lot of parts of the world economy would have to shift and invent things to keep up: most directly communication, transportation, and mining (509). Marx also spends some time in this chapter talking about the effects on different sorts of workers, including children and women. Machinery has a tendency to replace workers at the local level (though this may not be true at all “in the aggregate” or at the level of a nation or region of the world, some economists say: link to principle of gross complementarity) but there are different types of workers. Some of them are called into capitalist work by the invention of machinery, not displaced from it. Despite expectations that male workers are to support entire families (you should remember Federici [link] and read this as “provide enough money complement the reproductive labor done by the whole family, especially the women in the household”) wages where a family of 4 live may be too low for the father to fulfill that gender role. All 4 of them might have to work to make ends meet. Marx thinks that work is shameful exploitation of women and children and gives a shoutout to Big Friedrich’s analysis on how extensive that was in the English working class (522-523). We should be careful in remember what’s actually doing stuff though. Marx uses sentences like “machinery causes x” or “machinery brings about y” when, really, what he thinks happening is that people and social systems are causing x and y. Workers’ movements have often destroyed the actual machines, but did not end up blessed with gainful employment afterwards because the system of capital that incentivized the invention and proliferation of those machines was, to Marx, the real threat. Struggling over wages likewise (554-555)
but fuck that picket-line breaking copying machine tho! Fucking scab!
There are two very important ideas in this chapter. The first is that machinery produces a “surplus working population” – Marx doesn’t say reserve army of the unemployed in this particular section but what the hell, it’s important lingo. When machinery becomes possible to squeeze as much surplus value out of 2 workers as capitalists had previously only been able to squeeze out of 24, the capitalist can say bye-bye to at least some of those and still come out way ahead – let’s say 12 of them. Those who are left can be forced to accept a longer and more intense working day, and can’t really say shit because for each of the 12 people who do have a job, there’s 12 more in the capitalist’s reserve army desperately waiting to take their slot – because, again, capitalism means that if you’re working class, you don’t have the means of subsistence, and unemployment means deprivation or even possible death. (530-532). The second is what Marx says about mechanical labor and miseducation. I’m just going to leave a few quotes right here: “All work at a machine requies the worker to be taught from childhood upwards, in order that he may learn to adapt his movements to the uniform and unceasing motion of an automaton…Machinery is misused in order to transform the worker, from his very childhood, into a part of a specialized machine. In this way, not only are the expenses necessary for his reproduction considerably lessened, but at the same time his helpless dependence upon the factory as a whole, and therefore upon the capitalist, is rendered complete.” (546-547)
Marx explains the situation with women and children this way: “Previously the worker sold his own labour-power, which he disposed of as a free agent, formally speaking. Now he sells wife and child.” Remember from part 2 that capitalism implies a certain political relationship between “the worker” and the capitalist. I brought this up in my commentary on part 2, complaining that I couldn’t tell why Marx focused his energies here. Marx seemed to have a particular kind of person in mind, and it brought up the usual suspicions – how is Marx treating race or gender, for examples, or social positions that are based on those concepts (enslaved, mother)? This sort of thing is criticized in lots of pointless and unproductive ways that I won’t outline, but there does seem to be something to the criticism itself – that wife and child are “the worker”’s to sell to capitalists implies a view of women and children that is obviously worth criticism. But maybe more of a problem for the theory, as opposed to our view about how cool of a guy Marx was, is that it implies a parochialism about who is the paradigmatic “worker”, whose political relationship to capital is the historically decisive one and what that relationship is actually like. If that’s not enough to latch on to, here are the very next sentences: “He has become a slave-dealer. Notices of demand for children’s labor often resemble in form the inquiries for Negro slaves that were formerly to be read in American journals…The revolution effected by machinery in the legal relationship between buyer and seller of labour-power” which causes “the transaction as a whole to lose the appearance of a contract between free persons”. Later he says “The overseer’s book of penalties replaces the slave-driver’s lash” in describing how machinery creates politically compliant populations (550). Marx really wants to work the analogy to chattel slavery as a basis for criticizing the cosmetic freedom of the waged worker but still wants to use the cosmetically free worker to characterize capitalism as a whole. But why tho? (519-520)