Read an Excerpt
A Guide to Marx's Capital Vols I-III
By Kenneth Smith
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2012 Kenneth Smith
All rights reserved.
ABSOLUTE AND RELATIVE SURPLUS VALUE INCAPITAL,VOL. I, CH. 10 AND 12
It is obviously possible to extend the length of the working day from 7 or 8 hours, to 10, 12, 14, 16 or even 18 hours, and this was done as a matter of course at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, and is still done to a greater or lesser extent in other parts of the world today in the form of so-called 'overtime' and 'over-working'. However, this process is not without its limits. Firstly, of course, there are only so many hours in the day; although on rare occasions a labourer might well be made to work for longer than 24 hours at one time, by definition the working day itself cannot be extended beyond 24 hours per day. Secondly, labourers must eat and rest in order to renew themselves and reproduce their capacity to labour, and it is not only in the interest of the labourers themselves that they should do this; it is also in the interests of the capitalists who employ them. A continuous supply of labour is just as essential to the capitalist mode of production as it is to any other and a labourer who has rested is likely to make fewer, less costly, mistakes than a labourer who is exhausted. Of course, although capital needs a continuous supply of labour generally speaking, where the supply of labour is plentiful, it is possible to work individual labourers to death and replace them with fresh labour in the form of entirely new labourers. This happened to some extent in the development of European capitalism (Urry 1981, 124); and the pattern of reproducing what Marx calls labour-power (as opposed to reproducing the labourers themselves) is characteristic of slave labour whenever the cost of such labour is sufficiently cheap.
When labour is scarce, however, labourers themselves become a valuable commodity. A slave becomes a valuable investment to a slave-owner when the slave costs more to buy than the value of the labour that can be extracted from the slave by working him or her to death. A slave might well cost more than the price of a horse or a cow, being able to provide a greater return for the owner than any other similar investment could, and this is the reason why slaves are often better looked after than other so-called 'free' labourers (whose 'freedom' might well consist of nothing more than the fact that they are free to starve unless they are willing to work on terms dictated by the capitalist). Even free labourers, however, are of value to capitalism where they possess certain skills that cannot easily be reproduced or when these skills are in short supply. Here again, it is the scarcity of a particular type of labour – of certain skills – that compels capitalism to allow the labourer to reproduce him or herself not only as a labourer, but also as a person. All of these factors then served to reduce the length of the working day from 24 hours to, say, 18 (in which the labourer is allowed to eat or sleep for 6 hours per day), or to 17 or even 16 (where the labourer is not compelled to eat on the job), while other moral objections, e.g. to the overworking of women and children or to working adult male labourers to an unnaturally early death, also served to further reduce the length of the normal working day from 16 hours to 14, 12 or 10 hours per day. (For more on all of this see Marx's extensive discussion of the history of the English Factory Acts; 1974a, 222–86 [1976, 340–416].)
On the other hand, however, when competition between capitalists makes it necessary to obtain a normal rate of profit or degree of exploitation of labour-power, or when the greed of the capitalists for surplus profits over and above what can be produced in a normal working day makes it desirable from the point of the capitalist to extend the length of the working day, the capitalist has an interest in increasing the length of that part of the working day that the labour works for the capitalist over and above the hours the labourers work simply to reproduce their own wages. However, when the length of the working day is limited for some reason, e.g. by laws regulating the exploitation of labour, this becomes no longer possible. How then is the capitalist to extend his or her share of the working day without extending the actual length of the working day itself? Obviously this can only be done by shortening the number of hours that labourers spend simply in order to reproduce themselves and/or their families.
When the working day is 12 hours long and the labourers work to reproduce themselves for 6 hours and then work a further 6 hours for the capitalist, and when the length of the working day is unregulated in any way by law, the capitalist can extend the length of his or her share of the working day to 9 hours by simply extending the absolute length of the working day from 12 hours to 15. However, when the length of the working day is fixed at 12 hours, by law or for some other reason, the capitalists can only extend to 9 hours the period during which the labourer works for them by reducing to 3 hours the period during which the labourer works to reproduce him or herself. This can be done in one of the following three ways:
(i) The labourer's income (wages) can be reduced to a point below what is necessary to keep the labourer and/or his family alive. The labourer will starve, but in this case the reproduction of labour-power will not take place; labour will become scarce, and this scarcity will have the effect of once again pushing the price of labour back up to its value (the cost of reproducing the labourer).
(ii) When the labourers wages are measured in terms of a given number of commodities (so many loaves of bread for example), and when this figure remains constant despite the increase in the productivity of labour, new machinery may be introduced to improve the productivity of labour and so reduce the amount of time that the labourers need in order to reproduce themselves.
(iii) The actual value of labour-power itself can be reduced by shortening the time it takes to reproduce those items which directly enter into the cost of reproducing the labourer (such as food, clothing, housing, etc.). This can be done by increasing the productivity of labour in those industries that produce these items.
Marx refers to the work which the labourer performs during that part of the working day when the labourers reproduce themselves and/or their value or capacity to labour as necessary labour, and the labour performed during that part of the day when the labourer works solely for the capitalist's benefit as surplus labour. During the time that labourers work productively for the benefit of capitalists, they produce surplus value. Marx calls an increase in surplus value that is brought about by an extension of the working day beyond its normal limits absolute surplus value and an increase in surplus value that is brought about by shortening that part of the working day during which the labourer works to reproduce him or herself – whether this is done by means of an increase in the productivity of labour or by cheapening the value of labour-power or by increasing the intensity of labour by speeding up machinery, etc. – relative surplus value. This distinction can be expressed diagrammatically as follows:
Points for Further Discussion
1. It is interesting to consider whether it is the case that the whole of the surplus value that the labourers produce for the benefit of the capitalist (the second six hours of a 'normal' twelve-hour day, and not just the surplus value produced during an abnormal extension of the working day) is absolute surplus value. Marx defines absolute surplus value as that which is produced by a prolongation of the working day but, from the point of view of the labourer, all surplus labour represents an unnecessary prolongation of the working day beyond what is strictly necessary to reproduce the labourer alone (see 1974a, 299 [1976, 432]). Why then is not this also absolute surplus value? Also, it is not clear that there really is a categorical distinction between the concepts of absolute and relative surplus value. See, for example, 1974a, 478–9 [1976, 645–7] where Marx argues that relative surplus value can appear absolute from the point of view of the labourer, since it compels an absolute prolongation of the working day beyond the time necessary for the existence of the labourers themselves, while absolute surplus value is relative since it requires a certain productivity of labour which will allow necessary labour to be restricted to only a part of the working day.
2. We might also consider the implications of the development of relative surplus value to the concept of what Marx sometimes refers to as the 'immiseration' of the working class (the eventual reduction of the working calls to a state of wretchedness and misery). The development of relative surplus value means that it is no longer necessary to extend the length of the working day to an unendurable level. As such, it is therefore no longer necessary to reduce wages below the level of subsistence in order to increase the capitalist's share of the total surplus value produced during a normal working day. The capitalist can therefore pay the labourer the value of his or her labour-power, can allow the labourer to work for only a normal working day, and can still expect to increase his or her share of the total surplus value produced by intensifying the labour process and/or by increasing the productiveness of labour. This being the case, we might ask: what necessity is there to reduce the working class to a state of immiseration? And, if it is no longer necessary to immiserate the working class, are the differences between the capitalists and the workers really irreconcilable? Finally, if the interests of capitalists and workers are not after all irreconcilable will class conflict develop to its fullest extent (in the form of what Marx calls class-warfare)? And, if there is no class warfare as such, what are the implications of all of this for the development of socialism? (On this point concerning the relationship between the development of relative surplus value and the fate of the working class, see also Marx on the existence of middle and intermediary classes in the Appendix to this book: pages 179–91.)
3. It seems inexplicable that a capitalist state (or even a state dominated by the interests of a capitalist class) should introduce legislation restricting the freedom of capitalists to exploit labour for longer than 10 or 12 hours per day. This has a number of implications for Marx and Engels' theory of the capitalist state as a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. An attempt has been made (for example, by Müller and Neusüss 1970) to argue that the capitalist state acted in the general interests of the capitalist class to prevent the particular excesses of individual capitalists from destroying one of the very foundations of the capitalist mode of production; namely, a plentiful and ready supply of labour-power. However, as we have already seen, where there is a plentiful supply of labour-power, capitalism can reproduce its conditions of existence without reproducing the particular person of the individual labourer. Therefore the above argument would only apply where there was a strong correlation between the introduction of the various Factory Acts and a shortage in the supply of labour. Failing this it would seem better to explain the introduction of the Factory Acts in terms of a committee for managing the common affairs, not merely of the capitalist class, but of capitalists and landlords. Rivalry between the interests of these two classes brought about an improvement in the conditions of labourers in Britain during the Industrial Revolution (see 1974a, 229, 258, 267 [1976, 348, 382–3, 393–4]).
Reading: Essential: Capital, Vol. I, Ch. 10, section 1, 'The Limits of the Working Day' (1974a, 222–5 [1976, 340–44]); Ch. 12, 'The Concept of Relative Surplus Value' (1974a, 296–304 [1976, 429–38]). Recommended: Capital, Vol. I (1974a, 226–86 [1976, 344–416]). Background: Capital, Vol. I, Ch. 17 (1974a, 486–96 [1976, 655–67]), on the possible variations of an increase in productivity, the intensity of labour and/or the length of the working day.CHAPTER 2
COOPERATION AND THE DIVISION OF LABOUR INCAPITAL,VOL. 1, CH. 13–14
In this chapter we will look at two topics which at first sight seem to be quite different from, or even opposed to, one another: cooperation, i.e. the coming together of labour in the work place, and the division of labour, i.e. the separation of the various parts of the labour process into its constituent parts. However, in so far as manufacturing industry is concerned, Marx argues that these two processes are really just two sides of the same coin, and in fact, Marx actually defines manufacturing as cooperation based on the division of labour (1974a, 343 [1976, 485]).
In Chapter 13, Marx looks at various types of simple cooperation which do not involve a sophisticated division of labour; for example, when everyone helps to harvest a crop or dig a canal. This type of cooperation is necessary because there are certain things that one cannot usually do by oneself (such as lift a heavy rock, or tie a ribbon on a cake box). If one man can dig a canal or build the Great Wall of China in 14,000 years, 14,000 men can do this same thing in one year. Cooperation therefore makes possible the development of certain forms of agriculture and industry that would simply be impractical for an individual alone. However, this type of cooperation also imposes certain communal expectations and demands on the individual over and above those required in a typical nuclear family; where, for example, the help of many other individuals is required to harvest a particular crop within a given period of time – rice for example before it rots in the field – or where watering this crop requires the construction of large scale irrigation works (see 1974a, 481 [1976, 650] for more on this).
However, there are other forms of cooperation which involve a division of labour; for example, where some labourers harvest a crop, others thresh this, and still others make the crop or its waste product into bales for storage or transportation. This is the type of cooperation based on a division of labour characteristic to the manufacturing period of British industry which Marx argues, properly so called, extended from about 1550–1775 (1974a, 318 [1976, 455]). Manufacturing industry also arises in another way. Instead of a product passing through the hands of several skilled artisans during the process of production (such as a wheelwright, a harness maker, a tailor, a locksmith, an upholster, a turner, a painter and a polisher in the case of carriage making), in this second form of industry all the labourers in a particular workplace perform roughly the same type of labour where the process of production is reduced to its constituent parts. Instead of each worker being able to perform all the processes which go into making a wheel for example – e.g. cutting the length of the spokes, turning the wood, making the rim of the wheel, planning and polishing the finished product – now each labourer is restricted to the performance of only one of these tasks, and often to the performance of only one aspect of each task, until eventually whole factories develop to produce not carriages, and not even wheels, but only the spokes of wheels, or pins for these spokes. In these factories all the labourers perform more or less the same one- or two-detail functions of the process of production.
Excerpted from A Guide to Marx's Capital Vols I-III by Kenneth Smith. Copyright © 2012 Kenneth Smith. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.